Life is often about contrasts and transitions, and nowhere has this been more evident than on March of the Living. After leaving Krakow, we spent two days visiting some of the most tragic sites that many of us are ever likely to encounter. From the ruins of Majdanek, to the sombre emptiness of Treblinka, and to the utter devastation of a site in the Iopuchowo forest that saw 2,400 Jews killed in just two days. Each place was very different, but showed the brutality that humanity is capable of in very specific circumstances, and the way those atrocities are remembered.
But this trip has not only been about visiting the sites where terror occurred. In Lublin, just minutes away from the concentration camp of Majdanek, we walked through the former Jewish ghetto and then visited what is left of the Hevra Nosim synagogue – the only one remaining in town. Rather than function as a working shule, the room consists of the artefacts that once graced the synagogue, along with many other Jewish items, all of which were lovingly collected, looked after and strategically placed by Pavel, one of the last remaining Jews in town. In contrast to what we saw on the outskirts of his city, it was so special for us to meet such a remarkable and passionate man, who has essentially dedicated his life to the physical restoration of his city, even though he is well aware that there is unlikely to be a thriving community in Lublin ever again.
The greatest contrast however, for so many of us, was Shabbat. Though the sabbath is inherently about turning off, resting and doing things a bit differently, this Shabbat in Warsaw was about all those things and more. For those of us who went to the synagogue on Shabbat morning – the one remaining synagogue of the nearly 400 that used to be in Warsaw – we saw a shule that was heaving and joyous with March of the Living delegations from all over the world making up the vast majority of the congregation. Without us there might only be 50 or so congregants on a regular week, but when the March is in town, which it hasn’t been since 2019, the synagogue and the Jewish community of Warsaw grows tenfold. The locals embrace it, the rabbi plays up to it and the result was a Shabbat filled with liveliness and the revitalisation of Jewish life in all its forms, even if only for one Shabbat, though even with a small number of regulars, the shule is always active and full of life.
Contrast though is not only about going from dark to light. It is also about dealing with emotions and thinking about the future. On Shabbat afternoon, as an Australian group, we had three remarkable presentations, each with a different focus. The first was by a couple who run the only Judaica store in all of Poland. Pre-war, with such a large Jewish community, Poland had tens if not hundreds of local artists and Jewish craft makers. Today there is just one – MiPolin (Hebrew for ‘From Poland’) – and they not only make jewellery, Seder plates and candle holders. Their main products are recreated Mezuzahs. Several years ago they began going on trips all over the country, finding the traces of Mezuzahs in doorposts, and casting those traces in bronze. It was a passion project that was supposed to be for an exhibition, but has become a labour of love that has now produced casts from 160 different towns all over the country. And the remarkable part is not even the mezuzah itself – each of which is beautiful – but the research and the story they do about each home, each family and each town. While they know as much as anyone that most of these towns will never have thriving communities again, these stories bring life back to the towns and the mezuzah provide a tangibility to those stories.
The second presentation was by a nearly 92-year-old former Polish serviceman who is also considered one of the 27,000+ righteous among the nations recognised by Yad Vashem, and one of only 108 who are still alive, with over half in Poland. As a 12-year-old he had a best friend on his street who was Jewish. When the war began he and his family brought the boy into their family under the direction of his mother, and raised him as one of their own till the end of the war. All survived, and when the Jewish boy, now a man, died in 1989, he left 33 descendants, all because of the efforts of one non-Jewish family. When he was going to be honoured by Yad Vashem, they said only living people are to be honoured, but his righteousness continued to shine through and he refused to accept the honour unless his mother was to be honoured too. Now they both have a place at Yad Vashem, and the Jewish family, now in Israel, always hold an empty seat at their family table for these two remarkable people.
The final presentation was by a representative from Forum for Dialogue, an organisation that essentially teaches the non-Jewish residents of Polish towns about the Jewish histories of their own towns, most of which were lost not just because of the war, but because of 40 years of Communism that came immediately after it.
Taken together, these three presentations put into sharp perspective what we have seen and learned this week. That the war ruined and decimated this country and drove most of the Jews away, but this country had a thousand years of active Jewish life beforehand, and now there are people and organisations determined to show to all of us what was here before. Hearing this, sbeeing this and living it this week gives us all hope.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023