Letters to my son on his trip to Poland

My oldest son, Alex, spent the past week in Poland with this school. These trips are something of a high school student’s rite of passage here in Israel. I confess to no small amount of ambivalence toward these trips. Indeed, they are intended to spur deep thought about important ideas and to impress upon emerging Jewish adults that they occupy a privileged place in history, one packed with meaning and significance. Yet, I feel that in emphasizing the Shoah, the way these trips do, the true message of Zionism, the re-ennobling of a dispossessed people and our return to our historic patrimony as a natural right, is  blurred in the process.  I expressed some of my views on the topic here.

The school asked the parents to provide two letters to our children, one to be read after their visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and one to be read before the onset of their Shabbat in Lublin.  These are the letters I sent my boy.

LETTER ONE:

Dear Alex,

As I understand the itinerary of your trip, today you visited Auschwitz. It’s a place I’ve never seen, yet it’s haunted me all my life. My paternal grandparents for whom I and Debbie are named, my uncle Meir, and practically my entire family on my father’s side were martyred there. As you know, I’m not a Jew who focuses on the incorporeal. Life means far more to me than the after-life. And yet, if you did daven in that incarnation of hell on earth, I’m comforted in the image that those kedoshim in our family experienced your prayers, saw that their legacy was not wiped out and were consoled by it.

We’ve discussed my ambivalence to the concept of basing one’s Zionism upon visiting these places, and my opposition to the perpetuation of the notion of משואה לתקומה, that the Holocaust was the catalyst for the creation of the State of Israel. But at the same time, there is great value in remembering our past. Without it, we have no future. Without our history, we have no mandate for how to live our lives. In 1996 I wrote an essay that was made part of Grandpa Sam’s interview by the Spielberg Foundation. I’m attaching it here. Hopefully it will provide you some perspective on how and why we, as Jews, remember.

As I sit here at my desk at work, I’m trying to imagine your reaction to what you saw and experienced. Were you sad, angered, perhaps inspired to be a better man than you already are, so overwhelmed that you cannot really describe how you feel? Each of those would be normal, healthy even, reactions to encountering the depths of human depravity and suffering. Mommy and I have raised you to be a good and ethical person. At Auschwitz you met the opposite of probably everything you aspire to be. But confronting evil, and the pain it engenders is part of the process of developing into a good person. My fervent hope is that this be the last time you have to do so.

It would be expected that encountering Auschwitz has to impact on the way to relate to G-d. An important philosopher once said that he understands religious people who left Auschwitz no longer believing in G-d, and he likewise understands atheists who left there believing in Him. But he could never understand those who entered Auschwitz believing or disbelieving in G-d and left it the same way. Belief is hard; no one ever believes with 100% certainty and doubt can be agonizing. When you were about eight years old, you asked me if you’ll ever have real proof about G-d and the Torah. I told you that you never will. But if you never stop learning and thinking, you will, over the course of your life find many answers to that question which will satisfy you for a time and lead you to more and more study and more and more answers. This trip is part of that process. Carpe diem!!! Seize the day!!! Take the opportunity to ask the big questions and discover some of the big answers.

I’ll conclude with one final thought, based on my 1996 essay. It’s one thing to believe in G-d; that can be hard for many reasons. It’s another thing to believe in Am Yisrael and in Jewish destiny. I oppose, for political reasons and because I feel it unhealthy for our national identity, the idea that the Holocaust was a necessary price to pay for Medinat Yisrael. (I mean really, powerful G-d, could have divined an easier payment plan). But at the same time, our enduring survival and success as a people is testimony to an exceptional mission we have. Going in and leaving Auschwitz, as a strong proud Jew should impact on how you see the world. But don’t mourn for too long, remember that place is part of our past. Our future, your future, looms brightly ahead.

Love,

Daddy

My stepfather has provided testimony about his experiences during the destruction of Europe’s Jewish community during WWII.  This is an act of remembrance, of bearing witness to the glory of the past, the triumph of survival.  In it’s inimitable way this individual testament serves as a bridge to the hope that is the future.  Sadly, many with stories to tell, witness to bear, have been taken from us with the passage of time.  So, the responsibility of that last vestige to tell their story is all the greater.  For those of us who entered the world after the Holocaust, all we can do is ponder the act of remembrance.  Thus, do I humbly offer these brief thoughts.

 

ON  REMEMBRANCE

© 1996 Daniel B.  Schwartz, Esq.

“Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”  That age old adage of Santayana sums up the paradox of the collective existence of the Jewish people.  Implicit in that statement is the “promise” that those who do indeed remember their past, will be “blessed” not to repeat it.  We, the Jewish people however, find ourselves constantly remembering the travail of our history; and seemingly reliving it in every generation.  Each Shabbat morning we recite the Av Harachamim, the prayer in memory of the martyrs of the crusades, on the ninth of Av, we weep, fast and castigate ourselves over the destruction of the Temples and the reduction of our proud nation, centralized about the glory that was Jerusalem replete with the Davidic throne, to a nation of wanderers at the mercy of various and sundry despots.  We commemorate those past events while the image of victims of Arab terror are fresh on our minds, the picture of suburban synagogues defaced by swastikas emblazoned upon our eyes.  What nation remembers as we do?

The Torah admonishes us to always remember that we are a nation forged from slavery.  Even as we celebrate our festivals, the happiest points of our calendar, the formula, almost a refrain within the liturgy, “zecher litziat Mitzraim,” it is a memento of our exodus from [the slavery of] Egypt, is not far from our lips.  And yet despite our constant references to our past, we seem condemned to repeat it.  We have wandered from tragedy to tragedy; crusade, to inquisition; Cossack rebellion, to pogrom; Shoah, to a war of terror in our Holy Land; our holy literature burned as heresy before the Church, to the Bible cast to the lowest gutter in the quest for “higher scholarship.”  The Passover ritual exclaims “shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu” in every generation, they stand over us to annihilate us.  This statement is juxtaposed with the requirement that each and every Jew must celebrate the exodus from Egypt as if s/he were one of those freed slaves; slaves freed and destined to be subjected to the horrors of new and crueler tyrants.  What nation remembers as we do?

The Talmud, in the tractate Ta’anit, tells us that even after the Second Commonwealth was established and the Holy Temple rebuilt, the Jewish people still observed the fast of the Ninth of Av as a day of national mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple.  They did so because the prophets foresaw yet another more painful exile in store for us.  We are told that the wise man is: “. . .haroeh et hanolad” he who foresees the future outcome of events.  With every passing generation, with each subsequent fast of Av, with each addition of dirges commemorating this massacre, or that crusade and the various unending disgraces and indignities which have befallen us, it seems as if we not only mourn our past, but foresee a most dreadful destiny.  What nation remembers as we do?

But yet hope springs ever eternal.  The Talmud, at the close of the Tractate Makkot, relates that the great sage, R.  Akiva, laughed aloud upon seeing a fox walking among the debris of the destroyed Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  When asked to explain his apparently inappropriate behavior, the sage replied that the fox walking among the ruins of the Temple confirmed his belief in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.  The same prophets who foresaw foxes walking where the Holy of Holies stood, also foretold the ultimate renaissance of the Jewish nation.  Thus, did Akiva, the quintessential “roeh et hanolad” comfort us.  Indeed, we now find ourselves constantly remembering, always commemorating, perpetually mourning and recording our past travails.  But we do so with the knowledge that we will never repeat those tragedies of the past.  New and increasingly heinous crimes may be committed against us with the passing of time.  Sadly, new and more pathetic dirges will find their way into our literature.  But we are the proud Jews, who with our ancestors and descendants triumphantly left Egypt.  We are those Jews who will see the fulfillment of Akiva’s consolation.  Indeed, what nation remembers as we do?

LETTER TWO:

Dear Alex,

Shabbat in Lublin; a great choice. Lublin perhaps typifies the grandest and noblest aspects of the Eastern European diaspora. It was in Lublin’s trade fair that the ועד ארבע ארצות, maybe the greatest attempt at Jewish internal self-governance was established. Lublin was, at different times, nicknamed ירושלים של פולין and האוקספוד היהודי

Lublin produced giants of Torah learning, like the Maharsal, and the Shach, whose commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh are essential to P’sak Halacha, and R. Meir Shapira, who in the 1920’s had the novel idea of building a yeshiva featuring a dormitory and that provided meals for all the students. My teacher, R. Shlomo Drillman zl studied there briefly. Polish Chassidut was born in Lublin with the emergence of the חוזה מלובלין

Lublin was a major center of Jewish culture and Haskalah. Indeed, there was no expression of Judaism and Jewish identity not to be found in Lublin. Its Jewish history is a microcosm of East European Jewish history.

This Shabbat is an opportunity to celebrate, and not mourn. Eastern Europe was, until Hitler destroyed it, one of the most important and prodigious diasporas. It was there, in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary that Judaism was intensified, Jewish thought enlarged, and where the seeds of our return home to Eretz Yisrael first blossomed into Zionism. The diaspora preserved all that, waiting for the time we would leave it and retake our promised patrimony.

Use this Shabbat to reflect on the thriving Jewish life that once existed in Lublin and places like it. Give honor to those Jews in our past who preserved and grew Judaism, saving it for us now. Had they not done so, we’d be a lost generation. In Lublin celebrate our glorious history, our piety through the centuries, our intellectual and cultural achievements, our perseverance in the face of strife.

Most importantly, in Lublin commit to continuing on in that sacred mission. Be it as a pious rabbi, or a secular intellectual or anything in between, in Lublin come to appreciate the greatness from which we come and look forward to the greatness we can achieve.

Love,

Daddy

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney in Jerusalem, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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