Despite pressure from some members of the Jewish community to cancel March of the Living (MOL) trips to Poland in light of the country’s new legislation that would criminalize accusations that Poland was complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, the international organization announced that the annual trips will continue.
Earlier this month, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed Poland’s controversial new Holocaust bill. Although it still needs to be assessed by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, the law would make it illegal to accuse the country of complicity in the Holocaust and would ban the use of terms such as “Polish death camps,” when referencing camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, like Auschwitz.
Those found in violation of the law could face a fine or be jailed for up to three years.
Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, the president of International March of the Living, said that she remains “committed to teaching the importance of understanding the past as a means of protecting the future. Now, as much as ever, we believe our mission is of the utmost importance.”
“Like in years before, more than 12,000 participants, Jews and non-Jews alike, including thousands of non-Jewish Polish students, and students from other nations, will take part in the passing the torch of memory from survivors to the next generation,” wrote International March of the Living in a statement.
“We are hopeful that the governments of Israel and Poland will find a way to solve the current impasse, so that we can continue with our vital educational activities, teaching the history and lessons of the Shoah and thereby helping build a more tolerant and compassionate world for all members of the human family.”
Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada, said he has received calls from members of the Jewish community who have urged him to cancel the Polish leg of the tour, to protest the Holocaust bill. He has also heard from some survivors who travel with MOL, who are concerned about what they can and cannot say when presenting their testimony.
He said that one survivor wrote to him to say: “I’m really upset about the new law in Poland. Does that mean survivors speaking about their experience during the Shoah in Poland will have a problem? … I’m not sure what to do.”
Rubenstein said that he has been trying to reassure them that it is still safe to tell their stories.
“We’ve always had a concern about people telling the history correctly.… Regardless of the Polish legislation, we’ve always tried to give our students the proper educational grounding for their experience in Poland. Right now, there isn’t a concern, because if you read the law, it’s quite clear as to what is allowed and what is not allowed, but in general, there is a concern that someone might make a statement, for example, if someone uses the expression, ‘Polish death camps,’ they don’t necessarily mean these were death camps run by Poland,” Rubenstein said.
“My concern is that someone can mistakenly say it and find themselves in hot water.… It would not be a good scenario if someone makes a mistake and says something without realizing what it means and all of a sudden there are legal issues surrounding it.”
Isaac Osiel, who will be running a week-long trip to Poland for young professionals in May, said that more than 100 people have registered for the tour and no one has called on him to cancel the trip or change the itinerary.
“Nobody is pointing in any direction, other than, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Osiel said.
Rubenstein said that the best way to address the issue is through education and dialogue.
“Since 1989, since the first march, there has been tremendous progress between Poles and Jews and we need to keep that going and not move in the opposite direction,” he said. “We have to understand that there is so much we have in common and the fact that for the last 1,000 years, the country that most Jews decided to live in was Poland, indicates a great degree of fellowship among Poles and Jews, especially as compared to the rest of the world.”