As some of you may know, I have been involved with the Holocaust Education Trust for nearly 15 years. Specifically, I accompany 200+ non Jewish 6th formers for a day visit to Auschwitz as part of their Lessons from Auschwitz.
Before Covid, HET was running approximately 15 trips a year, taking nearly 3000 students. As part of a wonderful rabbinic team, we each take about three or four trips a year. The trip is so important in a world where anti semitism continues to rear its ugly head.
Rabbi Sacks addressed the House of Lords in 2018:
The greatest danger any civilisation faces is when it suffers from collective amnesia. We forget how small beginnings lead to truly terrible endings. A thousand years of Jewish history in Europe added certain words to the human vocabulary: forced conversion, inquisition, expulsion, ghetto, pogrom, Holocaust. Once hate goes unchecked, the road to tragedy is short.
My Lords, it pains me to speak about antisemitism, the world’s oldest hatred. But I cannot keep silent. One of the enduring facts of history is that most antisemites do not think of themselves as antisemites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation state.
Antisemitism is the hardest of all hatreds to defeat because, like a virus, it mutates, but one thing stays the same. Jews, whether as a religion or a race or as the State of Israel, are made the scapegoat for problems for which all sides are responsible. That is how the road to tragedy begins.
These are the lessons the educators and the rabbinic team attempt to transmit to the participants.
This year, the trip was scheduled for Chol Hamoed. As the only Rabbi on the team who does not lead a Kehilla, I agreed to go, as none of the others on the team could leave their communities. The challenge of working out how to spend Chol Hamoed Succot in Auschwitz began!
This visit was the first time for three years that the trips have been live again. We do give the dates of the chagim to the organisers so as not to clash with Yom Tov, but I guess nobody had explained about Chol Hamoed!
The first of course was my lulav and etrog. Travelling through Stanstead Airport, I got many looks. Security were perplexed, they had never seen such a package! Thankfully, they let it pass; I worried they might accuse me of bringing a sharp instrument on board, we must be careful during Hallel with the lulav, I am sure there have been some injuries over the years!
Then, of course, there was the explaining to the participants on the plane and coach what I was carrying. Someone asked me if it was a Jewish wand! Haim Potter and all that!
To be honest, Succot is a pretty difficult chag to explain to people. Chol Hamoed even more so. Many non-Jews know that on Shabbat and Chagim we can’t drive, use electricity, etc, so the fact that it was a Jewish festival and yet here I was on a plane etc – was all very confusing, but a chance for a mini shiur in Hilchot Chol Hamoed!
Then we had the questions why I was not eating most of the Hermolis meal I was served, ie the bread, crackers and cake. Was it not kosher enough? Trying to explain what you can and can’t eat outside of a succah, was also not the simplest thing – I don’t get these questions in Edgware or Hendon!
However, the most inspiring part of the trip and something I will never forget happened in front of the barracks in Auschwitz Birkenau.
Here, I normally discuss with the students the heroism of inmates such as Elie Wiesel who were determined to keep whatever mitzvot they could in hell. Wiesel writes in his memoirs:
‘In the morning my father and I would rise before the general wake up call and go to a nearby block where someone had traded a dozen rations of bread for a pair of tefillin. We would strap them onto our left arm and forehead, quickly recite the ritual blessings, then pass them onto the next person. A few dozen prisoners thereby sacrificed their sleep, and sometimes their rations of bread or coffee to perform the mitzvah of tefillin. Yes, we kept Torah even in a death camp. I said my prayers every day. On Shabbat I hummed the Shabbat songs at work, in part to please my father and to show I was determined to remain a Jew even in this Accursed kingdom’
However yesterday, I shared another remarkable story, one I had never heard before but after yesterday will never forget. It can be watched here.
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, one of the great Torah leaders in pre-war Hungary, was deported to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. David Israel was one of the boys destined to live, knowing how to speak German. He was chosen to work in the gypsy camp where he was employed in the sick people’s block. His work allowed him to look after himself, to save his father and to help other prisoners.
One night, he awoke in shock: an unknown figure was standing next to his bunk, a gaunt figure in the striped clothes of Auschwitz. As David Israel recalls:
‘Suddenly, he patted me on my back. “Boy, I want to talk to you – what is your name? Is your name David?”
I said yes. All this quietly in the night.
He said to me “Tomorrow evening will be the festival of Succot.”
I didn’t know anything about that. “If you say so, how can I help you?” I asked.
“You can help, you can help! I built a succah, don’t ask questions. I want you to bring me two loaves of bread for lechem Mishna!”
I asked him “How do you know that I can do that?”
He replied, “I know, I know that you have two loaves. Please give me, I won’t take a lot from them, just one bite for the blessing.”
I said, “Rav, I will, but on one condition.”
“What is the condition?”
“That you allow me to come into your succah.”
The Rav exclaimed, “No, no, you are exempt, you don’t have to!”
I insisted, “Rav, the one condition you get your loaves is if you take me to your succah, if not, then leave me alone.”
When he saw that he had no choice, he said, “Then tomorrow night I will come for you. Be ready with the bread.”
The question is how did he build a succah at Auschwitz?
During the summer and fall of 1944, the Nazis were bringing in hundreds of thousands of Jews (including the remaining 400,000 Hungarian Jews) in a last-ditch effort to complete their “final solution.” In the twisted organisational logic of the concentration camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labour until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling bunks in the barracks while rows of new bunks were being constructed in the central parade ground.
Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing that Succot was coming, Rav Meisels had managed to secure some schach, placing it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher succah. However, the mitzvah of living in the succah can only be fulfilled by either sleeping (which was out of the question) or eating in the succah, which was his aim.
The following night, a cloudy dark night, they made their way to the succah, where they ate and made a leishev ba succah– in Auschwitz!
David emotionally adds, “Moshe Rabbenu did not have such a kosher succah as this!”
A few months passed and the terrible war came to an end. Rav Meisels helped with agunot straight after the war and several years later he became Rabbi of a community in Chicago.
David made aliyah to Israel, but after a few years moved to Venezuela, to his brother where he too raised a family.
There in Venezuela, a friend invited David to a reception hosting a Rabbi. David agreed to come.
About twenty people were at the reception. The guest Rabbi walked in, he had a long beard, payot and was holding his seferMekadshei Hashem. He spoke in Yiddish. He explained how he was in Auschwitz, how he blew the shofar, how he built a succah and how he was helped by a young boy.
David started to shake. He let him finish, and went up to him and said, “I was that boy!” The two men embraced and Rav Meisels gave David a copy of the book and a special signed letter thanking him for what he did all those years ago.
As I stood in Auschwitz yesterday with the group and we looked at the barracks, I had never seen them in that way before. I felt honoured to be able to relate to the students the story of Rav Meisels on Chol Hamoed Succot, almost exactly 78 years to the day that the succah was used.
One of the students, visibly moved by the story, said to me how it was incredible to hear about the faith of people who were so devoted to Judaism that they were willing to risk it all. She asked me if Jews today were still as devoted. I told her that yes, there was tremendous devotion to Torah amongst many Jews around the world. The line I wanted to say, but didn’t, was that we have had in history, Jews who were willing to die for their Judaism, yet today so many don’t even want to live for their Judaism.
Rabbi Binny Freedman, a Rav in Yerushalyaim commented on the lessons from this story:
The Sfat Emet suggests that on Yom Kippur we attempt to recapture the world as it was before we sinned. When Adam and Eve were created, Hashem placed them (us) in the Garden of Eden which was the world as it could be. However, due to our inevitable mistakes we were forced to leave the Garden of Eden and venture into the world as it had become: a world more distant from God.
Ever since that time, we’ve been attempting to perfect this world and rectify our mistakes to recapture the world as it could be: the world of the Garden of Eden.
But if Yom Kippur remains just one special day of the year, when we let go of the world and come close to Hashem, then we have missed the point. The real challenge of the succah is whether we can bring a little bit of Yom Kippur with us back into the world.
We spend a week in the succah to remind us that all we own and all the things we think we have are really an illusion; reality is the world of the Garden of Eden, the world of ethics and love, of closeness to Hashem and Torah. If two Jews can disconnect from the nightmare illusion all around them, even in Auschwitz, then perhaps we can all tap into a small fraction of that strength to do the same in our every day as well.
Travelling back to London last night, I proudly carried my lulav on the plane. Many students commented how they had been inspired by the ideas and stories of Succot and how the lulav really was a representation of something remarkable. We even managed to inspire the few Jews in the group as well, one of whom who had tried to hide his Jewish identity, but the experience and the stories made him think again.
I got home at 1am.
There was only one place to go.
I washed, went into my succah, thought of Rav Meisels and David, gave thanks to Hashem for the freedom we have to observe Torah today, made hamotzi looked up at the sechach and made my leishev bracha.