The March of the Living and Polish-Jewish Dialogue

An interview with Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, adviser to the Polish Prime Minister on dialogue with Jewish Diaspora

Christian Culture Fundation 'Znak'

Forum: Jews-Poles-Christians


Forum, March 2001

FORUM : The March of the Living by Jewish Youth from around the world takes place every year in April. This year the event took place on a slightly different aspects. What changes occurred and what are the future prospects for the March?

Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska replies :
Much has happened in the course of the last two years but whatever changes are still to take place must happen naturally and not be forced. As an organization, the March of the Living extends beyond the boundaries of any country, beyond the boundaries of Israel, where the idea was born. Participants in the March are young people from many different countries. I stress this fact because through the March of the Living makes it possible to reach many different Jewish communities. The tradition of the March is ten years old, and we now know that it will continue in the immediate future. We also know that the organizers of the March are ready to cooperate with us.
We have been engaged in serious talks for a year. Many things changed in 1998. Young People from Poland began taking an official part in the March. The organizers began holding official talks with the local government. And so we support the continuation of the March.

Last February, a seminar was held in Cracow and in Oświęcim. March officials from several countries were present, as well as representatives of the local authorities from the City of Oświęcim and the Village of Brzezinka. What subjects were dealt with?

The idea of the march and its organization were debated. The rights of the hosts and the rights of the guests were discussed and the organizers of The March offered for the first time to reimburse the city authorities for the cost of cleaning up after The March.

The organizers` intention is that the participants should come, above all, from various communities of Jewish youth, and that they should feel themselves to be Israelis. Isn`t this an obstacle to making the March truly international?

This is not a barrier. Young Poles march together with young Jews out of a feeling of solidarity, but also because their own forbears died here. What does constitute a barrier, however, is a simplistic formula like "Poland equals only death, and Israel equals life".

The important thing is for everyone - Jews and Poles-to treat each other as brothers and sisters during the March. Last year, individual groups from the March began holding meetings with young Poles. They had a chance to learn something about the history of their ancestors, about Jewish culture, and also about Poland, and what kind of country it is today. The first vacation meetings between young Israelis and Poles are scheduled for this summer. The ones who marched together through the camps. They already know each other, and won`t have to waste time on basic questions.

Is there a chance that Polish will be spoken during the March ceremonies, along with the many other languages in which testimony and prayers are offered?

Avraham Hirshon has agreed to the proposal that "Eternal Rest" be recited in Polish during next year`s March, along with the Kaddish that is recited by the Jews.

Do Polish Jews take part in The March?

This March was formerly closed not only to Polish youth but to young people from the Jewish diaspora in Poland. Polish Jews took part in the March this year, but they were not visible during the ceremony. In Warsaw, however, a meeting took place after the March. It came as a revelation to most of the visitors from abroad that Jews could live normal lives in Poland, observing their religion and traditions. This was the greatest stereotype that was overturned

Parliament recently passed a law to protect the sites of the former Nazi death camps. Can you tell us more about this?

The law covers the arrains adjacent to the former death camps. Some people mistakenly believe that the Act pertains to the actual grounds of the former camps. Nothing has changed, however, in regard to the camps themselves. The law states that the governors, as representatives of the government, take responsibility for what happens around the sites of the death camps. This is an instrument allowing the government to exclude the so-called "buffer zones" from local control.

The point is not that we distrust the local governments, but rather that the local governments have a different perspective. I would put it this way: those who have lived their whole lives in the shadow of a cemetery sometimes forget what is normal and what is not. They lose sight of the long-range implications of local decisions.

From the point of view of Warsaw, we can sometimes avert decisions that would otherwise have disastrous results. This law is not directed against the people who live within the hundred-meter buffer zone, or against those who wish to pay their respects to the victims. On the other hand, it prevents the use of such places for extremist demonstrations that undermine the solemnity of the place-no matter who stages such demonstrations.

Is the main purpose of this law to solve the problems caused by the crosses set up at the "gravel pit" adjacent to the Auschwitz camp?

No one denies that the new law may help to resolve this problem. We realized that both the government and the Episcopate were powerless in this matter-despite enjoying the support of the great majority of the population-because they did not have the required legal tools. The new law provides a chance to solve this problem. It will also prevent similar problems in the future, and not only at Auschwitz.

What progress is being made on the legislation about the restoration of property belonging to Jewish religious institutions?

A law was enacted in 1997 concerning properties once seized from the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church and more recently, the Orthodox Church. This law is being used to restore properties belonging to Jewish communities. A commission has been established to accept and act on restitution petitions, although this can be difficult in some cases. Sometimes a settlement is reached in which the community receives money instead of real estate. So far, 250 petitions have been received, and 50 have been resolved positively. The one difference, as compared to the other religions, is the longer period-two years-in which petitions are being accepted. The legislature realized that it will be particularly difficult for Jewish communities to establish the legitimate heirs, that this can take time.

What else remains to be done to foster Jewish-Polish dialogue?

The most important thing is to move forward in this dialogue on a basis of equality. As soon as we wrap up the distasteful matter of the "gravel Pit", which disturbs normal dialogue, then there should be important steps by both sides. For instance, Poland hopes that the next time the New York Times publishes an article referring to "Polish concentration camps", there will be protests from serious Jewish bodies-signed, for instance, by the Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. When both sides know what is permissible, then the dialogue will be more dynamic.

In Poland, there is still a problem with disseminating information about the Holocaust. Basically, we don`t know much about it in Poland. I can see this from the reactions of my teenage daughter`s friends. All you have to do is look at the textbooks used in elementary schools. Under "Auschwitz", there is mention of Polish victims and of Father Kolbe, but the Jewish issue does not appear at all. The mass destruction of the Jews is not referred to as the "Holocaust". The Ghetto Uprising and the deportations from the ghettoes to the camps are discussed, but in a somewhat misleading way. This must change.