At Auschwitz, Yet Still Holding On To Their Faith

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By Michael Berenbaum

Courtesy of Henri Lustige...

A special exhibition entitled “Through the Lens of Faith” opened just outside the gates of Auschwitz on Monday, July 1. A joint creation of Henri Lustiger-Thaler, architect/designer Daniel Libeskind, and photographer Caryl Englander, the exhibition portrays 21 survivors of Auschwitz: 18 Jews, two Roman Catholics and one Roma. They entered the gates of Auschwitz and emerged, some immediately and some after a considerable length of time, with their faith intact, perhaps even strengthened. Now in their late 80s and 90s, their story and their portraits are at the entrance to Auschwitz and will remain there for the next 18 months.

Lustiger-Thaler was committed to creating a narrative of faith. He had interviewed Haredi survivors in the United States and Canada for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and for the Amud Aish Museum in Brooklyn, the exhibition’s sponsor. Amud Aish is the recent attempt by the Haredi/Hasidic community to tell their story—more precisely their perspective on the general story of the Holocaust—to their own community, which, like other communities, is experiencing the loss of survivors, the bearers of the oral tradition. They have realized, as many have, that when the last survivor is no longer, living history will be replaced by historical memory. The loss of oral tradition is a crisis for the Haredi and Hasidic community, because most of their older generation were survivors. And because in that community tradition is mostly transmitted through narrative and story, much less in the pages of history, the loss of the eyewitnesses is deeply felt.

Haredi survivors came to the United States at an opportune moment. The five-day work week was well entrenched, Sunday blue laws were being enforced laxly, and the basic infrastructure for Orthodox Judaism — Kashrus, mikvahs, yeshivs and synagogues, were well in place. They, unlike Orthodox Jews who arrived between 1881-1920, did not have to chose between Sabbath observance and economic survival, between Shabbesand Parnasah. They revived Orthodoxy, which looked as if was vanishing in America, and rebuilt Hasidism in the Goldene Medineh, even on treife land. Ride through Borough Park or Flatbush, sections of Chicago, Baltimore and Los Angeles, Toronto or Montreal and you can see the revival before your eyes.

Lustiger-Thaler took on himself the burden of capturing and writing a complex story in less than 200 words, presented in English and Polish. Much was said, much more was left unsaid. The visitor is left to fill in the narrative.

Caryl Englander took the photographs, at first reluctantly and then after hearing their stories and being captivated by them became passionately involved. Hers was the unenviable but all-important task of capturing a whole life in a portrait, sensitive to their self-presentation, with lessons learned in a lifetime from the anguish of their aborted youth still visible in their faces almost 75 years after Liberation. Most of these survivors were very young when they were transported from their homes to the world of Auschwitz. The transition was abrupt, and their survival tools limited.

How does one make sense of an experience in a universe which makes no sense? “Here there is no why,” Primo Levi was told as he tried to orient himself to his new surroundings. And how does one who believes in a compassionate God, engaged with history experience the absolute evil that was Auschwitz? Englander is skilled at her art, the text and time image mesh. She wrote: “I wanted to present them the way I felt them and heard them, which was full of joy and vibrant and alive — each in their own setting and projecting their true, strong positive self.”

The design of the exhibition forces one to move from text to image as the visitor must open the etched glass that covers the work to experience the full majesty of the survivor’s portrait.

Lustiger-Thaler and Englander turned to Daniel Libeskind, a child of Poland, and son of survivors to shape the exhibition. His challenge, like many he has faced before, was enormous. The Special Exhibition would be outdoors standing in the heat and humidity of a Polish summer, in the frigidity and snow of the long Polish winter. A post-Holocaust creation, it would be outside of the famous Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Liberates] gate of Auschwitz. It is just off a parking lot seen by visitors who have not yet entered the Camp and by those leaving, who are emotionally exhausted, haunted and drained by what they just seen.

What did he do?

Three-meter, vertical steel panels line up on both sides of a path that veers off the route leading to Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. The repetitive pattern of the panels is reminiscent of the stripes from the prisoners’ uniforms suggesting internment, while the exterior mirrored surfaces reflect the surrounding landscape and evoke a physical and spiritual freedom. The faces of survivors… are framed in the metal plane and stand alone suspended in the air.

The opening was supposed to take place at the time the weatherman predicted thunderstorms and high winds in 98-degree heat and 98% humidity. Looking at the predictions even 10 minutes before the 5:00 p.m. opening, forecasters were 100% sure thunderstorms and showers would create a deluge. The wind was howling, the trees were shaking, the tent that protected the stage was swaying, the papers of the speakers were literally blowing in the wind and the well-chosen musical pieces were played on the Violins of Hope. They are the very violins brought into Auschwitz by arriving inmates, confiscated and yet they somehow survived and were lovingly rebuilt by Amnon Weinstein in Tel Aviv, strained to be heard over the oncoming storm. One should never feel quite comfortable at Auschwitz and one could not, fearing for ceremony, fearing for one’s own safety, Aveinu Malkenu chanenu vaneinu could barely be heard above the wind, and yet the rain held back, even as the tent swayed and musicians played.

Some excerpts from survivors whose portraits and words are presented:

Irving Roth a Jew from Czechoslovakia said, “I decided that my quarrel was not with God but with man. It was man that created the gas chamber. Not God. Faith was the only thing left.”

Rabbi Nissan Mandel, an Auschwitz survivor, takes issue Elie Wiesel, the most famous survivor of the camp. Wiesel’s work is an integral part of any cannon of Holocaust literature. A hero to many, an icon of the Holocaust and the embodiment of the survivor/witness, Wiesel wrestled with God and quarreled with God.

Recounting the scene in Wiesel’s “Night,” when a young boy dies on the gallows, a prisoner commented: “You know where God is? He’s on the gallows with the boy.” Rabbi Mandel took issue. “I saw the exact same barbarity. The man could not reconcile what he saw with a compassionate God. My father taught me that fire makes things hard or it can melt them away, My Emunah (faith) became stronger that day.”

The women portrayed speak of the human relationships that kept them alive, the words that inspired, the hope against hope that they needed to survive.

Some spoke of miracles that happened to them: being rescued from the gas, from the flames, the movement of the baton that sent them to the right rather than the left, or the left rather than the right, to life — suffering, cold, hunger, disease, despair, to the edge of death but still alive. They experienced their survival as a miracle but for some the miracles may not appear quite so miraculous when others who stood with them were taken to their deaths. And yet the “miracle” of these faithful survivors’ lives placed a burden of these women. They had to make something of their survival, to bear witness and recreate Jewish life in the aftermath of death.

Itel Brettler Landau described her reunion with her mother as they arrived in Auschwitz on different transports. “It kept me alive.” She had something and someone to live for.”

Esther Peterseil describes her last moments with her mother at the selektion on the Birkenau ramp. Her admonition: “Take care of your sister.” Her encouragement: “You have the courage to survive.” She did.

Ruth Salamon, a Czechoslovakian Jew also tells of her attachment to her sister. “We walked everywhere together. My best friend.” Those attachments, most especially among women, allowed them some respite from the isolation and dehumanization.

Men also depict the strength of their relationships. Julius Meir Tauber describes his situation en route to the gas chamber and his rescue, which he ascribes to the intervention of a grandfather from above. He was ordered to stay his brother. “Never leave each other alone, not for a minute. Always stay together.” And they did.

Some of the survivors portrayed spoke of religious observance. Irving Roth said that despite starvation, he was unable to eat the food available to him on Yom Kippur. Wolf Greenwald described Rabbi Meisels of Hungary blowing the Shofar in Birkenau on Rosh Hashanah 5705 (1944). The sounds of the Shofar were supposed to pierce the heavens, the whole sound of the tekiyah is replaced brokenness of the shevarim and the teruahonly to be made whole again by the blast of the tekiyah gedolah.

Ethel Kleinman, a Hungarian survivor describes the pages of the Haggadah that were thrown over the fence just before Passover, the holiday of liberation that would be observed by those who were slaves. How does one retell the story of liberation while enslaved?

Polish survivor Yitzhak Baruch Schacter describes trying to sleep. “At night in the barracks, we were eight people on the bed [on one tier]. When one moved everyone moved, everyone had to move in the same direction to keep covered. Like this we davened. No siddur Nothing. In the cold.” He leaves to the visitor’s imagination, what words were said and what was meant by those words. One can only fathom the urgency and agony of such prayers.

Some responses to the Auschwitz experience are startling. Zipora Magda Waller said: “What I learned from my experience at Auschwitz is to believe in kindness. Be good to people around you.” Surely this is counter-testimony to the world she saw, perhaps also a tribute to what kept her alive.

Avraham Zelcer, the 93-year-old Czechoslovakian survivor who was the only survivor well enough to attend the opening, describes his loss of faith when told the truth of what he was about to experience. “It took me a year after liberation to return to my faith.” Looking at his portrait and then at him, I heard the echo of the teaching of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. “Nothing is as whole as a heart that has been broken — and healed.”

Because the exhibit is at Auschwitz I, which was essentially a concentration camp primarily for Polish [non-Jewish] inmates, Lustiger-Thaler and Englander were appropriately mindful to include Roman Catholics and Roma [Gypsies]. The proportions match the inmate population killed at the Auschwitz complex — 18 Jews from different countries, two Poles and one Roma.

Polish Catholic survivor Helne Dunicz-Nilwinska speaks of her mother’s faith, and only obliquely her own. “My mother had faith and it gave her power and divine protection.” She comments perhaps skeptically, perhaps honestly, “If not here, then in the next world.”

Lawrence Langer, the most distinguished literary scholar of the Holocaust, believes that such Holocaust testimonies are not to be taken at face value. Beneath it all, is the wound, the anguish, the loss, the catastrophe. I take his work seriously and yet one wonders if he is not being overly dogmatic and that one must leave room for other testimonies that speak of the strength of the human spirit and resiliency. These survivors certainly embody that spirit. The exemplify such resiliency.

The caption on each portrait indicates the number of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren these individual survivors have brought into the world. The sum total is startling 1,152.

Perhaps children were the greatest act of faith in recreating life, Jewish life, in a world that had been shattered.

There are many reasons to make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. “Through the Lens of Faith” is not the least of them. It enhances the narrative and challenges the visitor to encounter faith amidst the abyss — in defiance of it, despite it.

Originally published here.