Jews first arrived in Australia with the white settlers and have built up the community over the decades and centuries to make it one of the most vibrant and thriving communities in the world. Though our numbers are small, our impact is great and has been all the more strengthened by so many Holocaust survivors who came to our shores in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Today we saw what they left behind.
On a non-descript street a couple of blocks away from the only remaining synagogue in Warsaw, there is a square with park benches, some street art, a concrete clearing and some lovely trees. Though it was Sunday, there were people around walking their prams and their dogs, and if it were a weekday, the square would be filled with ordinary Poles drinking their lattes from one of the many trendy coffee shops in the area. But a century ago this very square was one of the most Jewish gathering spots in town, not unlike Carlisle Street in Melbourne or Hall Street in Sydney. In fact, for over a thousand years Poland was one of the most prominent countries in the world for Jews, and Warsaw was close to a third Jewish. Then in the blink of a Holocaust eye, 90% of the Jews of Poland were slaughtered and most of the rest fled.
Many of those who died dignified deaths before the war, or who stayed and died in the intervening decades, are buried at the cemetery at Okopowa Street, the largest Jewish cemetery in the world outside of Israel. In just a few blocks it tells the story of the history of a lost community. As such, this cemetery more than many others I have been to, lives up to one of the Hebrew names for a cemetery – Beit HaChaim (a place for the living). Though the lives have ended, the stories they tell bring the community back to life.
But nothing really brings a community back to life like a vivid museum, and Polin is one of the best museums in the world, having won numerous awards since it opened a decade ago. Built in the heart of the former Jewish ghetto on the site gifted to the museum by the state, the museum tells the full story of the Jews of Poland and how they thrived in this country for so long before the war. At one point there were over a thousand little shtetls spread across the entire breadth and length of the country, each with its own community of Jews. It wasn’t all roses, and the museum doesn’t shy away from challenges, but handles each era with grace and a well crafted story, replete with décor and a design to match the era. A two-hour visit was never going to be enough, but it was sufficient to whet the appetite and show that although there is very good reason why there are so few Jews left in Poland, there is also a long history that Poles and the decedents of the former residents can be duly proud of.
Poland for us and undoubtedly for all the March of the Living delegations that descended on this country this week, was a country of mixed and sometimes contradictory emotions and sites. On the one hand, Warsaw is a rocking city and one of the most modern I have seen, despite a few remnants of its Communist and pre-war past. Parts of the old city look like they wouldn’t be out of place in the vibrancy of Amsterdam, whilst the area around the palace could easily double for Paris, such is its unexpected beauty and charm. Yet in amongst all that there are constant reminders of the city’s recent past and what was lost. On the sides of some buildings, if one looks closely enough, there are plaques with descriptions about what was once housed in those buildings, and in other places there are memorials, recreations or even surviving remnants.
In other parts of the country, like in Majdanek for instance, the concentration camp shares an almost transparent fence with backyards of people’s homes. As we walked through, in at least two of the yards we could see kids playing, seemingly oblivious to what was on the other side of their fence. It perturbed most of us to no end, but for them it is entirely normal. Yet even where there are no fences or plaques, it is still difficult to forget that just hours from the major cities are the sites of so many concentration and death camps, including some of the most iconic ones.
In many ways it is possible to argue that the Holocaust happened in Poland or to Poland, but that only tells half the story. So much of it happened here because so many of the world’s Jews were based here. The goal of the Nazis was to wipe out all of the Jews no matter where they were, and Poland just happened to have the highest concentration of Jews at that time because for a thousand years it was their home. For centuries Jews felt safe and comfortable in Poland and could never have imagined that one day their communities would be decimated, in much the same way that we can’t imagine a similar thing happening to our communities in our day. But the truth is that it could happen.
We have genuine hope that the world has learned from the lessons of the past, but we also know that that is not quite true. In fact, that is the reason why March of the Living was created in the first place, and why it is still so relevant today. We truly have seen what we can’t learn just by reading history books, and now, as we are about to embark on the second part of our encounter in Israel, the juxtapositions of this trip will likely become even greater.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023