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70 years after Auschwitz liberation, experiences of horror and hope

REUTERS/Pawel Ulatowski
Nearly 1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz, and in the adjacent Birkenau death camp, just outside the Polish city of Oświęcim.

Seventy years ago today, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nearly 1 million Jews were murdered there, and in the adjacent Birkenau death camp, just outside the Polish city of Oświęcim.

Rep. Frank Hornstein

Hungarian Jews accounted for nearly half of those deaths.

My grandmother and an aunt were among the Hungarian victims, and my uncle miraculously survived both the camp and a forced death march that originated at Auschwitz.

My parents were Holocaust survivors and met after the war on a train bound for a refugee camp on the outskirts of Munich. My mother was born in Poland; my father in Hungary. Both escaped from Nazi forced labor camps and were liberated after spending considerable time in hiding.

Hungary was familiar; not so Poland

I grew up with contrasting perceptions of my parents’ home countries. As a child, I heard many stories about Hajdúnánás, my father’s remote hometown, on Hungary’s eastern plains. I was familiar with the sounds of the Hungarian language. My dad sometimes communicated in Hungarian with his three surviving brothers and his best friend. Chicken paprikas and goulash were staples at our family dinner table.

My mother was from Lvov, a bustling city in southeast Poland, now in Ukraine. No one from her immediate family survived the war. I was not familiar with the Polish language or Polish food. As a child, there were few stories about life in Poland, and my mother had virtually no surviving relatives, except for cousins in Montreal and Frankfurt.

My father took our family to visit Hajdúnánás when I was going into my sophomore year of college in 1978. My mother had no interest in returning to Lvov. Once, in 1984, she visited Warsaw, where she’d hid out during the latter two years of the war on false papers. My mom also fought in the Polish partisan uprising against the Nazis. Her attitudes toward her home country remained ambivalent at best. At times growing up I sensed anger, and understandably so: Poland’s prewar Jewish population numbered nearly 3 million; 90 percent of them died between 1939 and 1945.

Poland: a pilgrimage of remembrance

A little over three years ago, I traveled to Poland for the first time. I was drawn to the country to make a pilgrimage of remembrance in honor of my Polish and Hungarian relatives who perished in the Holocaust there. I also wanted to trace my mother’s footsteps in Warsaw.

The visit lasted only 36 hours — enough time to tour the few remnants of Warsaw’s World War II Jewish ghetto and travel to the medieval city of Kraków for a visit to Auschwitz, an hour’s drive west of that city.

I arrived in Warsaw on an express train from Berlin on a gray November day. One of the first things I saw, emblazoned on a downtown building, was the logo of the Polish underground resistance to the Nazis. Viewing that symbol helped me feel a connection to my mother’s history, and provided an unexpected feeling of belonging and shared solidarity with the city of Warsaw.

I knew Auschwitz and Birkenau would be difficult and devastating to witness, and the actual visit was even more nightmarish than I imagined. I recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning and remembrance, at the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau, where my grandmother was likely murdered. The former barracks at Auschwitz house a museum where I viewed piles of personal possessions confiscated from Jews before their deaths: eyeglasses, shoes, suitcases, and the cans of poison gas used to kill them.

A new perspective, via a young Pole

Yet, ironically, the tour of Auschwitz offered me a new perspective on the traditional narrative of Poland as merely a land of death and destruction for Jews. My guide for the three-hour visit was Lidia, a young Pole from Oświęcim. I asked her why she chose to be an Auschwitz guide and she related a story of her first visit to the camp as a 14-year-old student. “Ever since then, I felt an obligation to bear witness to what happened in my hometown, so what happened here is never forgotten.”

Her statement was powerful and comforting to me, as it came from a non-Jewish Pole on the grounds of Auschwitz — the place that has become the global symbol of the Holocaust’s horrors. Lidia opened the door for me to look at the importance of Polish-Jewish relations and dialogue, and in so doing, I began my own journey of reconciliation with Poland and its people.

A few months later I decided to return to Poland. I wanted to spend more time in Warsaw and take a side trip to Ukraine to visit Lvov. While in Warsaw, I met Eliszka, a journalist who chronicled stories of Polish Holocaust survivors in Israel. Like Lidia, Eliszka expressed to me a deep desire to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and build a more open and tolerant modern Polish nation. She encouraged me to contact a Polish nonprofit organization, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, whose mission is to fight anti-Semitism and work toward Polish-Jewish reconciliation. A year later, I traveled again to Warsaw to meet the Forum’s founders, Andrzej Folwarczny and Zuzanna Radzik. 

Andrzej’s interest in the topic of Jewish-Polish relations is rooted in his experience as a former member of the Polish parliament, while Zuzanna is a Catholic theologian. Both witnessed and fought anti-Semitism in their respective institutions. They are now part of a cadre of young Polish leaders working to build the Forum’s program and vision.

Last month I spent a week in Poland on a Forum for Dialogue-sponsored study trip, funded in part by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The tour included briefings with prominent Polish and Jewish academics, a visit to a high school, Jewish communal organizations, and Auschwitz.

Landmark and ‘game changer’

We also toured a new landmark in Warsaw that opened its doors in November 2014: Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The building is located on the site of the city’s former Jewish ghetto. Its sprawling exhibits encompass the 1,000-year history of the Jewish presence in Poland. In fact, nearly 75 percent of world Jewry can trace at least part of its ancestry to Poland. Over the centuries, Polish Jews created many of the most important Jewish religious, cultural and political movements. The museum was described to us by its dynamic American program director, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as a “game changer” for Polish-Jewish relations.

The museum seeks to change the historical narratives that some Poles and Jews hold about each other. In general terms, while Jews acknowledge that the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust, they contend that many Poles were either silently complicit or even collaborated with the Nazis. Poles counter that they, too, were victims of the Nazis and also suffered millions of casualties, sheltered and saved Jews, and actively resisted the Nazi occupation.

There is truth in both historical accounts and the debate has been the subject of much academic and popular discussion in post-Communist Poland. Polin opens up a third narrative, one that is more nuanced and complex. While containing a powerful testament to the Holocaust, the museum also offers an honest rendering of the complete story of Polish Jewish history and relations, one that is characterized by both tolerance and periods of repression. It provides Jewish visitors to the country more than simply what some have called a “death narrative” of Jewish Polish life. It shows Poles how much their history is intertwined with that of its Jewish population.

Making connections

During the week, our group also visited a school that is part of the Forum’s School of Dialogue program, where Polish students, as part of their regular curriculum, spend several months learning about the Jewish past of their cities and towns and organize tours of Jewish sites.

Courtesy of The Forum for Dialogue
The author, at left, meets with high-school students in Sieradz, Poland, who took his group on a tour of Jewish sites.

Our visit took place in Sieradz, a remote town in south-central Poland. We were told that our high-school student hosts were both nervous and excited to meet us. After all, we were breaking new ground. Most of the students had never met a Jew, and our delegation of six from the United States, Australia and Israel were unfamiliar with Polish teens. Yet any discomfort melted away during a spirited set of ice-breakers. When I learned that Gabrysia, a bright-eyed 17-year-old, liked Bruce Springsteen, we had an instant connection.

The students took us on a tour of the Jewish sites of Sieradz, including a cemetery, a Jewish ritual bath, an abandoned synagogue and a place where Jews were assembled before being transported to their deaths. Gabrysia spoke of how a group of nuns smuggled food to those Jews. The tour concluded with a visit to the local Catholic church. The priest showed us a Holocaust memorial on the church grounds, and in the parish’s small courtyard the students and priest planted a memorial tree in honor of the city’s former Jewish population. One of the students told a member our group that if Polish-Jewish relations were important to the priest, then they were important to the town. It was an uplifting and powerful moment, and reassuring for me to know that the Jewish community had, in this priest, such a committed and important ally in a small Polish town. The students were serious and passionate about connecting to the Jewish past of Sieradz.

The next day we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau, and the visit was just as unsettling as the first time I toured the camp three years earlier. This visit, however, offered something new: Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, had created an exhibit that includes a Book of Names. It contains literally 4 million names of Jewish Holocaust victims. I found many names from both sides of my family. It made the horrors of Auschwitz all the more real to me.

The day concluded on a hopeful note. We shared a Shabbat dinner at the Krakow Jewish Community Center with a diverse group of 50 local Jews, including Jonathan Ornstein, the center’s New York-born director. Ornstein pointed out that the center is growing along with Krakow’s small Jewish population. “Down the road from Auschwitz” he said, “Jewish life goes on.” He added, “Jews are safer here, than anywhere else in Europe.” I thought of those words when I first heard the news bulletins about the recent carnage at a kosher store in Paris.

I left Poland last month with a renewed appreciation for the revival of Jewish life there, and for the work of the Forum for Dialogue and its young Polish leaders who are strong allies  in preserving Jewish memory and working to create a strong culture of inclusion in Poland. I see people like Ornstein, and his cohorts in other Polish Jewish institutions, as the guardians of a Jewish future in Poland, while the students in Sieradz and other Schools of Dialogue are our guardians of the Jewish past, and guarantors of a tolerant and open Polish future.

My last evening in Poland I met Lidia, the Auschwitz guide, for a brief walk through Kraków’s charming Christmas-decorated medieval square. We strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets to the city’s main train station. On the station platform, we wished each other well and she boarded a train bound for Hungary. Its first stop was Oświęcim.

Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis represents District 61A in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bob Shepard on 01/27/2015 - 02:17 pm.

    Great piece, Frank!

    Many thanks for your very heartfelt account…

  2. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 01/27/2015 - 11:10 pm.

    Beautiful piece, Frank

    Thanks so much for writing this. I didn’t know about efforts like the Forum School of Dialogue, Nor about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Nor of the growing Jewish community in Krakow. It all gives me hope.

    I also find that the older I get, the more horrified I am by the Holocaust. It doesn’t get easier to hear about with age. It gets harder.

    Thanks for all your continual efforts to bring dialogue and understanding!

  3. Submitted by Mark Halpern on 01/28/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    Love the Article

    I also had my eyes opened by attending the Forum’s study tour in 2012. The organization and their people are so dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in Poland. They are a wonderful group.

    Reading the article about Frank’s recent trip just reinforced my feelings. He put to paper what I have been feeling for two years.

    Thanks Frank.

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