By Craig Nudelman
*This column is dedicated to the memories of those who were killed, those who survived and those who fought against the atrocity of the Shoah — We will never forget*
I wrote this poem as I stood and looked at one of the bombed out gas chambers at Birkenau.
Half a staircase
An empty space
where people used to stand waiting.
Bricks piled up
to cover the chamber of death.
Concrete slabs and cement
distorted by the memory of their evil deeds.
There are no dead bodies to show us the horror,
Only the echoes of Nazi officers patrolling around the camp with guns and whips rustle in the leaves.
The green grass belies the monster that was the Shoah — mass murder on an industrial scale.
We can ask how, we can ask why. We will never understand on any level
It can happen again, and again, and again.
In Hebrew the Holocaust is called the ‘Shoah’, which means catastrophe. That’s what it was. A catastrophic event which ended Jewish life in Europe. Six million Jews perished at the hands of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, French, Norwegians, and many others. This statement might be considered controversial, but how can one deny the complicity of gentiles in countries where antisemitism was always lying deep within the psyches of these people, and the Nazi occupation was an excuse to let loose their hatred for their Jewish countrymen.
I could start speaking about the history of the Holocaust — Hitler’s rise to power and the three phases of the Holocaust. I could say that the Final Solution was not inevitable, but was rather a path that led to it being the most effective way of dealing with the Jewish question.
This is essentially what I discussed with my Grade 9s at school before I went to Poland — it’s in the syllabus. But now, after seeing the sites where the Shoah occurred and the memorials to the decimation of Jewish life in Poland it’s become difficult to convey the facts as they appear in the text books.
Before I went, I didn’t comprehend the awfulness and the magnitude. Now that I’ve been it defies belief. In a way I understand why people deny the Holocaust; it’s just absurd, surreal. How could this happen? How could 6 million Jews, including 1,5 million children, be murdered in this systematic method?
I was privileged to go on the ‘March of the Living’ tour, organised by the South African Holocaust and Genocide Centre, with Rene Pozniak and Kim Nates spearheading the programme. Offered to Grade 11s from Cape Town and Johannesburg, the tour will remain etched in my mind forever.
Horror. That is all I can say about my experience to Majdanek. I cannot describe it in any other way. The way in which the Nazis committed acts so repugnant and terrifying was pure horror.
Countered by that was the feeling of joy I felt when the South African and Los Angeles delegations of March of the Living were jumping and singing during Havdalah after Shabbat in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Warsaw. I shed a few tears in the process.
This rollercoaster of emotions continued throughout Poland and carried on in Israel, where on Yom Hazikaron we mourned the soldiers killed in battle, and on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, where we celebrated the existence of Israel.
I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews: Volume 2 — Belonging” for the past few months (I’m a bit of a slow reader). It goes from 1492, the year of the Spanish Inquisition, to 1900.
I don’t know what happens in 1900 yet, but as I was leaving for Poland I was on the chapter about Jewish life in Poland — how’s that for bashert! He describes how Jews were invited into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and how they were given freedom to conduct businesses for the first time. They weren’t restricted to being money-lenders anymore. Now, they could establish themselves as tradesmen; they could belong to guilds for the first time (many of which were created by Jews and whose members were predominantly Jewish).
Poland was called Poh-lin by the Jews, which in Hebrew means “here we will rest”. This demonstrated their belief that here they felt welcome. Expelled from Spain, segregated and vilified in the rest of Western Europe, it was in Poland that Jews could finally prosper. It wasn’t an easy life, being a Jew in Poland. Blood libels were still popular, Jews were blamed for the plague, and Cossack invasions and the pogroms took place in the mid 1600s. Yet, Pohlin was a place for growth.
The Holocaust exposed the lie of their integration within Polish society. Indeed, it was a place where Jews were put to rest, the ultimate euphemism. The Polish community was exterminated, and the few who escaped or survived left for America, Israel and South Africa.
On the Shabbat when we were in Warsaw, two teachers from a school outside of the city came with some of their students to create a dialogue with our students, and see how they connected with each other. The one teacher asked me how I found Poland. I replied that it was a beautiful country and that I would love to return, especially to Krakow’s Old Town and to experience Warsaw’s culture. But I added that I felt a bit uncomfortable in Poland, although it was illogical. It was illogical to feel like this 70 years after an event, when the perpetrators are mostly dead. But, I carried on, I thought Poland was amazing, although I was uncomfortable at the same time. I said it was the trauma as carried through the generations through DNA; our collective memory, making us aware of our persecution through the ages for just being Jewish. He didn’t understand.
And I guess that that’s something I took away from Poland. No one will understand our peoplehood, our being Jewish. How can you fathom what we have been through as Jews? But it didn’t make me regret being Jewish. And I don’t think the kids who went ever thought that either. In fact, it made my Jewish identity stronger. And I’m sure it did the same for our future leaders in the Jewish community, our youth, who went on this trip. May it continue to inspire more Jewish young adults for many years to come.
We must always remember.
Craig Nudelman is a teacher, a father and a Jewish observer