AUSCHWITZ, Poland — Here at the world’s most notorious place of death, on Yom Hoshoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I find found myself lost amid the remains of Auschwitz.
On my third visit I have, in my my mind, two eras that, sadly, cannot be conjoined.
What would have happened if Hitler, right after Kristallnacht in November, 1938, had been hit by hundreds of American cruise missiles? What if some superpower had punished him for his pogrom against Jews with a superior weapon and made him feel that his crime would not go unchallenged?
Would he have proceeded with the Holocaust? Or were the monstrous crimes that followed the result of a belief that no one cared about the Jews?
The last time I was here, I visited with a delegation from the Israeli Knesset and much of the top brass of the Israeli military. Even as I walked among the very leaders of the modern miracle of the State of Israel, themselves the symbols of Jewish hope that endured the Nazi horrors that besieged us, I felt deep despair.
This time, I am here with the March of the Living. Along with an army of Jewish youth, twelve thousand strong – all bursting with hope, strength, and pride. The mass-cascade of hopeful Jewish students, led by a delegation of survivors, is awash with the blue-and-white of the Israeli flag, which hundreds have draped across their shoulders or affixed to banners that rise triumphantly above the crowds.
The idea of the march is captured in this image. No longer will Jews be driven to their deaths at the barrel of a gun. Today, Jews step forward along the hallowed earth in a powerful parade, marked by our pride and resilience, our strength and our grit. It is, ultimately, a testament to our rebirth as a people. What was once a death march has become a march of the living.
And still, as I enter the sprawling complex of death, I felt loss, numbness, and confusion.
Today I pass under the notorious banner: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Immediately, I am gripped by the thought that as the train-loads of Jews arrived here, they might have truly believed that “work would set them free.” For a million of those Jews, it would be a false and fruitless hope. They would never leave, but would meet their ends in chambers of poison gas. Not even their bodies would remain. They would be incinerated into ash in the crematoria.
How can one stand in this temple of horror and destruction, this barefaced symbol of G-d’s abandonment of his people, this monument to the infinity of man’s capacity for evil, and feel anything within the sphere of hope? No, here there is nothing but darkness. It is a world of shadows, impenetrable to all light. Endlessly deep and profoundly unforgiving, Auschwitz is an abyss from which no soul can possibly escape.
I have given up on finding meaning here. But I have come across something else. There is an unrelenting message that is cast upon me in all directions by the camp’s decaying brick walls, sullen barracks, and looming guard-towers. It is a call that springs upon me from the earth, from the hundreds of thousands of voices that were silenced here seven-decades ago – the victims whom I can, somehow, still hear.
In a chorus of urgency and desperation, the victims impart to me the most hallowed command: stop the horror. Never allow our fate to be thrust upon yet more innocent victims. Treasure our memory, and protect those for whom help can still arrive, for whom hope is not yet fruitless.
In Auschwitz, I find I’ve been given a mission.
This is a mission, I know, that has never been as crucial as it is today.
Even after witnessing the decimation of European Jewry in places like this, the world allowed mass slaughter and genocide to rage largely untouched in Cambodia, Iraq, Pakistan, Guatemala, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur – among many others.
Today, the killing goes on in Iraq at the hands of ISIS, who launched a genocide of the Yazidis and Christians; and in Syria, where government forces, along with the Iranian-funded Hezbollah army of terror, are targeting Sunnis and Arab children for mass extermination.
For years now, the mullah-led murderous government in Iran has continued time and again to threaten yet another Holocaust against the Jewish people. Just four months ago, Iran’s defense minister promised that should President Donald Trump pull out of Obama’s nuclear deal, the result would be the “immediate destruction of the Zionist Regime.” Half a year before that, an Advisor to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards bragged that he would raze all of Israel to the ground in “less than eight minutes.”
In return for that talk, the world awarded Iran a nuclear deal that all but allowed the continuation of the nuclear program designed to make its genocidal dreams possible. They also flooded the mullah’s coffers with one-hundred and fifty billion dollars and legitimized trade with their putrid, autocratic, and gay-hanging regime.
What is, however, most horrific is that just this month, Syria’s illegitimate murderer-in chief Bashar al-Assad took a note from the Nazis and employed poison gas to choke up to one hundred civilians to death in Idlib. To his credit, President Trump avenged their deaths with dozens of airstrikes against Syrian airfields. But from the very fact that such attacks still occur, it is undeniable that our world has yet to learn from the Holocaust, and harkened to the call of its victims – a call that still rings in my ears.
We at the World Values Network have therefore taken it upon ourselves to create a robust and fully-functional anti-genocide center that will work round-the-clock to shed light on peoples at risk across the world, bringing their plight to the forefront of global consciousness. Never again will people and governments be able to claim, as they always have, that they simply did not know.
I am here at the March of the Living with my friend Elisha Wiesel, who is speaking at the march about the memory of his illustrious father. At my home for the Sabbath recently, Elisha shared a beautiful Torah thought. Why did God make the Nile river run red with blood as the first plague in Egypt? So that the Egyptians would never be able to deny that they had perpetrated a genocide of Jewish children in the river. The very waters cried out with blood.
We may have come late for those who rest here in Auschwitz, Rwanda, and the countless mass graves that lie all across our world. Still, their voices rise up from the earth begging to finally be heard. Even as it won’t save them, it can still save others.
And, my friends, so can we.
Let’s join together and build an organization that will finally endow meaning to life in a world that is so often blind to it.
Let us finally hear the screams in the silence of Auschwitz. For within them there is not just a cry of death, but a mission of life.
It’s a mission that simply cannot wait.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.