By Orly Gross
It began innocently enough. I noticed an advertisement in the Jewish papers, something about a 70th anniversary commemoration on the liberation of Auschwitz.
What did this have to do with me? Not much, except that I had taken some Holocaust courses.
But then there was the fine print in the ad, all the way at the bottom, requesting that any Orthodox Jewish survivors of Auschwitz who wished to participate in the commemoration in Poland should contact the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center for more information.
It was beginning to sound interesting, since I knew of a particular survivor of Auschwitz…
When I learned that the KFHEC (in conjunction with the World Jewish Congress and the Shoah Foundation) was looking for companions to accompany the now elderly survivors, I realized that an incredible opportunity was at hand. I promptly called up my grandfather and asked or rather, begged him to consider taking this trip for the second time since the war. My grandfather first returned to Auschwitz nearly half a century after liberation, with my father. Twenty five years later, I was asking him to do it again, this time with me.
To my surprise, my grandfather agreed. Thanks to the various organizations who coordinated the trip, my grandfather and I spent last week in Krakow, Poland, participants in a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event.
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My grandfather, Baruch Gross, comes from the Slovakian shtetl of Humene, near the city of Bratislava. His father, R’ Avraham Tzvi Gross, was a prominent member of the community, serving as Rosh Hakahal of Humene for several years. By virtue of his position, he was able to ensure that the family was not deported when the majority of Humene’s Jews were rounded up in 1942. My grandfather and his family spent the next two years in terrifying limbo, hiding when there was a roundup of Jews and resurfacing when the danger passed. But even this unstable reprieve ended, as my grandfather was caught on Rosh Hashana 1944. Within two weeks, on the first night of Sukkos, my grandfather’s cattle car “train ride” brought him to the horrific inferno called Auschwitz. The doors were abruptly thrown open in the middle of the night. Confused by the screams and searchlights, he asked an inmate where he was. Quoting the Haggada, the inmate replied, “dam, v’esh, v’simros ashan”.
My grandfather spent the entire month of October 1944 in Auschwitz- Birkenau before being shipped off to a labor camp in Germany. Working 10 hours a day building air planes and subsisting on less-than-meager rations in the brutal winter was grueling, but the conditions were somewhat better than they had been in Auschwitz. Several months and one torturous death march later, my grandfather was liberated from Buchenwald in April 1945. He eventually made his way home, only to find that the majority of his immediate and extended family had been exterminated, including his father and brother who died on a death march just weeks before liberation.
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We arrived in Krakow on Sunday, taking up residence in the Holiday Inn. Many survivors were already there, mostly accompanied by their children (as opposed to grandchildren, of which there were very few) . During dinner and throughout the evening, my grandfather and his newly-found contemporaries were engaged in a pre-war version of Jewish Geography, each trying to find a landsman.
“Fun vaneh kimt ah Yid?”
“I’m from a shtetl near Munkacz. Near the Carpathian Mountains.”
“Really! I’m from the other side of those mountains. Have you heard of Kashau? My shtetl was a few kilometers away, Humene.”
“Sure I’ve heard of it. I had some family there. We used to visit them each summer.”
I listened in fascination as survivors swapped lines of latitude and compared camp histories. However, I noticed that none of the survivors exchanged actual war stories. Perhaps such stories would have been superfluous; there seemed to be a tacit understanding that everyone had endured horrific pain and there was no need to elaborate on it. Sharing stories seemed to be reserved for the younger people, recounted for the second and now third generations.
On Monday morning, there was an optional tour of Auschwitz. My grandfather and I opted to stay local and explore the once vibrant Jewish community of Krakow, in Kazhemierz. We took a taxi to the Isaac Shul, the only operational shul in the area, which is maintained by a Lubavitcher shaliach. Sadly, my grandfather was just one of three men there, so they davened sans minyan. As they reached kriyas haTorah, singing voices were heard echoing from the shul’s entrance. Knowing of the Poles’ affinity for excessive alcohol, no one was sure of the intruders’ identities. The three tallis-clad men were therefore delighted when a dozen Lelover chassidim marched in toting tallis bags. They were the same chassidim who had been on our flight (albeit to a different destination) and they greeted my grandfather like an old friend.
Following Shacharis, the Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Gur-Aryeh, gave us a tour of the Rema Shul and the adjoining beis olam. The Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles) is the final halachic authority in the Ashkenazi world, having authored the Ashkenazi addendum to the Shulchan Aruch. After showing us the beautiful shul, Rabbi Gur-Aryeh walked us outside to the snow-covered cemetery. There he pointed out the kevarim of such luminaries as the Megaleh Amukos (R’ Nosson Nota Schapiro) the Tosfos Yom Tov (Rav Yom Tov Lipman-Heller) and the father of the Pnei Yehoshua. Of course, the Rema himself is buried there as well. Standing in the snow, I reflected upon our mesorah, our collective responsibility to uphold the same values that these gedolim personified.
The rest of the day saw dozens of survivors and their companions arriving from all over Europe and Eretz Yisroel. Towards evening, people began to gather in the lobby for the official kick-off event, a gala dinner. The program featured remarks by Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, and Steven Spielberg , founding chair of the Shoah Foundation. Lauder saluted the survivors’ ability to rebuild with strength and dignity. Lauder pointed out that “Human beings may not always determine the circumstances that may befall them, but they can determine how they will react when those circumstances occur”. Spielberg thanked the audience for enabling him to gather testimony from over 53,000 survivors. Following the program, photographers took a group picture of the event’s 100+ “Guests of Honor”.
Tuesday was the main event. A convoy of busses, flanked by police cars and ambulances, drove for an hour towards “Oswiecim”, the Polish name of the town adjacent to Auschwitz. A giant heated tent had been set up over the infamous entrance to Birkenau. The train tracks leading towards the entrance were illuminated and covered with glass. The survivors were seated in front of the dais, while companions and other delegations were assigned to seats farther back.
Survivors’ reactions to the raw evidence before them was varied. Mr. B., who had been incarcerated as a 12 year old and spent 5+ years in various camps, broke down and cried as he recalled how his entire family had been murdered in this place. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he implored all of us around him to remember what happened, reminding us “zechor es asher asah lecha Amalek”. Other survivors sat lost in thought, perhaps reliving the memories. Still others appeared calm and composed, possibly reflecting on that which was rebuilt since they had last stood on this spot. While there were some emotional outbursts, the general atmosphere was fueled with a sense of purpose.
Although the population demographic was varied, there was a tangible sense of achdus and shared identity, irrespective of religious commitment. Some survivors donned yarmulkes for the occasion. One non-religious survivor in particular was asked what had motivated him to come. He answered, “I’m not religious at all, but I came here today to say kaddish for my mother”. For many, this trip symbolized closure, a triumph over Hitler and his attempt to annihilate Klal Yisrael.
In addition to the survivors, many dignitaries were invited to the event; 40 countries were represented. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew headed the American delegation. Several kings and queens were in attendance. French President Francois Hollande was spotted in animated discussion with some of his constituents, a handful of French survivors.
The official ceremony included remarks by survivors, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder and others. The audience was supplied with headsets offering simultaneous translation when necessary. Several rabbonim said kaddish; the Amens resonated with intensity and emotion. A chazzan sang “Kel Malei Rachamim”, eliciting silent tears from many. The moment was tinged with a combination of sweetness and sorrow. Standing in a tent constructed on the ashes of millions, we mourned over that which was lost and rejoiced over that which was rebuilt.
After the ceremony, all of the survivors had an opportunity to bring candles to the memorial. Since my grandfather had brought along yahrtzeit candles, we joined the column of people walking alongside Birkenau’s train tracks. The scene was surreal; a line of black shadows trudged through the snowy darkness, each one holding a flickering flame. I walked alongside my grandfather, thinking of the famous Mozhitzer “Ani Ma’amin” that was sung 70 years ago as yidden marched through this same snow, along these same tracks, to their deaths.
Upon returning to the hotel, I was far too wired to go to sleep. The charged atmosphere was analogous to the last night of summer camp, when one senses the need to make the most of each precious moment before everyone returns to their respective homes and lives. I therefore lingered in the dining room, listening to survivors share their experiences.
Mr. C., a Hungarian survivor who came with his wife and granddaughter, proudly recounted his defiance of the German occupation in Hungary. He escaped his forced labor unit and, upon regaining his freedom, refused to wear the yellow star. Eventually he was caught and stuffed into a cattle car bound for Dachau. Mr. C realized that that Dachau meant certain death, so he made plans to escape. After lighting the eighth candle on zos Chanuka and singing Maoz Tzur, Mr. C. and his brother jumped off the train into the frozen night. When he was caught yet again and taken to Mathausen, he managed to escape from there as well, just days before liberation.
Mrs. R., the world’s second youngest Auschwitz survivor, shared an incredible tale. When Mrs. R’s mother arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, she told the infamous Dr. Mengele that she was expecting, but for some inexplicable reason, the “Angel of Death” let her live. A job in the camp kitchen gave her life-saving access to extra vegetable peels, but Mengele forced her to endure “scientific” experiments and injections. Nevertheless, in December 1944, Mrs. R. was born in the attic of a bunker, weighing less than two pounds. For six weeks she lay on the top shelf of the bunk, and her mother would feed her upon returning from work. When another woman in Auschwitz gave birth in January but was unable to feed her baby, Mrs. R.’s mother offered to take care of him as well. Incredibly, Mrs. R, her mother, and the baby boy all survived. They have the extraordinary distinction of being the youngest survivors of Auschwitz; their existence is a direct result of an endless string of nissim.
The 3 days that I spent in Poland seemed far longer than that. It felt more like two weeks’ worth of encounters, experiences and emotions all crammed into 72 hours. I realized that the dual obligation to remember the past and continue building Klal Yisrael’s future is really a tremendous privilege. It is inspiring to reflect on everything that was rebuilt after the war, rebuilt by survivors who had nothing but the shirts on their backs. As Elly Kleinman mentioned to me one morning, “we have to commemorate this [event] because our future depends on it”. Indeed, as time goes on, we may not have another opportunity to commemorate a liberation with those who experienced it firsthand. Going forward, Mr. Kleinman explained that we have to “take an achrayus for the future; to maintain our faith in spite of trying circumstances”, taking a lesson from the survivors’ emunah and bitachon.
Looking at the survivors around me, I realized then that some people spend their lives searching for answers, while others, in spite of their suffering, have no questions. There are survivors who emerged from the ashes with their emunah intact, who have no complaints against the Ribbono shel Olam. I feel humbled and privileged to have spent three days in the company of such extraordinary people, learning from their courage, determination, and total acceptance of the ratzon Hashem.