The genesis of our recent trip was a decision I made several years ago: that I had an obligation to go to Auschwitz. There was a certain logic to this; I have for decades been interested in the Second World War. But I view the war through a distinctly American lens--as one of the primary psychological events of our history. Also, I am an amateur military historian; much of my study of the war has been through that perspective. And, as regular readers know, I am a student of politics; in the context of WW II, the three-way struggle between fascism, Communism and democracy provides much interest. Then too, there is the much-observed aspect of WWII as the last "good" war.
And yet, I have not given as much attention to the Holocaust as to other aspects of the tragedy of 1933-45. Oh, I'm sure that I have spent more time reading and thinking about it than most Americans, probably more than most Jews. But not with as much intensity as I might have. I'll readily admit that some of this has been unwillingness to deal with the pain and almost unrelieved, unimaginable horror of what happened to the Jews of Europe. Perhaps some of it relates as well to the fact that, while I have known some survivors, and the children of others, I know of no member of my own family who died in the Holocaust. (That does not mean that there were none--almost certainly, there were--but my family had no contact with the old countries of Lithuania and White Russia (now Belarus), and so such victims were invisible to us.)
So I think that much of the motivation for my resolve to go to Auschwitz was guilt--guilt over my reluctance to pay sufficient attention to what happened there.
As you may imagine, when I decided that I should go to Auschwitz, I did not turn at once to making travel arrangements. It was something to do at some time. I fully intended to make the trip, but I did not set the dates.
Then, about two years ago, I found my father's tallis or prayer shawl. (In the Sephardic pronunciation of Israel and most American Jewish congregations, it would be a tallit, pronounced more like "tal-eet." Call me a mossback, but I find that accent harsh.) And I formed a plan: I would take the tallis to Auschwitz, and there I would say the mourner's kaddish for the millions who died there. For this was the other major motivation for my journey--to stick my thumb in Hitler's eye, to say that he intended to exterminate us, but he is gone and we are still here, stronger and more numerous than when he came to power.