One document discovered in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1950 was an essay in Polish by a woman called Gustawa Jarecka. This was written some time after September 1942, when there was a lull in deportations. By this time, all Jews in the Ghetto knew that they were living on borrowed time. The essay is particularly important as it considers the reasons why she and others were determined to continue documenting the horrors of the Ghetto and the slaughter of its inhabitants for as long as possible.
Jarecka wrote that even though, “words pale in comparison with the emotion tormenting us”, we want to “hurl a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it.” She hoped her words would force future generations to learn the lessons of history: “From sufferings, unparalleled in history, from bloody tears and bloody sweat, a chronicle of days of hell is being composed which will help explain the historical reasons why people came to think as they did and why regimes arose that [caused such suffering].” (Translation: Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History, 2009)
Gustawa Jarecka was murdered in Treblinka in January 1943 together with her two children. But her words live on. To this day, the single biggest question on the minds of those who visit Poland is still “Why?”. How could people commit crimes on such an unimaginable scale? And despite the inadequacy of our responses, because of people like Jarecka we are at least still asking the question 72 years later.
But my recent journey to Poland with March of the Living UK, as co-educator of a bus of some 45 students, provided me with another vital perspective on the contemporary relevance of Jarecka’s words. Like other contributors to the hidden Ghetto archive, Jarecka wanted to impress upon future generations the importance of not remaining indifferent to the tragedy of the Holocaust. In her eyes, simply reading the words of those who chronicled destruction without committing to creating positive change as a result, helping to “hurl the stone under history’s wheel”, as she put it, would be a failure.
In frequent discussions with students on the bus, young people who represented the entire cross-section of the British Jewish community and beyond, I was inspired by their commitment to do just that. Beyond attempting to understand the how, what and why of the Shoah, the bus was full of young people determined to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others, rather than simply walk away from the experience.
That commitment manifested itself in numerous ways. For some, the trip was a chance to discover the meaning of their own Jewish identity, through connecting not just with the Holocaust but with the centuries of pre-war history and traditions of the Jewish communities of Poland. For others, there was a personal desire to connect and share the experience with a community of other Jewish students, and thereby explore the possibility of becoming more involved in a Jewish community upon returning to the UK. And for some students, the trip simply granted them an opportunity for serious reflection upon the importance of the choices they make in life.
In a distracted student world of deadlines, exams, socialising and everything else in-between, these discussions were an eye-opening inspiration. I learnt that students who attend March of the Living are all on a journey of exploration in their own lives as well. Critically, the outstanding success of the trip is based upon the fact that no one else makes the decision as to the direction that journey should take on their behalf. But all those involved walk away with a sense that the future of our community is strong when it rests in the hands of those who think as deeply as these young people do about their own Jewish journey.
On the final evening of the trip, I asked one student who had expressed a desire on the first day to discover more about his own Jewish identity, whether he had satisfied his original aim. His response was remarkable both for its honesty and thoughtfulness. “I’m not sure”, he said, “but I have moved myself along the pathway”.
March of the Living, as the name itself implies, is a journey, rather than the end of the road. But to witness a bus full of Jewish students commit, in their own way, to answering Gustawa Jarecka’s plea to future generations never to remain indifferent, was an unforgettable privilege.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community