Hope amidst the gas chambers: A lesson for Jerusalem Day

A carnival in Auschwitz. Fifteen thousand people, mostly Jews, of all ages and backgrounds socializing on the very streets where the Nazis and their henchmen humiliated, brutalized and killed millions of our people. It’s hard to imagine anything more unseemly, yet somehow, I left there heartened, uplifted and inspired ready for Yom Yerushalayim.

Most of the revelers had spent the week with March of the Living accompanied by Holocaust survivors, visiting ghettos and death camps to learn how Jews were hounded, persecuted and monstrously led to their deaths much of it in full view of their Polish neighbors. It’s a grueling pilgrimage. However much one visits the synagogues and Yeshivot to absorb and celebrate the achievements of Pre-war Polish Jewry, it’s hard not to be consumed by the conclusion; all of it went up in the flames of anti-Semitism.

After a week-long intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey, an extraordinary social experiment takes tens of thousands of Jews, and assembles them to wait for the final memorial ceremony in the place most closely associated with the murder.

With such potent emotions, I would not have been surprised had we seen an outpouring of drunkenness, broken windows or a lynching. At the very least, I would have expected some violent chanting from people whose pain and rage has been so well suppressed.

But none of this occurred. The fifteen thousand Jews from around the world waited patiently; mingling, swapping badges and sharing stories.

As the march set off, I gravitated towards the members of Bnei Akiva and the British United Synagogue’s Tribe organization. They sang from the depths of their hearts to God and to humanity. At the core of their repertoire were songs about peace; peace amongst the Jewish people, peace between Jews and Arabs, peace throughout the world. The singing was beautiful, dignified and uplifting. It made me feel proud to be a religious Jew, privileged to live in Jerusalem.

Our Jewish calendar is punctuated by fast days which recall terrible tragedies in Jewish history, particularly the destruction of the Temples. Two thousand years after these events, observant Jews still grieve and fast in remembrance. But the prophet Zechariah suggested that this would not go on forever. Days of mourning would be transformed into days of celebration and grief would turn to jubilation.

I always wondered how that could be. Yet somehow, in Auschwitz, I caught a glimpse of the fulfillment of this prophecy. The darkest place in Jewish history was, for a few minutes, transformed into a place of celebration.

The pain and suffering are still present, the survivors are still haunted by nightmares, the bereaved still mourn their losses and the community is still impoverished by the loss of six million of our people and the children they would have had. It’s an unbridgeable loss.

Yet, today, even in Auschwitz, even with the rise in anti-Semitism, young Jews held their heads high, stating loud and clear; the Jewish people is alive and well, we have a faith and a vision and we remain undeterred in our determination to fulfill it.

Yom Yerushalayim is all about that statement. The world is not yet perfect, the Messiah is not yet here and Jerusalem itself is in need of healing. But we are the people of vision. We are the people who have never stopped dreaming of Jerusalem as the gateway to a Messianic time, when the Temple will be rebuilt and the world will be a place of justice, lovingkindness and plenty for all.

For the last few years of my Human Rights work, I was consumed by the imperfections. I found it hard to celebrate anything here. Singing in Auschwitz taught me a lesson. It may seem strange and presumptuous. It is. But curiously when the Jewish people are able to celebrate even through darkness, we know that the redemption is drawing ever closer.

I am blessed to live in the thriving modern city of Jerusalem, where the Jewish people have been reborn. Everyday life gets better. There is more to do. We will not shy away from our task; to redeem Zion and the world through justice and righteousness.

About the Author
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste
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