WARSAW – More than 200 Israeli and American students gathered in the heart of Warsaw’s former Jewish ghetto on October 31, holding candles to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ghetto’s erection by Poland’s Nazi occupiers.
Organized by the Israel-based From the Depths organization, the vigil took place at the former site of Mila 18, where the ghetto’s young Jewish fighters took their last stand against Nazi deportations to the death camp Treblinka.
Shortly after sunset, four buses filled with Israeli high school students from Nesher, outside Haifa, joined a group of Boston-area college students who helped organize the commemoration. Local Poles and several media personalities also attended the somber gathering, put on while Halloween was raucously celebrated in other parts of the city.
“This is so important for our students to be here along with other Jewish students from the States, as well as Poles,” said Racheli Buganim, head of the Israeli delegation touring Poland this week.
“Our theme today was heroism, and this is where so many Jewish heroes gave their lives for the Jewish people,” said Buganim.
Following brief remarks by vigil organizers, participants observed two minutes of silence and sang “HaTikva,” Israel’s national anthem.
“This was the first vigil I ever attended, and it was not in India, where I grew up, or in the US where I live, but in Poland and for Jews,” said Apoorva Arora, a senior at Wellesley College studying economics.
“It takes a lot of courage to do what the fighters did,” said Arora. “We are paying respect to the idea of resistance and not giving in, and fighting until the very end.”
Commemorating the Holocaust through “active memory” projects has taken off in recent years, as fewer survivors remain to share their experiences. Active memory projects make Holocaust commemoration a communal affair, transforming individual stories into collective “actions.”
‘We are paying respect to the idea of resistance and not giving in, and fighting until the very end’
“Holding this commemoration as active memory on the site of Mila 18, from where the uprising against Nazi genocide was organized, is an experience these students will never forget,” said From the Depths head Jonny Daniels, who organizes Holocaust-related projects throughout Poland.
Warsaw has seen several examples of active Holocaust memory in recent years, including the use of six-petal daffodil images throughout the city for annual commemorations. Elsewhere in Europe, gold-colored “stumbling stones” have been placed in front of murdered Jews’ former homes, forcing passersby to confront the Shoah in their everyday travels.
“We stood in silence for two minutes, united in memory and tribute to the victims,” said Maciej Jan Pinkowski, a Polish activist who attended the vigil.
“Had the Nazis won, they would have slaughtered other nations too,” said Pinkowski. “And that makes tonight’s gathering in a Warsaw backyard quite important, irrespective of national identity.”