Should Jews make a pilgrimage to Poland?

The march of the living program has brought into focus the practice of visiting Poland for a  commemorative experiential post holocaust event. Several years ago, I presented a research paper in Kraków. My father and his immediate family survived the Holocaust through חסדי השם and his שלוחים Felka (Feliksa nee) Gallach and her father, Jozef Gallach.

The Balbin family of six sat, quite literally, in a box submerged under straw.

at the back of a ramshackle hut, in the rear of a remote farm in Závady, for a period of 2+ years. When they emerged, they had great difficulty standing. For a period of a dangerous six months they “lived” hidden in the corn fields adjoining the hut.

Felka and her father Jozef were inducted at Yad Vashem in 1998 and 1996 respectively, as righteous gentiles—חסידי אומות העולם—together with 6,339 Righteous Poles.

Felka on left, with my father

They assuredly deserved this honour, and I am here today because of their heroic efforts. A young 16-year-old Felka used to emerge in the dead of night, at great risk to herself, throwing potatoes, bread and other food scraps into the hole. Family Gallach never disclosed that they were hiding Jews at the back of their farm. They had a choice. By not supplying food scraps, starvation would have been inevitable.

My father eventually relented, and after a period of over 50 years, he became the first Balbin to personally visit Rawa and thank Felka face to face. Felka was quite ill, and we brought expensive and hard to obtain medicine to aid in her suffering from Parkinsons disease.

The re-union

It didn’t start there. Immediately after the war the family sent and continues to send clothing, money and medicines. We don’t throw out our excesses. Even grandchildren know that “it goes to Poland”. I was most fortunate to be present when my father met the elderly Felka (who has since passed away).

It was a difficult trip for my father; he was most apprehensive. Reluctant to speak Polish and reveal his identity, his demeanour was accurately captured by this photo. With his head down, often pacing, he appeared afraid to peer, explore or relate to the surrounds.

Our next stop was my father’s home town, Rawa. We visited his childhood home. He was transfixed and emotional. Was it something that he should have done? Was it worth me being there with him and experiencing the roller coast of emotions? Was this as much if not more for me than it was for him? Were the wounds worth re-aggravating? This picture reveals some of the emotion etched in his face better than my words.

Our next two stops were confronting and highly offensive. Wanting to visit קבר אבות we proceeded to the בית עולם. I was excited. Even though we are Cohanim and unable to enter a holy cemetery, I so much wanted to “connect” with my namesake, my father’s beloved Zeyda,  R’ Yitzchak Amzel ז’ל. The scene at the cemetery was shocking.

When were the tombstones removed? It was not during the Nazi persecution. It wasn’t even immediately after the war, when the tombstones remained intact. No, it was in the ensuing years, when almost no Jew was to ever visit this town of Rawa. The residents of Rawa clearly decided that a Jewish cemetery was just an opportunity to gather expensive stone and use it for paving and other mundanely servile needs. What type of person could do this? How were they educated? What milk did they drink? It’s hard to fathom. Unlike the Germans who have educated their youth and are intolerant to racism and anti-Semitism, this forsaken piece of earth was overtaken by brazen savagery. Is there another more diplomatic way to describe it?

To add insult to injury, as we walked to our car and passed through a park, three Polish men sitting on a park bench, who would have been some 60 meters away, raised their legs, placing their hands on their genitalia, gesticulating with mannerless intent. We were wearing hats and not Yarmulkas. My father would not allow me to wear my Yarmulka. I had wanted someone to attack my Jewishness so that I could “fight back” in an emancipated manner not available to my forbears. Those males would have been under 10 during the war and yet they not only recognised Jews from the distance, but sought fit to poison the atmosphere with their anti-Semitic display. It’s worth noting that the population of Rawa Mazowiecka was roughly 50% Jewish and there was  harmonious coöperation for many hundreds of years.

With a sour taste in our mouths we left Rawa. On our return to Melbourne, Dad was proud that he had visited Felka, but the extreme negative experiences left him ambivalent at best.

It has been part of my mission to try to reclaim and cordon off the Cemetery. I’ve been working with Australian politicians unsuccessfully, and sadly, Michael Danby MP has been unable to help over many years despite his efforts. I am now working with Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi, and others. It’s at a delicate stage.

Several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner caused a storm when he stated

In a conversation with Ynet, [Rav] Aviner explained: “As is well known, leaving Israel is permitted only for the sake of mitzvah, while visiting the death camps is not defined as a mitzvah by the Halacha. There are important figures and great rabbis who have not visited there.

“Clearly what happened in the Holocaust must be remembered, but this can be done using films, books, the Yad Vashem museum and there are even the testimonies of survivors who are still alive,” he stated.

And what about the emotional experience?

“I once told educators that in any case the impression vanishes after six months, like any other emotional experience with a short shelf life. They smiled and said that it actually fades away after three weeks.”

[Rav] Aviner also said that the trips have not been proven to have an “educational value.” “For some this experience is very difficult and they come back utterly distraught,” he added.

‘Why should Nazi collaborators benefit?’
Another argument against visiting the camps, according to the rabbi, was the fact that the Polish people “collaborated with the Nazis” and were now making a living off of these visits. “I’m not busy holding a grudge against the Poles, but we shouldn’t provide livelihood to people who allowed death camps to be built on their land and who are now making a profit out of it.

“They are not my friends and I don’t want to support them.”

Rabbi Aviner’s view is shared by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a renowned Talmid Chacham and others.

A few weeks ago, my cousins visited Rawa. Their experience was even worse than ours. When knocking on the door of my father’s home, they politely asked if they could just come inside and take a look for sentimental reasons. They were rebutted with the words:

“No Jew will cross this door again”

Why? What had any Jew done to them? Most were living in houses that were not their own or that they had purchased for peanuts immediately after the war. Was that the answer?

They were also affronted by the graffiti at soccer stadiums. Apparently, the biggest insult to the opposing team is to paint a Magen David, and accuse the other team of being “Jews”. During games, they hatefully spifflicate “Jew, Jew, Jew” at each other. Coincidentally, I had also read that:

It describes a derby match from November 2008 in Krakow between the city’s teams, Cracovia and Wisla, whose rivalry is such that it is described here as a “holy war”.

Some Wisla fans sang an anti-Semitic song about the supposed Jewish origins of their rivals and when a Cracovia player left the pitch, fans shouted: “To the gas chambers.”

When the match ended Wisla players went over to their fans to thank them, some of them making obscene chants about Jews.

Beforehand, some Cracovia fans made monkey noises at Wisla’s Brazilian player, Cleber, when he was sent off.

But this is not the whole picture. Wisla now have two Israeli players in their first team, and one of them, David Biton, is the club’s top scorer this season.

Anti Semitic imagery when Hapoel Tel Aviv played in Poland

Our youngest daughter will be visiting Poland with her Seminary in a few months time.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

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