Auschwitz, Israel, and the End of Jewish Innocence

Our guide had warned us that though we as Jewish scholars and intellectuals had for years thought and written about Auschwitz, our arrival at that place would contain many surprises. Leaving for Auschwitz on the one-hour bus ride from our hotel in Krakow, I thought of our journey in different ways. We were for the most part silent, surveying the surrounding countryside and the villages, wondering how the occupants, then and now, felt about Jews and what responsibility, if any, they had in the mass murder of Jews. The scenery transported us back half a century when Jews like ourselves traveled to Auschwitz to die.

We had previously been informed that although Auschwitz is often portrayed in Jewish literature as a barren burial ground, it is in actuality almost completely intact. Building after building remains standing, so from the roadway Auschwitz appears almost a picturesque village. The Nazis had originally planned to conceal their crimes at Auschwitz, but the speed of the Soviet military advance in early 1945 made this impossible. Though partially successful in destroying the principal gas chambers and crematoria, the Nazis left most of the buildings intact: watch towers, barracks, electrified barbed-wire fences, guardhouses, the railway lines. The gate through which the prisoners entered, with its German sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes One Free"), remains as it was then. Haunting as is this picture of Auschwitz, standing as it was in the time of mass murder, one is unprepared for the jarring juxtaposition of tourist attractions with the site of mass death. To accommodate these visitors Auschwitz has, among other things, several book shops, a cafeteria, a tearoom, a lost-luggage counter, a post office, and a hotel. I could not help but ruminate, as no doubt others did as well, on the difficulty of journeying to the dead in the context of a modem tourist sjte.

There remained yet another sorting out to do as well. The intact Auschwitz was in the language of the camp "Auschwitz," a concentration camp essentially for non-Jewish Poles and other Eastern Europeans; Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp, was the final destination for more than a million Jews. Situated approximately two miles from Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau is as Jews imagine it: destroyed, barren—the fields littered with the ashes of incinerated Jewish bodies. Auschwitz contains the museum that narrates the story of dispossession and death and thus is the more frequented site. Because the tour of Auschwitz takes two or three hours to complete, most visitors do not make their way to Birkenau. Thus we immediately stumbled upon a dilemma: Birkenau, nearly devoid of tourists, evokes the reality that Auschwitz, busy and built, diverts. On the other hand, the overwhelmingly Jewish aspect of the Holocaust is relatively neglected by both the visitors and the museum staff itself. Should we suggest a focus on Auschwitz-Birkenau for the mostly non-Jewish visitors, so as to inform them of our understanding of the tragedy, or should we suggest leaving it as it is for the Jews and others who find their way past the crowds and the museum? Should the administration at Auschwitz transform Birkenau into a tour site or maintain it as a memorial?

In a sense, these were administrative policy decisions with ramifications for the technical side of how to devise a present narrative history of Auschwitz and Birkenau. But already by the afternoon of our first day we sensed that the presentation of the camp was involved in much deeper questions of Jewish and Polish, Jewish and Christian memory. Standing in the guard tower of Birkenau overlooking the train tracks and the platform where Jews disembarked, and from there seeing also the rubble of the crematoria, reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, one knew the larger issues involved.

Joining in the prayer, kippah in place, was Richard Rubenstein, my teacher, who had years earlier proclaimed his inability, because of Auschwitz, to believe in the Jewish God of history. I wondered whether Rubenstein would join the others and, as he did, I found no contradiction. He had returned to the grounding of his religious life—indeed its shattering—as an intellectual and as a Jew. Nearing his seventieth birthday, it seemed to me at last that Rubenstein, although maintaining his perspective and his anger, was folding his own life into the larger framework of Jewish history.

Surely Rubenstein, with others of his generation, had analyzed the consequences of Auschwitz for the Jewish world and beyond. At the guard tower, we as a delegation surveyed a past event of enormous import. Still this event was more than historical, for through the interpretation, indeed the naming of mass death as Holocaust, we were also marking a Jewish present defined by the past. Who could be at Auschwitz without thinking of one of its former inmates, Elie Wiesel, or recalling the seminal work on the Holocaust of two of our delegates, David Roskies' Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture and Alvin Rosenfeld's A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature? Could one be at Auschwitz as a Jew and not see it at least partially through the prism of Rubenstein's After Auschwitz?

Thus the site of mass death was past and present, a place of endings and beginnings. In diverse ways Wiesel, Roskies, Rosenfeld, Ruben-stein, and many others carried this death into an unpredictable present. Still the haunting question remained, as suggested by the title of our gathering, "The Future of Auschwitz." If there was a past and present at Auschwitz, was there also a future? And was the present, as articulated in After Auschwitz and by those other historians and theologians, already also a past with new issues diminishing its relevance for the fli~ hire? It was a troubling thought as I walked along the railroad tracks inside Birkenau, but one I could not shake. The Jewish world, once overwhelmed by Auschwitz, had now embarked on a way of life that impacts the lessons we draw from this experience. And these lessons, unspoken by our delegation, remained to be articulated. But with what words and in what place? Could I speak of our power in Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians while standing at the pond of ashes where burned bodies by the thousands were dumped? Or as I touched the pile of silverware confiscated from Jews and scattered in the field near the pond, was it imperative to speak?

Clearly, if at least in the beginning unmentioned, Israel was in the air at Auschwitz. it is almost impossible to be at Auschwitz, the site of our destruction, without thinking of the place that many Jews believe to be a response to Auschwitz. The utter powerlessness of the victims of Auschwitz was before us, and the modem methodical and powerful way of disposing of Jews developed by the Nazis was evident everywhere. Israel was also physically there, for during the afternoon of our first day at Auschwitz we happened upon an official delegation from Israel with a cabinet minister delivering a speech. Soldiers from the Israeli armed forces stood at attention, each holding an Israeli flag. Television cameras were recording the event for Israeli television, and a group of about thirty Israeli visitors gathered around singing their national anthem. Spoken in Hebrew, the message was clear: Israel is our security against the occurrence of another holocaust.

On the second day of our time at Auschwitz, Israel was placed even more vividly before us. It happened in the morning as we waited in the hotel lobby before boarding our bus for Auschwitz. Standing with members of our group who were politically progressive, we were joined by someone who had just heard a report on the BBC that a plane carrying Yassir Arafat, chairperson of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was missing in a desert area inside Libya. It was presumed that his plane had crashed and that Arafat was dead. As I listened to this news, I was stunned. My first thought was simply, "I am at Auschwitz and Arafat is dead." My second thought was of the Palestinians I had come to know over the years and how important Arafat was as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood. Obviously, Arafat is controversial inside and outside of the Palestinian community, but his place in Palestinian history is secure. As people talked about the news I withdrew into silence, thinking that perhaps we should all observe a moment of contemplation in his memory and out of respect for the Palestinian people, who had suffered so long and had now lost their leader. However, I quickly realized that such a suggestion was not only out of place with our delegation, but could not be received with any depth. Instead, the discussion revolved around the probable effect of Arafat's demise on Israeli public opinion. At that moment, immersed in electoral politics, Israel would soon choose either a continuation of the Yitzhak Shamir-led Likud government or turn to a Labor government under Yitzhak Rabin. Would Arafat's death and the ensuing uncertainty of Palestinian leadership reinforce Shamir's policy of occupation and settlement, or would it convince the Israeli public to compromise on the territories, thus lessening to some extent the harshness of the occupation and the policy of settlement, to Rabin's benefit?

As we boarded the bus minutes later, I was shocked, almost numbed, by the superficiality of the discussion. In remembering Auschwitz, had we forgotten what it was like to be on the underside of someone else's history? Could we not remember the importance of our own leaders to our people nor recognize that, despite the dislocation and bloodshed, or rather because of it, Jewish history and Palestinian history were now intertwined and the death of Arafat had a deeper meaning to us as Jews than its impact on a political election? In our ability to mourn our own, represented at that moment by our journey to Auschwitz, we had forgotten how to mourn with others at their loss, which was in a paradoxical way our loss as well.

But this is in a sense to get ahead of the story. As we drove to Auschwitz on that second day, I realized that to understand the reaction to the story of Arafat's presumed death we had to understand the way remember the death of our own. And this remembrance had in the beginning little to do with the importance of Israel or the demonizing of Palestinians. If the analysis of the massacre of European Jews v understandably self-involved from the outset, this preoccupation with the Jewish community led to questions, sometimes radical questions, that were shared across community boundaries. In a strange way, some of the earlier reflections on the Holocaust, as illustrated in the work of Hannah Arendt, were deep and radical, and less isolating and demeaning to others than some of the more current writings on the event. Two crucial thoughts resonated within me: first, that our distance from the Holocaust, instead of initiating a process of healing, had in fact hardened our anger; and second, that the extreme isolation we experienced in Auschwitz as it occurred in history was carried forth almost fifty years later, at the same time that we were more politically integrated and secure than perhaps any time in the history of the Jewish people. If our objective circumstances had changed radically in nearly half a century, our subjective understandings remained as they were, or perhaps were even worse than at the time of the liberation of the death camps.

 

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