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Confronting Horror, Encountering Hope at Auschwitz

rabbi's commentary, rnl

May 11, 2017

Dear Friend of Israel,

Earlier this week, I traveled with a group of Russian Jewish youth participating in a Jewish heritage tour of Europe to visit Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland where more than a million Jews were murdered during World War II.

There was something so difficult about this trip. I had never been to Auschwitz before. Frankly, I had never wanted to come. I had heard so much about the horrors of Auschwitz growing up, I felt I knew it already. I heard every cry of the Jews who had come through these gates. They had not come as tourists. They came as prisoners.

After days of traveling crowded into train cars like cattle – there was no room to sit down, nothing to eat or drink – they saw the sign at the camp entrance which reads, in German, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work makes you free.”) The unspeakably cruel irony of that sign! It was a ruse, a deception, to get these innocent victims to believe that working would ensure their survival.

But Auschwitz was an extermination camp. Standing there, I tried to imagine the scene: trains arriving, terrified people hoping and praying only to stay alive. Armed soldiers surrounded them. At one point, they were told to go either to the left, or to the right. Turn one direction, and your life might be prolonged for a time. In the other direction lay the “showers” which were filled with deadly cyanide gas. People gasped for breath, and in a matter of minutes, died. For most in Auschwitz, death came sooner or later.

It’s hard to fathom that it was real. But it was.

At the end of the tour, I joined with my young Russian friends to sing the Hebrew song, “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”). As somber as the day had been, I thought of the words written in Jeremiah: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Here, amid evidence of one of the catastrophic events of the Jewish past, was the hope for a thriving Jewish future.

We will continue to remember the Holocaust and its victims. We will continue to say “Never again!” We will continue to do everything we can to help all the survivors of this terrible chapter of history live the rest of their lives in dignity. And we will also remember that God has given the Jewish people hope, and a future. Thank God for this reassurance.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

Rabbi Eckstein with young olim girl after Freedom Flight

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