A New Concentration
By Skip Tate
Rabbi Abie Ingber sits quietly, his hands under his chin, contemplating how to explain his experience. The board member of Xavier’s Brueggeman center for interreligious dialogue and Hillel rabbi for the University’s Jewish students was part of a 10-person congregation from Xavier that had just returned from the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, Poland. For 10 days, the group toured the former Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. They dialogued with Christians and Jews from Germany and Poland, heard stories from survivors and visited the city where Ingber’s father was taken by the Nazis.
“I expected it to be like going to the dentist for a tooth extraction,” he says, “but it turned out to be one of the most amazing events ever.”
Ingber is sitting around a table with others from the group who are recounting the trip and trying to express all the emotion they felt then and in the two weeks since their return. For Ingber, it was especially emotional. Both of his parents survived the Holocaust, meeting at a displacement camp after the war. But he lost all of his grandparents and numerous extended family members in the camps.
“It was really very risky for me to go,” he says, “but I thought I could add something to the trip—color. For me, Auschwitz was going to be black and white, evil vs. good. But I thought I might be able to bring some colored paint brushes, so when we toured towns where no Jew has lived for 60 years, I could paint a picture of what it used to be like with thousands of Jews walking the streets.”
“And, I thought I would spend every second that my feet were on the ground being angry over what happened to my family. But I ended up feeling a tremendous sense of love and embrace. And that was not something that I gave, but was something the people I was with pulled out of me. I’ve spoken about this a lot, and what keeps coming back to me is seeing this place of my family’s destruction with these people who hold the keys to every family’s redemption.”
That, in fact, was the purpose of the trip and the reason the Center for Dialogue and Prayer was formed 10 years ago. Twice now the center has created international dialogues. The University of Notre Dame was previously the only university from America invited to attend the dialogues. Xavier and Hebrew Union College were invited this year. Xavier’s invitation came as a result of Elizabeth Groppe, who joined the University’s theology faculty last year after completing her doctorate at Notre Dame. She went on the first trip, and was extended an invitation by Rabbi Michael Singer, Notre Dame’s distinguished chair of Jewish studies. The opportunity, says department of theology chair William Madges, was too great to pass up, especially after the Brueggeman center agreed to pay almost all of the cost.
Because of the overwhelming interest once the trip was announced, the theology department created a selection process that required the submission of a one-page essay and an interview. Six students were selected, along with Madges, Ingber, Groppe and assistant professor of theology Sarah Melcher.
And to a person, what they thought they might experience or learn once they got there proved to be completely wrong. It was, they say, too mentally and emotionally overwhelming to comprehend. They celebrated a Jewish Shabbat service in a synagogue that hadn’t held a religious service since the Nazi occupation. They listened to a survivor talk about her experiences. And they walked through the gas chambers, barracks and crematories.
“The problem was just being able to take it all in,” says Madges. “We spent 4 1/2 hours in Auschwitz. It was like walking through an outdoor museum. Then we spent four hours in Birkenau, which held more than 90,000 people and had four gas chambers and four crematories. After that we had a chance to go to a Franciscan monastery that had an exhibit about the Holocaust, and I couldn’t go. I couldn’t take any more. It was just that intense.”
“You almost become obsessed with trying to make sense of it all,” says senior Mindy Kuhlman. “I’m one of the few Jewish students at Xavier. I’ve always been taught about Auschwitz and had a couple of opportunities to go to Poland, but I didn’t think I was emotionally ready or mature enough. But I needed to see the magnitude of that place that practically erased my entire religion. I couldn’t understand how they could house that many people and no one realize something bad was going on. But now I can see how they did it. I can’t bear witness to it entirely, though, because what I saw was a place with grass and trees. The barracks were museums. There weren’t bodies laying in feces. No dead bodies. But I am a witness to Germany and Poland trying to grow as countries. I walked the camp with a 25-year-old German who was crying the same as me, a 21-year-old Jew.”
“I can’t say the trip was enjoyable,” says graduate theology student Maimi Johnson. “It was enlightening. I went there trying to determine what makes one group try to make another group subservient. From an African-American perspective, I see that as similar to what happened to us. Families were destroyed, homes ravaged. I’m still left with the question ‘Why? Where was God? Why did He let this happen?’ ”
Even for Groppe, who already visited the camps, seeing the place where more than 1 million Jews were slaughtered doesn’t get any easier the second time around.
“As a trained co-systematic theologian, I thought some things would become clearer,” she says. “But when we walked through the gates of Auschwitz, any kind of processing that I thought I had come to before all crumbled. It became more complicated, more complex.”
The Center for Dialogue and Prayer only holds the international events every two years, but Madges wants to find a way to take a group of students to Poland every year because the trip proved so powerful.
“No organ was pulled from except from the heart,” says Ingber. “No brain, no bile, no feet to run away. Just the heart.”