April 19, 2019. It’s Good Friday. And the first night of Pesach/Passover. And the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. And Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland. Usually on this day in Lublin there’s a walk to remember one little boy, Henio Żytomirski, who was born in 1933, two years after my mother, here in Lublin. He was probably murdered in Majdanek. This year there is no walk on April 19 because there’s a teacher’s strike. And it’s Good Friday. I feel sad that we won’t be walking for Henio today.
I am feeling sad about Holocaust remembrance in general today for a couple of reasons. 1). Because I have heard stories about Israeli groups disrespecting memorial sites. I was depressed for a few days after hearing these stories. But then a Polish friend pointed out that this behavior probably stems from frustration at not being given any freedom about how to react to the Holocaust. One of my Israeli cousins recently told me told me that from the time they are little, kids in Israel are told, “Be sad!” on Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). There’s no option for any other reaction—anger, numbness maybe. I have seen numerous guides from Israel using the Holocaust as a lesson for why Israel needs to be strong. The greatest tragedy in our history, full of rich human stories and fragments of human lives becomes a means to an end. The stories of the people who perished—of mothers who lost children, of babies given away, of people risking their own children to save strangers—are not treated as sacred or valuable unto themselves, as precious stories that we must strive to preserve, but rather as tools to forward a narrative. And often no discussion is invited. So no wonder resentment builds. I know I am speaking in generalities here and there are no doubt many kids who have great respect for the history when they come here. I have witnessed some of them. A friend of mine recently told me her son had such an experience, but the fact remains that I see many students walk through here bleary eyed and uninterested. And no wonder. They are herded around and pushed to the point of exhaustion. Who could stay interested when forced to confront site after site of horror and tragedy without enough time to properly process and without space for curiosity or questions. Luckily some groups that come here do allow the time. They sit with the staff of Brama Grodzka and do a workshop or watch a performance and they get to talk. We need more of that in the future.
2). The second reason that I have been sad is because of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with someone who, though she appreciates the non-Jew who saved her family and some others she has met in Poland rescuing Jewish memory, seems to be on a mission to prove to me that the Poles are all (or 99% of them anyway) anti-Semites. She send me articles about Polish acts of anti-Semitism and “accuses” me of being a “Polophile.” What I see so clearly is that her vision of Poles is exactly the same as the narrow one that many Poles had of Jews before and during World War II. It was wrong then when it was about the Jews and it’s wrong now when it’s about the Poles. But she doesn’t see that she’s the personification of all that she despises. And Poland in 2019 is not Poland of 80 years ago. Of course there is anti-Semitism but there’s anti-Semitism in the States as well—that doesn’t mean that most Americans are anti-Semites.
What keeps me hopeful is positive feedback we receive from visitors to Brama and participants on Bridge To Poland trips who “get it.” They see that the landscape is complex and that despite the obstacles, there are many good people working to build bridges. I have to remind myself to focus on that.
The photo I took today in Lublin. It’s my favorite poem. It puts to rest the myth that non-Jews and Jews did not go to school together. It puts the rest the myth that no non-Jew cared about a Jew:
“Classmates” by Julia Hartwig
The Latin teacher’s voice seemed a bit sharper
When she addressed them (never by first name).
Miriam was always perfectly prepared, Reginka weaker but correct.
They kept together and together left the classroom before Religion.
The last time we met unexpectedly at the end of Lubartowska* Street, on the border of a freshly created ghetto.
They stood there timidly as if something shameful happened to them.
(translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter)
I wish you all a blessed and peaceful holiday season.
*My grandfather had factories on Lubartowska Street and my mother’s family hid there during the war and lived there after the war for a time, before they left Poland. The ghetto boundary ran down the middle of Lubartowska Street.