By Elly Kleinman
Many people have asked about my thoughts and impressions about attending the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Now that a few weeks have gone by since my return from Poland, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect and put pen to paper and write about yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Given the scope of the commemoration, the logistics involved and the number of participants, support staff and press, it was a huge undertaking and well-organized. At the core of the proceedings were the survivors of course, and I have to say that they were given the utmost kavod and cared for in a superior manner. From the flights, to hotels, meals and transportation, the survivors were treated very gingerly. The events and ceremonies focused on the presence of these Shearis Ha’pletah Yidden who survived the terror of Churban Europa and particularly the incomparable horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unfortunately, it is the sad truth, as many have said, that Auschwitz 70 is probably the last major commemoration of the liberation of the Camp at which survivors will be present.
As Rabbi Shalom Friedmann, the director and CEO of the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, and I found out, it wasn’t easy to recruit survivors for the trip. Between the KFHEC, the USC Shoah Foundation and the World Jewish Congress, we had cancellations from survivors who committed to attend. After the realization of the hardship of the trip, emotionally and physically, had sunk in, we all had to re-recruit a number of new participants. But at the end of the day, the event had an indescribable impact on the survivors and the rest of us who were at the commemoration.
As you have read in previous articles about the KFHEC at Auschwitz 70, the religious element was sorely lacking. Just a chapter of Tehillim, Kaddish and Kel Molei were recited at the end of the ceremony. But now the KFHEC has been given a historic opportunity 70 years in the making, for the next 70 years and beyond, to infuse a frum perspective into Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as numerous other exhibits and education programs, already in the planning and production stages, locally, nationally and internationally.
Rabbi Friedmann and our amazing team have been gathering and continue to gather videography, photographs, recorded testimony, artifacts and document collections that are being used in our education programs, films and exhibits. This material tells the story, from a religious perspective, of the history of European Jewry, anti-Semitism, the communities that were lost – the chassidshe kryzen, the Litvishe kehillos and the Yeshiva world, and communities of Jews of all kinds. When it came to blind hate, it did not make a difference if you were religious or secular, because if you were a Jew, you did not have rights. You did not have the right to practice your faith, live in your home, and or even the right to live, as the “solution” was complete extermination. Why? Because you were a Jew!
The theme of Auschwitz 70 was ”The Past is Present” and it’s unbelievably true. So we look at the last seventy years and right now. The reemergence of hateful anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world is an incredible reminder that we cannot rest comfortably ensconced in our Jewish and religious lifestyle without concern. When Jews are attacked and killed in Jewish schools, kosher delis, shuls and heading home from school for Shabbos from a residential area, we all have to be ever aware. And this applies to both children and adults.
The two days of events and the ceremony itself were reminders of what happened and what is happening now. Seeing survivors overcome with emotion and spontaneously saying Kaddish was heartrending. As survivor Roman Kent cried out, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.” We have to consider the next seventy years and beyond. At the conclusion of the tented ceremony on Tuesday, survivors and their companions, heads of state, and VIP’s were asked to walk from the entrance of Birkenau towards the back of the camp where there is a monument. We were given a covered candle to place on the monument, and to reflect, utter a silent prayer, or, as very few of us did, say a chapter of Tehillim for the Kedoshim.
I was walking to the monument with Greg Masel who represented Frank Lowy of Australia, who was not able to attend. Both of us were tightly bundled up in warm coats, hats, scarves and gloves. It was a 20-minute walk in each direction, in freezing, windy, snowy weather. We both wondered why some kind of vehicle wasn’t provided to and from the monument, especially for the elderly survivors. But most went on the physically difficult walk.
I then turned to Greg and told him what my mother, she should live and be well, told me many times regarding her experience in Auschwitz. The winter of 1944-46 was the coldest winter on record in that area since 1900. The daily lineups that Auschwitz prisoners had to endure sometimes took up to three or four hours, especially if someone wasn’t accounted for, which happened frequently enough. My mother told me that all she had to wear was a tattered, filthy cloth dress and cardboard around her feet, as she had no shoes. Greg and I were freezing after five minutes, even being all bundled up. There is no way anyone, let alone the emaciated prisoners, could have survived the brutal cold without getting hypothermia and frostbite and dying. And that is after the starving and dehydrated prisoners survived a brutally hot summer. The fact that anyone survived that situation is a pure nes min hashamayim. This was not k’derech hateva. So Greg and I understood that, now, we had to walk and certainly had no right to complain.
I had an unmatched opportunity to interact with numerous high profile secular Jews from around the world. I have to say that these secular Jews were there because they really felt a genuine desire to be part of the ceremony and prevent history from repeating itself, via education and preservation of what took place all those years ago. Each and every one I spoke to was receptive to the concept of Holocaust education from a religious perspective. They got it, and I hope I can count on their assistance for the KFHEC.
I am using this opportunity to address some of our gevirim who have told my KFHEC staff and myself, “Sorry, I only support chinuch in yeshivas and kollelim.” These gevirim need a serious talking-to, because what we are doing is chinuch in the highest degree. Our children are by and large clueless about what happened in the 1930’s and 1940’s and we see in Europe and other parts of the world ablaze with anti-Semitism how history can and is repeating itself. Our future – our children and grandchildren – must be cognizant of what happened and what can happen.
Everything that the KFHEC is doing is educational. We are already in full operating mode in our temporary location in Brooklyn, even as we finally start construction of our primary facility. We have a constant stream of school groups – boys’ yeshivas, girls’ Bais Yaakovs – from the entire metropolitan area and beyond, coming every week now for a day of lectures and viewing of exhibits, artifacts and archives. We have a program of school and camp activities already structured and operating. Educational committees have been formed and are growing, as we will have chinuch programs in the schools as well as onsite at the KFHEC.
Last year, KFHEC conducted a Jewish engagement program (what we have always called “kiruv”) for young adult professionals that included a four-month lecture series in Manhattan followed by a trip to Poland and Hungary. We are now expanding that program to different age groups and locations.
We have the most important collections of religious-based Holocaust-related documents and artifacts ever assembled. Representatives of the most prestigious Holocaust organizations in the world are physically coming to our temporary location to view our material and interact via exchange of information and joint ventures. The bottom line: the KFHEC is open and educating.
The world never learns from history. It reacts to terrorism for a moment, then goes back to tolerating it, along with anti-Semitism and atrocity after atrocity. What will happen during the next seventy years and beyond, when there are no more survivors of Churban Europa? We have a responsibility to teach, remind and protect our future, and that is what our sacred mission is about.
Elly Kleinman is founder and president of the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center.