This year’s “March of the Living,” a biennial pilgrimage in which thousands of Jewish teen-agers from across the globe trek from Auschwitz to Birkenau, has raised troubling questions among Jews and non-Jews in Poland.
Organizers said that this march, the fourth since the event was begun in 1988, was “inspired by the renewed wave of anti-Semitism, neo-fascism, racism and Holocaust denial.” And participants pledged that they would use their experience to fight all forms of racism and discrimination.
But some aspects of the march, such as the perpetuation of negative views of Poles, raised criticism. People asked if its purpose – to commemorate the dead by affirming contemporary Jewish life – had been served.
Many of the young participants, for example, came primed with a negative view of Poland, that of a wasteland populated by anti-Semites, and encountered little to change their minds.
There was criticism that the march’s participants were kept segregated from the local populace and prevented from having meaningful contact with contemporary Poland and Polish people, including today’s small Polish Jewish community.
These elements, critics said, painted a false picture and fostered the continuation of stereotypes and prejudice.
The march was made by 6,500 teens from about 35 countries who then continued on to Israel, to spend a week learning about and celebrating the Jewish state. They marched in Poland under a sea of Israeli flags.
In Poland, the teens traveled in hundreds of tour buses guarded by Israeli and Polish security men. They visited Nazi death camps, including Majdanek, Treblinka and Plaszow, the labor camp near Krakow made famous in the film “Schindler’s List.”
They also visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Some groups toured villages and towns which before the war had been Jewish shtetls or had large Jewish populations.
For many, the trip was an emotional and highly intense experience.
“It changed me a lot,” said Pam Vininsky of Montreal. “It made me see the important things of life, rather than focusing on the unimportant. But I wish the trip could have been longer, with more discussions.”
Another participant from Montreal emphasized the negative.
“A previous marcher told me to come here with an open mind, not just with hatred toward Poles,” the Montrealer said. “But all we see is the bad part. We aren’t seeing the good sides.”
One contingent of marchers staged an informal, “Saturday Night Live”-style show on their last night in Poland. Although it was extremely well done, much of the presentation was taken up by stereotypical “Polish jokes.”
And one adult group leader made statements clearly implying that Poles who today live near Birkenau and Majdanek do so because they hate Jews and want to gloat over the places where they were killed.
“I saw houses right by Birkenau that back home would have cost $750,000,” this leader said. “If they can afford houses like that, why would they choose to live there, to have their children open the windows and look onto Auschwitz?”
And one Jewish observer voiced concern that the teen participants’ views and feelings were affected by a “roller coaster” of emotions created by a combination of “sleep deprivation and having a good time riding around in fancy buses.”
This, the observer said, created “periods of intense grief and then happiness again.”
Stanislaw Krajewski, the Jewish co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Committee consultant in Poland, warned that while the march was conceived as a positive affirmation, its misuse or manipulation could have dangerous consequences.
“The march has a great potential to confront fundamental issues. I am concerned, however, that without careful guidance, it can strengthen chauvinistic attitudes,” he said.
“Marching with scores of banners is not only paying tribute to the victims, but also looks like a triumphal, victorious manifestation,” he said. “Victory over whom?
“The natural consequence is that the enemy that is confronted are the Poles living around the camps. This is both false and potentially harmful, because the deepest issue that should be confronted is what is our own responsibility for activities that can bring prejudice or crimes following on from prejudices.”
Jerzy Bebak, a Polish journalist who lives in Oswiecim – the Polish name for Auschwitz – and who is an activist in the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, noted that what marchers may have felt was anti-Semitism from Poles may have been something else – for instance, the disruption the march causes in the towns through which it passes.
“On the day of the March of the Living, the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau) is virtually cut off by security and preparations for the march. Local people can’t get to work or go about their normal business. Naturally they don’t like that,” he said.
A Polish member of Parliament who is a strong supporter of Israel said he was concerned that the march’s emphasis on carrying only Israeli flags transformed it from a Jewish commemoration into an Israeli event.
Jonah Bookstein, an American Fulbright scholar in Krakow who is active in educational programs for young Polish Jews who only recently have discovered their Jewish heritage, criticized organizers of the march for what he said was a deliberate effort to ignore or dismiss Poland’s present Jewish community.
Poland had 3.5 million Jews before the Holocaust. Today, estimates of the Jewish population vary from 10,000 to 30,000. Most are elderly, but in recent years there has been a boom in Jewish education and interest from young people who had hidden their Jewish identities during the Communist regime or simply had not known they were Jews.
Bookstein said he felt that march organizers deliberately tried to discourage contact with young Polish Jews in order to perpetuate the grim image of Poland as a Jewish graveyard.
“Part of the March of the Living’s portrayal is that Poland is a dangerous, anti-Semitic country,” he said.
“It is not a dangerous country, and whether it is anti-Semitic or not depends on who you are talking to. There is anti-Semitism in Poland, but it is not the anti-Semitism that gives rise to violent attacks on synagogues, as has happened in the Unites States,” he said.
“Once (march participants) do make the connection that there are Jews in Poland today, who are living without the fear of pogroms, or death, or Nazis, over their heads, and they meet them, it alters their understanding of this place fundamentally,” Bookstein said.
He noted a good aspect of this year’s march – that for the first time, some non-Jews took part. Among them were members of the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, who marched with a banner reading “Polish Friends of Israel.”
They were applauded by the marchers.
Said Bookstein, “The Polish-Israeli Friendship Society group blew a lot of people’s minds. A lot of people had no concept that Poles could have any but antagonistic attitudes toward Jews and Israel.”