The ordinariness of Auschwitz

May 11, 2020

As a dear colleague put it, “Where is the monster? It would be easier to deal with if there was a monster here.”

I’m just back from a delegation that we at the European Jewish Association organized to Auschwitz for around 150 ministers and parliamentarians from across Europe. In the days leading up to Holocaust Remembrance Day and the poignant 75th anniversary of the liberation of the most infamous death camp of all, we read the harrowing statements of the last few witnesses, and pledges from the great and the good “never again.”
I’m still trying to process what I saw, to reconcile what in my mind Auschwitz means with what it actually is when you walk through the gates. The word that best sums it up, the word that makes me sick in the very deepest pit of my stomach, is how ordinary it is.
I don’t know what the gates of hell should look like, but if you, like me, try to imagine it, you don’t picture bucolic countryside surrounding it, a McDonald’s drive-thru close by, parents pushing their children up the street, kids loitering around bus stops trying to look cool, and old people chatting outside the shops.
As a dear colleague put it, “Where is the monster? It would be easier to deal with if there was a monster here.”
That perfectly encapsulates what is so scary and upsetting about the place: There’s no monster.
The gates of hell have a parking lot, a pizzeria over the road, and students in tight jeans and Ugg boots chewing gum while waiting to have a look inside. Our Jewish ground zero, literally the sight of our worst nightmare, the scar that each and every one carries in our heart, is an ordinary place.
Now I have to tell you that the staff there are incredible people. Our guide Michal believes with every ounce of his being that it is his duty as a resident to tell the story and history of the place. His knowledge is terrible and devastating. He paints a visual Guernica with his words: the 7 tons of human hair that they found packed and ready to be stuffed into God knows what; the fact that they found traces of Zyklon B in the hair; the number of people who shoveled bodies into the crematoria. I could go on but I won’t.

A few hundred meters from Auschwitz is Birkenau. If Auschwitz is hell’s waiting room, Birkenau is where the doctor, quite literally, would see you. Selection, and then into the flames. Gone for eternity.
And yet again, so close by, you find houses with swings in the yard, bored dogs barking at cars, the half-constructed BBQ made of bricks that was never quite finished (maybe next year when the rain lets up).
Auschwitz is so terrifying to me, not because of what happened inside those gates. I know the horrors, I’ve been raised on them. No, it’s so terrifying because of what goes outside of them, so close, so palpably close. A town where life 80 years ago continued its slow, mundane pace.
While the crematoria burned and the latest shipment of Greek Jews arrived to be murdered, two old men sank a pint in the nearby pub. A baby cried because its toy broke. Teenagers fumbled awkwardly away from watching eyes.
I can’t reconcile at all how ordinary life could continue. And worse, I’m scared. I’m scared that people can tuck into their Margherita pizza after the tour is over, the same way that you can swim with Jaws at Universal Studios then tuck into wings and fries.
I’m scared too that surrounded by this ordinariness, just as it was all those years ago, antisemitism can keep rising and keep rising while tourists keep on going through those gates having learned nothing, and worse, get back to the football and order another drink while the kindle for the fires of hell is slowly being gathered again, right under their noses, and ordinary life continues.
The writer, Alex Benjamin, is the director of public affairs at the European Jewish Association.
The article was published by the JPost

Additional Articles

Vendor sells Nazi gear at motorcycle rally

A vendor at a major motorcycle rally in Florida briefly sold hats emblazoned with Nazi symbols, saying she considered them a tribute to World War II veterans who helped defeat the Germans.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports that the vendor was selling the hats embroidered with swastikas and a skull-and-bones logo used by the Nazi SS at a stand during Biketoberfest, an ongoing festival that draws thousands of bikers to the Daytona Beach area this month.
The vendor said she had sold the hats at other biker rallies around the country without complaint. The woman also sells rings, wallet chains and hats without Nazi logos.
 Read More:
https://www.ynetnews.com/article/s1jnl4frt

It’s sad that Holocaust denial needs to be criminalized.

Chief Rabbi Jacobs:
Last Thursday was a special day. I was in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of The Netherlands, for the unveiling of a monument with 544 names of Jews who were murdered, 80% of what used to be a flourishing Jewish Community. It was not only an impressive ceremony, but a full day filling program. First a reception in the former Jewish School, then a tour of the former Jewish quarter where in front of the various houses and shops large photos of the former Jewish residents were placed: all murdered! And then: the unveiling wasn’t supposed to start till 4pm and it was only 2pm? After the tour of the Jewish neighbourhood, we were directed to a nearby hall. Just before the occupation, in 1939, the wedding reception of Barend Boers and Mimi Dwinger, had taken place in this hall. More than a hundred guests were present. And in that same hall, we set now, awaiting the unveiling of the monument. And then, quite unexpectedly, it started. We were in the middle of a play. The chuppah took place around us, we were the guests, and the lives of the bride and groom were acted. But it was not all festive. The Nazis occupied The Netherlands. Jews were arrested. The young couple decided to escape. Their flight from the Netherlands, their trek across the Pyrenees, we saw it all happen. The various people whose houses we had just passed by, performed and talked about their lives and their deaths in Sobibor, Auschwitz or elsewhere. I actually would have preferred not to experience this performance because it hit me hard. It was a tough confrontation.
And then, after the confrontational play, we left the hall in silence and walked to the unveiling of the monument. And there, at that ceremony, 6 students pretended to be former residents of the Jewish Community of Leeuwarden: my name is x and in 1943 I was murdered in Sobibor. The mayor of Leeuwarden talked about his Jewish grandmother and the secret surrounding her Jewishness. When the mayor’s aunt passed away, of natural causes, not so long ago, a briefcase was found and her Jewishness, her carefully hidden identity, was revealed. Because my ancestors originated from Leeuwarden, I had this personal feeling: how nice that my ancestors finally, after more then 75 years, got a gravestone, a matsewa! But a gravestone without a grave. A memorial prayer was recited followed by an intensive silence.
How could a large Jewish Congregation be massacred, gassed, exterminated? It was not just the fault of the small percentage of collaborators. The problem lay with the large silent mob that showed herd behaviour and chose the path that yielded them the most at the time: Fl.7.50 money per head for every betrayed Jew. And in better times even Fl. 40 pp!
Because of that herd mentality, which drove society in the completely wrong direction during the occupation, there was something like a collective guilt among the average Dutchman after the war. A few months ago, when 18 Orthodox Jewish girls were expelled from a KLM flight, I spoke to a former Minister and told him that thanks to my network I was able to arrange for them not to have to stay at Amsterdam Airport on Shabbat. And, I went on, whether it was right or wrong for the girls to be kicked off the plane, I don’t know, because they might have misbehaved themselves. But I was corrected fairly brutally by the former statesman with the words: As a Dutch society we must always stand up for the Jew, because during the Holocaust we, the Dutch, failed miserably. I fully agree with that failure, but to go so far that it is no longer allowed to check whether straight is crooked and crooked straight is a bit too far for me.
I agree that it is justified that also in the Netherlands it is being considered nowadays to criminalize denial of the Holocaust. But the fact that this needs consideration, is sad, because apparently it is no longer felt how radically, inhumane and criminally the Nazi regime acted, supported by the majority of the Dutch population. Result: 544 names of murdered Jews. The monument is impressive, but the history unacceptable.

“PER LA MEMORIA DELLA SHOAH NON SI FA ABBASTANZA”: LE PAROLE DI REGINA SUCHOWOLSKI-SLUSZNY

Poco prima dello scoppio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, la comunità ebraica in Belgio era composta da circa 75 mila ebrei, divisi tra le città di Anversa e di Bruxelles. Circa il 45% della popolazione ebraica venne deportata e mandata principalmente ad Auschwitz, di questi, solo 1200 fecero ritorno. Un totale di 28.900 ebrei belgi furono uccisi tra il 1942 e il 1945.

Al contrario di altri paesi in Europa, il regime nazista si dovette scontrare con una forte resistenza popolare che impedì la completa applicazione delle politiche antisemite. Questo clima permise ad una complessa rete clandestina di nascondere più di 6mila bambini, dalla tenera età fino ai 15 anni, all’interno di famiglie non ebraiche sparse nel Belgio. Una di queste fu Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny, che ebbe la fortuna di riunirsi alla sua famiglia e di essere accudita da una famiglia che considera tuttora parte della sua.

Da decenni Regina, vicepresidente dell’Associazione dei bambini che furono nascosti in Belgio, nonché presidente del Forum delle organizzazioni ebraiche, si occupa di raccontare nelle scuole la sua storia e quella di suo marito George, che ebbe un’esperienza simile.

Nonostante abbia visitato centinaia di istituti e raccontato la storia a migliaia di ragazzi in tutto il Belgio, per lei raccontare ciò che le è accaduto durante la Shoah e gli orrori di quel periodo sono una missione di vita, che porterà avanti, come dice, “fino a quando il mio corpo glielo permetterà”. Regina ha parlato di fronte a politici e leader del mondo ebraico a Cracovia alla conferenza organizzata dalla European Jewish Association.

Proprio per l’occasione, Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny ha condiviso con Shalom vari temi, tra cui quello di quanta strada ci sia ancora da fare nell’educazione dei ragazzi riguardo la Shoah e nella lotta all’antisemitismo in Belgio.

“Non esiste una vera educazione in materia. Sanno che c’è stata una guerra, ma oltre a quello non sanno altro” ha tuonato la Presidente del Forum delle Organizzazioni Ebraiche parlando delle lacune del sistema educativo in Belgio.

“Qualche mese fa sono andata in una scuola ed ho chiesto alla maestra di cosa avesse parlato ai suoi studenti. – ci ha raccontato Regina –  Lei mi ha risposto che avevano parlato di quell’argomento per un pomeriggio.”

Il problema, secondo Suchowolski-Sluszny, proviene proprio dalla classe docente. “Nonostante sia obbligatorio parlare della Shoah nelle classi, gli insegnanti non sanno cosa sia la Shoah. – ha fatto notare –  Per questo parlare di Hitler e far vedere Schindler’s List ai propri alunni non potrà mai essere abbastanza.”

Dei tanti incontri fatti durante questi anni, due episodi hanno particolarmente colpito la sopravvissuta: il primo ha per protagonista una ragazza, che dopo aver sentito la testimonianza ha capito il vero valore delle cose; mentre il secondo riguarda un ragazzo le cui idee sugli ebrei e su Israele erano state fortemente influenzate dal padre, completamente cambiate dopo aver discusso con lei.

In entrambi i casi la testimonianza ha creato in loro un cortocircuito, “ciò che faccio è fargli porre determinate domande, poi capire ciò che è giusto o sbagliato è un processo che i ragazzi devono fare da soli.”

Mentre per quanto riguarda dell’antisemitismo, in linea con quanto detto dal Rabbino Menachem Margolin nel suo discorso di apertura alla conferenza di Cracovia, in Europa non si sta facendo abbastanza per contrastare il fenomeno.

Molto di quanto detto dai vari governi dei paesi membri dell’Unione Europea e dallo stesso governo belga, secondo lei sono “parole al vento”. Lo stesso fenomeno viene preso sottogamba dalle forze dell’ordine del suo paese, che il più delle volte ignorano le segnalazioni della comunità ebraica, al contrario di quanto avviene per esempio in Italia, lodando il lavoro svolto dal prefetto Lamberto Giannini, vincitore del King David Award dell’EJA.

Un’altra scottante problematica riguarda il BDS, aggiunge Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny, e l’esempio lampante è ciò che sta accadendo nelle università europee. “Succede ad Anversa, a Bruxelles, ovunque. BDS è libero di agire e nessuno fa qualcosa per fermarlo. – sostiene – Chi firma le loro campagne sono soprattutto gli accademici.” Un problema che bisogna risolvere il prima possibile se si vuole dare ai ragazzi una vita universitaria più tranquilla, secondo la Presidente del Forum delle organizzazioni ebraiche.

https://www.shalom.it/blog/orizzonte-europa-bc251/a-per-la-memoria-della-shoah-non-si-fa-abbastanzaa-le-parole-di-regina-suchowolski-sluszny-b1105101

Rabbi Jacobs Covid Diary gets published!

Chief Rabbi’s unique take and thoughts on the pandemic collected in a book to be launched
Wednesday.
Chief Rabbi Jacobs, a regular contributor here, a dear friend and advisory Board member has had his
unique, stimulating and thought-provoking Covid Diary published in Dutch.
The book will be launched at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam where Rabbi Vorst, will be
one of the speakers. The first book will be given to Mrs. Blouma Jacobs-Raskin, the Chief Rabbi’s wife.
Some of the reviews of the book are found below:
“In recent years, Chief Rabbi Jacobs has developed into the ambassador of Judaism and the Jewish
community in the Netherlands. In these diary entries he gives a unique insight into what that means:
traveling from north to south, appearances for media, and having very personal conversations. As a
true balance artist, he has both feet in the Jewish community and in Dutch society. ”
Bart Wallet, historian
“Who is Chief Rabbi Jacobs? This book gives us a glimpse into the life and work of the man who know
so many people and who is so widely appreciated. This diary shows us some of his thoughts and ideals.
Who is Chief Rabbi Jacobs? A highly respected member of our Jewish community and a dear friend
who has always supported and will continue to support the State of Israel. ”
Naor Gilon, Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands
“Chief Rabbi Jacobs gives us an insight into his versatile daily activities. The diary is varied: every day
raises the question of what the next day will bring. Apparently light-footed, but always with a profound
undertone, he makes poignant observations that testify to a deep understanding of people and the
world. ”
Rev. Frank Heikoop, chairman Christians for Israel
“During the many conversations I have with Chief Rabbi Jacobs, he talks about his daily adventures.
He travels all over the country, is an important Jewish voice in politics in The Hague and a sparring
partner for municipalities. He knows what is going on among Jews in the Netherlands. That’s why it’s
great that this chronicle of his is now being published.”
Esther Voet, editor-in-chief Nieuw Israëlitisch Weekblad.
“The Chief Rabbi’s Corona Diary is not about the virus, its horrors, and the restrictions placed on our
daily lives. Binyomin Jacobs has written down how, from the rich traditions of Judaism, he reacted to
what came his way every day. Those traditions are leading for him and not the virus. Refreshing and
offering perspective for everyone, I think. ”
Wim Deetman, former Minister of Education and Science
A link to buy the book (in dutch) is HERE

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