By Madeline Herrup, Brandeis Univeristy

Prayer is hard.
Prayer finds itself in fear of dwindling away oftentimes, despite its eternal hold on humanity.
Humans have engaged in prayer for an immeasurable time.
This does not mean connecting to prayer is easy.
Rabbis speak about this all the time - tefillah.
Rabbis grapple with this tension as much as anyone.
Tension in our relationships with God, with HaShem,
Tension in our relationship with the holy words,
With holiness itself,
Tension in the holy words spoken daily (for some) and yet this drives prayer.
We as humans cannot fully fathom the impact of prayer, for it is so profound on the mind, the spirit.
Prayer comes to no one easily.
Prayer comes to no one without the intention, kavanah of the words which flow from our mouths.
Prayer comes from within.
Prayer comes from a place untouchable with our hands for it is not part of the tangible world.
I pick up a prayer book, a siddur,
This does not mean I will engage with the holy words,
Nor does it mean my mind is present, nor my spirit, nor my whole self.
Prayer can happen in any space where one lets prayer come in,
Prayer can leave as soon as it arrives or not arrive at all,
For speaking the words does not mean kavanah.
Prayer is hard.
Rabbis agree with this.
It is undeniable that in a world where it is easy to dismiss holiness and faith,
Where it is difficult to have this kavanah when kavanah requires time we feel unable to find,
Prayer is hard.
It is said that the Hebrew prayer the Shema is the last prayer some Jews try to say before death.
Prayer is the last words on their lips.
Prayer is an end and a beginning.
Prayer may have this eternal hold on humanity but humanity has put prayer, put faith, put God on trial.
It is us who give power to prayer as it is us who question its existence.
We question our existence,
We question the existence of a higher power,
We question whether the holy words will mean something even in the times they are spoken as empty statements.
We question because the world has given too much evidence to the trial prayer forever bears witness to.
What does it mean to witness?
What does it mean to witness the darkness of this world,
The death in this life?
What does it mean to then open the eyes to this,
And still turn our souls to prayer?
Prayer is hard.
Prayer is hard for me.
Coming to Poland I thought to leave my siddur at home,
I thought I would find no use for it,
I thought it pointless because who can find God in a space of such ungodly acts?
I changed my mind.
I picked up my siddur,
And while still standing in my home in Pittsburgh held it to my heart.
I love prayer.
Prayer is hard but I love prayer.
My Judaism,
My faith,
My glimpse of holiness no matter how small,
Is found in prayer.
I am found when I pray.
I am found vulnerable at the holy words of my faith.
Prayer is vulnerable.
I prayed at Birkenau.
I led my fellow companions in the Mourners’ Kaddish,
Kaddish Yatom.
I walked the camp for over 3 hours with faith stowed in my backpack,
The rain did not stain the painting of the City of Gold, of Jerusalem on the cover because prayer is indestructible.
The destroyed crematoria did not swallow my siddur in the flames no longer burning for prayer is a light far stronger, far brighter.
The train tracks stay still yet prayer moves, flows through this place,
Through the red brick road leading to death,
Through the barracks now in ruins,
Through the barbed wire fences that may keep the tangible world from moving through them but,
Prayer is found in any place we let it in.
I prayed at Birkenau.
I prayed facing East.
I prayed facing the watchtower.
I said Kaddish Yatom while telling myself that God is here.
God never left.
Faith never left.
It is for these reasons I held my siddur to my heart today.
I held my siddur to my heart and felt the holy words escape through the City of Gold and be free.
To be free in a space where freedom never existed.
This is prayer.
It is prayer that goes beyond the bounds of the intangible world and reaches the spirit in ways words cannot describe.
It is prayer that rabbis, Jews, all living beings with forever grapple with.
It is I who will continue to speak the words of my tradition.
It is I who will not let fear overcome my faith.
My heart may be at times made of glass but it is prayer that gives it armor.
My mind may be in tears that fall to the wooden tracks at Birkenau but it is prayer that allows those tears to fall with reason.
My body may feel empty on days where it is easier to not be a Jew, to simply move away from what shapes who I am,
But it is prayer which draws me back.
Closer to the tension,
Closer to the holiness,
Closer to God,
Closer to what it is that I searched for on the train tracks,
In the pond of ashes,
In the fields of grass,
On the red brick road,
Between the lines of barbed wire,
I prayed at Birkenau.
I prayed out loud,
I prayed for those for whom the Shema was the last prayer on their lips before death,
Or so it is said.
I prayed for fear to not stop me as a Jew from finding that space to let prayer in.
I kissed my siddur and I closed the book.
I sang a melody, a nigun as I left Birkenau.
I kissed my siddur again when in the space of my room.
God never left.
Faith never left.
Prayer is hard.
Prayer is vulnerable.
Prayer is the strength that I search for.
So I pray.

This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at