Amud Aish And The Auschwitz Museum Partner To Bring Perspective Of Religious Victims To Light
Too often, world events dictate that the contents of this column have a negative spin. Whether it’s rising anti-Semitism or stories of the war, it is certainly our duty to cover these issues. But in truth one never has to look very far for good news. One example that I’m excited about is the steady increase of people from all over the world visiting Poland for a firsthand look at sites of Jewish interest. This has allowed us to implement a new program that will change the way the world views the Holocaust.
Currently, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum employs 286 guides, or docents, to lead the more than two million annual visitors around the former concentration camp. With a collective vocabulary of 20 languages, they are equipped to deal with a multinational audience.
Or are they? Ever since my first visit to Auschwitz, I have always walked away with somewhat of an empty feeling. Yes, we filed under the infamous sign emblazoned with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”; we saw the gas chambers and crematoria. But there was a great void—a feeling that an integral piece of the story of those who perished here remained untold.
The founding principle of Amud Aish is to present the Holocaust through the lens of Torah, mitzvos and bitachon. Using artifacts and personal stories, we have succeeded in spreading this message around the tri-state area, and our educational programs have impacted countless people across the country. Why not change the attitude at Auschwitz, I thought.
And so after much effort and negotiations, we did. This past December, Dr. Henry Lustiger-Thaler, our senior curator, and I embarked on a mission to transform the way Auschwitz is presented to the world. We were joined by Rabbi Aubrey Hersh of London, whose presentations are a crucial part of our program.
We had the opportunity to speak to the group of docents and open their eyes to the importance of the spiritual struggles and victories of the prisoners of Auschwitz. On a series of tours, these guides now became the guests as we explained how Jews maintained their relationship with Hashem and risked their lives to keep the Torah. With specific stories and examples, the docents are now able to integrate this narrative as they conduct tours, stopping at appropriate places where these stories actually occurred.
One example is an area that was used to store barrels that were converted into a clandestine sukkah; another stop highlights the ongoing minyanim in the barracks.
Andrzej Kacorzyk, director of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz Memorial, explained why he believes this work is crucial. “For the very first time, the complex topic of how Orthodox Jews dealt with the reality of the Auschwitz extermination camp was analyzed in an exhaustive manner and presented to the museum educators. They were provided with an important tool which will enable them to present this question both to visitors who are not involved in Jewish Orthodoxy, as well as to Orthodox groups, whose presence in the museum is constantly increasing,” he said.
Needless to say, the basic structure of the visits and tours have not changed. The enormity of Auschwitz speaks for itself, and it will continue to be the iconic memorial of an unprecedented genocide. But I am proud to say that we have breathed new life into what used to be a solemn walk through the silent and cold camp.
The docents themselves reflected this sentiment. Tomasz Michaldo, the director of guiding methodology at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, said that “all of [the docents] said that this was an eye-opening session. Most of those who participated have already been to Yad Vashem and other Holocaust-related museums, but the faith-based perspective is not stressed in any of those. I do know that many of them use what they’ve learned during the tours.”
While it is certainly encouraging to hear that our efforts were well received, I always remind myself that there is really an even greater goal. We strive to convey the message of kiddush Hashem to those who visit Auschwitz because I believe that this was the overarching desire of those who perished there. Up until their last breath with Shema Yisrael on their lips, many were determined to show their tormentors that their faith in Hashem was steadfast. It is our duty and privilege to keep their legacy alive.