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Jewish Journal

Jews in Poland Speak of Shoah Remembrance as a Curse

by Jane Ulman

April 20, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Entrance to Birkenau death camp: end of the line for Shoah victims; end of the March for a throng of visiting backpackers.

Entrance to Birkenau death camp: end of the line for Shoah victims; end of the March for a throng of visiting backpackers.

This tale is about two visions of Poland.

In one, Poland is about pain and loss. It's the place where 3 million of a total population of 3.3 million Polish Jews perished in the Shoah, where Jews have nothing left, where indeed there are almost no Jews other than a few languishing, aged survivors who can't even scrape together a Shabbat morning minyan. Poland is Auschwitz; it's Never Again.

Defining this Poland is the March of the Living, an annual event that lays bare Poland's deepest, murderous shame and then immediately whisks participants to Israel, to showcase that nation's glories, and its essentialness to the Jewish people. The March of the Living has won wide acclaim from donors and participants, including students from Los Angeles.

March arrives at Birkenau
A Jew in Poland: Severyn Ashkenazy celebrates oneg Shabbat at Warsaw temple.

But there's also another Poland competing for the attention of Jews. This is the Poland of 70-year-old Severyn Ashkenazy, who, although a victim of the Holocaust, chooses to paint a different picture. Ashkenazy, who splits his time between Poland and Los Angeles, is a co-founder of Beit Warszawa, a Warsaw synagogue that belongs to the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Ashkenazy's Poland offers Jewish studies programs at three leading universities. It will hold its 16th annual Jewish Culture Festival this summer in Krakow, expected to attract 20,000 people and its fourth annual Jewish Film Festival this November in Warsaw. His Poland now has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, according to figures published by the U.S. State Department. Ashkenazy and others estimate the number to be considerably higher.

In his Poland, Judaism has a present and a future, which makes March of the Living, and its thousands of participants, a sore point.

"They are the opposite of ambassadors of goodwill," Ashkenazy said. "To the Poles, it seems that the whole world comes and looks at them as murderers."

March of the Living, the international educational program that began in 1988, has brought approximately 90,000 teenagers, accompanied by Jewish educators, social workers and survivors, to Poland for a week. Every year, in late April or early May, thousands of Jewish teenagers from around the world gather to commemorate Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, by recreating the 3-kilometer "death march" of concentration camp inmates from Auschwitz to Birkenau. In addition to Auschwitz-Birkenau, they visit the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka as well as the destroyed Jewish communities of Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow. They then fly to Israel for a week where they celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, and tour the country.

Participants pay a subsidized fee of $3,300, plus their own roundtrip airfare to New York. Some scholarships and additional subsidies are available.

Many teenagers report that the trip has profoundly and positively changed their lives, and two studies by William B. Helmreich, a sociology professor at City University of New York, concluded that the program strengthens participants' Jewish identity.

"If the most important goal of the March was to increase Jewish identity, it clearly succeeded. Over 93 percent of those who participated reported that it did," wrote Helmreich about research he conducted in 1993 and 2004. "This is especially noteworthy because so many of those attending were strongly identifying Jews to begin with."

But there are critics, too, who say the March builds that identity based on death and destruction, creating an irrational fear of anti-Semitism in impressionable adolescents and sending a message that the primary reason to be Jewish is to keep the Holocaust from happening again.

Critics frequently take issue with the juxtapositioning of dark and gloomy Poland with sunny and joyful Israel. Participants have little or no contact with Poles or modern Poland, which has a strong relationship with Israel. Nor does the itinerary emphasize the burgeoning Jewish community in Poland.

But this year, Ashkenazy hopes to change things, even if it means getting in the face of participants. For the first time, many of the estimated 8,000 marchers will be confronted with something that belies this image of unmitigated death and darkness, of a decimated culture with only a few old, struggling Jews remaining.

On the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin, representatives of Poland's small but vibrant Jewish community will be handing out flyers introducing marchers to the Poland they don't know and, for the most part, won't experience. To help drive this message home, Ashkenazy is overseeing the preparation of thousands of handouts presenting the Poland that he knows and cares about. The materials cost about $4,000 to assemble and print and were funded by several private donors, Ashkenazy said. The handout includes a cartoon by Steve Greenberg (whose work appears regularly in The Journal) that lampoons "Depressing Tours, Inc." as well as a listing of Poland's many active Jewish institutions and organizations, plus other relevant articles. Ashkenazy says that the visiting Jews ought to be celebrating their faith and heritage with the Jews of Poland, not acting as though they don't exist.

"This is perverted," he said of the March. "Jews should be standing in line to meet us, to celebrate Shabbos with us and instead we have to go running after them."

He's hardly alone in his discomfort among Jews living in Poland.

"They are everywhere," Ania Zielinska said about the marchers. The 30-year-old trade officer in the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw has been a four-time March participant, but has soured on the event: "They are like a plague."

Zielinska, a member of the Orthodox Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw -- which is under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Schudrich and which she says has 500 members -- didn't discover she was Jewish until 10 years ago. She completed an Orthodox conversion two years ago. Zielinska resents the visitors who ignore the modern Polish Jewish community: "Polish Jews are very bitter. We feel abandoned."

When Adrianne Rubenstein went to Poland on March of the Living with a group of about 200 Montreal teenagers in 2000, she expected the trip to be difficult but transformative. Instead, she found it controlling and numbing as she was constantly sleep-deprived and "talked at" by her group's leaders, a deliberate tactic on the part of March officials, she believes.

"I don't remember associating anything positive with Poland. It was all shock, shock, shock," said Rubenstein, 23, a senior at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. She was especially affected by the large exhibits of "tons and tons of shoes, watches, wallets and hair" in the Auschwitz Museum.

"I don't know what can be taught by that, except to show that it's sad," she said.

Aliza Luft, 22, a senior at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, who participated on the March with Rubenstein, thinks Holocaust education is important but needs to be more all-encompassing, taking into account the 1,000 years of Poland's rich Jewish culture and focusing less on the history of persecution.

"We're told we need to support Israel and be Jewish, but we don't know why, except if we don't, things like the Holocaust are going to happen again," she said.

There are any number of glowing testimonials to counter such criticisms from participants. They note that the shock value is part of the point -- organizers want to make a stronger, sobering impression.

But Ashkenazy believes that point is made unfairly. "What's our problem with the Poles today? What do we want from them?" he said.

In 1939, he points out, 60 percent of Poles were illiterate, under the sway of the then-anti-Semitic Catholic church. And while many individual Poles enthusiastically aided the Nazis during World War II, Poland historically has welcomed Jews, who started arriving in the Middle Ages, fleeing oppression in other countries. Despite periods of pogroms and persecution, Poland gave Jews substantial economic freedom and, compared to other places, allowed Jewish life to flourish. Polish Jewish culture gave birth to Chasidism and Jewish Enlightenment, and it was a bastion of Zionism.

The nonprofit March of the Living, founded by in 1987 former Knesset member and current Minister of Tourism Avraham Hirshson, does not hide its mission of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. Organizers of the New York-based group want to make sure that the stories of the survivors live on, that the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism is confronted and that participants come to see the necessity of a strong and secure state of Israel.

The stark contrast between Poland and Israel is deliberate, even in the welcoming statement from the first paragraph of the current educator's manual: "You will be transported ... back in time to one of the darkest chapters in human existence, to one of the most terrifying times in Jewish history. Then, before you can take a breath, you will travel to Israel, the Jewish Homeland, to celebrate with the people of Israel, Independence Day. It will be a journey from darkness to light. It will be an experience of a lifetime."

left - Phil Liff-Greiff, right -
Survivor Nandor Markovic, right, sitting with Phil Liff-Grieff, from Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, at Auschwitz before the March of the Living (2005).

Understandably, memories of the horrors persist for survivors and their families. Nandor Markovic, 81, was shipped from a shtetl in the Carpathian Mountains to Birkenau at age 15. His parents and three siblings were killed; he somehow survived six concentration camps and a death march before being liberated. For him, the streets of Poland will always be paved with blood.

Markovic, known as "Marko," insists on accompanying the Los Angeles teen contingent on this year's March, despite difficulty walking because of a tendon operation that never healed properly. It's his third trip. He feels strongly that he stayed alive for a purpose, not only to have a family but also "to give back to society and to my people who have suffered so much." For him, the March of the Living is a righteous duty, a way to honor and give meaning to the sacrifice of the victims.

No one would have more right to identify with the aims of the March than Severyn Ashkenazy. Born in Tarnopol, home to more than 18,000 Jews before World War II and now part of Ukraine, Ashkenazy survived the war by spending two years, from ages 6 to 8, holed up in a 6-by-12-foot sub-cellar -- "a cellar dug under a cellar" -- with his mother, brother and uncle, paying a non-Jewish Polish family to bring them food. For the last eight months, his father and three others joined them. Only one night in those two years was he allowed outside to see the moon.

Out of hundreds of blood relatives on both sides of his family, only an uncle and two cousins, in addition to his immediate family, survived. Ashkenazy left Poland in 1946, eventually making his way to the United States with his family in 1957. Later, in the early 1970s, while doing business in Russia as a real estate developer, he began traveling back through Poland. Each time, he was told only a few thousand old Jews were left in Poland. But gradually, after meeting many people who appeared to be Jewish, he came to realize that there was a community that deserved to be nurtured rather than abandoned.

In 1999, he co-founded Beit Warszawa, to give the Jews in Poland a non-Orthodox place to study, practice and explore their Judaism. The synagogue, which currently has more than 200 members and more than 1,000 on its mailing list, hosts weekly Shabbat dinners, services and concerts; Saturday morning services; and preschool and religious school. And beginning in July, Beit Warszawa will have its first full-time rabbi, Burt Schuman, an American Reform rabbi who has served Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pa., since his ordination in 1995.

Ashkenazy and others estimate there could be more than 50,000 Jews living in Poland today (a figure much higher than the 5,000 to 7,000 Jews March of the Living officials publish in their educational materials).

One of those is Malgorzata (Gosia) Szymanska, 25, who discovered that her father was Jewish about 12 years ago, when she asked him why he tuned into news about Israel more than other news. The revelation didn't mean anything to her at the time but later, at 16, while visiting her father's family in Canada, she was introduced to Shabbat and to her relatives' close-knit Jewish community, which resonated with her. Returning to her hometown of Lodz two months later, she began learning Hebrew. A few years later she moved to Warsaw, where she became involved with the Polish Union of Jewish Students, which now claims about 300 members, and Beit Warszawa.

Szymanska is currently in Los Angeles getting a joint master's degree -- in Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and public administration at USC. After graduating in May, she plans to return to Poland and become Beit Warszawa's first full-time administrator. She is especially upset by people she meets who say Poland is anti-Semitic and Jews shouldn't be living there.

"The fact is, we are there," she said. "And we are comfortable being Poles and Jews."

Latent anti-Semitism does persist, especially among less-educated segments of the population. More historical than political in nature, it's typically expressed in the form of graffiti and verbal slurs rather than actual physical harm. It's also in decline, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. State Department, and officially condemned. When the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw was firebombed in 1997, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued a statement expressing his outrage that day.

Polish Jews interviewed for this article say they feel safe in Poland. They are comfortable publicly identifying as Jews, telling strangers they meet that they are Jewish and wearing kippot or Stars of David. Their synagogues do not have visible armed guards at the entrances, as in Sweden and other European countries. According to Ashkenazy, even Chasidic Jews, in full religious garb, feel safe traveling alone.

Furthermore, Poland is a solid friend of Israel. One of its first moves, when it became a democratic country in 1989, was to establish diplomatic ties. Since then, Poland has officially apologized for crimes that Poles committed against Jews and made denying the Holocaust a crime. It entered into an agreement to purchase $350 million worth of Israeli anti-tank missiles and has allocated land and $26 million for the building of a Jewish museum in Warsaw.

Additionally, many Poles note that the death camps in Poland were the primary responsibility of German Nazis. And while many Poles aided and abetted the Nazi, others risked their lives to help the Jews. In fact, Poles constitute the largest number of Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Leaders of the March are not entirely insensitive to the criticisms. Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has led groups of marchers three times. He says the depiction of Poland should be balanced. Over the years, he has arranged meetings with various groups of Polish and Jewish young people.

This year's group of 60 Los Angeles teenagers, under the leadership of the BJE's Monise Newman, is hoping to spend one Friday morning celebrating Shabbat with students at the Lauder-Morasha Primary and Elementary School in Warsaw, a Jewish day school established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. They also will spend a day helping to restore a cemetery in Otwock along with a group of Israeli students, a project of the Jewish Federation's Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. Along the way, they hope to meet with Polish Jews from the Polish Union of Jewish Students.

Some 55 Jewish Poles will be participating in this year's March and others will be meeting separately with visiting groups of Jews, said Yossi Kedem, executive vice chairman of International March of the Living, in an e-mail. But outreach to Poles and local Jews is simply not part of the March's core program.

"It's always a logistical nightmare," Liff-Grieff said, especially given the tight schedules, bus availability and Shabbat observances.

Several adult groups, who can provide their own transportation, have arranged to celebrate Shabbat at Beit Warszawa during this year's March.

"It's a pity no young people can come," Ashkenazy said.

Still Liff-Grieff and others defend the fundamental goals, which include creating the next generation of witnesses and celebrating Jewish survival.

"It's not all roses and light," he noted.

For their part, educators in Poland are working to enhance cultural ties that would add nuance and balance to the March. Professor Annamaria Orla-Bukowska works with specific group leaders from Australia, Israel, New York and Connecticut to arrange student meetings, often coordinated months in advance.

But she had to aggressively instigate such contacts. Four or five years ago, while at Birkenau waiting for the commemoration services to begin, she recalls running around from group to group asking, "Would you like to have a meeting with real Polish people?"

Participants were surprised to learn that this was possible and several accepted her offer.

Orla-Bukowska, a practicing Roman Catholic born and raised in the United States by non-Jewish Polish parents, moved to Poland in 1985. She's now an associate professor of sociology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Orla-Bukowska has been involved with several organizations working on improving Jewish-Christian relations, trying to get both sides over what she calls "this plexiglass wall" -- where people see each other but don't touch.

She recognizes some benefits in the March, especially for her non-Jewish students. Going on the March and spending the entire Holocaust Memorial Day embedded with a group of Jewish teenagers is the best way, she said, to understand the Jewish perspective.

But it wasn't until 1998 that non-Jewish Poles were allowed to take part in the March, and only two years earlier that even Jewish Poles were permitted.

Today, the number of non-Jewish Polish students allowed on the March is a negotiation between March of the Living officials and the Polish Ministry of Education. This year, 1,000 Polish students will participate, although the number of those wishing to be involved is larger, said Andrzej Fowarczny, president of Forum for Dialogue among Nations and a former member of the Polish National Parliament. He also recalls that up to three or four years ago non-Jewish Poles were relegated to the back of the line. Fowarcyzy's organization works on Jewish-Polish reconciliation, fighting anti-Semitism and breaking down stereotypes. While he feels that March of the Living deepens those stereotypes, he also tries to arrange meetings between Jewish and Polish high school students.

"This is a golden opportunity for dialogue and for Polish students, many of whom are meeting a Jewish person for the first time, to fight their anti-Semitism," Fowarczny said.

 

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