Visiting Auschwitz with Heritage Seminars

The last day of my trip in Poland with Heritage Seminars was spent at Auschwitz/Birkenau. We visited the camp about two weeks ahead of Auschwitz’s 70th anniversary of liberation, and there were lots of signs of the upcoming celebration (you may have seen it mentioned in the recent news). Some of the buildings were undergoing restorations, and I saw multiple film crews getting shots of the camp during my group’s visit.

The camp operated for about 4 years, and during that time 1.3 million people were killed – 1.1 million of them Jews. Auschwitz has become the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, and the name itself has become a symbol for killing and horror. I have to say, after spending a day there, it’s really not hard to see why.

The camp actually has three sections: Auschwitz I (the original camp used initially for political prison), Auschwitz II (often called Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (the smallest section of the camp, and it also generally had the most ‘livable’ conditions). Most of the people who survived Auschwitz were from Auschwitz III.

In the morning, my group spend about 3 hours at Birkenau – Auschwitz II. This camp was comprised primarily of large fields and barracks:

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About 90,000-100,000 slave laborers were working here at a given time. The turnover, however, was extremely high because prisoners died quickly due to starvation, illness, and disease. The average lifespan of a prisoner was only 3 months.

Auschwitz was placed in this location due to its proximity to a railway juncture, thus making it easy to ship prisoners here (this was a key railroad crossing because of coal industry in the area). The train tracks used for shipping prisoners to the camp go right to Birkenau, and thus, most of the crematoriums were also built in this section of the camp:

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In the last year of the war, the Nazis increased their ‘production’ at killing Jews from some of the conquered areas outside of Poland and Germany. For example, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were brought to Auschwitz in a period of 3 months during 1944. At the end of the war, the Nazis started to destroy many of the crematoriums and gas chambers. This is what remains from one of the crematoriums at Birkenau:

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The structure was built beneath ground in order to insulate the sound, making it more difficult to hear the screams of the dying. The gas chamber rooms themselves were very small, meaning that people would be crammed in together very tightly. The gas chambers at Auschwitz used the chemical Zyklon B. Zyklon B is crystalized at room temperature, and it disperses into a gas after being heated. The chemical would be dropped in solid form into the gas chamber, and the body heat from so many people pushed together would release the gas – people would generally be dead in about 5 minutes. Thus, the gassing part of the operation was quite fast – the burning of the bodies was by far the slowest part of the process (the reason why accounts from the Holocaust describe the crematoriums as burning all through the night).

This is what the Zyklon B gas looked like in solid form as well as a display of empty containers found at the camp:

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Many of the buildings were open and preserved for visitors to see, including this room which served as a sorting area for new prisoners to the camp. Prisoners would enter this room, be stripped of their belongings (including clothes), have their hair cut, and continue on to be showered/disinfected and then receive camp clothes:

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These are the areas in which prisoners would receive camp clothes and their old clothes were placed to be disinfected (and then sold for profit by the Nazis back in Germany or repurposed for German military use):

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Most of those who arrived to Auschwitz never saw these areas; about 80% of those brought to the camp were taken directly to the gas chambers.

We were able to enter one of the buildings with barracks and to see where prisoners slept. Prisoners were crammed into these barracks, making sleep difficult and enabling the spread of disease. Something we learned in the barracks building that stood out to me was the connection between relationships and survival. Of course, to a large extent, surviving came down to luck. Yet, beyond this, having someone else with you (a family member or close friend) was an extremely significant factor for many who survived. The other components of camp life that most aided survival were: access to food beyond the rationed amount, having a work assignment under a roof, and speaking German (ie, being able to understand the SS and orders given). 22 different languages were spoken at the camp, and prisoners who spoke the same language often supported each other in small groups.

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If someone died in the barracks overnight, the other prisoners of the bunk were expected to carry that person to roll call in the morning. If anyone was absent from roll call (even if that missing person was dead), all of the prisoners would be expected to stand until the person was accounted for. The longest roll call at Auschwitz lasted 19 hours – I can’t imagine standing that long in any circumstance, much less when I am literally starving.

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After a rough morning at Birkenau, my group headed to Auschwitz I for a tour with one of the camp’s official guides, Dakota Jak. Dakota was amazing – she had an incredible knowledge base and relayed the information in a very engaging and challenging way.

Auschwitz I is the area with the infamous Albeit Macht Frei sign (although other camps also had this sign):

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The look of Auschwitz I was very different from Birkenau – Auschwitz I was defined primarily by brick buildings, small courtyards, and relatively narrow walkways:

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There were two things that were particularly interesting to me that came up during the tour with Dakota. The first was about a commonly voiced question, “why was there not more revolt from the Jews?” Dakota highlighted a few things to answer this question. First, families often tried to stay together, attempting to comply with orders in hopes of being kept together. What’s more, there are almost no Holocaust survivors who were woman during that time period – the reason being that when families were separated, children were sent with the women. Mothers would not leave their children (even if they were technically strong enough to have been selected for work), causing essentially all of the women to go with their children to the gas chambers. Also, Dakota noted that 15,000 POWs were sent to Auschwitz – trained Soviet soldiers. Only 96 of them survived. This was to highlight the horrible conditions and true helplessness of the prisoners; if trained soldiers were unable to help themselves, how much more so would it be essentially impossible for regular civilians.

The second point of great interest to me is the disturbing reality that the Allied forces didn’t do anything to stop what was happening at the concentration camps. Aerial photos from the wartime period as well as accounts from escapees prove that what was happening at the concentration camps was not a secret from the Allies. Why, then, would they not do something? Bombing the train tracks, for example, that were bringing thousands of prisoners to their deaths every day could have potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The historical answer is, disturbingly, not very satisfying. Essentially, it seems that initially the thought was that what was happening in the camps “wasn’t their problem.” Casualties were accepted as a part of war, and what was going on internally in Germany didn’t register as part of the Allied agenda. Second, the priority of the Allied forces was winning the military war. Bombing the tracks or focusing efforts on liberating the camps was considered as a diversion away from the primary objective. The goal was to win a war – not help the Jews.

At Auschwitz I, the buildings were a combination of preserved rooms and exhibits. Most of the exhibits were relatively brief: a few signs with basic information, a few pictures, and displays with physical remnants from the camp. In this case, the displays were able to relay information without needing a lot of printed information as accompaniment. For example, here is a room full of suitcases that prisoners brought with them to the camp. These suitcases would have been immediately taken upon arrival and then sorted through to look for valuables or anything that could be resold by the Germans:

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This is a walkway lined on both sides by shoes (also taken from prisoners, many shoes were repaired by prisoners and then sold by the Germans):

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One of the most memorable buildings we visited at Auschwitz I was Block 11 – the building that was used as the camp prison. Being in the prison involved being subjected to various conditions and treatments that would certainly qualify as torture. The first experiment using Zyklon B took place in Block 11. Next to Block 11 was an area called the Black Wall:

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The wall was used as a site for the public executions of prisoners, and it’s in a particularly ominous location because it’s sandwiched in a courtyard between Block 11 on one side and the ‘medical’ center (ie, where experiments were conducted on live subjects) on the other.

The last building we visited at Auschwitz I was the crematorium – the only standing crematorium left at the camp.

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The crematorium building was set up with a doorway that led into a small indoor foyer that fed directly into a gas chamber room (at this particular crematorium, prisoners were generally made to take off their clothes before even entering the building):

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After being gassed, prisoners were carted (by other prisoners) into the attached crematorium room with ovens:

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While some prisoners who had this job did survive the Holocaust, accounts from their personal experiences are almost nonexistent – most likely, understandably, due to the extreme trauma and guilt associated with their particular role at the camp. An interesting anecdote, however, is that some information about the camp was found in canisters hidden within the ashes by the prisoners who worked in the crematoriums. The canisters often contained secretly-taken photographs and notes about the horrors happening at the camp.

After a long day at Auschwitz, our group went to another facility for a quick processing session and then headed to the airport:

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Goodbye, Poland. Part of me wants to come back, but part of me never wants to subject myself to seeing these sorts of things again. I feel very strongly after this trip, however, that visiting Poland and seeing these sites to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust was overall a very positive experience and one that I would suggest to almost anyone. After this trip, I felt as though I could experience my life in a more aware, grateful, and appreciative way. I think this sort of trip also has an impact on building a positive relationship with Israel. The existence and legitimacy of Israel is in no way solely tied to the Holocaust, but I do believe that understanding the Holocaust on a deep level can make someone more thoughtful and appreciative of the essential role that Israel plays in the world today and for the Jewish people.

In closing, I will say that flying from Poland back ‘home’ to Jerusalem was an amazing feeling – perhaps some small piece of hope and optimism in a week that was often tragic.

Other Poland posts:

Warsaw
Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest
Lublin and Majdanek
Tarnow, Zbilatowska Gora, and Krakow

Visiting Tarnow, Zbilatowska Gora, and Krakow

Like the other days of the Heritage Seminars trip, the fourth day in Poland was jam-packed.

The first stop of the day was a small city called Tarnow. Before World War II, there were about 25,000 Jews living in Tarnow, and there had been a Jewish community there since the 1400s. During the war, many of the Jews were sent to Belzec (one of the death camps that was part of Operation Reinhard), assembled in the Rynek (town square) where they were tortured, humiliated, and killed, or brought to the nearby forest Zbilatowska Gora and shot into mass graves (very similar to Tikocyn). We visited the town’s Rynek which had, for centuries, served as a center for Jewish and Polish life but then became a gathering spot for killing:

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One of the shops along the outside of the Rynek today is an Irish Pub…I guess there are some things you really can find everywhere!

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One of the things that makes Tarnow historically significant is that it is from this city that the first prisoners to Auschwitz were sent. In the summer of 1940, 728 prisoners (mostly Polish political prisoners and some Jews) were sent from Tarnow to Auschwitz. This monument stands in Tarnow now as a commemoration to the event:

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After seeing these sites as well as an old synagogue in Tarnow, the group headed to the nearby Zbilatowska Gora forest. At Zbilatowska Gora, there are several mass grave sites. The site is very unique for a few reasons. Firstly, there are mass graves for political prisoners and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as Jews. The other unique feature – and something that makes it extremely disturbing – is that one of the mass graves is just children. In the forest, 800 children were separated from their parents and shot into a separate grave.

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Seeing this grave and thinking about the 800 children within it was very difficult, and emotions of those on the trip were definitely running high. Before leaving the site, our group leader asked us to write a letter to our future children as a way to reflect on and process the experience. I wrote the following:

To my future children:
I pray that I can protect you. Not from every high and low, but from insecurity, hunger, and danger. I pray that you will know where you come from, and that you will both love and understand the responsibility and blessing that comes with being Jewish. I pray that you will feel how much I love you, and that I will show it everyday. I pray that my arms will be a comfort to you, and that there will be no force greater to prevent it from being so. 

After leaving Zbilatowska Gora, we had a bit of down time on the bus while we drove to Krakow. Krakow did not suffer nearly as much destruction as Warsaw during the war, so we were able to visit many sites and buildings that remain – at least to some degree – in their pre-war form. The first location we visited in Krakow was the Schindler factory:

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Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and member of the Nazi party, but he used his factory to save the lives of about 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Today, he is recognized as a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum in Israel that has been the authority on determining and honoring the status of righteous gentiles – those who risked their own lives to saves Jews during the Holocaust). Schindler’s story was made famous through the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. The movie was a huge success, winning 7 academy awards, and increasing the general public’s knowledge about the Holocaust (plus, it is #8 on the American Film Institute’s list of the best American films of all time!). Spielberg was very intentional about the film, and as a result, the events it depicts are extremely historically accurate. Admirably, Spielberg used the films profits (which were quite substantial!) to found the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Center, an organization which has now filmed and archived the stories of many Holocaust survivors. If you have not seen this movie, WATCH IT NOW! It.is.seriously.top.notch. Today, the factory has photos of the Jews that Schindler saved on the outside of the building:

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After Schindler’s factory, our time in Krakow including visiting several synagogues and an old Jewish cemetery:

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Following a full day of touring around Krakow, the group had an extremely memorable evening where we heard the first person account of Ms. Paulina:

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Ms. Paulina is a righteous gentile whose family assisted in the saving and hiding of several Jews during the Holocaust. Ms. Paulina was a child during these events, and her memories of that time in her life were very moving. Her family lived in a rural area outside of the city, and many Jews came to them during the war seeking food, shelter, and safety. For many of these Jews, Ms. Paulina’s family helped them get to a nearby farm where the Polish farmer had built a hiding area in a barn. This is a map of the hiding spot (17 Jews survived the war here):

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In addition to helping Jews reach this hiding spot, Ms. Paulina’s family also had one Jewish girl live with them during the war, pretending she was a member of the family. Hearing Ms. Paulina’s story was a wonderful experience and a very necessary reminder that there did exist good people during the Holocaust (even though maybe not as many as we would like…).

Following the talk with Ms. Paulina, some of the group went to the historic Krakow city center. The city center is built around a rynek (town square) – which happens to be the largest square in Europe! Surrounding the square are several churches, the cloth hall (basically a huge and very ornate building that used to be a cloth market), and the former city council building.

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And, of course, a Christmas tree. I almost forgot these exist living in Jerusalem…

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Visiting the town square and walking through some of the nearby streets that were filled with shops, cafes, and souvenir stores, it really hit me what a different type of visit to Poland one could have. While I was spending my week in Poland visiting mass graves, death camps, and old synagogues, others could be visiting sites important to broader Polish government, culture, and art. Bottom line: there are two ways to view the rynek. Popping into one of the souvenir shops, I saw several mugs and keychains that read, “I love Poland.” To even consider buying something with that phrase on it would be laughable after the type of trip I did, but it highlighted the disconnect between two versions of one’s historical perspective of Poland and the way that informs modern-day visits.

It’s also worth noting that Poland has definitely recognized and embraced the tourism that comes as a result of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. For example, this hotel we stayed at is Rzesow had chairs with Israeli flags on them in the lobby:

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Different people on my trip had different reactions to the tourist industry that is built around (and benefits from) the destruction of Polish Jewry. Although I definitely feel some sense of indignation at the tragedy/unfairness of it all (Polish Jews were literally robbed of their houses, money, and all their belongings and now, years later, their deaths are still generating profits that they will never see), but I also left Poland feeling that the experience of seeing these sites and visiting these death camps should be – more or less – essentially required living. The result of standing witness to these places had an immense impact on my sense of gratitude, appreciation, understanding of the Holocaust as more than a statistic, connection to Israel, and overall desire to re-commit myself to the preeminent value of human dignity – and I imagine it would have a similar effect on others. But…more on that later in my final post about Poland where I’ll write about my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Other Poland posts:

Warsaw
Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest
Lublin and Majdanek

Visiting Lublin and Majdanek

My Heritage Seminars group woke up in Lublin after our second night in Poland. We spent the first part of the morning exploring some of Lublin’s sites. First, we went to the Old Jewish Cemetery of Lublin:

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The cemetery was situated just off some roads and residential areas, so it made for an odd juxtaposition to be in the very old (and mostly destroyed) cemetery but also to be able to look out and see normal life so nearby. Something that was emphasized repeatedly on the trip was how the Nazi’s war against the Jews was much more than a physical war – it was also a mental and emotional war. One of the most striking examples of this was that when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during the war, the tombstones were often taken and then used to pave the roads in the concentration camps where Jews were kept prisoner. Using Jewish gravestones to pave roads was intended to feel belittling and dehumanizing.

Which brings me to…Majdanek.

Majdanek was the first concentration camp to become a museum and commemoration site – established as such in 1944. One of the unusual things about Majdanek (and perhaps coincidentally the reason for its speedy commemoration) is that it had a high percentage of Polish political prisoners who labored there. The camp first started operating in late 1941, and it was originally opened to be a labor camp for Soviet Prisoners of War. This purpose evolved to include many Polish political prisoners and also Jews. One of the unique features about Majdanek is that – unlike many other camps – it is not in an isolated area. In fact, it is within the boundaries of Lublin. Today, it is right next to some busy roads and residential areas. It was crazy to imagine the people living there giving directions to their house, “okay, so you drive straight past Majdanek and then turn left…”

The camp today includes a combination of commemorative art, restored barracks and other buildings, and a museum. At the entrance to the camp is this distinctive piece of commemorative art – to approach the sculpture one must go down into a narrow arrow with jagged stones coming in from all sides.:

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Approaching it really gives the impression of walking towards an ever-increasing peril with no escape – the artist did a good job relaying the message! Looking out at the fields of Majdanek, I was immediately struck by how vast the camp was. Compared to the relatively small area of Treblinka, it was abundantly clear that a camp needed to be much larger if people were there to work rather than only to die.

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We entered the camp through the same gate at which men and women were separated after arriving to the camp, and we passed several guard towers along the way:

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After being separated along gender lines, people who arrived to the camp experienced the infamous sorting process of who was fit enough to work and who would be killed immediately. Both groups made their way through this building:

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Those who were selected to live were stripped of their clothes, belongings, hair, and sent to this room where actual water came down from the shower heads on the ceiling. The water was often freezing cold and then boiling hot:

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The clothes of all the prisoners were disinfected in another room in the same building. The disinfectant used for the clothing was Zyklon B, the same chemical that would later be used in the gas chambers to kill people. The pictures below show empty Zyklon B containers as well as stains on the walls of the rooms where the chemical was used:

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Those who were not sent to the real showers, were sent to the ‘showers’ – the gas chambers were referred to by this code name so as to decrease the likelihood of revolt. Those who were to be gassed were crowded into a small room:

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An SS guard would stand outside in a small adjoining room and dispense poisonous gas through metal pipes into the room. The SS officer would also watch the death of those in the room through a small grated window:

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Most of the people who died in the gas chambers were women, children, and the elderly, although men who were too sick or emaciated to work were also killed in this way.

After leaving the bath and gas house, we walked about 30 minutes towards the other end of the camp, stopping to take a glimpse into one of the barracks:

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At the far end of the camp was another piece of artistic memorialization.The writing on the outside of the dome reads, “let our fate be a warning to you.”

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Inside the dome, are the ashes of prisoners cremated at the camp, collected when the camp was liberated in 1944.

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This was one of the two most disturbing sights for me during the entire trip (the other being a seemingly endless mound of hair at Auschwitz). I don’t know what I was expecting when I approached this mausoleum, but when I looked in and saw the above pile of ash, it was too much for me and I walked away immediately.

The crematorium, where these ashes were produced, is right next to the mausoleum:

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And, as a final reminder of destruction, there are also mass burial pits at this end of the camp next to the crematorium and mausoleum. These pits hold the bodies of Jews killed during Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), a ‘cleaning up’ operation in which about 42,000 Jews were killed in two days in November 1942. This was an attempt to wipe out those Jews who had not been killed by the three Reinhard camps.

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While this was another heavy day, I also experienced a lot of feelings of gratitude and appreciation. The silver lining, for me, of this type of trip is feeling an immense desire to treasure the good things in my life, the people I love, and the good fortune of my own relative safety in the world. Seeing sites like those described above makes it difficult to complain about little things or to not feel amazed at the good fortune and blessing of my own life.

Other Poland posts:

Warsaw
Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

Heritage Seminars in Poland

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.

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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:

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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).

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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:

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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.

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After the cemetery, we visited a piece of what remains of the Ghetto Wall:

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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:

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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!