Old-New Poland

POLAND — The trains whiz in and out of the Oswiecim Station, to and from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The people stand, packed like sardines with little room to move. The men with beards and black hats are sent by government agents to the left and to the right. We are in Poland, where more than three million men, women, children and babies were brutally slaughtered by Hitler and his murderous Nazi regime.

But it is not 1945. It is 2005, 60 years after the liberation of the camps, and sixteen years after the fall of communism. This is the new Poland. The tracks are familiar, but the trains are not carrying Jews from Hungary, Slovakia and Greece to the gas chambers and crematoria. Rather, they are transporting an unprecedented number of Jewish teenagers, staying in hotels and hostels throughout Poland, to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the March of the Living, which took place May 5.

They joined more than 22,000 people – Jews and non-Jews, from more than 60 countries, and such cities as Kiev, Odessa, Riga and New Haven.

They commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, by walking the 1.8 miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, retracing the steps of the “Death March.” Many marchers were “wrapped” in the blue and white flag of Israel, carrying flags of their home countries, or holding banners displaying names of their home communities. Others carried miniature wooden (mock) grave markers with names of deceased relatives. I was one of 45 New Haven delegates, proudly wearing a royal blue Jewish Federation of New Haven cap, a Connecticut state pin, and a dark blue “March of the Living” raincoat.

Participants assembled on the large field of Auschwitz, often referred to as the “world’s largest cemetery.” The field was muddy from days of springtime rain and contained only a handful of portable toilets. The crowded field is paradise compared to the cattle cars which rode through here just 60 years ago, filled with the relatives of so many here today.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel and other dignitaries sat on the stage, under tight security, ready to address the crowd. The hordes of teenagers were more interested in trading hats, shirts and pins with peers than in viewing the

footage of emaciated prisoners, crying children, or the words “Never Again,” which are being projected on to large video monitors.

Somehow, this playful bantering among Jewish teens from around the world felt entirely appropriate. It is an affirmation of life and proof that Hitler didn’t succeed.

It was a rather surprising five days in Poland. As we walked through the Umschlagplatz on the outer edge of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews were transported to Treblinka, and as we walked through the concentration camps and death camps of Auschwitz/Birkenau and Majdanek, the horrors of the Holocaust were inescapable. Yet, as we drove from Krakow to Lublin via the towns of Kielce and Radom, we learned of the long history of Jews in Poland. “Kielce was 60 percent Jewish,” our Israeli guide, Hannah, told us, “They closed the marketplace on the Jewish Sabbath.”

Despite a reported 19 percent unemployment rate and poor roads, the country felt alive. Black birds flew over fields lit up with yellow springtime flowers.

The pubs, restaurants and internet cafes of the quaint town of Krakow were packed with students from the towns’ eleven universities. We were amazed to see signs for Bagelmania Bagels and Burritos as we walked through the old Jewish ghetto of Krakow, minutes on foot from the Remuh Synagogue, built in 1558 and still in use.

In Warsaw, we lost count of the number of cranes all around – working to build apartment buildings and stores, and to expand the Warsaw airport. Saturday night in Warsaw offered the ballet, Yiddish theatre and casinos. Not bad for a city leveled by the Germans just 60 years ago.

Jewish life seemed to be making a comeback as well. At the Radisson Hotel, Israel’s Ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, told us over Shabbat dinner about Israel’s expanded trade relations and tourism to Poland. I smiled as I spotted Elite coffee from Israel all over Poland. I was delighted when I read that the SuperPharm chain of Israeli pharmacies is expanding to Warsaw. On Saturday morning at the Nozyk Synagogue, the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, addressed the crowd in Polish, Hebrew and English, and a newly donated torah was dedicated.

The Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw hosted the New Haven group for pastries and a tour late Saturday night, at the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath. Every day, people in Poland are learning of Jewish roots they never knew they had and they are thirsting to learn more.

Many on the March of the Living went on to Israel to experience the shift from despair and destruction to renewal and life in a homeland. In Poland, we saw the ashes; we also saw that, out of the ashes comes new life. This is the old-new Poland.

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