Light in the Kingdom of Darkness

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Aushwitz-Birkenau. The main Nazi guard tower is the highest point, offering a view of virtually the entire camp. In that tower, we davened mincha…

Last month, I joined a group of 24 educators visiting the concentration camps in Poland. It was the culminating leg of a year-long fellowship program sponsored by Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education branch of Torah U’Mesorah. Its director, Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, and I worked all year with these highly experienced and accomplished teachers helping them to become in effect the vanguard of a new generation of Holocaust educators.

From the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek to the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (presently being rebuilt) to the kevarim of the Remah, Sfas Emes, Chozeh of Lublin, Maharal and others – none of us came back the same.

Undoubtedly, the most moving experience was Auschwitz…

Auschwitz – its name alone sends a chill down the spine.

Peering through the barbed-wire fence for the first time, the thing that struck me was its size. Nothing had prepared me to grasp the sheer expanse of Birkenau, Auschwitz’s main death camp. Besides the unimaginable numbers murdered there, it housed 80,000 slave laborers.

80,000!

That’s larger than most Jewish communities today; think of a medium-sized town.

Row after row of barracks stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Straight ahead, the infamous railroad tracks extended into the distance further than I had imagined until they veered off to the equally infamous disembarkation point where Dr. Mengele conducted the Selektion, deciding who would live and who would die….

A chilling thought as we head into the days of Elul and Yemei HaDin….

It took hours to tour the camp. Terrifying… horrifying… yet uplifting don’t properly convey the emotions… especially by the “Pool of Ashes,” a marsh-like area of human ash next to the tangled concrete and metal of the now destroyed gas chambers and crematoria, listening to Rabbi Shmuel Klein talk about Kiddush Hashem… which was followed by a rousing kaddish.

Kiddush Hashem – it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated the connection between Auschwitz and Kiddush Hashem. But, nowhere more than the depths of the deepest darkness can the brightest light of spiritual heroism emerge.

By day’s end, we were the only group remaining in this Empire of Evil. That was eerie enough. But then we were given special permission to ascend the main Nazi guard tower. And there, high above Hitler’s Valley of Death, we turned east, bowed and poured our hearts out to Hashem.

After mincha, the guard tower became engulfed in a supernatural orange glow of the now set sun. Spontaneously, we formed a circle and danced — silhouetted against heaven’s glow — singing Aleh Varechev, Ani Ma’amim and L’shana Habah b’Yerushalayim.

View from atop the guard tower where we davened mincha. (View is west; we prayed facing east.)

It was a flash of light in the Kingdom of Darkness. A moment of triumph. A proclamation! The Thousand Year Reich is dead… Om Yisrael chai….

Elul is a time for introspection… and inspiration… to make light, not darkness… to choose life… to live lives of Kiddush Hashem… for the six million kedoshim… for ourselves.

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