Update: After this post was published, I received an email from Ben Shapiro. In it, he expressed that he was saddened that our take was different from his own. I have added his response below.*
January 22nd, 2023, dawned early and cold in Krakow. My life partner Gidon Lev and I had flown to Poland on a very last-minute invitation from the European Jewish Association (EJA) for a special occasion – to take a private tour of Auschwitz with none other than Elon Musk. We bundled up and headed downstairs to the hotel lobby to wait for our car and those traveling with us. A few minutes later, we were at the front of a strange caravan of cars with tinted windows gliding through the streets of Krakow. One of those cars, naturally, was a Tesla.
Because Gidon has a high profile on social media, he regularly receives invitations to speak or be interviewed. We discuss each request carefully. To whom will Gidon be speaking and why? Are these students or adults? Is this on Zoom, or will Gidon have to travel? Is Gidon well enough to travel? Is he up to yet another interview? Gidon has one golden rule: if the talk is for school kids, he always makes it work.
But this was something different: Elon Musk is arguably the most powerful human on the planet. This was Elon Musk, the strange cipher of a person who sends rockets into space and platforms conspiracy theorists and white supremacists on X. We had to consider this invitation carefully.
For Gidon, who had spent four years in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz was a place he had resolutely never set foot in. He has turned down other invitations to go in the past. For Gidon, Auschwitz was what being “sent east” from Theresienstadt looked like. It was where his father, Ernst, number B12156, was sent in September 1944. It was a place of nightmares.
Could Gidon’s presence on this tour – this dare, really, for Musk to visit Auschwitz – make any difference to Musk? Would Musk, who self-identifies as having Aspergers, be able to feel any empathy toward Gidon or appreciation for his age and the emotional and physical distance he had traveled to be there? We knew Musk’s visit was a loaded one and would be a difficult journey on every level. But Gidon felt he had an obligation to rise to the occasion.
And rise he did, on January 19th, at 1:30 in the morning, to greet the driver sent for us at our home in northern Israel to get us to Ben Gurion by 3:00 am to catch a flight to Krakow at 6:00 am. We both caught a cold on the cramped, puddle-jumper plane.
When the caravan of tinted-window cars finally arrived at Auschwitz, the media was already there with their whirring cameras. There were handshakes and greetings. Musk introduced his coatless toddler son as “Little X” and promptly hoisted him onto his shoulders. Conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro was there, too. I do not recall whether he greeted Gidon. Naturally, Shapiro was focused on Musk; after all, it was due to Shapiro that Musk was there at all. Shapiro was surrounded by a fairly large “team” of his “people.” Musk was too, including six or seven very well-dressed and serious security guards whose eyes never stopped sweeping from right to left.
You may have seen the photos of Elon Musk and Ben Shapiro under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz. The handsome elderly man on the left, with the sparkling blue eyes and rainbow scarf is Gidon.
Our brisk tour commenced. At my insistence, the EJA had given Gidon the option to ride in a golf cart if he got too tired. Eventually, Gidon did take advantage of this. It was 22 degrees Fahrenheit (5 centigrade), and there was ice and snow on the ground.
I had never been to Auschwitz either; I expected to be overcome with emotion. But somehow, the freezing temperatures, the brisk pace of the tour, the intimidating security men, the cameras clicking, and the entourage – not to mention other tourists held back at a distance and staring curiously as we passed – made it impossible for me to connect with my surroundings. I kept an eye on Gidon, ensuring he was warm enough, keeping up with the tour, and doing okay emotionally. Gidon did admirably, I thought, and even chimed in occasionally. Musk peered at Gidon intently, seeming to listen to him. Shapiro did not seem to register Gidon at all.
Shapiro and Musk laid a wreath at the “wall of death” while the cameras whirred. We waited for Gidon’s turn to lay a wreath, too, but there was no wreath for him. Gidon had brought a copy of a photo of his father so he could show it to Musk. Having done so a bit earlier, Gidon laid the photo of Ernst near the wreathes and put a small stone on it. We said a little prayer for Ernst together and cried some frozen tears, thinking of how he must have suffered.
But Musk, Shapiro, and their respective entourages had already moved on without us, and it took us some time to catch up and bring up the rear of this strange, strange parade.
For a week, Gidon worked very hard on a speech he would give at the “gala dinner” planned for that evening. He had some pointed things to say to Musk about antisemitism online and social responsibility. We knew it was unlikely that either Musk or Shapiro would be at the dinner after finishing the tour and their much-anticipated onstage talk. And, of course, no surprise, the two had already made their departure, having better, more important things to do than listen to Gidon and many others, including the parents of Aner Shapira, speak.
It took Gidon and me more than 14 hours to return to Israel. We had to get up at 2:30 am to catch a shuttle at 3:00 am, fly to Warsaw, and spend five hours waiting for a flight to Tel Aviv. By this time, Gidon had a bad cough. Awkwardly, he stretched out over the terribly uncomfortable airport chairs and unsuccessfully tried to sleep. Back into the puddle-jumper plane we went, exhausted, our pockets stuffed with tissues for our colds. During the flight, Gidon decided to write Musk a letter since he hadn’t heard his speech. I promised that once we got home, I would help Gidon with that and try to get his missive to Musk’s “people.” This I did but I would be shocked if Musk responded.
Last evening, I stumbled across an interview with Shapiro on Piers Morgan Uncensored on YouTube. Morgan was quite curious about what Shapiro made of Musk and that visit. In the background, a picture came onscreen – the one of Gidon on the left, Menachem Margolin of the EJA, Musk, “little X,” and Shapiro. Shapiro didn’t mention the old guy in the photo or having met Gidon. But then, why should Gidon have stood out to Shapiro? Gidon is not a powerful man, a pundit, or a political figure. He was just the Holocaust survivor set dressing off to the side, meant to kosher the whole experience.
Shapiro is a very busy man these days. So big picture, it’s a small thing, an oversight, really, that he didn’t acknowledge the presence of an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor nor the effort Gidon made to join this politically and emotionally loaded, elaborate photo opp. After all, Ben was on the Piers Morgan show; he has bigger fish to fry.
*Update: After this blog was published, I received an email from Ben Shapiro. In it, he expressed that he was very saddened that our take was different from his own and that, in fact, he was honored to meet Gidon. Ben’s email read in part: “I treasured my interaction with Gidon, and I certainly did not interpret our interactions the way you did; I’m sorry if you and Gidon felt differently. His story is amazing, and I was intensely interested in his time at Terezin… In your piece, you say you don’t recall if I greeted Gidon. I not only greeted Gidon, I was deeply moved to do so — to meet with someone who survived the worst atrocity ever produced by mankind is always a true honor.