By Symi Rom-Rymer
“My name is Henio Zytomirski. I am seven-years-old. I live on 3 Szewska Street in Lublin.” So begins the profile of Heino Zytomirski, a young addition to Facebook. Why should we care? Because Heino is dead–a young victim of the Holocaust. His profile and status updates are written by Piotr Buzek, a 22 year-old staff member of the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center in Lublin, Poland. The Center says that it is harnessing new technology to teach the internet generation about the history of Jews in Poland and to keep their memory alive.
To be perfectly honest, I feel queasy about this approach. First of all, much of what the Center does focuses on Lublin’s Jewish past. Which is important and necessary. But in doing so, it also looks backwards and not ahead. There is increasing evidence that Jewish communities in Poland not only exist, but are growing. Just look at the articles recently published by JTA. So why isn’t the Center celebrating and advertising those triumphs? It could easily choose a young 20-something living Polish Jew to talk about his life, his experiences, and his hopes to friends around the world.
Secondly, how can Heino’s story, as horrific as it is, help us today? If more non-Jews are aware of Jewish life in Poland pre-Holocaust and about their subsequent extinction through Heino and his Facebook page, then, again, I applaud the Center’s efforts. But it does no good to focus solely on the Holocaust and not address contemporary issues and conflicts. It is not enough to examine the past and proclaim what we should have or would have done. Indeed, it is too easy to demonstrate support for a long-deceased boy from the comfort and safety of our own homes via computer. Efforts like these are gimmicks, superficial stabs at righting old wrongs that we can never right, however we might wish it otherwise. No matter how many friends Heino makes, they will never be able to save him from death.
Issues of anti-Semitism and intolerance and racism continue to exist in Poland, just as they exist everywhere. There are contemporary victims of other types of oppression and violence around the world whose fates are not sealed and for whom our actions can make a difference. These are the people that we should be creating Facebook pages for. The Center could harness the power and energy of social media and its users to offer a means to organize and fight against injustice that can actually make a difference. If nothing else, we owe to it Heino.
Now for a bit of old business. In reading over the comments from last week’s points, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in what I proposing. If Demjanjuk is found guilty, then he should absolutely be sent to jail. Stripping him of his assets would be in addition to, not instead of jail time. As for the commenter who suggested (sarcastically? snarkily? ) that perhaps we should use the royalties from Mein Kampf towards fighting xenophobia, racism, and ethnic cleansing, I say yes! There is no reason why we shouldn’t use funds raised in hate towards more positive ends.
If you want to follow the Demjanjuk case, here are what some other news outlets are saying. In The Toronto Star, an editorial by Peter Worthington suggests that the paucity of facts and unreliable documents offer little hope that the trial will end soon or satisfactorily for either side.
In Jewcy last year, Tamar Fox made some provocative comments about the case that are still relevant and bring up some of the issues alluded to in this post (as well as my most recent post): what is gained by Demjanjuk’s trial? Do we focus too much on the Holocaust to the exclusion of current, pressing social injustices? Should age or health matter in trials of alleged perpetrators of genocide?
See you next week.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.