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:


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!


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:


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.


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:


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! Today, the factory has photos of the Jews that Schindler saved on the outside of the building:


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

IMG_6231 IMG_6234 IMG_6233

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:


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):


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.


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


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:


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:

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:

IMG_6155 IMG_6157 IMG_6158

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.:


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.

IMG_6163 IMG_6164

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:

IMG_6165 IMG_6166

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:


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:

IMG_6170 IMG_6176 IMG_6171

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:

IMG_6178 IMG_6174

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:


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:


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:

IMG_6185 IMG_6187

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.”


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


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:


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.


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:

Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

Visiting Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

After the first day of activities in Poland, my group stayed the night at a hotel in Warsaw. The next morning, we were up bright and early to drive to a small town called Tikocyn.

Tikocyn was a small, predominantly Jewish village in Poland prior to the war – the total population was 3,000 and 2,000 of them were Jews. Visiting the town today felt like a big change from the bustling Warsaw:

IMG_6131 IMG_6132

The first stop in Tikocyn was the old synagogue.


Since all of the town’s Jews were killed and the synagogue receives no current use, it has been restored to reflect its original decor and is open to tourists. The bima (elevated area of a synagogue where the Torah is read) was in a baroque style, and the prayers written on the walls around the synagogue were very beautiful:

IMG_6138 IMG_6137

After the synagogue, the group walked over the Rynek (name for the town square commonly found in Polish towns). In 1941, all of Tikocyn’s Jews were called to the Rynek:


Women and children were loaded onto carts and driven to Lupachowa Forest, and the men were marched to the same location. My group followed their route by bus and entered the forest on foot:


What was waiting for Tikocyn’s Jews in the forest were mass graves that had been dug by Polish workers in the prior weeks. All of the Jews were killed in mass shootings by the Nazis, and the mass graves were covered again by Polish workers. It took two days to kill the entire Tikocyn Jewish population because about 400 people hid on the first day. The Nazis returned to the town to hunt out those in hiding and returned with them to the forest the following day. As we approached the clearing where the mass graves are marked today, I began to see the familiar flicker of the Israeli flag:

IMG_6147 IMG_6148

At first I felt surprised to see the Israeli flags there. Throughout the trip, however, I began to see more and more how Israel has become representative of a redemption (of sorts) for those killed and also a symbol of hope to those who are trying to understand and confront the Holocaust.

IMG_6151 IMG_6152

Walking out of the forest was truly an eerie feeling – as I approached the sunlight of the road outside the forest, it was impossible not to think about the fact that so many others were never able to leave.

After Lupachowa Forest, the final stop of Day 2 was Treblinka.


We arrived to Treblinka as the sun was setting, so the light wasn’t good enough for many pictures. Some basic information though…Treblinka was one of 3 death camps (along with Sobibor and Belzec) associated with Operation Reinhard. Operation Reinhard was the name given to the Nazi operation of efficient mass murder with the purpose of total extermination. The Nazis search for a ‘solution to the Jewish problem’ was an evolving process throughout the war, and the final solution of complete extermination is not generally thought of to be the plan right from the beginning.

In 1942, the decision for complete extermination had been made, and Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were opened as a strategic part of Operation Reinhard. Unlike other concentration and slave labor camps in Poland and Germany, these camps were designed for the singular purpose of killing essentially everyone who went there. Trains of Jews arrived to camp and were immediately robbed of their possessions and killed in the gas chambers. On Treblinka’s most ‘efficient’ day of operation, 17,000 people were killed.

With the perspective of history, the finalization of Operation Reinhard and the building of these three camps was a major turning point in the fate of Polish Jews. At the beginning of 1942, 80% of Polish Jewry was still alive and 20% dead. By the end of 1942, this equation was reversed, with 80% murdered and only 20% still alive.

If you visit Treblinka today, you will primarily see sculptures and various forms of commemorative art. The camp was completely destroyed by the Nazis before the war ended in an attempt to cover up some of the evidence. The information that is known about the camp primarily comes from escapees who relayed information about the camp’s physical layout and operations.

One of the other Reinhard camps, Sobibor, was the site of a large-scale escape plan. In 1943, 400 prisoners made an escape attempt from Sobibor. While many of them were killed in the process, the following manhunt, or later on in the war, several of the escapees did ultimately survive. There is a good (BUT HIGHLY FICTIONALIZED) movie about the event called Escape from Sobibor.

Check back soon for more posts about my Poland trip!

Previous Poland posts…

Day 1: Warsaw

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.


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!