From a Square to a Cemetery

Recently, on a visit to Poland, I made a pilgrimage to the village where my maternal grandmother was born, Nowy Targ, 50 kilometers south of Cracow in the region known as Małopolska or Lesser Poland. The name “Nowy Targ” translates as “New Market,” and indeed this large village is where most of the region’s trading occurred, with local farmers bringing their produce to market and then spending the proceeds at the dry goods stalls and shops selling housewares. The Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town resembles an idyllic little forest grove, and the one thing a visitor might remark about it is that there are so few graves to be seen here, only a few dozen, most of them missing their headstones. It seems an obvious case of a Jewish cemetery desecrated during the Holocaust, as so many were. But the cemetery at Nowy Targ harbors an even more terrible secret: Every inch of it is a mass grave. It is here that 2000 Jews from the Nowy Targ ghetto were driven together on August 30, 1942, shot, and buried where they lay. The headstones from the cemetery were removed and later used as paving material after the war.

All of this is unfathomable. Who carried out these murders? The victims’ neighbors? Did they personally know the people they were shooting? And even beyond the moral and emotional considerations, how was an operation of this scope even possible in so small a place? Were the victims marched to the cemetery in a grand procession? A few at a time? Were they forced to dig the mass graves in which they and their loved ones would be buried? It is all far too painful to think about. I am so grateful that my grandmother emigrated as a child, nearly three decades before this tragedy.

The number 2000 struck a very different chord in me as well, because on Oct. 14, 2011, not long before leaving for Poland, I had participated in a 6 a.m. gathering at Zuccotti Park, a.k.a. Liberty Square, in New York City. That morning, 2000 of us gathered in and around the park to protect the Occupy Wall Street encampment from forcible eviction by the New York Police Department. Two thousand people were enough to pack every foot of the square – which is about the same size as the Jewish cemetery in Nowy Targ – and create a tight ring around it. And our presence stopped the police; there were too many of us to arrest, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed down from his demand that we all stop protesting and leave. So now I can’t help wondering what would have happened in Nowy Targ that August day in 1942 if 2000 villagers had come to the cemetery to object to the murder of their neighbors. Perhaps the dissenters would have been killed as well. Perhaps the local population approved of murdering the region’s Jews. It’s hard to know, even though this was all not so terribly long ago, less than 70 years. The gray-haired Polish woman I saw raking leaves from the sidewalk in front of the cemetery was quite possibly old enough to remember that day. But she and I lacked a common language, so I could not ask.

In New York, the presence of 2000 dissenters on Oct. 14, 2011 made all the difference. But one month later
Mayor Bloomberg showed us how far he was willing to escalate the struggle to suppress the Occupy Wall Street protests. The eviction of protesters from Liberty Square on Nov. 15, 2011 was carried out violently, under cover of darkness, and under highly questionable circumstances, via an army of police officers in riot gear, armed and organized like paramilitary troops. In an attempt to protect himself and the New York Police Department from public scrutiny, Bloomberg ordered an illegal media blackout surrounding this event. News helicopters were grounded, and fully credentialed journalists were forcibly excluded from the area despite holding NYPD-issued permits, and beaten and arrested if they resisted this expulsion (which many did, since they had both a legal right and a professional duty to cross police barricades to report the story). Weapons employed against the peaceful protesters in the square – who had been asleep when the raid commenced – included pepper spray, tear gas, night sticks and bulldozers. Many were injured. A dog was killed when a tent was crushed despite the owner’s pleas that the creature be rescued. A park open to the public and filled with civilians became a war zone.

My question today is: How can we as a city accept a mayor and a police department that break the law and use violent force to prevent our fellow citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly? The Occupy Wall Street encampment was legal (which is why it was tolerated by city officials for two months); its violent clearing was illegal; the exclusion of the media was illegal; and the mayor’s defying the temporary restraining order issued by the New York State Supreme Court in the early hours of Nov 15, 2011 was illegal as well. (See my last post for details of these transgressions.)
Are you willing to accept violent and illegal activity on the part of those whose job it is to serve and protect you? Are you prepared to live under martial law?

The words “martial law” are generally associated with parts of the world in which citizens enjoy far fewer rights and freedoms than we do in the United States. But the loss of freedoms always starts small and escalates. If we accept the barring of journalists from places where news stories are unfolding, it’s only a small step to a government-controlled media. If we permit a mayor to disregard court orders, we invite him to impinge on our legally established civil rights in other ways as well. If you object to the erosion of your rights, it is time to speak out. There is strength in numbers. Call 311 and leave a message for the mayor; send a letter to your newspaper of choice; write your opinion in large letters on a piece of cardboard and show up for a rally; and make sure all your neighbors know what is going on in their own backyard. It is time to make our voices heard.

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