A few weeks ago I visited Anne Frank’s house and other Jewish sites in Amsterdam. I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently on the Shoah trying to get a fresh angle to connect with a group I’m going to guide on the “March of the Living” (Poland/Israel). The more I read the less I understand. I get angry. I get sad. I get frustrated. I get incredulous. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
When one visits synagogues in different countries around the world one notices how similar, yet different, they are. They all incorporate from their surrounding cultures, yet all have the unique Jewish features. They all face Israel/Jerusalem; have an ark, bimah, eternal light etc.
The huge Portuguese Synagogue, also known as the Esnoga, in Amsterdam was making a statement: “We Jews are here! We have arrived! We are prosperous! We are self-confident enough to build the largest synagogue in Europe (in the seventeenth century) with the finest materials in the most prosperous part of the city!” Yet most of their decedents were turned into dust and ashes in our grandparents’ lifetimes. The affluent assimilated “More Dutch than the Dutch” Jewish community of Holland was almost totally murdered during the Shoah. Only one out of 16 Amsterdam Jews survived. 104, 000 out of 140,000 murdered for the crime of being Jewish in the wrong time in the wrong place in history. In the pre-War pictures they look so modern and happy.
This is what is written on the official memorial (in Hebrew and Dutch) at the deportation center (formerly a theatre in downtown Amsterdam)
These are the family names of
Fathers and Mothers
Uncles and Aunts
Brothers and sisters
Grandfathers and grandmothers
104, 000 human beings
104, 000 Jews
Mostly from Amsterdam
Send far from Holland
I was thinking, as I always do, in places where there was a significant pre-War Jewish community, that as comfortable as they felt and as assimilated as they felt they were always “the other.”
I remember the last time I led a group on the March of the Living. We assembled in front of the blown-up gas chambers at Birkenau after having marched in silence from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II along the rail line and through the gates. At the ceremony, standing next to the IDF guard of honor was the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Lau, himself a survivor, having being rescued by the American troops as a little boy. He started his address with the following statement:
Look around, there are 8000 youth from all over the world. That is half the amount of people who were murdered daily in Auschwitz at its peak killing capacity between June and November of 1944 when Hungary’s Jews (including my grandmother’s entire family) were being murdered.
I don’t really recall much of the rest of his speech, as the opening stunned us. The scale of the site and the scale of the murder and the scale of the evil just overwhelmed me. Seventy-eight years later the soil is still grey with the ashes of the one million Jews who were murdered there. It’s so important to go at least once to Poland to learn about the rich Jewish life before the Shoah. To understand what we lost and to see the evidence of the mass-murder first hand, especially whilst we can still hear it in first person from the last generation of witnesses.
Most importantly, after visiting Poland, and other sites in formerly Nazi-occupied Europe, like Anne Frank’s house, we realize just how important it is to be in charge of our own Jewish destiny and not rely on the pity of our host-nations. How important it is to have our own Jewish state and a strong IDF. I am very proud of the small I role I played during my IDF service of ensuring that “never again” really means never again! I get very emotional every time I return home from Poland home to Israel. I’ve seen people weep with gratitude, myself included.