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Lost and found in Auschwitz

On the miracle of a Jewish community in Poland that has emerged from the black shadows of the Holocaust
At Auschwitz, Ride For the Living, 2015 (Via Krakow JCC)
At Auschwitz, Ride For the Living, 2015 (Via Krakow JCC)

Poland’s parliament chose to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day by making it illegal to claim that  Poles were complicit in perpetrating the Holocaust. I chose to mark it by focusing on the wonder of what’s arisen from the ashes of Auschwitz.

I know exactly where and when I lost it. Thirty years ago, while leading a group of American teenagers to Poland on the way to Israel. To be precise, during the morning shacharit service the day after our visit to Auschwitz. I can even point to the exact line in the prayerbook I was reciting at the moment it happened: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe Who hears our prayers.” The words stuck in my throat. I’ve been struggling to dislodge them ever since.

“Who hears our prayers.” Really? Standing at ground zero of the most horrific atrocity ever perpetrated by God’s creatures, at the epicenter of human suffering, in a place where six million petitions went unanswered, delivered with the fervor of the unwavering faithful, pronounced by souls righteous and guiltless, uttered by those clinging to a last shred of hope… yes, there and then, at that instant, I lost my faith. Or, at the least, a dimension of it.

I lost my faith in a God that intervenes, directs, orchestrates and causes. I lost my faith in a God with a plan. And since then, I have been mouthing those words while silently struggling with their meaning. So why now, why the confession of agnosticism after three decades of theological sparring? Because I recently returned from another visit to Poland where I unexpectedly found something of infinite value in this place of inexpressible loss. Something I want to share with others who find themselves cloistered in this closet of doubt and uncertainty.

My first visit to Poland took place in the dead of winter. There is no better time to visit the death camps if the objective is to convey the horrors of the Holocaust and glimpse from afar the unimaginable suffering of its victims. That was one of the two windows I was intent on opening for the youngsters in my charge. The other looked out onto the richness of Jewish life that had existed in this Jewish cemetery prior to the Nazi invasion. That was it. There was no attempt to connect with the present-day Jewish community of Poland – essentially because there was none to speak of at the time.

How vastly different things are today. This latter visit, which I undertook on behalf of The Jewish Agency, was about exploring the possibilities for engagement. What I discovered was a Jewish community in an inspiring transitional phase, an evolving generation of indigenous members of the community who – while painfully aware of the past – are emerging from the black shadow of the Holocaust and demonstrating an energetic determination to reclaim and renew the heritage that is rightly theirs: the vibrant Jewish life of their forebears that had been decimated.

Among the institutions they are building and the experiences they are creating: Flourishing Jewish Community Centers and Hillel Houses in Krakow and Warsaw. A Limmud festival of learning and culture attracting over 700 participants. A diversity of active synagogues, including Orthodox, Progressive, Reform and Chabad, along with an eminently accessible chief rabbi intent on building an inclusive communal structure in which all are respected and welcome. A vibrant Jewish day school in Warsaw that now runs through 9th grade, and a new Jewish preschool in Krakow, the first to open its doors there since the Nazi occupation. A hundred million dollar, state-of-the-art museum telling the story of Jewish life in Poland from its origins through to the present, a cooperative effort of the Polish government and primarily Jewish philanthropists. A Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life. Five kosher eateries in Warsaw alone. Hundreds of graduates of Israel Birthright programs. A Union of Jewish Communities serving as an umbrella for much of this activity. And more that I didn’t have time to see.

No trek to Treblinka this time round. None of the ashes of Auschwitz. Just the enthusiasm of an ever-growing population of young people in their 20s and 30s, newly discovering their Judaism and celebrating it with a passion.

Poland’s  lower house of parliament chose to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day by passing a bill which would make it punishable by incarceration to insinuate that Poles were responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis on its territory, continuing a long and troubling narrative denying any complicity in the atrocities of the Holocaust. By contrast, the Jews of Poland — 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation survivors — have chosen to commemorate its victims by rejuvenating communal Jewish life there with vibrancy and zeal, wholeheartedly rejecting the conventional perception of Poland as an immense Jewish graveyard.

Their fervor is infectious — and rehabilitating. I found myself finding, in what they have found, something of what I’d lost on my last visit. Not a resolution to the toughest theological questions, not a restoration of faith in a God that responds deliberately to our entreaties, but an affirmation, arising from the ashes, that there are energies out there beyond our ability to grasp and mysteries of the soul that transcend any conceivable understanding of the corporal.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is a call to the world never to forget nor never to deny. It should also be an occasion to celebrate the irreducible and indomitable human spirit that refuses to be stifled by the deafening silence of the God we restore daily, who hears our prayers but who responds imperceptibly, if at all. Who better to teach us that lesson than the remnants of the 3,000,000 Jews of Poland who were annihilated?

Visitors to Poland be warned, organizers of March of the Living, beware: Auschwitz is one story; the Jewish community of today is its inspiring sequel. Don’t visit one and ignore the other. As immeasurably insufficient as it might be, there is a tiny bit of compensation to be found in the latter for what we lost in the former.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the Zionist Executive, founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center and senior representative of the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement to the National Institutions. The opinions expressed herein are his own.
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