This past Monday, January 27, marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I decided to read about some of the plans for this auspicious occasion before writing, but I must now share some initial reactions.
It is not my purpose to criticize anyone who spoke or wrote of this milestone, especially survivors. They are already an endangered species and should be guarded with all the strength, wisdom and wherewithal we have. I, too will be heading iy”H to that horrific destination, leading a group of chaveirim, mostly from my shul, during the appropriate period of Sefiras Ha’omer. However, I must add a cautionary note that much of what is being said, although most of it is meant sincerely, does not begin to address the issues and inner meaning of the place and concept called Auschwitz.
I confess, as I have before in these pages, that I am not dispassionate about this subject. As a child of survivors, I cannot and do not presume or dare to be. My own parents, aunts and uncles have long since left this world and I have only memories of what they said, and more importantly their silence. Following in the footsteps of our ancestor, Aharon Hakohein (Vayikra 10:3), for decades they said nothing. But that eloquent speechlessness said more than what I have heard recently. The unseemly squabble between the leaders of Russia and Poland, each claiming innocence against each other’s everlasting guilt, proved that both understood nothing. Both still carry our nation’s blood on their dripping hands and should have had the decency to stand respectfully mute.
But what of us? What, if anything, should we say upon this dubious anniversary? I once had the privilege of listening intently all night to the great Churban Europa writer Moshe Prager z”l, who visited my home and captured my attention, as we say in the Haggadah, until we left arm in arm for Shacharis. He sang for me the ghetto song “mir vellen zei iberleben – we shall outlive them,” and perhaps that is all that is worth saying. We did. Enough said. However, since last Monday, all the speakers around the world and at Yad Vashem spoke of the recurring anti-Semitism, we, too, cannot ignore the specter of evil hanging over us. From Pittsburgh to Monsey and too many in between, as even The New York Times (January 26, 2020, International, page 10) concluded, 75 years later, “a fear that ‘Never Again’ is not assured.”
To be sure, our gedolim never liked, let alone used or endorsed, the phrase “never again.” Of course, no one wants anti-Semitism, but any declarations, claims or protests to that effect fly in the face of all of Jewish history and our acceptance of certain inevitable trends and traits in humanity.
So what, if anything, can and should be said upon this occasion?
Last week, the editor of this newspaper wisely adjured us to “look at the good” and to notice the “so many good things going on.” In these somewhat bleak times, this is very valuable advice. Yet, when history and the calendar force us to remember Auschwitz, we must look realistically but with Torah eyes at the milestone before us. Although my parents z”l were survivors themselves, they always turned to the tzaddikim and gedolim who were role models of emunah and bitachon in the death camps to chart a path through the darkness. For them, the Klausenberger and Bluzhever rebbes and the Chuster and Sosnovitzer rabbonim were the arbiters of what to say and think about the churban. I can certainly do no less.
When a Belzer chossid asked the rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, to intervene with Hashem to save Klal Yisroel from further destruction, he repeatedly answered that it was a “gezeirah min hashomayim – a heavenly decree” (Moshe Yechezke’eli, Hatzalas Harebbe M’Belz, page 51). His brother, Rav Mordechai, the rov of Bilgorai and father of the current rebbe, agreed that it was a period of horrific “hester ponim – the hiding of Hashem’s face,” but also of tremendous “hashro’as haShechinah – manifestation of the Divine presence” (ibid., pages 120-121).
The Novominsker Rebbe quotes his mother-in-law, a rebbetzin who survived the war, as having been asked the perennial question, “Where was Hashem?” Her terse but profound answer was “in yeder vinkel – in every corner.”
My own rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, famously discouraged the use of such terms as Shoah and Holocaust because “the word Shoah in Hebrew, like Holocaust in English, implies an isolated catastrophe, unrelated to anything before or after it, such as an earthquake or tidal wave…the churban of European Jewry is an integral part of our history and we dare not isolate and deprive it of the monumental significance it has for us” (A Path Through the Ashes, page 52).
We may conclude at this point that our gedolim agree that the Torah perspective on Churban Europa is that no single event in Jewish history is outside the eternal guidelines of constructs such as golus, geulah, tochachah and yissurin – exile, redemption, admonishment and suffering. Of course, each era and even individual is dealt with on a unique level, as befitting the Divine wisdom and decree. But far be it from any of us to attempt to separate one aspect of Jewish history from the overall grand plan of the Creator.
All of this being said, let us listen to the words of Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Baltimore. After placing the Nazis in the direct line of Amaleik and Haman, he identifies the similarity. He does not speak simply of incredible evil or unbridled power gone insane, but of the “total denial of G-d-given criteria for human conduct.” He points out that “the hallmark of the worldview [of Amaleik] came to full fruition in Nazi Germany. Indeed, this unique churban crowned an era when man’s conduct was determined by man-made ethics, formulated by his own understanding of right and wrong…an era when man believed in the greatness of his own scientific thought and his own instinct for goodness.”
These prophetic words, spoken at the Agudah convention 45 years ago (1975), can help us to develop a Torah reaction to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We must be honest with ourselves. Have we moved far from the philosophies and public policies which led to Auschwitz so that we can celebrate liberation? Or should be redouble our efforts to repudiate, as Rav Weinberg put it, “the graphic and painful lessons of a G-dless humanity”? He concludes bluntly that “It is essential – not only for Jewry to be Jews – but for mankind to function as human beings – that we declare our total submission to Divine wisdom and Divine rule. Until we accept that there is no other source of truth…we will continue to face the very same crises affecting all phases of human existence, awakening alienation and disaffection among all of humanity. We are guilty of neglecting to learn what that entire epoch was about. For our own sake and for the sake of our children, we must affirm that truth and justice stem only from G-d’s Torah and our submission to Him. This is the only hope for Jewry and all of mankind.”
Indeed, celebrating the liberation of 7,000 sick, starving and freezing precious souls was a moment of light in the darkness. I have spoke to American soldiers who participated in liberating Buchenwald who were changed forever by the experience. They looked evil in the eye and none will ever forget the moment. But much of the rest of mankind has totally forgotten what and why it transpired. Yes, I will go to Auschwitz, but I will not celebrate liberation. I believe that since “aino domeh shemia l’re’iyah – seeing is believing,” people should go to see the evidence of the churban so that we can be witnesses against the deniers. But I also hope to remind myself and others who may be listening that it is now up to us. There are forces in almost every country in the world that are willing to unleash the same atheism and at least agnosticism onto the world. Hospitals across the globe are making medical decisions about life and death not unlike those of the Nazi murderers. There are laws that could become universal, allowing viable healthy babies to be murdered because they are not wanted. Jewish lives have been snuffed out and ruined by Amaleik- and Nazi-like individuals and groups simply because they hate us.
And so the question returns: What can each of us do? The answer is that we must begin with ourselves. We are now learning in the Gemara Brachos that we must accept Hashem’s monarchy upon ourselves, known as kabbolas ohl malchus Shomayim. Both chassidim and baalei mussar have commented pithily that it is not hard to accept Hashem’s malchus upon the entire universe. The hard part is to accept it upon ourselves. Like the rebbe of Sanz who had hoped to change the world, then Poland, then Sanz, and finally realized that all that was expected and all that was possible was to change himself. We must think of those 7,000 who were liberated and the millions who sadly were not and make whatever changes we require. The light will radiate outward from each of us. When we liberate ourselves from our personal evil, we will liberate the world as well.