Ashes of Auschwitz: Notes on Jewish Life in Poland by Ellen Carni
Volume 1 , Issue 4 (June, 1988 | Tammuz, 5748)
?And the Lord said unto Cain: 'Where Is Abel thy brother?' And he said, 'I know not, am I my brother's keeper?' And He said: 'What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth out unto me from the ground.' ?
Hertz comments on the plural ?d' mai? ?bloods,? that in slaying Abel, Cain also slew Abel's unborn descendants. From the Talmud. ?He who destroys a single human life is as if he destroyed a whole world.
Inaugurating this city is a bleakness of colorless buildings and broad stone streets, sans billboards, and the hushed sobriety of the unsmiling passersby. There is a synagogue, attended during my one Shah- bat here mainly by tourists. On Shabbat day, local participants offer to exchange foreign currency on the QT into zlotys at the black market rate. My companions and I are warned not to leave siddurim behind, as well-intentioned as we might be, since the last donation was confiscated by the government, never to be seen again.
There is a kosher restaurant that doubles as a disco after hours or a disco that doubles as a kosher restaurant during tourist season? There is no kosher meat for the local Jews and the one Jew I met trying desperately to follow halakha (Jewish law) ate traif meat and waited the prescribed six hours before consuming dairy.
Members of my tour brought gifts for the group of young Jews
invited to join us at our hotel on Motzaei Shabbat
(Saturday evening). None of the group showed up. A number of people were
rounded up, constituting what I estimate to be a typical sample of contemporary
Polish Jewish demographics --full-blooded Jew if older, intermarried Jew if
family-aged, and assimilated child of intermarried Jew if young adult or youth.
All but one refused to make any public statement and the one, who professed his
Jewishness, was seen the next day selling off his
bounty (compliments of American Jewish na?vet?) for a nice pile of z's. To think that before the war I out
of 3 denizens of
In town, one can see where the ghetto was and the remains of the ghetto wall. There is a memorial monument in the central square and another at Mila 18. Most of the buildings however are relatively new, the original ones having been liquidated when the Nazis began deportation. Ghetto life, such as it was, may be seen in actual photos and film clips (made by the Germans in a museum housed in a former electric plant). Equally informative are the guides who have the audacity to describe ?atrocities committed against Polish prisoners-of-war? without ever mentioning Jews. When one was taken to task on this, he asserted an opinion that the greatest atrocity of all was the killing of Christ (by Jews?). Has anything really changed here?
I have one memory of Jewish life in
Here remains a medieval synagogue that stands in a square where once six synagogues co-existed. (One can imagine the shul politics that went on, even then.) Inside, is a wealth of Judaica-- menorahs, b'samim boxes, seder plates, etrog boxes, etc. -- from as early as the 10th century. Polish Jewry has a history-- had a history? -- a thousand years old! At another synagogue is a cemetery where tombstones dating back to the 15th century were recently unearthed. These slabs had been buried in a hill by the congregation when the Nazis invaded. The tombstone of the Ramah (Reb Moshe Isserless, d.1572) stands stalwartly, surrounded by scraps of paper on which visitors have left personal messages of private hopes, wishes, and prayers.
New Torahs were dedicated in this shul
The voice of thy brother's blood crieth out unto me from the ground. Genesis, IV, I1
There is no trace of the carnage committed here. Birds sing and grass grows under the soft spring sun. Only the silent sounds of the souls of those who perished at Treblinka speak out from the stones; 17,000 roughhewn stones, each representing a town full of people, comprising the symbolic cemetery, and pique our grief. Our tears join in Kaddish. Nearby an old Polish man has brought over some townsfolk. He reminisces about his youth when his work brought him daily to the outskirts of the camp. He remembers the stench of burning flesh that traveled miles. In an attempt to hide their activities, he discourses, the Nazis picked secluded sites, surrounded by woods, and by playing music -- was it Wagner he recalls? -- they tried to block the screams.
?Here is where we were taken when we entered. On this spot we were divided into 2 groups, men on one side and women and children on the other. The women and children went to the gas chambers right away. Stripped, shaved, and physically abused, they were sent to mass showers to get wet.?
A survivor of Majdanek has come back to the scene of the crime and interrupts our guide. She continues. ?Water activates the crystals of Cyclon B, which hastens death.? We enter a chamber. It is dank and dark except for having one small window where the murderers watched the completion of their ?work.?
?We men were set to hard and meaningless labor, hauling stones from one part of a field to another. Crowded into these barracks, with poor sanitation, we devised ways to keep going from day to day. People bartered their few precious possessions with the kapos. One man had hidden a gold bar in his rectum but became constipated and could not expel it. The enraged kapo threatened to kill the whole bunkfull of us. Finally, the man produced the goods. The gold was traded for a piece of bread.? How remarkable it is that this man can report such detail with a detachment that surely belies what must have been his terror, pain, and anguish as a young man. Such are the mechanisms of survival...
?Today, I think that if no other reason than that
How could a God who we believe to be magnanimous and life-giving have allowed 50% of European Jewry to endure such brutal and undignified deaths as they did in this accursed place? Here, one can see a caseful of shoes, 40,000 pair, another of eyeglasses, of toiletries, of suitcases, of children's clothes, and, to our ultimate horror, of artificial limbs which the victims mere made to dismantle from themselves before going to their deaths. There are scores of empty cans of Cyclon B, fabric made of human hair, prisoners' striped uniforms and photographs that defy description. There are gas chambers and torture chambers, and (I tremble to tell) intact crematoria. Outside, there is a mountain of earth encased by a viewing mall. Each handful is the remains of a Jewish life.
The capacity of human nature for cruelty is unfathomable. Seeing this place leaves a paradoxical effect; one cannot believe it yet it is altogether too real.
should any Jew visit this Godforsaken place? Surely there is no moral
imperative on the soul of any modern Jew to experience the ashes of
We Jews are survivors in both body and soul of the tyranny of the ?anti-forces? of Godlessness and Lovelessness. Sustaining our belief in a creative force -- Rebaunau Shel Olam--God, Creator of the world and in a compassionate force -- Kel malei rachamim--God, full of compassion -- pervading our universe in spite of the Holocaust committed against our people and our principles by the Third Reich serves as testimony to our faith. However, it seems to me that the measure of our faith does not rest simply upon the strength of our beliefs, but upon our practice of creative and empathic lives. It is not sufficient for us simply to canonize our victims and rage against our oppressors in the name of spiritual liberty and humanity. We must examine our own inner capacities to inflict harm upon others, for it is these most personal roots that engender divisiveness among people and allow despots to come to power.
It is my feeling that those of us who still aspire toward a life that is both spiritually passionate and humanly compassionate in an age in which the holocaust of a nuclear winter threatens to deaden us all should seize our opportunities to reach out to the world and to others in the ways in which our hearts best lead us, provided we are considerate of differences in race, creed, class, gender, and character among those others. Among ourselves, we must set an example by demonstrating a solidarity between Jew and Jew that can respect, if not transcend, internal variations (after all, to a Nazi, all Jews were equal).
Seeing what became of
Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, who
recently returned from a mission to