Memories of Oswiecim
In July 1969, I was an invited guest of the Polish government’s Ministry of Culture. There was much to see in Poland… ruins, cemeteries, death camps and theaters, bustling boulevards, wide streets lined with shops and cafes and a country rebuilding itself from the horrors of 1939-1945.
From Warsaw, I took the train to Krakow, a very beautiful city and former capitol of Poland, a city unmarked by destruction during the war as it was the headquarters of the Nazi General-Gouvernment.
Krakow has a long Jewish history, beautiful synagogues, and sentimental memories.
One day I visited with the head of the Jewish community of Krakow, Maciej Jakubovich, and he escorted me through the streets of the former Jewish section, Kazimierz, all the while pointing out buildings and houses that had once been filled with Jewish families and the sounds of Shabbat melodies pouring forth from windows and synagogues on streets bearing Jewish names.
There was the Old Synagogue on ulica Szeroka dating from the 15th century, the Isaac Synagogue at 25 ulica Jakuba built in the 17th century, the Hoch Shul at 38 ulica Jozefa built in the 16th century, the 19th century liberal Tempel at 24 ulica Miodowa, and the glorious Remuh Synagogue at 40 ulica Szeroka, built in 16th century Renaissance style, standing opposite the Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish Krakow of old is no more.
He spoke of Jewish life in pre-war Krakow, of the deportations, and of the restored Jewish community of survivors, many of them supporters of the Polish communist regime, not religious, but contributors to the charity funds of the Jewish community.
I mentioned to him that the next day I intended to travel to Oswiecim, best known by its German name, Auschwitz, and asked him to lend me a siddur so that I could recite prayers at the site of the greatest human tragedy the world has ever known.
The first site that met my eyes was the huge metal sign at the entrance gate to the former death camp. “Arbeit macht frei”…. Work makes you free.
In those days there were no formal guides to escort visitors. One was given a map of the camp at the visitors center and was left on one’s own to tour.
Forty-seven years have passed since I “visited” Auschwitz, but the trauma and the sickness of it has remained with me to this very day. And today on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, the memories return…bitter and unpleasant memories.
In one glass case were tens of thousands of pairs of eye-glasses of the victims. In another case, shoes piled from the floor to the roof of the case, in yet another, suitcases and baggage marked with the names of the owners and the cities or nations from which they had come on their final journey in life.
As I continued walking on the paths which led to the ovens and the crematorium, I noticed a long line of young men and women, nicely dressed, some weeping and dabbing handkerchiefs to their eyes. They did not look Jewish and as I made my way into the line I asked one young man in his twenties who they were and from where did they come.
He told me that they were all from East Germany, all non-Jews, who had been encouraged by their schools and universities to visit the sites of Nazi fascism in Poland.
I was impressed with their numbers and I told the young man that I was a Jew. He was astonished. He had never met a Jew in his life and his immediate response was “aber es war nicht uns”… but it was not us.
Like so many Germans, east and west, of that generation none claimed guilt or responsibility. “It was the Nazis, not us” was the usual reply.
Yet here was a group of some 30 or 40 young German communists who were interested in seeing for themselves the work of a government which existed before their birth. And those who shed tears at what they saw were not ashamed to be seen weeping.
The place where the ovens had once burned human flesh had been cleaned but the stench of death filled one’s nostrils.
In that place, I opened the siddur which Mr. Jakubovich had given me in Krakow and I chanted loudly the El Malei Rachamim memorial prayer and recited the kaddish, tears streaming down my cheeks, my throat choking.
Each year on Yom HaShoah, I light a memorial candle in my home, watch the ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem on the television, stand when the prayers are chanted by the cantor and a former Chief Rabbi, David Lau, and my wife and I sing our national anthem with pride, Hatikvah, the hope, written by Naftali Imber in our city of Rishon Lezion.
Memories of Oswiecim still remain vividly. And when we proclaim “Never Again”, will the prayer be answered?
Many massacres and genocides have taken place around the globe since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.
Will “Never Again” one day be true?