Mayor Edward Koch, in a voice filled with sadness and a delivery bereft of any of his flair for the dramatic, spoke Sunday night of his visit to Auschwitz and Warsaw in February, of the weight of the Holocaust on the Jewish people, and of his own feelings of being Jewish.
He was addressing a memorial gathering for the 44th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, mounted jointly by the Metropolitan Synagogue here and the Workmen’s Circle, an organization which Koch has frequently supported.
In slow and measured words, Koch related how he went to Poland in February out of “a compulsion, an obsession” to see the Warsaw Ghetto memorial and Auschwitz. He did not go, he said, to see “quite frankly, the place where my parents had been born, because I don’t know of any Jews who were born in Poland who ever tell me it’s their home, because they were not made very comfortable there.”
He went to see Warsaw and Auschwitz, he said, because he had “an almost pain to do that.” In Warsaw, he said, after breakfasting with Warsaw Ghetto hero Marek Edelman, he went to see the monument to the ghetto, a memorial that affected him in an unexpected way.
“The monument that you see,” Koch recounted, “the face of the monument, did not move me… It was the reverse side that moved me. The reverse side is a frieze showing a line of men, women and children who are marching to the crematoria. That image that I have, there is no question but that Jews, under the most extraordinary of circumstances, showed special courage… But for me, it was to see Jews marching– children, women, men — to their death with faith in God, exhorting us from that monument never to forget what happened.” He saw this in his mind, he said, later when he went to Auschwitz, where he spent several hours, touring the barracks, “And I had great sorrow — it was unbearable. And yet, I was glad that I could come in winter, when I could see it at its worst.
“I walked through the barracks, with no heat, and here I was all bundled up, and I was terribly cold. I could see the rooms where people were three in a wooden cot, nine in the cot, with three rings, with no blankets, and no heat…
“Then they took you into a number of different barracks, and one would describe the Jewish experience. The others would describe the French, the East German, others. And I said to myself, it’s a sin that they describe it as the French, the East German, the other countries, because people who came from those other countries were Jews.
“There were four million people who were murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and three and a half million of them were Jews. And so only until a few years ago, we would not have known that they didn’t have the barracks described as the Jews. It was only world pressure that, I think, brought them to the point where they had to acknowledge it. You would not have known that the overwhelming number of people killed at Auschwitz and Birkenau were Jews.”
THE WORD JEW NOT MENTIONED IN SOVIET FILM
What was worse, said Koch, was a film showed to those entering Auschwitz, a film made by the Russians 42 years ago when they liberated the camp. “Not one acknowledgment in that film–22 minutes it is, and it’s in different languages–they never mention the word Jew once in the film. You would never know that Auschwitz was the place where they murdered Jews.”
Koch said that he took the matter up with the Deputy Premier of Poland when he came to New York following his visit. He told him, he said, two things: “In America, we are all hyphenated. We have Irish-Americans, French-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans. And we all revere the country of the birth of our parents and our grandparents. But,” he told the visiting diplomat, “never in the world would I ever say to anybody that I am a Polish-American. I could never say that, because the memories that I have that go back to when my parents escaped from Poland are such that I could not possibly think of Poland as the country of my ancestors. I could not.”
Koch emphasized that he did not blame Poles for the concentration camps, to which Poles were sent as well. “But,” said Koch, “there were Poles who deliberately delivered Jews into the hands of the Nazis. We know it, and we can’t forget it.”
The Polish diplomat asked Koch “to understand that it was only in Poland where if a Polish Christian helped a Polish Jew, that the entire Polish Christian’s family was subject to death according to the Nazi law, whereas in other countries occupied by the Nazis it would only be that individual.”
And that is true, said Koch. And the Polish Deputy Premier reminded him that the largest number of Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem are Polish Christians. Koch agreed to this, too. But, he said he told the Polish Diplomat, “there is something you can do about that film. You have got to have a prologue, you have got to recite the fact that Auschwitz and Birkenau were concentration camps built especially to murder the Jews.” The Polish official told him, Koch said, that he would.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.