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:

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The first stop in Tikocyn was the old synagogue.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!