Go Towards the Light

Umschlagplatz Memorial in Lublin (Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN)

Umschlagplatz Memorial in Lublin (Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN)

Some weeks I get a message from the Universe. This week’s is: Go towards the magic. Go towards the light.

A few weeks ago I was in Poland and I met an amazing man who is doing the work of bridge building all over the world, in Bosnia, with gang members in New York and in Poland. I hope you will come and spend more time with us on the Borderlands, he said. Yes, please!

The other day I spoke to a bright star of a woman in Britain who is helping people see themselves in the history of others. She too is a bridge builder and a visionary. Do you want to do a workshop with me on identity she asked? Boy would I!

In between magical moments I had to deal with a difficult person. A person who did not see me, my gifts, my potential or understand at all what I am here to do. My instinct when faced with someone like that used to be to show them who I am, to convince them. But now I realize that some people do not want to know, or perhaps they are not ready to know. It’s best to let them be and go towards the light.

Today I was watching video clips where my friends Witek and Tomek talk about how we are all working together to break down stereotypes, work that is essential to what the three of us have come to define as our life’s work.

Sometimes I get criticized for focusing on the positive. People have said to me, “Those Poles you talk about, remembering Jewish life, those are the exceptions.” So what? I was talking to someone the other day about how I don’t like the tabulation of the number of rescuers, those who saved Jews. Why is the number important? People are always flinging this number about, shouting about how big it is or how small it is. What if there was only one righteous person? If there was one I surely would focus greatly on that person.

I was recently in Białystok with my friend Krzysztof. We saw a monument dedicated to the Jews that were massacred in that spot. The monument listed the number of men, women and children murdered, and one baby. I first read it in Hebrew, “Ve tinok echad.” And one baby. The one baby made the hair on my arms stand up. Because it was a baby? Because it was one? Because I have had babies and could imagine the anguish of the mother (who probably did not survive)? 

In this work, in this world, in this minefield of pain and loss and remembrance and identity, where there is much that people are waiting to discover—each life has meaning. Each life that was lost has meaning. Each rescuer has meaning and each person doing memory work today has meaning and is worth highlighting.

For me, my beautiful friends in Poland are the magic and the light, and that is why I continue to go towards them and to bring others with me, across the bridge.

 

(Addendum: I understand that there are those who find the idea of focusing on the light in the place where their families were slaughtered offensive. I share that pain of that loss. I too lost much family in the Holocaust in Poland. Grieving is a personal process and the timing cannot be dictated from the outside. I am sharing what is true for me, and I honor your truth).

Remembering

Leora Tec, Bridge To Poland Founder and Director with Krzysztof Banach, Historian of the State Museum at Majdanek

Leora Tec, Bridge To Poland Founder and Director with Krzysztof Banach, Historian of the State Museum at Majdanek

My friend, the historian Krzysztof Banach, who is in charge of exhibitions at the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland, wrote a book about the exhibit he curated about the Lublin Ghettos. I am so grateful to him for creating this exhibit, for bringing together all these photographs, testimonies and facts about these terrible places where my ancestors were robbed of their dignity and treated worse than animals.

 

The photos in the book feel eerily familiar to me. I KNOW those streets. Streets that have not existed for 75 years. How can this be? I don’t know, but it is true. My mother is quoted twice in this book. She is one of a handful of eyewitnesses to the barbarity.

 

The book contains a surprise. A photo of Szeroka number 1 just before it was destroyed. Szeroka number 1— the building where my mother was born! I had never seen this particular photo before. What a gift.

 

In my work I am often confronted with stereotypes that people have of non-Jewish Poles. They make sweeping generalizations about how horrible the Poles were to the Jews or about how anti-Semitic they are today. Of course sweeping generalizations are never true. They were not true about the Jews and they are not true about the non-Jewish Poles.

 

I think the second or third time I was in Majdanek with Krzysztof he quietly showed me a piece of paper that was part of the exhibition. He did not describe it to the group. It was evidence that his great-grandfather had been a prisoner at Majdanek. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. And that he had been murdered there. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. I realized something in that moment. We share a common history. There is not such a separateness between us like some people might think, or like some want to keep believing. The history that Krzysztof and so many of my friends in Poland is working to preserve is our history. Our shared history. I can see right now someone getting up in arms saying that the Jews suffered a different fate than the non-Jews during World War II. Of course they did. But what I have come to see is that it is possible to know that and see the non-Jewish Polish experience in all its complexities. It is possible to hold the nuances on both sides and to know that suffering is not something to be compared.

 

I want to know all the stories.

 

My friends in Poland are open to the hard conversations and the difficult questions. Something I did not realize at first, when I first stepped onto Polish soil, soil that is now so familiar to me, is how much we, the Jews, are missed in Poland. My friend Tomek Pietrasiewicz—more a visionary than a man if there is such a thing—says that the greatest achievement of his life was creating a memorial to the path that the Jews walked to the Umschlagplatz in Lublin where 28,000 Lublin Jews were gathered before being deported to Bełżec where they were gassed. “I can only be sorry I did not start this work of remembrance earlier,” he told me last week. This from a man who has devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to preserving Jewish memory.

 

To Krzysztof, to Tomek, to all my friends in Poland who remember those children who lived and died, and miss those who did not get to be born, thank you.

Poland June-July 2017: June 3, 2017

I arrived in Poland yesterday and started vomiting on the way to my hotel from the airport. The driver, a young guy of about 30, couldn't have been sweeter and asked if I wanted an ambulance. Thought I do suffer from long distance travel (which is why I always arrive a few days before my groups) this was worse than ever. In fact I think it was food poisoning from the plane food. Not an auspicious beginning.

After coming out of my sleepy-sick stupor I tried to call a friend but my Polish phone did not work. Come to find out that this right wing government has required everyone to register their I.D. # or passport with their mobile phone account. [Addendum: A Polish friend informed me that this is a standard anti-terrorist measure done in many countries]. So, as soon as I felt faintly human I took a cab to the mobile phone store PLAY to sort it out.

Oh, I forgot this story: I had told them at the desk that my bathroom light need to be changed. Just as I was about to leave for PLAY a man entered my room (even though the Do Not Disturb sign was still on it) he apologized and I was like, "No, I'm just leaving" I really wanted to show him the light and also ask him to help me lift my suitcase off the floor. I ran down the hall after him but he disappeared. Downstairs at the desk I told the receptionist that the guy had come to change the bulb and had walked in. She said it's a woman who changes the bulb, not a man, and that it must have been a guest who walked into the room by mistake (the doors don't lock automatically). No wonder he ran away from me when I was inviting him in. I hope I don't see him at breakfast tomorrow!

Went to a little kiosk to buy water, cheese etc... The woman behind the desk was wearing a gold star of David with a diamond cross inside it. I told her about the work I do and asked her about it and she said she believes there is one God for everyone and that's why she wears it. She wants to read my mom's memoir "Dry Tears."

"Auschwitz After Auschwitz" An Interview with Dr. Tomasz Cebulski

Please join me on December 11, 2016 at 5:00 pm Eastern time for an online interview with Dr. Tomasz Cebulski who will be joining us live from Kraków, Poland. Dr. Cebulski is the author of the new book, "Auschwitz After Auschwitz" in which he explores the last thirty tears of  memory construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. We will delve into questions about how memory has changed since communism fell in Poland, who shapes the memory, how memory is different in the West, Poland and Israel and what the future holds. 

Dr. Cebulski, one of Poland's foremost guides of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, will be the guide for the Bridge To Poland June 2017 trip. This interview will be particularly interesting to people already signed up for the trip or those considering signing up.

Here is the link to sign up for the interview: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/4724be3d4f53e3537c24e00bf0acd2b8

I look forward to seeing you there!

Leora Tec

Bridge To Poland, Founder & Director

Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, June 19, 2016

This Sunday, June 19th I will be speaking at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia. The title of my talk is, "The Persistence of Memory: What Happens When All the Survivors Are Gone?" This is an expanded version of I talk I originally gave at Boston College in November, 2014 at a Symposium on Memory and the Shoah. I have expanded the talk to include more questions about how we can remember Holocaust victims and survivors, and the fears and hopes I have when look forward to 2116 as I consider Holocaust remembrance. I am excited to share these thoughts and hope for a lively give and take with the audience.