Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Some Thoughts From Melbourne


It’s interesting to think that when the March of the Living first began to operate in Australia as a medium for teenagers to visit Poland there was a general uproar from the Jewish community. It’s strange to think that Survivors from all across the country rose up together in disgust and anger that their grandchildren would dare to step foot back in the country which they had fled fifty years previously. I say this is peculiar because of the overwhelming swell of local support which greeted me upon my return from my four month stint in Krakow.

Since I have returned from Krakow people have stopped me in the street to tell me how jealous they are of my trip and what a great idea they think it was. Survivors approach me with awe – ‘Dis is de gel choo vent to Krakow!’ (translated as ‘This is the girl who went to Krakow!’). I had no idea that my visit to Poland would be so beneficial for my self-confidence!
So what has changed in our community? Why has visiting Poland now become such an honourable venture? Why are Poland tours all the rage?

I believe that one of the answers to these questions lies in the problem we face in attempting to meaningfully commemorate the Holocaust, particularly as we come face to face with an ever shrinking population of Holocaust Survivors. We are terrified of having no meaningful avenue to remember those who perished. People are visiting Poland in an effort to pay homage and to remember. Visiting Poland has now become a ritual, a pilgrimage– and it often even becomes a religious experience.

That is all very well – visiting Poland may well be a useful and successful way to learn more about the Holocaust and to spend a cocooned few days remembering those who were killed and the culture which was lost, but perhaps there are also other ways we can pay our respects to those whom were murdered without physically being in Poland:

Let us not speak in clich├ęs about ‘Never again’ – because its happening all around us.

Let us not oppress any other peoples who live amongst us, whether in our Diaspora communities or in Israel.

Let us not forget the vibrant and inspiring Jewish communities who lived in Poland before the war and who still live and are reviving the traditions of the past.

And let us now move forward from anger and sadness to fight discrimination and persecution wherever it rears its ugly face.

I have now left Poland. I may have found some of the answers regarding my Polish identity (including an answer as to why I am such a hypochondriac – there are more pharmacies in Poland than Jews in Caulfield!) but I am now faced with a strange challenge I never pre-empted would bother me. Have I become Holocaust obsessed? Have I begun to base my Jewish identity on the Holocaust?

I staunchly believe that one must be Jewish for positive reasons: because one loves keeping the mitzvot, because one meaningfully connects with the traditions and culture of the Jewish people, because one enjoys being a member of the Jewish community. Not because someone once tried to kill the Jewish people. Feeling Jewish should not be a reaction, but rather a positive choice.

My time in Poland has led me to a new decision. I believe that sometimes, the best way to appropriately remember the Holocaust is to temporarily let it go – to not let it completely engulf my identity and being as a Jew. Not to forget its occurrence, but to forget it as a factor in my connectedness to the Jewish people. I want to celebrate the fact that I am Jewish and I want to feel Jewish not because I feel some sense of guilt because so many of my ancestors were killed for that reason. I think this is an important lesson which could be taken up by Jewish individuals and institutions alike.

So here I am. New challenges now face me. I have taken onboard the responsibility to carry on the lessons of the Holocaust into the next generations, but I have also resolved to not allow the Holocaust to overwhelm my sense of Jewish pride. It is indeed strangely complex to be a Jew today. Wish me luck...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Please, don’t be mad.


Amongst some of Jewish tourists who come 'back' to Poland lurk a terrible bunch - 'the angry ones'. There are many 'angry ones' coming ‘back’ to Poland. I don’t have a number, but I know – I meet them.

I hear them in their noisy groups when they flood the small peaceful streets of Kazimierz talking as if they forgot to pack any sense of volume control and singing like drunk football fans returning from a soccer match.

I see them obnoxiously draped in Israeli flags which appear as essential to their outfit as their underwear.

Each group who comes 'back' come for their own reasons. Last Friday I met a group who, in my opinion, did not come for the right ones.

This group came in order to vent their anger. They came to be angry. One of them suggested that the Jewish community here has unfairly been making money off the tourists which visit. She further complained (to me and several non-Jewish members of the museum’s staff) of her disappointment and disgust that none of their guides had been Jewish. She then continued, when a young member of the Polish Jewish community had joined the discussion, that she knew how the Jewish community here should be organised and was dumbfounded to hear that the regular Jewish organisations which existed in her community had not been installed here:

‘But why don’t the young Jews of Poland join the lone-soldiers’ program in Israel?!’ She asked in shock ‘Their parents will be provided with a free ticket to visit their children at the end of the course!’ She added, as if this incentive alone should be enough to convince these young Poles that their only option in life is to join the Israeli army.

It is most definitely important for those Jews who feel the interest to visit Poland to do so. I urge them to come and see the traces of the vibrant pre-war Jewish life in Poland which can still be found. I wholly support that they visit as a means to pay respect to those who were murdered in the shoah. But I beg that each traveller asks himself first – why am I coming?

Please don’t come as a way of releasing your anger on the Polish population. Yes, the vast majority of Jews who were killed in the shoah were done so on Polish soil. But it was the Nazi’s who perpetrated this act, and even if some Poles supported their actions, it was not the Poles who committed the Holocaust.

Please don’t come to draw inappropriate levels of attention toward yourself as a way of proving to the Poles that the Jewish nation is still alive. It is unfair on today’s Poles, the vast majority of which are completely innocent. It is also an inappropriate expression of nationalism in a foreign country.

Please don’t come to patronise the Jewish community which still exists here. They are strong and have the right to make their own decisions.

Rather, come to learn about the past and perhaps about your family’s heritage. Come to learn from Poland’s diverse Jewish community, a community who really understands what it means to look after one another. Come to meet with non-Jewish Poles who really do care about restoring the memory of the Jewish community which was wiped off their map. Come to understand the true complexities of Polish-Jewish relations.

But please do not come to be angry – we must now move past that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not Today


I don’t feel very Polish today. I may say with pride that all four of my grandparents are Polish but the fact is that I still can’t string a sentence of Polish together (excepting Ja chce chleb prosze pan? – May I have some bread please, sir? – a most useless sentence my Dad taught me years ago) and my inability to at least drink like a Pole was long ago declared.

I am tired of answering questions about kangaroos and I cannot believe that whilst I have been living in a Polish speaking society my English has improved ten-fold due to my frequent role as scribe for any English text which is produced at my place of work. I am embarrassed by my inability to answer some of the many halachic questions thrown my way on a daily basis and I am thoroughly passed bemused that I am the person to whom all museum staff members turn when in need of a proof-reader for Hebrew texts.

I am seen as an Australian, a Jew, an English and Hebrew speaker. I am the intern, the foreigner, the volunteer, the temporary guide. I am a vegetarian (almost a sin here!) and a Zionist. In Melbourne, I drive a car and I live with my parents. I am many things - none of which make me feel very Polish today.

I came here seeking a sense of belonging to the Polish nation, a passion to understand what it means to be a Pole, but today I just feel like an outsider. Perhaps it is because I feel that my time here is rolling to an end? Perhaps I am now recognising that I did not, and will not be able to achieve some of the aims which I came here with? Perhaps it is because I have just returned from a short trip to Israel where I finally felt comfortable with a second language and culture that I had struggled with for so long? To be catapulted back into a society where I still cannot order my lunch like a civilised adult – politely and assuredly – makes me cringe with humiliation.

But is it just the language? As i have mentioned, I am not known to be a particularly chutzpadik girl, but my regular level of assertiveness here qualifies as the height of rudeness compared to the politeness demanded in Polish culture. And I previously had no inkling as to my (Australian) universally optimistic attitude until I noticed that only I respond to the question ‘Jak sie masz?’ (How are you?) with ‘Swietne’ (Great) where as a standard (and indeed, maybe more honest) Polish response is far more likely to be the more pessimistic ‘Tak sobie’ (Not bad).

As I said, I am not feeling very Polish today, maybe I will tomorrow?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Books and Company

I could sense that something was coming. I had already ditched my goose down jacket for my ‘spring coat.’ I had begun to notice a marked increase in the number of tourist buses parked outside the museum. I had also spotted a rise in the kosher-labelled trash littering the cobble-stoned streets of Kazimierz. The ‘March’ was coming.

This meant very little to the Jewish community of Krakow and even less to the citizens of Krakow, but it meant two things to me: books and company.

I will begin with the company.

I have this inexplicable fascination for Jewish tourists coming to Poland. I often find myself stalling around Szeroka Street (the Jewish square) on my way back to the museum after lunch, spying on the groups of tourists admiring the Old Shul. I want to know why they have come. I have to know what they are thinking. I physically hold myself back from pouncing on them with lists of questions. I linger around them until their security guards begin shifting nervously towards the suspicious ‘Polish girl’ hanging too close to their clients.

Understandably then, I was most excited for the increase in Jewish tourism which the March would bring. But the most important group, of course, would be the Australian March of the Living. This group would not only bring my sister, cousin and several friends and familiar faces, but an opportunity to affect the way the participants understood and viewed Polish-Jewish history and relations. It was important to me that they appreciated not just the horrors of Poland but also its beauty. It was important for me that they could see that it was possible for a Jewish Australian girl to stay in Poland for longer than one week. To my delight, someone from the group even commented on how good my English was after I had guided them around the museum.

The first time I came to Poland I promised I would never return. This promise was the icing on my misconceived understanding of Poland and its relationship with Jews. I now understand that Poland is a beautiful country – a country in which Jews loved to live for hundreds of years before the Shoah.

With the help of some friends here, I had arranged for the Australians to be given a tour of Krakow with Polish students. They were taken to Wawel, and toured around the Rynek Glowny (old market square) on Poland’s most bustling day of the year – Constitution Day. I heard many of them comment on how beautiful the city was and some even said that they wanted to come again!

Now to the books. Wow – The books!

One day, roughly two months ago, I sent out a short email explaining who I was, the fact that there was a small Jewish library in this city run by Jewish students and that they needed books. I sent it to roughly 15 people in Melbourne with the hope that I would collect enough books for every Australian March of the Living participant to bring one book each in their luggage to Poland.

Soon after, an article about the project was published in the Australian Jewish News, and my father was zooming around Melbourne collecting boxes of books. These books are now sitting at my home in Melbourne awaiting sponsors for their shipping (if you can help please let me know!)
It didn’t stop there. A few days before the March I received an email. Before I could get to the text of the email, I scrolled through the longest ‘To’ and ‘CC’ list I had ever encountered. I could see by the addresses that those on the list were from all around the world – most of them directors and organisers of various March of the Living groups. I scrolled and scrolled until I reached the text. The text seemed rather familiar – I quickly recognised it as the original email I sent asking for the Australians to bring books! It had now been sent out across the world!

As soon as I had closed the email I had already received several new emails from people wanting to bring books with them whilst they were in Poland for the March.

Over 200 books made their way to Poland last week! I am still receiving emails from people who want to send more.

It was truly an overwhelming and inspiring week.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I am in danger of completely crossing the line. Of becoming obsessed. Of losing the plot. And I had no idea until I stepped out of my Poland reality and into, of all places, Germany. Last weekend I went to Berlin. I met up with two of my old roommates from the Hebrew University dorms – Flo, from Germany and Maayan from Israel.

I always thought that going to Germany would be very difficult - more difficult than being in Poland. It seems my standards of difficulty have been inverted. Something is only difficult if you want it to be. I have been living in Poland now for two months. Every day I wake up in my beautiful Ikean apartment in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. I walk through the once completely Jewish streets and stroll into the Jewish museum where I am surrounded by pictures of the remaining vestiges of Jewish heritage in Galicia. Each day I meet tourists on their heritage trail. Almost all day, every day I am thinking, reading or teaching about the Holocaust. I had no idea how much it had taken over my every thought - until I got to Berlin.

Maayan warned me to take a break. I knew she was right. I consciously intended not to make my entire trip to Germany Jewish related. I insisted that we look at the non-Jewish related sites first. As soon as that was over, I felt my legs pull me toward any Jewish site available - there was always one more 'Jewish' place I wanted to visit: the new Holocaust memorial; the Berlin Jewish Museum; the Central Shul.

On the second day I heard that there was going to be a rally to fight the German train company's decision not to allow an exhibition about a transport of French children during the Holocaust to station itself in the central station of Berlin. Of course I felt I had to be there.

We structured our whole day around it - we stayed out walking for far too many hours around Berlin. Eventually Flo and I arrived at Brandenburg Tor. This wasn’t just a straggly collection of upset people - this was a super well prepared demonstration. There was a large stage erected directly in front of the Brandenburg Tor. There were musicians giving recitals. There were several high ranking politicians reading speeches against the company's decision. I am bad with estimating numbers but the crowd was swelling onto the nearby road!

I sat and listened. I watched. I tried to understand. Instead of feeling excitement over the fuss being made for this train, I felt rather confused. Why such a fuss? It’s just an exhibition. The train would arrive nonetheless – the demonstration was to fight the planned location of this train. I asked Flo if these sorts of demonstrations happen often. Apparently the week before it was a different company which was targeted for its profit due to Nazi affiliation during the war.

How vigilant could the Germans now be? Now it’s the trains, next it would be the cars, then the computers. And it seems to be that they make a noise for all of it. Surely there is a limit. A time when one must stop thinking about the Shoah and demonstrating for post Shoah justice? If everything deserves a demonstration then nothing remains sacred. One can shout and scream forever – but I don’t want to be overcome by grief and depression forever.

It was surely enough for me. Before we had a chance to follow the hundreds of people from the Brandenburg Tor to the head offices of the train company carrying a candle and a name of one of the 11,000 children deported from France, Flo and I left. How much more could we do?

I had no idea I would react this way in Germany. I thought I would feel the opposite – that nothing would be too much. Perhaps I have become desensitized by being so involved in this world of the Shoah in Poland? Perhaps I am already taking Maayan's advice and taking a step back?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Breakfast at Oswiencim

(Me in front of the building now on the site of Bubba Mala's former house)

A night in Oswiencim. I don’t know anyone who has stayed a night in Oswiencim – except my Bubba, my name sake, who regrettably, I never had the chance to meet. This was the main reason why I agreed to the ridiculous plan for me to go to Auschwitz on Thursday, spend the night in Oswiencim alone and then have a tour of Jewish Oswiencim the next day. Instead of organising not to stay the night, I put myself up to the challenge. I wanted to stay a night for my Bubba Mala.

After my shameful 1½ hour stay at Auschwitz, I took a taxi to the centre of Oswiencim. The taxi pulled up outside a looming church. This is it – the taxi driver proclaimed. This is it?

Pacing up and down the street, I hopefully looked for a more appropriate entrance to what was supposed to me my night’s accommodation. Finally, I heaved open the three meter high arched doors which appeared to be the entrance to the building. A gang of sweaty school boys jogged passed me as I moved forward towards what looked like the janitors office. I had entered some sort of school. A conversation of ‘Nie Rozumiems’ (I don’t understand) ensued between myself and the janitor until I understood that I was indeed, in the right place. This church-cum-school was indeed my accommodation. This is where I was to spend my night in Oswiencim.

Despite a small Christian cross which quietly hung on the opposite wall to my dormitory style bed, the room itself was fine. It was my breakfast reception which proved most dramatic.

After being ushered through a series of dark, musty corridors, I was taken through an industrial kitchen into a gigantic dining hall already empty of all its patrons. I had missed breakfast, but was treated as the foreign guest of honour in this overly ornate room. Two trays spilling over with bread, yogurt, pickles (what is a Polish meal without polski ogorki?), three types of cheeses, coffee, two types of tea, a lemon (for the tea, of course!) and three neatly rolled slices of ham were proudly presented to me. My company – several larger than life sized paintings of Jesus and Mary.

I wondered what Bubba Mala was thinking...

One Hour and Forty Minutes from the Sun


For all my bravado, I am, after all, just a twenty-three year old Jewish girl. I don’t know actually that age, gender or religion have anything to do with it – but after 1½ hours of walking around Auschwitz by myself, I left. I couldn’t bring myself to enter the barrack of hair and shoes, my legs wouldn’t walk me into barrack 11 with its notorious ‘wall’ and I certainly did not pass through the gas chamber. After 1½ hours I decided I could not go on – not alone.

Many people I know could not conceive of living in Poland for four months. Many people I know will not visit here at all. I, however, feel mostly very comfortable here. There have been very few moments when my obvious sensitivities to the Holocaust have precluded me from doing something here. One was a refusal to live in Podgorze – the district of the former ghetto (which was a very viable option when I was looking for an apartment), another was passing up the offer to attend the annual Easter market where one can purchase a ‘lucky-Jew’ figurine which is traditionally bought on Easter to ensure good fortune for the following year.

But generally speaking I live a typical life of a twenty-something girl. I am here not only to commemorate those who died in the Shoah, but to really learn more about what it means to be a Polish Jew – what it means to be Polish. That means that my stay here isn’t exclusively filled with visits to death camps and former Jewish cemeteries.

Last week, however, the museum had planned a visit to Auschwitz for me as part of my internship program. Additionally, they arrange for a guide to meet me at the Auschwitz Jewish Centre for a tour of the museum and of Jewish Oswiencim. I was thrilled – my father’s mother was born in Oswiencim!

The truth is that I was so excited for my tour of Oswiencim that I forgot to prepare myself for Auschwitz. I packed a bag and got on a bus – there I was. Auschwitz, by myself.

How does one prepare for Auschwitz? Each time I had previously been there (three times before) I was participating in some sort of program or journey which was focused on the shoah. Perhaps my mind was already assembled to enter such a painful location. Perhaps I had already constructed some defence inside of me to shield me from feeling too great a sadness upon walking under the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates.

This time I had spent a lovely morning walking around the Sukiennice in the first few hours of Krakow spring sun before I climbed aboard the bus to Auschwitz. I travelled from light to dark (and it only took one hour and forty minutes!).

Whatever the reason for my disrespectfully short stay at Auschwitz I think it showed me something which I couldn’t have understood on my three previous week-long tours of Poland. Jews lived in Poland for thousands of years before the Holocaust. They too enjoyed the sun at the Sukiennice before they were violently transported to Auschwitz. My previous Poland trips had not given me the opportunity to fully appreciate this contrast.