Editor´s Notes: Two days in Poland (JERUSALEM POST) By DAVID HOROVITZ 01/28/05)
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If you go to Birkenau, Leo told me, find building 28, second row to
the left of the entrance, middle level. "That´s where I was." Middle
level was the worst, he said. "If you were on the bottom, you could
just flop down when you came back." Top level was taken over by the
tough guys, he said.
The buildings were really intended for horses, he went on. In the
center was the area where the horses would eat. But they put some
bricks over it and turned it into a heating oven, "where you could
sit and warm your tuches."
Arrested for smuggling food for his family into the Lodz Ghetto early
in the war, Leo was moved from camp to camp before being sent to
Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1943. His entire family, bar one,
had already been wiped out. The last brother was also killed in
Dachau. Only Leo survived.
He was moved out in October 1944. For Leo, there would be three more
camps in five months before he and three others managed to run away.
They hid in an air-raid shelter for four days, then were liberated by
"And from then on, everything went beautiful," he says down the
phone, and I can hear that he´s smiling. "I met a couple of Jews [in
the US Army]. And I came to the United States. And then it was even
I´d never been to Poland before traveling here with President Katsav
on Wednesday and Thursday for the ceremonies marking the 60th
anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In fact, I´d steered
clear of the whole Nazi zone.
My own family, at once deeply Orthodox and thoroughly German, had
left it late to flee Frankfurt for Britain, and while my father would
later go back to Germany occasionally on business, I have never
wanted to visit. On the one night, years ago, that I found myself
stuck in Frankfurt with a weather-delayed transit flight, I got the
chills when locals, evidently taking me for one of them, addressed me
in my father´s native tongue.
I don´t claim to have seen anything on this trip. It´s snowed most of
the time we´ve been here. Between hotel press conferences, military
cemeteries and death camps, there´s been little opportunity to walk
I´ve been struck by the cold, of course. Unremarkable, Polish,
January cold. Remarkable that anyone could have survived it in the
camps 60-plus years ago.
The Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, met with ours. A good
man, all the Israeli diplomats chorus. Telling the truth when he says
Israel can trust his Poland to be a true friend in Europe. (They´re
less effusive about the new, Jewish, foreign minister, Daniel
Rotfeld.) And Israeli-Polish trade relations are soaring: There is
more Israeli investment here than anywhere in Europe some $2
billion worth, according to one Israeli diplomat, mainly in real
Poland, it is said, is doing better than most countries in facing up
to its role in the Holocaust, and wants to get past it. Or, more
accurately, wants to add some more positive dimensions to its
interaction with Jews and Israel.
Jan Wojciech Piekarski, the Polish ambassador in Israel who was his
country´s head of protocol at similar ceremonies 10 years ago, and
who diplomatically elbowed himself into these events (to which no
Israel-based foreign ambassadors were invited) because he felt he had
to be here graciously invites me to come back for a second visit in
the summer months and see the wider Poland. The nation´s leadership
wants the 25,000 or so young Israelis who come to the death camps
each year to see the wider Poland, too.
The president is truly committed to eliminating anti-Semitism,
Israeli officials say. He´s just announced plans for a $30 million
center in Warsaw dedicated to the history of Polish Jewry. But
there´s a rising political party, the League of Polish Families,
which is thoroughly anti-Semitic.
The Poles acknowledge that there was cooperation with the Nazis in
the unthinkable killing of the overwhelming majority of what had been
a three-million strong Jewish community. But they resent the fact
that many of those 25,000 young Israelis leave with the sense that
the Poles themselves were the Jew-killers in chief.
Says Israel´s ambassador here, David Peleg: "They want people to
understand that the Nazis built the camps in occupied Poland. And
they try to highlight that a third of the Righteous Gentiles, 6,000,
It´s a complex reality, sighs Peleg, then sets about trying to
explain. On the one hand, Judaism is quite "in" these days klezmer
music is popular, as is restoring Jewish quarters and synagogues, and
Peleg says he´s been running into Catholics who tell him they´ve been
scouring their family trees in the hope of turning up a Jewish
On the other hand, anti-Jewish graffiti is still to be found,
supporters of the two rival soccer teams in Lodz taunt each other
with derogatory Jew remarks, and kiosks sell little statuettes of
Jews counting their money.
"What you have here," another Israeli diplomat says, "is not the anti-
Israel, Arab-led, hostile sentiment that typifies today´s Western
Europe. It´s old-style anti-Semitism. Protocols of Zion anti-
Semitism. ´Jews control the world´ anti-Semitism."
Once in the US, Leo married and had four daughters. He encouraged all
four of them to go to Israel for a while at university age. The third
wound up married to an Israeli diplomat. I´m married to the fourth.
At our wedding in Jerusalem in 1988, he dominated the proceedings
with a speech about his survival and how his growing family 10
grandchildren now was his victory over Nazism. He was right, of
I called him from Krakow on Wednesday night. The first thing he said
was that he hoped I´d brought warm clothes. The second, that he
didn´t know how Jews could possibly be living in Poland yes, even
today, he said. Even with this president. Even with a pope who has
tried so hard to heal Jewish-Catholic relations.
With anti-Semitism, Leo said, is "embedded" in the Polish
people. "It´s the problem of Christ, that the Jews killed ´our
savior.´ They´ll never get over it.
"I blame them even now," he said. "When the Germans came to Lodz,
these little Polish boys used to go down the streets, pointing out to
them the windows where the Jews lived. And the German army used to go
in and drag the Jews out by their beards."
He could never forgive?
"I forgave one woman who helped us with food when I was smuggling
into the ghetto," he said. "Apart from her..."
It´s snowing again as we arrive at Birkenau. The ceremonies are
taking place in the memorial area alongside ruins of gas chambers and
near the crematoria.
It is icily cold.
I leave the ceremony and walk back along the railway line toward the
guard house, "the gates of death." Everything is covered in a thick
layer of snow. But the barbed wire fences rising on either side
retain none of it. There are little guard posts every few hundred
feet, manned today by lighting technicians.
I can´t work out where building 28 might be, but I walk into some of
the barracks and see the oven running down the center. I sit on the
bricks, freezing today.
I walk over to the bunks, the three levels. The middle level aligns
with my heart.
Hellmuth Szprycer, an Auschwitz survivor from Berlin, walks in with
his Israeli wife. They are here to light candles in memory of those
who did not survive. He tells me that 500 people would live in each
of these buildings. He shows me where the Jewish kapo, the barracks
commander, would sleep and recalls the early morning shout for roll
I cannot possibly do any justice to the inconceivable atrocities that
unfolded here, not in a brief visit, nor in a longer one, for that
But as I walk back along the railway line toward the continuing
ceremony, I hear that my president is speaking, in the revived
language of my revived nation, and he is trying to capture the
unthinkable in words. "We see the barracks, the fences, the guard
towers, the final station of the railway tracks," he is
saying, "which brought the condemned from the far corners of Europe
to the burning ovens. It seems as if we can still hear the dead
And now the cantor is reciting the El Maleh Rahamim prayer in their
memory. (© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 01/28/05)
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