March of the Living Comes Amid Tensions
A pending agreement between Poland and Israel seeks to mitigate charges of widespread Polish antisemitism during World War II.
An estimated 10,000 participants from 25 countries, including 42 survivors of the Holocaust, participated in this year’s March of The Living, which took place at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. This year’s march, on April 18, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 that the event was held with such a high level of participation.
The theme of this year’s event was “Honoring Jewish Heroism in the Holocaust.” It was held just one day before the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Shmuel Rosenman, the 76-year-old head of a large insurance company in Israel and the chairman of the March, wrote in a press statement that the time had come to recognize Jewish heroes.
“Jewish bravery during the Holocaust was, for many years, left out of general Holocaust consciousness, and Jews were portrayed only as victims who ‘went like lambs to the slaughter,’” Rosenman commented. “Young people in Israel and around the Jewish world are not sufficiently aware of the many acts of bravery carried out by thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and as an international educational organization it is our responsibility to emphasize this.”
But that view, according to Polish political leaders, tells only part of the story. In March, an agreement was signed between the governments of Israel and Poland that would include visits to one or more memorials that emphasize the role of Poles in fighting Naziism. But the agreement, which has yet to be ratified by the two governments’ parliaments, was criticized by officials at Yad Vashem, Israel’s important Holocaust museum.
They pointed out that Israeli students who visit Poland to familiarize themselves with the history of the Holocaust should include “complete historical accuracy, including the role of Poles in the persecution, handing in, and murder of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as acts of rescue.”
Among the participants in a Holocaust Remembrance Day program at Emory University was Alicja Podbielska, a visiting assistant professor of Holocaust and antisemitism studies. She pointed out that in her interviews with Poles in her native country, she was shocked to discover that they did not consider those who helped save Jews were heroes.
Podbielska, who is not Jewish, said that Polish antisemitism during the war years has been well documented. She points to the book, “Neighbors,” by Princeton University historian Jan Gross about the massacre of Polish Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941.
“In 1941, over the course of one day, the non-Jewish population of the town murders the Jewish part of the population. This book came as a profound shock to Poles, who only thought about themselves as victims. It really was a shock. And some people just accept it and move, others are just full-on deniers. And so, there’s a lot of backlash. Today, we are still in this backlash phase with a lot of efforts to tell a very positive story of Polish behavior during the Holocaust.”
But Yad Vashem maintains that Polish antisemitism didn’t end with the war. On its website, the Holocaust museum points out what happened to those Jews who returned to Poland in 1946…“returning Polish Jews encountered an antisemitism that was terrible in its fury and brutality. The most shocking such episode was the Kielce pogrom – a violent attack in July 1946 by Polish residents of Kielce against survivors who had returned, in which 42 Jews were murdered. The Kielce pogrom became a turning point for Holocaust survivors; it was, for them, the ultimate proof that no hope remained for rebuilding Jewish life in Poland.”
By the late 1960s, most Jews, who had once been a part of a community of 2.5 million people, had left Poland. This tension was partially reflected during the official commemoration in Warsaw of the 1943 uprising a day after the March of the Living in Auschwitz.
The presidents of Poland and Israel joined, for the first time, the president of Germany in commemorating the month-long uprising.
In his remarks at the anniversary program in Warsaw, Israel’s president Isaac Herzog mentioned, “disagreements and pain” that still exist between the Jewish and Polish people, and he suggested that there is an opportunity to repair the relationship between the two nations.
“The heroism of the resistance and the rebels and the imperative to remember that terrible chapter of history,” Herzog said, “when the Jewish people faced complete annihilation, and destruction rained down upon Poland and many other countries, offer a platform for important dialogue between Poland and Israel.”