In Poland, a Well-meaning Commemoration of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Poland clearly acted properly in seeking to commemorate this seminal event. But it's not clear that a mass festival, a grand public relations exercise, was the appropriate way to do so.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Poles had the best of intentions when they planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Hundreds of journalists from all over the world (including this one) were invited to the events, which began Thursday in the Polish capital. Their trips were funded by the Polish taxpayer; they were lodged in grand hotels; they even received 20 euros a day in pocket money.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was invited to give a special concert, including "Song of the Partisans," which became the anthem of the resistance movement. It was written by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish prisoner in the Vilna Ghetto, in memory of those who fell in the Warsaw uprising.

Even the weather cooperated: It was a warm, sunny day that brought people out into the streets.

But sometimes, even the best intentions go awry. The problems began when the Polish Foreign Ministry informed three Israeli journalists, including this one, that seats for the concert had apparently not been reserved for them. Our Polish escort swiftly tried to smooth over the mishap: "You in Israel have this orchestra all year," she said. "We want to show it to other audiences that don't get to Tel Aviv."

But it wasn't just the concert from which the Israeli journalists brought here at great expense were barred. A promised tour of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews - the crowning glory of the city's Jewish revival - also turned out to be a fantasy: The museum, it turns out, hasn't opened yet, and will do so only in January. Thus, though the "tour" will indeed take place, it will apparently include only the empty building, along with explanations of the future exhibits.

But the nadir was hit Thursday afternoon, when a representative of the Polish Foreign Ministry brought a "gift" for the Israeli journalists. The giant package contained three items. One was a book by the great Polish Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, who, a year after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, wrote a lament called "We, the Jews of Poland." Unfortunately, the Hebrew lettering on the cover had been printed backward, and was thus illegible.

The second item was an emotional letter, in English, from Poland's foreign minister. This missive, which opened by saying "Our eternal memory is due our slaughtered brethren, Polish Jews," ended on an optimistic note: "Think about life stronger than death," it said, adding that we would see a testimony to this when we visited the new Jewish history museum. Except, as noted, we won't unless we're invited back next year.

The third item was a small transparent jar containing some material that we couldn't identify. When we opened the package, in the hotel lobby, the unidentified material promptly spilled out onto the floor. A second look at the foreign minister's letter revealed that this was dust from the Umschlagplatz - the square from which the Nazis deported the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Words failed us.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943 and ended three and a half weeks later with the ghetto's liquidation, was the largest Jewish uprising of World War II. To this day, it remains the symbol of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Thus Poland clearly acted properly in seeking to commemorate this seminal event.

But it's not clear that a mass festival, a grand public relations exercise, was the appropriate way to do so. Even the logo designed for the occasion - a yellow flower with the number 70 - seemed out of place. Who needs a logo to commemorate such a tragic historical event?

Yet even with all the flaws, there was plenty of material for the journalists who came to Warsaw in search of the city's history: a tour of an interesting new exhibit in the heart of the old city, which contains rare color photos, taken in 1947, of Warsaw's ruins two years after the war ended; benches that play music by Chopin when you press on them; and even the Warsaw equivalent of Tel Aviv's Tel-O-Fun bike rental program, called "Veturilo" in Polish. It turns out the word has a Jewish connection: It means "method of transportation" in Esperanto, the language created by the Polish Jewish doctor L.L. Zamenhof.

The commemoration will continue throughout the weekend. Friday, there will be a ceremony in Heroes' Square, with the president of Poland in attendance. That will be followed by the tour of the not-yet-open Jewish history museum; screenings of films about heroes of the uprising; and the distribution of stickers to Warsaw residents in the form of the yellow star that Jews were made to wear by the Nazis, in an effort to bolster their identification with the Jews who were murdered 70 years ago.

A private ceremony

"But Poland isn't just the Holocaust," as Poles repeatedly told us. It's music, pubs, pretty girls and handsome guys, modern art and good restaurant. And for anyone who simply must find a Jewish angle even in the nightlife, there's the Tel Aviv restaurant ¬ located right opposite another eatery named Beirut. Both restaurants, promise the tourist map distributed by the Foreign Ministry, serve hummus.

Saturday, after the official ceremony, I'll hold a private ceremony of my own, at 7 Zielna St. That's where my grandfather's family lived. My grandfather, Shmuel Shmur, was born in 1916 in Warsaw, then the largest Jewish community in Europe. Later, Zielna Street became part of the Warsaw Ghetto.

My grandfather's family was well off; his parents owned a houseware store. He studied at a Polish high school, and most of his friends weren't Jewish.

In 1936, when he was 20, his family moved to Tel Aviv, persuaded by a series of anti-Semitic incidents. But most of his cousins remained in Poland and were murdered in the death camps. Their house was destroyed in the war, like most of Warsaw; I doubt the family living in the rebuilt 7 Zielna St. today even knows that a Jewish family once lived there.

So perhaps, I owe a good word after all to the Poles who are trying sincerely to embrace again their "Jewish brethren" - even if they do stumble occasionally.

People walking over the line marking the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto in the center of the Polish capital. April 2013 Credit: Reuters

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