The March of the Living will meet more people living in Poland this year. And the meetings started this week in New Jersey.
Some 250 Jewish teens, the 2000 New York delegation of the gathering that brings Jewish high school students from around the world for two weeks in Poland and Israel, met three young Polish leaders during a weekend retreat at the Hilton Parsippany in Parsippany, N.J. "I was very pleasantly surprised: the kids asked very good questions," says Piotr Kadlcik, a veteran Jewish activist in Warsaw who now serves as vice president of The Union of Jewish Congregations in Poland.
The pilot program, "The Next Generation: Strengthening Ties Between Polish Society and the American Jewish Community," increases the time March of the Living participants spend this year with contemporary Poles, in trips that begin April 30. The program was proposed by the AJCommittee to the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, under whose auspices the New York teens take part in the annual program.
"We’re expanding the dialogue," says Deborah Sklar, who directs international programming for the New York Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. "There is a Poland today that is open and willing to dialogue with Jews, not to whitewash the past."
There is a growing "philo-Semitic" movement in Poland, mostly comprised of Poles born after World War II who have an avid interest in Israel and Jewish culture. The Jewish community, whose size is estimated at between 6,000 and 20,000, has experienced a revival since the fall of communism a decade ago.
"We thought it was very important to expose the kids to this aspect of modern-day Poland," says Sklar, who was part of an AJC delegation that visited Poland last June. The mission members heard a familiar refrain there, from both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles: the march concentrates on the past, on Polish anti-Semitism and Jewish death; it ignores the present, changes in Polish society and the renaissance of Poland’s Jewish community.
"We felt that March of the Living has a very profound impact," both on participants and the wider Jewish community, and on Poles who see reports of the march on television or in newspapers, Sklar says. "It is very well known in Poland.
"The masses of blue-jacketed teens touring the sites of former death camps and ghettoes, and making the 3-kilometer march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, has become a common image in the country.
The Board of Jewish Education accepted the AJC proposal "because it adds to the [participants’] understanding of what might have happened in Poland during the Holocaust and before," says Cheryl Fishbein, lay chair of the march.
Dafna Michealson is the BJE’s professional director of March of the Living, which has brought some 30,000 teens to Israel and Poland since 1988.
The Polish government expressed immediate support for the idea, sending the trio of representatives to this week’s retreat in Parsippany and a subsequent meeting at AJC headquarters in Manhattan with board members of the defense agency.
"We are more than interested," says Boguslaw Majewski, counselor at the Polish embassy in Washington, who attended the program here.
Poland will help select the 14 Polish teens who will accompany the seven buses of New Yorkers during their travels there.
"This kind of meeting will have an important role in breaking stereotypes and negative feelings that still exist," Bartek Pawlak, director of the Polish Government Information Center, told the AJC board members. "You can not talk about Polish history, you can not talk about Polish culture, you can not talk about Polish society, without its Jewish component," Pawlak says. "You can not imagine Polish literature without Jews: you can not imagine Polish art, music, architecture."
The weekend meeting with the Poles (the first-ever retreat was held to introduce the teens to the subject matter of the march and to each other) "impressed upon me to keep a much more open view" of Polish history, says Emily Goldstein, a 17-year-old student at Hunter High School in Manhattan who will visit Poland for the first time with the march.
"There’s still the stereotype that it is a very anti-Semitic country: I know that I shouldn’t generalize about an entire country," Goldstein says.
In answer to a student’s question at the retreat, Pawlak explained about current Holocaust education in Polish schools and the mandatory trip students take to Auschwitz or other death camps.
"He said it is very different now than before, in Communist times," Goldstein says. "Now it is much more emphasized that [the Holocaust] was a war against the Jews. I always assumed that they would not teach about the Holocaust in Poland."
The 12-hour session, conducted by Rabbi A. James Rudin, AJC director of Interreligious Affairs, went over its time limit, the students peppering the visitors with questions, Sklar says. "It could have gone on for three hours."
Cheryl Fishbein of the BJE says she has heard "not one word" of opposition to the new aspect of this year’s march. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she says other survivors give the idea cautious support, aware that Poles will try to highlight the best parts of their history.
"The survivors don’t say ‘Don’t listen,’" she says. "They just say ‘Listen carefully.’ "