I visited the German concentration camp at Dachau, back in 1984.
I don’t believe anything, except my acceptance of Christ, has affected me as greatly as my tour of the former Nazi death camp did. I could almost “see” the prisoners, mostly European Jews, living out their last days in that terrible place. The crematorium building brought home to me the magnitude of the number of Jews murdered there. The numbers I was quoted were no longer just figures. I felt agony as I thought about people, just like me, going into that horrible building. People like me, with a father, a mother, grandparents, siblings, many who’s histories had yet to be written, ending, dying, vanishing as their last mortal remains were reduced to a pile of ashes. Ashes swept away as if the person they once were was of no consequence. And indeed, to the keepers of that terrible place, the inhabitants were nothing of consequence. They were the walking dead, a “problem”, an “inconvenience”, something to be destroyed and swept away as soon as possible.
But these were people. Many of them were God’s chosen people, the Jews. I’m sure Satan celebrated throughout those years of Jewish annihilation.
My love for and commitment to God’s chosen people, the Jews, started the day I toured Dachau Concentration Camp and has grown greater every day since.
“Never Forget” is written on a monument at Dachau. We must make sure we never forget what happened to the Jews, God’s Chosen People.
For the past five years, I have had the privilege of serving as president of Park Avenue Synagogue, the largest Conservative congregation in New York City. On most Shabbat mornings, I sit on the bima in our magnificent sanctuary listening to our rabbis and cantors. The elegant surroundings complement and enhance our centuries-old ritual.
We pray, meditate, study the weekly Torah reading, take pride in the proficiency of our bnei mitzva, say kaddish for a loved one. But sometimes, my mind drifts backward in time to other synagogues, other sanctuaries that I can only imagine.
On June 22, 1943, my father, Josef Rosensaft, was on a transport from his hometown of Bedzin in southern Poland to Auschwitz. The son and grandson of devout hassidim, followers of the rabbis of Ger, he had become a labor Zionist and one of the few Jewish members of a local sports club.
On this occasion, the train used by the Germans to deport Jews to the death camp was not made up of windowless cattle cars but consisted of normal passenger cars. My father, an excellent swimmer, escaped by diving out of one of the train’s windows into the Vistula River. Although wounded by three German bullets, he was able to return early the next morning to Bedzin where his father was waiting for him.
Six weeks later, during the liquidation of the Bedzin Ghetto, my grandfather died of natural causes in my father’s arms. After my father had buried his father, he fled to the nearby town of Zawiercie. At the end of August, he was deported from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
THE FOLLOWING year, my father was an inmate in the notorious Block 11, also known as the Death Block, at Auschwitz. He had been there for more than five months, ever since he had been brought back to Auschwitz after escaping from a labor camp to which he had been transferred and hiding in Bedzin for six weeks with a Polish friend.
Throughout his imprisonment in Block 11, he had been continuously tortured. The Germans wanted him to betray the Poles who had helped him escape and who had hidden him, something he steadfastly refused to do.
Millions of European Jews had already perished. Thousands were dying daily. It was the most unlikely setting for prayer and devotion to God.
And yet that night, the Jewish kapo in charge of Block 11 wanted my father to conduct the Yom Kippur service. Half-naked, emaciated, starved, my father chanted Kol Nidre from memory in the Death Block of Auschwitz, and led the prayers there that evening and the following day for his fellow prisoners. As a reward, the kapo gave my father and the other inmates of Block 11 an extra bowl of soup to break the fast.
A barrack in Birkenau during Succot, 1943, and Block 11 in Auschwitz on Yom Kippur, 1944, became synagogues for a few hours, sanctuaries for Jews, many about to die, fleeting refuges from horror and agony, where my father and the Zawiercier Rov simultaneously reached out to and defied God.
AT THE outset of the 21st century, Jews throughout the world are blessed to be able to gather and pray publicly in comfort and safety. Still, we should remind ourselves every once in a while, as we sit in our elegant synagogues, that the essence of our identities and of our prayers emanate from deep within our souls.
I would like to believe that there are moments when my prayers, our prayers, transcend the years to merge with those that rose out of Block 11 and a Birkenau barrack, and that together they somehow reach their destination.