In Poland last month, I was shown a copy of the April 3-9 issue of Tylko Polska, an extreme right-wing tabloid available on Warsaw newsstands. There, on page 17, I saw a piece in which I featured by name as an enemy of Holocaust deniers.
I have never been embarrassed about my determination to fight racism and antisemitism. The item in the Polish newspaper only reinforced my view that there is a moral duty to ensure that the victims of Nazism are not denigrated.
A few days before I was in Warsaw, I spoke on the eve of Yom HaShoah (the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for mourning and remembering the victims of Nazism) at Majdanek, a place of unspeakable horror, torture, deprivation and murder. I was accompanying a group of nearly 90 outstanding high school students and over 30 other adults, as part of the March of the Living program.
The students, from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Auckland, had participated in educational and socialisation sessions, and were dedicated to honouring, commemorating and remembering lives lived, and lives brutally ended at the hands of the Nazis.
On Yom HaShoah itself, we joined close to ten thousand others in a procession steeped in memory, mourning and reflection, beginning at Auschwitz and concluding in Birkenau. A dramatic and elevating international ceremony was followed by a dignified, emotional commemoration conducted by the Australian students.
In one intense and carefully planned week, superbly led by a team of outstanding educators, we travelled to many parts of Poland and learnt about the lives of pre-war Jewry, visiting synagogues, and the horrors of Nazism at sites of ghettos, slave labour facilities, murder camps and mass graves.
Amongst the most affecting events were the prayer services conducted in a yeshiva and synagogues which were transformed from monuments to death to sites of celebration of life. This was in large part due to the inspiring personalities of the two survivors of the Shoah who accompanied the group and contributed their personal experiences.
One of these extraordinary men provided a very special occasion when, in Israel, he had the Bar Mitzvah celebration denied him by the Nazis. Indeed, the visit to Israel which followed the Poland leg provided opportunities not only for communication and education, but for genuine enjoyment, as part of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
The exhausting if not exhaustive itinerary gave the impressive group of Jewish students participating an unparalleled opportunity to learn about Jewish history and Jewish life today, while two conferences I attended in Jerusalem dealt with the future.
The Jewish Peoples’ Policy Planning Institute, a think tank which draws on expertise from Israel, the US, Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Australia and Europe, hosted lively discussions on issues relating to Jewish identity and engagement with the world at large.
The JPPPI folded into the President’s Conference, an amazing event hosted in unique style by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Guests included more than a dozen serving heads of state and as many former heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, inventors and investors, students and scholars, serving soldiers and military analysts, journalists and Jewish activists.
With a crowded agenda in a crowded venue, personalities such as Vaclav Havel, Alan Dershowitz, Martin Indyk, Abby Joseph Cohen, Susan Decker and Baroness Ruth Deech rubbed shoulders, literally and figuratively, with the other boisterous and enthusiastic guests gathered to discuss “Facing Tomorrow”.
The intellectual dynamism of modern Israel, the commitment to building a better future for humanity and the willingness to listen respectfully while arguing aggressively were on show, with discussions of international affairs, the nature of “Jewish identity” and the relationship between Jews and Muslims taking place alongside seminars on the future of media and Chinese scholarship on Jews and Judaism.
The conference was, above all, a celebration of life and an affirmation of the future. It was the best possible way to complete a journey beginning with a commemoration of the victims of a regime which aimed to extinguish Jewish life forever.