By Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)
I limp in the dark Eicha night with pain in my knee exploding, and I hear dogs barking in the near-pitch-blackness. Tears fill behind my eyes, not from my knee this time, though I say nothing to anyone. I quickly look at my wife and know we are each with private thoughts.
Several friends offer to get the wheelchair or my cane, and I curtly answer that I’m fine, though I’m anything but fine. I’m no martyr, and I don’t love pain. But in this place, my knee is not the source of my torment.
I walk in thin-soled non-leather sneakers where the rock-strewn road hurts the soles of my feet. I am aware that our people were beaten here seventy years ago, tortured, and beaten through hell in ways I pray to God no human being will ever know. So in this place where our people suffered relentlessly, how dare I complain about anything? I remain silent and worry only about how my wife and son are holding up.
Inside the infamous guard tower, we climb up, overlooking the vast Auschwitz acres, and we sit on the floor, leaning against the inside walls. I think of Germans who’d worked the searchlights here looking for “dangerous” emaciated Jews, often shooting them dead for no reason. I hate them all.
And then it hits me: this night it is we Jews who have overtaken this tower, we Jews are in control tonight of this place dripping with evil. We Jews are here: we have won, thriving in our Jewish lives and culture and religion. And the damned Third Reich? Under the ground. History. Pages in some books. In drerd arein, as my blessed father used to say. We Jews are flesh and blood and sinew and bone and we are here, accentuating our Jewishness right here in the lair of the most barbaric people in history.
And here we are, reading from inside this Nazi watchtower the Book of Eicha, Lamentations, over the destruction of the ancient Temple of the Jews. I need to feel sad, but I am nearly giddy with joy that this watchtower, this temple of evil, is in the hands of our victorious Jewish group tonight.
We return the next morning and daven shachrit in the woods of Auschwitz. I see several acorns on the ground, and I pick up a green one and put it in my pants pocket, my personal connection here, the green of it fresh and full of life in this kingdom of death. At home, friends will ask why there’s an acorn on a shelf in my bookcase that holds my Torah books and my collection of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Hemingway and others. I will tell them it fell from a tree in Auschwitz where our group davened shachrit together. The customs people at the JFK airport will ask if I have anything to declare, and I will hold out my wrists and tell them to handcuff me because I’ve broken the law, bringing this acorn home in my pocket. The entire world has committed crimes against us Jews throughout history, and my little green acorn has silently witnessed the Nazi massacre of more than a million of my brothers and sisters and I want to own this teeny, silent witness.
Just a week before, we’d walked through Tikochin Forest, where Jews had been force-marched in, many already near death from weakness and starvation. There, the trees have no branches, no leaves. Nothing new grows, just mammoth tree trunks on either side of the dirt path leading to three mass graves, each site draped now in very large Israeli flags, where Israeli officers pay their respects. In my imagination, Nazis bully us, smash their rifle-butts against our ribs, our heads, our backs to make us go faster. But we can’t, we are so near death. Some of us fall to the ground, lifeless even as we fall.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the remnant wall. Operation Reinhart. Chachmei Lublin. Treblinka. the Nozyk shul. The Tempel shul. The Rebbe Elimelech of Lezajsk. Majdanek. Crematoria. Krakow. The Rama. Tosafot Yom Tov. The Hocha shul. Schindler and ‘his’ Jews in his factory.
So many reminders of deep Jewish life and most painful Jewish death all over Poland. The Poles, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians, all Hitler’s willing executioners, often gleefully torturing Jewish people. And so many other places and issues and thoughts and pain.
We now have America, as long as that haven lasts.
But we definitely have Israel, our true home, where we Jews will be in charge of the fate of our people. And so it continues for us as Jews whose souls were in Poland, and for us as Jews, part of this mission, living in New York and elsewhere.
On a personal note: when I finished learning the Tractate Taanis in memory of my parents and those of my wife’s, I was excited to make a siyum in Poland. (A siyum is the traditional ceremony one makes upon completing a tractate.) I made a siyum in that very country whose populace sought to destroy the Jewish nation and our Torah, and here I was, in their face, showing them all that we Jews and our Torah live on.
For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.