It may take an hour and a half or longer to circumvent the borders of that infamous death factory where the Nazis murdered more than 1.2 million people, 90% of whom were Jewish. During my recent visit, it took me twenty minutes to walk out of the camp, traversing the straight rail line that led into the camp and ends today at the platform where ceremonies of memory take place. I could leave that camp, and our ancestors could not.
As I observed the rocks that lined and reinforced those rail lines, this verse from the book of Psalms came to my mind: “The rock that the builders had rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:32) Just as those rocks have outlived the German war machine, so too have we as a people outlived the animus that sought to destroy us. Our enemies have been destroyed, and we still exist.
It was recently my privilege to escort a group of 90 eleventh grade Reform Jewish students and their seventeen person staff through some of the Jewish historical sites of Eastern Europe. And we traveled from the synagogues of Prague to the streets and tenements of Terezín, and from the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz to the rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow and Warsaw.
We learned there that, on the one hand, there was seemingly no limit to the Nazi atrocities of World War II. We also learned that resistance took many forms, and there were countless Jewish Holocaust victims who would not quietly suffer injustice.
As difficult as this might be, we should include these places on our travel itineraries. They are not comfortable places to visit, but they are significant Jewish sites where we can directly and viscerally understand what our people experienced during the Holocaust. And we will also see that Jewish life is on the ascent, even in the very shadow of Auschwitz.