The proper response to Auschwitz is a silent one

By Naftali Brawer, February 8, 2014
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Several years ago I was invited to a fundraiser for a Jewish school. In attendance were a number of high-net-worth individuals from whom the school was seeking substantial contributions. It fell to the keynote speaker to make an appeal. Unsurprisingly he invoked the Holocaust. He described it in harrowing detail and asked those assembled to ensure the future of Jewish education so as not to give Hitler a posthumous victory.

There were many things he could have said that were far more relevant and inspiring to a group of potential donors. He could have addressed the need for Jewish education in a complex and multi cultural society. He could have spoken about the importance of Jewish literacy and commitment for a new generation. If he were particularly adventurous he could have spoken about the need to teach a gentle and compassionate form of faith in an age of rising fundamentalism. Instead he chose the easy option; Jewish guilt. Sadly he is not the first Jewish leader to seek to capitalise from the Holocaust and he is certainly not the last.

The latest manifestation of exploiting Jewish Holocaust guilt is the planned construction of a kollel and kiruv centre at Auschwitz. It is not entirely clear which Jewish organisation is behind the project but a colourful flyer purportedly emailed by Aish HaTorah to its supporters is available for viewing on failedmessiah.com. Let me unpack two Hebrew terms. A kollel is an institute of advanced Torah study, usually, although not exclusively comprised of young married men. Kiruv is the term given by Charedi organisations —– with the exception of Chabad — to Jewish outreach work.

Studying Torah in loving memory of the deceased has a long and honoured tradition within Judaism. In the time of the Mishnah it was not uncommon for students to study Torah at the tomb of their deceased master. One can see evidence of this practice in the semi-circular benches hewn into the rock-face above Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s tomb in Bet She’arim, Israel. To this day devoted Jews will recite psalms or study Torah at the graves of great rabbis. And so there is nothing particularly surprising or distasteful about the establishment of a kollel at
Auschwitz where devoted Jews study Torah in memory of the six million.

What is surprising though, as well as deeply disturbing, is the inclusion of a kiruv centre to lure non-observant Jews to Jewish observance. By employing the same emotional blackmail used at the Jewish school fundraiser, the kiruv centre is exploitative of the non-observant Jews as well as the memory of the six million.
I have been to visit Auschwitz as well as Majdanek and these places wreak havoc on one’s emotional equilibrium.

Everyone processes this experience in their own way; be it through grief, anger or sheer numbness. To manipulate people’s fragile emotions at a time like this is reprehensible, even if it leads to the desired outcome of greater Jewish commitment. The end does not justify the means. In practical terms as well, Jewish commitment based on the unnatural heightened and tangled emotions of visiting a former concentration camp is unlikely to endure for any considerable length of time. Whatever one’s views are of kiruv work in general, manipulating the Holocaust in this way is both offensive and impractical.

And then there is the memory of the six million martyrs, over a million murdered at Auschwitz alone. The Holocaust was one of the most destructive and incomprehensible periods of Jewish history. In the face of this enormous tragedy, the only response is thundering silence. The six million did not die for any crime or sin they committed (as the Satmar Rebbe believed) nor did they die so as to benefit the Jewish people in the future, even with so monumental an endowment as the state of Israel (as some Zionists believe.)

Their memory is sacred and not to be trifled with. If one wants to honour their memory through meditation, prayer or Torah study that is fine but no one, Jew or non Jew, has the right to utilise this colossal calamity for any practical purpose, important or lofty as that purpose might be.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer is chief executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation

Last updated: 12:45pm, February 8 2014