Reflecting on what was lost…

The ovens at Birkenau (an image that I took at Auschwitz in 2005)

Along with virtually all sports fans here in America and around the world, I spent a good part of Sunday afternoon trying to process the news of Kobe Bryant’s sudden and violent death, along with his teenaged daughter and seven other souls. If, at some point in your life, you played competitive basketball, you’ll surely know that Kobe Bryant was an almost mythical sports figure, able to make a basketball court his personal stage. He did so regularly, with amazing and dramatic flare. Koby Bryant was driven to excel like few others, and he did, pretty much anytime he put on a Lakers uniform. His shocking death forced us to confront so many of those truisms that we know, but save for moments such as this. Life is fragile, nothing can be taken for granted, et. al…. we all know the drill.

But then I awoke this morning, turned on my computer, and was immediately confronted by images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, today marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of its liberation…

We are currently living in what might fairly be called a “news-rich” cycle, when competing urgent headlines scream at us for our attention. Impeachment, who will or won’t testify, the new Corona virus potentially threatening life as we know it, earthquakes almost daily, catastrophic fires and loss of life both human and animal- it feels like an all-out assault on our senses, making it painful- literally painful- to watch or listen to the news. The temptation to tune it all out is powerful.

But then, this morning, there were those pictures from Auschwitz, reminding us that some stories must never be tuned out. Seventy-five years ago today, the Auschwitz concentration camp, the symbolic and actualized realization of the very worst crisis that western civilization has ever faced- one in which our Jewish people were tragically at the epicenter- was liberated. Thus began a struggle to assimilate the totality and implications of what had transpired there, a struggle that continues to this very day.

Thirty years ago, when modern Jewish feminism was beginning in earnest to generate its own body of literature, two women, Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz, co-authored a book titled Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers. The point of the book was to impress upon us, readers both male and female, that from Biblical times to our own, the contributions and roles of women in the development of the world as we know it were dramatically under-reported– essentially, they were written out of history. Though women had been property owners, poets, queens, teachers, traders, and so many other things including mothers, male historians wrote their histories focusing on the accomplishments of the men of their times, and not the women. The book obviously made a great impression on me. I remember it clearly some thirty years later. I had never looked at the world that way. I was exactly the audience they were addressing. I wondered, how many leaders were lost to us through the millenia because the women were written out? How much wisdom was lost, how much insight, how much strength, how much compassion?

Today, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I find myself reflecting on six million lives, a million-and-a half of them children, who were not so much written out of history as expunged from it. In so many instances, particularly true with the well-over one million of whom were murdered in Auschwitz, even the memories of their deaths were erased as they were reduced to ashes. They have no proper resting place. I am wondering today… how many of the children were murdered there, or in any of the Shoah-era killing factories, would have grown to be thinkers, scholars, rabbis and cantors, athletes, men and women of letters, musicians, or loving parents? How many of the adults who were murdered had much left to contribute to our world? How can we possibly assess the greatness of our loss from “just” Auschwitz?

For understandable and appropriate reasons, we reflexively recoil in horror and dismay, as we have done since yesterday, from the senseless and tragic death of one man whose heroics in his chosen field of endeavor excited so many of us. He should indeed be mourned, and his death lamented. But the eyes of those men, women and children that stare out at us from the grainy pictures from Auschwitz should be burning holes in our souls, for those people never got to realize what they were put on this earth to be. And it was the cruelty of some, and indifference of others, that caused their death.

Al eleh ani bokhiyah…. for these people do I shed tears, seventy-five years later.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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