The Pity of It All

The Pity of It All


Memorial for the 50,000 Jews deported from the Grunewald Train Station in Berlin. The memorial along Track 17 lists each of the deportations from Berlin to the concentration camps.   PHOTOS/courtesy Rabbi Paul Kerbel

A week into a two-week study tour of Eastern Europe, I found myself sitting in the Budapest airport waiting with my group of 40 for a flight to Prague. Next to me was an older Jewish couple from West Palm Beach, waiting for a flight to Zurich.

I asked the husband what brought them to Budapest. He was a ‘Holocaust’ survivor who had emigrated to the United States and returns to Budapest every two years to visit his family that stayed in Europe.

He, in turn, asked where we were going. I described our journey that had begun in Poland the week before; we had visited all of the synagogues, memorials and historical sites in Warsaw and Krakow and spent a day at Auschwitz.

“Oh,” he said to me, “I could never go there.”

I know that some Jews feel that way. Maybe at one point I felt that way about both Poland and Germany. But for some time, I knew I had to visit.

After years of study – at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at Hebrew University and Yad Vashem and via my self-directed immersion in the history of and aftermath of the Holocaust – this journey was the inevitable next step. I needed to go. It was time.

Warsaw and Krakow, Changed but Not Undone by Nazism and Communism

Our journey began in Warsaw. We visited the last remnant of the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto; the memorial at Mila 18; the Jewish Historical Institute, a research center on Jewish life in Poland and the Holocaust; and the Jewish cemetery with its mass graves and memorial to Janus Korchak, one of the brave and selfless individuals who died in the Holocaust.

It was at this memorial that I bumped into my son Micha’s USY Poland/Israel Group, and I got to give him a hug and take a quick photo before we each continued to experience Poland in different ways.

It was amazing to see the transformation taking place in Warsaw, Krakow and all of the cities we visited as each rebuilds only 23 years after the fall of Communism. In contrast to those times, food was plentiful, and today new malls with the latest luxury goods can be found throughout the former Communist countries.

Riding a train through the Polish countryside to Krakow, we arrived in the center of the city to begin our explorations. Here lived one of the greatest rabbis of Jewish history, Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Ramah), at whose grave we recited kaddish.

Our tour also took us to all of the synagogues in this beautiful medieval city, and we learned much of the rich Jewish history of Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Lublin, the home of three million Jews since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Auschwitz, a Site of Horror, a Site of Learning

Early the next morning, our scholar-in-residence Professor Stephen Berk prepared us for our visit to Auschwitz. As historian Laurence Rees wrote in his recent history of the infamous concentration camp:

“We must judge behavior by the context of the times, and judged by the context of mid-20th century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ represent the lowest act in all of history. Through their crime, the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do as long as they possess a cold heart.”

I was haunted as I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. The sun was shining and the trees and flowers were in full bloom, but I could not shake from my mind the stories, the sounds of horror, the acts of evil and wickedness that took place here. The death toll just for Jewish victims was 1,100,000 here.

Invited to lead a memorial service at the end of the day by the ruins of the crematorium, I tried to hold back the tears that came as I thought about what happened here. My only comfort was seeing thousands of middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults from many countries visiting that day.

Will they understand what happened to my people? Will they be a part of the population in the world who will speak out if it ever happens again to us or anyone else in the future?

My parents visited Poland in 1975, and now my sons have all visited Auschwitz. It was important to us to teach our children. It is important for them to imagine the scenes of the greatest crime perpetrated against our people; for them to hear the stories of what took place in Auschwitz and Terezin; for them to see the barracks, the isolation cells, the crematorium, the piles of shoes and hair and suitcases and the thousands of cans of Zyklon B gas – created by a Jewish scientist as an insecticide for lice – in the killing fields of Auschwitz, where 1 million Jews are buried, just a portion of the 6 million of our people were killed for the crime of being Jewish.

I will never forget that day.

Berlin and Trip’s End

But as important as it was for me to visit these places of evil, it is important for us to remember that each of these countries was a haven for the Jews. Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary were homes for the Jews for as much as 1,700 years, and each of these countries had a history of rich Jewish culture.

Each of these countries produced “golden ages” of literary, scientific and political achievement; some of the greatest and most important works of Jewish rabbinic literature and Jewish law were written in these lands. And in every field of endeavor, the Jewish people made significant contributions in philosophy, medicine, science, industry, literature; there were many rich bursts of creativity and contribution to the societies where Jews lived and made their homes amidst periods of anti-Semitism, pogroms and expulsions.

We ended our trip in Berlin, where I visited for the first time Pottsdam – the town that hosted the meetings of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, as well as those with President Truman after Roosevelt’s death – and also the mansion in Wansee where the decisions regarding the Final Solution were made in January of 1942.

Finally, we listened to the Cantors Assembly – the American association of Conservative cantors – perform in the concert halls of Berlin seven decades after Hitler took his own life.

What I learned on this trip is that the history and life of our people in East Central Europe and in Germany was richly textured and complex. We cannot make sweeping generalizations or look at each country with a monochromatic lens.

When we think of Poland, we cannot only think of Auschwitz, and when we look at the history of the Jews in the Czech Republic, we cannot only look at Terezin. The Jewish people and their gentile neighbors were enriched by their lives and histories in these places, and we need to know about that part of our history as well.

The late Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote that the “11th Commandment” is “to remember the Holocaust.” On this trip, I sought to fulfill his edict, but there is so much more.

The Israeli historian Amos Elon wrote a wonderful book on the rich history of the Jews of Germany from 1743 to 1933 entitled “The Pity of It All.” When you read this book and see what Nazi Germany did, you can only wonder what would have happened if Hitler had not been born or had not risen to power.

But as I learned at Auschwitz, “there is no ‘why’ here.”  The best we can do is see the evidence, learn the stories, remember what once was and what happened in the death and labor camps and try to make sure this never happens again, to us or to any people anywhere in the world.

Editor’s note: In August, Rabbi Kerbel begins his 10th year as a rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb. He serves on the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. In June 2013, he and his wife will lead a tour of Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Budapest, Prague and Terezin. If you are interested, please write to Rabbi Kerbel at

By Rabbi Paul David Kerbel
AJT Contributor

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