After all, what was this long Polish weekend about? A story unfolding before our eyes. We are witnesses to the past and the future.
First, the context: September 1 1939 Germany attacks and invades Poland. A Jewish district is quickly established and in October 1940 it is enclosed by a wall.
Thousands die in the streets. Disease and hunger created by the German and Austrian beasts. 400,000, more or less, and usually less.
July 22 1942 begins the Great Akcja, transports to the gas chambers and the burning of Jewish bodies by those Germans and Austrians and their helper volunteers, mainly from Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania.
September 1942, the deportations pause.
January 18 they resume but Jews resist.
Pesach 5703, April 19, 1943, Jews fight back as the German speaking Monsters invade the Ghetto to finish it off.
Beyond the obvious commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of what’s called the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (and might better be called the final extermination) and the “soft” opening of Poland’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, what was it that one takes away from these days? Perhaps start with a few observations before hazarding conclusions.
First, it’s clear the twin events were adopted by the entire Warsaw public, and perhaps beyond, though the immediate impact seems to have been on Warsaw and, to a large extent, beyond that, on the world wide Jewish Diaspora.
What evidence do we have of this? The wide press coverage in Warsaw especially, throughout Poland generally, and as reported in the media throughout the world was extensive. Articles by Gera of AP, Marci Sher of Yale and in the NYT and by many others, all contributed to an extensive network of “connection”.
In Warsaw there were the stirring sounds of sirens throughout the city, at 10am which were, for some of us, remindful of Yom haShoah in Israel at that same hour and the ringing of church bells in all the neighborhoods of this great city, both of which helped bring all of Warsaw’s citizens into the events of these days.
And there was the color Yellow: the ubiquitous yellow daffodil lapel pins worn by so many to mark these days and the yellow signs seen in the Stars of David on the backs of the jackets of the many youthful volunteers who were assisting thousands of visitors throughout the streets of Muranow where I live in the area of the large Ghetto. The visitors on each of the two weekend days numbered 7500. That is, 15000 people stood in very long lines to enter an empty building!
There were multiple ceremonies including a grand concert with a performance of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, Hazan yakov lemur singing the mournful kayl maleh, an informal gathering of hundreds at the Rappaport Ghetto Monument at Midnight, and the main ceremonies of Friday morning at the plaza between that 1948 monument and the 2013 Museum.
To this observer it seemed as though a large part of Warsaw’s population was enveloped in these observances. There were tours of Ghetto sites. There is a new monument symbolizing the bridge linking the large and small ghettos at Choldna and Zelazna streets, the markings embedded in the concrete of the sidewalks marking the ghetto wall. And Friday night there were two beams of light projected and crossing in the sky: one from the Ghetto monument and museum and one from the Museum of the Warsaw uprising of August 1 1944.
Throughout the area of where once there was the Ghetto, lectures, presentations, tours and commemorations were held. Even under the city, we were able to enter the sewer system to see where Jews escaped to the Aryan side.
One might conclude that this week marked a transformational series of events in Poland, the relationship of the Jewish and Polish narratives and, hopefully, the relationship between Jews and Poles.
Until now the Ghetto uprising was a Jewish event, apart from Polish history but integral to Jewish history. That is changed. It appears the events of April 19 1943 are now part of Poland’s own national narrative of World War II. In a nationalistic culture with a heavy dose of xenophobic anxiety, the merging of the national story with that of Poland’s threatening other (as Joanna Mihalic calls it) is an amazing development.
One also senses that these events may have opened new windows through which Jews may now view Poland and Poles in a different light than through the stereopticon of prejudice which tests the limits of bigotry of otherwise tolerant culture.
The opening concert featuring the Israel Philharmonic set the tone. There could not have been a greater tribute, nor one more emotionally powerful, than the first fifteen minutes of the april 18 evening as the memorial concert began with the “kayl maleh” traditional memorial prayer sung by cantor Yaakov Lemur from the door of a warehouse set on the stage reminding us of the ghetto. As Zubin Mehta took the podium, we rose to sing the Polish National Anthem. This great nation could not be outdone in paying respect to the Jewish Nation. But what brought weeping to many in this audience were the opening sounds of Hatikva and we all joined in. What a incredibly poignant juxtapostion of the “kayl maleh” and the “hatikva”. And then, we remained at attention as the choir sang the Partisan Song. These 4 elements, from “kayl maleh” to Marsz Marsz Dambrowski, to Hatikva to the Partisan Song, summed up the story of why we were assembled.
Whatever it is or will be, my own travels from June 1992 to April 2013 seem like an interstellar journey of light years.
All of this is about the destruction of the entire Jewish nation of Poland, the ancient Jewish world of this continent and half the Jews of Europe. But it is also about the latest chapter in a story which began on September 1 1939 and is still unfolding before our eyes.
Michael Traison is a lawyer with Miller-Canfield, and is an internally-know activist writer, and promoter of the causes of freedom from oppression. He has three main offices, in Detroit, Chicago, and Israel, and is one of today’s prime efforts to interpret and re-build Jewish-Polish relations.