Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’m back in the States, on retreat(ish) working through the lessons of this trip to Auschwitz.
What did I learn that I didn’t know? Of what was I reminded? Am I changed? (No this hasn’t become a Holocaust blog, but this excursion is going to be my curriculum for the next little while. There will be other subject matter eventually.)
With answers to the above, I’ll get back to you, but here’s a thought for now: this trip itself is a product of the Shoah, proof that people can indeed learn from the past (so there is still a point to studying it). Over a dozen seminarians, people who are devoting their lives to their religious traditions, can have wonderfully crunchy, intricate discussions about theology and about the day-to-day practice of serving God and can treat our differences with genuine profound respect.
Not only did nobody try to convert, or sneer at, or in any other way deprecate the tradition of the others—we were actively fascinated with one another, secure enough on our own paths to appreciate the particular beauty of other ways.
This is, I believe, a product of post-Shoah thinking, what some call postmodernism. Horror at what happens when people try to impose their absolutes, an understanding of human knowledge as partial, situated and interested, and a willingness to entertain the idea that difference is a gift, not a threat.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, one of the thinkers we studied together writes, “…universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief, superficially compelling but quite false, that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong…From this flowed some of the great crimes of history…”
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June 29, 2012 | 3:54 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
BIRKENAU: So outrageously beautiful here in early summer. Dana Schwartz, a child survivor of the ghetto and forest, now in her seventies, once told me what a friend, a former prisoner at Auschwitz, said in response to the common observation of first-time visitors to Auschwitz in the spring: it’s so green here: “That grass would not have been there with us. We would have eaten it immediately.”
The meadow by Crematorium 5 is a still and lovely place. Clover and wildflowers, pink, yellow and deep purple, thrive where the ashes of women and children nourished the soil. Our guide explains that when the crematoria attached to the gas chambers could not handle the volume of corpses, they were burned in the open where the grass now grows lush and strong. Here, people died in terror, wheezing for up to 20 minutes, trying to breathe gas and vomit and sweat. Next to the gas chamber is a stand of trees; tall thin trunks, white and black, trailing delicate leaves. This is where women and children were forced to undress before the end. Did that beauty offer any comfort or did it make the sorrow and rage more acute? Did they tell themselves it was just an inconvenience, that soon they would be clean and housed and fed? Were the grown-ups gratefully preoccupied with soothing their children? Did they whisper a final vidui or a final expletive to God?
I wrote earlier about Track 17. This is where it led. In the first chaotic minutes of disembarking, sometimes from trains packed pull of people who had stood for days without food or drink, with nowhere to sleep or relieve themselves, the young and strong who could work—and those whose physiognomy interested Dr. Mengele—were separated from the majority who were sent to die.
Primo Levi writes that, if you survived that first selection, all you had to do in order to die at Auschwitz within three months is obey orders. Eat only what you were given, wear what you were given, do the work you were ordered to do. The ratio of calories to energy expended killed most people off. Unless you were blessed with a constitution of iron or could learn to steal or bargain with prisoners or civilians in the greater complex, you had almost no chance.
And there were people with whom to barter. Auschwitz was a small town. IG Farben and other private companies had factories there, profiting from the forced labor of prisoners. Here were “German” prisoners, that is Germans who were not members of religious or ethnic minorities, German workers who had been moved into the town Oswiecim, from which Poles had been evicted, Soviet prisoners of war, who were worked as hard as the Jews and died in great numbers, Roma and Sinti prisoners, who were also subject to medical experiments and extermination, political prisoners, gay people and a few actual criminals, who were often made kapos. Birkenau, the extermination center, was a separate section of the larger camp. Some of the Poles who remained in Oswiecim did what they could to help. Our guide shared that her grandmother cut holes in her pockets through which she dropped bits of bread, hoping that people on work detail could succeed in retrieving it. (If she had given the bread openly, she would have been killed.)
The camps were a national project, involving every institution. The great corporate machine of Germany—Mercedes-Benz, Farben—grew strong on slave labor and war manufacture. Physicians and engineers designed the technology of the gas chambers, originally for the murder of disabled Germans who, like Jews and ‘Gypsies’ were considered impediments to the racist Utopia of Nazi imagination. One evil man did not ‘brainwash’ an entire country. A web of human decision made this place possible, an embrace or acceptance of a nakedly aggressive war effort by people who, out of nationalism or “racial pride”, acceded to the dehumanization of others.
I’m very glad that we attended Shabbat services in Krakow, a large city near Oswiecim, before seeing the camp. Of the five synagogues that had flourished in Krakow before the war, only one remains active. Still, there is Jewish life here.
Because the community is now so small, everyone worships together. Members of several Hasidic communities, Modern Orthodox and liberal Jews, and anyone from out of town, congregate in a motel to daven while their synagogue is being rebuilt.
Upon learning that we were travelers from the US, the rabbi invited us to Shabbos dinner at the local JCC. It was packed when we arrived, and we had not reserved places. Of course, the JCC people were used to the rabbi’s exuberant hospitality, and more tables and dinnerware and endless platters of food appeared, enough for everyone who showed up, more than 100 people. No matter where you are on Shabbos, there’s always room for one more.
We ate with Jonathan Ornstein, the Director of the JCC. He said that if we reported one thing from Krakow, let it be this: we are alive. The Nazis did not win. Rather than basing our identity on the catastrophe of the Holocaust, he suggested, we might base it on renewal, on the deep roots of Torah and culture that are sprouting new growth. Choose life that you and yours might live.
He’s right. The Nazis could and did murder millions of irreplaceable human beings. They destroyed synagogues and uprooted small towns; they smashed the great Jewish labor organizations and the Jewish entrepreneurs, the Bohemian artists and devout Beis Yakov girls, the capitalists and the Communists, the Zionists and those who preferred to die with tfilin on their arms rather than guns in their hands. But they couldn’t kill Judaism.
As in Krakow, only one synagogue still stands in Oswiecim. It has no regular congregation, but there is a Torah there, and siddurim, waiting. After seeing Auschwitz, our group: Jewish, Christian and Muslim made the place a house of worship once again. We prayed together silently, from our diverse traditions and offered blessings out loud. Kerry Chaplain, a rabbinic student at AJU, who had organized our service, led us in a nigun. I felt that, after where we’d been, it was a positive good—not just acceptable—to pray in that place with Jews, Protestants, Catholics and one observant Muslim, all of whom I find lovable. In prayer with people secure enough in their tradition to respect others, and in prayer with the Jews of Krakov, I am sure: Amelek can do dreadful damage; but he hasn’t won yet.
June 23, 2012 | 7:54 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky"The SS man learned the attitude of a warrior for war's sake; unquestioning obedience; hardness as hardening himself against any human empathy; contempt for the ‘inferior'; and arrogance towards all who did not belong in the Order..."
June 18, 2012 | 10:00 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
I’m on my way to Germany with a group of seminarians and medical students sponsored by FASPE, Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. I can only shiver with yira, with awe, at my extraordinary fortune to be alive as a Jewish woman in this time and place; to travel freely, alone or with companions, to study Torah openly in order to teach, and to be so habituated to comfort that it’s a daily effort not to take my full belly for granted or my own space with a lock to which I hold the key or the hot clean water that comes from the tap (all of which added together makes me more lucky than at least half of the world’s people on any given day, let alone the Jews whose history I’m here to study).
Today, we heard from clergypersons who serve as chaplains and from a survivor of the Shoah. All of them taught, in their way, the worth of bearing witness, of being present and attentive with people whose particular pain reminds us of our own vulnerability and of the places where we’re fissured inside.
Rabbi Michal Springer, the Director of the Center for Pastoral Care at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a hospital chaplain, taught that spiritual caregivers are most effective when we are willing to live with our own broken pieces, when we don’t project our own fantasy of wholeness onto the people for whom we are obliged to care. The Rabbi shared that her own father had died 2 weeks earlier—one week out of shiva and she was healing through teaching us, enacting her own lesson about bringing one’s own brokenness and vulnerability to encounters with the other. In the context of the Shoah, the Rabbi talked about how dangerous it is when the face to face encounter is refused—when, for instance, one’s Jewish neighbors are made to disappear and it seems easier to pretend they were never there than to consider their pain.
Imam Khalid Latif, Executive Director of New York University’s Islamic Center and Chaplain for the NYPD, taught another version of that lesson. He reminded us that we are here to study the ultimate consequences of dehumanization, of the refusal to see people as other than “categories”. Imam Latif was a student at NYU when the Two Towers were hit. With his classmates, he stood in Washington Square, stunned at the news that the second tower had fallen. At that moment, they were united in shock and grief. In the following days, however, the Muslim student found themselves increasingly isolated. In between attending funerals for friends, Muslim and otherwise, who had died in the World Trade Center, Imam Latif found himself checking in with other Muslim students about who had been harassed, who singled out for scrutiny. About whether it was safe to be bearded or wear head coverings in public. About learning, even after he had begun interfaith work and consulting with the US State Department, that he could not—as today I can—get on a plane without being singled out for public, humiliating searches and long detentions.
Rather than retreating into rage, the Imam continues his bridge-building work. He counts NYU’s Rabbi Yehuda Sarna as a close friend. He remembers attending a 9/11 commemoration in his police uniform and being the only cop to be asked for his credentials by the Secret Service. But that last incident ended with a 9/11 widow sticking up for Imam Latif, because she considered his treatment to be a dishonor to her husband’s memory. He chooses to let that woman symbolize the day and its meaning for him.
Bronia Brandman is a survivor of the Shoah who spent decades unable to describe what happened to her. She spent five excruciating years of her girlhood in which she saw her uncle burned alive, she smuggled food and contraband under eyes of ghetto guards and she lived with the murder of both her parents and four of her five siblings. An impulsive decision to run after her idolized older sister (as she always had) led Bronia to sprint after a group of women selected by Dr. Mengele to live. As soon as she reached her sister’s side, Bronia realized what she had done. Her two littlest sisters would die without her. Bronia’s transport was not like that of Jews from far away. Those Jews were reassured, or allowed themselves to believe that they were, by Nazi assurances of hot soup and productive work as soon as they submitted to a brief shower. Bronia’s transport was packed with Jews who lived close enough to Auschwitz to see and to smell the truth. They had to be beaten and forced to strip and walk through those doors.
It was her hectic urge to keep busy, to stave off reflection, which led her to volunteer at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. There, she found the space and the courage to bear witness. Bronia has built a life in this country, as a mother and as a teacher. She gives those of us who are lucky enough to meet her a chance to reflect more deliberately on the hope, horror and responsibility of being human.
One more lesson from Rabbi Springer with regard to genocide: the need to address “both individual and systemic issues”, to bring our capacity for judgment out of abeyance when it comes to injustice; to “balance compassion and outrage” as witnesses and as citizens.
June 15, 2012 | 3:35 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
Yes, this blog is named for an old yeshivish groaner. We first read about the erev rav in the Torah (Exodus 12:38) “And also a mixed multitude (Erev Rav) went up with them…” We learn that a group of people, most of them Israelites, were liberated from slavery and became one people when they received the Torah at Sinai. Also, Erev Rav is what we call rabbinical students like me, because we’re on the eve (erev) of becoming rabbis. Within this blog, I’ll be writing about my last year (and some months) of being a rabbinical student.
And, anyway, there is a mixed multitude inside of me these days, and I hope this blog will reflect that. Like many of the students at the transdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion where I study, this is a third career for me (since when did being a rabbi turn into a career?), so my history as a political journalist, flak and culture critic are bound to influence my perspective. I’ll be sharing some of what I learn about our tradition from my monumentally knowledgeable teachers. I’ll also be applying my lessons and experiences to reflections about the news of the day and today’s Jewish communities. A nerd I am, for both Jewish texts and popular culture, so in these pages you’ll find references to the Piasetzener Rebbe and also the Jews of Glee.
And, now for our first adventure/gut check together—I’m off to Auschwitz via Germany and Krakow. I’ve been given the extraordinary opportunity, through a fellowship from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to engage in serious study of the ethical issues raised by the Shoah with a group of multi-faith seminarians. This will be my first visit to the site of a death camp, my first visit to Germany and my first visit to Poland, the land from which my ancestors fled, giving me the chance to grow up in a free country—a land where, we are told, a Jewish rebirth is taking place.
I suspect this trip will provoke a transformation or two. I look forward to sharing with you.