This is a guest post by Elyse Rabinowitz of Minneapolis. She is a volunteer engaged in Jewish life and a non-profit consultant. This article is being published in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day this Friday, January 27th.
This past July, I was one of a group of forty North Americans and Israelis on an educational tour of Poland. We traced many pathways in one of the most prolific Jewish communities in history, which on the eve of World War II, numbered three and a half million Jews. This kind of program is not unique – indeed its importance has grown as thousands of Jews make a similar journey year-in, year-out to discover the core of this rich center of Jewish life, to behold the grounds of its destruction and to honor the spiritual, physical and redemptive resistance of Jews and Righteous Gentiles alike.
Several years ago I heard a lecture by a curator from Yad Vashem, herself the child of survivors. She proposed that our knowledge of the Holocaust must go beyond graphic numbers, for the ideologically motivated murder of one Jew – because he or she is a Jew – is a tragedy of great magnitude. Nor can we only focus on how the Nazi’s bureaucratic machinery made the murder of millions of Jews possible.
Her call to action was to examine and recount Jewish memory – which is Judaism’s particular way of understanding history. Figuratively speaking, she prompted us to fill in the color of black and white family photos; to build our understanding of the multi-layered world of European Jewry: its synagogues, yeshivot and youth movements; the legacies of great sages, Yiddish writers, Zionist pioneers, learned and ordinary men and women.
Our task, she urged, is to illuminate lives lived, lives saved, and ultimately, lives lost. It is in this spirit that I went to Poland.
Perhaps ironically, my search for lives lived in Poland began by going to a cemetery.
The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery is the resting place of over 250,000 Jewish souls dating back to 1806, including my maternal Great-great-great Grandfather Yisroel Yaacov Pomerantz, Great-great Grandfather Moshe Pomerantz, and Great Grandmother Chava Shafir Landau. It was my good fortune to locate their gravesites, fulfilling part of my quest in going to Poland. To behold the names of my family’s progenitors on their matzevot—headstones was a touchstone moment, a time to proclaim he’neni, here am I, standing as a free Jew.
Most significantly, it was a tribute to seven generations of unbroken faith and devotion and to my Great Grandparents’ and Grandparents’ prophetic dream of a better life by making aliyah from Poland to Iowa and Minnesota in the early 1900’s.
From the Warsaw cemetery I travelled through Poland’s pastoral countryside to the town of Ticocyn, once known as the shtetl of Tiktin. Seventy years ago, in August 1941, the 2,000 Jewish residents of Tiktin were assembled in the town’s market square for “relocation” and then marched and trucked by the Nazis into the nearby Lupochowo forest. Save for only a few that escaped, the SS Einsatzkommando executed every Jewish resident of Tiktin before open pits, extinguishing 400 years of continuous Jewish life.
The Tiktin synagogue, originally built in 1642, is now a museum. The aura of its sanctuary is without equal, as the tefillot we most commonly recite are painted in richly colorful calligraphy, surrounding us from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and from above the aron kodesh and bima. My sense of connection to this place is heightened by the fact that my paternal Grandfather, Jacob Rabinovitz, lived a part of his boyhood in Tiktin and my Great Grandfather, Rav Chaim Rabinovich, served as shocket (kosher butcher) in the Tiktin shtetl before he and his family made their way to Duluth.
Notwithstanding the power of imagination to fill the Tiktin shul with prayer and remembrance, it rings a deeply dissonant chord to be in a shtetl made judenrein – free of Jews.
And so it happened on my first morning in Poland, roughly a century after my Grandparents and Great Grandparents left for Ellis Island, I stood in the very places where they lived, worked, prayed and buried their family.
I did so with a debt of gratitude and the luxury of historical hindsight – for had they not left Poland their fate would have been sealed to encounter Nazi brutality with little to no chance of survival.
Over 100 relatives in my maternal family genealogy did not share the freedom to immigrate to the U.S., nor pre-state Israel, or elsewhere, and were murdered at the hands of the Nazis: among them my mother’s uncle, Ben Landau, a member of the French Jewish Resistance, who was arrested and deported from Paris in June 1942, and murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau; and her first cousins, Yurik and Esther Winogren.
Yurik, a 21 year-old university student, was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Esther was a biochemist and worked as an assistant to Dr. Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw Ghetto children’s orphanage. She was seized on the street in the first days of the liquidation of the ghetto. After Korczak was unable to gain her release from a transport, he wrote the following in his diary:
“If she does not come back here now, we shall meet later somewhere else. I’m absolutely sure she will serve others in the meantime in the same way as she used to distribute goodness and make herself useful here.”
In August 1942, at age 27, Esther Winogren was deported to Treblinka, where she was murdered in a gas chamber, as were Janusz Korczak, the children they cared for and 800,000 Polish Jews.
After destroying the core of Polish Jewry in four death camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno, the Nazis expanded their capacity for extermination of European Jewry at the Auschwitz camp, which sat at the nexus of a vast railway system coming from all corners of occupied Europe.
By 1943, Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, had four state-of-the-art gas chambers and crematoria, killing over one million Jews from Poland and across the European continent. Today, Birkenau is preserved in more or less the same state it was found at liberation in 1945. Its barracks, latrines and processing site for prisoners’ personal affects still stand. Its gas chambers and crematoria are in ruins, blown up by the Nazis as they retreated from advancing Soviet troops. These ruins serve as a graphic reminder that Holocaust denial began during the Holocaust.
Seeing Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Birkenau and mass graves in once serene forests offers no insight to the nature of evil required to murder children in front of parents and to gas and burn one, let alone millions.
Nor can I reconcile the silence of neighbors as Jews were stripped of their homes and dignity, marched and shipped to their death in plain view.
The magnitude of violation of a human being and humanity, b’tselem elohim, made in the image of God, remains well beyond comprehension. And so by default – perhaps a latent call to end this demonic evil – my thoughts turned to questioning the actions – or inactions – of the Western world.
The Roosevelt administration remained virtually silent to the constant daily slaughter of Jews well after the tide of the war had shifted. Their unresponsiveness continued after extermination camps were known to exist and operate, after the Allies possessed aerial photographs of Auschwitz and after the Nazis shifted their war effort from a military goal to expediting Jewish genocide.
Though petitioned to do so, FDR would not order bombing sorties, even as American pilots used Auschwitz chimneys as orientation points, when war materiel was ample and when other targets were bombed with near pin-point accuracy – only five miles away. In my view, to the disgrace of the United States, her responsible officials refused, with the excuse that such a bombing was “impracticable” and “diversionary” from the war effort.
As we made our way through the once vibrant Jewish communities of Warsaw, Tiktin, Lublin, Tarnow and Krakow, we often explored historian Raul Hilberg’s framework of deception, dehumanization, concentration and destruction of Polish Jewry.
In his groundbreaking book, The Destruction of the European Jews, Hilberg identifies the Nazi genocide program as a system whereby each step in the process was more extreme and necessarily deceptive than the last: first Jews were defined as enemies of the state, then boycotted and discriminated against, dehumanized, they had their property vandalized then expropriated, were moved into ghettos and, finally, were transported to their deaths.
Although contemporary methods differ, I cannot overlook that certain themes and patterns of anti-Semitic ideology reverberate – sounding all too familiar today:
- When prejudice is directed solely at the Jewish people, now demonized as intruders in their historic homeland.
- When Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah un-categorically threaten genocide against the Jewish people.
- When dehumanization has morphed into delegitimization of the Jewish state in diplomatic, academic, cultural and religious arenas, best illustrated by the pernicious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
- When enemies surround Israel on nearly all sides and are actively committed to her demise, as demonstrated by unending terrorism and the firing of rockets from Gaza, now reaching deeper into Israel.
- When Palestinian leadership, that is considered to be moderate, makes repeated statements in Arabic calling not for peaceful co-existence, but to make Palestine “judenrein.”
- When the United Nations appeases those who seek Israel’s isolation and destruction.
Unlike the period of the Shoah, these actions are hardly deceptive – the Israeli press and media organizations such as MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), the Israel Project and CAMERA consistently document such events. However, I suspect we here in the Diaspora, myself included, can all too easily slip into complacency or maybe deceive ourselves, wishing it were not so. Nevertheless, prejudice and murder of Jews – because they are Jews – is happening in our day.
Every death, every explosion, every missile is a calculated assault on the security and existential survival of Jews in Israel, the epicenter of Jewish life and our historic national homeland.
At the root of Torah, Jewish history and memory are intertwined: in each and every generation we are compelled to act, ke’ilu, as if, we were brought out of Egypt, brought into and given a land flowing with milk and honey. On Chag Shauvuot, the Jewish people collectively, throughout history, stand at Sinai. Each year, we tell the master narrative of the Jewish people to renew our understanding and memory of the seminal events in our history as a nation, faith and people.
Collectively, the progression of generations after the Holocaust carries a unique responsibility and challenge. Surely, only those who were present can bear witness, offer testimony and reconcile their fate. We do not act ke’ilu, as if, we too, once stood in the Shoah. And yet, there is a clear call to follow in their footsteps – whether by seeing Poland or by experiencing museums, literature and film illuminating Holocaust history and remembrance.
We’re obligated to give voice to the testimony and lives of Righteous Gentiles, survivors and those who’ve perished. We’re obligated to impart the consequences of prejudice, intolerance and indifference to the Jewish world and world at large. It is our duty to challenge prevailing patterns of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. It is our responsibility to convey memory and meaning from a once prolific home of Jewish life and from one of the darkest places ever known to Jewish and human experience.
On my last afternoon in Poland, as I approached the end of the Auschwitz museum, I scanned a wall cataloguing Nazi photographs of prisoners – dehumanizing mug shots – and I came across the photo of a young man, 16 years old, prisoner number 23104, wearing a striped uniform and shaved head, who survived in Auschwitz all of 29 days.
Yet, in an instant he became familiar to me, no longer the subject of a photo taken through a Nazi lens.
His name was Moshe Pomerantz, the very name of my Great-great Grandfather, whose headstone and memory I sought out five days earlier in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. It is not possible to know if the pictured young Moshe Pomerantz and I are directly descended from the same michpacha Pomerantz. I do know that he was a son, Moshe ben Berek v’Ruchla, likely a brother, surely a friend. And with certainly, I can say this Moshe Pomerantz and I are both part of Am Yisroel.
Zichrono livrecha, may his memory be for a blessing.