Holocaust survivor and visionary philanthropist, Zygmunt Rolat addressed students and and young people in Auschwitz – Birkenau at the annual March of the Living at the Arpil 16, 2015 commemoration. Mr. Rolat is one of key innovators and philanthropists who struggled to bring the museum; Polin: A Museum of the History of Polish Jews” to life. Today Mr. Rolat and a distinguished committee announced the winning design for a special long over due recognition of the over 6,000 Poles designated “The Righteous Among the Nations.”
Beit Polska’s focus is on building a Polish Jewish future through congregational life and welcoming people to learn about Judaism. Last week on April 17, the March of the Living young people filled the Beit Warszawa synagogue to overflowing. The March of the Living this year played out against an intense debate. Every year the question: how shall we remember the Holocaust hovers over the participants? This year an important focus was how shall we remember the brave Poles who aided Jews during the Holocaust. Inside of Poland a committee headed by Zygmunt Rolat was preparing to announce a long overdue monument to the Righteous Poles who risked everything to save their Jewish neighbors. An unwitting dialogue partner to the question of how to understand Poland appeared in the clumsy two sentences uttered by FBI Director Jame B. Comey at an event in Washington, DC. Comey stated:
“In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”
The clearest response to Comey’s statement for which he apologized came from Laurence Weinbaum who with razor precision parsed a number of historical issues. Another notable but flawed response came from Rabbi Jeff Salkin I was present at the dedication of the museum and shared thoughts on that momentous event in the Fall of 2014.
The March of the Living has evolved over many years and this year it seems to have reached a new moment. On April 18, 2015 at a special commemoration in Warsaw University’s largest venue a featured speaker was Czeslawa Zak, a recipient of Yad Vshem’s award, “Righteous Among the Naitons”. Ms. Zak’s courage and profound decency is hidden behind a disarming directness . Zygmunt Rolat refers to the fourth reason to remember the Holocaust not, by denying the special fate of Jews during the Holocaust but by seeking to join with others,
“our unity today encompasses all, Jews and non-Jews, who remember, grieve and mourn – and participate in our solidarity.”
Remembering the brave Poles who aided Jews during this dark time prevents Jews from giving in to despair. It recalls our duty of gratitude to those brave individuals..
Another of the pioneers in the re-building of Polish Jewry, Severyn Ashkenazy added his voice affirming the rightness of the monument to the Poles who rescued Jews in the square where the thousand years of Polish Jewish culture is celebrated and the bravery of those who suffered in the Warsaw Ghetto remains intertwined. Mr Ashkenazy wrote in praise of Mr. Rolat’s efforts to locate the monument next to the museum. Addressing Mr. Rolat’s critics Ashkenazy said: You have been speaking for twenty five years and have done … absolutely nothing to help, support and honor the saints who risked their and their families lives for us. Where are the pensions, the retirement homes, the clinics? Now you want to locate a monument to them at a site away from a place they have earned: close to us. A place visitors can easily access and pay homage.”