Yom Kippur Speech, 2013/5774
Given by Stuart Ginsberg to
Congregation of Bet Torah, Mount Kisco, NY
“Jewish tradition teaches us that the point of remembering the past is to inspire our behavior and actions today.”
That quote from Rabbi Brusso, sent to us all on 9-11, is a fitting summary of what I learned in Poland this summer. For while History Hangs Heavy in Poland, it is what we choose to do in response to that history that matters most.
Forum for a Dialogue Among Nations, The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and AJC sponsored my trip. The goal is to give American Jewish leaders a better understanding of Poland and its relationship with the Jewish community while also addressing WWII. Forum dedicates itself to educating mostly rural Polish high school students about the Jewish history in their towns. It is an example of the critical interest in contemporary Poland of studying and understanding the history of Jews there.
I anticipated two things before I left; Poland was anti-Semitic and my lack of personal history with the Holocaust would matter in how I experienced Poland. What little I knew about Poland centered on the Shoah, pogroms and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.
I am ½ Polish, but it was never discussed. Raise your hand if you also share Polish roots….statistically about 70% of Jews do and this is why Poland and its history is so important. My family was in the US nearly 4 decades before WWII. By contrast, I knew Harriet (Schleifer) who had gone on this exchange a few years ago grew up in a survivor family. She and I as past and current presidents of both Bet Torah and AJC work together and share a great deal. Surely, nonetheless, we would experience Poland differently.
My education started as soon as I got on the plane when the Polish woman next to me asked why I was going to Poland. I told her the Gov’t sponsored this Exchange to bring Jewish leaders to Poland: without hesitation she said “You know there is no anti-Semitism in Poland.” I did not expect that.
I would later learn that Poles are quite sensitive about their past, suffer from a sense of victimization themselves from both Nazi and Soviet domination and are struggling to fill the gaps in their own history with the loss of the Polish Jewish community. There is likely guilt as well.
There is strong contemporary Polish interest in its Jewish past. We met with professors studying Jewish history in Poland and studying anti-Semitism. There are numerous museums and monuments to the Jews murdered by the Nazi’s; the center piece is the spectacular new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. Hundreds of students are studying Judaism and Jewish history in Polish Universities. Of course, there is the famous Krakow Jewish cultural festival held yearly in the Jewish quarter which is filled with Jewish restaurants, Shuls a museum and a J.C.C.
It was all very exciting and unexpected at first. Particularly, since, except for the JCC, these efforts are by and for Non Jews. It then began to feel hollow. All of this is taking place in a country with a Jewish population of about 2,000. There are 120 Jews in Krakow where the “Jewish” restaurants are run by non Jews. The 30,000 people who attend and run the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival are virtually all not Jewish. The intent of those organizing and participating is sincere, but this was not real Jewish life.
This emptiness expanded as we explored Lublin, Tarnow, Rzeszow and Warsaw. In town after town we toured parking lots where the Jewish quarter had been; fields as well. Mikvahs turned into clubs and Synagogues where electronics are now sold. Mostly, however, it is all gone or in ruins. The people, the buildings, the cemeteries and the culture! It is hard to express the profound sense of loss and sadness. The vibrancy of Jewish life that had endured in Poland for 1,000 years had been reduced to memorials and plaques.
Of course, we went to the Camps. Auschwitz is unyielding in its scale and impossibly grim. One “exhibit” in the museum spoke to me more than any. I walked up a flight of stairs, claustrophobic behind a constant stream of visitors and turned left into a room about 60 feet by 30 feet. It was unglamorously industrial. On the entire 60 foot left wall, behind glass, was hair, piles of it, feet deep, sheared from the inmates. I could not even imagine how many it represented. As you left that room a much smaller exhibit showed how the hair was sent back to Germany, to be made into fabric!
We went to Belzec too. In 8 months in 1942, 500,000 Jews were exterminated. It has been a memorial for only 10 years (sponsored by AJC). As we left I noticed two familiar names on the commemorative plaque; Mindy and Howard Unger, Bet Torah congregants. I learned from Howie that his father’s family had been murdered there. This was an immediate and personal connection.
There was no profound moment for me in Poland. Instead I vacillated between an overwhelming sense of loss and hope for the openness of contemporary Poland. I thought I knew what to expect before I went. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in Poland; historically and today. They are the first to admit it. But there is sincerity as well. Poland is an ally of Israel, supports it in the UN and there is about $1B in trade between the two nations.
I went to Poland thinking it would matter my family were not survivors. Maybe it did, but I can tell you Harriet and Howie and anyone else without hesitation; I left feeling that YOUR HISTORY IS MY HISTORY! For that matter each of us in this room today shares a common Jewish history that binds despite our varied backgrounds.
If I can reach any conclusion it is this:
Whatever one’s relationship to historical events, we need to be focused on making history rather than living in it. This is the best way I have been able to reconcile the loss of 3 million Jews in Poland with the present day desire of the Poles to address that moment in their history and the strong present day ties they have with Israel. As American Jews we should endeavor to understand the history, but not let it limit our willingness to work towards a better world with those whom seem genuinely committed to doing so.
It is this approach to Global Jewish Advocacy that has attracted me to the work of AJC and why David Harris’ pledge: NOT ON MY WATCH is so compelling. We need to be in the room and at the table when decisions are being made that affect us all. AJC builds long term relationships with countries like Poland so that at those critical moments our voice can be heard.
History Hangs Heavy in Poland and it is that very history that demands our action this year and next.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life.
Shabbat Shalom, L’Shana Tova