Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is where it was all supposed to end. Today, the ruins of the crematoria and of the ovens, the rusting barbed wire and the decaying barracks are still there to bear witness, 60 years later.
A pond into which the ashes of thousands were dumped glistens, its waters terrible and dark. The nearby river carried the ashes of hundreds of thousands more. More than 1 million in that one camp alone. One thinks of the air, and the lungs contract. An entire nation, systematically being put to death. The rabbis and the rebels; the merchants and the artists; assimilated industrialists and the Hasidic wonder-workers; the parents and the children. The children.
This is where it all would have ended, if Allied nations had not been finally forced to take a stand, when their territories were invaded, their cities burned, their battleships sunk.
It took six years, from the German attack on Poland to the meeting of American and Russian armies at the Elbe, to defeat the enemy. And for almost five of those years, the chimneys at Auschwitz kept belching black smoke, even as Allied planes rumbled overhead, in quest of more rewarding targets.
For the Jewish people, there was to be no victory. Auschwitz and Treblinka, Babi Yar and Ponary, the Warsaw Ghetto and the anonymous killing fields spreading from Riga to Saloniki, could not be undone. Nothing could replace the 6 million.
This is where it all could have ended, if not for the determination of the Jewish people not to die; to refuse extinction. The State of Israel was rebuilt, against the hostility of its neighbors and the shifting tides of international public opinion. In the Diaspora, Jews tenaciously clung to their identity even under oppression, and flourished again wherever democracy gave them a chance.
Nowhere more so than in the United States, where the descendants and survivors of East European Jewry found a haven and a country they could call their home. The magnificent success of U.S. Jewry shows what European Jewry might have become, had the Continent not betrayed it.
For many American Jews today, Auschwitz symbolizes not only that betrayal, but the European Continent that committed it — and in particular, Poland, where Auschwitz was built.
Yet the story does not end there. As European Jewry strove to rebuild after the war, so did the Jews of Poland, among the destruction and the ashes.
Some remained in their native Poland out of the often-forlorn hope some of their loved ones also might have survived and would return. Others stayed out of the misguided belief communism would build a future that would atone for the evils of the past. Many remained because they simply felt Poland was still their home. They remembered not only their neighbors’ wartime indifference and betrayal, but also the unbelievable heroism of those who risked their lives to save them.
They knew Auschwitz was a German crime committed on Polish soil, and remembered also its non-Jewish Polish victims. Their memories balanced the prewar persecutions with the tolerance and hospitality Poland extended to Jews for ages. They were to see disappointment and disillusion and yet managed to rebuild a Jewish life of sorts for themselves and their children.
And when the veil of communism, oppressive for all, was lifted in 1989 through the struggle of Polish democrats, Jewish life in Poland experienced an impressive renewal. Though the community numbers fewer than 30,000 today, Polish Jewry has its schools and magazines, synagogues and secularists, cultural festivals and community leaders.
This is not the end of the story. Poland was home to the greatest Jewish Diaspora for centuries, and this coexistence, though often a not happy one, has marked Poles and Jews alike. Polish Jews today should have the opportunity to avail themselves of their legacy, while Jews elsewhere need to be more aware of that legacy’s importance for their own identity.
Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where a majority of Jews have Polish roots, and so do the institutions they have built, with the strains of religious, political or cultural opinion they represent. Their negative image of Poland, understandable in the light of the traumas of the last century, needs to be re-examined in the today’s context.
The new democratic Poland that emerged 15 years ago, friendly to Israel, allied with the United States, and often surprisingly welcoming to its Jewish heritage, is indicative of these circumstances. Those positive changes in Poland itself must be encouraged and supported.
This, then, is where the story goes on. As the leaders of Israel, Poland and Russia speak at Auschwitz on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Red Army on Jan. 27, they will address not only the other people assembled for the occasion, and not only their own citizens.
There will be shadows listening as well. To them, I do not know what can be said. The words of the Polish anthem, however, say: “Poland will not perish, as long as we live.” And Polish Jewry lives on. It is a privilege to be able to help it flourish, and to help others, in Poland and abroad, to appreciate its legacy, resilience and aspirations.
Tad Taube, a San Francisco Bay-area businessman and philanthropist, escaped his native Poland just before World War II. He is founded the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture in San Francisco and is president of Koret Foundation, which support Jewish initiatives in Poland and other programs.