Jul 17, 2018

Five years ago, after spending a magical Shabbat in Prague with thirty young professionals, before heading back to London we made a point of visiting Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.

Any trip to a concentration camp is laden with emotion and this visit was no different. However, just before we left the site and headed to the airport and London, the group had an experience of seeing what Jewish hope and longing truly means, an experience that resonates until this day.

There, in the midst of a camp where over 30,000 Jews were murdered, standing very close to the railway track used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, is a small room that had been turned into a makeshift “shul” by some of the prisoners.

There, in the midst of the suffering and cruelty of the Nazi regime, simple Jewish workers had managed to draw a selection of Hebrew liturgical inscriptions along with drawings of Jewish symbols.

As we walked into the room, my eyes were drawn to the prayer written on the front wall. It was a prayer that I instantly recognised, a prayer that we say three times a day in our Amida, the core of Jewish daily prayer services. The words on the wall stated 

“May our eyes be able to envision your return to Zion in mercy.” (see photo)

I closed my eyes and imagined my Jewish brothers and sisters, terrorised by the brutal reign of Nazi evil, finding their comfort and hope in the knowledge that one day we will return to Jerusalem. In a place of darkness and despair, they never lost their hope. Facing death and destruction, they gazed with eyes that saw beyond the here and now.

I was reminded of the oft-quoted episode from the Gemara at the end of Tractate Makkos, which recounts the visit of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva to the ruins of Yerushalayim. When they arrived at Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the area where the Holy of Holies had been. They began to cry, while Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, ‘Why are you laughing?’

 He responded, ‘Why are you crying?’

The Rabbis answered that their tears flowed from the deep pain of seeing the holiest place on earth being desecrated to the extent that wild animals walked on the site of the Holy of Holies.

But Rabbi Akiva was laughing. The Talmud recounts that his joy was borne from the anticipation of the Third Beit Hamikdash becoming a reality. Just as all the prophecies about the Temple's destruction had been actualised, Rabbi Akiva gazed with eyes that saw beyond the here and now and actualised the prophecy of the final redemption.

So too, two thousand years later, the inmates of Theresienstadt, barely surviving in the throes of the horror of the Shoah, anticipated the redemption. In the darkest place of destruction, we dreamt of rebuilding.

And so too us. We dream of rebuilding. And we have every opportunity to lay our bricks. With every mitzvah and act of kindness; with every effort towards Jewish unity and joy, we lay a brick in the future Beit Hamikdash. Every day is another opportunity for us to bring about the dream of Rabbi Akiva; the dream of Theresienstadt's inmates and the dream of our people for over two millennia; to once again gaze upon the rebuilt Yerushalayim. 


TAGS for this article: Tisha B'av | Holocaust