75 Years Since Elie Wiesel Was Sent to Auschwitz
Seventy-five years ago this week, Elie Wiesel was deported from Sighet, Romania — a small town in the Carpathian mountains — at the age of 15. Within three days, he would arrive at Auschwitz, where his mother Sarah and baby sister Tziporah were instantly murdered. Elie’s story of survival in the hell of Auschwitz, along with his father Shlomo — who would later die at Buchenwald just before the war’s end — would become one of the most famous Holocaust memoirs of all time, equaled only by the diary of Anne Frank.
Visiting Sighet and seeing Elie’s childhood home — today a museum — is a sobering experience. I was there to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the deportations and subsequent slaughter of the local Jewish community, which also saw 90 percent of Romanian Jewry annihilated.
In 1944, Sighet had about 27,000 inhabitants. A staggering 12,000 were Jewish. Then, in the space of just four transports taking place between May 16 to 22, 1944 (Elie Wiesel was on the final transport), the entire Jewish community was gone. Disappeared. Vanished. A few days later, upon arriving at Auschwitz, the vast majority went up in smoke, literally.
Over the past few years, I have visited many of Europe’s Holocaust death camps and killing fields with my family. I have done so for my children to know what happened to our people. I have come because I am certain that the six million want us to come — and they demand to be remembered. I have come because I am a Jew, and part of my identity is understanding the great triumphs and unspeakable tragedy of my people. And I have come despite how it is has made me feel toward God.
Elie Wiesel believed that the victims had the right to spar with God, show defiance at His seeming indifference, and express righteous indignation at His apparent abandonment of the Jews of Europe. Others misguidedly tried to find a reason, a purpose, or a meaning behind something so utterly senseless.
Just down the road from Sighet, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the rabbi of Satu Mare, or Satmar, described the Holocaust as punishment for the Jewish people’s embrace of Zionism. Teitelbaum was born in Sighet, and stemmed from an illustrious line of rabbinic figures. It seems incredible that Elie Wiesel — who would later become one of Israel’s most respected defenders — came from the same city that produced Zionism’s greatest religious opponent.
Elie Wiesel understood that such talk — blaming the Jews for their own annihilation — was itself an abomination.
Over Shabbat in Sighet, a debate broke out among the families of the survivors as to whether the Holocaust had any meaning.
Is it blasphemy to say it did not? Is it not greater blasphemy to say that it did?
Are we really to accept that God had a reason for the Holocaust that simply transcends our limited mortal understanding? In what universe, on what celestial plane, can a deity require the gassing of 1.5 million children to satisfy some cosmic need? And who would wish to worship a God that had any such requirement? Is not human sacrifice expressly forbidden by the Torah?
The more I study the Holocaust, the less I can come to terms with it. The closer I get to it, the more distant it seems. There is nothing about its scope, its magnitude, or its utter comprehensiveness that makes any sense whatsoever. I have visited Auschwitz many times, including on this trip to honor the 75th anniversary of Elie Wiesel’s deportation. Each time I visit, I learn more and understand less.
The Jewish community owes Elie Wiesel so much, but one thing above all else: a total commitment to Holocaust memory without brooking any compromise.
Poland is a strong ally of Israel, and there can be no question that the Polish people suffered unspeakably under Hitler’s barbarism. Hillel said, “That which you hate don’t do unto others.” We dare not diminish the suffering of the Polish people during World War II, lest our own suffering be diminished.
But we need not equate their suffering with our own either.
Nothing — absolutely nothing — compares with the Holocaust. The genocide of European Jewry was the single greatest crime in the history of the world, and the most extensive mass murder the earth has ever witnessed. Even for the purposes of a closer relationship with the Jewish state, there can be no compromises on historical truths about the Holocaust, even if it means articulating painful facts to essential European allies.
Unfairly blaming Poland and Poles for the Holocaust is unjust. Yad Vashem recognizes Poland as having produced a quarter of all the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
But equally true is the fact that a great many Poles — far more than the country seems willing to accept — collaborated with the Nazis in an individual, rather than national, capacity. And then there are Jedwabne and Kielce and other atrocities that were committed by Poles with little to no German instigation, participation, or assistance.
Poland is responsible for Holocaust memory at the main extermination camps, and the country is doing an excellent job at preserving the sites where millions of our people were murdered. This is especially true of Auschwitz. The Jewish people owe them our gratitude. But recent comments from the Polish leadership that the Poles suffered more during World War II than any other group, including the Jews, are an unfortunate provocation and an affront to the six million.
To be sure, suffering is not a game of one-upmanship, and we Jews are in no race for bragging rights to having been the world’s most murdered victims. We wish it were not so. But genocide is genocide. Just as Israeli leaders should not be making the absurd and highly offensive claim that all Poles are antisemites, Polish leaders should not be equating their own horrors at the hands of the Nazis to genocide.
It behooves our Polish brothers and sisters to state the truth. And it likewise behooves the leaders of both Israel and Poland to de-escalate the current tensions and work together to honor the eternal memory of the men, women, and children whom the Nazis murdered and whom Elie Wiesel devoted his life to ensuring would never be forgotten.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 32 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. He served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.