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Holocaust memories and ‘roots tourism’ in Eastern Europe

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A trip to Eastern European cities cannot be complete without visiting the Jewish quarters. The beautifully inscribed names of Bohemian and Moravian Holocaust victims on the inner walls of the serene Pinkas Synagogue in Prague brought tears to my eyes. The text of the inscriptions was compiled from card indexes, drawn up shortly after the war on the basis of extant transport papers to ghettos and extermination camps, registration lists and survivor’s accounts. Most of the sites were destroyed during the World War and the Nazi invasion and were rebuilt, many revived in the post Communist era with funding from American-Jewish organizations or private donors.

A room upstairs had drawings of children from the Terezín concentration camp. As I looked at the children’s drawings during my visit in March, my thoughts went to the drawings I saw at the Dehesiah refugee camp in the West Bank and an exhibition of paintings from children of Gaza. Children’s expressions of their constrained and hostile environment were quite similar, with images of soldiers with guns, tanks and airplanes surrounding their homes.

Krakow, the historical capital of Poland with a rich Jewish history, was my next stop. A few kilometers from Auschwitz, it is also known for Schindler’s factory seen in Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. The old Jewish quarter has beautiful buildings with empty once-vibrant open markets.

Tourism opened up in Poland only after the end of the Communist rule in 1989. Today, Jewish heritage tourism, also called “roots tourism” is a thriving business, revived by American Jewish foundations, the two most significant being The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and The Taube Foundation. Tourists, mostly from Israel and the US, come to visit the Jewish quarters and concentration camps. Permits to be a tourist guide are given only to Polish citizens but Israelis have been granted an exception.

In 1987, Ronald Lauder, son of Estee Lauder, established the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a philanthropic organization that is dedicated to rebuilding Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The foundation supports student exchange programs between New York and various capitals in Central and Eastern Europe. Lauder is also President of World Jewish Congress.

The Taube Foundation, founded by Tad Taube, originally from Poland, established the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland (JHIP) in 2004. Taube was chairman of Koracorp Industries and serves on the boards of a variety of nonprofits, including the Hoover Institution, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and the Stanford Athletic Board. The Initiative aims to nurture the revival of Jewish life in Poland, bring further awareness of this resurgence among Jews and non-Jews and foster positive interest in Poland and Polish Jews among American Jews.

Part of the revival project is an annual Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow where thousands of people come from all over the world. According to Taube in an interview in Philanthropy Roundtable in 2009, around 300,000 Americans go to Poland every year. He believes that when the Museum for the History of Polish Jews opens in Warsaw, we’ll see one million foreign visitors per year to that museum alone.

The Holocaust educational tours take young girls and boys to ghettos and death camps with the tour leader recreating the horrors and details about how Jews were exterminated. The objective is to not only revive the past but also bring awareness and prepare the young generation to fight anti-Semitism today’s world.

“Auschwitz is special to us too,” said a local 40 year old tourist guide who prefers to remain anonymous. “Before the German Nazis targeted the Jews, they exterminated Poles. Fifty percent of the people killed by Nazis were non-Jewish Poles,” she said. “Many of my clients are Jews who have come here to trace their roots and find the location of their buried ancestors”, she explained. “I understand their trauma. But sometimes I wonder if it is psychologically healthy to continuously think about being a victim and revisit history.” 

When Poland lost six million people it was, according to Professor Richard Lukas, author of The Forgotten Holocaust, the highest ratio of losses to population of any country in Europe. The country was devastated and almost destroyed. Poland, in effect, became a Holocaust survivor — a pathetic skeleton of a country, soon to be further ravaged by the Communists: 

“The genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in the deaths of as many Polish Gentiles as Polish Jews, thus making them co-victims in a Forgotten Holocaust. This Holocaust has been largely ignored because historians who have written on the subject of the Holocaust have chosen to interpret the tragedy in exclusivistic terms–namely, as the most tragic period in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. To them, the Holocaust was unique to the Jews, and they therefore have had little or nothing to say about the nine million Gentiles, including three million Poles, who also perished in the greatest tragedy the world has ever known. Little wonder that many people who experienced these events share the feeling of Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, anxious when the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and prisoners of other nationalities.” — Richard C. Lukas, preface to The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944

“A Jewish guide confronted me on using the word extermination for non-Jews,” said Andrzej Bajek, another tourist guide. “Why should the term holocaust and extermination only be used for Jews?” he asked. “We don’t want to diminish their tragedy but why should the killing of non-Jewish Poles during World War II not be recognized the way same way as Jews?” he asked. 

“News articles in the United States and Western Europe including Germany label concentration camps set up by German Nazis as Polish concentration camps falsely implying it was a Polish policy and tactic of the World War II,” said 26 year old Anna Malinowska, who grew up in Poland and now lives in the United States. “Many Jewish people lived in Poland since the 13th century. Yes there was anti-Semitism before World War II started but just as much as in France, Britain or other European countries. What is missing today is a dialogue between the young generation of Poles and Jews to learn about one another that could lead to a better future,” she continued.

“Israelis who come to see our country only visit the Holocaust sights. They don’t visit museums, parks, castles or churches. They are not allowed by their guardians to have free time in the city to go to a disco club or concert. If we can’t see them in the natural environment where can we learn about them? Israel is not interested in conducting international exchanges for school kids. I think this is where we are very different. Polish people have a much bigger curiosity to learn about Jews than they have to learn about Poles,” said 30 year old Karina Tomczyk, a specialist in Jewish heritage tours studying Jewish religion, culture and history. “For the world’s Jews this is a dead end road, a graveyard, nothing else except a place of despair. Every day I try to bring hope to these people,” she continued.

Tomczyk also talked about the present and the disappointment with the Allies saying, “I think we are angrier about today than of the past. The USA wants to put in here their anti-missile shields; they want our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are there for everyone and still not appreciated. We never were and are still not considered a partner.”

Public discourse in the post World War II era has not given other genocides the same acknowledgment as that of the Jews. Often, the politically motivated Zionist narrative uses generations of persecution of the Jewish community in Europe to justify and continue its ideology, making it difficult for people to differentiate between the Jewish community and the state of Israel. Criticism of Israel is equated to anti-Semitism and often leads to confusion between Zionism and Judaism. 

I asked a young Israeli girl now studying in New York standing in line to buy tickets to the synagogues in Prague what she thought of the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. “Their suffering is nothing compared to ours. They may be segregated and live in bad conditions but it is not as bad as the ghettos. We get trained to think no one’s pain is comparable to ours so it dehumanizes us from their pain,” she shrugged.

Dr Mona elFarra, a physician, human rights and women’s rights activist living in Gaza Strip described the living conditions in her blog, From Gaza, With Love on February 26, 2010, “The small piece of land that is Gaza is surrounded by electrical wires and closed borders, where 1.6 million live from one day to another with all sorts of hardships and no political outlet, exacerbated not only by the occupation but also the internal division.”

The Israeli navy’s attacks on the Mavi Marmara boat sailing from international waters into Gaza in 2010 to break the siege of Gaza, organized by the Free Gaza Movement is a proof of Gaza’s occupation where even the waters are not free. Today Israel is working at the highest diplomatic level, pressurizing governments to disallow boats to sail from their countries. The West Bank is not any better with Jewish settlements, special roads for Jews, checkpoints and walls shrinking Palestinian land. 

My trip to East Europe left me disturbed not only with Europe’s brutal past but also the world we live in today. The only way forward seems to be to acknowledge the past, move away from its shackles and work towards a world based on equality, justice and freedom from racism and prejudice.

Yasmin Qureshi is a human rights activist involved in social justice movements in South Asia and Palestine.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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