This Holocaust Scholar Is Giving History Lessons While in Captivity in Gaza – Kveller
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This Holocaust Scholar Is Giving History Lessons While in Captivity in Gaza

Alex Dancyg needs to come home.

A photo taken on October 19, 2023 in Warsaw, Poland shows a graffito portraying Polish-Israeli Holocaust historian and educator Alex Dancyg, who was taken hostage when Hamas militants stormed the Nir Oz kibbutz in Israel near the Gaza border on October 7, and with the subtitle referring to him as 'Ambassador of Dialogue'. Before he was abducted in a Hamas attack, Holocaust historian and educator Alex Dancyg spent years trying to ease long-standing mutual suspicion between Poland and Israel and promote dialogue. Now his family and friends from both countries have joined forces to fight for his safe release.

via WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Among the news received from the hostages who returned from Gaza, one specific anecdote reverberates quite deeply: the story of Alex Dancyg, a historian of the Holocaust and of Polish Jewish history, who, in captivity, was still giving history lectures.

Dancyg spent decades of his life traveling between Israel and Poland, teaching both Israelis and Polish people about how to talk to each other about their shared history, and how to guide teens through the now established yearly journeys to Poland many high schoolers go on, trips that he helped co-found. He worked at the Poland desk at Yad Vashem. He knew how to speak to youth in a way that captured their attention. He won many awards, and even received the Silver Cross of Merit from former Polish president Lech Kaczyński. He is a man of dialogue.

Now, it is his son traveling that same trajectory, but instead, his task is to ask and beg for people in Poland and across the European continent to help save his father, who has been held captive for over 100 days. He has spoken to the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, and his family even met with the Pope, who told them that he had heard of Alex’s story.

Dancyg is alive, he believes firmly, because a Polish gentile family saved his. While he was born after the Holocaust, in 1948 — the same year the Jewish nation where he would eventually live was established — his parents and his younger sister both survived the Holocaust thanks to help from a Polish woman and her daughter, Marina and Halina Assanowicz, who were caring for Dancyg’s sister. In the 1980s, the Assanowicz family were declared Righteous Amongst Nations by Yad Vashem.

Dancyg came to Israel from Poland in 1957, at age 9. He didn’t return to his mother country until his late 30s as part of a Jewish delegation. But he had kept his Polish identity close to his heart, both its culture and history and his personal memories, like the first time learning to ride a bike at Chopin Park with the birds chasing him. Riding through that same landscape as an adult, while the country was going through yet another upheaval, Dancyg went to the front of his tour bus and started guiding his fellow attendees. Knowledge flowed out of him as easy and hypnotizing as a fountain. And he became the epitome of what a guide should be, eventually training others to do the same. He wrote five guidebooks about Poland.

Two weeks after he came back from yet another trip to Poland, he was captured from his home in the now ashened kibbutz of Nir Oz. His ex-wife saved three of his granddaughters by holding her shelter door closed for hours with her own body. Many others miraculously survived. But Alex was taken.

His family, along with the families of other loved ones — over 100 of them — held captive by Hamas and other terror organizations in the Gaza strip, gather every day to speak, shout and even sing for him. But three months after he was taken from his beloved home, Alex is still being held, and his family does not know if he is getting access to the life-saving medications he needs to take after a serious heart attack he survived years ago. He is still away from his four children, eight granddaughters and one grandson, whose bar mitzvah he missed in captivity.

But according to Nili Margalit, a nurse who was also held captive in Gaza and who helped care for her fellow hostages there, Dancyg was, least in November, still teaching his fellow captives.

“He’s a man of words,” his granddaughter Talia, who wrote a song about him called “Dragon of War,” said in a radio interview after his capture. They would often talk about love and history, she recounted, adding that he talks about the latter like a wise old man and about the former like a 16-year-old. He was a big fan of her music and always wanted her to sing prouder and louder. Now, on TV shows and in the hostage square, she sings for him.

His niece, Maya, wrote to artist Shoshke Engelmayer, who draws daily postcards about the hostages and October 7, and asked her to draw him, her Uncle Olesh, a man of history who likes to walk barefoot in the fields. In a joyous, colorful image, Engelmayer imagined him back with his feet rooted warmly on the ground, with the sky shinning bright and blue and plentiful above him.

“My father’s days are numbered,” his son Yuval said in one interview. He shared that “to begin a conversation with him, it never ends,” and he fears that the experience of captivity will dim his light and his desire to talk. While visiting Dancyg’s home, Yuval found a family photo album, including a picture of the family who saved Alex’s parents, and said that he hopes, like that family, someone will save him now.

“He has thousands of students who adore and love him,” his son Mati told the BBC. “He is an exceptional teacher — every time I’ve been in a lecture of him I was fascinated.”

Along with his heartbroken family, so many have spoken about Dancyg since his capture, including artists, journalists and his colleagues in Israel and Poland and beyond, who filmed videos and organized actions in his support. It is especially evocative to listen to his own words, documented in “Voices 4 Dialogue,” a project that highlights voices who make space for Polish, Jewish, Israeli and German dialogue.

In that recording, he talks about how Jewish and Polish history is intertwined, and how Jews were a part of Polish history before the war. He urges both non-Jewish Poles and Jews and Israelis of Polish descent to think in terms of “dialogue rather than stereotype,” and to think of the Jewish experience in Poland beyond the Holocaust. In the interview, he also decried right-wing, nationalist and populist movements in both Israel and Poland who are getting in the way of that dialogue.

“In the Holocaust, people didn’t just die,” he says from his home in Nir Oz, a home he can no longer return to, wearing a cozy knit sweater, his bearded face exuding warmth — but the entire “Jewish civilization of Poland.” He spoke of wanting Jewish people to know that Poland is “not just barbarians and antisemites, it’s a nation with a culture… with a fascinating history.”

It is clear Dancyg understands that beyond the responsibility of passing down knowledge, the guides of trips to Poland need to care for the minds, hearts and souls of the kids they are walking through some of history’s darkest moments. He wondered, even in his retirement, if perhaps the teens going on these trips were too young to experience them in the way they deserve to be experienced.

Watching videos of Dancyg surrounded by the verdant foilage of his kibbutz in brighter days, I feel that I am learning and enlightened, too. As the granddaughter of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, I feel moved by his call to understand a nation that many like my family have felt alienated from. I want more and more from Dancyg, from his fountain of knowledge. And I wonder how his lessons about dialogue could help shed light on this painstaking moment in Jewish history.

I hope we’ll all get to learn from him once more, soon.

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