At Auschwitz, the Dead Wish to March With the Living
Once again, I have found myself lost amid the remains of Auschwitz.
The last time I was here, I visited with a delegation from the Israeli Knesset, and the top brass of the Israeli military. Even as I walked among the very leaders of the modern miracle of the state of Israel — themselves the symbols of Jewish hope that survived the Nazi horrors — I felt deep despair.
This time, I am here with the March of the Living, among an army of Jewish youth — 12,000 strong. The mass-cascade of hopeful Jewish students, led by a delegation of survivors, is awash with the white and blue of the Israeli flag, which hundreds have draped across their shoulders or affixed to banners that rise triumphantly above the crowds.
The March of the Living represents the new face of Judaism.
No longer will Jews be driven to their deaths at the barrel of a gun. Today, Jews step along this hallowed earth in a powerful parade, marked by our pride and resilience, our strength and our grit. This is, ultimately, a testament to our rebirth as a people.
And still, as I entered the sprawling complex of death, I felt loss, numbness and confusion.
I walked under the notorious sign: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Immediately, I was gripped by the thought that as the train-loads of Jews arrived here, they might have truly believed that “work would set them free.” For a million of those Jews, it would be a false and fruitless hope. They would never leave, but would meet their ends in chambers of poison gas. Not even their bodies would remain. They would be incinerated into ash in the crematoria.
How can one stand in this temple of horror and destruction, this barefaced symbol of God’s abandonment of his people, and feel anything within the sphere of hope? No, here there is nothing but darkness. It is a world of shadows, impenetrable to all light. Endlessly deep and profoundly unforgiving, Auschwitz is an abyss from which no soul can possibly escape.
I’ve given up on finding meaning here. But I’ve come across something else. There is an unrelenting message that is cast upon me in all directions by the camp’s decaying brick walls, sullen barracks and looming guard-towers. It is a call that springs upon me from the earth, from the hundreds of thousands of voices that were silenced here seven-decades ago — the victims, whom I can, somehow, still hear.
In a chorus of urgency and desperation, the victims impart to me the most hallowed command: stop the horror. Never allow our fate to be thrust upon more innocent victims. Treasure our memory, and protect those whom you still can save.
In Auschwitz, I find that I’ve been given a mission. And this mission has never been more crucial than it is today.
Even after witnessing the decimation of European Jewry in places like this, the world has allowed mass-slaughter and genocide to rage largely untouched in Cambodia, Iraq, Pakistan, Guatemala, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur — among many others.
Today, the killing goes on in Iraq at the hands of ISIS, who launched a genocide of the Yazidi-Christians, and in Syria, where government forces along with the Iranian-funded Hezbollah army of terror are targeting Sunnis and Arab children for mass extermination.
For years now, Iran has continued time and again to threaten yet another holocaust against the Jewish people. Just four months ago, Iran’s defense minister promised that should President Donald Trump pull out of former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, the result would be the “immediate destruction of the Zionist regime.” Half a year before that, an adviser to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bragged that he would raze all of Israel to the ground in “less than eight minutes.”
In return for this talk, the world gave Iran a nuclear deal that all but allowed the continuation of a nuclear-program designed to make their genocidal dreams possible. The West also flooded the mullahs’ coffers with $150 billion dollars, and legitimized trade with their putrid, autocratic regime.
What is even more horrific is that just this month, Syria’s illegitimate murderer-in-chief Bashar Assad took a note from the Nazis and employed poison gas to murder civilians in Idlib. To his credit, Trump avenged their deaths with dozens of missile strikes on a Syrian airfield. But the very fact that such attacks still occur is proof that our world has yet to learn from the Holocaust, or heard the call of its victims — a call that still rings in my ears.
We must shed light on peoples at risk across the world, bringing their plight to the forefront of the global consciousness. Never again will people and governments be able to claim, as they always have, that they simply did not know.
I am here at the March of the Living with my friend Elisha Wiesel, who is going to speak about the memory of his father. On a recent Sabbath, Elisha shared a beautiful Torah thought with me. Why did God make the Nile River run red with blood as the first plague against Egypt? His answer? So that the Egyptians would never be able to deny that they had perpetrated a genocide of Jewish children in the river. The very waters cried out with blood.
We may have come too late for those who rest in Auschwitz, Rwanda and the countless mass-graves that lie all across our world. Still, their voices rise up from the earth, begging to finally be heard.
And even if we can’t save them, we can save others.
Let’s join together and build an organization that will finally endow meaning to life in a world that is so often blind to it.
Let us finally hear the screams in the silence of Auschwitz. Within those screams is not just a cry of death, but a mission of life.
It’s a mission that simply cannot wait.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.