April 22, 2013

Poland: 70 Years Later

by Rebecca Neuwirth

In the end, it’s Agatha who makes it impossible not to hope.

I’m with a JDC Ambassadors delegation at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At midnight on April 19, in the light of two flames that rise from menorahs on either side of the famed Ghetto monument, Cantor Yaakov Lemmer sings in Yiddish about small boys who steal outside to sell cigarettes, and of a searing loss of innocence. Next to me, a member of our delegation sings quietly along—she remembers the tune from childhood.
A memorial for children at the 
Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
Children's Memorial in Warsaw Jewish Cemetary

Loss of innocence is an elegant metaphor for the brutal desperation that drove parents to allow their young boys to risk their lives to bring home crumbs. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is unendingly heinous. At its height, over 400,000 Jews were imprisioned in 1.3 square miles. Starvation and violence killed some 100,000 in the first year, and the Nazis deported almost 300,000 to mass murder in Treblinka. Cruel selections separated mothers and fathers from their children; sadistic and senseless acts were the rule, with human kindness used as a lure for brutality.

But the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, unlike other forms of Holocaust remembrance, focuses not on atrocities but on courage.

It draws attention to acts of resistance and stubborn humanity, from the courage of small boys to the sharing of crumbs of food, the caring for orphaned children – embodied by the amazing Janusz Korczak, even the creation of culture that persisted in the Ghetto in the face of inhuman conditions. Above all, it focuses on the final armed resistance waged by a few thousand Jews against the impossibly larger, full force of the Nazis, and that ended one month later in total destruction and with only 13 Jews remaining.

Only three of the Jews who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto are still alive today. One of them, Symcha Rotem, received a Polish medal of heroism and standing ovations from the crowd of dignitaries at the commemoration, including the Polish president, survivors, and guests. He spoke movingly about how alone the fighters were and of the doubts he still harbors about the decision to fight, which cost the lives of the 50,000+ remaining Jews, though their fate was sealed even before.

"I cannot and do not want to understand," he says, the pure bestiality that he saw, and the people who participated in pogroms against Jews after the war.

And he calls the destruction "the silence that cannot be replaced by anything."

But there is something. Rotem concludes by speaking about his two sons and five grandchildren. There it is: hope.

It is there as the Israeli Philharmonic plays Hatikva and the Song of the Ghetto Fighters at the National Polish Opera, and then plays the same Beethoven Symphony No. 5 that the Nazis loved. It is hard to hear the beauty, to reclaim it, but it is also impossible to deny.

A major new Jewish Museum opens its doors on the site of the Ghetto. Its glass structure stands like a gaping chasm, but its exhibits will put the destruction in the context of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history and incredible achievement. As plans are forged for every Polish schoolchild to visit, hope again emerges.

And as one walks through Warsaw and sees the yellow flowers, symbolizing the Ghetto Uprising, on the clothes of so many people, hope is undeniable.

There has been a great deal of interest in Jewish heritage among Poles over the last decade, and our delegation is moved by the activism of the young people we meet who are taking on anti-Semitism and working actively for a more diverse Poland that includes Jews.

Most surprising, there has been an immense upsurge in Jewish activity in Poland. Many people are discovering that they have Jewish roots, and every day someone turns up at the doors of the Jewish community with a moving story and an interest in exploring what Jewish life means.

We meet JDC's dedicated staff and hear about crowded Shabbat dinners, some 1,000 people coming together for Limmud in Warsaw, and 10,000 people attending the night of seven synagogues in Krakow. And on a daily basis there are Jewish study groups, children's camps, discussions, even family cooking classes.

It's hard not to be overwhelmed by the remembrance of Warsaw past, but it’s impossible to close one's eyes to what is happening today.

We meet Agatha, a young woman who works for JDC. Everyone is tired and not in the mood, but she insists that we must sing on Shabbat and so we begin oseh shalom. And is it Agatha, or us, or the irrepressible Jewish spirit? Whatever the answer, soon no one can hold back and we sing loudly together. And it's hard not to call that hope.

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