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Playing the full court
July 24th, 2008
My maternal grandparents were both born in eastern Poland, and they immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century; family members who remained behind were killed in the Holocaust.
My first trip to Poland, however, was destined not to be either a roots trip or a Holocaust-related trip. I was going to Poland’s fifth largest city (with a population of about 600,000) to watch my daughter, Rebecca Ross, play basketball for Israel’s Under-20 national basketball team.
The old market square in Poznan, Poland. Photo by Dariusz Krakowiak.
This year, the European championships were held July 11-20 in Poznan, a city in western Poland.
To be sure, one cannot overlook the past in a trip to Poland, and so Rebecca and her teammates, after flying to Warsaw, spent several hours in that city visiting Ghetto-related sites before boarding their plane to Poznan.
Rebecca, the only non-native born Israeli on the team, acted as translator for the English-speaking tour guide. This was Rebecca’s second time in Warsaw, the first having come toward the end of a 12th-grade trip to the concentration camps. This time, she says, “I was more interested in the historical details of exactly what happened.”
The girls on the team didn’t think it unusual to mix Holocaust history with basketball. As player Mor Saida put it, “We are representing the country, and this is part of our history.”
Poznan is a jewel of a city. On the one hand, it has several exquisitely ornate Baroque churches, as well as a traditional old town square (complete with a pair of mechanical goats who butt horns each day at noon on the clock tower.
On the other hand, it hosts World Cup competitions in canoeing, kayaking and rowing on Malta Lake. Its impressive “Old Brewery” mall won the top award this year for European shopping centers and is a favorite to win the world title in December.
Of course, it’s tempting to walk around Poland and think about what would have happened to you during World War II, to eye anyone over 80 with suspicion, and to look around for hiding places — just in case.
Your mind can’t help playing games with you, such as when I happened to find myself riding a tram illegally (only after I boarded did I find out that payment had to be made beforehand).
As I watched my fellow passengers dutifully stamp their own tickets in the self-service machines on the tram, I have to confess that the thought did occur to me: if I am caught without a ticket, will they take me out and shoot me on the spot?
But I have to admit that these are just games that a Jew plays in contemporary Poland, and frankly these games have no basis in today’s reality.
Israel has full diplomatic relations with Poland and is constantly looking to upgrade its economic and cultural ties with Poland — so does it really make sense to view all Polish people as latent anti-Semites?
I prefer the attitude of Huki Nir, an Israeli sports agent who attended the Poznan Championships. Born in Germany in 1946 to two Polish parents, Nir’s mother lost a brother and father in the Holocaust, and his father lost both parents as well as eleven siblings.
Huki told me: “I know the history and one shouldn’t forget what happened, but it’s history. It’s a different world today.”
The basketball games were held in Tarnowo Podgórne, a small neighboring town outside of Poznan.
‘Some divine way’
The Israeli team traveled with two undercover security men who combed the gym for suspicious objects and who each stationed themselves at one of the gym’s entrances during games and practices.
Joanna Kedziora, a 21-year-old university student from Poznan, who was working as one of the scorekeepers, told me that all the locals found it strange to see security men with the Israeli team.
“I can tell you that this is the first time that security men have been to Tarnowo Podgórne,” she said.
The first game I saw was the only one (of seven) that Israel won in the tournament (beating Portugal 57-56). Before the game, each of the players was introduced.
When Rebecca’s name was called, her middle name was also announced. Perhaps it was hearing that full name, Rebecca Rachel Ross, that triggered my tears but I found myself crying, there at the Tarnowo Podgórne gym in western Poland.
There was my little girl, the same girl who was born in Atlanta, Ga., who moved to Israel from Miami, Fla., at age 8, now playing basketball for the State of Israel in a country that was used to try to destroy the Jewish people. While it would have been nice if Israel had won a game or two more, few people expected Israel to do better than it did
There was an added element to the championships this year, in this place, and it was expressed to me by one of the stars of Israel’s team, Nofar Shalom.
“I think that in some divine way it’s not just by chance that we played here in Poland this year, the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. Precisely here in Poland, with all the history, it’s a privilege to represent the State of Israel.”
And Vito Gilic, Israel’s 49-year-old non-Jewish assistant coach (originally from Croatia), added, “The Nazis wanted to wipe out the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and here in Poland they killed millions of Jews. But this symbol of Israel on our shirts tells everyone that the Nazis failed, that the Jewish people lives.”
Summing up her trip, Rebecca said, “My first visit to Poland in high school was incredibly charged emotionally. After going to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Chelmno, you don’t have a very good feeling about the Polish people and Poland.
“This time it felt like a totally different country. The same people whom I would have looked upon as bad now seemed nice and normal. You can’t forget about what happened 65 years ago, but it’s a totally modern, pretty country. Plus, they have a pretty good mall there.”
As for me, I have to say that I had a surprisingly good time in Poland. I’m already looking forward to my second trip, and I hope that it too will be a normal one, to 21st-century Poland.
Teddy Weinberger is a freelance writer in Israel.