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Sara Weinberger: A visit to family home the Holocaust took away

My mother, Irena Schenker, grew up in a country that would lose about 3 million of its 3,300,000 Jews during World War II. Alone, amidst the travelers, I am overcome with doubt. Whatever possessed me to want to visit this place, so often referred to as a Jewish graveyard? I convince myself that this trip can only be a lose-lose situation. I would either walk the streets of Krakow feeling like the “other,” the “Jew,” or I would curse myself for falling in love with what I am told is a dazzling city.

In spite of misgivings, I board the plane. For six days, I wander the streets of Kazimierz, the former Jewish district of Krakow where Jewish life flourished until 1942, when its residents were ordered to march themselves and their belongings across the bridge over the Vistula River to the ghetto built for them in Podgorze.

The remains of the ghetto walls resemble curved tops of headstones. Across the street from my mother’s childhood home is a large, almost vacant square, barely noticeable amid today’s traffic and businesses. Our guide tells us this was where the Jews of Krakow were herded before being deported to Belzec extermination camp, where 500,000 people, including my grandmother, aunts and young cousins, were murdered.

Only two people lived to bear witness to Belzec’s existence. The silent square with sculpted metal chairs scattered in all directions resembles the scene after each deportation, when the elderly Jews of Krakow had left the chairs they were resting in to board their death-bound trains. Today’s Kazimierz has been reincarnated into a mecca for hipsters, as well as an effort to create a thriving Jewish community. Before 1939, 65,000 Jews lived in Kazimierz. Today, there are about 200, many elderly. A constant tension exists here between commemoration and commercialization.

Tiny trams travel Kazimierz’s cobblestone streets, beckoning tourists to hop on and see its attractions: “The Jewish Ghetto, Schindler’s Factory, the Jewish Cemetery.” Dilapidated synagogues stand near discos named “Schizophrenia” and “Opium.” Klezmer concerts, (a musical genre born in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe) take place daily. The musicians, however, are rarely Jewish. I am told that young, Christian Poles long for exposure to a Jewish culture that they, too, were robbed of knowing.

At times I am heartened. Across the street from our apartment stands the Jewish Community Center, a modern building offering a host of activities, including art and language classes, yoga and a community Sabbath dinner each Friday evening. Some Poles have been discovering and embracing their newly discovered Jewish roots.

Yet I experience an intense void as I roam the streets of Kazimierz, longing for the world that came alive in my mother’s stories.

I spend my third day in Poland at the largest cemetery on Earth, Auschwitz. Statistics (1½ million people murdered here) cushion visitors from the reality that each person entered Auschwitz as a human being — with passions, family, friends, talents, experiences. Bunkers filled with display cases of human hair, shoes, spectacles, even baby clothes, though horrifying, do not put a face on each person terrorized and tortured. Only a display of empty suitcases, each with a first and last name, gives evidence to the individuals who arrived and never left.

A small slab of stone beckons me to a stagnant pond in Birkenau, the portion of Auschwitz whose sole purpose was to murder quickly and efficiently. I flinch to learn this algae-covered pond is permanently weighted with human ashes.

During my time in Krakow, I am acutely aware that a global epidemic of anti-semitism has erupted, especially in Europe. Blaming all Jews for Israel’s actions in Gaza, protesters from Boston to Paris call for “Death to Jews.” Several hours after my visit to Auschwitz, I read that a Jewish woman in Belgium was refused medical help from her family doctor, who told her to “get help in Gaza.”

A few days later, Facebook messages announce that someone has set fire to the Israeli flag hanging from my synagogue in Northampton. I phone a friend who describes coming face to face with a group of anti-Israel protesters after leaving Sabbath services at the same synagogue. I am horrified.

Since arriving in Poland, I have asked myself many times, “Why has the world always hated the Jews?”

I have no answer. Like Krakow, Northampton is not immune to the anti-Semitism that culminated in the destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities, like Kazimierz. My extended family was murdered while so much of the world was silent, yet even in Poland, people like my mother’s Christian friend, Marisha, acted to help Jews.

I can only hope that Northampton will not remain silent in the face of any acts of public hatred towards anyone.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.

Legacy Comments7

Excuse me, CathyEtheridge, do you know Sara Weinberger? Do you know that she used the services of a travel agent, stayed at a hotel (perhaps had you actually read her article, you would have seen the word "apartment"), bought clothes, has or has not visited Gaza or the West Bank or has provided must needed and appreciated support to many in her chosen profession? Perhaps the person you speak to in your rants is what you wish to believe an American Jew to be. Perhaps you are too angry and frightened to allow yourself to learn otherwise. Perhaps she works for justice while you jump in to assign blame. Before you next open your mouth, please open you eyes and your mind.

Again, I am not impressed with anyone's intelligence or humanity , or their ability to read, if they keep speaking of their own victimization while they are touring Europe and supporting the murder of imprisoned men women and children as it is taking place in Gaza. My mention of a travel agent was rhetorical. I am sorry if it interfered with your ability to understand my main idea. Her mention of an apartment was unclear. It may have belonged to a family member years ago. In any case, should I be impressed with Sara Weinberger's humanity and compassion if she stayed in an apartment during her European vacation? Perhaps instead of trying to suppress criticism of Israel when it is murdering occupied people, American Jews should stop supporting the occupation and murder. Then, the rest of the world would not seem so anti-Semitic to you. Or if you are unable to see beyond the narrow interest of your own ethnic group, at least keep quiet about your victimization while you are supporting an ongoing massacre.

If the Palestinians stop firing rockets into Israel, the bombardment will stop. If Hamas disarms, the embargo might be lifted. It's pretty straight-forward! As for anti-Semitism, that has existed for centuries. It is the reason the UN created the State of Israel in an effort to counteract the effects. While holding the Palestinians in what is effectively an open-air prison isn't helping Israel's image, the reality is that most anti-Semites couldn't care less for Gaza or it's inhabitants. The paranoid anti-Semites in this country think that Jews control the United States via the banking system, and that popular French comedian who makes jokes about bringing back concentration camps preaches that the common people in France are being subjugated by the (Jewish) ruling class.

I think the cry of anti-Semitism is a crutch that you carry around with you. It absolves you from ever taking responsibility for your own actions. The UN did not create the state of Israel. UN Resolution 181 was passed by the General Assembly where the US threatened to withhold aid for recovery from WWII to any nation that voted against it. It was never passed by the Security Council. But if you rely on 181, then you should live within all of its articles, not just the ones favorable to you. By military means and ethnic cleansing, Israel has expanded the territory it controls far beyond the 181 borders. Also, 181 called for Israel to pay reparations to the Palestinians whose land was being taken away and given to the Jews. Israel has never paid reparations to the Palestinians, even though Israelis has received huge reparations from Germany. You can't rely on parts of a resolution that you like and ignore the parts that you don't like. Oh, maybe you can actually apply your "rely on / ignore" formula. When people call attention to your hypocrisy, you can call them anti-Semites.

I do agree that real anti-Semitism is terrible. But I think that the way to prevent it or prevent it from gaining adherents is to pay attention to legitimate criticism. Don't forget, support for Israel by American Christians was motivated in most cases by the fact that Christian church services still read from the Old Testament in their church services. Americans supported Israel with religious fervor. When Americans read about the occupation of Palestine, the administrative detentions, the home demolitions, the land confiscations, and the settlement building, they change sides and support the Palestinians with the same religious fervor that they previously gave to the Israelis. You see, the occupation of Palestine breaks a few of the Ten Commandments.

Sara Weinberger, you wrote, " My extended family was murdered while so much of the world was silent, yet even in Poland, people like my mother’s Christian friend, Marisha, acted to help Jews". "I can only hope that Northampton will not remain silent in the face of any acts of public hatred towards anyone". Don't you see, Sara Weinberger, that there are people today who are acting to prevent murder and oppression. They are the ones protesting at synagogues. And today, you are the silent one.

Perhaps you were too busy with your vacation plans to notice that there was a war, or more accurately, a massacre going on. Israel was dropping bombs and firing tanks at wall-in occupied people. The Israeli "Defense" Forces were bombing people with no army, no navy and no air force. Again, the people of Gaza are OCCUPIED people. They have been refugees since 1948 when the Zionists invaded their land. They have endured Israeli brutality for 70 years. Just before the recent month long massacre, while you were busy with your travel agent, Israeli soldiers rounded up 900 Palestinian men in a crime against humanity they call "arbitrary detention". Then they invaded Gaza and killed two men. This is all before the Palestinians fired the first of their ineffective homemade rockets. Those rockets are not weapons, they are protests from a walled-in people. While you were busy buying clothes, the rest of the world was watching the massacre on television. While you were making hotel reservations, the rest of the world was reading of surveys of Israelis which showed overwhelming support for the massacre and surveys of American Jews showing overwhelming support for Israel. After your trip, you came home and tried to portray yourself as the "victim". Next time you contact your travel agent, why don't you make plans to visit the West Bank and Gaza? You might gain insight and compassion. Such a change in perspective might have such an impact on you that you have to take a leave of absence to process the new information. In the long run, however, it will make you more complete. It might even make you a social worker.

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