The Remains Of Jewish Warsaw (Poland)

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The Remains Of Jewish Warsaw, (Poland)

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Voltaire

Before World War ll, the city of Warsaw had more Jews than the city of New York. After the Holocaust and decades of Communist rule, Poland is mostly Roman Catholic. There is a generation of Poles, that have recently found out about their repressed Jewish heritage. It is a nation with a complicated history. Many are making serious strides to remember the Jewish past.

 In 1940, to create the Warsaw Ghetto – the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe during WWII – the German authorities built 18 kilometers of brick walls around the Jewish quarter.

Over 400,000 Jews were imprisoned there. At least 240,000 people were deported to Nazi extermination camps, while thousands of others were killed in the Ghetto.

The wall was torn down in 1943, except for one short section which is the only part of the original wall that stands today. (memorial with names)

The inscription reads: “Tu byl mur getta”  “Here was the wall of the ghetto”.

 The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was an act of Jewish resistance against the deportation of the remaining Ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. The revolt was suppressed and the district demolished. On its site now stands the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews that explains the Jewish history and culture in Poland.

The POLIN Museum is one of the most powerful museums to visit in Warsaw.( after four hours here)

The layout of the museum is very unique. First, you enter through the forest. This represents the forests near the Vistula River. Here Poles first made connections with Jewish merchants.

Then you go through the Middle Ages, where history appears in frescoes. You follow the Jews of Poland through the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the Town gallery, you can explore Jewish settlements of the 17th and 18th centuries. The roof and polychrome ceiling replica from a 17th-century synagogue crowns the gallery.

The museum is very interactive.

Various galleries present different aspects of Jewish history and culture.

Stroll through synagogue interiors and streets in old Jewish quarters with cafes and cinemas.

You can see where Jewish people congregated before the war.

The section covering World War II and the Holocaust is completely overpowering. Be ready to spend several hours at this museum.

Opposite the POLIN Museum, stands the Ghetto Heroes Monument, which commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the thousands of people who lost their lives. It was designed by Leon Suzin and sculpted by Nathan Rapoport in 1948. Ironically, the stone used in the monument had been brought to Warsaw by the Nazis to build a victory tower. There is an exact copy of the monument in Yad Vashem, Israel.

The front side of the monument, entitled is “The Fight”. Its bronze relief depicts men, women, and children armed with grenades and bottles of petrol, while the central figure represents Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the Uprising. The back side of the monument, entitled “March to Destruction”, depicts the anguish of women, children, and the elderly, as they march to their deaths.

Near this monument stands a memorial tablet to the Ghetto Heroes, as well as the statue of Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter. The monument has an inscription in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, which reads: “The Jewish People in honor of its fighters and martyrs”.

Completed in 1902, the Nozyk Synagogue is the only surviving synagogue in the Polish capital. It was reopened in 1983 and serves the small Jewish community in Poland today.

The ruins of the bunker at 18 Miła Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, as well as some civilians. Among them lies Mordechaj Anielewicz. On May 8, 1943, surrounded by the Nazis after three weeks of struggle, many perished or took their own lives, refusing to perish at the hands of their enemies.

There were several hundred bunkers built in the Ghetto. Found and destroyed by the Nazis, they became graves. They could not save those who sought refuge inside them, yet they remain everlasting symbols of the Warsaw Jews’ will to live.

The bunker at Miła Street was the largest in the ghetto. The inscription in Polish, English, and Yiddish reads: “Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising built from the rubble of Miła Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw.

I will never really understand how these things happened in the world. It is our human obligation to visit these sites to remember what can happen again in the future.

Two members of our group spent the last afternoon in Warsaw in an antique shop in the old city. On a shelf in the corner they saw an old Torah scroll, probably belonging to one of the Jews in the ghetto. They bought it. The cover is from the late eighteen hundreds. It is difficult to put into words, the extraordinary feeling when you realize that you are seeing something holy from a society that you thought was gone forever. 

I would like to thank Karolina Paczyńska our Warsaw tour guide who also traveled with us throughout Poland. Her knowledge, kindness, sense of humor, organizational skills and nothing is a problem attitude  helped make this trip special. It seem like it would be hard to be a guide on a trip like this where everyone is having a different kind of emotional experience. Karolina made it easy. I highly recommend her as a tour guide.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Cemeteries In Poland

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Cemeteries In Poland

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” J.R.R.Tolkien The Fellowiship Of The Ring

“We were here. We are what is left of what was once a thriving civilization.” This is what the headstones in the Jewish cemeteries in Poland say to me. (Lodz)

Over half a century after the Holocaust, the headstones and their fragments in the Jewish cemeteries personalize the tragedy of the three and a half million Jews killed in Poland. ( Warsaw)

Jews had been in Poland since the Middle Ages. The oldest Jewish grave is in Wroclaw and is dated  1203. In the tangled paths and ruined stones, there is the history of Jewish life in Poland. (Lodz)

In the cemeteries, I feel the ghosts that I did not feel at Auschwitz. Maybe the crime at Auschwitz is too big and too much to comprehend. In the silence of the dead, I wonder if I am doing enough good in this life that I am so lucky to have. (Lodz)

The first cemetery we visit is the Old Cemetery at the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow. It is the oldest cemetery in Poland. It was founded in 1553 and the last burial was in 1800. The cemetery was used as a garbage dump in World War Two and pretty much destroyed.

The gravestone of a famous rabbi – Rabbi Moses Isserles survived and people come to worship there. In 1959, the cemetery was renovated. The fragments of the broken tombstones were cemented together to form a wall.

The Jewish Cemetery created in 1892  in Lodz  was once the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.

After the German occupation in 1939, the cemetery became a part of the Lodz ghetto.

Between 1940 and 1944, about 43,000 burials took place in the spare part of the cemetery that became known as the Ghetto Field.

The cemetery was the site of mass executions of Jews, Roma gypsies, and non-Jewish Poles. The graves of the Polish scouts and soldiers are found there.

The ghetto was liquidated in August 1944 and about 830 Jews were left as a clean-up crew. They were forced to dig large holes for their own graves near the cemetery wall. The Nazis did not have enough time to kill them, and the empty holes have been left as a remembrance.

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw was established in 1806.  Among the notable people buried at the Okopowa Street cemetery are the writers Y.L.Peretz and S. Ansky, the actress Ester Rachel Kaminska; Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language; Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto and many notable rabbis.

It also has memorials and the mass graves of fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

During the Second World War, the Germans used it as a place for executions and mass burials of victims from the Warsaw Ghetto. 

The cemetery sustained extensive damage when the Germans decided to bomb all the surrounding buildings after the  Jewish Uprising.

The small Jewish community left in Warsaw are trying to diligently preserve and protect the cemetery.

In the Warsaw Cemetery, there is a  memorial for the one million children killed in the Holocaust.

Another memorial is in memory of the Polish-Jewish pediatrician and children’s author Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw from 1940 to 1942. He was deported with his children in 1942 after he refused to abandon them. He was most likely murdered after his arrival in Treblinka.

There were more Jews in Warsaw than in any other European capital before the war, and the cemetery bears silent witness to this rich and vibrant civilization that made Poland the most Jewish of nations in Europe.

Most of the graves in the cemeteries are abandoned. There is no one left to visit them and tend to them.(Lodz)

In every cemetery, I put stones on as many graves as I can. I don’t have enough time  or enough stones. I try to get to the graves that are further away. The graveyards get messy and overgrown with grass and moss. It’s hard to know where I am stepping so I walk on my toes.(Lodz)

  Putting a stone on a grave has different interpretations. For me it means, I was there. I saw your headstone even though the people who remember you are gone.(Krakow)

 

On Yom Kippur, I light memorial candles for my parents, a friend and one for the people who have no one to light one for them. This year I will light an extra one for the 3.5 million  Jews who died in Poland during World War Two. (Lodz)

Fly safe,

JAZ

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

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Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

“We can do evil. We can stand by and do nothing. Or, we can do good.”Eva For, Survivor

No matter how much you have read, how many documentaries and movies you have watched and how many Holocaust museums and other tragic sites you have visited, nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz, Birkenau. I will never find the right words to describe it.

We entered through the main gates of Auschwitz One which was a labor camp. The words Arbeit Macht Frei are clearly seen on the cast iron fence. The direct translation for this is work sets you free. 

I walked through the gate completely numb. The one thing that I was not expecting was the perfect blue sky, warm sunshine, and bright green grass.

Auschwitz One was occupied by the SS in 1940, where the first prisoners, mostly Polish and Soviet, were deported and killed. It was where the Nazis started the experiments with the Zyklon B gas. (canisters and pellets of Zyklon B – pesticide used to kill prisoners, gas chamber)

The old red brick buildings and people taking photos make it really hard to believe that at this place human beings were cruelly tortured and murdered.

The “museum” is a path where each building (or block with its number, to be more precise), has been given a particular name to show the visitors the horrors that took place during the Holocaust with pictures, signs and explanation panels.

There are buildings dedicated to the extermination plan and gas chambers, to photos and records of the prisoners and to the monstrous medical experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele . There are other buildings where you can see mountains of shoes, personal belongings, suitcases with names, artificial limbs, crutches, wheelchairs and human hair of the victims. My eyes focus on a tiny kid’s shoe, a suitcase with the name Eva Hecht clearly marked on it and a woman’s artificial leg. Every item tells a story of a family torn apart and a life taken away. My numbness gives way to too many emotions.

Birkenau is the mass extermination camp a few miles from Auschwitz.

The train tracks lead into the camp and stop at the mostly destroyed crematoria.

The Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done in 1945. 

The camp is huge.  The many barracks and group latrines were empty and clean.

The chimneys go on forever. 

I walk these paths of hell and I feel nothing. I feel no pain and no ghosts of the over one million people killed there. I feel no evil. I just feel empty – like the emptiness of the camp that I was looking at. I hear the guide talking but i’m enveloped by my own numbness. I say the prayer for the dead at the memorial to the Holocaust victims there.

I say it again in my head at the memorial where some of the ashes are buried in a pit.

There wouldn’t have been any grass. There wouldn’t have been any wildflowers.  It would have been freezing, covered in snow in winter and muddy and miserable when it rained. The air would have been filled with smoke and ash at all times.  Even on a day like today, when for a few minutes they could close their eyes and feel the warm sun on their face, it would still have been the worst place on earth.

Auschwitz Birkenau asks as many questions as it answers. As a quote on the wall at Auschwitz says: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. George Santayana

. I had to go and see it for myself and pay my  respects to those who died here.

 I had to go and see this and hold on to these images.

 Our world is filled with hate and my visit to Auschwitz will always remind me that it can never happen again – to anyone. 

Fly safe,

JAZ

Auschwitz (Oswiecim) Poland

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Auschwitz (Oawiecim) Poland

“At a mass meeting in Berlin, Adolf Hitler shrieked, “And who is responsible for all our troubles?” Ben Cohen shouted, “The bicycle riders and the Jews!” Hitler looked up, astonished. “Why the bicycle riders?” “Why the Jews?” replied Cohen.” Leo Rosten.

We start our day at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim (Oshpitzim in Yiddish), a small town in southern Poland 31 miles west of Krakow .http://ajcf.pl/en/ The town went from anonymity to being known by its German name Auschwitz.The word Auschwitz has become synonymous with the worst things human beings can do to each other.

As with other parts of Poland, there is an old synagogue (that was returned to the Jewish community)  and a museum about Jewish life in Oscwecim over the last hundred years and no Jews.

The Center is used a lot by tourists and schools to promote dialogue about Polish Jewish life, xenophobia and the Holocaust. The Museum Of Jewish Heritage that I am traveling with was responsible for helping to create this Center. It does not have local community or government support.

Maciej Zabierowski our wonderful  guide for the Jewish quarter in Krakow works there. As with our other guides, Maciej’s quiet honorable manner makes you feel hopeful that there are more like him than the Nationalists in this country. Tomasz Knncewicz  tells us some of the history. We ask about the law passed earlier this year which criminalizes false attributions to Poland’s responsibility in the Holocaust. I have read that Auschwitz  guides have been accused of downplaying the fact that 74,000 Poles were also killed in Auschwitz. He mentions that there are pressures being exerted on Holocaust and Jewish Museum directors and Auschwitz guides due to the wave of hate.

I think about it on the short drive to the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp.  On one hand, the government is right. It is a distinction without a difference and a horrific thing. But, the Jews were killed because of racism. Many other victims were also deemed by the Nazi’s racial ideology  as unfit to live such as gypsies, homosexuals and the handicapped. The Poles and people from other German conquered countries were killed because of power.

The Holocaust happened at a time in the present to people like you and me. How did a civilized society do this? At what point does the Nationalism and hate rhetoric we are hearing in the world today, take a turn like this?

We pull into the very busy Auschwitz car park along with many buses and cars. There is train whistle in the distance.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Nine Things That I Will Take To Auschwitz

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Nine Things That I Will Take To Auschwitz

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Primo Levi

I have studied about World War II in school, read a lot, saw the movies, documentaries and visited other concentration camps. I’ve obsessed over the Holocaust since I read Anne Frank when I was nine years old. I don’t really know how to  prepare for my trip to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Since opening to the public in 1947, it has become a world-known symbol of the atrocities that took place during WWII. Here is my list of things that I will take with me.

1.Courage. How will I stand in front of the gas chambers that killed one million people? Can I be brave and afraid at the same time?

2. Anti anxiety medication or at least some lavender oil. It will be hard to be in a place of so much darkness.

3. Mental toughness. How many stories of pain can I tolerate? How will I see and hear about the intolerable and insufferable acts  when I am actually there?

4.Camera and Notebook. I’m not sure if I will use them or if I will instead really be present and be an observer of what has happened.

5.Sadness. I know i will feel some deep, horrible sadness.

6.Memories of the people I knew who had those numbers on their arms; of the strangers that I saw with them and the people who died that I never knew but heard their stories. Memories outlast mortality.

7.Reason. It’s not possible to apply normal logic when trying to understand the Holocaust. How will I comprehend anything when I am actually there? In his will, Hitler blamed  WWII — including the Holocaust — on the Jews. On the people he was systematically exterminating. No, there is no logic there; no sense to be made of it. There was only madness and the people who followed it.

8.Anger at the current wave of antisemitism in Poland in response to the new Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, This law makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.The law also bans the use of terms such as “Polish death camps” in relation to Auschwitz and other camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and carries a three-year prison sentence.

9. Faith that monsters do not last forever and eventually truth and hope prevails.

Fly safe,
JAZ

If You See Something, Say Something – Living In America

If You See Something, Say Something – Living  In America

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”Martin Niemoller

I always said that I would be the first one out of Nazi Germany. I would have been gone as soon as I heard the hate rhetoric. Germany elected a monster with a lot of charisma. He told the people what they wanted to hear so how could they resist.

The economic crisis helped Hitler to come into power. He was democratically elected.
I’m not sure that you can blame the German people for that. Hitler did not campaign on the premise of starting a holocaust. He didn’t sound much more radical or antisemitic then any of the other candidates.

The collective crime of the German people was that they supported Hitler and his party even after they had started committing unspeakable crimes and that a sizable fraction of the population supported him in committing those crimes. The difficult thing about Democracy is that majorities are sometimes wrong and you have to decide if and when it is your moral duty to follow the wrong decisions or when to fight them.

I learned about the Holocaust as a little girl living in a refugee community of Holocaust survivors. Of course I would run. Now I am a grownup. I believe in the Democratic process of voting and the person that was supposed to win, won.

There are signs that are troubling. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, which acts as a check on the power of politicians and the government. Trump has already punished news organizations for critical stories by revoking their press credentials to his events and as President-elect continues to threaten them and deny access. I don’t think certain members of the press were particularly impartial during the election but that is one of the freedoms our country is built on.

There are things that were said in the campaign that breed similarity to a dictatorship. He talked about purging the government of all officials appointed by Barack Obama which is what Hitler did two months after getting into office. He is creating a tribe of people based on mutual hate and resentments. He is continuing to hold rallies (as did Hitler and Eva Peron).

I’m withholding my personal opinions and giving him a chance. I have to support the process of a Democratic election because I have seen the governments in Third World countries. I hope he does the good things that he says he will do. I’m reading and learning.  There has been a definite increase in racial harassment and xenophobia since Trump was elected. I understand that if an innocent Muslim or Latino is unsafe here, then I am also unsafe here. My new mantra is taken from homeland security. “If you see something, say something.”

Fly safe,

JAZ

Anti – Semitism in Europe – Again?

Anti – Semitism in Europe – Again?

“At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?” And the answer: “Where was man?” William Styron

We are all born into some story, with its particular background scenery, that affects our emotional, social and spiritual growth.

My story was anti-Semitism. My grandparents were part of the well documented immigration of eastern European and Russian Jews at the end of the nineteenth century to America. Restrictions and barriers were placed on Jews that made it impossible to have a normal self-sustaining life in their countries.   In Russia and Poland, pogroms (physical attacks on the Jews and their villages) happened on a regular basis.

Both my parents were born here and had experienced anti-Semitism growing up. My father was a high-ranking officer in the army (not a job Jews could have at that time) and had fought in two wars. He experienced extreme prejudice during his twenty years in the army. My mother grew up on a farm where they were the only Jewish family in their town. She also had a lot of experience with bigotry and discrimination.

When they had children, they moved into the most Jewish neighborhood they could find so their children wouldn’t have the same experiences. Many holocaust survivors moved there as well. I grew up hearing all the stories.

I  was able to read at a very young age and for some reason read the story of Anne Frank when I was nine years old. I looked at the picture of Anne. She had brown hair and brown eyes. I thought that she looked like me and she was Jewish also.  I decided in my nine year old wisdom  that they  could come for me too. I quickly became friends with the only Christian I knew, Frankie, the son of the superintendent of our building. His family could hide me if it happened again.

Children don’t understand prejudice. The world is black and white to them. If someone is mean than you don’t like them. But for someone to not like you and want to kill you because you are Jewish, or Black, Gay or Muslim – that is a hard concept for kids. It has to be taught. As in – if your parents hate them or are afraid of them, then they must be bad. Being hated because I was born into a Jewish family that wasn’t even religious was hard for me as a child to comprehend.

I grew up on the beach and saw a lot of people with numbers on their arms. All the old people who I knew had heavy European accents. For a brief period I thought they counted the older people and when you became old you got an accent. Many of my friends were the children of holocaust survivors. Their lives were shrouded in mystery and darkness.

The holocaust changed so many lives by simply observing just how horrible certain humans can treat each other. It didn’t just scar the survivors but anyone who came in contact with their stories. I grew up in a frightened community. I have always felt how tenuous the world was and that things could end at any moment just as it had for Anne Frank.

As I got older, I became obsessed with reading everything I could about the holocaust. I saw every film and documentary. Someone asked me once “What job I was going to get as the leading authority on the holocaust?’ But I needed answers. How did it happen? Why did people hate us so much? How do people hate for no reason and of course – the nature of evil.

I learned that evil can happen when it is beyond the realm of civilized human consciousness – like planning to kill all the Jews in Europe by gassing and burning them in ovens, flying a plane into the World Trade Center, murdering all the intellectuals or killing  or kidnapping children for going to school.

I am watching that evil again. I recently  saw a map on CNN listing the number of Jews living in each country in Europe. Was that the same map that Hitler looked at? The last time I saw a map listing the number of Jews in each country in Europe it was in a holocaust book showing the number of dead Jews from each country.

So there are no lessons to be learned from the past. The people committing atrocities don’t think of themselves as evil. They commit these acts in the name of righteousness or religion. As someone who loves stories, I wanted restoration and redemption in my story. But instead the monsters of my childhood turn out to be human beings in the present.

Fly safe,

JAZ