I had come as a pilgrim to the sacred ground where so many had been tortured and killed. I had come to say kaddish. I had come to put a name and a face and a personal story to those who lost their lives to the Nazi war machine that attempted a genocide of my people. And I refused to become one of the many tourists, attracted by what has become a tourist trade in death with banners offering discount and bundled tours to Auschwitz and Treblinka and Madanek. I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos. My mind is sufficiently flooded with images, some of which I will never be able to shake free of.
This was not my first trip to Poland, nor to Eastern Europe. But I knew after the first time I stepped foot in Poland—not something that I did without a great deal of deliberation—that I had to learn more. And each time I struggled to grasp the enormity of it all. While my first trip focused on the more common narrative of the Nazis and the so-called Final Solution, I sought a more nuanced story of what took place. I wanted to learn more about the history of Jewish Poland before World War II, as well as what took place following the war, what is going on now, and what the future holds for the Jews of Poland.
We brought almost 40 people with us, most of whom had personal connections to the Holocaust—in Poland and surrounding areas—including an 88-year-old-woman who survived the war in Poland. She reminded us each moment about the reality of what we were seeing and experiencing.
The Holocaust in Poland is not a linear, easily accessible story. It is layered and nuanced. Perhaps that is why we received numerous answers to similar questions asked of a variety of people about Jewish life in present-day Poland.
We know for certain that Jews were woven into the history of Poland before the war. We know that three million Polish Jews were murdered by Hitler. And we know that there are some thousands of Poles with Jewish backgrounds who remain in Poland, some of whom are struggling to reclaim their Jewish identity, even as their Polish peers are finally coming to grasp with the role of their parents and grandparents during the War.
Intermarriage rates are high—no surprise there. And engagement rates are low. But institutions like the JCC in Krakow are doing amazing things. While JOI has plenty to do in the US, it seems that countries like Poland—and those that surround it—could benefit immensely from the application of our outreach best practices.
Anyone interested in supporting a JOI branch in Eastern Europe?
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