Monday, September 22, 2008


June 1, 2008
כ"ז אייר תשס"ח

A quick breakfast followed by a drive to the airport, we are finally leaving.

While we flew to Warsaw on LOT Polish Airlines, we fly home on El Al.

As soon as I get on the plane, I feel as though I am dipped in purifying waters. The flight goes without a hitch.

We land and de-plane.

I breathe in deeply and exhale entirely.

My shoulders drop.

The anger from the trip dissipates.

I feel better.

I am home.

Shabbat in Budapest

The following post was written late at night after Shabbat in Budapest came to an end.

May 31, 2008
כ"ו אייר תשס"ח

The sun rises early here in Central Europe and although I fall back asleep each morning, my initial wake up is at 5 am. Today, however, I sleep until 8 am and finally feel rested. Entering the small kosher restaurant for breakfast, I wish the mashgiah a “Shabbat Shalom.” Being the good Hasid that he is, he demonstratively responds with “A Gut Shabbes” as if to remind me that I am really in 17th Century Szatmar – Land. All goes well until one of our colleagues brings an unused plastic cup into the restaurant at which point the mashgiah blows a gasket. I respect stringent observance, in fact many people see me as very stringent in observance, but this is, well, ridiculous, as if, Heaven forbid, word might get out that a plastic cup violated the sanctity of this place. For God’s sake, it is precisely this kind of stupidity, along with things like the allegations of illegal and unethical conduct at Rubashkin’s that gives Kashrut a bad name.

Having already visited Dohanyi and Kuczinski, I decide to go for the trifecta and visit Habad. I was surprised to learn that there were two Habad shuls here in Budapest. One is in the Jewish Quarter where we are staying and the other is down the street from the Dohanyi. “In-town” Habad is well concealed and you need to know to look for the small bronze sign on the wall next to the door next to the travel agency with the British flag on it to know that this place exists. Getting past the security guard, however, requires a simple “Shabbat Shalom.”

Occupying an entire floor, Habad is bright and airy. The entrance stairs give way to a lobby with an enormous portrait of the Rebbe. Once again, I discover that there is not a single native Hungarian resident here. The shul caters mostly to Israelis, dati and secular, who are here as tourists or on business. I feel at home, as if I am in a little pocket of Israel, of life, in this dreadful place.

In the afternoon, we take a walking tour to the Danube. We stroll through the renewed downtown and square. It is beautiful. I am once again self-conscious, feeling as though the entire square stares at the back of my head and says, “Wait a minute! Didn’t we get rid of all of those guys?” I am certain that it is not really the case but after a week of visiting anti-Semitism and Shoah related sites, I am tired and angry, self-conscious and suspicious. The tour goes without a hitch until we get to the Danube.

Our destination: a new monument dedicated to the Hungarian Jews that were shot on the banks of the river and then cast into the Danube... And it is here that I draw a personal line. Shabbat needs to be a sacred time, differentiated from the rest of the week. I will not visit a monument today. I will bear witness by observing Shabbat. I will bear witness by standing on the banks of the Danube, but I cannot go to another monument. “V’Ka’rata l’Shabata Oneg “ – And you will call the Shabbat a delight – is meaningful to me, and takes on new meaning here.

As a distraction while others visit the monument, I watch the Budapest 5K – 10K passing by. We cheer for the runners when one guy calls out “Shabbat Shalom MiKol HaLev” or “Shabbat Shalom from all my heart!” It is chilling in a positive way: Jews standing at the Danube cheering on runners, finding one of our own. Victory!

Motzei Shabbat is spent with Eran, the representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel for Central Europe. He talks about his work here and the hope that it will bear fruit sometime in the future. “Where are all the Jews?” we ask. Initially, we were told that there were over 160,000 Jews living in Hungary. With a little prodding, the number dropped to 100,000. Our professor tells us that according to the demographer, Serge Della Pergolla, the numbers are closer to 60,000. Eran, the shaliach, tells us that his target population, realistically, is 20,000. How does he arrive at that number? Taking Della Pergolla and subtracting the very young and the old, he believes that his pool is 20,000 Jewish souls.

“Why does he do this work? Does he really think that there is a chance to make a huge impact here? Will Hungarian Jewry be rebuilt?” He replies that the works is long and boring and tedious, and he does not expect to see the fruits of his labor during his time in Hungary, as he will be here for no more than three years. He hopes and expects that those who follow him will benefit and that there will be some growth in the future.

The evening ends with a concert performed by the members of the youth group and other contestants from the Hungarian version of “Kochav Nolad” which is the Israeli version of “American Idol.” The event was held in conjunction with the 60th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We walk home and I go to sleep.

Part of our group goes out for a while but I need sleep. I am done. Before our group returns, I am awakened by drunken yelling in the halls. I lock the door and go back to sleep. In the morning, I learn from my roommate, an Oleh from England, that he had an anti-Semitic encounter with one of the “chaps” in the lobby that night - as appropriate an end to our trip as I could ever have planned.

Friday, September 19, 2008

From Poland to Hungary

May 30, 2008
כ"ה אייר תשס"ח

Today is our fifteenth anniversary. As is often the case on our anniversary, Becca and I are not together. Sometimes we are at different weddings. In some years, Becca is at a Foundation for Jewish Camping program as a faculty member and I am already up at camp. This year, I was on an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest. Perhaps if we were together, riding the Orient Express, there would be some sense of the romance of train travel. Rest assured, however, that there is nothing even remotely romantic about a communist-era sleeper car, where you sleep three to a room on a triple bunk bed, and that takes ten hours, give or take, to get to Budapest. At least we were taking the train out of Poland, away from Auschwitz – Birkenau.

There is an old-world beauty to Budapest, even though much of that beauty has deteriorated. Gentrification is in the offing. We will not spend a lot of time visiting this city on the beautiful blue Danube. We rush off to see the two day schools in Budapest – the Schreiber Community Day School and the Lauder School. The Schreiber School looks like just about any other community day school I have visited anywhere. Smiling kids, nice art, and good feel. It is a nice place. Of the 400 students, it is unclear to me how many are actually Jewish. I am not talking about Halakhic status here. The Schreiber School is not only a community day school, it is a public school funded with public money, and a good one at that, so many non-Jewish families send their children here knowing that they will have to learn about Judaism – a sacrifice they are willing to make for a good, fine education. We visit a middle school Hebrew class. It looks and sounds like something I would see at most Jewish day schools: a few interested students, more uninterested, and a few disrupting. Nothing out of the ordinary except that we are in Budapest.

The kitchen at the school provides over 2,000 kosher meals every day to all of the Jewish institutions in town including the hospital. As a person with an eye for industrial-strength kitchens, I ask for a tour and am immediately reassured, over and over again, that everything is very kosher. I explain over and over again that I am sure that it is and that I used to deal with these kinds of kitchens and am just interested in seeing it. Spanning two stories, the kitchen is an enormous maze with separate areas for, well, everything, including a special room for eggs. I am surprised by the “egg room” and assume that it is some regional kashrut issue or that to prepare 2,000 meals a day requires so many eggs that have to be checked by hand for blood spots since there is no kosher pasteurized egg product here that they merit their own room. In fact, the Hungarian health department requires separate rooms for turkey, poultry, beef, dairy, vegetables, and eggs. It seems that the Hungarian health department is even stricter than we are. I am fascinated even though the tour is in Hungarian, a language I do not speak. Via random hand gestures and a few key kashrut terms, the mashgiah and I are able to somehow communicate.

We visit the Dohanyi Street Synagogue, about which I will write more later, and then visit our final Holocaust museum of the trip, the Holocaust Center of Budapest. Built around a restored synagogue, the center includes an educational wing, a museum, and a memorial wall. This museum gets it. The halls and galleries are dark, dim, and ominous. There is a balance between the telling of individual family stories and the broader context of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. There is absolutely no whitewashing here; the photos are stark and grotesque, the videos deeply disturbing. A ten minute film on anti-Semitism puts Hungary in context. While the Shoah came relatively late to this country, anti-Jewish laws were put into effect in the 1930’s. The museum is divided into seven thematic halls that explain the increasing levels of persecution of the Jews and the Roma – also known as Gypsies – in Hungary. And the museum, funded by the Hungarian government, is honest and direct about the role Hungarians played in the Shoah.

And here are the stunning facts of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry: 600,000 Jews killed in about six months at the end of WW II. Many, if not most of the synagogues and communal buildings remained largely because the deportation and death came so rapidly and so late in the war. Even more disturbing is the fact that Hungary was never invaded by Germany. They basically worked together with Nazi Germany. In fact, we were told that only a few thousand Nazis actually came to Hungary. Most of the anti-Semitism was local, developed as a policy for over a decade, and accelerated and intensified by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. Thus, Hungary cannot even claim to be a bystander. By all reasonable measure, Hungary, and Hungarians, were perpetrators. They did it, carting off 600,000 Jews to die, some shot by their hand and cast into the Danube, most sent to Auschwitz – Birkenau to be gassed and cremated. The Center makes this horrifyingly clear.

There is an interesting conflict, intellectual and emotional and halakhic, about the question of the use of graphic photos and videos at Holocaust museums and in education. Some members of our group prefer the use of personal testimonies, where the speaker creates a mental picture for the listener, to the photos of starved, shriveled bodies. The images are too disturbing in their opinions. They have a valid, legitimate point. One colleague is bothered by the pervasive nudity of the images, nudes waiting to die and those already dead. He objects from a personal and halakhic point of view. In his opinion, the images are the antithesis of the ethics of tzniut – of modesty. After seeing a Nazi propaganda film used to convince the international community that Jews were being treated humanely, my colleague had enough. The film showed, separately, men and women entering the mikvah. That is the final image of many of these people and it is inhuman and it is wrong.

He is right: these are the final images of many if not all of these people. The images present dehumanization at its very worst: disturbing, horrifying, awful and unimaginable. All of which is precisely why they must be shone, why people must see these images. These awful photos and videos provide the only testimony that some of these people, starved, tortured and slaughtered, ever walked the face of this earth, that they ever lived. Moreover, they are the testimony to what evil, the amount of hatred, murder, and wrong, can be brought into the world by one person, and spread like an infection, an epidemic, from one person to another, one people to another, one village to another, one country to another. And it is these images that compel us, command us to fight against genocide and hatred throughout the world. These images give life to those who perished and voice and meaning to the Divine Command: You Shall Not Stand Idly by the Blood of Your Brother. I will have to study Jewish law on the subject but I have to believe that there will be those that prohibit and those that permit the use of these images.

Our visit to the museum ends in the reconstructed synagogue, perhaps the most powerful memorial of our visit. The old wooden pews, probably destroyed, were replaced with glass replicas. They give ghostliness to the white walls of the sanctuary. Most chilling of all, the top of each pew bears a photograph of a member of Hungarian Jewry, who could have once sat in this very spot, along with their story and their death. There they sit, in perpetuity, ghosts, sitting in ghostly pews, inhabiting a ghostly sanctuary in a land of Jewish ghosts.

After preparing for Shabbat, I visit two Friday night services. In so many ways, they could not be more different from one another and yet, they bore one very important similarity: they were virtually devoid of Hungarians. The Dohanyi Street Synagogue is spectacular in its beauty and lonely in its grandeur. Designed by a Christian architect who built grand cathedrals, the Dohanyi includes influences from both the Christians and the Moors. Friday night services take place here at 6:00 pm regardless of when Shabbat actually arrives, just like in Marietta, Georgia where services happen at 6:30 all year long. Sitting in this grand cathedral of Judaism, I am surrounded mostly by Israelis, along with a few tourists and the few Hungarians that sit on the bimah. There are, at most, sixty to eighty people in total in a shul that seats 3,000 on three levels. There is a grand chazzan, a choir made up of what I suspect are all non-Jews, and an organ player that we are told, explicitly, is a shabbes goy. The music is spectacular if you love choirs and organs and chazzanut. I once again have an uneasy feeling of familiarity. I am reminded of High Holiday services at Temple Menorah in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I felt oddly at home in my youth and unmoved in my middle age. They only real difference between the Dohanyi and Menorah is that the entire service here in Budapest is in Hebrew.

Following services, I walk back to the Jewish Quarter to the Kuczinski Street Shul. If the Dohanyi is like visiting Reform in Hebrew in 1975, Kuczinski is like visiting Szatmar in the seventeenth century. Here, the women sit behind an opaque mechitza, the Hebrew accents are hassidishe and none of those present, as far as I can tell, are actually from Hungary. The gentleman next to me is an Israeli engineer here on business. The rest of the room is filled with a group of very Orthodox looking guys from Melbourne, Australia. The entire experience is just totally odd. We emerge from 17th century Szatmar into the 21st century and walk back to the hotel. I toast my wife on the occasion of our 15th wedding anniversary, eat dinner, and call it a night.

I am exhausted from this trip, feeling suffocated and angry and overwhelmed. A quiet Shabbat will give me the respite I need and then, thank God, I will be back in Israel.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Day 5 - Auschwitz

May 29, 2008
כ"ד אייר תשס"ח

Of all the days in our itinerary, this is the one that I dread the most: Auschwitz. I arrive not knowing what to expect of my emotions. What will I feel? Will I cry? Scream? Stand silently? And why the dread? Isn’t my visit a living testimony to the failure of Hitler, his accomplices, his “students,” and his bystanders?

The visit to Auschwitz is divided into four parts:

A tour of Auschwitz I – the forced labor camp initially used for political prisoners. This portion of the tour must be led by a Polish tour guide certified by the Auschwitz governing body.


A tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau – the death camp where over 1,000,000 Jews were ruthlessly and methodically exterminated.

A Memorial Ceremony – put together by members of our group.

As our bus pulls up to the “Visitor’s Center,” I am stunned by the number of tour buses and cars that fill the lot. While it just sounds wrong, the fact is that Auschwitz is filled today. There are a few “tour” groups, a Jewish youth group from South America, and a lot of Catholic Poles. On this day, a prominent Catholic Cleric, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr, is being sainted. Kolbe was first brought to Auschwitz because he helped hide and clothe 2,000 Jews in his friary. When another man was selected to be shot, along with nine others, as reprisal for one man trying to escape, Father Kolbe volunteered himself in place of the man and was promptly murdered by the Nazis. As a Jew and as a Jewish educator, I struggled, and will continue to struggle with the question of the differing narratives of the Shoah. There were, I am told, many clerics within the Church who acted like Kolbe and many who hid and saved Jews. We don’t hear those narratives often enough. And yet, I cannot help but also ask about the narrative of the silence, complicity and in many cases the outright anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church during the Shoah.

Just outside the main entrance to the visitor’s center at Auschwitz I, there are several small “fast food” stands or huts. You can buy hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and flowers. There are the equivalent of “souvenir stands” selling books and photos and God only knows what else. There are those in the world who accuse the Jews, us, of exploiting the Shoah, of creating a Holocaust Industry. I can tell you that there is a THRIVING Holocaust industry in Poland, but it is not the Jews that are involved.

From the women who gets her 60 zloty for “protecting” the Jewish cemetery, to the guy with the “Ghetto Souvenir” stand at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (I am not making this up and the photo that will be posted on the blog is entirely authentic) to our guide, “Tomasz,” who gets paid for what I have no idea, to the “fast food” stands, and the tour bus companies, and the hotels that host the March of the Living groups all the while Poles complain that we see only the Shoah sites and nothing else, to the hotels that proudly advertise “Auschwitz” tours, everyone is making a personal Zloty from the mass murder and attempted eradication of European Jewry.

I am bothered by the way life just goes on here in Poland. As Warsaw was rebuilt from its ashes, monuments, small and large, were erected to leave some historical record of the events surrounding the ghetto-ization, deportation, and destruction of Polish Jewry. And around these monuments, a city was rebuilt, buildings added, parks established. How long did it take, I wonder, for the citizens of Warsaw to become desensitized to everything, the plaques, the monuments, the memorials, enough that they would walk their dogs past and not notice, or sit and talk with friends, or picnic in Treblinka, or to nap in the grass next to one of the mass latrines at

Auschwitz – Birkenau, where the “lucky few “ who were not sent directly to extermination and cremation, were worked to death through forced labor, disease and starvation? How does such a thing happen? Is it callousness? Anti-Semitism? Hatred? Or the defense mechanism needed to get by when you choose to live in the traffic pattern or Auschwitz or Warsaw or Krakow or Kielce or Tykocin or…or…or…or?

Robert points out that there is something oddly disturbing about the speech pattern of our guide. It is clipped, precise, cold, and lacks any use of the work “the.” It sounds something like this: “Prisoners arrive, are taken to register, are given uniforms. Zey are zen taken to barrack. Zey sleep on floor, on straw, have five toilets for hundredz of people.” This is just a small sample. The Polish-English sounds frighteningly German. It is even more disconcerting when she deals with numbers. She is a somewhat sympathetic figure who shares with us her personal family story which included a family member, an uncle I believe, who was killed at Auschwitz I. As is often the case in our classes and on this trip there is too much to do and not enough time. We rush through Auschwitz I, through the barracks, the “medical ward,” to the death wall where the Polish clerics are just finishing celebrating their service.

Our next stop is personally the most difficult of all: the original, experimental Gas Chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I. Our Polish guide invites us to enter. That’s right – she invites us to voluntarily enter the prototype Gas Chamber. My feet are suddenly leaden. I DO NOT want to enter. Seeing it from the outside is enough. The limitations of human understanding are such that I cannot comprehend the terror a person would surely have experienced at the moment they realized that rather than a shower, they were to be gassed to death. And since I know that I cannot comprehend that terror, standing inside will not add to my understanding. I will not feel what they felt. I want to make a small protest, to refrain from entering. But in the end, I am a good boy and I force myself to acquiesce to the request.

I am cold. Standing inside the Gas Chamber, our Polish Guide, with her clipped, German accented English, describes the process of what happened here, again never using the word “the.” From the cold room of the gassing we move to the reconstructed crematorium where we are once again given a precise description of how things worked. And with each passing moment, the inner cold is balanced by burning hot anger. I remind myself that each Jewish step I take here is witness to the Nazi failure. But all I really want is…out.

Fortunately, we finish our time at Auschwitz I. We walk past the “book store” and the “coffee shop” and out of the gates of the camp. Lunch Time. It is a little bizarre to move so quickly from forced labor and starvation to LUNCH but that is exactly what we do. There are lots of groups picnicking just outside the fences of Auschwitz I: Polish families with children about Amalya’s age (6), a Jewish youth group from Uruguay, where the boys, when they aren’t’ focusing on the girls, are running around with Israeli flags on their backs like capes, etc. Most members of our group choose to sit outside. I cannot. I go back to the bus…

The bus. It is hot inside and I shvitz up a storm, but I cannot picnic here. In my mind, I decide that the bus is like a mikvah – a ritual bath. It is a sealed space of purity in this place that is inherently impure. And I start to wonder: “If I am this angry now, how will I feel at Birkenau?” It doesn’t take long to find out as we quickly end lunch and drive the three kilometers from the “Political Prisoner Camp” of Auschwitz I to the Death Camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We pull up to the entrance, exactly as it stood some sixty years ago, right where the trains would pull in and the selection would happen. Once again, my body turns cold, freezing cold. Any happiness left in my body is gone. I wonder if J.K. Rowling visited here, experienced this feeling, and then create the Dementor characters, the guardians of Azkhaban prison, for this is a soul-less, joy-less place.

We walk through the gates and stand on the tracks that brought hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths and then quickly make our way to the few remaining dormitory shacks left standing. Barns really, they are, in and of themselves, terrifying places. As we walk, I hear a train in the distance. At first, I think I am imagining the sound, that perhaps my mind is just playing tricks on me. But it is not and my heart skips a beat. My eyes meet those of one of my classmates. Her look asks, “Am I really hearing trains?” And my look back says yes. Her eyes well up with tears. I give a reassuring look as if to say “Remember, we are still here. We won.”

It is simply impossible to grasp the enormity of the Death Camp that is Birkenau. Since at any given time there were 100,000 people kept alive to keep the camp running, there were huge numbers of these barn-like dormitories where, on both the men’s and women’s sides, there were triple bunk beds. The men’s buildings were board-and-batten construction while the women’s buildings were made of brick, which gave no more protection from the elements than did the board-and-batten. Here we see a group of smiling German tourists looking for someone to take a smiling photo and the guy in my photo, “Napping at Auschwitz”. Only a few of the male barns remain intact. Of all the rest of the buildings, only the chimney stacks remain, standing in silence, the last remnants of the huge machine that was the “living section” of Birkenau. We walk down the tracks from the “live” section to the area of the Gas Chambers and crematoria, where most arrivals were immediately sent. It is eerily silent. Only the ruins of the crematoria remain along with a massive memorial to the victims of Birkenau. We conclude our visit with stops at two euphemistically named areas: Canada and the Sauna.

Canada, as it was called, was the area where property looted from the Jews was kept and sorted. There is virtually nothing left of the storehouses. The Sauna, however, was entirely reconstructed. At this complex, these who were to live for at least a little while were registered, tattooed, de-loused, showered off and uniformed. One of our classmates notes that when we entered, we walked on a raised plexi-glass surface rather than on the concrete floor as if to say “You do not tread on the place where the victims walked.” It reinforced, as she noted, the fact that we could walk through the same Sauna, but we could never fully fathom the experience, which is the case, of course. We conduct our ceremony in the Sauna in front of a wall of photographs taken from the pockets of victims and then we make our way out of Birkenau.

Waiting to board the bus, I watch an old woman, ninety years old at minimum, ride by us, by Auschwitz II – Birkenau, on her bicycle either oblivious to the death camp to her right or simply desensitized to it. Many say we cannot judge people who lived in this area at this time, that we cannot understand what the war was like, and, thus, the choices they faced. And yet, I wondered what this woman did sixty plus years ago:

Did she go for a daily bike ride past the “Ir ha-Harega” - "The City of Death" as Bialik once wrote about Kishinev after the Pogrom – during the Shoah?

And if she did, did she notice the stench of death emanating from the typhus-filled mass latrines or the smell of roasting flesh coming from the crematoria?

Is it really possible that she could not have noticed?

And if she did notice, what did she think:

Better them than me?

Good bye and good riddance?

What a shame but what can I do?

I will never know, but the image of the oblivious old woman riding her bike past Birkenau will forever be seared into my memory as will the stark, standing chimneys, silent testimonials to evil incarnate, to negligent disregard for life, for humanity, to the silent bystander and to the Jewish worlds destroyed by Hitler, the Nazis, and their sympathizers.