05/16/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Remembering the Past, Building the Future

On April 2, 1999, I delivered a sermon at my synagogue in Mill Hill, London in which I decried the "fashionable trips to the concentration camps in Poland." It was the festival of Passover and I made the point that we don't put a whole lot of emphasis on time and suffering spent in Egypt, rather we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt. Similarly, I argued, one shouldn't be putting emphasis on the misery of the Holocaust but rather on the celebration of Jewish life post Holocaust, with the founding of the State of Israel and the renaissance of Jewish life around the world.

"Why," I argued, "should we be looking to guilt trip Jews into observance whilst standing on the blood soaked soil in the valley of the shadow of death, when we could inspire them through a more positive experience as in trips to the land of Israel." This was in the days before Birthright, an organisation that has sponsored tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jewish youth from around the world to experience Israel in all its glory.

Fast-forward 13 years, almost to the day, and I find myself standing before a crematorium in Auschwitz. To be sure, I never changed my view in all the years and would never have found myself in Poland were it not for a community initiative which I was asked to lead. As the rabbi, I couldn't say no.

I would never have come to know how wrong I was all along either.

The Holocaust was always in some way a part of my upbringing. My mother was one of the hidden children in Holland who spent two and a half years with a priest while her parents were in hiding in a loft elsewhere for the same duration of time. My grandfather wrote a privately published book about his war experiences so in many ways I was raised with stories of the war more so than many others. "Second generation survivors" is a term used for those of us who were raised by survivors, more particularly those who were in the camps. My dear wife of 23 years was also raised by a mother who was deported from Hungary to Theresienstadt. I was therefore never immune to the stark realities of the Holocaust. I suppose that's what made me feel better equipped to make the statement that I did on Passover 1999.

A group of 20 of us arrived on an early Thursday morning to Warsaw. I spent the night before telling my wife how much I was dreading the trip and wishing I could get out of it. On only three hours sleep our first stop was to the one remaining synagogue in Warsaw -- the Nozik Synagogue. I've been around Europe. I've seen old synagogues. But the fact that it was the only remaining one, and taking in the scenery around, contrasting it to original pre-war pictures, I tried desperately to "get into the mood." I stood in the courtyard and tried to imagine the many Jews who wandered freely, daily, in and out of the synagogue for prayer. I tried to picture the mothers and children who would assemble there on the Shabbat. I sought to absorb the impact of the reality of nearly half a million Jews now reduced to just a few thousand.

The next stop was the Jewish cemetery. The largest burial place most people will have ever seen. A seemingly endless array of gravestones amidst thousands of trees, it was like walking through an enchanted forest with so many stories to tell. More than a quarter of a million graves are contained therein, including a special demarcated area surrounding a mass grave said to contain more than 100,000 people massacred during the war. We recited a memorial prayer there. Then I looked up and expressed aloud that there was no green growing on the trees surrounding this mass grave. The reality of Poland past was suddenly taking its grip, casting me under its spell.

Further stops at the remaining wall of the Warsaw ghetto, Mila 18, where men fought valiantly in their final resistance against the Nazis, and the Umschlagplatz (collection point), where 300,000 Jews were rounded up for railroad transport to Treblinka, was all starting to transform me. Four hundred Jewish names are etched on the wall at the Umschlagplatz. We were asked to select a name each for recitation at a later memorial.

Of course there were precious spiritual moments which I particularly appreciated. Stops at the famous Lublin Talmudic seminary, gravesites of luminary giants from centuries ago, whose works would have formed part of my studies, and great Hasidic masters such as Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk could only be described as a bonus in the midst of all the devastation. It made one appreciate what an illustrious Jewish place Poland once was.

But it was the stop at Majdanek that really hit hard. We wandered through this concentration camp in the blazing sun. It was uncharacteristically hot for this time of year. It somehow didn't seem right. Rain would have been more appropriate even if only to reflect our own tears, mostly contained behind sunglasses. The sheer enormity of the horror and the fact that it occurred just off an open road where people passed daily, beggars belief. Can one really commute daily past gas chambers and be oblivious? Or perhaps, indifferent...

It was vital to have the Sabbath respite in the midst of this tour. A gathering in an early 15th century synagogue in Krakow with Jews from different parts of the world including some survivors filled me with a personal sense of pride. It brought home ever so poignantly the stanza we sing each year on Passover eve: "Even as in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, G-d saves us from their hand." Seventy years ago the Nazis thought they would bring about an end to the Jew. Yet here we were, dancing in the synagogue on a Friday night, celebrating Jewish life once more. Some original Polish Jewish survivors sat looking on as we danced. "What was going through their minds," I wondered. "Were they sharing in the sentiment of the moment or were they too emotionally damaged by their war experience -- sitting in the very same place that to them, despite the dancing, just isn't the same anymore..."

It disturbed me a little how several groups were eating their individual Sabbath meals in varied rooms at a nearby restaurant. While perhaps only natural and practical, it didn't seem quite right. Not here. Not in Krakow. Not in a place where there was no separation -- there were no labels -- you were victimised as a Jew regardless of background or religious affiliation. Then a group of young men from another room came dancing in, and within minutes all groups were joined together in one great dance of survival. It was a moment many described as the high of a trip otherwise filled with so many lows. It was the ultimate defiance.

Another high followed the next day during prayer in the synagogue. A young Israeli man who opened a restaurant in Krakow was leading the service melodiously. Somewhere in the background another voice was heard singing along in perfect harmony. At some point during the service they joined for a duet -- to the prayer for the State of Israel as recited in Israel. "G-d in heaven, Rock and Redeemer of Israel ... Bless our land with peace, O G-d, and its inhabitants with lasting joy..." Their music was spellbinding. It took me to another time, another place as valiant men and women sought to rebuild from the ashes.

Several prayers suddenly took on new meaning during the four day trip. I found myself reciting the words "You are trustworthy to resurrect the dead, blessed are You G-d who resurrects the dead," in the middle of Auschwitz where we assembled for an afternoon service. The words stuck in my throat. I recite them three times daily but never had they held so much significance as at that moment in time.

There is an ancient "moon sanctification" prayer recited up until the middle of each month before the moon wanes again. The Jewish nation is compared to the moon for just as it diminishes and seems to all but disappear it re-emerges again the following month with increasingly new light. That resonated with me as the full moon was shining ever brightly over the haunting darkness of Plaszow -- today a large empty field and the scene where the story of Oskar Schindler took place. I recited the prayer quietly to myself. "Just as I jump toward you and cannot reach you, so my enemies should not be able to reach me in order to harm me..." Inevitable and unanswerable questions creep into my mind.

More questions than answers emerge during such a trip. But as I observed later to one member who had turned to me bitterly as we stood over a pile of ash in Majdanek: "Where was G-d?" "I don't profess to have the answers," I said. "But it was you who also asked later, 'What time are we doing morning service tomorrow?'" The indomitable spirit of the Jew: "G-d is G-d even when I find it sometimes so difficult to believe."

A four-hour walk through Auschwitz is gut-wrenching. The very intersection where the trains stopped and Dr. Mengele pointed his baton to either the right or the left, determining life or death made me shudder all over. I shared with the group a story recorded by a rabbi about a man who consulted him in Auschwitz on an ethical question regarding the limitations of saving his only son at the possible expense of another. Here in this camp, behind one of the very barracks before our eyes, where subhuman beings felt it their right to play G-d, their very victims were still determined to do the right thing by G-d.

There is no question this was a life transforming experience for all of us who joined the tour. This was evident when during supper before departure to the airport everyone shared their personal high and low moment of the trip.

I concluded with emphasis on the fact that, that very day was the 14th of the Hebrew month Iyar, a date defined in the Torah as the "second Passover." This was a specially designated date for Jews who for one reason or another were unable to bring the Pascal sacrifice in the Temple on the original Passover a month prior. The message of the day is: There are always second chances. I suggested that we all go home and undertake an extra good deed for the memory of all those we couldn't see but who were whispering into our souls. "They had no chance in life. We are their second chance."

This moment provides me with a second chance as well to set the record straight on remarks I made 13 years ago. To be sure, I still maintain an Israel trip is imperative and nothing quite compares to a Friday night at the Western Wall. But if one has the opportunity at some point in their lifetime to visit Poland and take in the enormity of our tragic past in order to better appreciate the need to build toward a Jewish future, then it must be done.

May the souls of the 6 million rest in peace.