A Long Deferred Visit: AUSCHWITZ


To commemorate Yom Ha Shoah, I share the following reflection of my visit to Auschwitz.

It should always be cold, it seems to me, at Auschwitz, and the sky should always be a dreary gray.

Unless it is a very hot day, I am always cold. It has been that way it, it seems to me, since the frigid night in February when my Hamilton College Hockey team played MIT in Boston outdoors.

I was not one of the team’s better players (an understatement), and I spent much of the game on the bench. Since then, I have been cold.

And so, as much as any of the horrible sufferings people endured or succumbed to at Auschwitz, I think of the cold.

The thin pieces of rag that inmates wore, and their often bare feet provided no shield at all against the brutal Polish winter.

It was not cold by normal standards when we visited Auschwitz. But I vowed not to be cold. I wore long johns, knit cap, gloves and four layers of clothing on my upper body.

We came first to the death camp of Birkenau. The stark barrenness and sense that we were in the middle of nowhere combined with the knowledge of what happened there evoked a strong emotional response.

And despite how warmly I dressed and the comparatively mild temperature, I was cold.

Then we made our way to “the main Auschwitz.” Tour buses and crowds greeted us. It seemed we were visiting just another tourist attraction.

The only thing there that I needed to see with my own eyes—given how many other Holocaust museums and memorials I have visited—was the infamous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign over the main gate.

It was smaller than I imagined.

But then our friend, Pastor Martin Pommerening pointed out something I had not known.

The B in ‘ARBEIT’ was upside down.

Instead of the bottom being bigger than the top, the top was bigger than the bottom. I had never noticed.

It was a subtle protest by the workers forced to make the sign against its message. They were telling the world that the sign above the Gate of Auschwitz was a lie.

Then Martin asked if the second letter, the “Bet” ב has any special significance in Judaism.

The rabbis make much, I answered, of the fact that the first word of the Torah, ”Bereshit” (In the beginning) begins with “Bet.” “Bet” is the first letter of the Hebrew word for B’racha ”which means “blessing,” the blessing God charged Abraham and all of us (Genesis 12:2) to make of our lives.

The rabbis also noted that God began Torah with the letter “Bet” because the Bet is closed beneath it, behind it and above it. That teaches that what happens when we are placed beneath the ground, what happened before creation, and so much about God above are beyond our ability to know.

But, the Sages, continued, the Bet is open in front.

That Midrash symbolizes for me the main message I have tried to proclaim in speaking these past three years in synagogues, schools, and churches in Germany:

“We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.”

I could not leave Auschwitz soon enough, and as we drove away the sun peeked through the clouds as we contemplated the future we wish to shape.

15 thoughts on “A Long Deferred Visit: AUSCHWITZ

  1. Thank you for this courageous piece. Despite the difficulties, I understand why you had to go there to pay homage to those who were killed and the never-ending grief. A friend of mine spent a week there in a meditation retreat. She was cold. I feel cold reading your words. (My husband taught at Colgate, close to Hamilton College, so I know this part of the earth and live 90 minutes southwest near Ithaca.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in 8th grade my youth group in my church saw film footage of the camps. I remember how disturbed I was by them, how sad I felt and how bleak I thought the world was. I went home and asked my Mom if she knew about this horrible film, when she said yes, I almost felt betrayed that she knew of this thing and never shared it with me. I have always felt an overwhelming sense of the horrible loss and and tragic death and loss of lives when I think of these events. My own in laws living in Poland, were taken prisoners and sent to forced labor camps Germany, Although they had it rough, they were the lucky ones. My heart breaks at the cruelty humanity deals each other daily.
    I hope you get warm soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank, Skip! your mind-boggling ability and desire to amplify my voice about these and other matters makes a huge difference, Skip, at least it does for me, and I am very grateful!


  3. Thank you. Despite our pain at hearing them, and yours at telling them, we need honest stories like this that remind us of humanity’s dark side. Not everyone is as willing or able to explore the dark and feel the cold as you are, but our true stories, honestly told, can help others see our shadow clearly enough to make better choices.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree with Jean. She pointed out the reason such a story is so compelling. It teachs us about our darker selves.


  5. I always enjoy your commentaries. This was particularly meaningful because one of my aunts was at Auschwitz in 1945. We visited there in 2002.


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