March of the Living

each year on holocaust memorial day (yom hashoah), tens of thousands of people hold a march in the town of oświęcim, poland, walking the three kilometers from the site of auschwitz I to the remains of auschwitz-birkenau, in an event known as the "march of the living."  while most participants are jewish, many are not.  they come from around the world.  i met people from as far away as australia, argentina, panama and south africa, as well as most countries in europe, and i was particularly pleased to see a small delegation of marchers from ukraine.  most marchers from north america are teenagers participating in a two week program in which they tour holocaust sites in poland, followed by a week in israel (at a cost of approximately $6000 per person). 

while i have been to auschwitz several times over the years, i have by choice not attended the march of the living.  my attendance yesterday has not purged me of my criticisms.  i could not identify with the event's schmaltzy ritual, the tedious and tendentious casting of the state of israel as redemption for the holocaust, and the thick layers of jewish religious orthodoxy gluing it all together.  riding from kraków to auschwitz on buses with u.s. participants, i could not help but note the program's self-contained agenda, in which there was precious little opportunity for jewish-polish dialogue.  such dialogue is, to me, the very point of jews coming to poland.  but i am afraid that many jews on the march of the living will leave poland thinking it is another name for "holocaustland," because this is what they are shown.  for those who arrived with the perception that poland today is a rabidly anti-semitic country, a risky place for jews to visit, most will leave with that (grossly) mistaken stereotype intact.  for those going on to israel, most will be presented with the jewish state as the anti-poland, a place of jewish life and renewal as against a place of jewish death and destruction.  "when we arrive in israel," a los angeles based jewish tour operator told his high school participants, "we will go immediately to the beach, where you will be able to eat a wonderful breakfast and go swimming in the mediterranean, and wash away all the crap you've been seeing in poland...as jews we don't have baptism, but if we had baptism, this swim in the mediterranean would be it."

propaganda of this kind disturbes me greatly.  still, i would be lying if i said i didn't find the march of the living meaningful.  there was a certain undeniable power in walking for remembrance with large numbers of jews and non-jews at the place where a million jews were murdered.  this was especially so for me in the wake of months of studying the genocide in ukraine, where no such remembrance exists.  also i was moved by the speech of the president of hungary, who apologized repeatedly for his country's collaboration with the nazis and its role in the extermination of hungary's jews in the last year of the camp's existence.  it is difficult, by contrast, to imagine ukraine's president making any similar speech apologizing for the collaboration of ukrainian freedom fighters with the nazis.  and it would take a very cynical person indeed not to be moved by the event's culmination, the completion of a new torah scroll, whose last word, "yisrael," was written by letter by letter by survivors of auschwitz.

how to mourn collectively at auschwitz is a work in progress.  this itself––the possibility of criticism included––is something to be grateful for.

29 april 2014, kraków