WARSAW, Poland — The March of the Living, the annual procession from Auschwitz to Birkenau to commemorate the Holocaust, evokes the full range of emotions.
There is horror at the sight of the train platform where Jews were “selected” for life or death. There is joy, even in the ruins of the camps, at the exuberance of young people wrapped in Israeli flags, singing idealistic songs, creating a new life where the Nazis had sought to extinguish it forever.
What stood out most on Thursday, however, was the theme of solidarity between Jews and Poles.
While the relations between the State of Israel and post-communist Poland have been very strong — as they have been with most of the former Soviet satellites, who share Israel’s zeal for sovereignty and democracy — the Polish-Jewish relationship has often been tense, owing to disagreements about the role Poland played during the Holocaust.
Growing up in the Jewish community in Chicago — which has the largest Polish population outside Warsaw — we were exposed in early childhood to some basic facts about the Holocaust, including the fact that many of the people who saved Jews were Polish.
When I was in third grade, two Polish Christians among the 6,700 who have been recognized by Israel as the “Righteous Among the Nations” visited my Jewish day school and told us their story. We planted two trees in front of the school in their honor.
But we also learned that the folk antisemitism of Eastern Europe contributed to the collaboration or indifference of other Poles. In a few cases, Poles murdered Jews after the war was over.
And there are also unfortunate misunderstandings. One of the most popular texts about the Holocaust remains Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel that uses animals as symbols for people. The Jews are mice and the Germans as cats. But the Poles, for some reason, are drawn as pigs.
On the Polish side, the fact that the Soviet Union suppressed the truth about the Holocaust meant that many Poles did not understand what it meant until recently — and that antisemitism survived in postwar Poland.
On my first visit to Poland with a Jewish youth group in 1995, we were heckled by local kidss as we visited old Jewish cultural sites. Other friends had similar experiences. And statistically, Poland remains one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe.
So when the Polish government passed a law in February making it a crime to accuse the “Polish Nation” of “Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich,” Jews around the world were outraged, seeing it as another Polish attempt to deny the past.
There were some calls for the March of the Living to be called off, or to be held in the Ukraine instead. One Israeli opposition leader even referred, erroneously, to “Polish death camps” in declaring his indignation.
And yet, on the day itself, the March of the Living was replete with gestures of solidarity between Jews and Poles. Far from jeering the procession, young Poles lined the parade route, holding flags and waving to participants.
— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) April 12, 2018
Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg, 92, also carried a Polish flag. In his speech at the memorial, he noted that the dead included over one million Poles.
“There were no Polish extermination camps, nor a Polish Holocaust,” he declared.
Israeli leaders adopted a nuanced approach. They marched alongside Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, and praised Polish efforts to rescue Jews. But they did not withhold their criticism.
As Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, put it: “It was not the Poles who created the death camps, but our people were not just killed in camps.”
Former Israeli chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau urged Duda to tell his people the whole story, because they were bound to learn it eventually.
Rather than boycotting, or condemning the Polish government, Israeli leaders chose to participate and to stress the common bond between the two peoples.
Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, remarked to Breitbart News that Israel was grateful for Poland’s support against one-sided, anti-Israel votes at the UN.
But there was more to the Israeli overtures than realpolitik. There was also a sense of maturity about the relationship with Poland, and about debate.
Too often, in today’s world, people react to offensive statements — real or imagined — by acting “triggered.” They either lash out — sometimes violently — or demand that the person who offended them be silenced.
More broadly, the phenomenon of being “triggered” is one that has spread from college campuses to the mainstream media with the rise of the millennial generation, who seem to regard opposing views as an existential threat.
Somehow, we have failed to teach this new generation how to disagree respectfully and resolve differences through debate and dialogue.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, according to a new survey, American millennials are shockingly ignorant about the Holocaust. That ignorance means that millions of millennials in the United States and elsewhere fail to understand how the decay of free speech can lead, eventually, to tyranny.
And it also causes many to believe the false notion, spread by the left-leaning mainstream media, that President Donald Trump is the second coming of Adolf Hitler, and that his supporters are racists or neo-Nazis.
Millennials — in general — apparently know so little about the Holocaust that their minds can be manipulated into accepting lies that only deepen our social divisions — divisions that pose the real threat to our democracy.
In this case, the March of the Living could have abandoned Poland because of the way in which an ill-conceived law, which was intended to protect Poles from collective defamation, needlessly repressed free speech and hurt the feelings of many Jews.
Poland was “triggered” by criticism, and responded in a potentially destructive way.
But Israel’s leaders, and Jewish community leaders abroad, decided to continue to engage the Polish government.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a Breitbart News contributor who was present at the march, had a heart-to-heart conversation with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — one that was apparently widely cited in the Polish press.
And Israeli speakers at the March of their Living couched their criticism in genuine gratitude for Polish heroism.
President Rivlin even sketched a way forward together: “If the Polish People feels that its image has been distorted by the events of the Holocaust, it is more important that we cooperate, that we invest in education, that together we establish research institutes, that together we work on commemoration and remembrance, that together, we – Poles and Jews – study what happened, so that we make sure that it will never happen again.”
That is how people with common values ought to disagree with each other: with a view to working out their differences.
The posture of being “triggered” not only risks destroying dialogue altogether, but it also compounds the pain felt by the offended party.
Mosberg said that the idea of boycotting Poland deserved a “Nobel Prize for stupidity.” As he implied in his remarks to the marchers, being “triggered” can mean sacrificing the truth for the sake of dignity.
Better to let people speak — even if you believe they are wrong.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.