This blog is by Shelby Weltz, a 2012 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow, who is currently pursuing her M.A. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Next fall, Shelby will begin a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, where she hopes to integrate her Holocaust Studies background into her future work as a clinician.
I stood in the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s small synagogue, staring at the two Shabbat candles set before me. I was hesitant to proceed. Sure, I knew the blessings and ritual, but the idea of praying in a place like Oświęcim felt more than unnatural; it felt wrong.
The mitzvah of hadlakat nerot, or the commandment to light the Shabbat candles, occupies an important place in my life, not only because it’s a mitzvah reserved for women, but because watching my Grandma light the Shabbat candles is still one of my most poignant childhood memories. Standing by her side, I recall scanning her face as it glowed in the candlelight just before she covered it with her hands while reciting the prayer. Growing up, I noticed that she would do more than pray beneath her hands; she would cry. Eventually, I learned that my Grandmother survived Auschwitz II-Birkenau and spent the rest of her life crying over those family members who did not.
The wave of hesitation I felt prior to candle lighting was representative of a broader discomfort I felt spending Shabbat in Oświęcim, a place that I regarded not merely as a physical space, but as the personification of evil and the embodiment of dehumanization. To me, Oświęcim was responsible for the murder of my ancestry and was, subsequently, an “entity” that I would forever put on trial. Thus, it still surprises me until this day that our Shabbat, which began with such caution and aversion ultimately ended in transformation and acceptance.
The hesitancy I felt prior to reciting the Kiddush that Friday night contrasted greatly with the qualms that preceded my candle lighting. Whereas the latter emerged from an unwillingness to engage spiritually with my surroundings, the former was the result of a speechlessness incited by an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. After returning from lighting my Shabbat candles, I found my peers – a cohort comprising graduate students of various backgrounds – sitting around a beautifully set table, waiting for me to return to help lead them in welcoming in the Shabbat. A group who had been strangers only three weeks prior was interested, eager, and appreciative enough of my ritual observance to insist on celebrating Shabbat in Oświęcim. This group who watched my struggle with religious commitment for those three weeks assumed that same commitment for themselves. I was stunned. Taking my place at the head of the table, I looked around at a group who made me realize that location has nothing to do with one’s spiritual lifeline; faith in humanity does.
With grapes in hand as an improvised substitute for Kiddush wine, I choked over the words of the Kiddush prayer, holding back the tears of gratitude that had formed in my throat. Ironically, I had experienced my most meaningful Shabbat in a place where I was certain Judaism or spirituality could not exist. Suddenly, it was possible for Oświęcim to embody beauty and more importantly, to embody nothing at all. In my eyes, Oświęcim became merely a place, slowly ceasing to personify the perpetrator it had always been.
Photo: Shelby and her peers in Poland. Courtesy of Shelby Weltz.