The Command to Remember

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The Command to Remember

Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative

By: Nance M. Adler

Originally published in HaYidion March 2014

We have all heard the adage – “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us to “Never forget” – we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others.  If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world. In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember it was God who helped us escape and be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory.  The study of history – or even the idea of history – comes late to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor differentiates between “collective memory” and history.  Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting.  The best example of this is the Pesah Seder. We do not say “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesah story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders – this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.

For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanach with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become – memory – and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple. By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanahk is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems – how Jews handle problems – allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.

Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew – the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE – Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine. But, there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How much in life today is worth dying for? To Jews in Ancient Israel, Spain, Babylonia, the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe, Germany and so many other times and places, the meaning and value of being Jewish was clearly a prize worth protecting and nurturing even when the cost was high. Loss of privilege and loss of life were not enough to dissuade Jews from being Jewish in those places, but today not getting to attend a concert on a Friday night is enough to make a kid wish he wasn’t Jewish. So, how do we inspire a deep and abiding love and value for being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory; in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where some of those experiences will never again occur. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing history of that people in a way that will hopefully one day allow “never forget” to become a true “never again.”  By remembering and teaching our students to remember as well, we can perhaps one day place those events in the historical past where they belong.

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Full Immersion Learning – JCAT

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(Originally printed in RAVSAK journal HaYidion in Spring 2013 – No longer online on their site)

Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish Social Studies (JSS) class begin the year by participating in The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture of the graduate programs at the University of Michigan School of Education and the University of Cincinnati and is supported by RAVSAK. JCAT is a virtual trial that is moderated by graduate students and whose participants are middle school students at Jewish schools around North America. Participants select a historical persona whom they will portray for the duration of the trial, which takes place at a virtual Masada. Students, in “character”, consider, and gather, evidence, post responses to questions and proposals and get familiar with each other’s points of view. Justices are then nominated and must gather votes of confidence from fellow participants before they can rule on the case. At the end, participants are asked to reflect on their experience and on the decision of the court. Participating schools are asked to work on JCAT two periods a week. I usually do one period of learning related to the topic and one or more of the students online completing assigned tasks related to the trial process.

This may all sound rather dull, but, done well, it is anything but. The experience of watching my 7th grade students fully engaged and excited about their learning as the events of this past fall’s JCAT trial unfolded was amazing, and anything but dull.  Each year, the JCAT coordinators select a timely and Jewishly relevant dilemma to be considered by the students. This year’s trial was based in events in France related to a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious items” in public schools. The co-plaintiffs were a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who had both been expelled for wearing religiously required items to school. I began the unit by doing several lessons about the situation in Europe related to Muslim immigrants and the wearing of the hijab by young Muslim girls. We discussed the pressure from observant or fundamentalist Muslims for all girls to wear it and related this to pressure in other religions as well for everyone to meet a certain standard of observance. We also learned about the history of secularity in France and their commitment to both freedom of and freedom from religion in the public realm.  Armed with this knowledge, and a better understanding of the subtleties of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in a country dedicated to secularity, the students were ready to participate in a meaningful way in the JCAT trial.

Character selection is a tricky thing. Students all want to be someone famous and deciding for which of the five kids who want to be Anne Frank or Lady Gaga you are going to list that as one of their choices is not an easy job. Students often make the mistake of thinking representing someone popular will be easy and it is my job to help them make good choices. In a trial related to freedom of expression, Lady Gaga might be an excellent choice; in a trial about reparations to survivors of the St. Louis, last year’s topic, she might not.  Once they have their final assignment, it is their job to get to know their person well enough to be able to speak to the issues at hand as their person would have responded. They write a “resume” or letter of introduction, as I call it, and post this online so that others can learn about their opinions and experiences, and they begin to build alliances. The personal opinion of the student becomes unimportant, as their job is to present the opinion of their assigned identity. Some students choose to play against their views and do well with this, others find choosing someone closer to their own view more comfortable. Being the “odd person out” can be fun if you have the self-esteem and independence for it, or disheartening if you don’t. I have seen both in my class.

This year’s trial was especially exciting as a movement to unseat the “host”, Benazir Bhutto, developed over Thanksgiving break. The rationale was that a Muslim woman should not be hosting the trial of a Muslim girl. Students returned to find a putsch underway and not much time to respond. Within days, Bhutto was out and a cohort of strong minded leaders – Napoleon, Charlemagne and Rasputin to name a few – had taken power under the leadership of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who is rabidly Islamophobic. This group froze the trial, raised the number of votes of confidence needed and added their own members to the list of justices.  I carefully presented this new reality to my class and then set them loose to respond. It was amazing to see them fly into action. Quickly groups formed and alliances were made. Leaders were chosen, goals set and strategies outlined for getting Bhutto back or at least getting rid of Geert. Revolt Against Geert (RAG) was formed by a group of girls in my class and RAG became the group to rally around for all the JCAT participants who wanted to restore order.  A day of protest was allowed for a Wednesday, which happens to be a day I don’t have this class. I invited students to come in during their lunch and recess and the RAG group showed up in force for 50 minutes of high powered action and strategizing. It was truly a teacher’s proudest moment to see these students scrambling to be successful in their plan to unseat Geert and his cronies. I trust them to save the world when the time comes after seeing how hard they worked and how well they planned for something related to a virtual trial in their JSS class.

JCAT offers students an opportunity to think outside the box – even outside their own brain as they participate as someone else. My students reflect on this aspect of JCAT and find it one of the most challenging and rewarding parts. They learn new things, see new perspectives and experience someone else’s thoughts. Interacting with the other people out of history also allows an opportunity to learn about people who they might never otherwise encounter. I find JCAT to be an amazing experience for my students, and this year in particular it offered learning experiences for which I could have never written a lesson plan. I watched quiet and timid students find their voice and see its power and I know that they will never be the same. To feel that your actions might change the outcome of something important, and to be motivated, at 13, to get up early to check online and see what has happened since the previous night in a school project – it’s not what is expected in middle school, but JCAT makes it happen.

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade

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(This article appears to not be available online at the site of the journal it was published in, so I am posting it here)

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade

By:

Nance M. Adler

Nadler@jds.org

The controversial nature of teaching the Shoah (Holocaust) to Fifth Graders was not well known to me when I was asked in 2006 to teach in this grade. I knew it had been taught previously but not by the most recent teacher. The Head of Judaics wanted me to teach it and so I began to do some research and I found that there were strong opinions on this topic. “Pedagogically unsound” and “developmentally inappropriate” were words that I repeatedly heard as part of these discussions. Considering all the gore and violence our students are exposed to on a daily basis on TV, in video games, movies and books, I found it hard to believe that there was not a way to teach the Shoah to Fifth Graders that would be both pedagogically sound and developmentally appropriate. Armed with the concerns of my colleagues but equally with my conviction, I began to put together a curriculum for my classroom that would teach my students about this important time in Jewish History and help to create in them the sense of urgency necessary to insure that such crimes would never be repeated.

For me, teaching about the Shoah isn’t just about teaching the horrific history of what happened in Germany and Europe during the Third Reich. It is about creating young people who understand that it can be a few short steps from name calling to genocide, that prejudice isn’t harmless and that propaganda and a good orator can lead people to do horrible things. With this in mind, I knew that I needed to teach about the history of Germany from 1933 -1939 as this is the time period during which history could have changed but didn’t. This decision was affirmed when I took the “Holocaust and Human Behavior” course through Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) the summer of 2008. To hear that I had focused on the right historical period confirmed what I already knew from the work of my students – understanding what happened to create a world where the Shoah could occur was vital if we are to keep it from occurring again. I also learned from FHAO the idea of creating “Upstanders”. An Upstander takes action when a wrong is being done rather than being a bystander and allowing it to happen unchallenged. This is now a byword in my class and a goal of my Shoah curriculum – to create Upstanders who, based on their knowledge of this history, will work to assure that it is not repeated.

We begin the year reading Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell as a read aloud. This is the story of Paris, a young African American girl in Chicago, and her Jewish piano teacher, Mrs. Rosen. This wonderful book not only introduces the Shoah through the eyes of Paris but also shows the prejudices she faces. We discuss the similar experiences of Blacks and Jews, the evils of prejudice and how life experiences impact faith. We then read stories of child survivors from a book called Survivors: Stories of Children Who Survived the Holocaust. The students then chose a book for an individual book project. This brings me to my main guideline for Shoah stories read in my class – the main character has to survive. This is based on the concern that forming an attachment to a character and then having them be killed is too hard emotionally for Fifth Graders. This means that Anne Frank’s diary would not be allowed to be read for a book report in my class even though many of my students have already read it.

My students keep a Shoah Journal where they write their thoughts and/or questions or to respond to my pre-reading prompts for these stories. These journals are our private conversation and are not shared without the student’s permission. It is here where real growth and understanding develops on these hard topics and it is here that I see beautiful evidence of the deep thinking of my students. They write questions, poetry, gut reactions or draw illustrations for the story that they have just heard. Some students write pages and others are so dumbstruck by the story that they can’t write much of anything. I have had conversations about faith, human nature and what it took for these people to survive. Responding to each journal is a time consuming but extremely worthwhile and important part in achieving my overall goal of creating Upstanders.

The next step is a lesson on the power of hate which I do so that the students are able to process the events they are about to study in an informed manner. I use the Pyramid of Hate to teach about the various levels of hate and show just how few steps there are between prejudice and genocide. Armed with this frame of reference, the students are then able to study the events of 1933 – 39 and see the unfolding climb up the Pyramid of Hate towards genocide. At the FHAO seminar I learned that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water but if placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heated it will allow itself to be boiled to death. This is an apt illustration of what happened to both Jews and Germans during these years. Having this framework allows the students to see the slow boil and perhaps understand why the Jews didn’t leave earlier. It doesn’t excuse but helps to explain why Germans went along with a leader who, step by step, dehumanized the Jews and created a society where the Shoah occurred largely unquestioned. Having this framework helps make the study of these events relevant and interesting. Another way that I make this history accessible and interesting to my students is by using the writings of young people who lived through this period. We read diary entries and story excerpts as we study each time period thus allowing the students to form their own impression of both the events and what it was like to experience them. All of this leads to our culminating activity – the Shoah Character Narrative.

The Shoah Character Narrative is based on an assignment that was created by the Head of Judaics at my school. The character each child creates only experiences the events of 1933-39 and not the camps and mass killings of the 1940’s. In keeping with my requirement for stories which we read in class, the character must survive and many of the narratives are written as memoirs. Characters are created using a “reverse identity circle.” We start with a blank circle and create the pieces of each character’s identity. Students give their character a name, parents, birthplace and date, siblings, a school, level of Jewish observance, hobbies and economic class. They have fairly free reign in this process other than that their character must be Jewish, live in Germany and be at least eight in 1933. They then write a “back story” to introduce their character and show what their life was like prior to the election of Hitler in January 1933. Their character then lives through 1933-39 and experiences formative events such as the election of Hitler, early laws affecting Jews, The Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht and wearing the Yellow Star. While the minimum requirement is 14 paragraphs, most students write much more. They create a whole world and life for their character which is then impacted by the realities of being a Jew in Germany during this time period. The resulting stories show a command of the history, an understanding of what it was like to live through these events and a sense of not wanting this for anyone else. This assignment creates a memory for the student writer – a memory of living in Germany in the 1930’s. It is this memory that I have now come to believe will most help these young people grow into Upstanders working to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place.

So, how did I come to this belief? I was asked to be the guest speaker at my synagogue this past spring on the Shabbat after Yom HaShoah. The parsha was Tazria and I had no desire to speak on skin diseases and decided to speak about Yom HaShoah instead. I was working on writing my d’var as my students were watching “Paperclips” on Yom HaShoah when an idea came to me. The previous week I had taught my students about the difference between the two sets of Ten Commandments in the Torah. (In the Torah we are given the Ten Commandments twice; the first time by God at Sinai and the second by Moses in his farewell speech. There are major and minor differences between them.) As I thought about the experiences of the non-Jewish children in “Paperclips” and heard them speak about the stories that were shared with them and the “memories” they were safeguarding, my thoughts turned to my own thoughts on the difference between the two sets. In the first set of Commandments we are told to “zachor et yom hashabbat” (remember the Sabbath). Remembering can be very passive, requiring little action or real effort. The next forty years prove that the Children of Israel are not so good at remembering and so we can understand why God and/or Moses feel that making this commandment a bit more active might be a good thing. In D’varim we are told, by Moses, “sh’mor et yom hashabbat” (guard/preserve the Sabbath). This is an active and participatory commandment and makes our observance of Shabbat much more intensive than it might have been had we just had the first version. It is my belief that, much like Shabbat, which, as it is said “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”, the Shoah requires not just remembering but guarding. Guarding as an active remembering, guarding as forming our own memories of events we did not live through so that when those who did live through them are gone we do not forget what they suffered. On Passover each year Jews say “My father was a wandering Aramean” and “I went out of Egypt.” Jews today no more did those things than my Fifth Graders lived through the Shoah but by guarding the memory in an active and personal way we have made Passover the most universally observed Jewish Holiday. Using this same technique, of creating personal memories of historical events, we can make the lessons of the Shoah part of the mindset of every young Jew. Guarding these memories by planting them in our own psyches will keep the lessons of these horrific times alive and relevant for future generations.

Teaching the lessons about what went wrong in a given situation and discussing how things might have been different is an activity without age boundaries. It is done with Kindergarteners when speaking about problems during recess and it can be done in relation to the Shoah in Fifth Grade in a way that is both age appropriate and pedagogically sound. My students love learning about the Shoah; for many it is their favorite subject. Even those who find some of the stories hard to hear know that what they are learning is important and meaningful and therefore are eager to learn more. Guarding our younger students from the horrors of the Shoah – the pictures of dead bodies and stories of the camps – does not preclude us from teaching them the lessons of this difficult period of history. Done with care and planning, teaching the Shoah to Fifth Graders can sow the seeds of concern for our People and our world and create a generation of Upstanders. It is with this ultimate goal in mind that I will continue to teach this history to my students and hope that others will follow suit.

(This article was originally printed in Jewish Educational Excellence – Volume 8:1 – Fall 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.)

Love, Justice and Religion

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Love, Justice and Religion

D’var on Shabbat Ha-azinu 5779

Nance Morris Adler

This d’var is given with gratitude to all those who helped make a summer without a “formal” learning trip to Europe into my most interesting, educational, and wonderful trip yet – Simonas, Michał, and Alan in particular, with many others also having a role in its success and of course much appreciation to Steve for supporting my need to learn and travel. It is no small coincidence that a d’var about love and unity was made possible by lots of love and international unity. Simonas and I in Vilnius before visiting the US Embassy to discuss a grant proposal for me to come to Lithuania and teach about Jewish Partisans. Michał and I outside the Polin Museum in Warsaw, Poland

Alan and I at the Anti-fascist Punk Music Festival in Potsdam, Germany

Over the summer i was in Berlin for a few days. While there I was invited to attend an anti-fascist Punk music festival with a emphasis on footballer culture. My German friend Alan, who invited me- is all of those things – a punk, anti-fascist and a footballer – he is also a high school teacher and a strong supporter of Israel. He does an exchange with Israel every year with his students – they go there and Israeli students come to visit their school in Eppingen. Alan is not Jewish – nor are his students. I have known Alan for five years and consider him to be a tremendous mensch. We were joined at this festival by two friends of his from Serbia – Pagan, so named because of his staunch anti-religious views, and Zeka – who was just as staunch in such views. Considering that these two come from a region that has been repeatedly torn apart by wars and crimes against humanity fed by religious differences, I can hardly say I blame them. Nationalism also contributes to the issues in the Balkans and so their anti-fascist stance is also not so surprising. Attending this event in Potsdam – a suburb of Berlin – was quite fascinating. We were greeted at the entrance by a “No Nazis” sign and it was chilling to realize they meant literal Nazis and not some hyperbolic use of the term. Inside every t-shirt had an anti-fascist, pro-humanity and pro-music message. My favorite, and I still want to find one of my own, was “I love music and hate fascists.”

During the evening, Zeka and I had a number of conversations. He realized during these that I was actually a “believer” as he might put it. He was stunned. I seemed so enlightened and intelligent. What could be going on? So, he began, with apologies if he was getting too personal or invasive, to question me about religion, God, and myself. All of his questions were answered with some version of “to be a better person” “love” “to remind me of my job to make the world a better place” “rules to live by so I make the world a better place” “reminders of the work I have to do”. He finally realized that this really was my reason for being “religious” – love, being a good person and knowing my job here on earth was to make it better than I found it. He was stumped by my lack of condemnation of other religions, judgement, desire for miracles or any other of the stereotypical answers he had heard or believed he would hear. He walked away. After about 10 minutes he came back and looked at me with deep respect and said “You are the first person in 20 years of asking that question who has given me an answer I can accept.” I laughed and said “I am sure the fact that I do this for a living might have helped me.”

I certainly don’t believe I am the only person who could have given Zeka that answer, but the fact I was the first was significant for him. I hope that he is able to be more open to those who do believe and who use that belief to do good. Current events in the Balkans make it hard to hold out too much hope, but every bit helps.

When in graduate school and multiple times since I have heard the advice to ask those who don’t believe in God about the God that they don’t believe in. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein says “I probably don’t believe in that God either.” I think it is equally important to think about the God YOU do believe. R. David Hartman talks about a God who hates lies and a God who demands justice, decency and compassion. His son, R. Donniel Hartman, states that he believes in the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, and not the God of the Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Many teach that the core of Judaism is love – from Hillel on one foot stating that we are to “do to others as we would have done to us” and that the rest is commentary, to the prophets who call on us to treat the most needy well and to create a world filled with tzedek. The God I believe in is the God of love and justice – but also the God who gave humans free will. Which means that the enacting of love and justice here on Earth is our job – not God’s. I always tell my students that God gave us the guidebook, gave us wise teachers, parents, community members, and other role models to show us the way to treat each other. Sadly these role models often fall short, or the rewards of behavior not full of love or justice are more fulfilling.

R. Jonathan Sacks writes in “Not in God’s Name” about the “almost irresistible drive towards tribalism” that religion leads to – something my friends Zeka and Pagan are well familiar with. Catholic Croats kill Serbian Orthodox who kill Bosnian Muslims – who are ethnically the same as Serbs and Croats and descended from Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule – but are perceived as literal descendants of Ottoman Turks – who killed both of the other two. The threat of a new civil war or worse lingers in Bosnia as the Republika Srpska hints at a desire of independence and land. A Serbian friend sent me a picture from Croatia of a “Serbian family reunion” that would be recognizable in our country as a tree hung with “strange fruit”. R. Sacks speaks of the impulse in religion to feel that God’s love is finite and if God loves your religion, God must not love the others. He speaks of a need for religious leaders who “embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.” We often hear the argument that your freedom to practice your religion can’t limit my freedom to practice mine – or my lack of one. When we see the purpose of religion, and God, as love – when we see our connection to God and to humanity through love – when we remember that Judaism teaches all humans are made in the image of God – not just some of them – then moving to a practice of Judaism centered on love, justice and equality becomes the next logical step. A Judaism that makes the world better for all – one where righteousness and uprightness are the focus of a “religious” life and being observant doesn’t involve “bean counting” of mitzvot observed, but rather making sure everyone has their just share of beans – will help people to reconnect and find meaning in tradition and want to be closer to God because it will mean being closer to their fellow humans.

R. David Hartman states that “God would no longer be found in miraculous intervention, but in the materials of everyday human life. It is for this reason that the Talmudic Rabbis, and their successors, so tirelessly dedicated themselves to finding new opportunities to tie mitzvot to daily activity. We fill our lives with mitzvah in order to cultivate the habit of mind that we live within the encompassing presence of God.” I see this idea as seeing the mitzvot as opportunities to do good and to make the world more just and to create equality and fill the world with love. R. Hartman continues – “We cannot know God, but we can know how to live with God. We can know, for example, that God requires decency, compassion, and justice. For Maimonides, the lived experience of that imagery constitutes my understanding of God. I always relate to halakha with that question. Does halakha, which structures lived experience, bring me into ever-deepening contact with a God that wants me to act justly?” If the answer is no – then R. Hartman – and many others – would question the validity of that halakha. In his book he takes on the Orthodox on no lesser topics than agunot – women trapped by the lack of a get – a Jewish divorce – and unable to remarry while their former husbands are free to do so – and conversion in Israel – particularly the status of immigrants from the former FSU and their children who fight and die for Israel but are refused Jewish burial.

In a world where religion is equated with decades of pedophilia, war, genocide, patriarchal views and practices, homophobia, racism and other unjust and unloving behaviors – it really is no wonder that one might question why an educated person would participate. Judaism thankfully is not a religion that asks you to mindlessly obey, it demands your intellectual engagement. Judaism does not have one answer – there is little dogma and much discussion and disagreement. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) – our yearly time for taking an accounting of our soul. The fact that I am given the oblitunity each year to assess my past behaviors and figure out what I need to fix and that I have to fix them – no one else can do my work – is such a gift. Confronting my sins and the sins of the community in the prayers of these days makes escaping self reflection impossible. The expectation of both the seeking of forgiveness, and the giving of it – the clear guidelines of what actually constitutes true t’shuva – all of these make me have to confront where I have fallen short and how I am going to do better in the future. This year much of my reflection has been on how I can be sure I am making the best use of my skills and opportunities to make the world better. As a teacher, I am fortunately in the position to impact the way young Jews think about Judaism and approaching the world Jewishly. I try to instill in them the sense that being a Jew isn’t about just religion or just culture – I try to show how it should influence their life choices on a daily basis and big picture. We talk about tzedahka – about tzedek – about being upstanders – about living one’s values every day. I teach prayer as a conversation with self as well as with God and quote R. Zaiman – and others I am sure – when I say prayer should make us different.

Practicing a religion – or non-religion – of love is always important and should be the goal of all humans always – but the state of the world today makes it all the more necessary. We are being swallowed by hate and division and those who truly believe in love and unity need to speak loudly and often. This summer I also traveled through Lithuania and Poland and heard stories of those who saved Jews and never told their stories or wanted to be acknowledged – I explained to a grandson in Vilnius why his grandparents had likely never told anyone but family their story and helped him realize that it wasn’t that Jews weren’t grateful – but that the Soviets and perhaps his grandparents’ neighbors were murderous. I then thanked him. I saw shock on the face of Polish teacher I had spent a whole day with touring churches and Polish sites as he realized I was a Jew. “She’s a Jew?” he asked my friend Michał in Polish. I explained to a Polish teen, a student of Michał’s, whose first question to me was “do I feel safe in America” that as a white woman I felt pretty safe. But as a Jew I felt a little less safe though far safer than others at this point. I then went through the various groups who didn’t feel safe and we talked about racism and guns and police violence in the US. It gave him a lot to think about. Again in Lithuania, I visited WWII sites where a very thin tightrope was walked between memorializing murdered Jews and honoring LIthuanians who fought the Soviets after helping kill some of those same Jews. My friend and guide in Lithuania, Simonas, is proud to be Lithuanian, but wishes his fellow Lithuanians were more enlightened and able to see the shades of gray necessary for moving forward. He often assures me he is not a “casual Lithuanian”, meaning his views are not those of the ordinary Lithuanians or “homo Sovieticus” as he refers to them. Michal, while guiding me in Warsaw was openly angry at the Poles who insist on calling attention to their suffering in the middle of the area where the Jewish Ghetto had been. I was sure his ranting about the “holy suffering of Poles” was going to get us lynched on the train. All of the tension in these situations is due to division and hatred based in religion, ethnicity, and race. Do I know if we can overcome this impulse in humans? I don’t. But I know we need to try if we want to survive.

Ha’azinu – the parsha this week – is Moshe’s last message to B’nai Israel – it is not a cheery one. It begins with a declaration of God’s perfection and faithfulness – “The Rock! God’s deeds are perfect, Yea all God’s ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is God.” God is just and wants us to be just – but the rest of Ha’azinu makes clear that already, after 40 years in God’s daily presence in the desert, human beings – b’nai Israel – will fail to be faithful to God. Despite being “fed honey from the crag,and oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs and rams of Bashan, and he goats; with the finest wheat…” we cannot be faithful to God. God threatens vengeance on those who stray. Life today is not lived in the daily presence of God – God’s bounty is not easy to find in many places. Daily miracles are no longer found – but we can make them. We are meant to be partners in perfecting this world. We are the hands to do the work to bring about peace and prosperity for all. Staying engaged and focused on being godly – bringing love and unity into the world – is hard. It was hard in the desert, it is even harder today. R.Donniel Hartman in “Putting God Second, Saving Religion from Itself” urges us to live as God wants us to live, rather than to live FOR God. God wants us to be love, to create justice, and care for each other. This is our guiding torah – and if following it does harm – then we need to revisit the first part and make changes. Our world depends on it.

D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5778 (2017) 

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Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation

As many of you know, from past divrei Torah, I travel each summer with Centropa – an organization that is dedicated to documenting the Jewish history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 20th century. This history is then used by teachers, like me, in classrooms all over Europe, Israel and the US – we use it to show how one person can make a difference, what happens when Civil Society falls apart, and the lessons of some of the darkest hours of history so that our students know to work to assure that they are not repeated. This summer I traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia.

Hungary was different than Poland or Germany or Austria – other places I have visited and spoken about. Hungarian Jews had a very different experience – and I learned that this just didn’t start with World War 2. There is much about Hungarian Jewry that is a bit different than other Jewish communities in Europe. And it really begins with emancipation in 1867. Jews in Hungary were expected to say thank you for their rights by fully assimilating into Hungarian culture and pretty much ceasing to be recognizably Jewish. Within 40 years, the percent of Jews who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue was 20% higher than among Catholic Hungarians. By the end of World War I, Jews were fully accepted as Hungarian – they were “Jewish Hungarians” or “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith”. Intermarriage was rampant and a unique brand of Hungarian Judaism – Neologism – had surpassed Orthodoxy in number of adherents.

After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the government of Hungary moved ever rightward and this collapse of liberalism was felt by the Jewish community. Jewish veterans of the war – who considered themselves Hungarian patriots and heroes – were not shielded from the rising anti-Semitism and increasing difficulty for Jews in finding work. Previously prejudice was directed at the Orthodox Jews from Galicia who retained traditional practices and attire and were easy to spot and harass. Modern, assimilated Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith were not used to feeling its sting. Those in the upper classes of power and wealth foolishly continued, past 1938’s Anti-Jewish laws, to believe that their Hungarian patriotism and clear assimilation would protect them. In the Centropa film “The Mayor Who Worked in Hell” there is an amazing photo of Hungarian Jewish WWI Veterans in their uniforms and medals in the Dohany Synagogue on Rosh HaShana in 1943. It was their belief that these uniforms would save them.

And for some time, even after Hungary joined Nazi Germany in the battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary did protect “her” Jews – foreign Jews were deported, but Hungarian Jews were not. The men were rounded up for labor and many perished in the harsh conditions – but they were not in camps or being shot in large numbers or gassed. But even this ended when Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Eichmann found, in the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungarians even more eager than his Nazis to deal with the Jews. One lecturer I heard this summer said that if the Hungarians had just done nothing – dragged their heels, refused to cooperate, stalled a bit – that the Jews of Budapest in particular would have survived. But, unfortunately, the Hungarian fascists were eager to be rid of their Jews.

Hungarian Jews felt they were fully Hungarian – they spoke the language, they Magyarized their names, they sent their children to state schools and they served proudly in the Hungarian Army. They embraced being Hungarian and minimized what made them Jewish. This was particularly true in Budapest. As a reward for this loyalty, synagogues in Budapest – unlike in other European cities – are large, on main streets, and are clearly Jewish. This equality with churches made Jews feel fully accepted. Dohany Synagogue is a massive structure on a Main Street with many Jewish symbols on the outside. Interestingly, this monument to the assimilation and full acceptance of Hungarian Jews is built on the property where the family of Theodore Herzl lived and where he was born. The man who dreamt of a state for the Jews was born into a community that felt it did not need one – it had one – Hungary. This may explain why I was shocked to find out he was from Budapest as he is always described as Austrian!

Neolog Judaism exists nowhere else and is a uniquely Hungarian expression of Judaism – it is a response to their history and patriotism as Hungarians. It was created by those Jews who said “We are Hungarians who are Jewish.” These Jews did not need a homeland. They were home – this really made me think about American Jews – and that of Budapest made me think particularly of Seattle Jews. As I toured Budapest and listened to a man in his 30s talk about growing up Jewish in Budapest and describe the Jewish community in Budapest today – I was struck by how similar it sounded to Seattle – low affiliation rate, cultural focus not religious, intermarriage, Jewish values being important and social action being a focus – the struggle to fill synagogues and schools – the lack of cohesion in the various parts of the community and the relatively young age of the community. Hearing about their current right wing government and rise in anti-Semitism as well as anti-refugee sentiment, made me think about the changing winds of our own country and my worries that our assimilation isn’t going to save us either. It made me think about how major political protests are all on Shabbat and the posts I have read begging the progressive community to have just one protest on a Sunday so observant Jews could attend. It made me think about having to choose between my Judaism and the rest of my identity and values when confronted with issues like this. I personally would most likely choose to participate, but what about those whose Jewish observance does not allow them to feel that they can make that choice? It made me think about the anti-Israel stream that runs through the progressive community and do i decide to participate despite this or do I remove myself? Do I break Shabbat to protest with those who then ask me to not include my Jewishness in my expression of outrage?

Truth is I don’t want to divide myself up – human/Jew/American/woman – it’s all me and I want to be able to act in way that is reflective of this. But it often leaves me adrift from true community, a fellowship of likeminded people, a place I feel fully myself but also fully a part of a larger whole. I find myself withdrawing from groups where I feel that some part of me isn’t welcome or accepted. And following the recent events in our nation, withdrawing from feeling welcome here at all. I know that we are a long way from where I should be panicking, but I also know that that distance can be travelled very quickly. A recent discussion online about whether or not violence against Nazis or Fascists was always ok reminded me how many people just don’t get how quickly. I was told that I should “wait till they are rounding you up to get violent.” I pointed out that if they were actually rounding Jews up, it would be far too late for a preventative violent response to be useful. That would mean there was a plan, and a place to send us. That this would not be the “beginning” as the person seemed to imply, but the “beginning of the end.”

I study and teach the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. I spend a lot, probably too much, of my time reading and discussing these events and the forces that allow them to happen. I know that the elimination of genocide is far more difficult than the saying “Never Again” seems to imply.We say that over and over as genocide continues to occur in multiple places. To end atrocities such as these, to end racism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, sexism and on and on – requires us to all be fully aware of our humanity and that of others. To be fully aware that we are – in the ways that truly matter – all the same – and that the differences are what makes life interesting and makes us each a unique gift.

Judaism teaches we are all made in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim – and each contain a spark of the Divine. The Rabbi shared a midrash where the angels decided to hide that spark in each person because they would not find it there – but I think in reality we have a harder time finding it in others than in ourselves. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines a mensch as someone who looks for and connects to that spark of the Divine in each and every person they meet. This similarity is what we need to see in all others – but without discounting what makes them unique.

By giving up our differences we would lose what makes us special and makes the world beautiful. But, by seeing only the differences, we will destroy our world. History shows – in Germany where Jews were highly assimilated, in Austria, and in Hungary – that you giving up what makes you different will not protect you from those who refuse to quit seeing that difference even when you have quit showing it. By being fully human, fully ourselves -by maximizing the uniqueness in each one of us – while also recognizing the vital sameness of us all – we can make a world where acceptance and love replace bias and hate. Working for this world is the t’shuvah (return to God/godliness) I am resolving to work on in the coming year. I hope you will join me.

D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Two Modes of Reconciliation with a Difficult Past – Terezin and Berlin

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Terezin or Berlin – Two Models for Reconciling with a Difficult Past
Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Parshat Vayelekh
Nance Adler
I hadn’t originally tied my d’var to the Parshat this week – I was focusing on the theme of t’shuva for Shabbat Shuvah – but was struck by these verses as the Torah was being read this morning. I will read these two verses and leave them there – they will make sense later.
“Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13

This summer I participated in my third Centropa Summer Academy. Centropa is an organization with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria that is working to document Jewish life in the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – that of the “Jews who went home after the Holocaust” as I refer to them. I use their materials heavily in my classroom and do many projects in collaboration with other Centropa teachers in Europe, Israel and other US schools. This year’s trip was to Vienna, Prague, Terezin and Berlin and focused on the experience of refugees. But I am not here to talk about refugees – though I could.
Today is Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – a day focused on the theme of return, repair and fixing the past as best we can. We are focused for these 10 days on tzedahka, teffila and t’shuva. But can we always fix the past? How do we repair what is broken when the break is so severe and those who were wronged are no longer here? How do we return to a point where “normal” life can continue in places where huge ruptures have occurred? Not individual ruptures or breakage – but cultural/national/regional ruptures that are not easily healed over. How do we dwell in the places where these things have happened and obtain a sense of normalcy again? Can we?
I would like to think about this question in relation to two places I visited this summer and then try to bring these analogies down to the personal level. I will start with a short blog post I wrote on the bus immediately after visiting Terezin.
“Terezin – Today I visited Terezin – Theresenstadt – the fortified city that became a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Prior to the 1940s and, again since then, Terezin was an actual town. First for the military and then for civilians as well. Walking through Terezin as visitors to a “museum” of the Ghetto, it was jarring and upsetting to be shaken out of the past by cars careening down the streets with their stereos blaring. The former housing and associated buildings used to imprison tens of thousands of Jews now house hair salons, bars, shops and even a pension – a small inn near where Jews would be loaded into trains for the trip to Auschwitz. The man in his speedo on the deck of this inn was really the final indignity. I personally can’t imagine living on the site of a Nazi created ghetto – a place where 33,000 people died from illness, starvation and poor treatment. How do you give your address? How do you invite people to visit you at your home? The atmosphere in the town is heavy with history – it was hard being there two hours – how does one live there? On the edge of “town”, just past the quaint little pension, there is a directional sign to the crematorium. I cannot imagine driving daily past this sign on my way in and out of town. Yes, evil and awful things happen/have happened in many places in the world, but some places are more tainted with this evil. For me, the idea of living in such a place is unthinkable. To try to have a normal, mundane life with the daily reminders of ultimate evil all around seems absurd. Perhaps the blaring radios and unsafe speed for streets full of museum visitors are just symptoms of this insanity.”
At Terezin there is both a memorial and museum to the past and an attempt to have life go on. They are side by side. There is no seeming connection between the two. Normal life goes on – or tries to – shoulder to shoulder with groups touring a place where people were starved and worked to death because they were Jews. I get that the Czech citizens living there now are not the descendants of Nazis who ran the camps. I get that it was on occupied territory and run by the occupying government. But, still, how does one wake up in the morning and start your day positively if part of your commute includes driving by sites of mass murder? How do you disconnect your reality from that reality?
Berlin – In Berlin we visited the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Let me repeat that name – its official name –Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no punches being pulled here. No euphemisms or soft selling of the fact of what happened and that this was the capital of the government that made it happen. It is a visually moving memorial with an equally moving and powerful “information center” built directly underneath it. This memorial is made up of different sized stelae or cement pillars. There are walkways between them which are uneven and give you the feeling of being off balance. Being in the center of it, where the pillars are tallest, is a whole body experience and very disorienting. While on the outskirts of the memorial – which is not well marked and very open to the public – people are not really aware of where they are, in the middle of it, it is hard to not be impacted by the experience.
When we entered the Information Center – it is not referred to as a museum – Ed Serotta – the founder and director of Centropa – spoke to our group before we toured the exhibits. Ed is not a man known for filtering his opinions or moderating his views – one of his more endearing features in my opinion. He said “When I first came here, before it opened, I went through looking for places where they had pulled their punches or been less than truthful. I found none.” To me this was a very high recommendation of the place – Ed is always quite happy to find where more could be said to take full responsibility for the crimes of genocide. As I went through the Center, I found that I was in agreement with Ed. Those of you who know me, know that the Holocaust is my specialty and I have spent a lot of time touring museums, reading books, going to seminars and otherwise immersing myself in this most horrible chapter of our history. The Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the most brutally honest and upfront presentation of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution that I have seen. That it exists in Berlin, near the Reichstag, in what was the center of the Nazi Reich, is amazing to me. There is no ignoring of the past. This is an airing of what was done, with no excuses being made. The crimes of the past are presented. Those guilty are named. There is no attempt at normalcy – the whole construction of the surrounding memorial is made to throw you off kilter and not allow you to feel normal or on firm ground. This is a place for coming to terms with the sins of the past and, even more importantly, educating those who visit about the importance of not repeating that past.
Other memorials in Berlin are similarly present and hard to miss such as the “Stumbling Stones” in the sidewalk outside homes lived in by Jews and the “Missing House” in the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque honoring homosexuals murdered and imprisoned on the wall of the UBahn Station in the part of town where these men would have likely lived. I know that for many Germans, particularly those living in Berlin, these constant reminders are perhaps too much. Airing one’s dirty laundry is not fun and having it constantly in your face, and also on display for all who visit, can be exhausting and embarrassing. I found Berlin to be one big museum – the outline of the former Berlin Wall is marked on the ground, the Stumbling Stones, the memorial for the Book Burning – it would be hard to live in Berlin and not have the mistakes of the past firmly in mind. The German Government works hard to show it has learned from this past – the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees this past year is one proof of this. The final step of t’shuva is to not repeat a behavior and Germany, or at least their chancellor,, is working hard to show that Germany has truly learnt the mistakes of its past and does not plan to repeat them. Like in Terezin, life goes on around all of these memorials, but it was a very different experience than the frenetic experience in the ghetto. History is respected, not ignored.
In our own lives, when there is a rupture are we in Terezin – side by side with the reminders but doing our best to drowned them out with music and fast living? Or are we in Berlin – respectfully admitting our guilt and accepting the consequences – and becoming a better person for having done so? Do we allow others to view our past transgressions, but ignore them ourselves? Or, do we use those “stumbling stones” of our experiences to keep ourselves in line and move forward positively? Do we say “I wasn’t responsible, but just a bystander – this has nothing to do with me” and not concern ourselves with the wrongs done around us? Or do we use the errors of others to teach us to be better people as well?
As a student and teacher of history, I know that the power of learning history is to explore the mistakes of others and NOT need to repeat them ourselves. Seeing the patterns of history, the warning signs of future trouble, makes one able to step in and try to prevent that trouble. The USHMM has a Genocide Early Warning team, there are known steps that lead to genocide, known behaviors or events that can lead to mass atrocities. Knowing these allows us to prevent a repeat of humanity’s darkest hours. Yet, genocide continues to happen around the world and we continue, as a society, to not take such signs seriously enough. A speaker I heard this summer said “Knowledge isn’t power – until it leads to action.” Our knowledge of past trouble should lead to actions to prevent future ones.
Seeing the warning signs of trouble in our own lives can be just as hard – but we need to use our past experiences to help us move into the future more positively and more aware. Burying the past may make moving forward easier – but it also makes repeating the past more likely. As painful as facing difficult experiences head on may be, this type of accounting will help to prevent additional painful experiences in the future. We say “Never Again” while all the while genocide and crimes against humanity continue to occur. “Never Forget” is more realistic and will hopefully eventually bring us to a true “Never Again.” Facing our mistakes, fixing what we can fix, mending relationships and rebuilding community and then resolving to keep that experience in mind is what brings us to the final step – not repeating the action. I don’t mean an obsessive fixation on the wrongs – but an awareness that lack of attention can lead to trouble. Whether that trouble is a broken friendship or much larger, an awareness of the impact of our behaviors that is informed by our past experiences – and those of others we know – will help us to minimize the damage or avoid it all together.
I wish for us all the ability to fix the ruptures in our lives and to move forward wiser for the experience. Our world needs citizens aware of history and unafraid to face it and use it to know when our present or our future is about to repeat it. G’mar hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.
Nance Adler
Edited to add in edits made during delivery
Note – I had several people come and tell me that I was wrong and people did not live in Terezin – they had been there 10 years or more ago and no one lived there then – I can assure you that all of the businesses I listed and attempts at “ordinary” life were there when I visited this summer.

Poland 2015 – Centropa Summer Academy

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Have you ever suppressed a memory? Or perhaps a part of your identity? Kept a secret locked away, hoping it would never see the light of day? How long could you do it? At what cost?

 

What if “you” were the Polish nation and that memory was all that had happened in your country and to your countrymen – Poles and Jews – between 1939 and 1946? What if the piece of your identity was that you, and now your children or even grandchildren as well, were Jews? What if you kept it hid – either by choice or by governmental threat or fear of death – for 40 years? What would it take to finally open the door on that secret, unearth – quite literally – those memories and talk about both the crimes done to, and by, your countrymen?

 

Prior to my planning to travel to Poland with Centropa this summer, and despite my considerable Holocaust education, I had no idea that under the Soviet regime the events of ’39-’46 had not been discussed. To imagine the trauma endured on Polish lands during those years – by its Jewish inhabitants, but also by its Polish non-Jewish ones as well – and then to imagine the ongoing psychological trauma of just pretending it never happened is, quite frankly, mind blowing. To think that in the country where the Nazis placed all of their death camps, no one was talking, learning, or openly confronting this horrific past is hard to imagine. And that doesn’t even begin to address the lack of accounting for actions perpetrated by Poles during this time. Those who were caught up in the zeitgeist and acted on age old hatreds, those who began as rescuers and became, for a whole variety of reasons, murders, those who after the Nazis were defeated were not happy to see surviving Jews return to perhaps try to reclaim their rightful property and made sure they knew they were not welcome. Millions of Ethnic Poles were also murdered, by the Soviets and by the Nazis. They were also declared untermenschen and slated for complete extermination when the Jews were dealt with. Their country split up, invaded and then invaded again, occupied, used as a location for the murder of Jews that was not fit to happen in a civilized nation such as Germany itself, and after the war handed over to Stalin. That is a lot of national trauma to sweep under the proverbial carpet and try to keep there for 40 years.

 

While we were in Poland we marked, on July 10th the anniversary of the murder of the Jews of Jedbawne by their Polish neighbors. Not the Nazis, but Poles who brutally beat and then burnt alive their fellow townspeople of the Jewish faith. This crime lay forgotten, despite a trial after the war. And this was not the only village where this happened. There is evidence of a month long rampage through the Bialystock district in July 1941. Germany had replaced the Soviets as occupiers and the Poles, foolishly they would learn, welcomed them. Jews were viewed as collaborators with the Soviets and this was used as one reason for their murder. Greed was clearly another as their bodies were still warm when their houses were looted. Jan Gross’s book Neighbors blew the lid off of this ugly secret and really opened the national conversation when it was published in 2000. Gross’s book Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz continues to pry at scarred over memories of post-war pogroms and, despite the idea Jews were favored by the Soviets, institutional anti-Jewish policies. To stay in Poland after the war, for that minuscule number of the 3.3 million Polish Jews who had survived, meant giving up your Jewish identity. Those few who tried to hold on to it, were run out of the country in 1967-8 after the Six Day War in Israel as the USSR was an Arab ally.

 

So how did this all play out during my visit? In Kraków we met a woman, about my age, part of “The Unexpected Generation” – Poles who learned in their teens or twenties that they are Jews during deathbed confessions or other opportunities to reveal the long buried family secret. Jewish life is on the upswing in Poland. Jewish festivals abound and cemeteries, synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods being revived and rebuilt. We visited the Polin Museum in Warsaw, a joint public/private venture that documents the 1000 year history of Jews in Poland. Poles have realized that the Jewish story is their story. Even with so few Jews left in Poland, Jewish culture is again valued as part of Polish culture.

 

Outside the Polin, our group was approached by an elderly man. He was curious about the nature of our group. He began to tell his story, in Polish. I called over a colleague from Poland who translated for me. This man was Polish. He had been sent by the Nazis to Germany to a work camp for two years. It was awful, but, he admitted twice, saved his life. “I would have died of starvation here.” And then there was the two guns he and his brother found that had them thinking about running off to join the Partisans – the second way his life was saved by being sent away. Just as a part of his story he mentions “My mother hid three Jews until it was too dangerous and she had to tell them to leave.” How I wished I spoke Polish! “Leave? Where did they go? Did they survive?” My mind reeled with questions I could not ask. He also told us about the creation of the ghetto in Warsaw. How early on you could go in and out, later for a bribe and finally not at all. He spoke of the brutality of Nazi guards who would klop you with their club at the slightest provocation. Here was history standing there in front of me sharing a piece of the story. Imagine his need to tell his story, imagine suppressing it for 40 years? Were we the first group he had approached?

 

Teaching this history – teaching the importance of not allowing these events to repeat – the need for Civil Society and our role in this undertaking is still a fraught undertaking for many of my colleagues in this area of the world. A Polish teacher I worked with deals with colleagues who long for a return to communism and don’t see the benefits of freedom. His students are concerned with bettering their own lives and can’t be bothered with working for the common good. How to teach a unit on the Solidarity Movement and the fall of Communism and the need for building a Civil Society? My Ukrainian colleague lives in a country under attack and at risk. We were privileged to have a speaker from the front lines of the protests in Maidan, Ukraine during the Academy.   A teacher from Greece said he has students who support the Fascists in Greece who have support from a major chunk of the population. How to teach these ideas there? My friends from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatian are still struggling with their own recent troubles and tensions reached new heights while we were in Poland with the UN and EU opposite rulings about Srebrenica during the annual marking of that genocide.

 

What a complex and troubled mess we have made on this “nice planet” as our guide at Auschwitz refers to our world. Tomasz said this phrase – this nice planet – at least 20 times during his pre-visit lecture and our tour. It is said with a serious dose of cynicism and disdain. Our planet isn’t nice at all. Well, at least many of the humans who inhabit it. Tomasz – or Dr. Cebulski, as he is more correctly known – just finished his PhD on Auschwitz. In his view the murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis was an industry – the main industry of Germany during the war. He refers to Auschwitz as a “technologically advanced, constantly updated, meticulous and perfected death machine.” Wow. This is what we do to each other on this nice planet. I am not sure if this intellectualization of genocide makes it easier or harder to stomach. As we walked through Auschwitz I, the work camp and center of the sprawling 48 camp Auschwitz system, with Tomasz’s narration in my ear, I was wrapped in this insulating layer; it provided distance from the horrors that had happened there. But it was not to fully protect me from being gut punched by the reality of Auschwitz.

 

In one of the barracks there are the well-known displays of the shoes – thousands of them – the hair – blackened and decaying, barely recognizable – the pots and pans, hair brushes and shoe polish containers. But before any of these, there is a display of tallisim – prayer shawls – white with black stripes, barely touched by age – just a few of them, draped over a long box. They appear to have been just left there. Perhaps taken off by their owners at the end of services and draped there while they went to enjoy lunch. I wear a tallis. It is a distinctly Jewish item. Shoes, brushes, hair – these are universal. They need not have been left by “my” people. I know people who own prayer shawls identical to these. They are the quintessential Ashkenazi tallis. I can picture the men – they would have been men here – who left them. All of this registers in nanoseconds and I am overcome with emotion. I stand in front of this display and weep openly. In my ear I hear Tomasz continue on about the reliance of Germany, especially late in the war, on the items taken from the Jews as they arrived at Auschwitz. The needs of Germans for household items, clothing, shoes, were met by the looted belongings of murdered Jews – primarily Hungarian at this point. The hair was made into fabric. And these prayer shawls – valued for their high quality woolen fabric – were destined to become undergarments for Nazi officers. Clearly this all registered despite my emotional state, I just typed it here, but all I could think about was the religious Jews who once wore these while praying. After this, shoes, suitcases, brushes, and even the controversial display of hair, did not faze me. Too many, too aged and unreal, too universal. I will admit I did not look at the display of baby clothes. That would have surely been too much.

 

My overall impression of Auschwitz I was that it was so small. The displays are mostly very clinical and make emotional connection hard. The Yad Vashem display is excellent and an exception to this. The reproductions of children’s drawings from the walls of camps were heartbreaking – first in their innocence and later in how they show that children were not protected or ignorant of what was going on. The one real crack in Tomasz’s emotional remove was in the last room of this barrack. This room holds the Book of Names. Tomasz said “If Auschwitz is the largest cemetery or mass grave, albeit without bodies, on “this nice planet”, this book is the marker.” On this tombstone I was able to find the name of my husband’s grandfather.

 

We then went to Birkenau – the main sub-camp of Auschwitz. It is at the “back of Birkenau” (another of Tomasz’s turns of phrase) that the two main crematoria of Auschwitz were located. There had been a major wind storm the night before and we were not able to tour all of Birkenau but walked down the center strip where the train tracks run. That was enough to be overcome by how endless and sprawling this camp was. Seeing row after row of ruins of barracks, primarily the brick chimneys, running off into the distance was overwhelming. We walked to the end, the liminal space between Birkenau – the labor camp – and Auschwitz the death camp. It is this combining of the two that was a “tactical error” on the part of the Nazis according to Tomasz. The other death camps left few survivors, few witnesses – less than 100 between the four – and were almost entirely demolished and hidden before the end of the war. The fact that Auschwitz was primarily a labor/concentration camp and a death camp only towards the end of the war is why we have survivors, witnesses to what the Nazis did there. Thank God for this tactical error on the part of the Nazis or the deniers would have an easier time.

 

I am writing this while flying to Washington DC for the second half of my Fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of our topics will be how to use sites like Auschwitz in our teaching. I am looking forward to this as I am not sure what to do with this experience. How to process the emotions, the learning, the sheer unrealness of the depths of evil we are capable of on this nice planet. How do I use my experience of this to create a world where that phrase can be said with honesty and pride rather than cynicism?