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 narrow agenda, in which there was little to no importance placed on jewish-polish dialogue.  such dialogue is, to me, the very point of jews coming to poland.  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 disturbs me greatly.  still, it would take a very cynical person indeed not to find anything at all in the march to affirm.  for me, the one honestly moving moment was 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.

29 april 2014, kraków