For those of you who do not know, I recently traveled to Central Europe with my Jewish spiritual community, IKAR. We educated ourselves about the heartbreaking tragedies of WWII, paid tribute to the six million Jews and 12 million people who perished in the Holocaust, and met wonderful social activists working for a better future in their
Everything IKAR does is intentional, spiritual, and a bit audacious (“chutzpah”), so we balanced the realities we experienced with great conversations, terrific food, and boutique hotels, as well as warmth, laughter, and friendship. And yet, I want you to know that this article is not easy to read, but I feel compelled to tell my truths. This is the first of two articles; the second will focus less on the tragedies and much more on hopes and possibilities.
Throughout my life, I’ve learned a great deal about the Holocaust, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and experienced in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.
We began the trip in the city of Wannsee outside of Berlin, where the Final Solution to kill all of Europe’s Jews was decided upon in an invitation-only conference. It took the Nazi officials there no longer than an hour and a half to present and finalize the plan followed by a weekend filled with partying and celebration. It was a horrific start. As unbelievable as it was, I felt the continuous need to remind myself that, yes, this really did happen.
A few days later in Warsaw, we toured the area that had been the Jewish ghetto and spent hours at the Jewish Historical Institute Archives. I hadn’t any idea that the uprising and the decision to collect and archive thousands upon thousands of pages of testimony of what the Jews were experiencing was the mastermind of a young person
named Emanuel Ringelblum who stepped forward to lead his people. Emmanuel recruited brilliant colleagues to help document the atrocities Jews were experiencing for the world to see. When the members of the Jewish resistance could no longer hold off the Nazis, they burned the entire ghetto to the ground. But the ghetto was not empty. There were many lives that were lost and then turned to dust and ash on the streets. When the war was over, everything that was built or rebuilt was done on top of these holy ashes. May their memories forever be a blessing.
And still, I wasn’t ready for Auschwitz.
At the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, I saw rooms filled with worn glasses of all types, and mounds of human hair shaved off every prisoner there to steal their last shreds of dignity. I also saw suitcases packed by thousands of Jews from the ghetto and beyond, along with worn-out shoes that had once belonged to innocent children. They had walked hundreds of miles, not knowing that they were being led straight to the gas chambers.
As I stood behind the group, I finally broke down and could not stop sobbing. How could this be? How could entire countries act like this, for no other reason than the oppressed being different? How did so many millions of “normal people” blindly follow cruelty and allow their neighbors to be gassed and murdered, rather than speak out against this insane evil?
At the end of the tour in Auschwitz, our guide, who had grown up in the town, looked into our eyes and asked us to remember one thing about the experience. “These were regular people who did this. These were people just like you and me.” And there was my answer.
I stood alone in the courtyard for a few minutes to speak quietly to the perished souls who lost their lives there. I told them how terribly sorry I was for what they suffered through, and that I would never be able to fully understand the hell they had experienced. For the first time in my life, I felt myself being a link in the chain of the Jewish people, and they would be part of that chain.
In that moment, I promised that I would live my life differently in order to honor theirs. I wish I could tell you exactly how I plan to do that, or when, or how often. While humans are capable of unspeakable evil, I know we are also capable of unlimited love, compassion, goodness, and a moral imperative to seek justice. I have seen this throughout my entire adult life from wonderful mentors, friends, and colleagues. That is where I will start, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Maybe we can do this together.
And finally, on another note, I learned that Central Europe is much more than only this horrible segment of its recent past. The beauty and culture of these cities were staggering, and the people were very open and welcoming. We saw the Berlin Philharmonic play in its gorgeous summer home in a forest, ate unparalleled gourmet food in the middle of Slovakia, rode on a river boat while laughing and singing on the Danube, and more.
Planned by volunteer leaders with ties to each of the countries, this trip was truly a labor of love. A million thanks to Shawn Landres, Zuzana Reimer Landres and Gosia Weiss. Many more thanks also to Rabbi Sharon Brous, Hillel Tigay, and Melissa Balaban (Senior Rabbi/Founder, Chazan, and CEO, respectively) for your unforgettable spiritual leadership. I’m deeply grateful to all of you.