Editor’s Notes: Two days in Poland

By David Horovitz January 28, 2005

The nation’s leadership wants the 25,000 or so young Israelis who come to the death camps each year to see the wider Poland too

If you go to Birkenau, Leo told me, find building 28, second row to the left of the entrance, middle level. ‘That’s where I was.’ Middle level was the worst, he said. ‘If you were on the bottom, you could just flop down when you came back.’ Top level was taken over by the tough guys, he said.

The buildings were really intended for horses, he went on. In the center was the area where the horses would eat. But they put some bricks over it and turned it into a heating oven, ‘where you could sit and warm your tuches.’

Arrested for smuggling food for his family into the Lodz Ghetto early in the war, Leo was moved from camp to camp before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1943. His entire family, bar one, had already been wiped out. The last brother was killed in Auschwitz. Only Leo survived.

He was moved out in October 1944. For Leo, there would be three more camps in five months before he and three others managed to run away. They hid in an air-raid shelter for four days, then were liberated by the Americans.

‘And from then on, everything went beautiful,’ he said down the phone, and I can hear that he’s smiling. ‘I met a couple of Jews [in the US Army]. And I came to the United States. And then it was even better.’

I’D NEVER been to Poland before traveling here with President Katsav on Wednesday and Thursday for the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In fact, I’d steered clear of the whole Nazi zone.

My own family, at once deeply Orthodox and thoroughly German, had left it late to flee Frankfurt for Britain, and while my father would later go back to Germany occasionally on business, I have never wanted to. On the one night, years ago, that I found myself stuck in Frankfurt with a weather-delayed transit flight, I got the chills when locals, evidently taking me for one of them, addressed me in my father’s native tongue.

I don’t claim to have seen anything on this trip. It’s snowed most of the time we’ve been here. Between hotel press conferences, military cemeteries and death camps, there’s been little opportunity to walk about.

I’ve been struck by the cold, of course. Unremarkable, Polish, January cold. Remarkable that anyone could have survived it in the camps 60-plus years ago.

The Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, met with ours. A good man, all the Israeli diplomats chorus. Telling the truth when he says Israel can trust his Poland to be a true friend in Europe. (They’re less effusive about the new, Jewish, foreign minister, Daniel Rotfeld.) And Israeli-Polish trade relations are soaring: There is more Israeli investment here than anywhere in Europe – some $2 billion worth, according to one Israeli diplomat, mainly in real estate.

Poland, it is said, is doing better than most countries in facing up to its role in the Holocaust, and wants to get past it. Or, more accurately, wants to add some more positive dimensions to its interaction with Jews and Israel.

Jan Wojciech Piekarski, the Polish ambassador in Israel – who was his country’s head of protocol at similar ceremonies 10 years ago, and who diplomatically elbowed himself into these events (to which no Israel-based foreign ambassadors were invited) because he felt he had to be here – graciously invites me to come back for a second visit in the summer months and see the wider Poland. The nation’s leadership wants the 25,000 or so young Israelis who come to the death camps each year to see the wider Poland, too.

THE PRESIDENT is truly committed to eliminating anti- Semitism, Israeli officials say. He’s just announced plans for a $30 million center in Warsaw dedicated to the history of Polish Jewry. But there’s a rising political party, the League of Polish Families, which is thoroughly anti- Semitic.

The Poles acknowledge that there was cooperation with the Nazis in the unthinkable killing of the overwhelming majority of what had been a three-million strong Jewish community. But they resent the fact that many of those 25,000 young Israelis leave with the sense that the Poles themselves were the Jew-killers in chief.

Says Israel’s ambassador here, David Peleg: ‘They want people to understand that the Nazis built the camps in occupied Poland. And they try to highlight that a third of the Righteous Gentiles, 6,000, were Poles.’

It’s a complex reality, sighs Peleg, then sets about trying to explain. On the one hand, Judaism is quite ‘in’ these days – klezmer music is popular, as is restoring Jewish quarters and synagogues, and Peleg says he’s been running into Catholics who tell him they’ve been scouring their family trees in the hope of turning up a Jewish grandparent.

On the other hand, anti-Jewish graffiti is still to be found, supporters of the two rival soccer teams in Lodz taunt each other with derogatory Jew remarks, and kiosks sell little statuettes of Jews counting their money.

‘What you have here,’ another Israeli diplomat says, ‘is not the anti-Israel, Arab-led, hostile sentiment that typifies today’s Western Europe. It’s old-style anti- Semitism. Protocols of Zion anti-Semitism. ‘Jews control the world’ anti-Semitism.’

ONCE IN the US, Leo married and had four daughters. He encouraged all four of them to go to Israel for a while at university age. The third wound up married to an Israeli diplomat. I’m married to the fourth. At our wedding in Jerusalem in 1988, he dominated the proceedings with a speech about his survival and how his growing family – 10 grandchildren now – was his victory over Nazism. He was right, of course.

I called him from Krakow on Wednesday night. The first thing he said was that he hoped I’d brought warm clothes. The second, that he didn’t know how Jews could possibly be living in Poland – yes, even today, he said.

Even with this president. Even with a pope who has tried so hard to heal Jewish-Catholic relations. Anti- Semitism, Leo said, is ’embedded’ in the Polish people. ‘It’s the problem of Christ, that the Jews killed ‘our savior.’ They’ll never get over it.

‘I blame them even now,’ he said. ‘When the Germans came to Lodz, these little Polish boys used to go down the our street, pointing out to them the windows where the Jews lived. And the German army used to go in and drag the Jews out by their beards.’

He could never forgive?

‘I forgave one woman who helped us with food when I was smuggling into the ghetto,’ he said. ‘Apart from her…’

IT’S SNOWING again as we arrive at Birkenau. The ceremonies are taking place in the memorial area alongside ruins of gas chambers and near the crematoria.

It is icily cold.

I leave the ceremony and walk back along the railway line toward the guard house, ‘the gates of death.’ Everything is covered in a thick layer of snow. But the barbed wire fences rising on either side retain none of it. There are little guard posts every few hundred feet, manned today by lighting technicians.

I can’t work out where building 28 might be, but I walk into some of the barracks and see the oven running down the center. I sit on the bricks, freezing today.

I walk over to the bunks, the three levels. The middle level aligns with my heart.

Hellmuth Szprycer, an Auschwitz survivor from Berlin, walks in with his Israeli wife. They are here to light candles in memory of those who did not survive. He tells me that 500 people would live in each of these buildings. He shows me where the Jewish kapo, the barracks commander, would sleep and recalls the early morning shout for roll call.

I cannot possibly do any justice to the inconceivable atrocities that unfolded here, not in a brief visit, nor in a longer one, for that matter.

But as I walk back along the railway line toward the continuing ceremony, I hear that my president is speaking, in the revived language of my revived nation and he is trying to capture the unthinkable in words. ‘We see the barracks, the fences, the guard towers, the final station of the railway tracks,’ he is saying, ‘which brought the condemned from the far corners of Europe to the burning ovens. It seems as if we can still hear the dead crying out.’

And now the cantor is reciting the El Maleh Rahamim prayer in their memory.

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