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Ashes of Auschwitz: Notes on Jewish Life in Poland by Ellen Carni
Ashes of Auschwitz: Notes on Jewish Life in Poland by Ellen Carni

Volume 1 , Issue 4

?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 Warsaw was Jewish and there were 8 daily newspapers in this town! Yet can one hold these citizens in 1988 responsible for their lack of allegiance to Judaism? They represent, in all of its tragedy, the ravages of a once flourishing collective Jewish life.

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 Lublin. Our trip to the synagogue-museum was intercepted by lunch and followed by dissension in our group by weary members who wished to cancel the visit. The curator, however, had been waiting eagerly for us for over an hour. The dissenters capitulated. The old man proudly showed us that in the tiny chapel, atop a tortuous flight of stairs, there really was a bimah, dilapidated though it was, and s'farim, though yellowed and frayed with age, and hope of reconstitution of the shul from foreign t'zddaka that truly moved him to receive (this was not an appeal). On the wall hung a photograph of a bearded scholar who met his Maker in the ovens of Majdanek. Outside, a deranged senior citizen, tattered beyond belief, rattled off in Yiddish. He, too, sojourned in Majdanek. Zlotys dropped into his lap from our sympathetic crew, more than he might see in his lifetime. But to whose benefit?


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 by a Brooklyn group on Lag B'Omer eve. Members of a Jewish community -- 300 strong! -- from a nearby town came for the ceremony. There was much dancing and singing, and, alas, speeches were made in Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, and English. This was perhaps my most moving experience of modern Polish Jewry.



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 Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of providence.? Primo Levi

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.



Why 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 Auschwitz. Undertaking such a mission, however, can stir one's consciousness to some fundamental aspects of life as both a Jew and a human being. This consciousness-raising is particularly potent for those of us living in a society in which political, economic, and religious freedoms are taken for granted. These freedoms can occlude our appreciation of the extent of the powers of destruction and survival, of tyranny and solidarity, and of sacrilege and faith that are inherent in any group or any individual.

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 Poland and of Polish Jewry under the hegemony of the Nazi and the Soviet machines I can only fortify a dictum that Eros, the force of life and creativity must prevail over Thanatos, the force of death and destruction. As a Jew and as a concerned member of the human race, I take my stand by striving to follow both Derech Hashem, the path of God, Derech Eretz, the path of goodwill between and among people.

Ellen Curni, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, who recently returned from a mission to Poland sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Commission.



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