Making Light of Auschwitz

It may very well be the most offensive thing I have ever heard.  A Jew being arrested in Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, in 2014, for SINGING!

OK, I might have taken it a little far on my radio show, crossed a couple of lines of good taste, I will admit that.  Humor has always been my defense mechanism.  Satire I believe, is an excellent way of making a point. I use it well, I use it often, but when you walk up right to the line, sometimes you step passed it.  My apologies to anyone who was offended.

Here is the story. On August 1, 2014 Rabbi Rafi Ostroff from Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion, was leading a trip of Bnei Akiva students, (the largest Jewish youth movement in the world) through Poland.  The peak experience of this journey into the heart of darkness is spending a day touring the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp.

Rabbi Ostroff has done this before.  He is a professional educator. He knows how to bring meaning and depth to these kids in a way that will impact them for their entire lives.

They walked into the gas chamber where just 70 years ago, thousands of Jews were murdered, choking on poison gas and clawing helplessly at the walls. The group then did something so Jewish.  They sang. They sang Ani Ma’amin.  “I believe with a perfect faith, That the messiah will come, even though he is running really, really late, this is going to work out.” (paraphrased)

Who does that?  We do. The Jews.

A member of the museum staff approached Rabbi Ostroff at that point and asked him quietly to stop singing. The group eventually did what they should have done.  They ignored her and sang anyway.

After this incident members of the Auschwitz staff followed and harrased Rabbi Ostroff’s group of 19 year old boys repeatedly. They demanded, at times hostilly barking those demands of what they considered “appropriate behavior”, for Jewish groups touring the former Nazi death camp.

rafiEventually, when the The group of young Jews refused to comply with the wishes of the non-Jewish staff at Auschwitz, security personnel and local Polish police, arrested Rabbi Ostroff.  They physically accosted him, and brought him alone into a room inside the former Death Camp.

The Polish police told Rabbi Ostroff that if he could not produce 1000 zloty, (about $350) they would take him to a Polish jail.  When he said he did not have it on him, the Police proceeded to drive him to a cash machine where he was forced to take out the money and hand the cash over to the local Polish authorities.

Auschwitz released a statement claiming that the group was “far too loud and exhibiting inappropriate behavior at the Memorial”.

“When the group was asked to quiet down on the site of former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, as they were not only singing very loud, but also running around the site.”

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff and the Bnei Akiva group vehemently denies this.

So what is going on here?

Ask anyone.  Auschwitz.  Quick what is the first thing you think of?  The Jews.  The Holocaust.

This clearly bothers the current staff at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Between 1940 and 1945 somewhere between a million and a 1.5 million Jews where murdered in Auschwitz, but there were also 70,000 Polish gentiles murdered there.  That is an enormous number.  Also 21,000 Roma and Sinti were killed, along with 15,000 Soviet POWs and 10,000 to 15,000 peoples of other nations. The numbers defy conception. Every human being is an image of God, every life is precious.  

This is true.  So why do the Jews get to “own it” the staff of Auschwitz Memorial is claiming.

The staff would prefer to see Auschwitz, well lets say, less Jewy.  More focused on the universal human tragedy less on what is perceived by many of the entirely non Jewish staff as too Jewishly focused.

They are wrong. We own it.

True. The Jewish People do not hold a monopoly on being persecuted.  We do not own the rights to being victims of genocide. There have been plenty of peoples in the world that have been unlucky enough to find themselves there, victims of the darkest side of humanity. So why should we get a pass on how we behave in Auschwitz in 2014?

The Jewish people have something unique in all of human history. Something no other nation has. We are the “Chosen People”. We have been chosen to fight that darkness longer, and more regularly than any people on the earth.

We have gotten really good at it.

A week an a half ago I sat with hundreds of Jews in the Judean Desert, on the walls of the ancient Herodion on Tisha b’Av, the darkest day of the Jewish calendar. The exact same date that the first temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E by the Babylonians, and the second temple in the year 70 C.E. by the Romans. It is the day of the year where we commemorate all of the myriad of tragedies that have befallen us over our 3500 year history. We mourn, we fast, we sit on the floor, we cry and we sing.

We went to the walls of the Herodion because it was there that the Judean Rebels who had launched the ill fated war of Independence from the Romans witnessed this 1st Century Holocaust.  They stood on those walls and watched Jerusalem, and their dreams burn.

What is so meaningful about that experience is that the Herodion is not a museum.  It is a place.  It is a place that the Jewish people faced one of their darkest moments.  Two thousand years later, we survived not because the Romans spared us, but because of our unique national ability to reveal light from the deepest darkness. We know that bearing witness to this darkness is not enough.  We encounter it, and we shatter it.

Paweł Sawicki, the press officer for the Auschwitz Memorial put it like this to me yesterday on Facebook.

In our understanding this is the core of evil that Auchwitz represents, the darkest of the dark. This is the very place where people were being murdered and their bodies burnt. Not only Jews. That is why we protect this place and ask everyone to walk silently there.

What Sawicki and the staff of Auschwitz-Birkenau misses completely is what Jews are doing when we sing.

The core of the argument with the staff at Auschwitz-Birkenau is how to deal with the darkest place in the world.  Simply put.  The Jewish People know how to do it better so much better than they do.

They say it is to stand there and quietly bear witness to the darkness.  We say that that approach doesn’t even come close.  Our job, the job of the Jewish people is to utterly destroy that darkness.

There is only one way to do that.  With light.

What does it mean “The Chosen People”.  We have been chosen by, call it God or circumstance, to teach the world how to rid itself of the darkness in the heart of humanity.  It is that darkness that could build a place like Auschwitz, Roman slave galleys, suicide bombers, or Gazan rockets and terror tunnels.

This has been the secret to our survival for 2000 years of brutal exile from our land. A darkness that has found the Jewish People in some of the “worst case scenarios” ever in all of human history. We know the secret, because we have experienced it.  A tiny bit of light can chase a great amount of darkness away.

Darkness loves silence.

The Polish-Auschwitz staff asks, “how can you sing in the gas chamber at Auschwitz?” The Jew answers, “how can we not?”

The author is host of The Mottle Wolfe Show on Voice of Israel.  He tweets @rebmottle

About the Author
Mottle Wolfe Tweets as @RebMottle. He is the host of The Mottle Wolfe Show, Israel's only daily news talk program. He lives in the Hills of Judea with his wife Batya, and their three children.
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