Twenty congregants of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, led by their religious leader, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, and his wife, Robin, took a close look at the enormity of the Nazi era in Eastern Europe during a nine-day mission they called “In the Shadow of the Holocaust.”
From April 24 to May 3 they toured what Kulwin labeled “three centers of Nazi terror” — Cracow, Prague, and Berlin.
Their trip began with a visit to Cracow’s Wieliczka Salt Mine, where several thousand Jews who had been shipped from slave labor camps in Plaszow and Mielec were forced to toil in the underground munitions factory.
A day later the group toured the city’s one-time ghetto, several of its synagogues, and the enamel factory owned by Oskar Schindler, the Nazi Party member who employed some 1,000 Jews, managing to save them from extermination and whose rescue efforts were the basis of the book and movie Schindler’s List.
In Cracow, Kulwin wrote in a blog entry, “there is a lovely Jewish quarter filled with restaurants and a small museum and a couple of old synagogues nearby. There’s a ton of Jewish stuff there — just no Jews.” The city “is home to what I am told is an enormous Jewish culture festival each year — but again, hardly anyone there is Jewish.”
The rabbi said he “prepared for an emotional siege” before the group arrived at its next stop — Auschwitz. But he wrote that any reaction “was slow in coming,” noting the jarring juxtaposition of the appearance of the site in contrast to what the visitors knew of the horrors and tragedy that unfolded there. “Auschwitz itself was, well, kind of pretty,” Kulwin wrote. “It was a sunny spring day, the grass was green, and the buildings…were an attractive red brick. Even the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign…failed to run a shiver up my spine.”
However, when he entered one of the gas chambers, Kulwin wrote, “for reasons I can’t explain, something happened to me inside when the guide pointed out the hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was dropped in…. A stronger reaction came a bit later when we visited the much larger Birkenau area, where the selections were made and where the enormous numbers of slave laborers lived.”
In Prague, museums and cemeteries were major stops on the schedule, along with a walking tour of the ancient Jewish quarter and a bus trip to the nearby site of the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp.
Situated in a Czech garrison town, it was the “model” camp the Nazis created “to show the world how well they were treating the Jews,” Kulwin wrote. “The Red Cross apparently bought it hook, line, and sinker. Then, as now, it looked pleasant. But the closer you look, the creepier it gets.”
Perhaps the strongest example of that disconnect, wrote Kulwin, “was watching the Nazi propaganda films in which we saw hundreds of smiling Jews at concerts, engaging in athletics, using the library — in short, taking advantage of all the wonderful opportunities the Nazis were kind enough to give them.”
After a flight to Berlin, the group had Shabbat dinner at the city’s Synagoge Pestalozzistrasse, where Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a leader in the American civil rights struggle and a predecessor of Kulwin as B’nai Abraham’s religious leader, had conducted services before fleeing Nazi Germany. The following morning the group returned there for Yizkor services.
“The combination of the beautiful setting, the music, and the personal connection was powerful,” wrote Kulwin, “but after all we had seen in recent days, hearing, during the Yizkor service, the recitation of the names of the concentration camps had special power.”
‘The capacity of art’
The group visited the Wannsee Konferenz House, where high-ranking Nazis met in 1942 to plot their diabolical solution to what they called the “Jewish question.”
While the group heard experts debate how much of the massive extermination had been pre-planned at Wannsee, Kulwin said, their guide “had a clear answer. At the end of the war, when the cause was lost, when tanks stopped in the field for lack of fuel, when young boys and old men were forced into uniform, the Nazis went out of their way to annihilate a final 400,000 Hungarian Jews.”
This action, the guide made clear, was not an attempt to “sweep evidence under the rug…; this was fulfilling their God- and Fuhrer-given mandate.”
In Berlin, the visitors also toured the new Jewish Museum Berlin, which the rabbi called “a place for which ‘extraordinary’ is too small a word.”
What struck him most was Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), an installation by the late Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. “It is displayed on the floor and is composed of 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates.”
Visitors to the artwork are expected “to walk across the faces,” wrote Kulwin. “Some could; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And it was not only the image. The faces are loose and they grind against one another as people walk above. The noise is awful.”
Kulwin said he and his congregants found the work “gripping” and inspired them to enter into a discussion on “the capacity of art to make us feel in a way that mere information cannot. Shalekhet did not teach me anything new,” said Kulwin, “but it gave me the chance to feel what I knew in a horribly (and importantly) meaningful new way.”
As they completed their mission with visits to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Kulwin wrote that he had a vision “of the future of European Jewry. No one yet knows exactly what it will look like. In Poland we encountered the phenomenon of a Jewish presence that is short on Jews, but Jews are surely there and they matter.”
In Prague, the president of its Jewish federation told the NJ group he is working to create “educational opportunities for Czech children, ensuring that the community is served by qualified, Czech-speaking rabbis and teachers, seeing to the needs of the elderly and the infirm.”
Finally, in Berlin, they heard from a rabbinical student who told them her focus was “the development of healthy, positive Jewish identities for today’s German-Jewish community.”
“Yes, the concept of Jews in Germany is complex,” said Kulwin, “but if there are Jews here — and the population is well over 100,000 — then we want them to be contributing, active members of world Jewry.”