I recently went to Poland with one of my daughters. Americans, Jews among them, experience their lives in atomized fashion — individual and autonomous. But Jewish life emphasizes the collective and communal. We tell mourners, “May the Almighty comfort you amongst the rest of us who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. “We share your suffering, and your pain is an intense and personal experience of the pain that is all of ours.” And so I took my daughter to make her a visceral participant in that seminal event of recent Jewish history, the Holocaust.
Words only work within the narrow middle-range of experience. When my first child was born I called it “stunning,” which was meaningless since I’d also used “stunning” to describe an LA Lakers victory in overtime. In a chill breeze, in parka and sweater, I say, “It’s cold.” How do I describe shoeless inmates in pajamas marching from Poland to Germany in the winter of ’45? Callous thoughtlessness is “cruel.” What about shooting a woman and child through the head with a rifle?
Like words, accumulated facts take nothing from the incomprehensible. I looked at the piles of shoes, the glasses, the suitcases, the hair; looked at the wall where people were shot, walked into the gulleys in which they were buried alive, stood in the gas chamber, and peered into the ovens. But the Holocaust remains opaque.
But what’s uncanny about Birkenau is its tranquility. It is peaceful, maybe hallowed. No one wanted to leave. We sat silently on the ground and kissed it when we rose.
And then we drove through the night, seven hours from Auschwitz in Poland’s south to Lublin in the north — hours through the dark without seeing a soul. Around midnight we stopped for the driver to rest and stood by the bus at the side of the road. There was no light; no sound but dogs barking in the distance; no clouds and no stars. We might have fallen off the edge of the earth.
In Lublin we prayed at the ruins of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, a great yeshiva of pre-war Europe, now desolate, and unused by the town’s seven remaining Jews. The building was cold, dark, dank, deserted. We huddled in a small room and said the Sabbath prayers, “Come my dearest to greet the bride, to greet the Sabbath.” And we sang and we sang, and our voices echoed off the empty walls, and we took hands and danced in the gathering gloom, because beyond words, explanation, or doubt, we knew God loves us.