Keep Dreaming: Putting ‘the living’ back into ‘the march’

Calls to cancel the March of the Living as retribution for recent Polish legislation are self-defeating.

PEOPLE FROM across the globe take part in the JCC Krakow Ride for the Living in June 2017. The 88-km. ride starts at Auschwitz and ends in Krakow (photo credit: DAVID RUZHYNSKYI/FACEBOOK)
PEOPLE FROM across the globe take part in the JCC Krakow Ride for the Living in June 2017. The 88-km. ride starts at Auschwitz and ends in Krakow
‘They want to teach history with the law? It’s not going to happen; we will tell the truth, the whole truth, about bad Poles and good ones, and about those who were burned in the barn by their neighbors... But yes, despite the awful law, I see my future here in Poland. This is my land, and this is my home, and it was home to my ancestors, and I hope home for my kids, too.”
The young Jewish activist who shared these thoughts with me asked to remain anonymous. So have a number of her contemporaries with whom I’ve been in conversation with over the last several days. I’ve been reaching out to them in an effort to appreciate their response to the recent legislation outlawing accusations of Polish complicity in the implementation of Nazi policy. They don’t speak with one voice, but they do relate to a commonality of themes.
The first is a pervasive underlying uneasiness about the current situation, reflected in this reluctance to being identified publicly. “There’s been a dramatic rise in antisemitic sentiment over the past couple of weeks,” reports Anna Chipczynska, the president of the Jewish community of Warsaw, who has dedicated so much energy, together with others of the next generation, to the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. When we first met back in September she exuded confidence about its future. Now she’s worried. “Again our loyalties are being questioned,” she told me, referencing the government’s 1968 campaign to drive out what remained of the country’s Jewish population. “We’re not there yet, but still, you can feel it, people want to be prepared.”
Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, echoed her concerns. “In the last week I’ve heard more young Jews think about leaving Poland than I have ever before,” he remarked a few days ago.
Putting figures to his observation, Karolina Szykier-Koszucka, another community leader, reported an upsurge of 300% in the number of Jews who have expressed an interest in aliya over the past couple of months. In absolute numbers that’s not a lot – a rise from 20 to 60 – but she expects an even more dramatic increase in the weeks to come, due to what she feels is the legitimization of antisemitism in Polish society. “There are more acts of hate,” she said. “People feel the fear. We opened ourselves to the public for many years, now we have to close again.”
But I would be doing a terrible injustice to the vitality of the Jewish community in Poland if I didn’t also give expression to the passion of its proponents.
THEME NO. 2 is the profound pride Polish Jews feel in the rich Jewish life they are generating: “Day after day, we see Jews opening up and speaking about their identity that they were forced to hide,” says Magda Dorosz, the 34-year-old director of the Warsaw Hillel. “We see tens of thousands of Polish young Jews discovering their history and heritage and stepping into the amazing journey of learning and pursuing their Jewish identity.”
She is among them. Growing up oblivious to her Jewish roots – only discovering by chance at the age of 15 that she had a Jewish grandfather – Magda is part of the “incredible achievement of Jewish revival that we are experiencing in Poland since 1989, when communism fell.”
That achievement, and the confidence in its durability, is exemplified by the Jewish Community Center in Krakow and its dynamic director, Jonathan Orenstein. “It is easy to become caught up in fear and anxiety,” he says, “but there can be no doubt that Jewish life is thriving in Poland... The JCC is able to do what we do only because of a positive environment in which Jews are excited to embrace their roots and a large number of non-Jews who are eager to support the Jewish revival.”
Evidence of that rejuvenation? He cites the 15 smiling faces in the JCC’s Jewish preschool that opened this past September (the first in the city since the Holocaust), the newly established local Hillel and the dozens of community members who join him regularly for Shabbat dinners in the building.
He might also have mentioned the Limmud festival that will be attracting some 700 participants next month. For the first time, the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization and Keren Hayesod will be among the event’s sponsors – an indication of their faith in the staying power of the community and the devotion of its leaders. “Though I am frustrated by this week’s political developments,” Jonathan confesses, “it is my strong belief that Jewish life will continue to thrive in Poland.”
THAT COMBINATION of faith and frustration is the third theme. Those I’m in touch with are overwhelmingly in agreement with the fundamental premise of the controversial law: that neither the Polish state nor the Polish nation was complicit in the perpetration of Nazi atrocities. At the same time, they were unanimous in their opposition to its passage.
“Of course the death camps were not Polish,” says Matylda Jonas-Kowalik, a Warsaw Hillel staff member. “But we should educate, not punish, people who say that.” Still, she went on, while “the new law is very unfortunate, I always felt comfortable with my Jewish identity and the new situation is not going to change that.”
Her sentiments echo those of the organized Jewish community. In a statement issued by its president, Leslaw Piszewsk, Schudrich and Chipczynska, they “emphasize that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is unacceptable. For years, we have been opposing the term that so unjustly distorts history.” Still, “putting legal restrictions on our memories and narratives poses high risk to our common Polish-Jewish history and... aims to make us abstain from our work dedicated not only to building a stable and vibrant Jewish life in Poland, but also remembering and commemorating the Holocaust victims, martyrs and heroes... That is why it is so crucial for Poles and Jews to speak to each other, so that we can get a better understanding of what had taken place during the Holocaust, including events that are painful to discuss.”
WHICH IS why calls for canceling the March of the Living in the wake of this legislation are so ill-advised. The march, now in its 30th year, is among the most successful initiatives ever for teaching about the Holocaust, having provided its quarter of a million participants from more than 50 countries an unparalleled opportunity “to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred” and, in the process, be inspired “to fight indifference, racism and injustice” – its self-proclaimed goals.
If the new law has raised the ire of Israeli officialdom and the apprehension of Jewish leaders around the world out of concern that it will prevent the truth from emerging about this darkest of periods in the annals of humankind, the logical response is to increase the number who visit the death camps and hear the stories of those who survived them. But they need to hear other voices as well, the voices of the thousands represented by the few whose reflections I’ve shared here.
The annihilation of the wellspring of Jewish life in Eastern Europe is a story that must be told. But its epilogue, now being written, need be voiced as well. Soon there won’t be any survivors left to meet with the participants in the March of the Living. But their children, and their children’s children, are already eager to take up the mantle, not only to provide eloquent witness to the unimaginable horrors suffered by their parents and grandparents, but also to offer inspiring testimony of Hitler’s ultimate defeat, embodied in the rich Jewish life they are engaged in rejuvenating. Particularly against the background of recent developments, it is important to ensure that they, the living be part of the march.
The author is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive and senior representative of the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement within Israel’s national institutions. The views expressed herein are his own. [email protected]