That time my teenage son went to Auschwitz

That time my teenage son went to Auschwitz

Ari Berman’s son Eli at Auschwitz. (Berman Family)
Ari Berman’s son Eli at Auschwitz. (Berman Family)

It’s an odd feeling to see a picture of your child visiting Auschwitz.

In the picture, our son Eli drapes an Israeli flag around his broad shoulders as he surveys the bleak landscape. It is a picture taken of many different people many times each year, but this time it was our 17-year-old son who proudly wrapped himself in the flag.

I submit that there is no more powerful image for a Jewish parent to behold.

As context: Eli’s school, the Golda Och Academy, sends its senior class to Poland and then to Israel to spend the final months of their high school years on an emotional and spiritual journey called Neshama (“the soul”). I write this article while on the plane ride home from Israel following my visit to Tel Aviv and a memorable Shabbat with Eli.

Those of you who have visited Poland, especially during the winter, can attest to the power of the experience. I have not yet made the trek but hope to do so one day. As for Eli, he and his classmates spent a week traveling around Poland to pay homage to their heritage. By all accounts, it was transformative and thoroughly exhausting.

On February 24, Eli had the privilege of drafting the daily summary of the group’s activities. In it, he wrote of the students’ efforts to “bring back to life” important historical centers of Jewish life that are largely dormant today. For example, Eli and his friends visited the Lublin Yeshiva, whose founder, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, began the tradition of Daf Yomi (daily study of one page of Talmud). To honor Rabbi Shapiro, Eli and his classmates brought it back to life by learning a page of Talmud in the place where so much Jewish learning happened not so long ago. They also visited the grave of 18th century Rebbe Elimelech of Lejansk, one of the founders of the chasidic movement and a proponent of connecting to God through music. During their pilgrimage, the teenagers aptly honored Rabbi Elimelech by singing and dancing to tunes they had learned during their time in Poland.

Finally, and most poignantly, Eli described their visit to the Majdanek death camp and the experience of visiting gas chambers. He noted that the chambers’ walls were stained blue from the gas, an indelible reminder of the horror of our people’s extermination. Moreover, Eli discussed the experience of standing beside a “massive heap of ashes,” which remain on the path to the crematorium. As they bore witness to those sacred remains, Eli and his classmates “said Kaddish overlooking the ashes of thousands of our brothers and sisters.”

While the words of their Kaddish will echo for eternity, I also tend to think of it as an act of revenge — a declaration of Am Yisrael Chai, the Children of Israel live. These teenagers represent the embodiment of HaTikva (the hope), as they stake their claim to our collective future.

Eli’s experience, at Auschwitz, Majdanek, or elsewhere, naturally caused me to reflect upon the memories of the six million and what we owe them today. More than ever, we owe it to their memories to double down on our next generation of Jews. There were roughly 16 million Jews in the world just before WWII, whereas today, there are close the same number of Jews. But for the Holocaust, we likely would have somewhere close to double that number today – we are missing half our team, functioning at half capacity. Accordingly, we must consider all the Torah and mitzvot that are not being sent out to the world as a result.

Think of all the synagogues, day schools, and Jewish summer camps that were never built – and all the children who should be accompanying Eli and his friends to Poland and Israel. We must recognize this reality as a solemn reminder to do all that we can to pick up the slack: we owe a solemn debt to the six million and the best way to repay that debt is to reinvest in our communal institutions after two long years of pandemic-related neglect.

Trite though it may sound, the greatest return on such investments are our children. As parents, we want our children to experience challenges, even some pain, to enable them to build strength and develop character. I used to think that meant letting our children fall off their bikes and pick themselves off the ground – torn pants and scraped knees in all their glory. I now realize there are more profound ways to evolve. We can teach our children about the Jewish holidays, study our people’s history, and learn Torah together. But, at some point we must set them free to experience Judaism on their own terms; in turn, they will open our eyes to things we’ve never seen.

Passing on our heritage from generation to generation — dor l’dor — always has been about the future of our people – when those investments hit big, and our children grow into fully functioning Jews, there is no better feeling as parents (and we all need some wins after two years of perpetual screen time and take-out food). By contrast, if our next generation does not feel connected to generations past, the ties that bind us will continue to fray. Not everyone can visit Poland or spend a semester in Israel; but each of us can take concrete steps to help strengthen our next generation – there is no master playbook, no “right way” to accomplish the goal, only the shared responsibility to ensure our collective future.

In many ways, our son Eli is like any other American teenager – he spends too much time on his phone and frequently drives us nuts. My wife and I get our money’s worth by experiencing the full spectrum parental emotions: ranging from bursting with pride to shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering aloud what we did wrong. Some days are better than others, and my parents – gleefully watching the hot mess that is my parenting abilities – calmly remind us that it’s all perfectly normal.

For my money, so long as Eli and his friends keep thinking of their fellow Jews as “brothers and sisters” as they walk past the ashes of our ancestors, I think we all stand a chance.

Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.

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