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Trauma’s Enduring Legacy: Auschwitz to Kfar Aza

The main gate of the Wöbbelin concentration camp. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/gallery/woebbelin
The main gate of the Wöbbelin concentration camp. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/gallery/woebbelin

As the sun set on an early May day in 1945, my grandfather entered the barbed wire fences of Wöbbelin Concentration Camp in Germany. Despite the emerging darkness, the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime were illuminated with horrifying clarity: thousands of bodies lay stacked upon each other, their limbs intertwined in a monument of human cruelty that would forever sear itself into his memory.

The stench of death hung heavy in the air, so overpowering that he recalled many of his fellow soldiers vomiting. Inside the camp, conditions were beyond inhumane — prisoners barely subsisted on meager rations of food and water, driven to the brink of desperation by their tormentors. Some, in the depths of their despair, even resorted to unthinkable acts of cannibalism.

Although death saturated the very ground of Wöbbelin, unlike extermination camps like Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, or Treblinka in German-occupied Poland, it wasn’t specifically designed for immediate mass murder. Instead, its primary purpose was to house and exploit prisoners evacuated from other camps to obstruct their liberation by Allied forces. This included inmates from Auschwitz, among others.

As a member of the US Army’s 8th Infantry Division, my grandfather, Ronald Rabinovitz, found himself in a unique position of liberating his fellow Jews. “When I said that I was also Jewish, they threw their arms about me and kissed me,” he later wrote to his brother in a letter. “It gave me a strange feeling which I’ve never before experienced and can’t describe very well.” As the only soldier fluent in Yiddish, he became an unexpected translator and was entrusted with the solemn task of sharing some of the earliest firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, serving as a bridge between the survivors and the Allied forces.

According to his own account, my grandfather witnessed Commanding General Bryant E. Moore, gather local German civilians to confront the horrors first hand within the camp gates. Unbeknownst to General Moore, his actions mirrored the early seeds of what would become a cornerstone of Holocaust education: bearing witness.

Aware of their impending defeat, the Nazis themselves scrambled to erase their genocidal atrocities. This conduct mirrors the typical behavior of a perpetrator in the aftermath of a traumatic crime. In her seminal work, “Trauma & Recovery,” Dr. Judith Herman observes, “In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.” Confronted with the unfathomable barbarity of the Nazi crimes, preserving the camps as stark evidence for the world became, and remained, paramount for the past 79 years. The need to witness is critical for validating the experience. Entering these camps today evokes a chilling immediacy, as if the dormant crematoriums could be rekindled at any moment. 

Whether for better or worse, Jewish history often unfolds in a relentless cycle, with stories from the past continually reshaping in the present. I felt the weight of this phenomenon recently while viewing images of foreign dignitaries and celebrities at Kfar Aza, a kibbutz brutally attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023. It stirred memories of German civilians strolling through Wöbbelin. Notably, the Israelis deliberately chose to preserve the raw damage of the kibbutz from that very day, akin to our approach with the camps in Europe. As Jews, there’s a deep-seated fear that the world may not believe us. Much like the barbed wire fence around the camps, we decided to keep the ransacked homes in Kfar Aza untouched.

The striking resemblance between October 7th commemorations and Holocaust remembrance has become an inescapable lens. In the months following the attack, special units tirelessly worked around the clock to recover even the smallest bone fragments and ash of the victims. A similar effort is ongoing in parts of Poland, conducted by some of the same organizations responsible for collecting the remains of Israelis after October 7th. During my last trip to Poland, I experienced this firsthand as heavy rains brought bone fragments to the surface. While collecting these remains is a part of Jewish burial practice, one should not ignore the profound psychological need among Jews to ensure that no one is forgotten, as if this tragedy never occurred. Unfortunately, the fear of Holocaust denial is well-founded. A recent poll by the Economist/YouGov revealed that 20 percent of US citizens aged 18-29 believe the Holocaust is a myth. 

At first, I thought I was overthinking this connection, but evidence towards it was continuing to pile in. A recent article in The Times of Israel noted the rise of tattoos in Israel, specifically for direct survivors of the Hamas attacks. Many have decided to get “7.10.2023” the date of the attack as their tattoo. The article quoted Haim Jelin who recently got that tattoo and is a member of Kibbutz Be’eri which lost over 120 members, “I said that the only way that people will understand that this was a Holocaust… is if I get this tattoo, which is symbolic, it has the date of the tragedy of Saturday morning,” The numbered tattoos on Holocaust survivors have been a potent symbol of their trauma for nearly 80 years, and now, the numbers tattooed on Israeli arms will once again serve as a poignant reminder. Similar to Holocaust denialism, in the aftermath of October 7 some have suggested that events like rape never took place. 

I also recently learned that the Shoah Foundation, renowned for recording thousands of testimonies from Holocaust survivors, is now documenting the accounts of survivors of the Hamas terror attacks in Israel in the same manner. We, as Jews, have even given language to the connection by continually saying that October 7th was the deadliest attack against Jews since the Holocaust.

Exploring Israel’s methods of memorializing October 7th, which share similarities with Holocaust remembrance, can offer valuable insights into the event’s significance for the Jewish community and its historical memory. However, an even more crucial perspective lies in understanding how these approaches reflect broader coping mechanisms adopted by individuals and communities facing intense trauma.

Beyond the immediate pain of violence, the fear of being forgotten or disbelieved can often become a lasting source of suffering. In a world grappling with countless wounds, understanding these shared experiences and the importance of remembering offers a powerful road towards repair.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University
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