The Last Rabbi Of Piotrkow, Poland

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The Last Rabbi Of Piotrkow, Poland

“Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews.” Marcus Zusak The Book Thief

It is hard to visit a place where a war has thrown your family into chaos and left many of them dead – even if you had not been born, yet. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s grandfather was the last rabbi of Piotrkow. We stopped there with him on our way to Warsaw.

The Great Synagogue of Piotrkow, was built in 1793 after thirty years of planning. It was a famous site in Poland. The synagogue was severely damaged by the Nazis and serves as a public library today. 

We saw the remains of a polichrome wall painting of the Torah ark, riddled with bullet holes. 

We met with  Polish teenagers from a  high school Jewish studies program. Most of them had not met Jews before. 

Amichai tells them that his grandfather was Piotrków Trybunalski’s last chief rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau. Following the German occupation, Rabbi Lau was ordered by the German authorities to represent the Jews of Piotrków Trybunalski and carry out the German’s commands. The Jews were sent to the Pyotrkow ghetto and he tried to help them and organize life for them there. In October 1942, Rabbi Lau was deported to Treblinka with his congregation and murdered. He chose to stay with them. One of his sons was also on this transport and he too was murdered.  Rabbi Lau’s wife was murdered in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Three of his children survived and immigrated to Israel after the Holocaust. Amichai read the story where his father writes about the last time he and his brother saw their father. They were five and sixteen years old. 

“For the first time in many months, my father approached me and kissed me on my forehead as I was sitting on the couch. A warm tear fell from the corner of his eye, landing on my cheek. “Let us follow the example of our patriarch Jacob, who arranged his family in preparation for the conflict with his hostile brother Esau. Jacob divided his family into three camps, hoping that at least one would survive,” this is how my father explained his plan for survival. Mother and our youngest brother, Israel-Lulek, who was five, were sent to hide with a neighbor, to wait out the hell-storm of the deportation. Father decided to send me and Shmuel to the glass factory. He imposed on himself the same fate as that of his community, to stand together with them, to be deported, to partake of whatever fate would befall them. “Just as a shepherd does not abandon his flock to a pack of wolves, so I will not run to save myself, abandoning my flock.” This is what he said regarding his decision to report for the deportation.” Naphtali Lau-Lavie,

When Amichai finishes his story about their survival, there is tense silence. Some of the kids are tearful. He did not tell his story to preach morality or to cast blame on those who only knew of the Nazi regime from history books.

He told it to transfer an optimistic message of hope and faith in humanity. The wish is to apply these lessons in today’s world to eradicate the racism and xenophobia that still exists in every society. 

Everyone has questions.

The students seem to want to understand the Jewish experience during World War ll. It’s important for them to know what happened. They also wanted to know how Trump got to be president and what it was like to live in Los Angeles. I always find that no matter where I am in the world, we are more alike than different.

I have to thank Amichai for bringing both his unique form of spirituality and his personal story to Poland.  I will always be grateful for your kindness and humility in helping us process the difficult things we were seeing.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Jewish Wroclaw, Poland

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Jewish Wroclaw, Poland

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” John Steinbeck

In 1933, 20,000 Jews lived in Wroclaw.  In November 1938, the New Synagogue was destroyed in a fire during the Kristalnacht pogroms.

Between 1941 and 1944, the majority of Jewish residents of Wrocław were transferred to death and concentration camps. A  group of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust settled in Wrocław after 1945. The communist authorities organized an assembly point for the Jews, in Wroclaw, who wanted to go to the USA or to Palestine. As a result, about 10,000 Jews were there in February 1946. The significant emigrations diminished the number of the Jews in the city. In 1968 it came to another wave of emigrations, which left only 500 Jews in the city. In the late Polish People’s Republic (PRL), the Jewish activity started disappearing. The White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław was the only synagogue in the city to survive the Holocaust.

In 1974 the Communist authorities took over the White Stork Synagogue. The Jews regained the White Stork Synagogue in 1994.

Restored in 2010 after a decade-long renovation, it now serves as a cultural center. Lauder Etz-Chaim School was established, as well as a kindergarten and the synagogue choir which is the only one in Poland. 

Chidusz is a Jewish magazine published by our Wroclaw guide Michai Bojanowski. I read it from cover to cover. There are stories about the present, the Holocaust and general news about Jewish life in Poland.

Michai is a wonderful guide who loves his country.  He is young and believes it is his responsibility to do the best for people who don’t have a voice in Poland anymore.  His passion reminds us not to forget them and not let it happen again. Young Poles today were not around during the Holocaust but many feel that they owe the truth in remembering the past to the victims.  Michai takes us through all of Wroclaw ending with the Jewish area.

Wroclaw is lucky to have such a fine representative of their city and we were lucky he was our guide.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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

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