Over 30 years ago when my husband and I visited Poland. Even the immigration officer at the airport wondered why we had chosen to come to Poland. Everything was bleak, the grey concrete block Soviet style buildings which were falling apart only added to the dismal appearance of Warsaw. We were soon pondering that question too.
The hotel in Warsaw where we stayed had basic amenities. There were no five star anything. Few restaurants with small menus had what could only be described as passable food. We were hoping for better in Krakow. It wasn’t to be. Depressing, cheerless and miserable would be better descriptions.
One of our decisions, in 1972, to come to this country with its horrific history, was to see Auschwitz and Birkenhau Concentration Camps. With so few tourists at that time, we had to hire a driver who spoke no English. Our Polish was zip but we had one of the hotel staff members direct him which brought a frown to his brow. Then, there may have been a handful of other people who had the guts to visit this horrendous site. We could not have imagined what we were about to see. Who could possible forget the floor to ceiling cases filled with eyeglasses, hair, shoes, luggage and much more? I couldn’t conceive of anyone surviving under those bleak, unaltered conditions with which we were confronted.
Fast forward 34 years when, this year, I returned to Poland for two weeks of work. I made the decision to re visit Auschwitz, this time on my own.
I was stunned. I counted 13 tour buses in the parking lot along with dozens of cars. That was the first sign that there had been a drastic change. It only got worse. At the entrance now there is a fancy cafeteria with coke machines and other packaged food, kids in jeans, joking, laughing, the adults enjoying their cup of coffee or whatever and a counter of books, CDs and other souvenirs for sale.
Through modern glass doors is a very modern and I suppose symbolic stylized bronze statue representing the meaning of the camp. Suddenly, I had the feeling that this outrageous crowd could be called voyeurs. Auschwitz at this point seemed like a theme park. Worse was yet to come. Although as a travel writer, I was taken on a private tour, at certain points, I joined up with the larger guided tours. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.
Along an arcade of trees which lined the well kept stone promenade. masons were on scaffolds fixing the brickwork of the buildings where once wretched lives were lived and more died. And then on entering the first building, I was astonished to see white painted walls even though horrendous, indescribable blown up photographs were extremely descriptive difficult to conceive in this prettified environment; I heard a non Jewish tourist say. “I really don’t know what all the fuss was about. This looks like a perfectly ok place to have been incarcerated.”
Auschwitz has literally and figuratively, been whitewashed even though all couldn’t be hidden. Why, I wondered had they not allowed Auschwitz and Birkenhaw to remain the desolate place it was, keeping this concentration camp in its original, diabolic state as a monument to genocide.
Lives where taken and others totally shattered now their hell on earth which had no soul before, had a re-creation of a gas chamber, lines of tourists passing some cells which were gratefully kept in the original state, huge photos which still have impact but not enough in these clean, well maintained buildings. I didn’t have the heart to go on to Birkenhau. The prettified Auschwitz stunned my moral senses as it still does these many months after the visit.
Then and there, I decided to visit as many synagogues and community centres in the various Polish cities on my itinerary.
My recollection of The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, (ul Tlomackie 3/5/) over 3 decades ago was fuzzy and of course, in my mind, completely different then the reality of what I now saw. I recalled it as dark, with few lights, damp and exhibiting few photos and artifacts. Although, located here since 1947, it is, in fact, a large building, now bright, with presence and full of important Jewish artifacts. I met with Lodz born, Dr. Eleonara Bergman. Dr. Bergman led me to her small, paper and book filled office. She confirmed that the interior was totally altered.
“Each article on display has a story,” she tells me. “Some were housed in the territory which now is Poland but was Germany before the war. The Germans,” she speaks with caution and corrects herself when she says the items were stolen, “took precious items from synagogue, museums, and various communities. Much was hidden in the cellars of castles.”
The borders of the countries shifted and many important items were found by the state services of the new government and sent to the institute. Another source were the camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek where, especially Greek Jews were sent thinking and believing that were being ‘resettled. “So they took their most precious possessions.”
These were systematically collected by the Germans. After the war paintings and sculptures were collected and some purchased by the Jewish Society for Promotion of Fine Arts, an organization that was active in Poland before the war.
“A few members who had survived re-established the organization immediately after Poland was liberated by the Red Army,” says the petite, dark haired woman. “From 1994 there was an agreement signed with The Lauder Foundation (referring the American Lauder family, heirs of the late, renowned Polish born cosmetic mogul Estee Lauder) about establishing the Jewish Genealogy project. “We have a special office upstairs just for genealogy. It’s all about preserving memory.”
The oldest artifact is over 9 centuries old. It’s an important one page manuscript that has survived. And when the subject of anti Semitism comes up, Dr. Bergman is non pulsed. “So yes we have but then is there a place in the world where there isn’t anti Semitism?
With only approximately 300 Jews in left Warsaw and one active synagogue- Nozyk Synagogue- there are however, two communities – Orthodox and Reformed. Nozyk Synagogue almost completely destroyed is now restored with a grand exterior and equally fine interior. The day I visited this was one of the venues for the annual Singer Festival (named after the noted Polish born author Isaac Beshivas Singer). In what looked like a parking lot, a trio on stage, sounding much like the Andrew Sisters were singing “by mier bist du shayne’ followed by a fabulous Klezmer band. Across the street, the Yiddish theatre was presenting several Yiddish plays and a. shtetl-like café had been erected in a tent next to the synagogue. At Nozyk, about 500 people were encouraged to ask Rabbi Goldberg, a visiting rabbi from Israel, questions about Judaism. The attendees were mainly non Jews. I sat beside Sister Margaret, a Franciscan nun.
In Krakow, Poland’s third largest city located on the Wisla River, Chris my non Jewish, knowledgeable guide took me to Kazimierz area, named after the king who ceded this area to the Jews. This Jewish quarter was established in the 15th century and became a ‘self governing ‘separate city’. It is now Krakow’s artsy rendition of London’s SoHo or New York’s Village filled with galleries and cafes and famous for its being the location for Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List.
At the outbreak of WW II there were about 64,000 Jews in Krakow. Schindler saved over 1200 by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factory about a 10 minute drive to the Zoblocie area. Chris knew the guards at Oskar Schindler’s factory on Lipowa 14 and I was able to see the now famous factory, staircase and relatively small office where I sat on the office chair in front of Schindler’s desk.
Although there were once 7 synagogues, only one is still in use. The Remuh Synagogue (Szeroka 40) was built in the 16th century. It’s the second oldest in the area. The courtyard was filled with tourists, even the non Jews were wearing yarmulkes. Behind is the Old cemetery from 1553 and was in use until 1800. Once again it is in use today.
The Old Synagogue (Ul. Szeroka 34) built in the 15th century now a museum, is at the end of the street. Within walking distance is Izaac Synagogue, built 1644, (25 Janba St.) and was devastated but restored. It contains a Holocaust memorial while the Tall or High Synagogue (38 Jozefa St.) is a monument. Tempel Synagogue (24 Miodowazy) once the Reformed ‘shul’. dating the late 1600s is being the process of being renovated. Popper’s Synagogue (16 Szerola) no longer in use. Little remains of the interior of 17th c Kup Synagogue (Warszawera 8).
Each had curious and some tearful tourists.
A small fact is the cosmetic genius, Helena Rubinstein, was born across Remuh Synagogue, the house grey stucco and modest.
It’s never easy to see memorials and Lodz (pronounced Wootch) pays homage to the over 223,000 (34%) Jewish population before the war. (Now there are about 300). There are records that show that Jews settled in this city in the late 1700s. Before the war there WW II, Lodz had the second largest Jewish population in Europe Because of the great textile industry, it was called, “the Manchester of Poland” and one of the two textile magnates, I.K. Posnanski, was a Jew. He owned a huge amount of property and built mansions and factories that today are museums. Lodz also produced the genius Arthur Rubinstein whose memory is presented on Piotrkowska, the main street with a huge bronze sculpture of the maestro sitting in front of his piano.
By 1940 Lodz had been renamed Litzmannstadt after a top German official. But in November 1939 four square kilometres were portioned and walled off from the rest of the city for the over 200,000 Jews who were forced to live in Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Cramped, devoid of food and proper sanitary conditions, it became a forced labour camp. Over 43,000 starved to death, died from disease or cold. To make sure there was no contact with non-Jews, two German police units were designated to patrol the perimeter. Now, there are memorials every 100 metres on a few of the city blocks that were once the ghetto and throughout the area and in parks.
The first deportation was of 55,000 who were sent to extermination camps. To exacerbate the horrific conditions, deportation of 40,000 Jew from other countries were sent into the congested ghetto. The Jews who lived through this ‘genocide’ are estimated to only be about 5,000-7,000.
One of the most sinister monuments is the deportation, Radegast train station and platform, not destroyed, where thousands were deported. Now several original freight cars are permanently placed as a memorial in front of this Art Deco building. In 1981 a haunting ‘tunnel’ filled with blown up photographs was built to replicate the walk to the gas chambers. Standing on that platform was as difficult as my visit to Auschwitz.
In 1939 thousands workers in Lodz were employed by Posnanki’s textile factories. Although many of the 100 workshops were owned by other proprietors, he was one of the two largest magnates, the other, a non Jew, Karl Scheibler. Now on an enormous parcel of land where Posnanski’s factory once produced fabrics for the large European cities, is Manufactura, a newly opened and the only shopping mall in Lodz. Within the complex are expensive restaurants, an IMAX theatre, bowling lanes, fountains and of course a complex of shops.
Lodz once boasted 6 great synagogues. All were destroyed except for the once privately owned non-active small ‘shul’ on 28 Rewolucji 1905 Street. Built by the Reicher family in the early 1900s, it’s hidden down a narrow lane, now an unsavory part of the city. It’s well kept, usually locked, and beautiful renovations were financed by The Lauder Foundation.
At the Jewish Community Centre, 18 Pomorska Street, I spoke with the chairman/deputy rabbi, Lodz born, Symcha Keller, about the on-property ‘small’ synagogue, Café Tuwin kosher cafe, a hotel and official administration offices.
Each morning here in a special room, not at the synagogue, is where there is a daily minyan and where High Holiday and Shabbat celebrations are held.
“Step by step, Jews will move back. Now we have thousands of visitors,” says a positive thinking Keller, the 43 year old bearded Orthodox Jew who talks about the 2nd generation who have come back to learn their Jewish roots which was disturbed by the Communist regime after WWII. There are no Jewish schools but there are small classes for Jewish education. “Only three daughters were born this year so we don’t have too many bar mitzvahs or weddings,” he laughs.
On the outskirts is a 40 hectare Jewish cemetery with over 160,000 graves. Now the property of the Jewish Community, it is well maintained and as much as possible, brought to the original state although many headstones have been destroyed or badly damaged. The only huge mausoleum with an intricate mosaic dome was built for the Poznanski family where workmen were painting, fixing the bricks and attending to the interior dome.
The earliest grave is dated the end of the 17th century and after decades, it is again used. Financial assistance for its maintenance of both the cemetery and the building, has come from many foreign philanthropists and former Lodz residents The Ghetto Field, has 43,527 unmarked graves, symbolic since no one really knows the identity.
While I was in Lodz, the Festival of Four Cultures was on representing Germans, Polish, Jewish and Russians. Along with the food and the music venues, I kept seeing a poster of a Star of David, one side white, the other blood red. Kinematografii, an international cinema school housed in the other textile magnates, Karl Scheibler’s former palace. The school graduates about 40 film students annually. On the top floor were three rooms filled with paintings by Jewish children from Czestochowa, part of the From The Inspiration of Jewish Culture segment.