On the Shabbat before Purim – the Jewish holiday celebrating Jewish triumph over genocidal antisemitism, Jews are commanded to Zachor (Remember). Although it would seem justifiable, traditional Judaism doesn’t call for revenge, nor eternal hatred for perpetrators of discrimination and violence against the Jews.
We are asked simply “Remember.”
When my grandfather Rabbi Jacob L. Baker, or as I called him, “Zaide” compiled a testimonial to his hometown of Jedwabne, Poland, he’d hoped the book would serve as a memorial to his community, which was destroyed in the Holocaust. He devoted himself to memorializing his family and friends who were martyred for their beliefs – for being Jews. The process of finding the few survivors, compiling and publishing their testimonies was, in the pre-Internet days, a laborious task and a labor of love. The book served as my Zaide’s response to the question, “Shall I weep over the complete devastation of my people, or shall I try to perpetuate the beauty and spiritual meaning of my childhood memories?”
Perpetually tortured over having lost his beloved community, Zaide struggled with how to approach the aftermath of his loss and its impact on the entire Jewish people. He concluded that his chief objective was, as he wrote in the introduction of his book, “To bring to life the way our martyrs lived, in order that we may learn for ourselves and posterity what kind of moral fiber it was that enabled our progenitors to build generations of proud Jews in Jedwabne for more than 300 years, until [they were murdered on] July 10, 1941.”
Years later, with my grandfather’s permission, Professor Jan T. Gross appropriated chapters of my grandfather’s memorial book. With the addition of much of his own research, Professor Gross wrote the book Neighbors, which caused a spiritual storm in Poland. For the first time, the Polish nation was forced to question and reckon with their own complicity during the Holocaust.
The initial shock of later generations of Poles led to a general desire for Polish reconciliation. Among other gestures, my grandfather and his descendants were invited in the early 2000’s to a dinner sponsored by the Polish Consulate in New York. Many of us at the event came to honor our Zaide, although at the time most did not feel nor believe that our grandfather’s desire for Polish reconciliation was within Zaide’s jurisdiction to absolve. The issues of Polish complicity during the Holocaust and possibilities for reconciliation were issues that must be decided between the representatives of the two countries: Poland and the only Jewish State – Israel.
WHICH BRINGS us to the bones.
After about a millennium of Jewish life in Poland, what’s left of the once thriving population of 3.3 million people pre-Holocaust?
Bones of the murdered, ashes.
The Polish government seems to seek reconciliation no longer. Last year their “Polish Death Camp Law” initially incurred a three-year prison sentence simply for saying that Poles were complicit in Jewish deaths, although the legislation was later modified with Israeli input.
Now, it seems, the Poles want to dig up the bones of our martyrs. For what purpose? To build in an area where there are still vast swaths of open land? To try to insist Nazis killed their Jews – or to remove evidence of those who were murdered there?
We cannot ask the Poles to examine their own spiritual and theological issues that allowed 90% of Polish Jews to be annihilated. While Polish persecution at the hands of the Nazis was significant, that doesn’t mitigate Polish complicity with Nazi atrocities. Whether the Poles want to face their history and work towards reconciliation – or deny their truth – are issues that they, and they alone must wrangle with. It is incumbent upon them to deal with the consequences of their own decisions.
However, when it comes to Jewish history and our martyrs, Israel should be given sole jurisdiction. This matter is clearly discussed in the Bible, as quoted in Ezekiel 37:
“Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.’ They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you into the land of Israel.”
Should Poland disturb our graves and dig up our remains, they must send the bones to Israel for proper re-burial in the Holy Land. It is the least this generation of Poles could do.
In his memorial, Zaide wrote, “Indeed, the murderers did not only humiliate and butcher their victims, they wanted also to blot out their memory. They slaughtered them twice, reducing them in Jedwabne literally into ashes, and then trying to deny their deed. Not to remember our martyrs would mean to become accomplices to the design of their murderers.”
I call on the Polish people of this generation: Do not become accomplices to this horror; Release our remnants to Israel.
I call on the government of Israel: Bring our bones home.
Zaide’s book was “also meant to be aware of our rights and liberties…lest we be once more compelled to relive events of history.”
History is unfolding now. Let us work together, to honor the martyrs.
While Prof Gross’s book Neighbors opened a door to Polish complicity, which the Poles continue to reckon with, that wasn’t the point of Zaide’s Memorial book. Instead, he proclaimed, “We are certain there will always be Jews, and, therefore, there will always be someone who will remember.”
The writer holds a master’s degree in law and religion from Emory University School of Law. She is the author of three novels.