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[Alumni] Saying 'never again' is empty in the face of ongoing antisemitism

This article, published in the Jerusalem Post this week, was written by Class of 2020 alumnus Issy Lyons. She made aliyah in July 2020 and is currently serving as a combat soldier in IDF Isuf Kravi Unit 595 on the Syrian border. 

I’m standing in the middle of the empty barracks in Auschwitz. It’s 2018 and I’m on my Grade 11 Poland trip. Tears stream down my face as I take in the silence. “Never again,” I say, and I mean it. There are endless piles of Jewish hair and clothes. I find myself thinking that despite the countless books I’d read, the survivors I’d heard, and all the photos and videos I’d seen, even of the exact spot I am standing, I still find myself feeling unprepared.

My classmates cling to one another. We all repeat the words “never again” like a mantra as we leave the barracks and again as we look over the pile of ashes near the camp exit. These ashes were once hundreds of thousands of Jewish people not so different from ourselves. Each one of those people was once simply an 11th grader filled with similar hopes and dreams as us. Standing there we each take a minute to talk about one person who had perished, whose names and biographies we had seen only minutes before. We try to understand the weight of so many individuals reduced to the ashes before us. Later on, as a class, we speak of the importance of our role in bearing witness to these atrocities. How the spread of antisemitism and the lack of international reaction allowed for this to occur.

We are beginning to feel our responsibility of passing on this part of our history to others but to us, these horrors are thought of in the past tense. We speak with certainty because we know that despite the heaviness of our collective history, next week we will be back home and in the safety of our classrooms.

But here, still, in Auschwitz, we swear that we will never let the world forget and we feel as though this promise alone will be enough to safeguard us. We leave the camp, although deeply disturbed by what we have witnessed, we also find ourselves newly empowered. 

Then, less than an hour later we sit somberly back in our tour bus headed toward Krakow, where we plan to spend Shabbat. The tour guide says “never again,” as he explains to us that we will be praying in a synagogue that has stood empty since the atrocities we have come to learn about.

I think about how many of the former members of this synagogue likely had their fates determined in those wooden barracks, which will now be forever imprinted in our brains. We all sit silently on the bus, each of us deep in our own thoughts. We talk about how the words “never again’’ feel empowering and how we plan to share our experiences with our non-Jewish classmates once we return.

But mostly we sit in silence. It’s a long ride and there’s so much to process. I look outside sometimes, watching people going about their everyday lives as if indifferent to the busloads of Jewish 11th graders who had just seen the ashes of their people murdered not even a hundred years earlier, and sometimes I stare ahead blankly at the small overhead TV where our Polish bus driver has the news on in English. Then suddenly we all find ourselves drawn toward the TV, as if in a dream. Reports begin flooding in about a shooting in the US. Pittsburgh they say. The synagogue is named the Tree of Life. I find myself struggling to breathe. How is it possible that in less than an hour we’ve gone from saying “never again” to me sitting on a bus with tears streaming down my face, finding myself only able to formulate one word, “again?” 

Suddenly the hatred and antisemitism directed toward the Jewish people for thousands of years isn’t a history lesson or part of a museum exhibition or far away in Europe. It isn’t going to go away at the end of this trip no matter how many times we repeat the words “never again.” It is here and now and in our home. Again. 

We have talked so much about bearing witness, about the importance of never forgetting but what good does that do? For the first time, I begin to understand the words we had heard so many survivors repeat over the years, “every home no matter how welcoming it seems is temporary except for Eretz Israel.”

We had discussed this sentiment at the beginning of our trip and our teacher had told us that we would understand it more deeply at the end of our Poland journey, but I doubt this is what he had in mind.

During that Shabbat as we fill the empty synagogue in Krakow with our prayers and songs, I find myself thinking about another synagogue, now most likely silent. Just another place where Jewish blood has been spilled. I feel as though nothing has changed, my people are still targeted for something I still cannot comprehend.

I think back to all the times I had defended Israel on my high school debate team and in Model UN, and how until this second it had simply been an academic or intellectual challenge to me. Similar to the words “never again,” at the end of the day nothing more than words – impactful but at the same time suddenly empty. I understand that while merely bearing witness and not letting others forget is important,  it isn’t enough. I don’t want to have to say the word “again” ever again. I make a promise to myself to find a way to do more to end this cycle.

Today as I sit here writing this, I am in a very different type of barracks. Our barracks aren’t empty, instead, they are filled with the sounds of good and life and of the Jewish future. I am on my base as I serve in the Israel Defense Forces. It’s 2021. I’m a combat soldier here to defend the Jewish people. I take in my surroundings. This place isn’t barren. It’s alive with hope. We truly are here. We are happy. We are strong. Now when I say the words “never again” I really mean it.