Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Warsaw: Reflections [1]

I am in Warsaw where, until yesterday, I was on my own and had time to explore some aspects of the contemporary Jewish community. I blogged about that in a previous post. On Sunday a.m. I went out to a facility of the Jewish community a sort of retreat center/hotel [not 4 star... not any star] to meet with a group of young people who will be serving as counselors in the Jewish community's summer camp. The program, run by the JDC, gives them two weeks of summer fun combined with Jewish education. A group of them also go to a JDC camp in Hungary.

What was striking about the teenagers was how normal it all was. One can easily forget where one is and the fact that, until 15 years ago, these kinds of activities would have been, if not risky, certainly frowned upon by the government.

Late on Sunday the real "work" began. The purpose of my trip is to accompany a group of alumni if the Wexner Foundation's programs. They include alumni of their Israel/Harvard Kennedy School program, Graduate Fellows program, and their Heritage program. Each program has a different target audience. One is for mid-career Israeli government and NGO officials, those who are clearly on a fast track. The Graduate program targets students entering rabbinical, cantorial, communal service, education, and PhD programs. It helps fund their graduate work and provides them with outstanding programs over the course of the 4 years of their fellowship. The Heritage program targets emerging [and some rather emerged] North American Jewish lay leaders.

The programs are all highly selective and are run at the highest level. This trip was open to alumni of each of the programs [there was only space for 40 people so not everyone who wanted to go was able to do so]. The trip itself is designed to be far more than an exploration of the history of Poland and Hungary. Its goal is to create and foster a conversation between Israelis and Americans and among all the participants about their Jewish identity. The history of this place provides a very pregnant backdrop for that conversation.

We spent yesterday visiting the main Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, walking what remains [virtually nothing] of the streets of the ghetto, meeting with Rabbi Michael Schudrich [the Chief Rabbi of Poland], and engaging in conversation amongst ourselves.

We had a provocative [in the best sense of the word] discussion at the Rappoport memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto about the nature of Yom HaShoah and its linkage in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s to the Ghetto uprising. In fact, in Israeli society in those decades the two were linked, as if to suggest that the majority of victims went like "sheep to the slaughter" while the ghetto fighters were the heroes. [This is a very complicated conversation but it was really stimulating to have it with a group of Israelis and Americans.]

Many parts of the day were fascinating but, since I am limited by time [we are off to Lublin shortly], I want to just focus on one aspect. Schudrich's talk. He talked about the unknown number of Polish Jews who: don't know they are Jews, know they are Jews but are reluctant to "come out of the closet," discovered they were Jews in adulthood, etc. etc.

For many people in the group it is hard to fathom why anyone would want to stay here after all that happened on this soil [of course it happened at the hands of the Germans who, in certain -- but certainly not all -- cases were "supported" in this by Poles]. Yet it is striking to hear the stories of how people make their way back -- slowly, hesitantly -- to this aspect of their identity.

There is more to tell but I have to go to breakfast, give a talk on the intersection of memory and identity, and then head off to Lublin all before 8:45.


Unknown said...

How about the famous political figures with like Adam Michnik and Bronisław Geremek ? Don't they provide a sense of recognition of "people-with-a-jewish-origin" within Polish society ?

BHCh said...

I visited the place ~5 years ago. Was a bit of a shock to find out what the Poles did with the sight of the former Ghetto.

I have elderly relatives in the town. They were in the USSR with my family during the war, which saved them. Went back to Poland afterwards. Their young ones were forced to leave Poland in '68...

It was an interesting visit.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

I am not sure what you mean that it was a "shock to find out what the Poles did with the site of the former Ghetto."

You mean that they built on it? Or that they put up the Rapoport Memorial?

I am not surprised they built on it. IT was rubble in the middle of a city that had been firebombed by the GERMANS.

Roman Werpachowski said...


Initially, the Communists had the idea to leave Warsaw as it is and move the capital to Lodz. Warsaw, however, was a cultural, political and intellectual centre of Poland (with all regards to Krakow). It would make totally no sense to let it rot as rubble, it would be a major loss to the nation. On the other hand, you surely understand what a maintenance nightmare would be to have a huge area of rubble right in the middle of the city. It would become a meeting place for criminals and a trash dump.

Sure, it could have been turned into an open space. But in 1945, Warsaw was overflooded with people seeking a place to live and it would be a costly endavour.