Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do You Want to Friend Heino?

"My name is Henio Zytomirski. I am seven-years-old. I live on 3 Szewska Street in Lublin [Poland]." This excerpt is from the profile of Heino Zytomirski, a young addition to Facebook. Why is this newsworthy? Because Heino is dead. He was killed in the Holocaust before the age of 10. His profile and status updates are written by Piotr Buzek, a 22 year-old staff member of the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center in Lublin. 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 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 published by JTA over the past few days. So why isn’t the Center celebrating and advertising those triumphs? It could easily choose a young 20-something contemporary, living, Polish Jew to talk about his life, experiences, 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 focus on the past with 20/20 hindsight and proclaim what we should have or would have done. 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 should 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.

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