Yom Hashoah Feature As March of the Living Kicks Off, Poles Learn About What Was Lost

About 20,000 people from around the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, are expected in Poland for the 15th March of the Living this week. The annual trip, which began in 1988, takes Jewish high school students — and, increasingly, adults and non-Jews — to Poland, where they spend a week visiting Holocaust sites. Many groups then continue to Israel to see the homeland of the Jewish people.

This year’s group of marchers is expected to be the biggest ever, partly because it marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

The marchers prepare for the experience in their home communities, learning about the places they’ll see and bonding with each other in anticipation of an emotionally intense two weeks.

An anticipated 3,000 Poles, the most ever, will take part in this year’s march. They’ll join other participants on the walk from the Auschwitz concentration camp to Birkenau, about two miles away.

They will continue for four days of travel around Poland, seeing such sites as the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, the Majdanek and Treblinka concentration camps and the former yeshiva in Lublin.

During much of the Communist period, Poles weren’t taught about Jews and the Holocaust, and education about religion was suppressed.

Since 1989, when the Communist era ended, Jews have re-emerged and begun to rebuild their communities. Other Poles have begun to confront their history and the memory of the Holocaust, and wonder how to transmit memories of the 3.5 million Jews who once lived in Poland to future generations.

The Polish students who will be marching this week, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, have been taught about the people who died in the Nazi concentration camps and about the lives they led before the Holocaust.

Still, some say the extent of their education is minimal.

“Talking about World War II during history class, the teacher mentioned a few sentences about the Holocaust, how it was the largest extermination of the Jews, how it happened in Poland,” said Diana Oryszczak, who studies English at Opole University.

Maciek Zabierowski, who studies history in Krakow, recalled a class trip to Auschwitz, but said that he and his classmates weren’t prepared.

“I don’t remember much,” he said.

When Oryszczak’s teacher mentioned Jews in high school, she said, she had a vague image of men with sidelocks, but she couldn’t really connect that image with the death camps.

“My sister is in high school now, and she has the same teacher, the same words,” she said.

Oryszczak said her real introduction to Jews was a summer she spent in Woodburn, N.Y., working at a Chasidic camp.

The Jews and the Holocaust are surprisingly popular topics of study in Poland today. Interest is fueled by the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, which draws thousands of people, most of them non-Jewish Poles. Participants can learn about all aspects of Jewish religious and cultural life.

Both in the classroom and on the streets, Judaism and Jews are being reintroduced to the Polish public.

Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, a professor at the Center for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, studies the Holocaust, history and tolerance. She said Holocaust education in Poland began as early as the 1970s, though at first it was mostly an academic discipline.

“The Holocaust is a case study of hate,” she said, noting that many people who learn about it can’t help but react emotionally, something they don’t do when studying other periods or events.

The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has been instrumental in bringing Jewish education to re-emerging Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe. In 1994, Lauder Morasha, a primary school, opened in Warsaw with 18 students. Today it teaches 250 children from Jewish and non-Jewish families who want a grounding in Jewish education and tradition.

Lauder Morasha recently made its first trip to Auschwitz, stopping both at the camp and at the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The foundation opened in 2000 in Oswiecim — the Polish name for the nearby city — and seeks to be a bridge between the Jewish victims of Auschwitz and residents of Oswiecim today.

The center’s program, Jewish History and Tradition At Hand, teaches teenagers and adults about the history of the town, which once was 60 percent Jewish, and hosts weekly lectures, workshops, films and other events.

“Our center provides teachers and students with a broader perspective on the Holocaust: Who were these people who were destroyed?” foundation director Tomasz Kuncewicz said. “Teachers can learn not only about the victims but about their lives and culture, all in the context of Oswiecim.”

Sometimes it’s not only non-Jews in Poland who have to learn about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Helena Datner, who heads the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Pedagogical Center in Warsaw, said that given “the almost total break in transmitting Jewish tradition through families,” the pedagogical center’s role is enormous. The center provides information about Jewish culture to Jews who are searching for their severed roots, she added.

The Jewish Historical Institute, another Warsaw group, ran its first workshop in 1992. It recently put out a new book, “Memory — The History of Polish Jews,” which will be distributed free to students throughout Poland.

April Crabtree, whose Fulbright fellowship allows her to study Holocaust education in Poland, said her research shows that though Holocaust education is mandatory in Poland under national curriculum guidelines, what’s taught “is left to individual teachers. They will decide how much time and energy to put into it, like in any subject, and the more passionate and enthusiastic teachers put a lot more into it than teachers who just mention it in a lesson.”

Of course, the Auschwitz camp has long been a center for international education. The Polish Parliament established the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in July 1947. Since then, curators have worked to preserve the site, publish books and other materials on the camp’s history and offer teacher training.

Museum officials, along with Polish government representatives and the general public, have begun to accept the fact that about 90 percent of Auschwitz inmates and victims were Jews. The others were Polish political prisoners, Gypsies, homosexuals and others the Nazis considered subhuman.

Despite all the steps taken, there’s no guarantee Polish students will receive a broad education in Jews or the Holocaust, or that their teachers will try to expose their students to this history.

Kuncewicz recently made it his mission to remove any anti-Semitic graffiti he saw, talking to anyone in charge of a building that has a slur scrawled on it. He also carries a can of spray paint in his car, to use when he sees graffiti on bus stops and in public spaces.

“What is lacking is enough sensitivity among decent people,” Kuncewicz said. “These slogans are unacceptable, and more people should want to take action.”

It’s not only a question of decency, he said, but “part of the development of Poland as an open democratic society.”

At the same time, Kuncewicz has seen changes in Polish attitudes that hearten him. He recently participated in a Holocaust workshop with other Polish educators. One day, he said, as he was walking in the Jewish district of Kazimierz, he noticed a newly renovated hotel.

The facade had been replaced, but the owner had retained one piece of the original wood. On it, he could see the imprint of a mezuzah that once had marked the building as a Jewish dwelling.

Moved by the sight, Kuncewicz entered the hotel and found that its owner had participated in his workshop.

“It’s so striking that she made the effort to preserve the frame,” he said. “Now forever everyone will know this was a Jewish home.”

This week, a new batch of Polish students will march together with representatives of world Jewry to commemorate the memory of the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust, and to continue the ongoing dialogue that has come to define this country. They will prove that in Poland, the memory of the Holocaust is long and lasting.

As Ambrosewicz-Jacobs put it, “I don’t think there will ever be a time when the world will say, ‘That’s enough. There are other topics.’ “

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