The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.
Into that secret place he led me on. Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans, Resounded through the air pierced by no star, That e’en I wept at entering. – Dante
When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.
I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”
“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943
Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.
Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.
I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.
Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.
Whenever I read about recently committed antisemitic acts in the news, my heart and mind immediately goes especially to Holocaust survivors. What must it be like to survive the Holocaust and then to be witnessing antisemitism in your own city in the twenty-first century?
Two years ago, after the synagogue shooting near San Diego, I visited my friend Faigie Libman. Faigie is one of two survivors with whom I travelled on a Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.
In my clip with her, Faigie says that her motto, which she hopes will go on her tombstone is, “If you have hatred in your heart, there’s no room for love.”
Take a look at this clip. It’s such a good reminder that darkness is best combatted with light and hatred is best combatted with love.
I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.
Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.
One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.
As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.
However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.
Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.