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First Person Cold Weather, Long Memories: Thoughts on a Shoah Commemoration

February 1, 2005
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It snowed in Poland last week. All over Krakow, as people flooded in for ceremonies commemorating 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the snow fell intensely and I heard people say they expected it. They came to Poland to remember, to honor, and they would have felt guilty if the cold and snow hadn’t chilled them to the bone as it had the one-and-a-half million people who died in Auschwitz, and all those who survived.

Snow is an inevitable part of the Polish winter, but still I felt disappointed. For a year and a half I’ve been living in Krakow, learning and writing about the Jewish past and the growth of the contemporary Jewish community.

The historical relationship between Poland and its Jews has been complicated and multifaceted, and I often find myself in the position to dispel myths about how strained things were, and how damaged they are today.

Because of its central location in occupied Europe and its extensive rail connections, and because it had the largest prewar Jewish population in Europe, Poland was an easy choice as the site of the worst of the Nazi death camps — home not only to Auschwitz, the most notorious, but also to Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec.

For many Jews, Poland is the focal point of their Holocaust anger. Their wrath and rage is hurled here; after all, it was on this ground that their parents suffered, on this ground their grandparents died.

They don’t separate out the Nazi crimes from the largely unwilling country that hosted them — and the fact that some Poles did greet the Third Reich and its Final Solution with open arms doesn’t help.

Trudging through the endless snow and watching the ceremonies last week, I was happy with what I saw. Poland stood up and acknowledged the vast Jewish loss, something it didn’t do at the 50th anniversary or any other before that.

In his speech, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said of Auschwitz, “This place is the terrible truth about the abysmal fall of humanity. We must find the strength to face up to this truth.”

The memory here about the Jews of Poland is long. Today you can still find people who believe the stereotypes that Jews control the media and business, people who willingly would turn in their neighbors if the Nazis came through again and asked.

But you can this minority everywhere, throughout Europe and in the rest of the world, too, people who can’t stand to see the Jewish nation succeed, people who want to stomp us out.

Poland has been a cold country, but I see signs of warmth all the time. There is now a renovated synagogue in Oswiecim, the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz, attached to the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and information center about the history of Jews in that city.

In Krakow, there is a center for Jewish culture, an annual Jewish festival that attracts thousands and a Jewish studies department at the Jagiellonian, Poland’s oldest university.

And the healthiest sign of life, the crocus-heralding spring, is the re-emergence and revitalization of the Jewish community itself. In Warsaw there is a new progressive synagogue, Beit Warszawa, in addition to the Orthodox Nozyk synagogue.

Young people with Jewish heritage meet for Shabbat dinners in several cities, tentatively exploring their Judaism. I joined them one Friday in Krakow and met Marek, whose father had told him only recently of his own Jewish background and who made me realize that if it weren’t for a trick of history, my great-grandparents could have stayed in the Old Country and I might be in his position today.

I met Ewa, who found out only a few years ago that her mother was a “hidden child” during the Holocaust, and now sends her three sons to Hebrew School.

The Holocaust damaged the Polish Jewish community irreparably. Last week, we all stopped to consider the scope of this damage, but also to remember how Poland is picking itself up from the ashes and building again. Jews are returning to Jewish religious and cultural life, and their Polish counterparts are offering a thumbs-up from a distance, and sometimes an up-close helping hand.

Living here, I realize that being a Jew in Poland will never mean going to services on a Saturday morning and hitting the kosher deli for a reuben sandwich or the Chinese restaurant for some moo shu chicken, watching “Seinfeld” and playing tag between the rows of seats at synagogue, as I grew up doing. The Jewish community in Poland stopped at Auschwitz, and any remaining pieces were trampled by 40 years of communism.

Yet Judaism held on to its little slice of Poland. The commemorations stressed nothing if not the vital importance of teaching about tolerance and about the right for Jews to exist not only in Israel but in any homes in any homelands they choose.

Poland is beginning to heed this lesson. Auschwitz is remembered here as a “killing factory for the murder of our people,” as Israeli President Moshe Katsav said at Auschwitz, and Polish-Jewish dialogue is flourishing all over the country.

What most amazed me this week were the survivors, from Poland and throughout Europe, who journeyed back to hell and walked out again alive. I saw them sitting in the freezing flurry, cold again but thankful for their lives and the lives of their families.

Trudy Spira, who was 12 at liberation and was returning to Auschwitz for the first time in 60 years, said she brought her son because together they were living proof that Hitler did not achieve his goals.

The world has heard Trudy’s words, and the words of so many other survivors. I hope there is no chance of ever forgetting them.

Still, the loss is unfathomable, unforgivable. Still it breaks my heart.

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