love of israel

vendredi 24 avril 2015

Krakow for Holocaust Remembrance Day: my journey

In Krakow, Poland the sun was shining, the wind blew pleasantly and a large group of Charedim pushed passed me as I disembarked the plane, ready for what one organiser had already promised was going to be ‘a deeply personal journey that would change my life’.
Here we go; already a stranger talking to me about 'my journey' in connection to what I’ve heard cynics refer to as ‘Holocaust tourism’.
As one of 250 British delegates taking part in this year’s March of the Living – an annual educational programme, which brings students from all over the world to Poland in order to study the history of the Holocaust – I was not sure what to expect.
It’s a subject I’ve written about, a history that was taught to me, but a reality always too unimaginable to grasp.
We were split up and put on one of six buses accompanied by an educator and survivor. I met my group who were all on the same but inevitably different ‘journey'.
Mine started at baggage reclaim when survivor Zigi Shipper 85, shuffled up to me and said: "You are the reporter from the JC?
“You are more beautiful than any of the other ones I’ve met."
He winked and as he continued to tell the group this is his third trip to Poland this year.
Zigi was 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He told us how he spent days in a cattle truck so crowded there was only room to sit down once several passengers had died.
He said: “I didn’t feel human I was so desperate to hope that someone would die so I could just sit.
“I didn’t understand how I could think that.”
All that before lunch. We got on to our bus with two destinations ahead.
First stop was a restored synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska, once home to 2500 Jews and a building surrounded in controversy.
Many locals opposed the restoration of the building after the war and the Polish money that went into doing it. Our tour guide told us: “There were posters that went up saying ‘the Jews have a synagogue but we have no money. "A lot of people did not want it."
Under the decorative ceilings that looked more Italian church than synagogue to me, youth groups gathered together to sing, others walked around looking at artefacts in glass cases, quietly reflecting.
I noticed instantly nowhere were there descriptions (in English at least) of what happened to the shul or the Jews in the war, in fact there was no mention of Jews or Holocaust at all.
This quite remarkable building that said something, on the outside, wasn’t actually saying much at all. Even stranger the synagogue, or The Centre for the Meeting of Cultures as it is called, makes no reference to it being a synagogue at all.
And with it serving no local Jewish community because all were killed, its presence has an eerie irrelevance, a reminder of what was once. But sadly no longer is, because there are literally no Jews left in the town.
Its irrelevance was visible on the faces of locals who sat at the bus stop outside it too.
Their eyes scanned me up and down as if I might be another species and their gaze was far from welcoming.
We got back on the bus with a warning the next part wasn’t going to be so easy.
"You're like a naughty school boy at the back of the bus,” I say to Zigi as he commanded the attention of his audience punch line after punch line.
And as if we never joked, he answered: "I wouldn't know what that's like; I didn't get to go to school."
A sobering reminder of how my own childhood experience was totally lost on a man who grew up seeing many of his friends shot in front of him.
We drove to a forest with trees twice the height of the toy-like houses surrounding it and are told the ground we are walking on is where 800 children were taken on the same day and killed along with their parents and 2000 Polish who opposed the Nazis.
As we stood where fathers were forced to dig pits for the bodies of their own children, my stomach turned as my boots sunk into the muddier parts of the ground.
All that marked the children's graves were the odd candle and drawing of a Disney character.
‘My journey’ so far has had some unexpected laughs and some very expected sorrow.
It’s only day one.

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