Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters


Salo Baron, perhaps the greatest 20th-century Jewish historian, argued vociferously against the “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history. In 1928, he wrote “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?” and contended that other historians exaggerated accounts of anti-Semitism, and that Jews in medieval Europe were not comparatively worse off than their neighbors. Baron’s view was that the historians who focused on anti-Semitism did so for ideological reasons.

In recent years, the lachrymose theory debate has returned regarding the Holocaust. Shmuel Rosner argued last month in The New York Times (“Do Israeli Students Need to Visit Auschwitz?”) that Israel should stop bringing students on Holocaust education trips because they will “contribute to a misperception by many Jews that remembering the Holocaust is the main feature of Judaism … a healthy society cannot be defined by the memory of a tragedy…”

Rosner is far from the first to oppose a lachrymose theory of post-Holocaust identity. In 1992, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald warned that “obsessing over the Holocaust is exacting a great price. It is killing America’s Jews.” Others have berated the community to stop obsessing over the Holocaust, implying there is an ideological reason (Zionism) for Holocaust memory.

To confirm his view, Rosner cites the Pew study that found that 73 percent of American Jews and 65 percent of Israeli Jews think that remembering the Holocaust is essential to Jewish identity. By contrast, only 33 percent of Israelis and 43 percent of American Jews think Israel is essential to Jewish identity. This critique sees Holocaust education as replacing Judaism and Zionism with guilt and death. Rosner concludes that student visits to the concentration camps in Poland should end.

I disagree. Undoubtedly, Rosner is correct that the Holocaust is overemphasized and often a surrogate for Jewish identity. It is a tragedy that Jewish students are more familiar with the names of concentration camps than the names of the prophets. Yes, rabbis and educators must exercise caution in how they present the Holocaust. But Rosner confuses causation and correlation. An overemphasis on the Holocaust is not the cause of an impoverished Jewish identity; it is only a symptom of it. (Forty-two percent of American Jews think “having a sense of humor” is essential to being Jewish; should we stop telling jokes?) The real issue is that too often Judaism is a hobby and Jewish education is a mediocrity; as a result, the Holocaust is used as a crutch to overcome the handicap of a shriveled identity. There is a crisis of commitment among young Jews, but ending Holocaust education will not solve it. And there is too much to be lost by not bringing high school groups.

Yaffa Eliach once asked Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhever Rebbe, if she should travel to the concentration camps. Like many survivors, she struggled with the idea of returning to a place of such darkness. The rebbe responded, “Are you going for the sake of the dead, or for the sake of the living?” I believe students should visit the concentration camps for the sake of both.

First, to be a Jew is to be a part of Jewish history. Collectively, we remember the Pharaohs, Maccabees and Babylonians at different points of the year, because for Jews, the past is current events; our ancestors are also our companions. The last century may be the most important chapter in this history, with an almost biblical narrative of exile and redemption. To many, the founding of the State of Israel after the Holocaust recalls the Valley of Dry Bones, in which Ezekiel declares, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” To properly tell the story of redemption, you need to contemplate exile in places like Warsaw, Lizhensk, Auschwitz and Tikochin. The visiting students might return with a sense of what Israel meant to those who fled persecution and anti-Semitism.

We also return to honor the dead. There is an “ethics of memory”; this is why we visit graves, recite Kaddish and tell stories about our grandparents. And for now, while there are still survivors in our community, the obligations of memory remain profound. The Holocaust left millions of victims whose burial places, and even names, are forgotten. We visit the concentration camps where they perished the way a relative visits a grave, to proclaim that they will not be forgotten. Our students, only a generation or two removed from the Holocaust, have that obligation as well.

On my first visit to Auschwitz, I gathered a minyan outside the crematorium. Auschwitz was the last place my grandfather, Mayer Rosenzweig, was seen alive, and I wanted to say Kaddish for him; and I invited anyone who had lost a family member during the Holocaust to join me. I had come to Poland to learn about Jewish history, but I had also come to honor my grandfather, to remember him and all of the Six Million. This is why our students still need to go to Poland; not just to learn, but because they too bear the responsibilities of memory, to declare that the Six Million will not be forgotten.

This is why visiting Auschwitz still matters. 

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.