The proposal came via the Polish Embassy. The 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz was approaching and Poland was hoping to see high-level participation by a Canadian delegation. I presented the invitation to my boss, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, the Honourable Jason Kenney, who has always maintained excellent relationships with both the Polish and the Jewish communities and felt a special responsibility to accept the invitation on behalf of the Government of Canada. As a Polish-Canadian myself, I eagerly took to planning the logistics for what would be a short, but meaningful visit.
Organizing the logistics with our Embassy in Warsaw was made all the more challenging by the unforeseeable disaster that struck Haiti. As the Minister responsible for citizenship and immigration, Mr. Kenneyimmediately became involved in the cross-government effort to deal with the aftermath – in particular helping to unite adopted Haitian children with their new parents in Canada. The trip to Poland suddenly appeared to be in doubt. Thankfully, the urgent issues pertaining to Haiti were addressed and the Minister was able to follow through on his important commitment to attend the commemoration ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
En route to Warsaw, I reviewed the briefing binder in preparation for the numerous meetings packed into the schedule. Upon our arrival mid-afternoon, we were greeted by the new Canadian Ambassador to Poland, His Excellency David Costello. With no free time to spare, we immediately embarked on the first leg of our visit; a brief exploration of Polish history during the Second World War. We received a tour of the impressive and modern Warsaw Uprising Museum, where we learned about the discovery of a downed Royal Canadian Air Force Halifax bomber shot down by the Luftwaffe while delivering supplies to the Armia Krajowa, the underground Home Army. We also visited the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, where hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were imprisoned in inhuman conditions before being shipped to the Nazi death camps. These traces of the Ghetto were particularly moving when one stopped to remember that, a year after the ghetto was destroyed, almost the entire city of Warsaw was flattened.
>We spent Thursday at Auschwitz, participating in a conference of mostly European Ministers of Education on Holocaust education and commemoration. Attending this conference at one of the more infamous sites of the Holocaust was especially poignant. The discussion focused on the efforts of participating countries to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten.
What followed was the culmination of the visit. We departed as a group for the Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp, walked through the infamous main gate and passed rows upon rows of foundations upon which barracks once stood. The silence was deafening and the sight disturbing. It was incredibly cold, and I couldn’t help but imagine the tens of thousands of innocent prisoners freezing just beyond the fences that still stand today.
We arrived at a tent where the official speeches were about to begin. The speakers included numerous luminaries, such as the President and Prime Minister of Poland, the President of the European Parliament, and, most notably, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. This was in addition to hundreds of delegates from all around the world – including many Jewish, Polish, Roma and other survivors, as well as Soviet veterans. However, there was one absence that was particularly notable – that of Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. Participants were disappointed that the Russian President declined the invitation to participate in the commemoration of one of the few uncontroversial achievements of the wartime USSR: the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp. Regardless, the commemoration ceremonies and speeches by former prisoners were striking. Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, former Foreign Minister of Poland, was especially powerful in reminding us of the responsibilities we still have:
“A capacity for opposing evil does not result from knowledge about the existence of evil, but rather from the moral condition of every one of us. Today, each of us has access to knowledge about the contemporary spread of hatred and racism, disdain and anti-Semitism, about genocidal practices and the sentencing of innocent people to death in different parts of the world. The question is whether we are doing anything with this knowledge. Can we take the side of the victims? Or do we rather stand on the side of all these who knew, but did nothing to help?”
We concluded our trip with a return to Warsaw for a meeting with the Board of Directors of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is a unique project celebrating the long history of Jewish life in Poland. It is a little known fact that Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in the World for almost a millennium. The new museum will present the history of Polish Jews and the rich civilization they created over the course of almost 1000 years, from their first encounters with Poland, to the tragedy of the Holocaust and finally to the determination of the survivors that their history be preserved despite the Nazi’s genocide.
As I reflected on the trip, it was interesting that despite my familiarity with Poland’s history, I was able to see the country from a different perspective – through the experience of the Minister. Minister Kenney noted in particular the vibrancy and rapid development of modern Poland, which I had somewhat taken for granted. As we stopped in a shopping mall, for example, he was amazed at the fact that just over 20 years ago Poland was still a nearly bankrupt, centrally planned Communist country. Indeed, he commented on how eagerly the new generation of Poles had embraced their country’s long hoped-for democratic and market direction, quickly turning Poland into one of the key players in Europe. When one puts it all in the context of Poland’s recent, and often tragic history, Poland has indeed come a very long way. CR
- Minister Kenney places candle on monument to Holocaust victims at the Auschwitz death camp. Photo: D. Roszak
- Meeting the Canadian Ambassador to Poland (left) at Warsaw Airport, Minister Kenney (centre), the author (far right).)