Poland, 1988. First time the “March of Living” was going to be held. Jewish youth from around the world, Shoah survivors, world-renowned religious and political leaders, we would all be joining in a silent three kilometer walk that would start at Auschwitz and end at Birkenau. Marching in life, a path of death. Our delegation of teenagers was very moved to represent the Jewish Community of Guatemala in such a meaningful event.
We went out for a drink with a group of Jewish youth from other countries. We had strict orders to stay in the hotel: Poland was still communist, there were no cell phones at that time, and sadly antisemitism was still felt; but we were fifteen years old, so we sneaked out.
Our brightly colored clothes of the free world, contrasted with the gray tones of the Poles’ clothing; this is how communism dressed them: with somber colors. There was no tourism in those days, and we were aware that our presence was noticeable. It was inevitable: young and empowered teens, returning with dignity to the same place our close relatives had been murdered during this same 20th century. We had to draw attention.
We ended up in a small bar. The music that was playing was boring. Our friend from Finland asked the bartender to change the song. He ignored him. He asked again, only to be ignored again. He decided to put a $20 bill on the counter, and challenged him with: “Tina Turner”. The dollar bill was not ignored. The bartender raised it in his hand and shouted with disdain: “Music for the Jews”. There was a tense silence. I felt petrified; but we had already asked for the song. There was no going back: we danced to the song, among hostile looks. When it ended, we knew it was time to leave. One foot out the door, and we were running as fast as we could back to our hotel. At this time of night, the desolate streets of Warsaw felt even less friendly. Although more than four decades had passed since the end of the war, some surroundings were still in rubble. What Nazism did not destroy, communism was finishing off. My heart was racing. Maybe I should have stayed at the hotel.
Many years later I returned to Poland, again to the March of Life, but now with the eyes of a mother. I didn’t go out to listen to Tina Turner, but I came back with the motivation (need?) that the Shoah should be studied in the schools of Guatemala. Since 2015, thanks to the fact that Guatemala is a country where there is religious freedom, respect for diversity, and a historic friendship between our two nations, Shoah studies are mandatory and formally incorporated into the country’s school curriculum. Today, Guatemalan students learn about the Holocaust, and one of the main objectives is to empower them to raise their voices in a timely and emphatic manner, in the face of any form of violence and discrimination.
When a Jewish couple gets married, even in a moment of so much joy for the couple, the groom breaks a glass with his foot, to remember the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Just last week, we commemorated Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Martyrs´ and Heroes Remembrance Day. A week later, Yom Hazikaron begins, where we pay tribute to the fallen soldiers in wars and armed conflicts; a commemoration that has also been extended to honor the memory of civilian victims of terrorist acts. We go in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora, from the most heartbreaking service of remembrance in the modern history of the State of Israel, to immediately after celebrating with joy Yom Ha’atzmaut, its independence. How do we go from sorrow to joy? The Ecclesiastes says that everything that is done under heaven has its time: “…a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; …a time for war, and a time for peace. “
Having a State of Israel comes at an extremely high price. More than 24,000 fallen soldiers in wars and armed conflicts, and more than 4,000 civilian victims killed by acts of terror, are a devastating reminder that hatred and antisemitism are still present. However, the images of Shoah survivors, together with their grandchildren wearing IDF uniforms, instead of prison clothes, leave us filled with pride at the resilience of the Jewish people.
Mazel to the State of Israel in its 74th Independence Day! Am Israel Chai.