Last week, I went on a five day trip to Poland with Heritage Seminars. The trip was through Pardes, and I went with about 25 other current and past Pardes students. As soon as I learned about the opportunity to participate in this trip, I knew I wanted to go. I had not been to Poland before, and I thought that the trip would provide a valuable experience for me to learn about, confront, and better understand the destruction of Jews that took place in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. While the trip definitely had a somber tone and – at times – felt extremely frightening, there was still an emphasis on life, perseverance, and the ultimate survival of the Jewish people.
We arrived to the Warsaw airport at about 8:30am (after traveling through the night) on the Sunday before last, and the group immediately embarked on a fully-scheduled day.
The first stop of the trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw.
Warsaw was one of the European centers of Jewish life before Word War II. In 1939, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland – 350,000 of them living in Warsaw. At the end of the Holocaust, 90% of the 3.5 million were murdered. The cemetery was active before the war, with 150,000 people already buried here pre-1939, so there were some extremely old parts of the cemetery:
Many of the older tombstones were adorned with art and carving. This tombstone shows a hand giving tzedakah (generally translated as charity, although it’s not a perfect translation!). The hand is partially obscured by a curtain to indicate that the giver is donating anonymously (anonymous giving is considered the highest level of giving according to the Rambam).
There were also several graves that had been restored in recent years with new tombstones. The severed column represents that the person buried there died earlier in life than what would be normally expected:
During the war, 80,000-100,000 people were buried in this cemetery in mass graves. Today, the cemetery continues to receive some use from the small – but existent – Jewish community of Warsaw.
Inside the Warsaw cemetery was the grave of the well-known and much-beloved Yiddish author, I. L. Peretz. Peretz died in 1915, and is said that over 100,000 people attended his funeral.
After the cemetery, we visited a piece of what remains of the Ghetto Wall:
Most of the ghetto wall was destroyed by the end of the war (along with 80% of the entire city of Warsaw), so there isn’t much left of the wall to see – and even less remains of what was the ghetto itself. The small section pictured above now stands in the midst of apartment buildings and sidewalks, a grim reminder of what happened here. When the ghetto was instated, 450,000 Jews were crowded into the area (all of the Jews living in Warsaw, plus another 100,000 from the nearby areas). This was nearly 40% of the city’s population occupying only 3% of the land.
After visiting the ghetto wall, we went to the new Museum of the History of the Jews. This museum has only been open since April 2013, and its core exhibit just opened this past October. I don’t have pictures because it was dark when we got there and I was too enthralled by the exhibits to take pictures, but the museum was fabulous! It is ENORMOUS (about 43,000 sq. ft., according to their website), and it thoroughly covers the narrative of Polish Jews from their arrival in the 1300s until post-WWII.
After the museum, the last event of our jam-packed first day in Poland was a visit with the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. Rabbi Schudrich is actually an American, but he has lived and worked in Poland since 1990. He is in the white shirt in the photo below:
We heard Rabbi Schudrich speak about the Polish Jewish community, the challenges it faces, and some details about his work. He told us how, after the war, only 10% of Poland’s Jewish population remained alive – about 350,000 people. Of that group, 250,000 left Poland, mostly moving to Israel of the United States. Of the 100,000 that remained, many hid or cast off their Jewish identities, too afraid and traumatized to fully live as themselves. Today, many of the children and grandchildren of these survivors are discovering their Jewish roots (or, older family members are beginning to think it is safe to reveal the truth). Rabbi Schudrich described a large part of his job as being to help these people to piece together different bits of information or ‘clues’ they have regarding their Judaism and, also, to help determine how many ‘pieces’ need to exist before being able to determine that someone is, in fact, Jewish. The situation that Rabbi Schudrich describes in Poland doesn’t exist in isolation, and many Jews from the former Soviet Union are experiencing the same identity challenges.
Overall, the first day in Poland was an exhausting whirlwind fueled by only airplane-sleep (ie, poor sleep), but it was a great first look into the history of the Warsaw/Polish Jewish community and the effects of the war. In hindsight, I think this day was the ‘easiest’ emotionally – no mass graves, no death camps, and, given the destruction of so much of the city, very little to serve as a physical testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. And, on that cheery note, check back soon for more photos and information about the rest of the trip!