May 20, 2019

Finding My Family at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Noam Mirvis at the famous gates of Auschwitz

I have always wanted to visit Poland, but regrettably, I have never managed to, so when the opportunity arose for me to spend three days in Krakow last week with the March of the Living, coinciding on Yom Hashoah, I immediately jumped at it.

My great grandparents immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania in the late nineteenth century, so fortuitously, my immediate family was largely unaffected by the Holocaust. I did, however, grow up hearing the daring, hazardous journey, undertaken by my father’s great uncle, Rabbi Motel Katz, one of the heads of the famous Telz Yeshiva, in Lithuania.

In 1941, Rabbi Motel traveled to America to arrange visas for the families and students of Telz, so they could escape Nazi persecution. But, in June 1941, while Rabbi Motel was in New York, the Germans arrived in Telz. On July 15, all the Jewish men, including the Rabbis, teachers and students of the Seminary, were rounded up and mercilessly killed. With no Rabbis, it was left up to Rabbi Motel’s wife to assume the leadership role of the community. However, on August 30, the women and children were similarly murdered.  After three years of anxious waiting, Rabbi Motel heard that tragically his wife, ten children, staff and all his students had perished in the Holocaust.

I have derived continuous inspiration from Rabbi Motel because of what he did next. Realizing that it was up to him to carry on the torch of his community, he founded a new Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, and dedicated the rest of his life to rebuilding Jewish life.

It was this personal story that went through my mind as I prepared for my trip, but I was really hoping to find my own sources of inspiration. Little did I know the unexpected places they would appear.

In the queue to enter the famous Remah Synagogue in Krakow, a 20 year old non-Jewish girl from Manchester turned to me to ask what a Synagogue was. She was walking through the town and just happened to have made her way into the Jewish Quarter. I quickly realized that not only did she have very little knowledge about Judaism but she was actually quite oblivious to even the existence of the Holocaust! She had vaguely heard of Hitler and responded with a typically British understatement of ‘Well that’s not very nice!’ upon hearing from me that six million Jews were murdered.

Cousins in arms: Noam Mirvis with Joel Pollak at the train tracks at Birkenau; Photos courtesy of Noam Mirvis

I shared the significance of where we were standing, advised her to do some research on the Holocaust and suggested for her to even visit Auschwitz. I left feeling disheartened at her sheer ignorance and shared the story in disbelief with other members of my group.

This story sadly is not uncommon. Recent alarming figures from the Claims Conference Survey reveal that over two-thirds of American millennials have never heard of Auschwitz. Over 45% of those surveyed could not name a single one of the 40 ghettos or concentration camps.

However, the story with my new friend doesn’t end there. The next morning in the long tight queue to enter the gates of Auschwitz, I turned to my left and low and behold to my utter shock standing right next to me was the very same girl!  She decided to come after our conversation and had even brought with her some friends. I now left feeling extremely encouraged that someone who just a few hours before had never even heard of the Holocaust was now ready and willing to be educated about all the horrors at the scene of the largest concentration camp.

I then made the three kilometers journey to Birkenau and found the inspiration I was looking for in the most unusual of places, the room in which the Jewish prisoners used as toilets. It was the place they felt safe enough to hide when they wanted to pray, as the Nazis found the stench too much to even enter. Immediately after I left, I heard singing from the building next door. I walked in to see the barracks, full of bunk beds cramped so tightly. So poignantly, a group of Yeshivah students were singing these words from Psalms in Hebrew.

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains. From where shall come my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!”

I shuddered as I realized that these very same words would have been repeated over and over by those precious souls desperately praying for salvation. Their faith meant everything to them. They simply wouldn’t be able to believe that Jews are now allowed to walk freely in the place of their hell, singing and praying in an act of defiance.

Yeshiva students singing in the barracks in Birkenau

Walking on the train tracks out of Birkenau emotionally charged, I was reflecting on this experience with Joel, a fellow member of my group who I had just met as he had joined the group late. I mentioned the fact of not having any direct family members who went through the camps, as they had already left Lithuania. He told me he was born in South Africa so shared that very fact and then asked which town in Lithuania my family was from. As soon as I mentioned the tiny town of Šeduva, his face lit up and told me his family is also from there and seriously suggested that maybe we were related.

I told him my surname and after playing every Jew’s favorite game of Jewish geography, delving a bit deeper into our family history, quite astonishingly we managed to work out that indeed we are actually related! It emerges that my great grandfather Lazar Mirvis and his great grandmother Sheyna Kushner were first cousins.

This remarkable meeting struck me very hard. In the very same place where the Nazis broke families and literally separated parents from their children, husbands from their wives and siblings from each other, I was able to be reunited with my family. It is the exact opposite of what the Nazis wanted to do. 80 years ago, we could have been were standing in the same selection line, awaiting our fate to be separated, never to have seen each other again.

I could have bumped into my long-lost cousin anywhere in the world, but to have done so right in the spot where 1.1 million people were murdered for the simple crime of just being Jewish, I believe is the ultimate symbol of defiance.

I think of Rabbi Motel who tragically was never able to be reunited with his family, as I enjoy my newfound friendship with my cousin, Joel.

I travelled back to Israel, where I made my home 18 months ago, with more questions than answers. I find it impossible to fathom how humanity could so brutally and mercilessly murder over 6 million people just because they were Jewish. However, I returned home in the days leading up to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut with a much clearer understanding of what the March of the Living is all about, a renewed sense of defiance that the Jewish people are still here, alive and strong.

Am Yisrael Chai!


Noam Mirvis is a nonprofit public relations professional living in Jerusalem. Prior to making Aliyah from in 2017, he spearheaded the first ever pro-Israel lobbying group in the House of Lords in the British Parliament.