04/16/2015 05:31 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2015

As March At Auschwitz Commemorates The Holocaust, Poles Reflect On Their Country's Attitudes Toward Jews

KRAKOW, Poland -- On April 16, 10,000 marchers, most of them Jews and Holocaust survivors from more than 12 countries, marched from Auschwitz I to Birkenau to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Yom HaShoah, the Israeli day of Holocaust remembrance. The event honors the 6 million Jews, as well as the 5 million other minorities, including Romanis, Slavs, people with disabilities and other groups, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Krakow, the second-largest city in Poland, was home to 70,000 Jews in 1939 before the massacres in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps began. Over the next several years, 55,000 Jews were expelled. Of the 15,000 who remained in Krakow, almost all were murdered at German death camps by firing squad, gas chamber or crematorium. Plaszow concentration camp stood within a mile of Krakow’s center, standing in stark juxtaposition to the city’s colorful markets.

On the morning of the commemoration, known as the March of the Living, the streets of Krakow were bustling, and some local residents were unaware an event was taking place. Asked about the Holocaust, Michel, a Krakow restaurant owner who asked that his last name not be used, said, "It's not something I've ever heard people talk about. We don't like to remember that stuff."

Tomek Kuncewicz, who is director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center and a Polish non-Jew, offered a few reasons some residents of Krakow might not be aware of the event. First and foremost, Yom Hashoah is the Israeli day of Holocaust remembrance, not the Polish one. Kuncewicz noted that Poland observes both Jan. 27, which marks the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, and April 19, the anniversary of Warsaw ghetto uprising. There are also other smaller commemorations throughout the year, involving ceremonies, community gatherings, and lectures and exhibits hosted by local museums.

“There is a strong segment of the Polish society that is interested in the Polish Jewish heritage and dialogue,” said Kuncewicz. “There has been a strong trend in Poland to work on this and confront anti-Semitism.”

Only about 1,000 Poles participate in the march each year because of logistical reasons, said David Wajntraub, one of its organizers, though he noted that many Polish schools ask to participate.

"The March of the Living doesn't need to encourage Poles to participate, the interest is there," Wajntraub said.

Wajntraub also argued that while anti-Semitism is still thriving in Poland, the situation is worse for Jews in other European countries. "It would be stupid to say Poland is not an anti-Semitic society," he said, "but at the same time it's probably the safest place for Jews in Europe."

A 2013 survey by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw found that "about 30 percent of Poles openly declare aversion towards people with Jewish origins and this trend seems to remain constant, about 12 percent of Poles would not accept to work with a person of Jewish nationality, about 14 percent of Poles would not accept a person of Jewish nationality as a neighbor, about 24 percent of Poles would not accept the marriage of their relative with the person and up to 90 percent of Poles do not know personally any single Jewish person."

Estimates from a 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish non-governmental organization, put the number of Poles who harbor anti-Semitic attitudes much higher, at 45 percent. That compares to 27 percent of people in Germany and 37 percent of people in France.

Beata Biel, a Polish journalist, filmmaker and television producer, believes that anti-Semitism in Poland is "no greater and no different than in any other country." Biel was born in Krakow and has been living in Warsaw for two years. Her great-grandfather, a Polish non-Jew, died in Auschwitz.

She suggested that many Poles don't express opinions about Jews or Israelis out of fear. "We don't express our attitudes toward Jewish or Israeli people because we’re so afraid of being called anti-Semitic," Biel said. "We don't work on programs with Israeli and Jewish groups, and we're almost afraid of interfering with anything that is Jewish or Israeli."

Only 3,200 Jews live in Poland, according to a 2013 report from the Berman Jewish Databank.

Biel believes this might explain the lingering anti-Semitism. "We don't know any Jews because there are so few of them here," she said. "We don't talk about it during our average day, because it's long gone, it's history, but there are commemorative events happening here all the time."

Zuzanna Radzik, a board member for the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a nonprofit Polish organization that aims to deter anti-Semitism and facilitate dialogue between Jews and Poles, says she is hopeful about the future of cooperation and understanding in Poland. The organization has educational programs in 50 schools a year and help students create local, social projects about Jewish history and relations.

"Everything we do here is to foster Jewish and Polish relations," she said. "Just right now we are hosting a conference with 40 local activists who have decided they want to take care of Jewish graveyards and are doing commemorations. I don't think any of them are Jewish."

Arek Dybel, creative director of the Poline Museum of the History of Polish Jews, who is Jewish, shared that optimism. "We in the younger community, we don't feel so much anti-Semitism in Warsaw," he said. "I think that education is the most important thing, because a lot of anti-Semitic prejudice comes from not knowing about the Polish-Jewish history and the importance of the role of the Jews."

Holocaust survivor Max Eisen, who has participated in 14 previous marches, also shares the hope for improved Jewish-Polish relations. "We're only fooling ourselves if we think anti-Semitism will disappear," he said, "but I think it's getting better in Poland."

The following photos depict scenes from both Krakow and Auschwitz on Yom Hashoah.

Krakow and Auschwitz On Holocaust Remembrance Day

Editor's Note: This article has been updated throughout with additional reporting, including information about other Holocaust remembrances observed in Poland. Quotes from Michel, Kuncewicz, Wajntraub, Biel, Radzik, Dybel and Eisen have also been added, and changes have been made throughout to address incomplete reporting in the original version.



Holocaust Memorials