I am penning this note from Poland. To be here now is in and of itself, surreal. To visit a painful Jewish memory while we have large and fresh wounds is strange, to say the least.
Today’s Stream connects the dots of history and modernity and the murder and memory of Jews.
A few people, including Yehuda Kurtzer, wrote early on in this sad saga about the permissibility of using Holocaust language and imagery. It always was taboo to use the word Holocaust or to correlate any event to the years 1939-1945 that was not connected to the Shoah. But October 7th seemed to give license for Holocaust language and imagery. I suppose that is because of the gruesomeness of the terror and the genocidal nature of the terrorists. Also, as we have heard, it was the single worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust. Those seem to green-light comparing the two events. If that did not suffice, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, choosing to wear a yellow Star of David on his lapel, seems to give us an OK to correlate the two moments in history.
This trip to Poland was missing something.
I am in Poland often. Every time I visit, there are busloads of Israeli kids from all over the country walking down the tracks of Birkenau and being taught specifics about the camp and its history. It is reassuring to hear Hebrew when here. Coming to Poland is part of the mandatory High School curriculum in Israel.
Usually, at the end of the tracks these kids gather in groups and they drape themselves in Israeli flags and sing HaTikvah. It is emotional. People witness that moment with wet eyes and soft hearts.
Today at Birkenau, there were no Israeli kids present. I did not hear one syllable of Hebrew spoken. Not an Israeli flag was to be seen anywhere in the miles of camp we traversed. There is an obvious reason those things were missing but its absence was eerie and felt. I had become used to it. I could not help but wonder if and when they will come back.
My rabbinical school classmate and friend Adam, retold a question asked innocently on October 8th, 2023, by his young son. “Dad – we have a day to remember the destruction of the Temple. We have a day to remember the Holocaust. Will there be a day to remember October 7th?”
Out of the mouth of babes. The subtext of his question is, if our historical anchor has been the Holocaust for the past 80 years, does October 7th supplant that, especially for Israelis? Will it join a long list of days we remember dead Jews? Will this day become part of that exhaustive inventory of groups that tried to kill us and failed?
When these high school-age kids draped in their flags would march at Birkenau, it was an outward expression of the most horrible time in Jewish history and human witnesses, the actual fruit, coming forward to declare that we were victorious. Israel’s existence was the unspoken declaration of Never Again. But it has happened again and again and again since 1945. In Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Ethiopia and to Jews. Just never in such grandness and never since the Holocaust for Jews.
Will Auschwitz now lose its potency for Israelis? Since October 7th has ignited the kindling for antisemitism, will October 7th replace Auschwitz (and its symbolism) for Jews worldwide? Will it cause its potency to diminish? I wonder.
When I lead trips to Birkenau, I always encouraged participants to pick up one of the millions of stones on the rail tracks and to put it in the their pocket. If going directly to Israel after Poland or perhaps in the future, I instructed everyone to take the stone and press it against the Kotel and share a kiss from rock to stone. Doing so would fulfill a dream that those who perished during the Holocaust could not taste the fruits of. I know it is a bit kitschy but it worked. It was my shtick.
My mind raced today. Where would we gather stones in Sderot or Kibbutz Be’eri? Where would we bring those stones to kiss? What would be the unfulfilled dream of those who died?
Poland is loaded with memorials and monuments and each have deep significance. Umschlaggplatz, the final deportation spot for Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto had always been one of the memorials that struck me. It is black and white, symbolizing the stripes of a prayer shawl (talis). It has a large piece of granite hanging overhead to denote the load that awaits the journey. A sliver in the monument allows a tree to come into focus, signifying the narrow hope for those who could see it. On the wall of the granite monument inside the small, rectangular space, are about 200 names, divided by gender. They were common first names of people who lived in or near Warsaw and were sent to their death at Treblinka.
When I came to Poland as a father, I noticed that my kids names, not wildly common, both made the list. I took my hand and gently touched the etched names of my kids, as if I were caressing their soft cheeks. Much like I see people in my synagogue do with the bronze yahrtzeit plaque on our surrounding walls. Seeing my children’s names brought a new potency to that memorial for me, ever since.
After October 7th, our Temple has included the names of those who have been injured, are missing or have died in different roll calls, memorials or prayers we have offered. The list had both of my kids Hebrew names within the first 10 lines. I welled up and paused. My kids who have been to Israel more times than they have years of life. My kids who are fluent in Hebrew and in Zionism. My kid who spent a gap year living in Israel. My kids who know as many Prime Ministers of Israel and the order of their service as they do American Presidents and their party. My kids who have spent more time in Israel than any other place besides their home. It is literally their second home.
This is a long-winded way of explaining that the death of Jews, whether at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Kibbutzim near Gaza, or at Majdanek and Treblinka death camps, feels frighteningly near.
On June 14, 1985, TWA flight 847 was hijacked from Athens, Greece by Hizbollah operatives demanding the release of 700 Shia prisoners in Israeli jails. Shortly into the flight the hijackers realized Jews were onboard the plane. They demanded the flight attendant,. Uli Derrickson, a woman of German descent, collect all the passports and separate the Jewish names so they could be separated amongst the passengers. Uli refused to do it. She courageously said to the terrorists, it felt like Germany and the selections all over again. She could not be part, even unwillingly, of a second generation of Germans who selected Jews for punishment and death.
I am sharing this story for two main purposes: First, the past repeats itself. Hizbollah is still a threat to innocent people. Ironically, the torture of innocent people for the release of prisoners is accepted by Hizbollah and Hamas, and the world seems to be silenced. If Israel were to collectively punish the Palestinian people for the crimes of Hamas, well that would be wholly unacceptable. What a wild double-standard.
The second reason this story hits home now, is about the next generation fulfilling a similar trajectory to its ancestors, and the pain that path brings to society. An illustrative story to further the point.
In Krakow, there is a permanent memorial installation in what was the center of the Krakow ghetto, called Heroes Square. It is a large platform, flat with cobblestones that has an assembly of 70 empty chairs. It is illuminated at night, and the chairs are separated and organized in order. The emptiness of the chair is loaded with symbolism. In Polish tradition, every Christmas a chair is left empty at the family table for those who we want to honor and whose physical presence is missing. In Judaism, we have a similar ritual on Passover where we ask all who are hungry to come and eat and opening the door for Elijah. The emptiness of the chairs in the exhibit clearly represents the death and loss of life that the ghetto and World War II created for the city of Krakow and our the Jewish world. It is a regular stop on our Jewish history tour of Poland.
Except yesterday, most of these empty chairs in the square had a sign of a missing person kidnapped by Hamas on October 7th. Most of the signs were in Polish, while some were in English and a smattering in Hebrew. Locals passed by and read them intently and with empathy. I saw one man read the sign and cross himself. That got me.
My mind jumped to the TWA flight and Uli. Another generation making selections and another generation in Poland bringing a new symbol to the emptiness of the chair. Will that cycle ever end? Will those seats hold signs 20 years from now about Jews who are no longer? Is history really the circle game? If so, how do we end this vicious cycle?
Speaking of the past repeating itself, inside the former barracks at Auschwitz I, there are quotes from SS leadership about their stated desire to rid the world of Jews, Gypsies, Romas, Sintas and other non-Aryan groups. The actual language that was used in German translates to ‘exterminate’, as if these humans were vermin. It was a genocidal decree that was the intention of Nazism. They were almost successful in their quest.
Genocidal chants and decrees are dangerous. For many, especially those who follow blindly, the words land on the ears of the listeners and are understood as doctrine that must be fulfilled and followed.
The phrase “From the Land to the Sea, Palestine Will be (or, must be) Free,” is a genocidal chant. In 1967 Nasser said he will drive the Jews to the Sea. He was referring to the Mediterranean and hinting that with the help of Jordan and Syria, the three sides would encroach Israel from north, south and east and force Israel west into the Mediterranean. It was a decree calling for a mass genocide of the Jews in Israel.
The borders of Israel are such that whether we look at maps from the partition plan of 1947, or the post Independence War armistice lines of 1948, or 1967 borders after the capture of Sinai, The Golan Heights and the West Bank, or 2005 when Israel evacuated all of Gaza, the land was, could have been or is partitioned for two peoples. To wish that Palestine extends from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea is channeling the decree of Nasser and having a single country that is free of Jews. It does not ask for the peaceful relocation of Jews. The chant does not talk about two lands for two peoples. It is a genocidal ambition and should be treated as such by all those who are against genocide. Each time we hear that chant we need to call it out for what it is, a call for genocide. We must shut it down.
I close this note with a sadness and a glimmer of hope. We just learned as I write this Stream of the reunification of a a female IDF soldier who was abducted Hamas. It really was a miracle. The prayers of her family were answered. At the same moment, a similar age girl received confirmation that her lifeless body was found in Gaza, and the sad news was shared with her family. We thank God for our miracles and we hold tight our neighbors, both who are shedding salty tears, but for different reasons.