Wednesday, December 28, 2011



Two weeks ago was the thirtieth anniversary of the declaration of state of war in my old country. Such round anniversaries cause justified nostalgia. In such moments a person analyzes the past years, look for crumbs of facts that bring back memories of turning points in his life.

I did a Google search for pictures of the old country and started to look at them from the perspective that still rests in my brain’s long-term memory center. It was not difficult to recall whole situations in my life similar to the pictures I saw, but one of the pictures especially pulled my attention. It was a picture of a demonstration in which I had participated, commemorating the signing of the agreement between the ruling communists and people who had represented the workers in the Gdansk dockyard two years before.

For sixteen months out of those two years, my country had tasted some of the freedom that had been unknown to us already for generations. For me it was a first-time experience and it tasted good. I loved it and took it hard when the communists decided to end the holiday in December of 1981. Sunday morning, 13 December, the freedom ended, for many literally in concentration camps organized for the opposition members where some were detained for years without a court appearance or judgment or were sentenced by a phony communist court as enemies of the people or as terrorists. I was too young and insignificant to suffer this fate, but I suffered nevertheless, as the fresh air of freedom was smashed to smithereens by the tanks trampling the cobblestones of the street just a few yards away from my home. These were tanks of the “People’s Army,” which had come to take over the factory across the street from the hands of the striking workers.

So, I sat on my couch thirty years later, looking for some memories, and there I see a picture from the demonstration in which I had participated. I thought to myself, Maybe among these thousands I can find myself, and lo and behold there I see myself, three months past my sixteenth birthday, walking with older and much-older citizens and asking for bread as much as for dignity and freedom.

My 16 years old head.
From the moment this picture was taken we walked another few blocks, where hundreds of armed police forces were awaiting us with water canons — cynically called by communists “constitution” — and other heavy equipment. One of the types of vehicles used by the police was called BTR, a Russian-manufactured military vehicle able to survive a Molotov cocktail attack. The only person in this part of Poland who knew how these vehicles worked was my father. As a member of the police forces, he had gone to Moscow for few weeks, along with a few others from Poland, to learn about them. Now I was facing this particular and other vehicles.

All of a sudden, one of the trucks started speeding up and charging into the dense crowd. The water canons began to knock people down and we began to run away with nothing in our hands but flags or banners on sticks. I got wet on my back from the water canon, and we believed that the police had colored the water so that later they could pick out demonstrators from regular passers-by. There were almost no passers-by, as most of the citizens demonstrated. I got back to my home, where I changed, and once I learned from my friend that around Grunvaldski Square there was a freedom zone where the police could not get, I went over there.

Police forces were active on the other side of the Odra River and we, the freedom fighters, started to build a barricade on our side of the Grunvaldski Bridge. I was pushing large garbage containers and carrying park benches along with the others and we blocked the bridge.

Place on the bridge where we put barricade. 
And now comes another surprise thanks to Google: One of the websites commemorating these events has a record of the police radio transmissions from that day. My father had told me at that time, when he didn’t let me go to these demonstrations, that he knew from these transmissions that people were getting hurt and perhaps killed. I had thought that he didn’t let me go because he was on the other side of the barricade. Thirty years later I listen to the records of these transmissions.

Police central is being informed that there is a barricade being built on Grunvaldski Bridge. The order from the central command is to “take care of it.” Someone in the field answers that they have no manpower at the moment to do so. The central command is answering to go there as soon as they finish on other side of the river and catch everybody they can.

Meanwhile we on our side of the river realize that if we will not barricade another bridge less than a kilometer away from us the police will use it to surround us. Before we come to any conclusion — if conclusion is possible to achieve in a crowd like this — we see police in the distance, crossing the other bridge. But they don’t take the shortest way through the closest, narrow, street to get us. They are probably afraid of being stoned by people from their windows and roofs. The police take the longer but broader way and come from a side unsuspected by the demonstrators.

The shooting begins. It’s dark already and the loud petards and tear gas is limiting our movement and ability to see. The communists are getting closer and we start to run in all directions. Along with my friend, I chose to run through a dangerous, neglected construction site and through backyards to try to escape the siege. They are shooting at us with large tear gas containers that are flying over our heads and falling at our feet as we run.

The police radio transmission is talking about some youngsters running through this particular direction and the order from the central command is to get us.
I was thrilled to hear it thirty years later, sitting on my couch in the holy town of Monsey.
Baruch Hashem I escaped unharmed.

In the following months I went through my spiritual and intellectual revolution. This was the last revolution of my life, please G-d. A revolution that lead me to believe in evolution. No, not that Darwinian one! The social evolution, or rather progressive evolution, of the society.
I discussed the concept of revolution with my friends, Bogumil and Robert among the others, and I finally came to the conclusion, sometime in November of 1982, that a revolutionary change to a loathed system only brings the same as what the system represented — pain, suffering, and bloodshed. I understood that the only way to change the system, to escape the pain, would be to do it through my own example. Utilizing non  violent methods  and through positive communication. I knew it would not happen quickly, as no evolution happens that way, but it would happen. One day people would understand and join in this mode of thinking. They would understand that “other” is not the enemy and “different” is not a threat. People would learn how to live together in unity despite their differences. Mankind would achieve ultimate peace, but only through the effort of stubborn individuals who by their mode of  conduct would provide examples of peaceful coexistence and not through some  bloody revolution.

At that moment in my life, I didn’t understand that individuals are not enough, that there have to be a nation, nation of people proclaiming to the other nations this truth; a nation that survived longer than any other nation not because it engaged itself in revolutionary battle but because it restrained itself from force and violence. While other nations, empires, and civilizations perished from history, this one nation stands proud, but only with the humbleness of serving the Creator.

It took few difficult years in Poland till I understood this fact, and then I joined the evolution. The years were difficult because the years of communism had been agonizing and because of the anti-Semitic heritage of the nation from which I came. But ultimately I joined the Jewish evolution and I hope to contribute my stubbornness to this lofty goal.

We are celebrating the days of Chanukah, the days when we are commanded to announce with the light of the menorah the eternal truth of Judaism. We are commanded to announce that it is not the number of defenders; it is not their power or might, that brings success, but rather justice over lawlessness and pure life over succumbing to somatic desires that gives the power of eternal survival for a People who choose this most difficult service — the sons and daughters of Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov.

We celebrate the victory of Torah over the cult of man, we celebrate the victory of human rights over the dictatorship over the majority, we celebrate the preservation of spiritual values over the militaristic might of an empire, and we celebrate all of this with the hope of the ultimate triumph of Yisrael over Eisav.

On one side of the spectrum of the Jewish nation of that time, and perhaps not only of that time, we have Misyavnim, assimilators represented by the Kohein Gadol — the High Priest Menelaus — who with his party went to Antiochus Epiphanes and convinced him to prohibit the observance and teaching of Jewish law, as they rightly understood that as long as Jews learn, they will exist. Their goal was to make Jews just like other nations of the world.

On the other side there were chassidim of that time, so called by the contemporaries, who escaped to the desert with their families, where in extremely harsh conditions they were able to hide from persecution and keep Torah and mitzvos. From them emerged the Perushim, the Pharisees. These were the people who transmitted the mesorah — the laws of Moses — for the generations of the Tannaim. 

When the Sages who established the holiday of Chanukah were looking for the focal point of the celebration, they chose, with Heaven’s inspiration, the miracle of the oil, the very oil symbolizing wisdom and spirit. They downplayed the military aspect of the story of the Chashmoneans — the Maccabis — purposely. The relatively short discussion in Gemara Mesechtas Shabbos almost completely takes no notice of the war against the Greeks. The sons of Mattisyahu took the crown of the Jewish People reserved explicitly for shevet Yehudah, the tribe of Judah. Their direct descendents became the biggest persecutors of Perushim, who were preservers of Torah and emunah (faith) among the Jewish People. Alexander Yannay, for instance, crucified 800 Perushim  then slaughtered their wives and children in front of them so as to increase their terrible suffering and misery as they were dying. The story of the military  battle with the Greeks was not the message and not the story that the Sages wanted to use to educate future Jewish generations with. Violence, even when it arose from the correct claims of the persecuted and downtrodden, can only bring further violence. There is no end of revolutions and wars unless, one by one, people will follow the “family mode” of the civilization of Yaakov; unless we will shine with our example as the light to the nations, unless we will realize the priestly character of our calling and our mission, to be mamleches Kohanim.

Matys Weiser

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