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In Poland, everything Jewish is intense

ENCINO, Calif. Aug. 8 (JTA) — My 17-year-old son Zack is celebrating Shabbat dinner tonight at the Bohema Restaurant in Krakow, Poland.

In fact, not only is he celebrating Shabbat, but he and his group — 15 students from Milken Community High School in Los Angeles and 140 more from Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, along with teachers and parent chaperones, including my husband, Larry — are practically doubling Krakow’s Jewish population, estimated at 200. A population that, at its height in the late 1930s, numbered more than 60,000.

“If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past,” the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza once said.

And so this group of American and Israeli teen-agers — from sister schools paired by the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership 2000, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sister schools that have exchanged students, ideas and ideologies for more than three years — has come to study the past.

It’s a past that stretches back, possibly as far as the 11th century, but certainly back to the 13th century when a huge influx of Jews, fleeing persecution in Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, settled there, and, ironically, were afforded greater freedom. A past that boasts Sholem Aleichem and Arthur Rubinstein. A past that now epitomizes evil in the form of the Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

“This trip, while powerful and sobering, is also, perhaps surprisingly, uplifting,” said Yoav Ben-Horin, director of special projects at Milken, who is organizing and accompanying the American group.

Indeed, the thought of busloads of exuberant American and Israeli teens touring Poland, giving Hitler’s “Final Solution” another kick in the teeth, is certainly cause for rejoicing. The Americans, with their strong connection to ritual and religious tradition, and the Israelis, with their primarily secular but visceral attachment to the land, represent the two strongholds of Judaism in today’s world.

Additionally, changes are slowly occurring within Poland. Five years ago, for example, the Polish government officially apologized for the Kielce pogrom of 1946, in which 42 Jews who had survived World War II were killed and another 50 wounded. And last month, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski asked forgiveness for the Jedwabne massacre at an official ceremony.

And there are signs of a burgeoning Jewish community — synagogues and schools, clubs and kosher restaurants — for the estimated several thousand Jews currently living in Poland. And while I have doubts about the wisdom and practicality of rebuilding Jewish life in Eastern Europe, I’m heartened that it’s possible.

Zack has been in Poland for four days now. He has visited the Lodz Ghetto and synagogue, the Warsaw ghetto and Majdanek. He has walked in the footsteps of 3 million dead Polish Jewish souls.

I wonder, as he surmised before he left, if he’s feeling “intense sadness during the day and intense joy, being with his friends, at night.”

This night, at the Bohema Restaurant, he and his friends will be reading letters from home, letters we parents were asked to write unbeknownst to our teens.

In our letter, Larry and I remind Zack that he, like every living Jew, is responsible for preserving and honoring the memory of those who perished. That he has an obligation not only, as Deuteronomy 30:19 tells us, to “choose life” but also to improve life, to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world.

We remind Zack to thank his great-grandparents, who left shtetls and families in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to make difficult voyages to the United States, Canada and South America. They struggled with new languages, new cultures and menial jobs. They wanted a better life for themselves, their children and their descendants.

And we warn Zack that this trip to Poland will elicit big questions, existential questions about life and death, good and evil and the existence of God. And ethical questions about subjects such as racism and eugenics.

But these are not questions that pertain merely to the past. The United Nations World Conference Against Racism, scheduled to begin Aug. 31, is dealing with anti-Zionist pre-conference resolutions that accuse Israel of being “an apartheid, racist and fascist state.” Clearly, and this is only one example, anti-Semitism is alive and dangerous.

And in the worldwide debates about cloning and stem cell research, there is fear of parents wanting to create genetically engineered “designer children,” eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ desire to breed a “master race.”

These American and Israelis teens, about to begin a rigorous last year of high school, about to make serious decisions about their futures, will have much to ponder. I hope that this journey to their past, this “sober and powerful and uplifting” visit, will continue to disturb, enlighten and motivate them for the rest of their lives.

I hope that this journey will make them realize that, as Israel’s former prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who left Poland in 1906, said, “Our past is not only behind us, it is in our very being.”

Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.

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