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Reaction to tragedy showcases changes in Polish-Jewish relations

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Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were buried after funeral services at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw on Sunday. Andrzej Rybczynski/AFP/Getty Images</td>

ROME – The Jewish reaction to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish officials in an air tragedy highlights a remarkable change in how the Jewish world views Poland.

The prayers, public statements, and personal tributes, including a special remembrance during the March of the Living, were normal expressions of grief and solidarity for a close friend and ally — in short, heartfelt sentiments that probably could not have been made 20 or even 15 years ago.

First Person

Poland looms large in the collective Jewish consciousness. Huge numbers of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland, and before World War II Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland. Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Until fairly recently, however, much of the Jewish world regarded Poland as little more than a vast, anti-Semitic Jewish graveyard. These attitudes were exemplified in 1989 by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who famously declared that Poles “suck in” anti-Semitism “with their mother’s milk.”

Today, however, Poland is one of Israel’s best friends, and Jewish leaders hailed Kaczynski and others on the doomed plane for their dedication in helping write a new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations. Kaczynski was buried on Sunday.

This change in Jewish attitudes by no means came overnight. It was the fruit of a deliberate, sometime rocky post-communism Polish policy aimed at convincing the Jewish world that Poland — and Poles — could be trusted partners.

This included organized outreach, Poland’s emergence as an ally of Israel, and extensive Polish interaction with international Jewish organizations on both a formal and informal basis. In 1995, the Polish government even established the unprecedented post of roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora to foster contacts and provide a conduit for communications.

Meanwhile, lacerating public debates in Poland over anti-Semitism and the Polish role in the Holocaust, sparked by several books and films, also demonstrated to the Jewish world a willingness in Poland to tackle these troubling issues.

“Jewish attitudes became more positive as the world began to recognize Poland as a modern democratic nation rather than the apocryphal place of our ancient sufferings,” says Michael Traison, a Jewish American lawyer who has maintained an office in Poland since the mid-1990s. “And attitudes were impacted by the growth of information flowing out of Poland to the Jewish world as people learn that ‘Am Yisrael chai’ [the Jewish people lives], even in Poland.”

Jewish figures themselves played key roles by demonstrating their own openness to Poland and highlighting the revival of contemporary Jewish life in the country.

Shevach Weiss, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, became a popular and even beloved figure among locals as the Israeli ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004.

I’ll never forget seeing him plunge into a crowd of 10,000 frenzied fans, most of them Catholic Poles, who crammed into the main square of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for the final concert of the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in 2002.

The Krakow Festival and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry under construction in Warsaw also have won enthusiastic American supporters. Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has been tireless in spreading the word that a small but living Jewish community exists in Poland.

Organizations such as the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation and the American Jewish Committee make it a point to bring Jewish groups to Poland not just to commemorate the Holocaust but to take part in Jewish cultural events and meet local Jews and Catholic Poles.

“The story of Judaism in Poland did not end with the Holocaust,” promotional material for Taube-led tours says.

What all this means is that after decades of looking at Poland through a lens tinged darkly with tragedy and distrust, Jewish leaders increasingly are willing to demonstrate belief that Poland has changed. Or at least is changing.

To be sure, this does not mean that Polish anti-Semitism has vanished; on the contrary. It does recognize, however, that other forces are in play, too.

To someone like me, whose relationship with the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland goes back nearly 30 years, this change of attitude is as dramatic as it is welcome. It remains to be seen, though, how far it has trickled down.

An American Jewish friend here in Italy, who first told me the news about Kaczynski’s death in the plane crash, was surprised when I expressed dismay.

“I don’t know anything about him except that he’s an anti-Semite,” my friend said.

An Israeli Facebook friend wrote: “I wish that Poles — who indeed suffered a grievous loss in the plane crash that killed its leadership — felt the same sense of loss over the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in their country, often at the hands of the Polish people.”

Still, I was moved and encouraged by the homage paid to Kaczynski by the 10,000 participants of this year’s March of the Living, the annual youth gathering that commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day with a ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Back in 1994, when I was the cultural guide for a March of the Living group, the youngsters I was with spent their last evening in Poland acting out anti-Polish skits. Their handbook took for granted that the youngsters would feel nothing positive toward local Poles.

“We will hate them for having participated in atrocities, but we will also pity them for their woeful living conditions today,” it read.

But at this year’s March of the Living, young participants wore black armbands to honor Kaczynski and the other crash victims.

“We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss,” a statement from the March of the Living said. “Our thoughts, hopes, and prayers are with them during this difficult time.”

JTA

 
 

Area to mark Yom HaShoah

Saturday night begins the 27th day of Nissan, the Hebrew date chosen by the Israeli Knesset as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust memorial day. For more than 20 years, one of the most vivid commemorations has been the March of the Living, in which thousands of young Jews walk the three kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the gas chambers at Birkenau.

This year, for the first time, the memorial ceremony held at Birkenau following the march will be broadcast by Jewish Life Television, and the broadcast will be the centerpiece of the annual commemorations of the UJA Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Frisch School in Paramus.

The broadcast will feature an addresses from Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Holocaust survivor Irving Roth, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Manhasset, N.Y., who founded the Adopt a Survivor program. There will also be music from singer Dovid (Dudu) Fisher and the chief cantor of Tel Aviv, who will chant the El Maleh memorial prayer.

The Paramus event is one of dozens of community Yom HaShoah commemorations around the country that will be tuning in to the March of the Living broadcast.

In addition to the broadcast, the Paramus ceremony will feature a procession of 68 children holding candles, marking the 68th year since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and a commemoration for the Jews of Europe held in Paterson in 1943. That commemoration became an annual event and was the precursor of the UJA Federation commemoration, making this the oldest continuous Holocaust program in the United States, according to Wally Greene, spokesman for the UJA Federation Holocaust Memorial Committee.

On Sunday evening, a recording of Hoenlein’s remarks will be played at another community Yom HaShoah event, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, at 7 p.m.

The keynote speaker at the JCC event will be Eva Lux Braun, who survived Auschwitz and lives in Queens. She will share her first-hand experience about what it was like for her and her loved ones to suffer in Auschwitz, how they coped with things that should never occur in everyday life, and the “small miracles connected to faith, hope, and survival.”

There will be a candlelighting ceremony by survivors and their families.

The Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance Award will be presented to the winner of a contest in which high school students were asked to write a poem that conveys lessons learned from studying the Holocaust.

The Yeshivat Noam Choir, students of the JCC Thurnauer School of Music, and Abraham Barzelay will provide music.

Also on Sunday night, at 8 p.m., five Englewood synagogues will hold a community Yom HaShoah event at Cong. Ahavath Torah, featuring a video presentation, “Triumph of the Spirit,” the story of Esther Jungreis and her family during and after the Holocaust.

“The message of the film is that even though the intent was to eradicate the Jewish people, we survived and came through,” said Richard Friend, chairman of the committee that organizes the event.

“It’s a very moving film,” he said.

In Teaneck, the annual Holocaust remembrance will take place 7:30 p.m Monday night at Teaneck High School featuring Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. Heller is the author of “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs,” which was made into the documentary film “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story.”

There will be a musical performance by Zalmen Mlotek.

 
 

Tending to the liberators

March of Living honors vets, with N.J. doctor in tow

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 11 May 2012
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U.S. Army veterans who helped to liberate concentration camps as World War II ended light the flames honoring the Six Million. The event took place in the former Birkenau concentration camp as part of the 2012 March of the Living commemoration on April 19, which was Yom Hashoah. Courtesy David Arbit

Englewood resident Dr. David Arbit has spent much of his adult life hearing about the Shoah.

“My father-in-law is a survivor,” says the physician, who practices in Fair Lawn. “At every bar- or bat mitzvah, he would get up and speak about his experiences.”

Now, however, Arbit can add many more firsthand accounts to those he already knows. As the physician designated by the March of the Living program to accompany this year’s honorees — some 16 former U.S. servicemen who were among the first to arrive at Europe’s many concentration camps during World War II — the doctor says he now has both new information and detailed verification of his father-in-law’s stories.

Arbit said he had never thought about going to Poland until “several weeks ago, when I was called by David Machlis,” vice chairman of the march and a neighbor of Arbit’s. “He got my name from Rabbi [Zev] Reichman,” religious leader of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue.

Machlis, he said, decided to feature the liberators during this year’s program. The march, an educational initiative founded in 1988, brings thousands of Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The teens then go on to Israel to observe Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.

The liberators — only about half of whom were Jewish — were invited not just as honorees, but “to relate their stories to the thousands of youths who were participating in this year’s march,” said Arbit. During one event, “Each of the liberators took a seat and were surrounded by dozens of young people….It was cold and windy, but [they] were treated like rock stars and clearly enjoyed their status.”

Explaining why he was invited, Arbit said that most of the former servicemen are now in their late 80s, so “the organizers of the trip wanted to have an American doctor to travel with the group and look over these honored octogenarians.”

Prior to leaving, he reviewed the ex-servicemen’s medical records, requesting additional information where needed.

“They were from all over the country,” he said. “They each had to be cleared by their own doctors.”

Then he began gathering supplies. The equipment came in handy, he said, noting that one honoree skinned his knee at the airport, while another later injured his elbow.

“They’re 80,” he said. “They can fall.”

The doctor said he asked himself several questions, including: “What medications does one take as the traveling doctor? What sort of illnesses might I be called upon to treat? Under what circumstances would I have to call upon the local Polish medical authorities?

“With the help of my office, I amassed enough medication samples and bandages, sugar monitors and blood pressure cuffs, epi-pens and flashlights, that I felt able to tackle any outpatient medical problem. I even borrowed a defibrillator from my office with the sincere hope that it was going to stay sealed in its package.”

On the whole, he said, he was impressed by the liberators’ fortitude.

“As we walked down many stairs, climbed into buses with our hand luggage, and tramped up the steep aluminum steps into the aircraft, it became clear that this was a strong group of travelers with more determination and toughness compared to other people their age. I didn’t hear any complaining about anything. Imagine that, an El Al flight with no one complaining about anything.”

Arbit said he was most impressed — and amazed — by the commonality of the stories told by both the survivors and the liberators.

“I’ve heard this over and over,” he said. “For the first 20 or 30 years, neither the survivors nor the liberators were interested in talking about what they saw. It was so horrible. Another commonality is that [each groups] says they’ll always remember the smell, the stench” of the camps. One liberator told Arbit that when he has accidentally burned himself — for example, at a barbecue — “It brought back terrible memories.”

“Another shocker is that when we would meet up with liberators and survivors, [both groups] told stories about the days of liberation with complete accuracy from both sides,” said the physician. “For 25 years my father-in-law told the story of his liberation from Buchenwald, saying how the Americans showed up on April 10 and then came back on April 11.”

During the march, he said, liberator Rick Carrier told his own story, confirming the precise dates and the details remembered by Arbit’s father-in-law.

“It was the same story,” said Arbit. “Here are people who never met, but have the same details, like the clocktower that was shot out at a certain hour.”

“Certain memories are indelible,” he said. “To have memories for 67 years that are verifiable is an amazing concept — and an argument against Holocaust deniers.”

Arbit said that while the ghettos and camps are being maintained in a respectful manner, the town of Krakow has commercialized visits to Shoah sites.

“It’s become a tourist phenomenon,” he said, noting that visitors can drive around in golf carts to look at the camps. “It injects a lot of money into the Polish economy,” he noted. “I have mixed feelings about that.”

Still, he said, the March of the Living remains an important program because “It takes [the Shoah] out of books and makes it more real.” Even more, he said, “Ending the trip in Israel is a great thing to do. Judaism is not just about the Holocaust.”

 
 
 
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