When I was born, my parents gave me three middle names: Emanuel, Samuel, and Levendel. The latter is my mother’s maiden name. The other two are for Mendl and Shmil, male relatives on my mother’s mother’s side of the family, who were killed during the Holocaust.
My sister and brother also have three middle names, for the same reasons.
My wife’s father has a list of 72 relatives who were killed.
If each of these people had lived out normal lives, how many of their descendants would walk the earth today? 200? 300? 400?
Our extended family is fairly large, with more than 30 first cousins, most if whom have married and raised families of their own. In all, we maybe number 150 or 200, scattered across the US, Israel, and, if you count the second and third cousins, Canada, South Africa, Belgium, and Italy as well.
So my first thought as I got ready to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau earlier this week is what a world we lost, just in my and my wife’s extended families.
Last Saturday, while in Warsaw, after our Personal Democracy Forum Poland conference ended, we took an informal walking tour of the nearby area, which happened to be close to the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Warsaw, it must be noted, was completely destroyed by the Germans before the end of WWII. In August 1944, the city rose up and managed to shake off German control for several weeks (while the approaching Russian Army held back, letting the Polish resistance deplete itself against the Nazis, which made the later Soviet occupation of Poland somewhat easier to imposed). In response to the rebellion, the Germans leveled Warsaw. A city that had 1.1 million inhabitants before the start of the war had barely one thousand living in its ruins at war’s end. The city looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it.
Near the auditorium where our conference was held stands an old row of decrepit buildings, some of the few that remained standing after the war. In their empty windows, someone has placed huge blown-up photograph portraits of the Jews who had once lived there. We walked past these buildings, crossed a few more streets, and then our guide pointed down to a line of bricks with an inscription in them: Warsaw Ghetto 1940-1943. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
This was it; we were walking on the last home of 400,000 Jews condemned to live within its confines; 100,000 who died inside its walls from starvation and illness; the rest who were nearly all killed in the camps.
When I was in my teens, I belonged to a Jewish youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”). It was at heart a scouting movement like the many youth movements of the 1900s, with two additional ingredients: socialism and Zionism. Our heroes were the kibbutzniks who were rebuilding the Jewish homeland and doing so by creating a “classless society” (or so we imagined). Like all the Zionist movements, we believed that Jews couldn’t be passive, waiting for some God to take care of them; they had to take positive action to make a better world for themselves and others.
Among our heroes there might have been none greater than Mordecai Anilewicz, who led the “ken” (or “nest”) for Hashomer Hatzair in the Warsaw Ghetto, and who was the leader of the 1943 uprising against the Nazis. Growing up in Hashomer, I went to a ken named for him: N’tiv Mordecai. Now, walking thru the cold and wet streets of a Warsaw that had been rebuilt, with no significant trace of the past left in view, I felt surrounded by ghosts.
These photos taken after the war was over, which happened to be displayed in the old town part of Warsaw while we were visiting, show nothing but a grave land of stones and bricks where the ghetto stood:
The next day we flew to Krakow, where we were met by a driver who took us the 45 minute drive to the camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was two experiences in one day for me. First, we toured the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Here, Jews were held along with Polish political prisoners, Gypies, and other persecuted groups. It reminds me very much of Dachau, which I had visited a few years ago with my brother David, also in winter. Barracks side by side for slave laborers who were tortured and starved. A small crematorium for the people who died on a daily basis. A cramped prison and public execution and hanging grounds, where people were killed on little more than an SS officer’s whim. The massive collections of hair, shoes, suitcases and other detritus left by the inmates are harrowing, but I knew they would be there.
Birkenau is different. It feels like a whole planet of death, not one plantation. Even though the crematoria and original barracks have all been destroyed, the remnants and the handful of reconstructed buildings are sufficient to establish Birkenau’s awful scale.
I left a stone on the metal ledge of a cattle car that stands halfway along the railway tracks that traverse Birkenau from its entrance to the site of the crematoria roughly 2km away. The car looks like it could have held maybe 8 cows. Instead, our guide tells us, it was probably packed with 80 humans. Every day, the Birkenau crematoria could process several transports of victims. Whole ghettoes numbering in the tens of thousands went to their deaths in a matter of days. It was the industrial production of mass slaughter, but it also was still very personal, and required deliberate deception at every step, to keep the people who were about to be gassed from understanding and then perhaps rebelling.
We didn’t have a lot of time on this visit, about four hours in all at the camps. So I wasn’t able to deviate much from the standard tour that our guide was taking us on in both camps. I managed to see a special special exhibit that the country of Belgium had donated, depicting the suffering of the 25,000 Jews who were deported from there to Auschwitz in 1942. Very few survived. My mother and her immediate family, thank goodness, were helped by the Belgian Resistance and were saved by going into hiding before the deportation began. There by the grace of good people, go I.
I also managed to walk through an exhibit that detailed all the ways people in the camps resisted the Nazis, and the heavy price they paid for such actions. Since the SS kept detailed records we know of a few of these incidents, but since the vast bulk of their records were destroyed as the SS prepared to close the camp in late 1944 as the Russian Army approached, we don’t know how many more times they happened. I was glad to be reading about the Sonder-commando unit of prisoners who rebelled and managed to blow up Crematorium 3, before all being put to death, in October 1944. Standing on the massive plaza that memorializes the killing grounds in Birkenau, near that crematorium, I felt a tiny glint of satisfaction. They fought back, even here.
Had I been with a group of fellow Jews, I think I would have wanted to chant Kaddish for the dead. I’m not religious, but I respect the ritual and know it is important to honor and remember the dead. Also, the Kaddish is a paradoxical mourning prayer. Its words make no mention of death or heaven, as might expect; they speak only of the glory of Creation. It is as if to remind the mourner, “You are in the world of the living, cherish it.”
Leaving the camps with my friends Andrew Rasiej and Jen Vento who shared the visit, I saw a sign for a synagogue and Jewish museum in nearby Osweicsim, and I asked them if we could make a quick detour to visit. It was unlikely, but I thought these might be a group of Jews there, enough to say a proper Kaddish. Unfortunately, I discovered that these is no living Jewish community there any more. Before the war, there were as many as 7000 Jews living in the town, a majority. But afterward the few survivors emigrated to Israel or America. The afternoon I visited, it was empty save for one employee of the museum. I left a donation for its upkeep. And then I said to my friends, like the mourners leaving a grave site, let’s return to the world of the living.