Media Matters: Reporting from the scene of the crime

The minute I landed in Poland this week to attend the March of the Living, it was clear I couldn't cover it as a member of the media.

Auschwitz 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Auschwitz 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
'Whether it was God or fate or whatever responsible for my surviving to tell the tale," says veteran Yediot Aharonot staffer Noah Klieger with a shrug, "I will keep telling it, over and over, for as long as I live." Judging from his behavior this week, it is clear that the 83-year-old author of Twelve Rolls for Breakfast, a collection of personal stories from the Holocaust, means business. Fortunately for the Auschwitz survivor, who has been back to the scene of the horrors he endured at the hands of the Nazis many times, he was "blessed with a good memory and a talent for languages" (he speaks eight). This means that he is not only able to recall the details of his own life and their historical context, but to recount them to anyone and everyone willing to listen, both at home - in Israel - and abroad, wherever his lectures take him. It was in the latter, in Poland, that I met Klieger this week, and spent the better part of three days in his company. The occasion was the 21st annual March of the Living (MOL), in commemoration of Holocaust Heroes and Remembrance Day. I owe my own participation in the event - one that I have followed from afar since its inception - to the generosity of this year's leading sponsor, philanthropist Guma Aguiar, chair of the Kaplan foundation, and the good will of MOL chairman Shmuel Rosenman and vice chairman and international director David Machlis. But following the three-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau from Jerusalem, and actually being among the 8,000-strong throng on the scene, are different things entirely. It thus became obvious to me, the minute I landed at the airport in Warsaw, that I was not arriving as a member of the media, no matter however pure my intentions. This was not merely because I knew the itinerary in advance, which, aside from tours of the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka, included a visit to the Krakow Jewish quarter (or, rather, an ethnic-chic gentrified version of it, with "kosher-style, Jewish" restaurants - minus the Jews, that is) and what's left of the Warsaw ghetto (nothing, other than a few monuments, surrounded by rows of dreary, graffiti-decorated tenements). No, the reason there was no way I could "cover" any of this as a journalist is because observation requires some degree of dispassion. And mustering anything other than sorrow and rage under the circumstances was beyond my capability as a Jew in general, and as one whose grandparents hailed from Galicia in particular. What - I couldn't help wondering - would they have thought about my "touring" the ashes of so many of their friends and relatives, most of whom didn't even have a tombstone to call their own? Would my grandfather have been glad that my Israeli children had marched here last year, proudly wearing the flag of the Jewish state on their shoulders, while Polish gentiles of the not-so-righteous variety, looked on from their balconies with expressions on their faces that put a chill down the spine of those kids who never experienced anti-Semitism? Or would he have spat - feh - at the ceremoniousness of it all? Or maybe he would laugh at the sight of the streets that used to be the ghetto now lined with McDonald's and KFC, near Stalin's "gift" to the Poles - a huge edifice, which locals refer cynically to as "St. Joseph's Cathedral." Or perhaps he would he have wept at seeing our group say kaddish over the mass grave at the Jewish cemetery bordering the former ghetto of those who remain nameless. And what would my grandmother have thought, seeing me at the small, 16th-Century Orthodox shul in Krakow, in which Chabad happened to be dedicating a new sefer Torah as our group arrived, with the men dancing and singing (get this) to the tune of La Marseillaise? Would she have been more disgusted by this, or by the nearby Reform synagogue and brand new JCC, dedicated by the Prince of Wales and Camilla, and serving a handful of mostly elderly Jews? To me, such feeble attempts at Jewish revival felt almost immoral. For whose benefit could it possibly be to rekindle any spark of the once large, vibrant Jewish community that was starved, tortured and gassed to death, then incinerated in crematoria - all for its huge contribution to the culture that subsequently crushed it like a cockroach, while those who didn't care one way or another stood passively by. Indeed, as commented one member of our group, radio host and Outreach Judaism director Rabbi Tovia Singer: "This is our past; not our future." THROUGHOUT THE trip, with Modi'in-based educator Mike Hollander serving as our guide, Klieger added "living color" to our tour of death. He did this unflinchingly, with touches of humor, not always black. Knowing what your mission is and adhering to your calling will do that. But while he often smiled, the rest of us wept. Getting at the guts of listeners may not be sufficient, but it is clearly necessary for passing on memories that are in danger of being buried along with the survivors, and of making sure the stories are not allowed to be rewritten by those who claim they are lies. Which brings us to the impetus for the banner headline of this year's march, that included the words "No to Durban II." For, as thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike from all over the world gathered at the gates of Auschwitz this week, Holocaust denier and threatener Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was at UN European headquarters in Geneva, addressing the Durban Review Conference on racism. The juxtaposition was unavoidable, certainly from the point of view of the Hebrew media. Their Polish counterparts, however, was either not so quick on the draw or preferred to keep the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism conveniently separate. But Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who gave a press conference at the entrance to Auschwitz right before the march, focused on that very connection, forcing those who interviewed him to make it, too. Or so said TVN 24 reporter Lukasz Fratczak, when I asked him about local coverage of both events. "The March of the Living leads the news bulletins while it is going on," he told me. "This year, it has been alternating with Durban, but not discussed as part of the same issue." MEANWHILE, KLIEGER was working overtime, with microphone upon microphone being shoved in his face for comment by representatives from every media outlet on the premises - including this one. Asked about home-grown attention to the subject, Klieger - though himself an award-winning Israeli journalist - didn't have much positive to say about his colleagues. "All they care about these days are celebs," he said, attributing this to competition for sales. "They dust off the Holocaust every anniversary, and then forget about it until the following year, when it's time for special supplements." This is why, he said, his articles in Yediot are especially important. Sighing, as if to rue the day when people like him are no longer around to do the issue the justice it warrants, he explained: "At least I'm still able - and allowed - to write about the Holocaust throughout the year."