In the summer of 2017, I decided to take my family — my wife and six of my nine children, ages 8 to 22 — on a trip to hell. Rather than tour the beautiful sites of Europe, our mission was to explore the darkest places in Jewish history: where Adolf Hitler was born; where he and his aides formulated the Final Solution; where Nazis ghettoized, deported and exterminated 6 million Jews; and where the last remnants of Eastern European Jewry subsist.
I’d been watching as this tragedy slowly faded into the background of our collective consciousness. This was a modern, not an ancient, catastrophe, and yet the last witnesses were dying off; a year earlier, my friend and mentor Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, was lost to us, too. People were losing a connection to the most important object lesson, the greatest evil, that history had ever shown us. It was becoming academic, a question for films and books, not something told in the anguished voices of tormented victims. And as a matter of mere history, it was becoming obscure. Fewer than half of Americans know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, according to a Pew poll this year.
I felt a growing sense of urgency about transmitting knowledge of this wickedness, about doing what small part I could to fight the collective forgetting. Students of the Holocaust will never feel what Elie felt (not that we could or would want to). But we can immerse ourselves in the history — no, the experience — of it, what was left of it, to try to understand what led ordinary people to commit genocide and what allowed some of its survivors to heal. I decided to bring my family into this experience. I thought it was my obligation to the dead. And since my children all grew up knowing Elie, I thought it would help them grasp the meaning of “never again.” They would surely commit themselves, after this trip, to preserving our Jewish identity and values, the very things the Nazis sought to destroy.
I never considered it inappropriate, even for my youngest. Three of my adult kids stayed behind, but I suspected that the older children would appreciate the trip, because they are all interested and conversant in Jewish history. I knew things would be tougher for the younger ones, who wanted to have more fun. I wouldn’t be able to reconcile their needs with my responsibility to honor the 6 million — how could we go to a concentration camp during the day and a movie that night? — but I thought we’d manage. In retrospect, I should have found outlets for all of them to escape the horror.
The pace and intensity of our trip were set as soon as we arrived in Germany on June 26 on a redeye out of New York. That morning, we set out for the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi, hosted a meeting in January 1942 — over cognac — that planned the murder of 11 million European Jews. We were unkempt, and I feared that the kids would be groggy and uninterested. Instead, they were horrified and riveted. They didn’t know what to make of a German high school group that arrived with their guide; the sound of German being spoken around the very conference table where Heydrich proposed gassing Jews was jarring to them, even as they knew how important it was for German youth to confront their nation’s past.
More troubling was the Israeli security guard who, hired to protect another American Jewish group, came over to us at Berlin’s main Holocaust memorial to suggest we remove our yarmulkes to minimize the risk of assault. (We did not.) The kids felt a sense of menace in the country.
From there, we began working our way across Europe so the children could appreciate the immensity of a continentwide genocide.
“Please Tatty,” my youngest daughter, Cheftziba, begged me on July 3, the day of our visit to Auschwitz, in Poland, “don’t make me spend my ninth birthday in Birkenau,” the part of the camp that housed the four main gas chambers that killed nearly 1 million Jews.
The whole point of the trip was to put us in the shoes of the children and parents who lived through Hitler’s terror. More than 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis. How many had birthdays in Auschwitz or the other camps? How many did not live to see their ninth birthday?
Still, I relented, and we went to Lodz instead. It, too, was no place for a party. The Lodz ghetto housed more than 245,000 Polish Jews between 1939 and 1945. Only 877 would remain by the end of the war. Cheftziba spent the most miserable birthday of her life as we toured the city’s train station, from which hundreds of thousands were deported to Auschwitz. Miraculously, Lodz had a tiny kosher kitchen that sold takeout food, and I bought Cheftziba Polish dumplings for her birthday. But that scarcely raised her spirits as we hunted for the exact spot where ghetto head and Nazi collaborator Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski delivered a speech in 1942 imploring Jewish parents to turn over their offspring for deportation and murder. “I am forced to stretch out my hands and to beg. . . . Fathers and mothers, give me your children. . . . I must carry out this difficult and bloody operation, I must cut off limbs in order to save the body! I must take away children, and if I do not, others too will be taken, God forbid.” Yet Cheftziba assisted me in using online photos of the oration to identify the exact spot where it was given. After that, she was silent for a long time. Late that night at our no-frills motel, I apologized to her. She told me, in a sad and quiet voice, that it had been a birthday she would never forget.
My children were particularly struck by our visit to Tykocin, a shtetl that looks like a set from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Nearly 2,000 Jews lived there before the war, about half of the population. It is believed that 1,400 were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, roving Nazi death squads, in the nearby forest in 1941. Today, the town is a museum. It has a synagogue dating to 1642 but no Jews to pray inside.
“It was like a ghost town,” said my 22-year-old daughter, Shaina. “It hurt because all the stories I grew up with about the shtetl of course acknowledged that there were persecutions and pogroms. But they were framed within an overall context of close-knit and passionate Jewish life. The Jewish baker, the Jewish butcher, the Rabbi, the Synagogue, the Jewish market. The whole shtetl coming together every Shabbos for community prayers. Here, there was nothing. You get there and you’re like, ‘Where are all these people?’ Oh, they were taken to a forest and shot. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, all these happy moments came to an end, and I’m standing here at that end.’ ”
We toured so many places of death — Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Treblinka, Majdanek — that it took a toll. As difficult as it was for the young children, I was surprised to see how much it affected the older kids. They were deeply disillusioned with a God who watched it and a world that allowed it. At one point, 19-year-old Rochel Leah became overwrought and had a crisis of faith. Like so many before her, she wondered, “How can you still believe in God after seeing Dachau and all the other horrible places?” It was difficult for her to travel with us through the killing fields of Europe after spending time studying Torah in Jerusalem and experiencing the joy of living in a Jewish state.
I knew that the trip might induce nightmares, but I hadn’t foreseen this kind of doubt. I felt a sense of failure when Rochel Leah, Shaina and Yosef, 16, insisted on leaving the trip early, three weeks after it began, with more than five weeks still to go. I wondered whether I should have taken my children on such a tour of misery.
I’ve had three years to reflect on that trip, and there’s a great deal I would have done differently. I would have interspersed more recreational activities between visits to the killing fields, as incongruous as that sounds. In Vienna, we should have seen a Mozart or Strauss concert. In Warsaw, we should have visited the shops. In Krakow, we should have seen the Wawel Castle. At times, my kids thought me obsessed and mad.
But this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and my children needed to know what happened to their people. Not because suffering is an essential part of Jewish identity or even because I thought it would make them more empathic or humble. I’ve always wanted my kids to have happy childhoods and sought to protect them from unnecessary trauma. Rather, we went because, as Shaina said when she saw the Budapest memorial along the Danube, with iron shoes representing the Jewish children drowned in the river: “We are here to remember the 1.5 million children of the Holocaust even if it leaves us incensed at God. We’re here because the 6 million don’t want to be forgotten.” They cry out to be recalled. They don’t even have tombs; their tomb is our memory.
Grappling with the world’s largest genocide, of people who died sanctifying God’s holy name, I believe that my children emerged both bitter and better people. That may sound contradictory, but it is also part of the Jewish experience. We dance at weddings but also break a glass to remember the shattered remnants of our people and the destruction by the Roman empire of our temple. This duality makes us resilient and more appreciative of life.
And the kids, to my surprise, began to grasp this even before the trip was over. My 11-year-old son, Dovid, who’d had a difficult time, later said: “Anyone old enough to remember what they see should go on a trip like this. When you’re a kid, it will grow with you, knowing all that stuff.” Shaina, who’d called the trip “depressing as hell,” also professed a new sense of connection, the notion “that I was a Jew and part of an eternal nation.” Yosef felt the impact of what he saw guiding his own life: “It was eye-opening, but I didn’t enjoy it. All it did was solidify my decision to serve in the Israeli army.” (Yosef is now 19. A month ago, he enrolled in an Israel Defense Forces military preparatory academy.)
And after many months of reflection, Rochel Leah came to terms with God. She now recognizes that the Holocaust was not some form of punishment. Rather, “it was an example of what happens when a group of people decide God isn’t so powerful and that morality is in their own hands.” She feels that God let the Jewish people down and that we have the right to protest God’s inaction, but in so doing we achieve a more honest and intimate relationship with our creator. For this nuance, and for what she sees as a more authentic relationship with God, she credits the expedition as one of her best experiences.
The conversations my family had during and after the trip vindicated the importance of our pilgrimage. Getting them to think about moral issues at such an early age was critical for their development as ethical human beings who are sensitive to human life. (And for my wife, Debbie, whose grandparents were survivors and whose great-uncle, Zoltan Yisrael Wiesner, was murdered at Auschwitz — our children found his name in the register of martyrs — it provided some catharsis.) Not everyone can go on a tour through hell, but parents and educators should try to put students in the shoes of historical victims (and bystanders) and ask, “What would you do?”
Our trip reinforced the importance of journeys like the March of the Living, which takes 10,000 Jewish teenagers every year to the killing fields of Europe. Imagine if we did the same here in the United States, showing young people the sites of great civil rights battles such as Birmingham, Selma and Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest American of the 20th century, was cut down. Or imagine tens of thousands of American high school students visiting Wounded Knee. There simply is no substitute for youth encountering places of tremendous human sacrifice and slaughter, even if it sears the soul and steals some innocence. And this is especially true of the sites of the Holocaust.
Without the ability to learn and assimilate this history, all we have is ignorance, which helps the monsters. We say “never again,” yet genocide did not end in 1945, because we don’t care when it doesn’t touch us. In Darfur, Myanmar and Xinjiang, it is just an abstraction, one that fails to penetrate our hearts. This is why the dying off of Holocaust survivors — who could educate our young by giving a personal face to the tragedy — is so damaging. “Never again” should be more than an empty rallying cry. A trip to see the evils of Nazidom was my family’s attempt to take that lesson to heart.