2018-05-09 / Columns

Remembering the past; celebrating the present; looking forward to the future

Federation President

Last month, our Jewish Federation proudly took part in the “March of the Living.” Our mission began in Poland, proceeded to Berlin, and finally to Prague. For the 24 participants, to say our emotions ran the gamut would clearly be an understatement.

Our trip began with a visit to Warsaw’s oldest Jewish cemetery, and then a tour of the “Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” a proud history a millennium old prior to most of it being eradicated during the Shoah, when 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were brutally murdered.

We then visited Majdanek, which remains essentially as it was on the day of liberation. On a beautiful sunny April afternoon, I couldn’t even imagine how horribly different the experience was for our ancestors. Rabbi David led our group in saying Kaddish at the Majdanek Memorial, which today, 70 years after liberation, still contains several tons of human ash. As moving and sad as this moment was, I felt it was important that we honor the memory of the victims and make a statement that yes, the Nazis and their evil are gone, but we Jews are still here, alive and thriving.

The next day we went to Auschwitz and Auschwitz IIBirkenau, where over a million Jews were marched, many if not most unsuspecting, from the train tracks to the gas chambers and then to the crematoria. As a result of the Nazis’ attempt to destroy the camps and cover up their crimes prior to fleeing, Auschwitz had a much different look and is essentially today more of a museum with numerous exhibits contained within the various bunks and buildings. Auschwitz and Auschwitz IIBirkenau, is essentially the world’s largest Jewish cemetery. The images of the children that were on display are ones that still haunt me and probably always will.

The next day saw the March itself. How wonderful it was that in contrast to the pictures of the sad and frightened Jewish children that we had witnessed the day before, that on this day, thousands of Jewish youth marched under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz and then to Auschwitz II-Birkenau for a moving Yom Hashoah service, where the speakers included a Holocaust survivor liberated over 70 years ago, the president of Poland, and the president and chief rabbi of Israel. How special it felt to be with thousands of fellow Jews, to honor the memory of the past and to hear what a promising future lies ahead.

Two aspects of the March of the Living did surprise me. First was that despite Poland’s controversial new law that now makes it a crime for anyone to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in Nazi war crimes or to reference the death camps as “Polish death camps,” there were many Polish adults and children lining the march route, cheering us on, acknowledging the past, and showing their current support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

The second surprising aspect of the March was observing and then speaking to a group who called themselves “Bridges for Peace Japan” who had travelled from Japan to pay respect to those who perished at Auschwitz and to also show their support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Attending the ceremony and recognized during the program was the family of Japan’s Chiune Sugihara, known as Japan’s “Schindler.” Sugihara, while a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania in 1939 and 1940, and in defiance of his government’s orders, granted thousands of visas to Jews, allowing them to exit occupied Lithuania to survive the war. In 1984, Sugihara became the only Japanese citizen honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Yes, even in the midst of evil and horror, there were those who bravely stood up and did the right thing.

For me this trip only cemented further my commitment to the Jewish Federation and the dollars we raise to support Jews in Eastern Europe, as well as in Israel, and our own local community. I know my fellow travelers felt the same way. I look forward to telling you next month how our subsequent visits to Berlin and Prague only reinforced further that notion. s jfedpres@jfedsnj.org

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