Wednesday, November 10, 2010

March of the Living: Poland as an Aid to Jewish Identity in an Era of Assimilation

photo credit: Yossi Selinger

In 2005, Jeremy Simons, an Ohio State University senior, wrote "Polish Jewish Relations: an In-Depth Look at the March of the Living."

Charles Dundee forward Jeremy's paper to me.

Jeremy's work, in its major conclusions, agrees with mine in "Bieganski." The March of the Living that Simons studied in 2005 (it has since changed, he urges me to consider), did foster Jewish identity by contrasting a grey, cold, intractably alien and anti-Semitic Poland, land of nothing but death, nothing, really, but the Holocaust, with Israel, sunny and warm land of rebirth. MOTL did so by resisting MOTL participants' contact with Poles, including Polish Jews, by not educating MOTL participants in Poles' victimization under the Nazis, by equating Poles with Nazis, and by overemphasizing Polish anti-Semitism.

March of the Living is an annual event that takes thousands of teenage Jews from countries all over the world, on trips to Auschwitz, in Poland, and then to Israel. It has been widely criticized, including by Jews, for isolating its participants from surrounding populations of Poles and Polish Jews, for traumatizing participants and for emphasizing a Jewish identity based on victimization.

My own book, "Bieganski," includes references to numerous criticisms of March of the Living, including by prominent entertainer Theodore Bikel, by journalists, politicians and scholars, including Peter Novick in his book "The Holocaust in American Life," Tom Segev in his book "The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust," criticism of "Holocaust tourism" by Jack Kugelmass, and by participants in a lengthy internet debate. "Bieganski" also features a lengthy transcript from a March participant, Danielle, who inadvertently exposed the ethnocentrism, ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry MOTL can entail. Danielle's transcript cannot be fully detailed here.

Danielle castigated Poles for being able to live next to a concentration camp where many Jews suffered. Danielle revealed no awareness that Polish Catholics had suffered and died in that same camp. Danielle announced that she was an expert in Holocaust history – yet she'd never heard of Jan Karski. Danielle was surprised when she first arrived in Poland, because "Everything was in color. The only thing I knew of Eastern Europe was in black and white. Probably from movies. I'm thinking reels of Holocaust films. I pictured gray, cold, concrete. I wasn't aware that I was thinking this until we landed and everything was in color … There is nothing attractive about Poland. Even though I know it's in color my mind has degenerated back to black and white."

Interestingly, Jeremy's work also repeatedly refers to descriptions of Poland as a bleak, black and white land that pervade MOTL thinking and publications.

While working on Bieganski, I was repeatedly told that I could not research – be funded for – publish – be credited with – the work I was doing because I am Polish and Catholic. (In fact I'm American-born and hardly orthodox. These realities do not matter to the identity politicians.)

Jeremy Simons, the Ohio State University grad who authored "Polish Jewish Relations: An In-Depth Look at the March of the Living," is not only Jewish, he is currently in rabbinical school. With minor exceptions, his observations echo my own. Given the similarities, it is most remarkable that we had no contact while writing our respective works.

"Since 1945 Jews have eyed Poles with suspicion and even contempt—they were collaborators during the Holocaust," Jeremy begins.

Jeremy reports that Jewish assimilation to non-Jewish populations is a concern: "demographics illustrate that fewer and fewer people are choosing to remain Jewish."

MOTL, and MOTL's version of Poland, help alleviate the concern: "research has shown that participants feel a stronger bond toward their religion after attending the trip."

The research Jeremy cites was a study commissioned by MOTL and conducted by City College of New York Sociology and Judaic Studies Professor William Helmreich.

Helmreich's "research involved interviewing some 300 former participants that marched in 1992, 1999, and 2003 … His results show that the program is successful in its goal of strengthening Jewish identity. Not surprisingly, 93% of respondents felt the trip led to 'an increase in Jewish identity' … The program seems to espouse a particular view of Jewish identity based on persecution. 'The March of the Living definitely scared me into seeing what the future has in store for the Jewish people'" one participant reported.

Jeremy quotes Professor Tamar Rudavsky: "'[Jewish identity] should not be based on "don't forget what they did to us."' She went on to say that the March could, in theory, change from this paradigm if it allowed for the inclusion of other human atrocities besides the Holocaust. She quickly added, "And I suspect that will never happen."

"That will never happen," perhaps, because, as one informant put it, the theme of the march is not universal tolerance, but, rather, Jewish identity. One of Jeremy's informants said, "We have not … had interactions with Jewish Polish teenagers. Honestly, my goal of the trip is not to deal with the question of tolerance. My goal of the trip is to deal with the Jewish experience. If I were focusing more on the Holocaust I would probably deal more with these Polish teenagers."

A very negative Poland, populated by anti-Semitic victimizers, land of many of their ancestors, is contrasted with a very positive Israel: "Virtually everyone I spoke with either implied or explicitly stated that the March framed Poland in a negative light … I found that the March of the Living does portray both Poland and Poles negatively … it is likely that in order to reach its goal of emotionally affecting these students, Poland is portrayed as a place of great sadness which is then contrasted with Israel—the land of milk and honey. Even if this might be irresponsible, I found no evidence that it is malicious … the goal is to give students a stronger sense of Jewish identity … it appears the program encourages an identity based, at least in part, on themes of victimization and persecution … Currently the March provides a false picture of Poland. It appears the organizers do so to suit their needs: To build emotion, to contrast with a glorified Israel"

"The first page of the 2000 [MOTL] study guide informs the participant she will experience 'a journey from darkness to light.' The 2005 brochure speaks of a 'study of contrasts' between Israel and Poland. More implicitly, the brochure features an array of photographs of both Poland and Israel. Every picture in Israel is sunny whereas all the pictures of Poland, save for one are overcast. A view of the website shows color pictures of Israel contrasted with black and white pictures of Poland … the image has been retained over the years in order to create the impression that Poland is a dark, dreary country."

One concerned Polish observer reported, "I've had guides almost directly tell me that they were glad that the weather was bad because they needed to have the feeling that it was dark and grey and cold and then you come to Israel where it's sunny and warm."

Another aspect of the negative depiction of Poland is minimization of Poland's suffering under the Nazis. Jeremy reports that this is reflective of a lack of any attention paid to Polish suffering. "More telling is the lack of world attention given to the Polish plight. In conducting an internet data search, it took a considerable amount of time to find data regarding Polish casualties whereas figures on Jews were relatively easy to obtain … from my interviews with former participants of the March of the Living it seems that many Jews are unaware that Poles were also imprisoned and murdered in the camp."

Also, MOTL overemphasized Polish anti-Semitism. Here are quotes from Jeremy's informants, MOTL participants: "I have seen leaders speaking with hatred several times." "After [the trip] they said they hated the Poles, they hated Poland." "They felt they were free. They felt they were imprisoned in Poland. It could be that some of the leaders promoted it." "Kevin commented that the group leaders seemed to imply Polish responsibility was on par with the Nazis."

One MOTL participant "noted that the students were told not to spend money in Poland, which undoubtedly can only lead to an increase of resentment amongst Poles."

One participant reported that after the March, other participants said "they hated the Poles, they hated Poland. Now they were told not to spend the money in Poland but to spend the money in Israel. Not that you had to, but let's leave the money to Israel and not to Poland. They left Poland not liking it, hating it.

Carolyn Slutsky, in her contribution to the book "Rethinking Poles and Jews," also criticizes the MOTL admonition that Jews not spend money in Poland. She reports that Jewish youngsters were told by MOTL personnel not to "leave any good Jewish money in Poland"

Any aspect of Poland that is not related to anti-Semitism or the Holocaust was of little interest to MOTL: "The Poles appeared to be trying to foster a dialogue. One day during dinner the students found pamphlets (in English) about the positive aspects of Polish/Jewish history. Despite these small efforts, it appeared the participants were not interested in learning about Poland. 'We went to Warsaw [to see non-Jewish sites] twice which was optional. The guides tried to show us things but the students really weren't interested in seeing it.'"

As described in Bieganski, given the relentless association of Poland with the Holocaust, and the tunnel vision that erases any other aspect of Polish identity, Poland becomes metonymical for the Holocaust. One of Jeremy's informants said, "In Israel people talk about these trips as 'Trips to Poland.' They're not Shoah trips, that's not what they're called. They're called trip to Poland. The whole stereotype is that it's all Poland. It's all Poland's fault, somebody's got to be blamed."

A negative depiction of Poland cements Jewish identity during a time of rising assimilation. One informant, in a typed response that Jeremy did not correct, wrote: "there I are times when I have to remind myself, remember poland, people died for your relgion! Thast when I try and be a "better" jew, or at least more aware and a better person. I also feel mmore connected with my Grandparents, who are holocaust survivors, and they know that ive been there and thought about them and my relatives who perished there."

The emphasis on Poland as a land of violent anti-Semites is so great that some report feeling disappointed that they did not encounter anti-Semitism in Poland.

One MOTL participant told Jeremy, "I was sort of looking forward to having all those anti-Semites, so we could show them that 'we are here.'" Caught off guard, I asked if he felt disappointed that there was no one there yelling at him. "In a way I did. It's weird to say that…"

On informant reported, "All there was was a little group of [Polish] kids cheering us on waving an Israeli flag someone had given them."

One informant was disappointed at the nice weather in Poland. "I still wish the weather were harsher."

Jeremy interviewed scholar Anna Maria Orla Bukowska. She expressed frustration that she had tried to create positive contact between Poles and Jews, and been rebuffed.

Orla Bukowska told an interesting story of attempting to walk down a sidewalk in Krakow and being forced off the sidewalk by MOTL participants. She realized that if she had stood her ground she would have been castigated as an anti-Semite.

Jeremy acknowledges that his research is limited, but cautiously reports that "I have reached several conclusions. Perhaps most surprising is that the 'widespread' Polish anti-Semitism feared by Jews is largely a myth. The findings of this paper cannot be used to argue it does not exist—and I doubt anyone could argue such a thing. Rather, I can show that the notion that all or even most Poles have negative attitudes toward Jews is simply not true."

The good news here is Jeremy Simons himself. While reading his paper, I knew I was in contact with, simply, a decent human being, a nice guy, who was doing everything he could to be fair. Jeremy is Jewish and I am Polish and I sensed, while reading this work, that Jeremy had no desire to hurt me or people like me – this is an exceptional feeling while reading about the highly tense field of Polish-Jewish relations. Jeremy doesn't have a chip on his shoulder or a grudge he's trying to settle through his scholarship. He wants to be fair, to Jews and Poles, and his scholarship evidenced that.

Scholars like Jeremy Simons are the candle in the darkness.

1 comment:

  1. PS: I wrote to MOTL asking for comment from them. I hope to post any reply I receive. My post, below:

    "I wonder if you would care to take a moment to read my blog post and leave a comment, however brief, about how March has changed in recent
    years? Thank you for any feedback you can offer."


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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