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'No Life Left' Here?

February 11, 2010 By:
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Visiting Poland these days is a bracing, stimulating, often puzzling, repeatedly maddening and, in the end, depressing and tragic experience for Jews. In fact, I recall a wintry Shabbat spent in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow (think Schindler's List), that perfectly summed up the warring spirits that have always seemed to permeate such visits. A man who had been born and raised in the region had returned for the first time since the war to see what the yearly Jewish Cultural Festival was like.

He got up to speak after Shabbat luncheon, and in a hushed voice told the most touching stories of what his childhood had been like and how he had loved it so in Krakow, weaving together images and anecdotes, ending always on the same point: how simple and untroubled it all was before the Nazis marched in.

But gradually and without any sort of warning, his tone began to change and, within a matter of seconds, he was raging against our hosts -- Chabad Lubavitch -- for coming to Poland and trying to recreate some semblance of Jewish life there. His voice seethed with anger, and his face grew purple with rage, as he relentlessly repeated his rant: "There is no life for Jews anymore in Poland, there is no life for them here. What are you doing? Make these people leave. You are deceiving them. There is no life left for Jews in Poland."

His brother, who had accompanied him on this journey home, was finally able to calm him, and eventually led the poor man out of the meeting hall where lunch had been served. It took a while for the remaining people to shake off the mood of his tirade and engage in conversation again. But the gathering never regained its footing, and the guests wound up dispersing, going off into the chilly afternoon, each leaving footprints in the inch or so of fresh snow that had fallen since we'd arrived earlier that morning to daven Shacharit.

I thought about this incident -- and many others that have occurred during my visits to Poland -- as I read through Jonathan Webber and Chris Schwarz' Rediscovering Traces of Memory: The Jewish Heritage of Polish Galicia. The work has a substantial amount of text by Webber, who was a social anthropologist at Oxford University for many years, and beautiful color photos by Schwarz, a British photojournalist. The volume, wider than it is tall, has been co-published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization at Oxford and the Indiana University Press on behalf of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.

Schwarz' photos are striking, incisive and heartbreaking (especially those that capture the once thriving, now empty Jewish spaces, both in the cities and in the countryside). These images summon up what it's like to travel through the haunted terrain that makes up so much of Poland today (obviously, author and photographer did not go in search of any of the young Jews now active in Warsaw as that's outside the region this book adheres to -- the southernmost portion of the country). We see the empty synagogues, the ever-aging, sometimes brutalized cemeteries, the ancient gathering places that once supported 800 years of Jewish life, followed by the sites of mass killings, the concentration camps and their infamous apparatus, including Auschwitz, which is only a stone's throw from Krakow.

This book tries to end on an upbeat note, and one of its most striking photos is of a group of young people readying themselves to begin the "March of the Living" on the grounds of Auschwitz. This group of determined Jews -- all dressed in blue and white -- stand beneath the infamous Arbeit Mach Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I. Despite how Poland and the Poles themselves have framed the emptiness that is Jewish life in post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, these teenagers prove that Hitler and his anti-Semitic henchmen didn't win, for, as is always the case, the young represent life -- and the future. In this instance, particularly, they help put the past in proper perspective.

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