Auschwitz - to visit is to defy the evil

Zalmi Unsdorfer,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Zalmi Unsdorfer
A Religious Zionist who advocates for Israel as a writer, TV & panel commentator. Chair of Likud-UK, he supports Jewish resettlement in all of the Jewish homeland, Eretz Israel. He regularly tweets @zalmiu...

As I watch scenes from Auschwitz on this 70th anniversary of its liberation, I remember my own visit 11 years ago for the memorable IAF flypast. It coincided with a bitter time in Israel when the Cafe Hillel bombing took the life of a young bride and her father the night before her wedding in Jerusalem. This is the memoir I wrote at the time for the American Jewish Press ....


The Nazis finally caught up with my father in 1967. I was only sixteen years old when he succumbed to the heart disease contracted through an untreated infection in the concentration camp. At roughly the same age, in 1944, my father had been thrust into the hell of Auschwitz and seen his parents selected for death at the notorious railhead at Birkenau.

As a teenager, I had heard about and read almost all the stories and articles about my father’s time in the camps and was intimately familiar with his book, The Yellow Star. He turned to writing partly as a therapy for the early nightmares but mainly to make sure that the world and future generations would know what happened.
With the loss of my father, I felt that this monster that was the Shoah had lashed out in its death throes to bag an unclaimed victim 22 years after everyone thought it was safe. I decided to switch off the whole subject in my mind, and have spent most of my adult life in a state of denial.

As opposed to the loathsome Holocaust deniers, for me this was just a safety mechanism by which I shunned all the films and documentaries, never visited Yad Vashem and did not see Schindler’s List. I avoided travelling to many European cities because many of their streets still looked the same as they did in those gaunt black-and- white photographs of the roundups.

All that changed when I opened a newspaper last month and read that the Israeli Air Force had sent three of its F-15 fighter jets to participate in the 85th anniversary celebrations of the Polish Air Force. Like me, the Israeli base commander had lost grandparents in Auschwitz, but he also had a burning ambition. For 15 years  Brigadier General Amir Eshel dreamed of flying the most lethal of Israel’s jet fighters over Auschwitz as a powerful symbol of remembrance and defiance. The paper reported that, after some hesitation, the Polish authorities gave their permission and a date was selected -- September 4, the day the F-15s would make their 1,600-mile return flight to Israel.

The thought of such an event totally captured my imagination and I decided, there and then, that I must be there for this unique spectacle. No one was more surprised than my wife. After 20 years of marriage to a Europhobe, she found me downloading web pages about Auschwitz. I instinctively felt that this was going to be my best chance to reconnect with my father’s memories and establish some emotional and spiritual connection with the grandparents I never knew.

In an effort to retrace his footsteps, I dusted off my father’s book to re-read on the flight. The manner of our arrival in Poland could not have been more different. He and his parents in a stifling cattle truck, me in a Boeing 737. I spent the night in a delightful guesthouse in Cracow’s Jewish quarter, he in a railway siding. That evening I fell asleep reading about how, on the first night of Chanukah in the camp, my father had lighted a homemade wick in an old shoe-polish tin filled with engine oil. That simple contraption had done more to lift the spirits of the inmates than anything else up to the day of liberation.

The following morning, as I sped through the heavily wooded countryside, the weather seemed to deteriorate with every mile. My driver doubted whether any flight would be attempted through clouds that still clung to the treetops. He wondered how upset I would be, having made the trip especially for the flypast. Strangely I was not that bothered. I thought about the Dayenu song we sing on Seder night: `If I had been able to come to this place as a free Jew and not seen the flypast ... dayenu ... it would be enough for me.


On arrival at Auschwitz, my guide took me through those infamous gates that bear the words  “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free). He explained that Auschwitz is made up of three camps, this smaller section having been turned into a museum. The largest -- by a factor of 10 – is Birkenau, a few kilometers up the road. It was there that the selections and mass killings were carried out and over which the flypast was due to take place at noon.

Many of the brick barracks of ‘Auschwitz One’ have been turned into exhibit halls in which the grisly contents of the display cabinets are every bit as harrowing as the photographs on the walls. Of the thousands of victims’ shoes, I only dwelled on the children’s sizes and amongst the bales of human hair I was transfixed on the little plaits and pigtails. Walking through these halls, struggling to keep my composure, I passed small tourist groups clustered around their guides. I noticed many were staring at me. I seemed to be the only one there wearing a kippa.
There were backward glances from Chinese eyes and Latino eyes, Indian eyes and Pakistani eyes -- many of which, I felt sure, had never seen an Orthodox Jew in the flesh.

I was still preoccupied with those glances when I came upon two small display cabinets and saw in them something totally unexpected. I thought of my father hiding that solitary Chanukah candle under his bunk and finally lost my composure. I moved toward the nearest window to hide my tears. My guide could not understand why, after the shoes, the hair, the suitcases and the glasses, I should be so affected by a simple collection of old shoe-polish tins.

By the time we were ready to move on to ‘Auschwitz Two’, I had seen my fill of neatly spaced barracks that had been used for all manner of cruelty and experimentation as well as the jailhouse and its adjoining yard that had been used for executions by firing squad. Wooden watchtowers strung together by electrified fences surrounded all of this orderly abomination.

The rain had stopped by the time we arrived at 'Auschwitz Two' - that's Birkenau. The sky was still a forbidding deep grey, matching the feel of this sprawling campus of death. I stood under the arch through which the cattle train bore my father and his parents into this hellish place on a chilly October morning in 1944. I later realized that I had been standing there at 11 a.m., the same arrival time recorded in my father’s book. With my guide, I climbed the stairs to the main watchtower above the arch. Strung out before me was the deserted railway track. Halfway down its quarter-mile length it forked to form the infamous central ramp on which Hitler’s SS carried out their murderous selections.

On either side of the track there were endless ranks of chimneys standing like sentries, each within a rectangular brick outline, evidencing where barracks once stood. My guide explained how the retreating Germans had blown up most of Birkenau in an effort to hide evidence of their murderous work. Far in the distance, at the end of the railhead I pointed to a splash of blue. “It’s the Israelis,” said my guide. Up to that point I had not realized they had planned any official gathering. Alienated by the stares in the museum halls and the specter of this place, I warmed at the thought of joining some of my own people. We descended the watchtower steps and started our trek down the line.

Along with most of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau had been dynamited and left in ruins. Fortunately the SS were not able to silence survivors like my father who would later tell the world what these ruins once were. Just to the left of the selection ramp, I was shown the ruins of a gas chamber in which it is almost certain my grandparents were put to death on the day of their arrival. I had brought two memorial candles from home and lit them in a niche between the fallen brickwork. Although I had never known them, the Kaddish I recited for my grandparents was long, halting and tearful.

Trudging farther down the rail track, I could see the blue-clad ranks of IAF officers and cadets standing to attention at the end of the line. Alienated by all that I had seen so far, I was overcome with emotion at the sight of that bright blue Star of David fluttering against this awful grey landscape. All I wanted to do right then was rub my cheek against that flag.

Holding a small Sefer Torah, the chaplain was reciting Tehillim. As the cantor recited the hazkarah (memorial prayer) I saw that rows of memorial candles had been placed on the rusted rails at the head of the track. I stared fixedly at their flickering lights as the Kaddish was recited. The Israeli ambassador spoke movingly of the powerful message being brought to Auschwitz today. He said it was for Yankeleh and Moisheleh, for Soroleh and Rivkeleh and so many of the little children who might now have been proud citizens of Israel.

In the stillness of the next few moments, three black specks appeared in the sky above the main watchtower in which I had stood minutes before. A man-made thunder cracked from all corners of the camp as the F-15s raced towards us in an arrow formation. As they streaked overhead, a loudspeaker on the ground crackled into life and Commander Eshel spoke from the lead jet:

We pilots of the air force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries; we salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation: Israel.

There was hardly a dry eye in our gathering as the three jets banked across the sky for a return pass. The rolling thunder of jet engines echoing above the heavy blanket of cloud made it feel like an almighty fist was being shaken in the heavens. As the fighters returned I thought of Commander Eshel and those like him who are now the guardians of our nation. I recalled the words of Menachem Begin in the introduction to his book The Revolt:

I have written this book also for Gentiles,” Begin wrote, “lest they be unwilling to realize, or all too ready to overlook, the fact that out of blood and fire and tears and ashes a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years: ‘the Fighting Jew.’

I thought to myself: Commander Eshel, you are one of that new breed and we are immensely proud of you.


On the flight home, I re-read some of the chapters of my father’s book, now that I felt familiar with some of the settings he had described. I came across the part where my grandfather, the much-loved Rabbi of Pressburg, had tried to pacify some of the passengers in the cattle wagon heading for Poland. He swore to them that everything would be all right: “I swear on my place in Olam Habah - the world to come - that we will survive this”. My father recorded his surprise that, even for such short-lived comfort to others, a rabbi might swear falsely.

I now realize that my grandfather was right after all. “We” - meaning the Jewish nation - did survive. And boy …. did we survive!

From the edge of genocide, we have come back to build our own state with arguably the most feared army and air force in the world. Without oil or any natural resources other than brains and determination we have built cities, highways, skyscrapers, airports and seaports.

And with those brains we have a higher ratio of university degrees, and annually produce more patents and scientific papers per capita than any other country in the world. Even in these troubled times, Israel is ranked number two in the world for venture capital funds, right behind the United States. And its $100 billion economy is larger than all its oil-rich neighbors combined. The world’s computers run on the chips we designed and are protected by the anti-virus systems our people have invented. We pioneered the cellular phone, voice mail and instant messaging. One in four presc‎riptions filled in the United States is for a medication made in Israel. Not least, we are a responsible nuclear power and have already launched our own satellites into space.

All this, in a 55-year-old speck of a country that in some places is only eight miles wide.

Any non-believers still out there?

I finish my story in our eternal city of Jerusalem. A city of such beauty and wonder, not even the darkest shadow of terror can have domain for longer than an hour or two. That is the time it takes to clear a scene of carnage so that it appears never to have happened.

As I drive by the shuttered frontage of the latest bombing, I see it is aglow with the light of a hundred flickering memorial candles. I still have fresh memories of similar candle glasses perched on those rails at Birkenau and I realize that, even after 60 years and in our very own capital city, we are still not free of our pursuers.

My father lived just long enough to see Jerusalem liberated in 1967 but, much as he had dreamed of it, he never had the chance to pray at the Western Wall. I think of him every time I go there, knowing he would be proud that my two eldest sons are learning in local yeshivas.

On Friday night, I have the choice of countless synagogues in this area of Jerusalem but, whenever I am here, my preference is Breslov. It is a shul that attracts all types, from Chassidim to hippies; a place where the “Lecha Dodi” is a half-hour celebration of singing and dancing.

I looked around the place as this unlikely mix of Jews sang and clapped their rousing welcome to the Sabbath Queen. I realized that most of these locals lived within earshot of the latest bombing and many must have been deeply affected by it. But you would never know it. Those faces were as joyous and happy as if, despite the terror and the recession, they had not a care in the world.

It came home to me that, for our people, Shabbos is a process of weekly renewal that cleanses us just as surely and efficiently as those volunteers who clear the sidewalks of any vestige of terror and tragedy.

Only a nation capable of such renewal could possibly have risen from the ashes of the Holocaust, let alone reached such world-beating heights. Such a nation - our Jewish nation - will surely overcome any obstacle and every challenge placed in its path.


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