In his recent column in The Canadian Jewish News (There’s More to Polish Jewry than the Holocaust,) Rabbi Dow Marmur suggests that the March of the Living fosters “disdain for Poles and Poland…ignores most of Polish-Jewish history”, and promotes the “indiscriminate loathing of another people.” Rabbi Marmur also suggests that girls and boys wrapped in Israeli flags wandering about the death camps was an “exercise in chauvinism.”
We, Toronto March of the Living survivors and educators, wish to assure Rabbi Marmur that nothing could be further from the truth.
Holocaust survivors on the trip are strongly encouraged to share with the students as much as possible the details of our time before the war – in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, France, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia etc. – about our warm family life, and about the wonderful and beautiful traditions we practised in prewar Europe. These same students, have pledged to remember the names and the stories of our much loved family members lost in the Shoah long after we are gone – a thought that gives us much comfort.
With regard to Poland, March of the Living Canada was among the first – if not the first – large organized groups to visit Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews when it first opened in 2013. Today, every Canadian March of the Living group includes the award-winning museum in its itinerary, so that our students familiarize themselves with the thousand years of rich Jewish history in this country. Further, March of the Living Canada sponsors a number of important educational initiatives together with the Polin Museum. (In Toronto, March of the Living has held many joint programs with the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, founded with the help of Rabbi Marmur, and the Polish Consulate, most recently an event marking the opening of the new museum in Markowa honouring the Polish Righteous gentiles Józef and Wiktoria Ulma who risked and gave their lives hiding Jews during World War II.)
Moreover, each year Toronto March of the Living students meet with Polish non-Jewish students, engaging in dialogue and attempting to build bridges between both groups.
Further, every year in Poland, we honour Polish Righteous Among the Nations, and ensure that our students meet one of these exceptional heroes. In fact, last year we honoured the grandchildren of the Polish Righteous Gentile who saved Toronto survivor Anita Ekstein and Montreal survivor Sidney Zoltak. There was not a dry eye in the house, when our students viewed the deep love between our fellow survivors and the grandchildren of their Polish rescuers – they were like family to each other. Besides for expressing our eternal gratitude, the purpose of meeting with the Righteous, is to remind the students of those who, in the darkest of times, stood up against injustice, regardless of the risk, and to inspire the students to view them as role models in their own lives.
March of the Living Canada also teaches its students about contemporary realities of modern day Poland – about the rebirth of Poland’s Jewish community, and that Poland is among Israel’s foremost allies in all of Europe.
Finally, regarding Rabbi Marmur’s objection to Israeli flags, calling them an “expression of chauvinism” – this is not the way we see it.
On the March, we often see Canadian flags, American flags, Australian flags, Polish flags (Polish non-Jewish students are one of the largest delegations) – and of course Israeli flags.
As survivors, an Israeli flag in Auschwitz has nothing to do with chauvinism or extreme nationalism. Seeing the flag of the State of Israel means one thing to us: Hitler did not win. Over 70 years ago, carrying a flag, bearing the most identifiable Jewish symbol, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, would have meant an immediate death sentence. But today, Poland is free and democratic, we have the State of Israel, and the Jewish People live in relative peace and harmony in most parts of the world. Being Jewish in Auschwitz, and proudly expressing one’s faith, is no longer a death sentence. This is what we feel when we see the Israeli flag.
The history of Polish Jewish relations is a very complicated one. Some of the greatest achievements in Jewish life and culture took place on Polish soil, in large part due to Poland’s welcoming atmosphere, relative to other countries. But the history of Jews in Poland is also one of, at times, bitter anti-Semitism and persecution. And of course, during World War II, our greatest tragedy took place on occupied Polish soil; the Holocaust, implemented by Nazi Germany. Even today, there is still anti-Semitism in Poland – as there is in almost every corner of the world. But Poland is by no measure the worst offender and, as many Polish Jews will tell you, they feel safer walking around with a kippah in Warsaw, than in many other places in Europe.
The March of the Living attempts to convey to the students this complex history and reality – both the positive and negative aspects – of the Jewish experience in Poland.
But as Eli Rubenstein, Canadian director of the March of the Living, often says, “We can debate the history of Jewish life in Poland over the centuries – and there are many divergent views on this subject. But there is no excuse now for not reaching out to today’s Poland, building bridges and fostering positive relations. We may not be able to forge a consensus about the past, but it is in our hands – indeed our obligation – to create a harmonious present and future for Jews and Poles.”
The March of the Living first began in 1988 – when Poland was still a Communist country. Jewish life was suppressed and Poland had no diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. In fact, Auschwitz-Birkenau itself made very little reference to Jewish suffering, preferring to view Auschwitz as an example of Fascist oppression of the masses, even though over 90 per cent of Auschwitz’s victims were murdered for only one reason – they were Jewish.
In those early years, right after the fall of Communism, there was still much mutual suspicion on both sides.
But over the ensuing years, dramatic changes took place with regard to the relations between Poland and Israel, and between Poles and Jews living in Poland and around the world.
Auschwitz-Birkenau now fully recognizes the Jewish suffering that took place in the camp, as all the signs in Hebrew, English and Polish attest. The opening of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the establishment of NGO’s such as the Krakow JCC, The Taube Centre for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, the Auschwitz Jewish Centre, and a host of other Polish Jewish initiatives, all reflect the remarkable changes that have occurred in the Polish-Jewish landscape.
The changes in the understanding and reality of Polish Jewish history and current relations are also reflected in the March of the Living’s educational approach to Poland, led, we are proud to say, by March of the Living Canada.
Some of Rabbi Marmur’s criticisms may apply to other groups visiting Poland, or to some March of the Living groups visiting Poland during those early years.
But times have changed.
We invite Rabbi Marmur to join the Canadian March of the Living next year to see this for himself, and to experience the remarkable renaissance in Polish Jewish relations that have become such an important part of the March of the Living.
Toronto March of the Living Holocaust survivors/educators: Anita Ekstein, Martin Baranek, Hedy Bohm, Howard Chandler, Berthe Cygelfarb, Max Eisen, Esther Fairbloom, Reny Friedman, Bill Glied, Pinchas Gutter, Manya Hudy, Denise Hans, Elly Gotz, Howard Kleinberg, Nancy Kleinberg, Nate Leipciger, Faigie Libman, Joe Mandel, Georgine Nash, Sol Nayman, Susan Pasternak, Tova Rogenstein, Ernest Singer, Vivian Stockhamer, Sally Wasserman, Miriam Zakrojczyk.