Keeping the Memory and Spirit of Poland's Absent Jews Alive

Posted by Hannah Rosenthal
July 24, 2012
Auschwitz as Seen on June 6, 2012

As the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the child of a Holocaust survivor, I have found that the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust greatly influence my professional and personal life.

During my trip to Germany and Poland, I have reflected on those lessons while visiting the towns in which my father and family members lived -- and died. After an incredible time in Mannheim, Germany, where my father -- who had been a rabbi there before World War II -- was honored, my sister and I went to Poland to see how my father and his family lived. I know how they died.

The Rosenthal family came from Beuthen, Germany, in Upper Silesia, the part of Germany that became Poland after the war.

Bytom is one of the oldest cities in Silesia. Jews had lived in Beuthen -- now Bytom, Poland - -since the 11th century. It was a vibrant Jewish community with many Jewish institutions, a huge beautiful synagogue and many smaller ones, Jewish schools, community centers. And a large Jewish cemetery.

In May 1942, the entire Jewish community was liquidated via the first ever Holocaust transport to be exterminated at Auschwitz. My entire family was murdered that day.

Except Dad -- who was a rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, and arrested on Kristalnacht, November 9, 1938, and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. He was saved by Pastor Hermann Maas.

Visiting Bytom was both exhilarating and devastating.

When we went to see the gorgeous synagogue, where Dad had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and loved to tell us great stories about, there was no synagogue. Just a dilapidated gray apartment building. When we went to the cemetery, we hoped to find the graves of my grandmother and uncle who died before the war -- and therefore would have graves. But Polish activist Wlodzimierz Kac had something else in mind. He had researched my family and ended up showing us 18 Rosenthal graves. My grandmother Selma, my uncle Martin, great and great-great grandparents, great and great-great uncles, and aunts and cousins. Eighteen Rosenthals who we could honor. I am the last Rosenthal in my family.

Bytom is one of the oldest cities in Silesia. Jews had lived in Beuthen -- now Bytom, Poland - -since the 11th century. It was a vibrant Jewish community with many Jewish institutions, a huge beautiful synagogue and many smaller ones, Jewish schools, community centers. And a large Jewish cemetery.

Bytom now has not a single Jew and hardly any Jewish presence. Where once a bustling community thrived, there is not one single survivor. We visited two of the places Dad's family had lived. He had described his home's music room and parlors. Now the buildings are dark, dank, depressing. And mostly empty. We wondered how we could help restore a school or a prayer house, or clean up the cemetery, when there is no one to keep it up. The absence is profoundly present.

Many Poles are working on Holocaust remembrance initiatives, so perhaps it is but a matter of time before the Bytom community is included. In Krakow, I met Jewish community leaders and representatives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, and the Judaica Foundation. I learned about the present-day Jewish community in Poland and civil society engagement on Jewish history and culture. These organizations are doing important work, fostering interaction between Jews and non-Jewish Poles through dialogue, education, and cultural exchange. Several programs focus specifically on fostering interaction among Polish non-Jewish and Jewish youth. It was moving to meet the extraordinary people working to keep the memory and spirit of Poland's absent Jews alive.

And as I work to combat anti-Semitism, I too carry with me the memory and spirit of all those who came before me. The last Rosenthal, the child of a man who lost everything before creating a new life in the United States, I am committed to ensuring the horror of the Holocaust is not forgotten, and am privileged to do so while serving the country that welcomed my father so many years ago.

For more about Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal's work, visit www.facebook.com/SERosenthal.For more about the 2012 Hours Against Hate campaign visit www.facebook.com/2012hoursagainsthate.Related Content:Remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Forward-Looking Symposium on Genocide Prevention, July 24, 2012

Comments

Comments

Daniela D.
|
Romania
August 14, 2012

Daniela D. in Romania writes:

Never tears, only love and fogiveness!

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