Hold AIPAC in Warsaw Next Year!

There were three strawberries in the glass on the table.  They were part of the Bar Mitzvah spread, so I presumed they were dessert.  Only later would I discover they were the whole reason to be there.

Earlier that day I had been in Park East Synagogue, New York, where there were a good number of Polaks in the congregation.  Not so unusual – except that among them were a good number of Polish Catholics.  In the row behind me an old Polish Jew in his eighties, whispered loudly into ear of the Polish Catholic with him, describing blow by blow what was unfolding on the Bimah.  Why were old Jews and Catholics in shul together?

There was more than one Bar Mitzvah boy this week. The Bnai Mitzvah were 13 year old Henry Asulin and alongside him on the Bimah, his 83 year old grandfather, Sigmund Rolat.  It happens, right?  The older generation reaches the point of their ‘Second Bar Mitzvah’, seventy years after their first.  But Sigmund Rolat, like his grandson, was becoming Bar Mitzvah for the first time.  In 1943 he was in the HASAG slave labor plant in Czestochowa.

Like many Polish Jews, Sigmund Rolat has good reason to complain about his country of birth.  His childhood was marked by starvation, slave labor, and death, all experienced in his hometown of Czestochowa.  Poland had become a death trap.  He could be bitter, angry, disappointed, traumatized, empty and very, very sad about his Polish past.   But such understandable emotions turned out to be the easy way out for him.  Instead, he chose a more difficult road.

Even now people shake their heads at him.  ‘There is no Jewish renaissance in Poland, and never will be,” or “The Poles are all anti-Semites, it is a waste of time.”   Maybe.  But who is to say?   Rule out Sigmund Rolat as a whimsical dreamer, lost in nostalgia of a world destroyed – and underestimate the power of individual effort.

As New York emptied out, like a summer vacation, on a week when thousands of the most influential Americans (Jews and non-Jews) descended upon Washington DC to remind the Federal Government – regardless of its politics – of the importance of the Jewish State, and with it the Jewish future, one 83 year old man travels alone to Poland.

I have a suggestion for all those interested in making a strong statement about the Jewish future. Hold AIPAC in Warsaw next year!

You think I have my wires crossed, right?  Wrong place?  Wrong century?  The shameful past.  But the real power of the Jewish world is to believe in who you were, as well as the power play of who you think you are.  If you know who you were, you will also know who you can become.

Before the Holocaust, Warsaw would have been the obvious place to hold an AIPAC meeting.  Urban, sophisticated, and thoughtful, there was a Jewish community that was shaping the continent, contributing more to Jewish history, religion, politics and literature, language and culture than any other – yes including the United States –  and was right at the heart of the Zionist effort.

If you think that by denouncing ‘Poland’, you make a universal declaration against the kind of anti-Semitism that will surely never die, you indulge in self-fulfilling prophecy.  Rolat’s example shows the Jewish world that if you believe in yourself and can celebrate your past, you have strength for your future too.  The old Polish Jews and Catholics were in shul together, because they believed in the man that believed in them.  Play the power-politics if you must, but individual day to day strength of purpose, humility and self-belief – that’s what really works.  Rolat first learned that from his mother.

Three strawberries tumbled onto my plate.  I was about to wolf them down, but just at that moment the old guy with the walking stick took the microphone.  Congratulating his grandson, Rolat explained that in the labor camp – which still allowed some family connections – his mother came to him and told him how she wished he could have a Bar Mitzvah.  Instead, she explained to him that should he survive he must never be like those who persecuted them, and to reach out in strength and self-belief.  The young boy looked at his mother, who just a short while later would be murdered in the most horrific circumstances.  She smiled at her little boy and there in the labor camp she gave him the most courageous Bar Mitzvah gift I have ever heard of. Yes. Three strawberries.


About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.