Leaving Warsaw, we drive South through flat farmland and occasional thick stands of birch and fir trees. The landscape reminds me of Wisconsin. There are many cows here, too. Sam Kassow gives an intense survey of the events, context and thinking of the Germans in the run-up to the Final Solution. Some key points:
1) Hitler’s hatred and fear of the Jews was central to his ideology and, once war began, assaulting world Jewry was central to German war aims.
2) Mass starvation and murder of Russians, Gypsies and other peoples ware part of the German war planning. The slaughter of Jews in the East occurred in the context of vast plans for destroying entire populations.
3) In the Germans’ minds, Hitler’s pursuit of the War on the Jews was legal, flowing from his powers as Chancellor, which were established by German law. The Nuremberg Laws and the Wansee Conference to plan the Final Solution to the “Jewish Problem” were in German eyes, lawful actions.
4) German Doctors were at the forefront of Nazi racial hatred and theories that cast the Jews as filthy, subhuman threats. The establishment of ghettos flowed in part from the desire to quarantine the Jews from Aryans.
5) Nazi hatred of Jews was there from the start, but the path to total destruction of the Jews, culminating in Auschwitz/Birkenau, the gas chambers and crematoria, evolved.
6) Bureaucrats in high and low lower levels of civil and military structure contributed ideas regarding how to deal with the Jews. The harsher the proposal, the better the proponent was viewed.
7) SS killing units were staffed by Elite officers and attached in four groups to Wehrmacht units invading the USSR in summer 1941. Their job was to wipe out Jewish populations as the German army advanced, using bullets.
8) One reason for the later shift from machine gunning Jews to gassing and burning them was to spare the sensibilities of the SS troops, who showed signs of stress from face to face mass murder. Officers complained, and the resulting system of gas chambers and ovens was easier on the Germans, as well as more efficient and cost-effective.
9) German industry collaborated willingly in using slave labor in their business and providing the equipment and tech support needed for the mass murder.
10) Battlefield failure fed Hitler’s resolve to wipe out every last Jew. Enraged by Soviet counterattacks in Moscow, Hitler blames U.S. aid to the Soviets, and sees the Jews behind Roosevelt’s actions. In December 1941, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declares war on the USA and announces to his staff that “I have decided to solve the Jewish problem once and for all.” The Wansee Conference is held in January 1942 and the Final Solution goes into a new, intensive phase.
11) Many of the camps, such as Treblinka and Sobibor are death camps. Almost no person survives these places. Auschwitz combines the functions of Labor Camp and Death Camp. There are more survivors, and even escapees (150). Consequently, we know more about the experience there, from survivor testimony and eye-witness testimony unearthed from bottles buried under the crematoria by Jewish men who were forced to work there and who wrote of what they witnessed. We also have a considerable photographic record from a private album taken by an SS trooper and recovered by a Jewish woman who survived and discovered the album.
12) In 1944,__________ escapes with photos taken by Jews working in the camp and with labels from the Zyklon B gas and makes his way to Geneva with the proof of the genocide. No help was to come.
The historical account sets a context for what we are about to see. But nothing can truly prepare us for our physical visit to the scene of the crime.
At the site, we toured Auschwitz I, which held mainly Poles and Russians and housed the first gas chamber to be used. The tour revealed the degradation and humiliation, the manipulation and deceit employed by the Germans to break down the inmates and bend them to their will. The brick barracks there are devoted to an exhaustive explanation of the Labor/Death Camp program at Auschwitz. We saw the brick barracks, prison cells, chambers full of human hair, personal belongings, eyeglasses, shoes, toys, suitcases and even taleisim stolen by the Germans from the arriving Jews. The entire process of forced labor, selection, starvation, torture and mass murder was spelled out in grim detail. The halls were festooned with documents from the German records, meticulously listing the gold taken from corpses, prisoners murdered, and sundry other particulars.
In Building 11, we learned some stories of armed resistance such as the rebellion of the Sonnerkomando, Jews who worked in the gas-chambers and crematoria who rose up and, using smuggled explosives, blew up crematorium #_.
Sam commented on a trove of photos that documented the process of genocide and identified key personalities among the Jews and Nazis. He pointed out on a map the area of Lithuania where his mother fought among the Partisans.
Moving to Auschwitz II a.k.a. Birkenau, we walked through a vast expanse of land. Birkenau housed hundreds of barracks and featured huge crematoria/gas chambers. Most of the 1 million plus Jews who died at Auschwitz met their fate here. We walked the central path along the rail line that entered the camp. We saw the horrendous, crowded conditions in which the inmates lived. We paused at the selection point where 75% of arrivals were shunted off to immediate death.
We saw the woods where Jewish men, women and children waited their turn for “showers” that were to be followed by water and a hot meal. We trod the roadway where they left their belongings “for later.” We stood by the ruins of Crematorium #2, exploded by the retreating Germans trying to cover their tracks at the end of the War. We gathered for a memorial service on a stone terrace nearby. Estelle Kafer read a poem written by her son, Jared, in response to his experience here on March of the Living. We read from Megillat HaShoah, chapter Five as we grieved for the dead. We lit a memorial candle (Brotherhood yellow candle), said the El Male for the dead and kaddish. We prayed a subdued Mincha in the rain and ended with Hatikvah, facing the East and Jerusalem.
We crunched our way along the central road, barbed wire and train tracks stretching out ahead of us. To the right, brick barracks on the womens’ side sit, squat and stolid. To the left, the brick chimneys of the men’s barracks stand, silent sentinels, row by row. The wooden barracks themselves have fallen away, save for a few that have been reconstructed of the original wood. Designed as field stables for up to 52 horses, they housed from 400 to 800 souls each. Quietly, we return to the bus.
It was a day of wrenching emotion and an avalanche of information and experience. Coming face to face with the physical evidence, walking on the scene of the crime, in the place of hellish suffering and diabolical cruelty weighed on the hearts, minds and very bodies of the travelers. The rain fell light but steady from the steel grey sky all day, until the last hour, when we prepared to depart this place.
In this center of heartless cruelty and callousness, I was heartened and took comfort from the kindness and support the members of our group showed for each other. Each person was ready with a kind look or a helping hand on rough terrain. The restrained gentle manner among our travelers was reminiscent of the way people carry themselves at a kevurah (Jewish burial). Somehow, honor for the dead, leads to kindness among the living. Or perhaps, reeling from the sadism and suffering that took place here and seemed to hang thick in the air, we reached to each other, to reassure ourselves that we are still human. Small gestures of solicitude or presence keep us from tumbling into the abyss.
Once in Krakow, we share a subdued but friendly meal. We are ready for rest.
Shabbat in Prague
We stirred from our hotel at 3am in Krakow and were driven to the airport, where we transferred to Warsaw and then flew to Prague. Lurching out of the bus, we staggered on a guided tour of the Prague Half-delerious with fatigue, I left the guided tour, unable or unwilling to maintain the brisk pace being set by ouor guide, Luba. At a more modest pace, I was able to take in the Great Cathedrall and the Lovowicz Castle. In the great Cathedrall, my attention rested upon a window depicting the Last Jedgement. On the left, the white-robed Saved were embracing each other with angels presiding over them. On the right, blue-clad sinners tubled into hellfire. At the bottom, images of greed and violence are portrayed, presumably the cause of these souls damnation.
The Lobowicz Castle, part of the hilltop prauge Castle complex, houses a collection of family heirlooms stretching back to the 1400’s. The Lobowicz aristocrats fled the Nazis, and, after the war, saw their possessions taken again, by the Communists. In the early 1990’s the Lobowicz heir, in exile in the USA was able to recover the ancestral holdings by way of a Czhech law of restitution. The restoration proved a mixed blessing,as the upkeep of the castles, collections and lands strained the means of the Lobowicz clan. Turning two of their palaces into museum/cafes helped the family keep the collections intact and allowed them to share their heritage with the public. Weaving through the chambers of this massive home, I beheld antique guns, lavish furnishings, oil portraits of the family dogs, and other interesting artifacts. The family fled at the time of the German invasion. Were there Jews in the family tree?
On the walk to the President Hotel from the castle hill, I came upon a wall of posters near the tramway. One promoted what looked like a concert called “Brutal Attack” with various musical groups whose names included “hypocrisy” “Gaza” and “Meshugga.” It was sponsored by the radio station BEAT. I wondered if this was a pop-culture manifestation of anti-Israel agitation in the wake of the flotilla attacks?
Erev, Shabbat, revived by a heavy nap and a shower, I joined the group for Kabbalat Shabbat Services in Jewish Town Hall. Rabbi Ron Hoffberg, a slightly rumpled, genial host, gathered us in a room that had been the library of the Maharal, Rabbi Lowe of Prague. We were too many for the room, so the rabbi won permission from the custodian or security man to move us upstairs to the bet din room. This room boasted rich wooden wainscoting, red painted walls, and the image of Emperor Franz Josef smiling down on us from an emblem over the doorway. We davened from the sim Shalom prayer book. My copy was donated by Temple Reem in Needham Mass, according the the bookplate. We joined members of the local community, most of them young, a number of them recent converts to Judaism. They are part of the story of returning Jews. People learn of their Jeiwsh roots from old or dying relatives and begin to seek their identity. Rabbi Hoffberg helps them on tier quest. Among the worshippers was Emanuel, with his wife, a Czhech cnvert fo Judaism and their three-month old baby, Gavriel. On the othrer side of the room sat chayim, whose wife had just given birth to a son. Amidst all the lingering traces of death of destruction of Jews in Euripe, it felt encouraging to see young Jewish people in shul. Having just witnessed the piles of childrens suitcases and the lonely dolls and toys at Birkenau, it was heartening to see a flesh and blookbaby dandlded bvy his moher in shul o Friday night. Rabbi Hoffberg gave a talk about the cycle of Haftarot before and after tisha b’av. He pointed out that a person can oly absorb so much rebuke and warning. He noted that the seven weeks of consolation after the destructionare followed by Rosh HaShanah, a new beginning. His, he said is what is happening in Europe today: anew beginning.After services, we walked throughthe jewish Quarter, crossed the Charles Bridge and made our way to the home of Shumi, an expat Israeli, for a Sahbbat dinner, stories and singing. Rabbi Hoofberg told the story of an old woman who approached him before her grandsons bar mitzvah. Her tale revealed that she went from the Prague ghetto to build beds at Terezin at age 12, that she escaped to the Partisan and killed Germans during the war. After the war, she hid her Jewish roots, married a Czech man and told him nothing of her stories. But when her daughter had a chance to visit a westen town, she urged her to flee the Iron Curtain for the west. Pushed away b y her mother, She ended up in Miami, carried a bsby and gave birth. The grandmother was called by us authorities to take charge of the child. This was her grandson, wo was becoming bar mitzvah at age 15. At the bar mitzvah service, sshe saw tathat women could go to the torah. With encouragement from the rabbi, this lady went tot the torah for an aliyah. Taking a small siddur with her, she halingly said the berachot. Affterwards, she explained to the rabbi, tis was my father’s siddur. We were religious before he war. When I left the ghetto, my father told me to pray from this siddur every day until we were together again. When I killed my first German in the forest, I stopped parying. I know we would not be reunited again. Today I open it for the first time since that day.
The Jewish community in Prague is well funded-as the Government repatriated real estate to the Jewish community in the early 1990’s. Income funds the activities of the organizations and the orthodox rabbinate. The number of Jews registered in Prague is only 1500. Rabbi Hoffberg believes that far more hidden Jews live in the city and in the Czech Republic. He sees people who come into services, especially on Rosh Hashanah, who do not want to give their names or be on any list. Amidst the sparks of light and hope for the future, the pall of the past hangs every day in this history-soaked metropolis.
Terzin: The fortress, adapted as a ghetto-prison for thousands o f Jews, a showplace for the Nazis to pretend they treat the Jews well. The site of a fraud performed for the International Red Cross and the movie cameras of the Reich. One of the most ghoulish aspects of the Nazi campaign of humiliation and murder is their fascination with filming and photographing their handiwork.
The film was discovered and pieced together. We see clips of the film at a theater in the Ghetto. At Terezin, Jews organized intensive expressions of cultural expression and activity. Much of this output is preserved at Terezin. The museum cases are filled with manuscripts of plays, opera, music, poetry, stories and artwork. The Jews inside were used by the Nazis for labor, skilled work, sewing, and were given responsibilities according to their skills and training. At night, in the attics of the barracks, musical and dramatic performances and religious services were held.
We visited the Hidden shul, a small chamber behind one of the houses in the ghetto grounds. There a rabbi and followers maintained a small synagogue for prayer. The inscriptions painted on the walls in Hebrew express a stance of spiritual resisitance to evil, protest to God and hope for the future. We pray in this spot, honoring those who came before and reanimating this space with voices of Jewish Prayer.
When I learned we had added a stop in Vienna, I was not pleased. The seat of the Nazi zeal held no appeal for me. The Austrians, if anything were more zealous Nazis than the Germans. But, in the event, it was worthwhile to be there, and in some sense important to be there. As we approached the city, Professor Kassow spoke over the bus P.A. about the importance of the Vienna experience in shaping the fate and philosophy of young Adolph Hitller. Hitler came to Vienna as an aspiring artist and applied for admittance to the Academy for the Fine Arts He aspired to be a great painter. He was rejected by a board that undoubtably included Jews. At that time the Jewish population of Vienna was prosperous, numerous and highly visible in the professions, arts and intelligentsia. Vienna was also a hotbed of anti-Semitic frustration and resentment. As the seat of the multi-ethnic Hapsburg empire, the Jew-heavy capital stood as an emblem of supposed Jewish hegemony, a reproach and challenge to German, Czech and Ukranian nationalists. In 1895 the rabid racist anti-semite, Karl Leuger was elected mayor of Vienna. His party’s slogan was “It doesn’t matter if your are Christian or a Jews, the piggishness is in the race.” The Christian Social Party was in some degree a progenitor of Hitler’s National Socialist Party.
At the Vienna Opera House, Hitler became deeply influenced by the works of Wagner. The spectacle, mythology and affective power of the Ring cycle convinced Hitler of the importance of spectacle and theater in moving people, and the themes of a mythic Teutonic past provided fodder for his emergent thinking in formulating a narrative for the German people.
It is instructive that Herzl and Hitler, the two most influential individuals in the History of the Jewish people in the 20th century, had a deep understanding of the importance of theatre and spectacle in mobilizing the masses.
Driving through the city, I was struck by the order and majesty of the buildings. During our time in the city, I joined some friends in a quick visit to the Albertina art museum. We enjoyed an exhibit of Impressionist art and other early schools that employed bright color and innovative technique. A large Chagall, Sleeping Girl with Flowers, was prominent in the display. Inwardly I applauded the presence of this Jewish painter in the heart of Vienna. Sam Kassow mordantly observed that had Hitler been accepted to the Arts Academy, all of modern history might have turned out differently.