Thoughts From the Concentration Camps

Taking part in the March of the Living reminded me that, as Independence Day approaches, we must draw lessons from Jewish suffering, as well as celebrating the Jewish State.


I wrote this from the ruins and remains of the ghettos, the gas chambers, the crematoria and the mass graves in the forests of Poland. As a participant in the U.K. delegation to the March of the Living on Monday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I spent a phenomenal week with survivors walking in the footsteps of the Jews who were hounded, persecuted and murdered there.

As I returned home to Jerusalem, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I witnessed and I sensed the challenge of extracting some meaning from this which will take me through the upcoming celebrations of Israel's Independence Day.

Some of the most poignant moments of our journey occurred at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The marble gravestones which stretch over an enormous forest testify to a thousand years of Jewish communal life. But by 1942, the number of murdered Jews became unmanageable. The community could no longer afford the "luxury" of individual funerals, so they dug a mass grave for their loved ones.

Standing beside it, a young man approached me, "I have been asked by my group to recite the memorial prayer" he said. I've often said it for a single loved one, but what prayer can you say at the grave of tens of thousands of people?"

One of the survivors, Arek Hersh, told me that he too was overwhelmed by the sight of this mass grave. "I could not bear to see it," he said, "so I left the cemetery." A few minutes later, he added a postscript. "I too buried many people in a mass grave. It was at my first concentration camp, when I was just eleven years old."

The utter evil of the Holocaust is best expressed by the Viennese Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankl. As an inmate of Auschwitz, he found that the bunk next to his was occupied by a man who screamed and cried throughout the night. Anywhere else in the world, Frankl tells us, he would surely have woken up the man, and comforted him. In Auschwitz, however, he let the man sleep on, leaving him to his tortured dreams. For no matter how terrifying those nightmares were, the reality of the Concentration Camps was undoubtedly worse.

It's hard to respond to the enormity of this horror. Outside the crematoria of Majdanek Death Camp, I saw three Buddhists deep in meditation, serenely contemplating what had taken place inside. At the mound of human ash inside the camp, a group of Israelis had draped themselves in Israeli flags resolutely singing Israel's national anthem; pledging their allegiance to the Jewish State as the homeland, shelter and salvation of our people. Elsewhere, in a desolate synagogue, I came across a group of yeshiva students whirling about in a frenzied dance, crying out to heaven and proclaiming their faith in the Master of the Universe.

Each group had found their own response to the overwhelming narratives of the Holocaust. I share their deep religious belief, their desire for a pure encounter with the Divine, and their fervent gratitude for the State of Israel.

Somehow, however, I feel that the horrors of the Holocaust are simply too great, and too awesome to impose an ideological statement upon them. Any response will be inadequate. The only appropriate action is to pause; standing in bowed silence and listening to the survivors as they recount their stories bearing witness to the lives and deaths of the victims. As our rabbis so wisely observed, "Silence is the key to wisdom." (Ethics of the Fathers 3: 17)

Yet there is surely another blasphemy. To walk away from these terrible scenes untouched, unaffected and unchanged seems profane. The depths of the evil cry out for response. There are pledges we must make and promises we must honor.

As Independence Day approaches, and we breathe a little easier, thanking God for the protection and dignity that the Jewish State affords us, we must also draw lessons from the suffering of our people. As we recall the failure of the world to protect them and the extraordinary courage of the righteous among the nations who risked their lives to save others, we must renew our determination to fight for a different, more just, caring and loving world. We must now fight these battles for our family and for our nation, but beyond that, we must extend our concern to every human being, created in the Image of God.

As Hillel said, "If I am not for myself who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I and if not now, when?" (Mishnah Avot 1: 14).

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity. More information on March of the Living can be found at