September 27, 2023

Medellin to Auschwitz and Back: Universal Lessons on Holocausts, Rebirth, Renewal

The people of Medellin, the surrounding Antioquia department and all of Colombia have been the victims of a 60-years-long civil war — provoked mainly by communist guerillas — that has resulted in more than 220,000 documented assassinations, thousands of kidnappings, forcible displacement of more than 6 million, massive narco-trafficking, and a consequent socio-economic catastrophe that to this day continues to stifle lives and opportunities for millions.

So what can a visit to Auschwitz – site of the greatest mass-murder in human history – tell Colombians what they don’t already know about Holocausts?

The answer: Hope.

That’s what Medellin Herald learned this month in a special 10-day, inter-faith group tour of Poland, which included expert-guided site visits to Auschwitz and Treblinka — two of the thousands of Nazi concentration camps in Europe where some 6 million Jews as well as millions of other prisoners were murdered, starved and worked to death.

Our tour guides included Auschwitz-born Tomasz Cebulski (author of the upcoming English translation of Auschwitz After Auschwitz, see:; European Jewish political/social historian Gerardo Ojeda-Ebert; Polish-Jewish history guide Jan Muranty; and outstanding leaders of several reborn local Jewish Community Centers, civic groups and slowly-recovering synagogues in Poland.

Following a narrated, guided visit to Auschwitz-I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, academician-author Cebulski hosted a special “debriefing” for our group. Among the 12 of us, some had specific knowledge of family members that either escaped the Nazis or else died in concentration camps.

In that debriefing, Cebulski pointed out that while Auschwitz was the largest-scale of all the Nazi death camps – with some 1.2 million murdered (mostly Jews) – other large-scale genocides have occurred elsewhere during the 20th Century, including the Cambodian massacres under Pol Pot, the Armenian massacres, and genocides in Rwanda and Burundi.

There are lessons for the whole human race, as Cebulski pointed out, citing a recent study – the Ten Stages of Genocide — by “Genocide Watch” president Gregory Stanton. Those 10 stages include “classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization [hate speech], organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and [finally] denial.”

“I would add one last, which is ‘silence,’” Cebulski added.

For example: At Auschwitz, Treblinka and elsewhere, the Nazis hurriedly dug-up mass graves of their victims, burned the bodies to ashes, dynamited gas-chambers and human ovens, plowed-over and replanted human-ash sites, and otherwise tried to cover-up damning evidence or intimidate witnesses.

“They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims,” Stanton explains. “They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force,” he added.

Long History, Fascinating Stories

What many in our tour group hadn’t realized is that Jews in Poland had a remarkable, progressive, 1,000-year history prior to the Holocaust, as revealed in fascinating detail at the outstanding Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews – an absolute must-see for anyone visiting Warsaw.  

Centuries after a series of Jewish diasporas – notably including what followed the Roman Empire’s destruction of the state of Israel around 70-AD — Poland gradually became a magnet and refuge for ever-growing numbers of Jews, starting around 900-AD, as the Polin Museum shows.

As a result, Poland eventually became home to more Jews than anywhere else on earth – more than 3 million– until the Holocaust disaster of World War II, when more than 90% were killed.

While this 1,000-years of Jewish history in Poland included various ups-and-downs — including epochs of displacements, restrictions and discrimination, and Russian pogroms following the collapse of the Polish state in 1772 – this “golden era” did open-up opportunities for many to become entrepreneurs, merchants, administrators, bankers, teachers, researchers, doctors, musicians, lawyers, religious leaders, inventors, linguists, scientists and many other careers.

The unfortunate down-side to all of this was that many European political and religious (mainly Catholic) leaders forcibly created an ethnic/religious class or caste system, in many cases separating “Jewish” professions from “Christian” professions.

As a result, only non-Jews could own or work farms, while Jews were restricted to certain professions — and appointed to serve as merchant bankers to kings and extended royal families.

This historic anomaly underlay a key Nazi propaganda myth about a supposed “international Jewish banking conspiracy”– a ridiculous claim contradicted by the existence of vast numbers of non-Jewish bankers, industrialists, merchants, entrepreneurs and other financial captains everywhere in the world, but ignored by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.

This class/caste-based system ultimately provoked what some termed as “racial” prejudice against Jews – enhanced by inflammatory, antisemitic retellings in certain Christian churches about the crucifixion of Jesus. (Thankfully, such inflammatory retellings have been drastically toned-down in modern Catholic Mass ceremonies, mainly as a result of enlightened actions by recent Popes.)

Of the estimated 200,000 Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, most later emigrated from Poland to Israel, North America and South America, the Polin Museum exhibits show.

As a result, only about 10,000 to 30,000 Jews remain today in Poland, many of them still “in the woods,” as Chilean-born but Poland-raised Ojeda-Ebert explained to our group.

Hiding of Jewish identity initially was a tactic to evade capture by the Nazis, but later became a strategy to avoid antisemitic discrimination by the Communist government that ruled Poland for more than 40 years following Nazi defeat, he added. Such discrimination accentuated during and after the Israeli-Arab conflict of 1967.

Rebirth, Renaissance

However, this “hiding” is now starting to dissipate, thanks in part to the collapse of Communism but also because of special efforts by mainly U.S.-based Jewish philanthropists that are helping to spark an emerging Jewish renaissance in Poland.

Among those signs of rebirth:

1.   A new Jewish Community Center (JCC) in the old Kazimierz district of Krakow, which got a key funding boost in 2002 from Britain’s Prince Charles. This JCC is currently led by two U.S. nationals: Jennifer Singer, director of External Relations, and Jonathan Ornstein, executive director.

As Singer explained in a presentation to our group, the JCC not only hosts a growing number of Jewish tours making side-trips to Krakow from nearby Auschwitz, but also is attracting many local, non-Jewish volunteers and collaborators – people anxious to help restore the rich Jewish culture, language, spiritual life and traditions that were stolen by the Nazis.

Also in Krakow: an ever-growing, annual Jewish Culture Festival, which ever since 1988 has featured music, poetry, guided tours, lectures and discussion workshops.

“Every year the festival features almost 300 events during 10 days, with 30,000 participants from many countries of the entire globe. About 150 artists, instructors and lecturers share their experience with our audience,” as Festival deputy director Robert Gadek explained.

2. Beit Warszawa, a growing, progressive synagogue in Warsaw founded by California philanthropist Severyn Ashkenazy. A Friday evening Shabbat service we attended was led and sung beautifully (entirely in Hebrew) by Miriam Klimova, originally from Ukraine but now living in Poland. Klimova learned Hebrew and Polish languages as a student in Poland, and told Medellin Herald that she soon plans to pursue further studies for the rabbinate.

3. TSKZ (Jewish national minority organization in Poland) “Srodborowianka” cultural center in suburban Warsaw, where we attended the Israel National Independence Day celebration with numerous local families and many joyous, playful children – a generation that represents a more-hopeful future for Poland. This center not only hosts numerous cultural events but also provides facilities for the International Seminar of Yiddish Language and other Jewish associations.

4. JCC Warsaw, led by Polish-born director Magda Saracyn, who is a child of a mixed marriage (Jewish and Catholic) but describes herself as a “Jew by choice.”

This downtown center, mainly funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), so far has 400 paying members plus about 1,000 occasional visitors.

JCC offers educational activities for children and families as well as workshops, lectures and “meet-ups” for adults, Saracyn explained.

The center exists as a meeting place “for all people having Jewish roots and background, for their families and relatives, but also their non-Jewish friends interested in our culture,” according to the organization. It doesn’t matter whether a person is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or even atheist, as JCC Warsaw is “open to individuals of all sorts of backgrounds.”

5. An especially poignant post-tour letter to all of our group from one of the Medellin-based participants in our Poland tour:

“Sometimes it seems that my whole life has been marked by Holocaust remembrances. I have seen filmstrips in school, watched films and read books, visited museums and memorials at home and abroad, spent hours at Dachau and in the Jewish quarter in Prague.

“Often the subtext, for better or worse, has been the necessity for Israel to exist as a refuge.

“As I rode on a train through the pine and birch forests from Vienna to Warsaw [to join the Poland tour group], I tried with difficulty to imagine myself on the train to Birkenau. But it was when I was actually standing in the boxcar on the rail siding in Lodz [Poland] that I truly felt the awful, chilling reality of what happened here.

“Through the years, when I thought about Poland (when I thought about it at all), I envisioned a land filled with thuggish, ignorant peasants who periodically rampaged against shtetl Jews in pogroms, happily abetted the Nazis during WW-II, and remained antisemitic in more politically correct ways in modern times.

“Such was my ignorance. I have learned that under the protection of Polish kings and nobility, Jews found freedom and the ability to create a vibrant culture that benefited all with whom they coexisted. The Poles, in resisting invaders over the centuries, were tacitly defending this culture within their midst, even as the ‘enlightened’ capitals of Europe fostered antisemitic libels and oppressed their Jewish citizens. What was true then remains true today.

“Going forward, with the knowledge I have acquired, I will not hesitate to correct misperceptions of the Polish people that I once held, both with Jews and with others that I may encounter. That is why I travel.”

What’s the lesson for Medellin and Colombia?  Just this: That even after unimaginable horrors such as the Holocaust, hope doesn’t die. People of different faiths, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds are starting to come together in Poland. They’re rebuilding — and making a better place, for a better future.

We can too.

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