A million shoes saved, a million lives destroyed

September 17, 1995
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Reflections from Rabbi Sacks’ following his first visit to Auschwitz in 1995

Until now, I’ve never been to Auschwitz. For me, it’s been the black hole of Jewish history, an echoing abyss which I never sought to enter. But, listening to the nightmare stories of the survivors, I realised that there was something they wanted from us, the generation born after the Holocaust.

They wanted us not to forget. But what is it to remember life in the midst of death? I don’t know, and that’s why I’ve come here, to see and listen and reflect.

Old men and women, children in their hundreds of thousands, Jews from across Europe, Rabbis, musicians, professors, husbands, wives, ordinary people whose sole crime was that they had a Jewish grandparent. They came packed in cattle trucks. Many of them died on the journey. They brought their luggage with them because they’d been told they were just going to be resettled, and then they came to the gate with its words: “Arbeit macht frei” - "work makes you free". By then, some must have realised that Auschwitz was built on lies and these were the gates of the kingdom of death.

Walking through Auschwitz, what strikes you today is how careful the Nazis were to waste nothing. They took everything, kept everything, and not only items of value. Here you see mountains of suitcases, piles of toothbrushes, and shoes, hundreds of thousands of shoes, worn, battered, but still collected.

Nothing was too valueless to throw away, except life. A million shoes saved, a million lives destroyed.

For three thousand years, Jews lived by a set of values first proclaimed in the Hebrew Bible: the sanctity of life, the moral covenant between man and God, the idea that authority is conferred by right not might, the love we owe the stranger, the dignity of every human being as the image of God. It was those values that Hitler despised; he once called conscience a Jewish invention. But when they are lost, this is the world created in their place. Here might ruled over right, the stranger was hated, the covenant defaced, and the image of God burned and turned to ash.

It was the nightmare kingdom where man sent God into exile and condemned his witnesses to the gas chambers.

The Nazis weren’t content to kill Jews; they wanted to murder Jewish faith itself. They cut the beards from Rabbis’ faces, they shot Jews who prayed, and they deliberately chose the Jewish holy days for their worst acts of brutality.

Here at Auschwitz, the worst selections for the crematoria took place on Yom Kippur. Dr. Joseph Mengele used to tell Jewish prisoners: “Here I rule in place of God. I decide who will live and who will die.” On Yom Kippur, we believe God writes us in the Book of Life. Auschwitz was the book written by man, and it was a book of death.

People sometimes ask me: Where was God at Auschwitz? I don’t know, but Jewishly it’s the wrong question. The real question is: Where was humanity at Auschwitz? God never said He’d stop us harming one another, but He did give us a moral code, commandments engraved in stone which taught us how to stop ourselves. Where was humanity when old men and women were being murdered, millions being gassed, children thrown on the flames still alive?

The real question, so painful we can hardly ask it, is not where was God when we called to Him, but where were we when He called to us?

I don’t understand what it was to live here, I don’t understand what it was to die here, I don’t understand what it was to issue the orders, carry them out, decide who would live and who would die. But I think I understand one thing, that this is what the Bible warned against in its very first chapter when God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” When human life is no longer sacred, Auschwitz becomes possible.

And standing here, I hear those other words from the book of Genesis, God’s words to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.”

What prayer do you say here on this desecrated ground? Shalom Katz was one of those who stood here. He and fifty other prisoners were ordered to dig their own grave and then stand in front of it to be shot. Before the guns were raised, he asked the guards’ permission to say the Jewish prayer for the dead. It was granted. He sang it, and the guards were so moved by the beauty of his voice that they took him out of the line, kept him alive to sing for them, and he was still here when Auschwitz was liberated. Then he sang the prayer a second time for all those who had died. “Oh God full of compassion, grant rest to those who have gone from this world and shelter their souls under the wings of Your presence.”

Rabbi Sacks auschwitz 2

I came to Auschwitz to honour the memory of those who died, among them members of my own family, great aunts and uncles from Poland and Lithuania. But now that I’ve come, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of evil so vast it leaves you numb. Here, where a million and a half died, where those who lived were robbed of all humanity, where you’re surrounded by factories whose product was death, you feel a chill like ice.

I’ve come, and I don’t know that I’ll ever want to be here again. The sense of desolation is still too great. There’s nothing here but a massive echoing silence that swallows words and robs them of their meaning.

And yet, I now know that we must never forget the Holocaust. Never again may we walk down the road that begins with hate and ends in attempted genocide.

Towards the end of his life, Moses summoned the Israelites and said, “I’ve set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life.” That choice still stands before us with its two monumental symbols: Auschwitz and Yom Kippur – the book of death or the Book of Life.

And this too, I now know, that some extraordinary reserve of spirit has renewed itself. Jews didn’t despair; the survivors built new lives, new communities grew up elsewhere, and in the State of Israel, we’ve come together as a people again, building one of the world’s oldest and newest countries, and singing, “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lives!”

For me, faith after Auschwitz is the courage to live and bring new life into the world, never forgetting those who died but never yielding to despair. It means fighting for a world in which we recognise that those who aren’t in our image are still in God’s image. It means remembering for the sake of life and humanity and hope.

Wherever I travel throughout the Jewish world, in Israel as it strives to create peace, and throughout the Diaspora as Jews marry and build Jewish homes and light the candle of faith in a new generation, I witness something I can only call the Shechinah – the name we give to God as He enters the human heart and gives it a strength we didn’t know we had. And on the faces of Jewish children, I see a people who walk through the valley of the shadow of death coming to life again, cherishing life, sanctifying it, and knowing that in it is the breath of God.

A memorial at Auschwitz of shoes taken from prisoners of the camp.