September 9, 2015 – Sandomierz and Koprzywnica, Poland.

We had tacked this day on to the end of the Jewish Heritage tour so that Denise could gather information about her grandmother (who moved to the U.S. in 1908) and the rest of the people in her grandmother’s family. Our new guide Lukasz met us early, and he and Denise together determined the agenda for the day.

Our first stop was Sandomierz, which is southwest of Lublin and is the location for the repository of state archives in which Lukasz expected to find information about Denise’s family. We drove about two hours through the countryside. In this region, there seemed to be a greater variety of crops, such as apples and tomatoes (currently being harvested) and also lots more berries. As we were driving, we talked with Lukasz about historical and modern Poland. As a professional guide, he knows a lot about both.

In Sandomierz we found our way to the state archives building, which used to be a synagogue. It has the characteristic round-top windows that so many synagogues have had on our tour. The entrance door to the building was an unimposing wooden doorway with barely any indication of the building’s purpose. Fortunately, Lukasz knew what to do. We were directed up the stairs to a large room on the second floor complete with an attendant, 6-8 large library tables, people looking at documentary materials (print and digital), large windows, everyone whispering. Denise and Lukasz worked on the documents for a couple of hours until they had looked at everything in that office that was relevant to her search.

Next, we drove about 20 minutes to Koprzywnica, the home town of Denise’s grandmother and the ultimate destination for our trip. By this time, it was raining a little, but we were undeterred. For the next couple of hours, we drove around the town, visiting sites of significance. For example, the synagogue is gone, but Lukasz showed us where it had been located. Today, it’s just two lots separated by a narrow walkway. We spent a long time lingering in the town square where Denise took a lot of pictures and found the address of the home that may have belonged to people in her family. Today, the building in that location is relatively new. The square itself was a small park with benches, paved pathways, trees and shrubs. It’s a quiet place, aside from the occasional loud motorcycle or auto. The streets leading to and from the square, and the square itself, are lined with houses of various sizes, mostly small, some newly built or renovated, a few of pre-war vintage. We agreed that probably none of the ones there today were present when Denise’s grandmother lived there. Next, we drove out of town a mile or so and stopped at a vacant field that Lukasz had identified as the Jewish cemetery. There is no sign of it today.

As we drove out of Koprzywnica, Denise said she feels that she has accomplished what she set out to do – to see where her grandmother came from. Her connection with our guide in Poland, Lukasz, will also enable her to continue looking for facts about her family. Our drive back to Warsaw and the airport was long. It had been an exhausting day – and trip.

Relevant Municipal Archives Were Located in Sandomierz

Relevant Municipal Archives Were Located in Sandomierz

View in Sandomierz

View in Sandomierz

Archives Building in Sandomierz

Archives Building in Sandomierz

Archives Room with Paperwork Needed for Working There

Archives Room with Paperwork Needed for Working There

A Himelfarb Page in the Archives

A Himelfarb Page in the Archives

Koprzywnica - The Home Town of Denise's Maternal Grandmother

Koprzywnica – The Home Town of Denise’s Maternal Grandmother

Municipal Building in Koprzywnica

Municipal Building in Koprzywnica

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Town Center, Municipal Park

Koprzywnica Town Center, Municipal Park

Seating and Pathways in the Municipal Park, Koprzywnica

Seating and Pathways in the Municipal Park, Koprzywnica

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Today

September 8, 2015 – Lublin, Poland.

After breakfast, we toured Lublin for a half hour or so. It’s a medium-sized city with old and new buildings, a hilltop castle, busy people, some traffic, some graffiti, lots of apartment buildings. Our first stop of the day was at the concentration/death camp of Majdanek, just outside of Lublin. Now a Polish national museum, this is a vast open space surrounded by double barbed wire fences, with monuments, barracks, open fields, ditches, a crematorium, and various buildings used by the Nazis to carry out their extermination plans. Throughout the museum/camp, plaques have been attached to walls and other surfaces relating surviving prisoners’ personal reflections about their experiences in the camp: in Polish, English (lucky for us), and Hebrew. These heart-wrenching accounts of unspeakable/unimaginable atrocities were often difficult to read, but they were posted in every building as reminders of what happened here.

We entered several of the barracks, which are long, narrow buildings with a door at one end and only clerestory windows, so no one could see inside or look out. The barracks were used both as warehouses and as accommodations for the prisoners. The three-tier bunks designed to hold several people each looked particularly inhospitable.

In addition to the barracks, we toured a prisoner disinfecting building (complete with tubs where prisoners were dunked in carbolic acid), the gas chamber (where guards could watch the proceedings through a peephole in the sealed door), and the crematorium (with an efficiently-designed series of ovens).

The main exhibit of the museum was housed in one of the barracks buildings which looked like the others on the outside but inside was modern and climate controlled. Featured were video testimonies and period newsreels playing continuously, pictures, artifacts of prison life, prisoner uniforms, and brief biographies of many of the ones who survived and of some who didn’t.

On the grounds of the camp were some memorials to the victims. One, a round hilltop mausoleum filled with human ashes, was erected near where more than 18,000 Jews were machine-gunned in ONE DAY. As we toured the camp, we passed by a huge old oak tree, watched birds flying around, and walked over grassy areas, as if nature just has to carry on, no matter what.

We all left the Majdanek camp totally depressed. One of our group mentioned later that this experience was even more moving than Auschwitz. We were practically the only people there, unlike at Auschwitz which was very crowded, and we could take our time to experience each emotion that came up.

Next, our guide Dariusz very thoughtfully brought us to a museum/theater in Lublin which holds out the possibility of hope in all this madness. The purpose of the Brama Grodska Center is to create deep understanding between Poles and Jews. To that end, and to memorialize the Jewish neighborhoods and people of Lublin that were wiped out by the Nazis during the war, this organization has undertaken the task of recording as much information as they can find about each person and each building that existed before the war in the Jewish neighborhood around Lublin’s castle. The museum sponsors art installations, a website, and educational programs which encourage people to engage with their project and thereby to learn about Lublin’s common Polish-Jewish history.

When we left the museum, we walked around for a while in the Stare Miasto enjoying the old building facades and cobbled streets. We decided that lunch should be Jewish food, and Dariusz brought us to a restaurant decorated with objects reminiscent of Jewish life such as a cartoon of traditionally dressed Jewish men dancing, an old Singer treadle sewing machine, and lace tablecloths. We had, among other dishes, cabbage soup, falafel, and kreplach.

After lunch Dariusz showed us a few more Jewish sites within the town and then dropped Denise and me off at our hotel. The rest of our group was leaving Poland, and he was accompanying them to Warsaw. We said our goodbyes with sadness because we all enjoyed spending time together on this remarkable tour.

Barracks at Concentration/Death Camp Majdanek

Barracks at Concentration/Death Camp Majdanek

Majdanek - Double Barbed Wire Fences and Guardhouse

Majdanek – Double Barbed Wire Fences and Guardhouse

Majdanek - Nazi Monument with a Secret

Majdanek – Nazi Monument with a Secret

Majdanek - Monument on Top of a Huge Pile of Human Ashes

Majdanek – Monument on Top of a Huge Pile of Human Ashes

Majdanek - Building of Death

Majdanek – Building of Death

City of Lublin

City of Lublin

Lublin - Archives of the Brama Grodska Center

Lublin – Archives of the Brama Grodska Center

Lublin - Our Lunch Restaurant with Jewish-Style Décor and Food

Lublin – Our Lunch Restaurant with Jewish-Style Décor and Food

Lunch in Lublin

Lunch in Lublin

 

September 7, 2015 – Rzeszow to Lublin, Poland.

After a pleasant breakfast the next morning, we left for our first excursion of the day – on foot. We walked near and through the town square of Rzeszow, observing Jewish monuments; a synagogue, which is now an art museum and city archives; and the site of a former graveyard, which now is a park without any tombstones. The Rzeszow town square is very pretty, having a town hall with a date of 1897 engraved on the pediment.

We did a lot of driving today, much of it on pretty bumpy roads. We mentioned to Dariusz that the villages we were driving through seemed generally prosperous, the houses very attractive and substantial-looking. He explained that Poles spend all the money they get on their houses, rather than on other material comforts or foreign travel. About the crops along the way: we saw field upon field of tobacco, frequently people harvesting the huge leaves; corn was still growing; there were many, many fields with rows of berries, these also being harvested.

After what seemed like a very long drive, part of the time next to a railroad track (from now on, seeing a train line running through forest will carry heavy meaning for me), we arrived at Zamość. First, we looked at the outside of a beautifully restored Sephardic synagogue; then we walked another block to the town square. It was charming, with beautiful colored facades, arcades, and an imposing town hall with an impressive spiral staircase leading up to the front door from ground level. Since it was time for lunch, we tourists found a restaurant below street level and enjoyed another meal together.

Our next stop was a town named Izbica. All we did here was walk up a steep, narrow path to a former Jewish cemetery on the top of a hill. This town once was inhabited by thousands of Jews, but they were all murdered, and no Jews live here today.

When we arrived in Lublin, we drove around town a little, visited a synagogue, and made our way to the Grand Hotel Lublinianka, where later in the evening we had a lovely farewell dinner because this was our last night with our group. About our hotel: the name was not misleading. It’s an old building but very well appointed, with high ceilings, grand staircases, plenty of light, traditional furnishings, no musty smell, large rooms. Best of all, our room was in the front of the hotel, with two large windows overlooking the bustling main streets of Lublin.

Jewish Cemetery near Rzeszow

Jewish Cemetery near Rzeszow

Former Synagogue in Rzeszow, Now City Art Museum and Archives

Former Synagogue in Rzeszow, Now City Art Museum and Archives

Main Plaza of Zamosc

Main Plaza of Zamosc

Building Façade Made of Tombstones in Izbica

Building Façade Made of Tombstones in Izbica

School and Synagogue in Lublin

School and Synagogue in Lublin

Interior of Synagogue in Lublin

Interior of Synagogue in Lublin

 

September 6, 2015 – Krakow to Rzeszow, Poland.

Today, we drove from Krakow to Rzeszow, with several stops along the way. On the highway today, we were among rolling hills, not flat land, with farms and occasional small towns. Our first stop was at the town of Dabrowa Tarnowska, which has a beautifully restored synagogue which is today being used as a cultural center and only occasionally as a synagogue. It has exhibits depicting a few aspects of the Jewish and non-Jewish culture and life of the area. There are carefully painted designs with Jewish motifs on the walls and ceilings and a beautiful wooden staircase and bannister, all very well done. Although the building is now used for largely secular purposes, the Jewish symbols and artwork and Hebrew lettering have been retained and restored. The evidence of Jewish life here has been thoughtfully restored but Jews no longer live in this town, where they once made up 80% of the population.

Next, we drove to a killing field in a nearby forest. Nazis started bringing people to this forest in 1939 in order to shoot them and bury them in mass graves. Ghastly. A communist column is the most imposing and tallest monument, but it doesn’t mention the fact that most of the people killed here were Jews. The communists just inscribed some typical propaganda on the stone. Other monuments to some of the victims list their names. These are the ones known from nearby communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. Other monuments don’t list the names at all because these graves hold the thousands of Jews brought here for murdering. Particularly touching is the mass children’s grave. Nazis didn’t waste bullets on the children. They just bashed their little heads in and threw them into the pit. Horrible. Today, this area is full of the kinds of plants, bushes, and trees which were here 70+ years ago when the murders happened; they are still bearing silent witness to these crimes.

Next, we drove to Tarnow, where we walked through the old town and observed buildings, monuments, plaques, and symbols relating to the once-thriving Jewish life there. On the market square we stopped in at an old hotel for a lunch of traditional Polish foods. We were the only guests and enjoyed sitting at the table together and regaling each other with the stories of our lives.

Next, we drove to Lancut, another old town with a partially restored synagogue and a very interesting non-Jewish attendant. He is an antiquary who has been collecting artifacts of Jewish life for display in a small museum he has set up in the anterooms of the building. Next door to the synagogue is the palatial residence – complete with a dry moat – of the patron of the synagogue, a wealthy Polish family. They were so powerful that the Nazis let them leave Poland with most of their treasures. Anyway, the synagogue attendant believes the rumor that there was once a tunnel between the palace and the synagogue. No one has found it yet, though. Today, the palace is used as a museum, and several tour groups were in evidence as we were standing outside.

Our final stop of the day was in Rzeszow, where our surprisingly modern hotel on the town square (The Bristol Hotel) had a brew pub where our group had dinner together. Another delightful evening, despite our exhaustion from the day’s travels.

Restored Synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska

Restored Synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska

Mass Children's Grave in the Killing Field near Dabrowa Tarnowska

Mass Children’s Grave in the Killing Field near Dabrowa Tarnowska

Small Museum with Artifacts of Former Jewish Life in Lancut

Small Museum with Artifacts of Former Jewish Life in Lancut

Interior of the Synagogue in Lancut

Interior of the Synagogue in Lancut

Our Tour Group at the Former Palace (Now Museum) in Lancut

Our Tour Group at the Former Palace (Now Museum) in Lancut

September 4-5, 2015 – Krakow, Poland.

September 4.

We spent this morning touring Krakow. This seems to be a prosperous city, full of busy people. It was not damaged much by the war, and the city buildings are in various states of preservation: some old and dilapidated, some renovated nicely in the old style, some modern and strikingly different. According to our guide Dariusz, the ownership of many of the buildings cannot be proven. Ones now owned by the state may have once had Jewish owners murdered in the holocaust with living relatives who might come forward to claim them; thus, when ownership is at all questionable, one’s investment in a building may be lost.

We spent a few hours wandering through the former Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. We saw at least five synagogues, none perfectly maintained or restored but most of them active in one way or another, especially as host sites for large groups of Israelis or other foreign visitors. These synagogues are also used as community centers for concerts/lectures and as venues for the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which has taken place in Krakow for the past 25 years (since the fall of communism). Adjacent to one of these synagogues was a graveyard. In answer to our question about how it survived the war, Dariusz told us that the Jews had covered the graves with earth, after knocking over the tombstones, to make the area look like a field so the Nazis wouldn’t realize that something was there that they could desecrate. Today, about half of the graveyard is back to normal, with upright tombstones, pathways, and shade trees. During our walk, we also stopped by the Krakow Jewish Community Center, which is actively providing community programs. It was dedicated to Britain’s Prince Charles, who committed himself to raising funds to get the center underway.

Back on the bus, we drove across the river to the area designated as the Jewish ghetto by the Nazis during the war. Today, it looks like a part of the city, but with one striking feature: there is a huge plaza with large, black, straight-back chairs placed at regular intervals on the surface. The chairs are empty, symbolizing the emptiness of Krakow after the Jews were removed. At one corner of the square is a pharmacy remaining from the pre-war period. The owner, a gentile, remained in his pharmacy throughout the war and was instrumental in saving many Jewish lives by providing people with medicines, or papers, or a means of escaping from the ghetto.

Next, we drove to the factory of Oscar Schindler, where the administration building has been turned into a museum of life in Krakow during the war. The Jews were living in deplorable conditions during the war, but the Poles of the city were better off. Several display cases contained artifacts of their lives. There were also reconstructions of ghetto apartments, of normal apartments, and of a below-ground hiding place for the Jews. Life went on as normal for some of the inhabitants of Krakow, but it was horrible for others. Dariusz led us through the exhibits, fortunately, or we might have been there for days because there was so much information to absorb. The museum is very well done and was full of tourists like us.

Back at our hotel, Denise and I dumped our stuff and took off for a city walk, our destination being the market square, which is an important feature of Krakow. This is another huge plaza, bordered by multi-story buildings and lined with outdoor bars and cafes on all sides. We found a place for pizza and enjoyed sitting outside on the sunny afternoon watching all the passersby on the square. A long building, the “Cloth Hall” took up one side of the square, and we went there looking for local crafts. We were not disappointed.

For dinner this evening, we went back to the Krakow JCC for a Sabbath meal with dozens of other people. We sat across from an Israeli couple and their daughter who have resettled in Krakow and love it here, although they miss Israel as well. The daughter speaks English very well, plus Hebrew and Polish, and she’s learning French in school. Amazing. We found it heartening that this family confirms Dariusz’s statement that life for Jews in Poland is getting better.

September 5.

Our destination this morning was Wawel Castle. This edifice tells the history of Poland in stone. The walls, the buildings, the cathedral were all built at different times in different materials, and all tell the viewer many facts about Poland’s history if you know what you’re looking at. Dariusz was a fountain of information, with a phenomenal memory for dates and facts. Both interior and exterior views of the castle showed impressive, massive spaces: the height of the walls and buildings, the size of the castle courtyard, and even the public rooms which we visited. These were some of the features of the interior: carved limestone doorways, each unique; Belgian tapestries on both secular and Biblical subjects; massive furniture, money boxes, and thrones; huge oriental carpets. Dariusz took us through all the public rooms explaining everything we saw.

For the afternoon, we drove a short distance to Wieliczka, the location of a very old and famous salt mine. We met our guide, a young woman with imperfect English, at the entrance and engaged in our first task, which was to walk down 54 flights of steps to the first level of the mine. We then followed her through underground passages, up and down several more flights of steps, stopping every so often in rooms or cavernous spaces to look at the salt sculpture and wooden supports which were the two main features of the mine. One gigantic space in particular was impressive: it looked like a timber-frame building, but its purpose was to stabilize the roof and walls of the cavern. This mine was built in the 13th century originally and had been producing salt continuously until 2007. It hosts about 1.2 million visitors annually. We traveled at least 2 miles underground, and at the end we rode back up to the surface in a tightly-packed elevator. With restaurants, gift shops, and toilets readily available, I think we were somewhat better off than the miners who used to work there.

Jewish Community Center in Krakow

Jewish Community Center in Krakow

Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Interior of Beautifully Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Interior of Beautifully Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Pharmacy that Remained Open During the War

Pharmacy that Remained Open During the War

Plaque Marking Schindler's Factory

Plaque Marking Schindler’s Factory

Main Plaza in Krakow - Cloth Hall on the Left

Main Plaza in Krakow – Cloth Hall on the Left

View from Wawel Castle in Krakow

View from Wawel Castle in Krakow

Us in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle in Krakow

Us in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle in Krakow

Inside the Salt Mine at Wieliczka

Inside the Salt Mine at Wieliczka

 

September 3, 2015 – Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland.

During our 3-hour drive from Lodz to Auschwitz the next morning, Dariusz told us about some aspects of modern Polish life. For example, the education system, he thinks, is very good. The medical/healthcare system is abused but works well enough. The highway took us through the same flat farmlands as yesterday. We eventually left the highway and passed through small villages, which looked as prosperous as ones we’ve seen in France and even Switzerland. The houses seem very substantial, most with red tile roofs, stucco or brick walls, and attractive flowers and plantings. For lunch, we stopped for a quick sandwich at a coffee shop which was associated with a small synagogue and museum in the town near the Auschwitz camp. After our meal, we followed a young intern into the museum, then the synagogue, where he explained what we were looking at. He is from Austria and will be returning home in a few weeks. We were told that he was not Jewish but was participating in a cultural enrichment program for young Austrians.

Next, we drove a few kilometers to the camp at Auschwitz. Auschwitz, of course, was a key part of our trip, but how to say anything about it other than describing our activities is daunting. So I’ll just describe. We went to Auschwitz and then to Birkenau later in the day.

At Auschwitz, along with many, many other tourists, we walked into and among the red brick buildings which made up the facility. The exteriors of the buildings look the same now as they did during the war: red, two-story brick, with wooden window panes and stone steps leading up to the doorways, which are usually at the end of the building, opening on to a main thoroughfare. We saw exhibits of artifacts from the prisoners, such as hair, shoes, pots & pans, kitchen utensils, baby clothes, eyeglasses – all things which these people had brought with them from their lives in the ghetto and during the impossibly difficult train transport. We saw rooms where the prisoners slept (many to a bunk), used the toilets, and washed. In the basement of one building, we also saw chilling examples of Nazi atrocities in the rooms used to hold and starve or torture particularly undesirable (to the sick Nazi mind) individuals. After the barracks, we walked into the actual gas chamber and then into the crematorium with its horrifying ovens. This is so mind-boggling.

After a short break, we drove a few kilometers to Birkenau, a much larger slave labor complex, crematorium, and death camp. Here, we were mostly outside, walking along the train tracks where prisoners arrived, along the path prisoners followed from the train platform to the gas chamber. Our last stop here was at a women’s death barrack, where women who were too weak to work were brought to die. Throughout our experience, our guide, a tall, long-haired young man, gave us lots of information about what the prisoners were forced to endure. The crowds of people we came upon here were understandably subdued, given our shared experience.

Denise and I have been talking about what happened here, trying to make some sense of the inhumanity, sadism, and cruelty fully visible, even with no prisoners anymore, but we have failed. The unspeakable atrocities leave the mind totally numb.

Here are a couple of statistics:

  • 1,087,190 Jews were deported to Auschwitz
  • There were 423 barracks as well as other camp buildings

We have been absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the Nazi killing machine and how many people in so many different roles were complicit. There were carpenters, scientists, engineers, farmers, construction people, construction material providers, drivers, railroad operators, munitions’ manufacturers, cooks, textile and clothing manufacturers, military people, politicians, car and airplane manufacturers, etc.  Every aspect of the war, the death camp administration, and the roundup of innocent people took a massive evil coordination effort. We just can’t imagine how many cruel, sick, inhumane people there were, to make it happen so effectively. A whole civilization in Poland and everywhere in Europe was wiped out. We are overcome with sadness thinking about all the people and their future children, grandchildren, and descendants that just won’t exist because of these unspeakable acts. The world will never know these people’s contributions, talents, gifts, discoveries, and actions.  It makes us so sad – and angry. How could it have happened?  Seeing the magnitude of the holocaust in person just blew us away.

Late in the day, we left Birkenau and drove to our hotel in Krakow.

Arbeit Macht Frei - Sign over Entrance to Auschwitz

Arbeit Macht Frei – Sign over Entrance to Auschwitz

Train Tracks at Auschwitz

Train Tracks at Auschwitz

Cry of Despair and Warning at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Cry of Despair and Warning at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Group of Israeli Tourists near the Remains of a Crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Group of Israeli Tourists near the Remains of a Crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Barbed Wire Fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Barbed Wire Fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Acres and Acres of the Remains of the Camp Barracks

Acres and Acres of the Remains of the Camp Barracks

 

September 2, 2015 – Lodz, Poland.

Driving from Warsaw to Lodz gave us an opportunity to see the Polish countryside. Most of the way we were on a modern four-lane divided highway. The land was completely flat, mostly cultivated, with relatively few trees, occasional industrial sites and farm houses, few cows, and signs for the likes of McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, and Shell Oil. Long stretches along this highway were bordered by sound barriers, even though most of the time there was nothing behind them that might be affected by too much road noise (unless it was the crops). Our bus seemed to be moving along at a fast clip, but most cars were zooming past us. After a couple of hours, we arrived in Lodz, a smaller city than Warsaw and our home for the night.

Our first stop was a restored train station, Radegast, which the Nazis had used first to bring people into the area to be used in slave labor, and then later to move them out to the death camps. There was an exhibit of photos and transport lists in the train station itself, and a long concrete tunnel paralleling the track held more photos, lists, and a few artifacts of the prisoners (buttons, scissors, pottery shards). I took a picture with my iPhone of one of the displays of buttons. What a sad memento.

Later, we toured the Jewish cemetery in Lodz and then had lunch at the local JCC, where we got to talk with the local rabbi. He is a native of Lodz who is totally committed to keeping Lodz Jewish traditions alive. He was very personable, passionate, and ready to welcome everyone. He told us that it’s slowly getting easier to be a Jew in Poland, although it’s still easier for many people to move away.

After lunch, we walked a few blocks to a synagogue that had survived the war, probably because it was hidden away on a side street. Our walk to it was through a seedy neighborhood and a disreputable-looking courtyard. Inside, it was plain, with elaborately painted ceiling decorations, but it had the same layout as other synagogues I’ve seen. Donor plaques were prominently displayed on one wall, but I think quite a few more donors would be needed to make this structure presentable.

During the rest of the afternoon, we saw a park which was the former site of a synagogue and then a church which had been used during the war to store the valuables stolen by the Nazis. Our last stop of the day was at a park dedicated to the survivors and to the “righteous gentiles” who helped save Jews during the war. As usual at the end of the day, we were exhausted and ready for a break. Our hotel in Lodz was great. Andel’s Hotel occupies a former textile factory and has been completely renovated into a modern luxury hotel. We loved its clean lines, interesting architecture, beautiful fabric accents, and modern furniture. This hotel is adjacent to a sprawling complex of bars, restaurants, and stores which seems to be a magnet for young people.

Restored Train Station in Lodz

Restored Train Station in Lodz

Tunnel Next to the Radegast Train Station

Tunnel Next to the Radegast Train Station

Meeting with the Head Rabbi of Lodz

Meeting with the Head Rabbi of Lodz

Monument to the Righteous Among the Nations of the World, Lodz

Monument to the Righteous Among the Nations of the World, Lodz

Plaque at the Lodz Monument to the Righteous

Plaque at the Lodz Monument to the Righteous

Street Scene in Lodz

Street Scene in Lodz

August 30-September 1, 2015 – Warsaw, Poland.

August 30.

When we arrived in Warsaw at the Frederic Chopin International Airport, we were met by our tour bus driver, who would remain with us for the entire tour. Since we were his only passengers and he knew little English and our Polish was/is non-existent, we didn’t talk much and were able to concentrate on our surroundings as we drove from the airport to the hotel. On this Sunday evening, the roads were generally free of traffic. There were a few people on bicycles, some walking, some waiting at bus stops. The roads were wide and lined with trees; we passed several parks as well. Everything was very dry, typical of a hot summer climate, I assume. We had no idea what to expect of Poland, but everything we saw was like every other European city we’ve been to. We drove first through non-business areas; we could see residences set far back from the road, behind tall fences and lines of trees. Eventually, we came to the commercial area, with office buildings and some stores that we recognized, such as Marks & Spencer and Zara.

Our driver left us at the Hotel Sofitel Victoria, which is across from a large plaza and a park with lots of trees. Not until we had to walk to our room did I realize how big the hotel is. For dinner, we walked around the block to a cute, natural-foods restaurant and enjoyed a light meal. English menus and English-speaking staff made our restaurant experience really easy.

August 31.

After spending the next morning trying to recover from jet lag, we met our tour group in the hotel lobby at 1:30 as planned. It was a group of six: two single ladies, a couple from Westchester, and us. Our guide Dariusz was friendly, very competent, and enthusiastic. As we discovered over the next few days, he is the best tour guide we have ever had. We boarded our bus, drove through the city, and stopped at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The current exhibition was entitled Journey of a Thousand Years. We spent the rest of the afternoon here, with a wonderful guide who seemed to know everything about Polish-Jewish history. Neither she nor Dariusz is Jewish, but they, along with several other guides we met on our tour, are totally committed to explaining the importance of Jewish contributions to life in Poland. After drawing our attention to the exterior of the building, a modern Finnish design, our guide accompanied us inside, where we toured the entire exhibit during the next three or so hours. Had we been on our own, it would have taken us several days to see everything. The exhibits are mostly words and pictures, with very few actual artifacts (since they were largely destroyed during the holocaust). The story is about how the Jews came to Poland, why, how they fit in to Polish society, and how the history of Jews and Poland is inextricably linked. Opened only a year before, the museum is very well done, easy to navigate, and should be on the itinerary of anyone planning to visit Warsaw.

After a short break back at our hotel, we gathered together and walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant for a dinner of traditional Polish food, which was good – and substantial. Our walk back to the hotel took in a few more sights of Warsaw: the President’s palace, a famous and elegant old hotel, a church rebuilt after the war according to a painting by Canaletto (he was the court painter for the last Polish king), statues of public figures, and a close-up view of the big plaza across from the hotel. One of the major themes of the day was how (and why) Warsaw was reduced to rubble by the Nazis, and how today all the buildings we see were built during the last 70 years, even though many look very old. We were reminded of Gdansk, in northern Poland, where the same approach has been taken to rebuilding city architecture.

September 1.

Next morning, we took a drive around the main part of the city: wide streets, people walking or waiting for a bus or tram, a few bicycles, no motor scooters, several parks, some tall buildings (one by Daniel Libeskind; another, a “gift” from Stalin), a decent amount of new construction as well as ongoing renovation of old buildings. On a walking tour of the old town (Stare Miasto), we enjoyed the quaint buildings and shops but were never oblivious to the fact that everything has been built in the past 70 years. We also walked down an alleyway to the banks of the Vistula River (wide, with green spaces and banks not built up as in Paris, for example), stood in front of the birth home of Marie Curie, and passed several monuments to the WW II resistance fighters.

We next drove to the Jewish cemetery and walked around in this quiet and peaceful space for a while. The cemetery is huge with thousands of gravestones, lots of trees, and well-maintained paths. In addition to inscriptions in Polish and Hebrew, we also saw ones in English and Russian. When asked why this cemetery was not destroyed by the Nazis, Dariusz told us that they were too busy murdering people to bother.

Next, we drove to the one remaining pre-war synagogue in Warsaw. It was saved because the Nazis used it as a horse stable during the war. It is an elegant and beautiful building which was constructed in 1902. We sat inside on notably uncomfortable benches while Dariusz talked about the size of the current Jewish population in Poland: it’s about 21,000 people.

Later during the afternoon, we went to the Umschlagplatz Memorial, which is the location of the train depot where the citizens were collected before boarding trains for the camp at Treblinka. Next, we came to another of the monuments to the resistance fighters. This one was a mound within a small park. A plaque on top explained that this is the location of the bunker in which several fighters blew themselves up rather than surrendering to the Nazis. It was a moving tribute.

 

Our last stop of the day was through some alleyways to remnants of the ghetto wall that had been constructed during the war. It’s of red brick, very high and very intimidating, with nothing aesthetically pleasing about it at all. After such a long and emotionally draining day, it seemed that reflection was called for, but we knew that more challenging sites were ahead of us.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Museum of the History of Polish Jews

New Buildings in Warsaw's Old Town

New Buildings in Warsaw’s Old Town

Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Warsaw Synagogue Built in 1902

Warsaw Synagogue Built in 1902

Warsaw Synagogue

Warsaw Synagogue

Monument to Resistance Fighters

Monument to Resistance Fighters

Remnants of the Ghetto Wall

Remnants of the Ghetto Wall

 

 

August 30-September 9, 2015 – Poland

During September 2015, Denise and I took a Jewish heritage tour of Poland. It was a very moving experience, and we are still processing and digesting all the things that we did and saw. In addition to all of the horrors of World War II and the hopeful signs of the re-birth of Jewish life in Poland today, we got to see the town where Denise’s grandmother came from. She came to NYC in 1908, but a lot of her family was still in Poland prior to WW2. Only one of her nephews survived.

 

Before WW2 there were about 3,500,000 Jews in Poland, 10% of the Polish population. Today only about 21,000 Jews are there. On the tour we saw modern Poland, which is a combination of thriving Polish villages and towns, beautiful old cities (original and rebuilt), refurbished and active synagogues, synagogues that were refurbished but are being used for other purposes, synagogues that were destroyed, Jewish cemeteries, concentration/labor/death camps, former ghettos, and many, many memorials and plaques commemorating various people and events of WW2.

 

Every aspect of the war, the death camp administration, and the roundup of innocent people took a massive evil coordination effort.  We just can’t imagine how many cruel, sick, inhumane people there were, to make it happen so effectively. The sadness we feel is indescribable.

 

A highlight of the trip for Denise was going to Koprzywnica, her grandmother’s family town.  It’s a small village between the major cities of Lublin and Krakow.  We stood in the town square and thought about what life might have been like in the early 1900’s, when her grandmother lived there, and then later as WW2 came crashing down on everybody. We can’t imagine what that was like. Denise also went to the local office which housed archived records and managed to find some information about her family.

 

All in all, it was an amazing trip, which has had a profound effect on us.  We must never forget what happened.  But we want to turn lessons of the past into positive action for the future, such as supporting Israel and working for peace.

 

In the next few posts, we will describe our trip in greater detail.