O SWIECIM, POLAND — Soon after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the Jews of this little southern Polish town were sent to their death or to forced labor. At the same time, the Nazis commenced building a death camp on the outskirts of the town that they called by its German name, Auschwitz.
THE LAST JEW OF
by ARI L. GOLDMAN
After the Second World War, only a handful of Jews returned to Oswiecim. After all, who would want to live in the shadow of Auschwitz, where one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis? By the 1960s, nearly all of the Jews left Oswiecim to settle as new immigrants in Israel. But there was one man who remained. His name was Szymszon Kluger and he became known as “the last Jew of Auschwitz.” He died in 2000.
I had heard the story of Szymszon Kluger many times, but to me he seemed to be more of an eccentric curiosity than a real person. And then, two years ago, in 2014, my daughter Emma married Szymszon Kluger’s great nephew, Michael Goldberg. Suddenly, I was somewhat related to this enigmatic man and wanted to know more about him.
The idea of visiting Szymszon Kluger’s grave became something of an obsession for me, a personal pilgrimage. Why should such a distant connection be so meaningful? I was only related to him, if at all, through my daughter’s marriage. The answer is simple. I am a third-generation American Jew with no direct link to the Holocaust. I studied that era, read dozens of books about it and got to know many survivors and their families. But I regarded the Holocaust as a national Jewish tragedy, and not a personal one.
I finally got to visit Kluger’s grave this summer thanks to an organization known as FASPE (Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics). FASPE is the brainchild of a New York lawyer named C. David Goldman who, together with a core group of philanthropists and other donors, enables young professionals in fi ve disciplines to visit Germany and Poland to study the Hitler era and draw lessons about ethical decision-making today.
Goldman, who is not a relative of mine, started FASPE in 2009 by taking young lawyers, doctors and seminarians on the journey. In 2011, he added journalists and asked me to develop the curriculum. Last summer he added a track in business ethics.
Since its inception, FASPE has operated under the auspices of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. FASPE is not a faith-based organization and, in fact, only a small percentage of the fellows are Jews. The program draws Christians, Jews, Muslims and people who profess no faith at all.
I have travelled three times with FASPE, most recently this summer. While our discussions inevitably begin with the Holocaust, our journalism conversations range from the Black Lives Matter movement to the ethics of photographing victims to political cartooning to sex abuse among the clergy.
Similar discussions were going on in the other disciplines. All told, some 60 fellows participated this summer. Among the places we visited in Germany were Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the Topography of Terror, a museum built on the site where the headquarters of the Gestapo and SS once stood; and the House of the Wannsee Conference, where a group of Nazi leaders plotted the details of the “Final Solution.”
In Poland we visited Krakow, where we got a small taste of what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. We also visited Oswiecim, a town that once had ten functioning synagogues and now has none.
Oswiecim does, however, have the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which is in an old synagogue building in the center of town. The center is a museum and documentation center that is largely used by groups of Jewish visitors to Auschwitz. The building once housed the Chevra Lomedi Mishnayot Synagogue. My distant relative Szymszon Kluger was the grandson of a rabbi who taught in the congregation; the family lived in a small house next to the synagogue. When Kluger returned to Auschwitz after the war, he was able to reclaim the house, and that is where he lived until his death in 2000. The house, which is now part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, currently houses a vegetarian café called Café Bergson.
My son-in-law’s mother, Marsha Goldberg, told me that her father, who found refuge in Israel and then New York after the Holocaust, at first tried to persuade his younger brother Szymszon to leave Poland for either America or Israel, but that he came to accept his brother’s decision to remain in Oswiecim.
“I truly believe that he was meant to be this symbol,” Marcia told me of her uncle. “In a way, he was saying ‘We Jews were here. We existed. We carry on.’”
Szymszon is buried beneath a white monument shaped like a house, in Hebrew an ohel, in the Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim. When I visited, I gathered together a minyan and said Kaddish for him and the others buried there.
I was there on May 29. I noted on the tombstone that the anniversary of his death was May 26. I took a photo of the grave and texted it to my son-in-law. “Amazing,” I said. “But I missed his yartzeit by just a few days.”
Michael texted back, “look at the Hebrew date, the 21st of Iyar. That is today! Truly amazing!”
His mother, Marsha, likes to say “there are no coincidences.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that the day I visited Szymszon Kluger’s grave and said Kaddish, it was his yartzeit. I will always feel a connection to him and the tragedy that shaped his life and the lives of so many millions of others. ■
Ari L. Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is an editorial consultant for CONTACT. He is the author of four books, including The Search for God at Harvard and The Late Starters Orchestra.
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