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Jewish Journal

Power of the Past

by Jane Ulman

August 9, 2001 | 8:00 pm

My son Zack, 17, 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 students from Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, plus teachers and parent chaperones (including my husband, Larry) -- are practically doubling Krakow's Jewish population, estimated at 200. It is 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.

In Poland, the past stretches possibly to the 11th century and, 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 the Baal Shem Tov, Shalom Aleichem and Arthur Rubinstein. A past that now epitomizes evil in the form of the Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

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

"This trip, while powerful and sobering, is also, perhaps surprisingly, uplifting," Yoav Ben-Horin, director of Special Projects at Milken, who is organizing and accompanying the American group, told me.

Indeed, the thought of busloads of exuberant American and Israeli teenagers 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 there are signs of a burgeoning Jewish community -- synagogues and schools, clubs and kosher restaurants -- for the estimated 8,000 or more 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 four days now. He has visited the Lodz ghetto and synagogue, the Warsaw ghetto and the Majdanek camp. He has walked in the footsteps of 3 million dead Polish Jewish souls.

I wonder if he's feeling, as he susrmised he would before his trip, "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 parents were asked to write, unbeknownst to our teenagers.

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. Who struggled with new languages, new cultures and menial jobs. Who 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 are fears that parents might want to create genetically engineered designer children, eerily reminiscent of the Nazis' desire to breed a master race.

These American and Israeli teenagers, 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, in the words of Israel's former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who left Poland in 1906: "Our past is not only behind us, it is in our very being."

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