Cracow, Auschwitz, and Egypt: Lest Memory Fail

Cracow is a city where Jewish grandmothers used to sit and drink their “glass of tea.” When I visited Cracow’s Jewish quarter, twenty-five years ago, the only Jews drinking tea were visitors like me “coming home” to sip the taste of life as our grandmothers had described it. When I visited again last year, the quarter was rebuilt and reenergized: instead of grandmothers in kitchens drinking tea, young people on street corners ordering lattes.

Twenty-five years ago, the ghostly remains of Cracow synagogues silhouetted huddles of elderly men — memory brokers selling painful recollections to pilgrims like me. They are gone today, as are their first-hand memories of the way it really was. This time round, my bright and bouncy guide duly walked me past the corner where Jews were rounded up for deportation, but all she had was distant history: what researchers  uncovered and then wrote down for her to read and then tell me. How easily memory fossilizes into history.

We need real memory, this week’s Torah portion insists, for the Haggadah’s “four sons” who ask “why?” – not just of Egypt but of Cracow too: as it says, “When your children ask you, tell them….”

Tell them what? How God took us out of Egypt? No problem. But also, “What happened to the Jewish grandmothers who once smiled over glasses of Cracow tea?” What do you tell them when memory becomes history and history is just not good enough?

For a while, memorials keep memories fresh: as at Auschwitz.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first walked the rusting Auschwitz railroad tracks that once brought cattle cars of Jews to die, I felt it in my bones. It was winter, very cold, with darkening skies scowling down on the barren grounds; and I, the only visitor on that late December afternoon. The chill was everywhere, as was the horror of the place as if it were still up and running and smoking with the stench of Jewish bodies.

This time round, Auschwitz the memorial had become Auschwitz the museum, but not a good one. It was more like a theme park, where visitors are herded through with earphones tuned to robotic explanations intoned by guides whom they can barely see. The young man behind me shuffled past the glass-encased exhibits of suitcases, shoes, and hair — drinking a Coke. Did he even vaguely comprehend the final ignominy? All that’s left of all those Jews, under glass!

What happens when guides know only the history they studied in “guide” school; and memorials become semi-autonomous guided tours?

I now appreciate the Torah’s admonition that we set aside as sacred a day of memory (Ex. 12:14) and a night of watching (12:42), to recollect what we can for our “four sons” – as if we really had been there.

To foolish children, we can do no more than summarize our story in a single simple line, and hope for the best.

Worse are evil children who think Hitler happened to someone else. Auschwitz is just one more museum, like the one downtown with old Greek sculpture. Cracow is just one more city with bars and night life.

The wise, thank God, insist on knowing it all, getting it straight, and maybe (with effort) dredging up some distant memory and making it their own.

But I like best the child who “knows not what to ask.” I have come to admire that child as no simpleton at all, for what can you ask, if you begin to grasp what Auschwitz really was? And how can we respond, except to do the impossible: to convey the Auschwitz story as if we still remember it, the way we remember the Exodus, as if we ourselves had been there?

The seder is not just fun and food. It is for children to know that in Egypt, Jews went free; and in Auschwitz they did not. And then to move on, but with a memory in mind not a Coca Cola in hand.



2 responses to “Cracow, Auschwitz, and Egypt: Lest Memory Fail

  1. Our congregational visit to Auschwitz two summers ago was during the worst heat wave Europe has seen for a while. As the guide described standing outside for hours in the cold of winter and the heat of summer, or being stuffed into barracks with no heat and very little air circulation it was not difficult to imagine the horrific conditions.

    The “children” on our trip were my son, then 20, and his girlfriend – both educated in URJ congregations as well as their public schools about the Holocaust, both of whom had also gone on our Israel trip and visited Yad Vashem as well as the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. They were not prepared for what they experienced. I grew up in the age of Holocaust education via newsreels of skeletons and dead bodies, and I was not prepared either.

    Lacking the ability to take every child to Auschwitz to stand on those stones in the heat/cold, how do we make this “real” to generations who will not have any survivors left to tell their stories, and how will we make this piece of history personal enough for them to truly understand?

    Thank you, as always for your insight and your unique take on things. Loved the four sons section and can see that as a part of an adult learning piece for Yom HaShoah!

    • I’m sorry I could not reply immediately. Obviously, I fully agree with you — you have the dilemma right. Over time, as a ritualist, it has occurred to me that the only way to pass along the memory is through ritual. I advocated having each family adopt a Holocaust victim, then mount a picture of the person who was murdered on the wall and/or on the piano or shelves where other family members’ pictures are found; then get used to introducing them to people as our posthumous adopted family; and saying Kaddish for them annually and at Yom Kippur. The next generation would grow up with their memory as if they had actually been in our families; as if their stories were in our own family album. I tried interesting the Holocaust Museum in it; same with a number of other organizations; but so far no takers. It would do the trick better than anything else I know.

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