It was only once we were standing inside the gas chamber that I wondered if we had made a terrible mistake. We were following the itinerary. Get on bus. Drive to Auschwitz. Tour the blocks. Walk under the sign.
But this was different. I suddenly felt queasy, panicked, and faint. This is simply awful. What were we thinking? Why did we lead these wonderful, bright, engaged Jewish teenagers into this horrible space of death and darkness? Would God ever forgive us?
For quite a number of years now, Jewish teens from around the world have been traveling by the thousands to Eastern Europe. There, they learn about life before the Holocaust, the genocidal Nazi campaign, and the murder of six million Jews. They visit the cities that were once glorious enclaves of vibrant Judaism, make pilgrimages to cemeteries trying to read ancient tomb stones, and then finally journey to the death camps. We do this in order to preserve history, raise up generations of witnesses — and yes — to strengthen our students’ Jewish identity.
According to the latest Pew Study, 73 percent of American Jews locate their Jewish identity around the Holocaust. Ought the Holocaust serve as a nexus for Jewish identity? Is this good for the Jews?
I say yes — in spite of the oft-repeated argument that the Holocaust casts us as
victims, that it is a horrific culmination of sufferings ranging from exile to expulsions and from persecutions to pogroms, that it engenders a classification that strips us of our agency, thereby perpetuating a negative self-image.
I reject that approach. It is insulting and implies placing blame on the victim, which in turn leads to a diabolical self-loathing. Rather, to study the Holocaust is to come face to face with the singular most human-made horror. It highlights the depths toward which humans can sink. Its central query is, how could this have happened? The answer is a meditation on both evil and complicity. Every book I read and every movie I see about the Holocaust draws me in in a way nothing else does, compelling me to face the truth. The truth of all truths. There is good and there is evil. There is no room here for equivocation or relativism. We humans are capable of the worst.
A caveat: redemption may be realized, even in this world, when we choose to listen to the still small voice of God within us that fearlessly moves us to do good and to shun the wicked. And that too is part of the story. The rescuers, though few, were brave. The Jewish resistance was noble. The commitment to leading a Jewish way of life in ghettoes, labor camps, and to death’s very door — inspiring.
Even as the slavery in Egypt is the defining moment for the Israelites who stood at Sinai and heard the Almighty self-identify as “the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage,” so too are we Jews after the Holocaust different from all those who went before us. As the Egyptian experience was the furnace out of which emerged a forged nation, so too are we, after Auschwitz, a people that will never be the same. We have learned that evil unchecked will rally, but our comfort is that it will never triumph. As my mother-in-law would say, pointing to her grandchildren, “I won Hitler.”
The Holocaust confirms that we are a resilient, life-affirming people committed to memory. We have seen the worst. Yet we remain collectively loyal to an optimism of better things to come and to Torah values and ethics that will bring that time closer. And if it takes the dramatic step into a gas chamber to inscribe this on our youth’s conscience, then so be it.
This article was first published in the Jewish and Seattle Magazine.