I guess I was always reluctant to undertake a Jewish-themed tour of Poland; how much pain and devastation can one visitor bear? But, a month ago, I took the Polish plunge and found a country that, in spite of the horrors of Nazism and Communism (in addition to the 3 million Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis, about 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed during the war years as well), has emerged as an appealing destination with trendy hotels, restaurants, music, festivals, art, intriguing sites, world-class architecture and design, and open-hearted locals who go out of their way to help tourists who stand lost in front of Polish street signs. Most of all, Poland is honoring the Jews who once lived there and the few who still reside there. There is so much for a visitor to absorb that I just may have to go back again. Soon.
A Living Jewish Community and Jewish Ghosts in Warsaw
I arrived at the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw at the tail-end of a Havdalah service. The small group of men downstairs included a few Chassidic Jews and, upstairs, the women chatted and bonded, as Jewish women do everywhere. Over 90% of Polish Jewry perished in the Holocaust, so it was very moving to be in Poland, seeing that Hitler did not fully accomplish his master plan, that Jews have survived. Today there are about 25,000 Jews remaining in Poland. They are looking toward the future and the past simultaneously. Some of the older Jews are passing on, and before they go, they tell their gentile families for the first time that they are Jewish. The fear of Nazism made them hide their religion all these years.
At the Jewish Cultural Center adjacent to the synagogue, I shared tsimmis, flattened gefilte fish, herring slivers with onion, schnitzel and piroghi with – among others – a Jewish archivist, a young rabbi from the U.S. who relocated to Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Shudrich who splits his time between New York and Warsaw, and a woman who helps Polish Jews find their identity. She counsels them, for example, on how they can be observant without jeopardizing their jobs.
The next day, Agnes, my Polish guide, took me to numerous sites that honored and commemorated the Jews who were deported and murdered in WWII.
The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial
We started at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, which existed from 1940-1943. Half a million Jews were forced to live there, and as the deportations started, the ghetto population shrank until finally it was razed to the ground. At the site, there are pictures of childrens' book author, pediatrician and Jewish orphanage director Janusz Korczak, who voluntarily went with the orphan children to Treblinka and perished with them, and Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the ghetto uprising.
The stone monument itself – chiseled and created in 1948 by Nathan Rappoport – presents the uprising in heroic terms; the leaders are depicted as David and Moses. Something in me was turned off, for what made the resisters heroic is that they were everyday people, and not David or Moses. But, of course, the monument was made at the time of the founding of the State of Israel, when slaughter and deportation were replaced by strong sentiments of "Never Again."
We walked over to Umschlagplatz, which was the station where Nazi victims were shipped to Treblinka in hellish cattle cars. Over 300,000 Jews left from the station and the most popular first Jewish names are recorded on the monument: Batia, Chana, Glika, Golda, Pinkas, Zelda, Zysla. The names, once carried by real people, are simple and chilling. At nearby 62 Zlota Street is a piece of an exterior house wall that was used for the ghetto wall in 1941. One brick from the wall was removed and sent to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; another is in Houston and a third in Melbourne. It is all that remains of the infamous wall, and it stands today in the courtyard of a complex of blank, cement-walled apartment buildings.
The Jewish Historical Institute (www.jhi.pl) is the place where Jews come to trace their Polish heritage. It includes a huge map, where I easily found the shtetl, the small town, my grandmother came from. The map includes a pretty wide swath of Poland and the Ukraine (where my grandmother lived) because borders have changed and the institute wants to make it easy for Jews to locate their ancestors.
Remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto
Yael Reisner, one of the luminaries at the institute, told me there were five myths that need to be debunked. The first is that many of the small villages where Jews lived were wiped off the map. "Names have changed and if you can't find the village, you are probably looking at the wrong map," he said. Second is that there are no Jews in Poland. Many Jewish communities in Europe are declining, but in Poland, Jews are reclaiming their heritage.
The third myth is that the Nazis destroyed all the Jewish records. Yes, Warsaw was 84% destroyed and yes, the library of the Great Synagogue was burned, but the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee rebuilt it after the war and Jewish historians started to interview survivors; with 7,000 interviews, they obtained a huge amount of information. The jewel of the archives that are housed in the Institute is the Ringelblum Collection. Emanuel Ringelblum organized a "conspiracy" in the Warsaw ghetto to collect everything imaginable—from pulling down German posters to information on the Treblinka death camp. The information was stored in tin boxes and milk cans in three different underground locations; the third locale has yet to be found. There is also a wealth of data about Jews in the Institute's genealogy department, where people can track down long-lost ancestors and relations.
"The fourth myth is that names were changed at Ellis Island. The ships' manifests were prepared in Europe and the mistakes were made there," Reisner declared. "Some of the Jews chose to change their names informally or to use other peoples' names," he added. In Poland, for example, Jews took Aryan names and got falsified baptismal records. They kept the papers because no one knew what was going to happen or if there would be another pogrom. The goal was to blend in and not burden your children with Judaism. Today, grandchildren are finding out from their grandparents for the first time that they are Jewish."
The fifth myth is that Poles today are anti-Semitic. "I've lived here for l5 years with a skullcap on my head," Reisner said, "and I have had no problems except for one skinhead who spit on me and made a few anti-Semitic statements. It's really minimal here in Warsaw. Poland was cut off from the world under Communism. They never had a chance to sort out their problems. Many subjects were not dealt with—from property questions to identity. There is a long history of Jewish life in Poland. In 1264, a charter granted Jews protection, the right to settle, travel, practice their religion and pursue a trade. By the l8th century, 80 percent of worldwide Jewry lived in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth."
The gates of Oskar Schindler's factory
Before leaving the museum, I looked at the rooms of art by Jewish painters – many of whom were murdered – and watched a film about the Warsaw Ghetto with incredible footage of 700 Jewish insurgents under Nazi occupation. Most of the film was shot by German soldiers who were "touring" the ghetto.
The next day I went to Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Krakow. It was built for Catholics, but by the end of the l5th century, 20 percent of it became a Jewish area. On Podgorze Square, a ghetto was established in 1941. At its most crowded, 320 houses held up to 20,000 Jews. Some were murdered in the ghetto and the rest were sent off to concentration camps and gas chambers.
I drove to Schindler's Factory at ul.Lipowa4, which operated as a factory where vessels were enameled from 1939-1944. A plaque on the outside reads, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." It accurately describes owner Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), who was made famous by the Spielberg film, "Schindler's List." He saved hundreds of Jews from the murder machine of the Holocaust.
Not far away is the ancient Re'ma Cemetery, which was partially founded in 1551 and closed by the end of the l8th century. Moses Isserles, honored as a prominent rabbi, Talmudist and authority on Jewish law, is buried there; he died in 1572 and was known as the Re'ma. The sandstone tombstones are decorated with crowns, flowers and lions. At the Re'ma's tomb, visitors leave papers where they have written their prayers. The Re'ma was known as a miracle worker and it seems the Nazis were afraid to destroy his final resting place.
Next door to the cemetery is a gem of a Renaissance synagogue which was erected in 1553. The dais is in the middle, and l6th century murals of Noah's ark and Jerusalem adorn the walls. Today, there are fewer than 200 Jews left in the area, and many of them are elderly. But in the l6th century, there were 3 synagogues and many thousands of Jews. In the courtyard of the synagogue are commemorative plaques for the Jews who were killed by the Nazis. The Ferber family, for example, lost a staggering 88 members.
Praga, is a nondescript, rundown industrial area across the river from Warsaw; unlike Warsaw, it was never bombed. 42 percent of its residents were Jews and, starting in the l6th century, Jews were permitted to trade and do business there. They supplied Polish nobles with a credit system and credit lines and provided them with products and décor for their palaces. Others supplied munitions and clothes to the army.
In 1897, Praga Jews brought a European factory to their neighborhood to make vodka. They established direct trade between Polish nobles and Russia. They started an education system, which children entered at age 3, and sent the brightest students off to other places to get higher education so they could come back as engineers, factory owners, entertainers, communication and health specialists. They organized hospitals, jails, and trains; they made life in Praga work.
By the end of WWII, with the extermination of the Jewish population, the absence of Jews left an enormous hole in the story of Praga. My guide, a gentile man named Januesz Owsiany said, "My job is to tell locals the story of the Jews and what they contributed here. It is a Jewish city with no Jews." He has spearheaded a revitalization project for Praga. The synagogue had been used as a depot for coil and needs restoration. There is already a commitment of $10,000,000 from the European Union to make a museum and culture center in today's Praga, and it would include the synagogue. The Polish Ministry of Culture has pledged about $8,000,000. Praga today has about 65 percent unemployment and Owsiany is trying to get the community on board for the revitalization project.
As we walked through Praga, he showed me a restaurant that was once a grain mill owned by the Rubenstein's, the old Jewish cultural center, a gray stone building that was a mikvah, a ritual bath, and Targova Street that formerly housed vibrant produce markets. The renovation of Praga is already attracting visitors from Warsaw, and ultra-cool cafes, artists' studios and restaurants are popping up on the rundown streets.
My last Jewish-themed stop in Poland was Auschwitz-Birkenau, but that, my reader friends, is another story.
If You Go:
LOT airlines (www.Lot.com) flies to Warsaw and leaves from several U.S. portals.
The Polish National Tourist Board can be very helpful in planning a trip: www.Polandtour.org.
Information about Chabad in Poland:
Rabbi Dov Stambler has been very helpful in providing an update about Chabad in Poland. He says there are two Chabad houses at the present time: one, in Warsaw, is within walking distance of the Umschlagplatz, and one in Krakow is at the Izik Synagogue.
At the Chabad house in Warsaw, there are 12-15 people who pray daily, 30 people come for Shabbat and 20-40 show up for the weekly classes. For big events, there are often several hundreds.
Rabbi Stambler explains that there are Jewish people in Warsaw, but after the Holocaust and Communism, they are afraid to show up in public places like a synagogue. "But it is growing all the time," the rabbi says, "especially among young people." Today, some of the young Jewish Poles are studying in Israel and in Jewish schools in other countries. "We also find them partners to marry," says the rabbi.
Some of the rabbi's special offerings include kindergarten, yeshiva, a rich library, and access to email for people who need it.
According to Rabbi Stambler, the Jewish presence in Poland "is a spiritual, symbolic revenge against the Nazis. Two hundred meters from Umschlagplatz we pray, learn Torah, and celebrate Jewish holidays. But it's very important to know that in Poland, the spiritual Holocaust has not yet finished. People are still afraid to say openly that they are Jewish, despite the fact that the Polish people are very supportive of Jewish activities and are interested in our culture. And Chabad is also here for those who will not go to synagogue; we reach out to them via TV, radio, press and so on, and it works. These people were neglected since the war, and now we are here for them."
For more information: www.chabad.org.pl