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The Pope in Auschwitz

August 2, 2016 | by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

God has given the Jewish people the grace to cry.

Last week Pope Francis visited Auschwitz, the barbarous extermination camp. He left his companions who had accompanied him and walked solo through the concentration camp’s entrance gate.

Before his visit, Pope Francis said that he would “like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds.” He intended to go “alone, enter and pray,” adding, “and may God give me the grace to cry.”

The Pope’s plea resonated with me. Born upon the ashes of the Holocaust, I would like to convey to him what it was like as a child growing up on the “planet of tears” where weeping rivers flowed.

My earliest memories are that of my grandparents embracing us, their eyes constantly moist. Each time we would visit and say goodbye, we would line up for blessings. As my grandfather, Zayda, would place his hands on my head I would feel his hot tears fall upon me. My siblings and I had each been given the name of one who had perished in the flames of that terrible time, and there were still so many more names hovering above waiting to be redeemed.

We knew exactly from whence we came. We understood that every time we opened a prayer book or did a good deed we would bring life to those who left this world, murdered because they were Jews. Our light would now reignite their extinguished flame.

I carry the name of Zayda’s mother. Perhaps that is why his eyes always filled when he saw me. Finding comfort and solace through the next generation while at the same time confronting the tragic loss of that dark time must have been a most difficult emotion to confront over and over again.

We grew up feeling cherished. We knew that life was fragile, precious. We were not surrounded by sadness; our home was filled with great joy. But the tears of my elders would easily fall. How could they not? How does one ever forget a holy world that once was or babies being held by grandparents as they are taken away, never to be seen or heard from again? How do we dare live on if not by remembering?

One Yom Kippur, my brother and I spent the High Holidays with my grandparents. My Zayda was wrapped in his tallis as he stood on the bimah. I remember how his long white beard made him look as if he was a beautiful angel. My grandfather prayed out loud for the congregation as my brother stood at his side. At one point, Zayda began to sob. He was reciting the prayer of the 10 holy martyrs who had been taken to be killed by the Romans and brutally tortured.

After the service my brother had a question. “Zayda, why were you crying?”

“When I read this prayer I remembered my own father as he was taken away by the Nazis. This torture is what happened to us. To my parents, to our family, to us all. This is our story.”

The jagged hole that remained bore deep into the soul. How could my grandparents not cry?

Even when we would have a casual family gathering, the tears would fall. My grandfather would gather us round with our cousins and make the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for allowing us to reach this moment of life. Because life would never again be taken for granted. The jagged hole that remained bore deep into the soul. How could my grandparents not cry?

A Legacy of Tears

But these cries are not new. We sit down at our Seder table with a cup of salt water to recall the tears of our ancestors who were beaten and enslaved in Egypt. And soon we will recall the destruction of our two Temples in Jerusalem. We read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av. We will fast, sit on the floor and read the words of Jeremiah the prophet: “Over these do I weep, my eye continuously runs with water because a comforter to restore my soul is far from me.” The nation of Israel was exiled in chains, taken out of Jerusalem as the fires of devastation raged. We lost our homes, our lives, and the ground was soaked with our blood. Our holy Temple stood no more.

How many tears have been shed throughout our history for the pain of our people?

We live with this legacy of our tears. Sadly, the cries of our people did not end in Auschwitz.

Cry No More

This past week I was blessed to visit my daughter and her family in Israel. One evening, I took my grandchildren out for supper in Jerusalem. There were squeals of laughter and lots of smiles as I got to spend time and reacquaint myself with each sweet child. As my 7-year-old granddaughter casually dipped her fries into ketchup she said to me “Bubby, I can’t believe that your mother was in the milchamah (war) and we know her! How could Bubba have lived through that when they wanted to kill all the Jews?”

We spoke a bit about the miracle of our people and how God has watched over us and here we are sitting in Jerusalem after that “terrible war.” We packed up our things to go and saw the flashing lights as the sounds of sirens filled the air.

The children looked at me. “Bubby, can you check if there is a terrorist attack again? Like the last time you were here?”

Thank God all was well. But like Pope Francis, I, too, plead with God to bring the day when we will cry no more from those who wish to destroy us, that we be given the grace to live in peace and dignity.

May God wipe away our tears and bring us comfort from all the pain we have endured.

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