by Don Ani Shalom Singer
I had participated in the first retreat in 1996. Initially, I had been reluctant. Then, I remembered the journey with my father and mother in 1950 to Dachau, the concentration camp near Munich, and then on to Israel for a year where I met many survivors. The unmediated intimacy with places and people was an awakening for me. It set me on the path to become a rabbi.
But I did not talk about these events as a rabbi, I did not want to take people into that darkness. I had forgotten the prophetic call to singularly bear true witness. In 1996 I realized that without entering that darkness we sustain the illusions that create the event. So now my heart tells me to go to Auschwitz every year, with other Jews and non-Jews who are drawn to dwell there for a while, to look, listen and bear witness, to let the heart break without the protection of the “golden calf of scorn.”
During the retreat, we spent daylight in Birkenau. We walked through the vast fields of chimneys and remnants of the wooden hutches that held tens of thousands. We sat in silence. We recited names of those who died: by the tracks where the captive people had disembarked, in the hutches where they had spent their nights, by the crematoria where they had gone up in smoke. In the mornings we conducted our separate religious services: Buddhist, Moslem, Christian and Jewish, and in the morning and afternoon we recited Kaddish together. In the evenings, we gathered at the Auschwitz auditorium to tell our stories and to pour out our hearts and sing Jewish songs.
Still, Poland was my first lesson at Auschwitz. For hundreds of years Poland had been the center of Jewish life. A great and loving culture had flourished in Yiddish and Hebrew. Half the Jews who died in the death camps were Polish Jews. Some who returned to their Polish homes in the wake of the war were killed in the chaos and meanness of that savaged land. Many Jews throughout the world carried a terrifying image of betrayal in a dangerous, heartless Poland. The Iron Curtain separated us; for almost fifty years we lived with a burden of bitterness. My heart fluttered and my stomach turned when I entered Poland.
Forty of the hundred and fifty retreat particPeacemakerVillagesnts were Polish. That first year they came out of respect for Bernie, but their hearts weren’t in it. They had been on brief outings to Auschwitz in their school years, they were used to hearing about the Holocaust. But now they were being asked to dwell there, together with Jews, Germans and others, all of us heirs of the monstrous scandal that had once been Europe. The curtain of isolation was gone. They had to lift their faces to see the new horizon. And there we all were, face to face.
As our teacher Martin Buber says, “real life is meeting.” All at once I was free of what had been a subtle burden of enmity. I felt a startling affinity for the Poles; I felt I knew them. I took pleasure in the thought that my grandmother had come from here. I felt responsible to reach out to the Poles and to speak up for them back home. The Jews were part of Poland’s body and soul. One new friend told me, “The Jews were here for seven hundred years, they are still here.”
So it was the Poles who organized much of the 1997 retreat. This time we were joined by Staszek Krajewski, a leader of the Polish Jewish community and a member of the Auschwitz Board of Directors. I think of him as the “normal Polish Jew” because, with his yarmulke and beard, he is absolutely at home as a Jew in Poland.
We listened to Polish poems of the Holocaust. One evening there was a reading of Still, by Nobel-Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska:
In sealed box cars travel/ names across the land / … Don’t jump while it’s moving, name David. You’re a name that dooms to defeat, given to no one, and homeless, too heavy to bear in this land./ Let our sons have Slavic names, for here they count hairs on the head / for here they tell good from evil / by names and by eyelids’ shape …”
That was the night that Eve, the daughter of a survivor, spoke about her Israeli brother. Several years back, on his travels throughout Poland looking for remnants of Jewish life, he’d entered a remote village. An old Polish woman had beckoned to him to follow her and had taken him down to the cellar of her house. Opening a door that had not been opened for many years, she revealed a synagogue left untouched since the Holocaust. The Aron Kodesh was still there with a torah inside. There were tables and chairs used for study, with Talmud tracts actually left open, as though the people had left suddenly and in a hurry.
He gave her money in exchange for everything inside the little cellar, and as soon as he returned to Israel he called the Museum of the Diaspora. A delegation immediately flew to Poland, traveled to the small village, retrieved everything inside the abandoned synagogue and brought them to the Museum in Israel.
Then Staszek, the “normal Polish Jew,” spoke: “At birth I was given a Polish name. But I am one who has changed his name back to a Jewish name. I listened to the story of a synagogue transported to Israel. The only problem with the story is that it makes Poland into a graveyard of the Jews. It is as if I do not exist. I exist!”
He spoke in English. But when he finished it was the Poles who applauded first, as if he had spoken in their language. For they already knew what we were beginning to realize about this land. A Jew can be at home in Poland.
Another Polish Jew gave me his deceased uncle’s Yom Kippur prayer book printed in 1907. I wish my mother were alive to help me read the Yiddish commentary. The prayer book contains a beautiful blessing in Hebrew about dreams: “May my dreams be God’s dreams. May my dreams be the dreams of all people.”