“My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. And I am Jewish.” Those were the words I kept repeating to myself as I boarded my flight from JFK to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Daniel Pearl said those words to his Islamic extremist captors before he was beheaded in 2002. Those words could very well have been the words of many of the 6-million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah. And those might have been the words of the four people killed in a Parisian kosher supermarket last month.
I arrived in Krakow by midday on Jan. 26, the eve of the commemoration, and had the privilege to take part in a beautiful program that evening together with well over 100 survivors, listening to beautiful music and an inspired speech by USC Shoah Foundation founder Stephen Spielberg.
The highlight of the evening and of the program the following day at the main gate of Birkenau was talking to some of the 300 survivors that had made the journey. I could almost hear them saying in unison, “My father was Jewish. My mother was Jewish. And I am Jewish,” as they made me promise that as a child of survivors, I would make sure that my children would be prepared to fight anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. They emphasized with desperation in their voices and fear in their eyes, “Your children will be the last generation that knew us, that heard us, and that hugged us.”
During the less than 48 hours I spent in Poland, I barely slept and had limited to no appetite, but as I said to my wife, Ulrika, “When you immerse yourself in the Shoah together with survivors, you are not tired, hungry or cold.” How could you be? Walking with the survivors in the cold darkness along the railroad tracks in Birkenau where the selections of who would live and who would die had taken place, all you could be was grateful that anyone managed to live through that hell.
The commemoration was dignified and I am happy to have been there. I am thankful to all who came -- thankful for Steven Spielberg’s leadership, thankful for the Committee Chairman, David Zaslow, thankful for Stephen Smith and his entire team for organizing this mission, and thankful for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the World Jewish Congress as well for partnering with us at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and making it all possible.
At the farewell dinner in Poland where we were all emotionally drained, I made some remarks reflecting how I felt that very moment.
In the Torah portion we read last week, Moses was finally able to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. It took a horrific event, namely the plague of killing all first born, for Pharaoh to relent and let the Israelites go. The Jewish first born were passed over and saved.
Moses led his people out of misery and the exodus to freedom and self-determination in the land of Israel.
The Jewish people were able to go to a place and escape tyranny. Eighty years ago, there was no such place to go to; there was no Jewish homeland (although it had been promised years before). There were very few other places that wanted us, so 6-million women, men and children were annihilated in an industrial fashion by a tyrannical and despotic Nazi regime, with the quiet acquiescence or outright collaboration of people throughout Europe, thereby committing the most heinous crime ever by man against man.
I am here but for the grace of G-d. My mother arrived in Birkenau in the spring of 1944, age 12 as did my father, age 13. My mother was liberated in Mauthausen and my father in Buchenwald, having survived the Death March in January 1945.
How then, is this relevant to last week’s Torah portion? Well, I had the privilege to be in Israel two weeks ago on a Taglit/Birthright Mission. It struck me that for the past 66 ½ years, we have had a land to accommodate multiple versions of the exodus: the post Shoah absorption which my parents were part of, the more than 800,000 from the Arab world, the 1.4 million from the Former Soviet Union, the Ethiopian Jewish community and many more.
So it feels at once comfortable to know that Israel is here; after all, in all of Jewish prayers for 2,000 years, people yearned for next year in Jerusalem, and we, here and now, are the lucky ones; we are living it; we can be in Jerusalem not only in our dreams, but in reality.
But it also feels uncomfortable. It feels uncomfortable because what it says about our world 70 years after the Shoah. The rise of virulent anti-Semitism (you can call it anti-Zionism; anti-Israelism; it’s all the same) is on the march and Jews in the Diaspora like Ukraine, France, Belgium, Argentina, Sweden, (where I was born and raised) and many other places are afraid, are targeted and are forced to uproot their lives. For them and for us, next year -- or this year -- in Jerusalem means everything and must never be taken for granted. So as I sat at today’s commemoration I prayed that this time the emergence of overt anti-Semitism does not become genocidal because while Jews have a place to go in Israel, I’m not sure that that very place will necessarily be miraculously passed over.
To that end we must support Israel and we must leave Poland with a new sense of purpose to support the work of the USC Shoah Foundation as memory becomes history and hence the preservation of over 53,000 memories in the Visual History Archive, representing 6-million voices that were silenced. We must also safeguard the physical remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau so that the souls whose remains are forever interred in Birkenau will never be forgotten.
Remember! Engage! And let’s work together for memory, for tolerance, for love and for a better more hopeful world.