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:

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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:


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:

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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.:


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:


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:


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:

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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.”


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