My Other Trip to Poland
I was here 15 years ago. I did not want to come back.
As Alana noted earlier, the Tablet staff is in Warsaw this week to witness the marking of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It’s an exciting endeavor that has already included some top-notch schnitzel.
But, to be honest, I am ambivalent about this trip. In fact, when an incredible opportunity to take a trip to Poland with a group of people I both like and respect first came about, it seemed unnatural for me to say no. But I almost did.
This is partially–if not, mainly–because this isn’t my first time in Poland. Fifteen years ago this week, I was here as part of a delegation on the March of the Living.
For those, who are not familiar, the March is a two-week educational program for thousands of Jewish teenagers that includes a week in Poland and a week in Israel. The focal point of the program is Holocaust education; students meet and sometimes travel with with Holocaust survivors, visit various historical landmarks in Poland (including a number of death camps), and then arrive in Israel, typically as Israelis are marking Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut (Memorial Day and Independence Day respectively). The March itself refers to the three-mile silent walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, in which students are joined by a host of dignitaries, survivors, religious and community leaders, and politicians. When I participated in 1998, 6,500 others joined me. This year, roughly 11,000 teenagers from around the world took part.
The March did a lot of positive things for me. It enabled friendships that I still maintain, it brought me to Israel for the first time (on its 50th birthday no less), and it gave me the rare chance to travel with survivors and listen to their testimonies–an inimitable and irreducibly important experience.
So what’s the problem? Years later, as I think back on the experience, I drew conclusions that I shouldn’t have. The first is that I should hate Poland and forever link it with not only death, but a pernicious complicity in Jewish death. The second conclusion–at which I arrived all too easily after a heavy week in Poland and a joyous week in Israel–is that if Poland equals death, Israel equals life. Of course, the history is much more complicated, but it leaves me to wonder how these ideas cemented in my mind. Was it something about the trip, something about me, or something else?
And so I am back, armed with these questions–and my 15-year-old journal. Over the next two days, I’ll be re-reading it, with the hopes of figuring out some answers.
Earlier: Tablet, Warsaw Edition