Unlike all the other days of our vacation, as we woke up early last Thursday morning, dark clouds filled the sky. Over 200 of us met at the JCC in Krakow, Poland and boarded buses to bring us to Auschwitz /Birkenau. I came to Krakow for two reasons. I was participating in the fifth annual Ride for the Living, a 55 mile bike ride from Birkenau to Krakow. This was especially meaningful as we were joined by an 83 year old who took the exact route, by foot, as a 10 year old boy in 1945 when he was liberated by the Russian army. Secondly, I always felt it is important for every Jew to visit the concentration camps and try to grasp the enormity of the Nazi’s final solution.
As we walked through the barracks and our excellent guide methodically brought us through the lives and deaths of over three million Polish Jews, the skies continued to get darker, light mist led to rain, and umbrellas soon followed. After 3 hours, our entire group met at the remains of over one million innocent souls, by what is left of the crematorium in Birkenau. A rabbi led a memorial service as the rain poured heavier and colder. It became impossible to distinguish tears or rain from our cheeks, and many remarked it was tears from heaven. The next day started at 6am, by returning to Birkenau, but this time with the vibrancy of life in Poland today. Young people who are desperately trying to rediscover their Jewish past, joined by children of survivors, along with others who lived shortly after the war as gentiles, and many, like me, who just needed to have the experience.
One of the strongest and advanced countries in the world in 1933 began a plan to kill the Jews. They succeeded in devastating a rich Jewish culture in Poland, as well as most of Europe. But it was not destroyed. Jewish life not only survived, but is growing. I joined hundreds in Krakow in a synagogue from the 17th century which was occupied by the Nazis as a warehouse. In 1939 the Rabbi was shot dead when he refused to burn the Torah scrolls. Now I watched as the Torah is removed from the 400 year old ark and used for Shabbat. I prayed in a synagogue in Prague built in 1270 that is still functioning today. Hitler destroyed the vibrant Jewish life of the 350,000 Jews of Czechoslovakia, but Judaism continues, even there.
I prayed in a synagogue in central London which was completely destroyed in May, 1941 by the Nazi London Blitz, yet has been rebuilt and thrives. I prayed throughout Europe with a siddur I recently received from the family of my Rabbi from my synagogue in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. This synagogue was founded by my grandfather. My parents were married by the same Rabbi, and he officiated at my bar mitzvah. The small siddur is all in Hebrew, and is given to the soldiers of the IDF. Used by the rabbi who established my life as a Jew and used by me in synagogues that were to be destroyed as per the Final Solution. Judaism continues. Hitler, Haman, Amalek could not destroy it. We read in the aforementioned 17th century synagogue in Krakow of Balak, King of Moab who saw the Jews as “too numerous and powerful, perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land.” Antisemitism from biblical times, to 1933 to today.
I finish my trip with 3 lessons. Against all odds, over thousands of years, Judaism continues. Never take that for granted. Embrace the gift that we have that was torn away from 6 million innocent people who lived just like we do, but murdered only because they were Jews. Live like they did, and now what their survivors are trying to re-grasp, especially in places like Krakow. It is a special legacy that we literally thank God for every morning. Secondly, if the siddur I used could have existed in 1933, it would have been a different world. Support Israel. Germany, Czecholslvakia, Poland, Austria and on and on were no different from America of today. In a blink of an eye Jews can suddenly become the enemy. A safe homeland to go to will go a long way to thwart any Hitlers or Hamans who might be in our future. And the third lesson. A 55 mile bike ride is not really too tough, especially when you know the historical significance of Poland and the inspirational riders you are riding with and hearing their stories. But most importantly, wear padded shorts.