Zak Jeffay

Will survivors ever visit Auschwitz again?

Survivors together at Auschwitz for the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation, 27 January 2020

In a cruel turn of history, a man who survived the most horrific crime against humanity has lost his life to a plague. Aryeh Even lived through the Holocaust, and died on Saturday from coronavirus.

All Holocaust survivors are in the at-risk age group for coronavirus. And I suspect that as well as witnessing the tragedy of more survivors losing their lives, coronavirus will also signal a premature end to a key source of Holocaust education.

I suspect that we’ll never again see survivors visiting Auschwitz again.

We know that some of the watershed moments in history are not noticed until afterwards. I fear that we are in the midst of one of those moments.

I have found no educational experience has been more powerful than my encounters with survivors and most impactfully when they have returned to Poland and retraced their steps.

To walk the streets of someone’s childhood of 80 years ago brings into focus for Jews of all ages today the vibrant life that was lived before the destruction. To hold the hand of a survivor in a place like Auschwitz as they recount the tragedies that befell them in that spot gives a sense of belief and internalisation like no other.

Just two months ago I was privileged to be a part of the Survivors’ Delegation with JRoots bringing 105 survivors back to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of the liberation. The close encounters with so many walking miracles was overwhelming for all of us involved.

There was however an elephant in the room throughout the four days, which was, ‘who will be here for the eightieth?’ The question was rarely verbalised but the fear was there. How do we approach a world when these precious survivors can no longer advocate for themselves?

While we feared for the future it was a motivation for myself, all of us at JRoots and the world of Jewish education to start to prepare in earnest. However, none of us felt that the wake up would be quite so soon.

The moment we may just have witnessed without any of us noticing it happening may well have been the last Jewish survivor returning to Auschwitz.

The responsibility for the welfare of the survivors is paramount. I am fearful of the responsibility of flying a survivor back to Poland ever again.

I hope and pray that I am wrong. I wish the survivors only health and protection in the coming months and I yearn for a time that I can witness once again that human interaction and eye-opening realisation as students stand together with a survivor giving their testimony in situ.

In the event that I am right however we need to plan not for tomorrow but for today. The need for deep and meaningful Holocaust education will not wane in the light of our current crisis, it will only grow. The future will look at us and ask how did we prepare for the day after. In a time when the responsible thing is not to visit our grandparents and the survivors that we know, our children and grandchildren will one day ask us, how did we reach out? How did we take heed of that which they taught us? How did we assist them at their hour of need? Did we listen? Did we follow through on our promises that their stories and messages will continue to be heard?

I hope and pray that in the coming weeks and months we act so that we can answer those questions with pride.

About the Author
Zak works for JRoots, leading Jewish heritage trips to Poland, Italy, Ukraine and beyond. He has a degree in History and a master’s in Jewish Education. Zak also guides at Yad Vashem. He made Aliyah from the UK and was involved in founding Darchei Tzion, a growing community in Modiin. He previously served as Mazkir of Bnei Akiva UK and Head of Informal Jewish Education at JFS.
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