By Adam Elitzur
On February 10, Associate Head of School Rabbi Harry Pell walked more than 250 participants through a virtual journey of the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The tour was part of an ongoing learning series which is run by the Office of Institutional Advancement.
The idea for a virtual tour sparked when Pell realized that this year he could not visit Auschwitz with the seniors on the anniversary of the liberation of the camps, January 27, which has been deemed International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Even though it was not possible to physically be in Poland, Pell believed that it was important to teach history and hear stories at the places where they took place, prompting the program.
“I both wanted to do something for the community, and frankly, I wanted to do something for myself,” Pell said.
The tour, which was conducted over Zoom, started off at the gate of Auschwitz I, Arbeit Macht Frei, which translates to “work makes you free.” These are the first words prisoners saw when entering the camp itself. Participants then continued to a barrack containing a book with the known names of 4.2 million people who perished during the Holocaust.
After walking through the barracks and gas chambers of Auschwitz I, attendees crossed the railroad tracks and into the neighboring concentration camp Birkenau. Pell displayed pictures taken during the Holocaust.
It was remarkable to see the same buildings from the old pictures in the present-day tour. Pell then walked attendees down the main road of the camp, where prisoners arrived and their fate was decided. He showed the horrific conditions in which prisoners lived. Five or six prisoners were forced into one bed.
“[TLS’s goal in taking seniors to Auschwitz each year and in running this event] was that I wanted people to understand how it functioned so that if someone asks them, ‘were there really a million people murdered there? That’s impossible,’” Pell said. “[Participants] can now respond and say ‘I have studied it and can explain how it worked.’ If you cannot do that, then that allows Holocaust denial to hang in the air. When you deny that [the Holocaust] happened, it makes it easier for it to happen again.”
High School Rabbinics teacher Seth Pertain said that the communal element was evident to him during the event.
“The first thing that stood out to me was the number of parents and graduates, as well as the number of teachers that I saw,” Pertain said. “It wasn’t simply parents of current students, but even parents of graduates who I have not seen in five, seven, eight years, who are still part of the community. I think it is great that the school is thinking about how we can involve members of the community in the types of experiences that we give our students.
“They recognize that education is not something that ends when you turn 18, but rather it is a lifelong pursuit. My hope is that most people will take away from [the event] the need to go and have the experience themselves, to feel the need to go on a pilgrimage and see the sights of the world’s largest Jewish community that was decimated.”