AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU IN THE SPOTLIGHT – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN, January 2016

I remember exactly where I was on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army. I was in my office at the headquarters of the Movement for Reform Judaism – known as the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain at the time – where I worked as Director of Programmes, and had switched on BBC Radio 4 to listen to the live broadcast from Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark the occasion. So, the date was January 27, 1995, and it was the first time that the liberation of the camp was being officially commemorated. Since that time, Auschwitz-Birkenau has often been in the spotlight of world public attention. Since then, it has also become a major destination for those wishing to visit the most famous site of the Nazi atrocities. So, each year, Jews from all over the world make memorial journeys to Auschwitz-Birkenau, often escorted by their rabbis, and a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is on the itinerary of Israeli teenagers before they commence their military service.

But that’s not all. Auschwitz-Birkenau has also become for want of a better word, a tourist-stop –usually combined with a trip to the city of Krakow, made famous by Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. Indeed, several places in Eastern Europe, where Jews lived before the Sho’ah, have now become ‘must see’ tourist destinations – in particular, Warsaw and Prague. And so, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakow each year; and each year, more adjustments are made at the camp to accommodate visitors: in addition to coach parks, refreshment stalls, and so on.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with people wanting to visit what were the sites of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – and there is no doubt that apart from the commercial opportunities provided by increased visitor numbers, visits to Krakow have generated a revival of interest in Yiddish and Jewish music and culture in Poland. And, of course, it is important that non-Jews, in particular, come face-to-face with the facts of the Sho’ah – especially in the context of the disturbing phenomenon of Holocaust denial. But is there a danger of Auschwitz-Birkenau becoming a gruesome theme park? How do we ensure the respect and reverence due to this site of mass slaughter, as thousands crowd in to view it each day? I don’t have answers to these questions. Perhaps, this takeover of Auschwitz-Birkenau and its makeover as an iconic symbol of the Sho’ah can be justified, if it serves as a tool of education – and if it means that as a consequence, the less well-known places on the map of mass death are left undisturbed.

So, on National Holocaust Memorial Day, as we remember the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, let us also pause in silence to remember, too, the death camps, whose exclusive purpose was to murder Jews: Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Maidanek and Belzec. And let us also light memorial candles in memory of the six million, and recite the kaddish for all those who perished.