I’m not a big fan of the Holocaust.
I know that’s a very strange thing to say, because who is?
But I hate watching Holocaust movies and I hate reading Holocaust books. I try to stay away from things related to the Holocaust.
But tomorrow we are going to Auschwitz, and so I’m thinking about the Holocaust.
I didn’t want to go, but Jay really did and so I said ok, if this is what you want to do then we will do it.
While thinking about what this visit was going to be like it, it suddenly dawned on me that Jay and I have done an unplanned, unanticipated expanded March of the Living type tour in a way that March of the Living can’t do.
It all started when we were in Zakynthos, in Greece, when we learned about this story
where people of the island of Zakynthos saved all their Jews.
By refusing to turn in a list of the Jews to the Nazis and hiding them all over the island.
Next we went to Athens and learned about the deportation of the Greek Jews.
Following that, Rome; where I recently told the story of the Rose Garden and the opening of it to commemorate the deportation of the Jews to concentration camps. You can read about that story here:
Then we went on to Florence, and then Paris.
Paris is very unique in that reminders of the Holocaust, the deportations, and deaths are all over the city.
We saw our first reminder the very first day we were there when we turned the corner from our apartment and saw this:
(In memory of the students from this school who were deported from 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the barbaric Nazis and the Vichy (Nazi sympathetic French) government. They were exterminated in the death camps. More than 700 of these children lived in the 18th arrondissement (neighborhood) We will never forget them)
And this was just the first. Over the next few days we saw that every school we came across had a similar plaque.
And then in the jardin des rosiers in Le Marais, around the corner from all the falafel restaurants we saw this sign:
This one points out that more than 11,000 children were deported from France and killed at Auschwitz because they were born Jews, but also, more that 500 of these children lived in the 4th arrondissement, and 101 of them were so little they never even got a chance to go to school. And then what you see is a list of their names and their ages. ans means that's how many years old they were and mois means how many months old they were.
It seemed like everywhere we went there were reminders that the French had failed its Jewish community and had collaborated with the Nazis in their round-up and subsequent deportation and murder.
Here are some things we saw:
This one points out that the crimes against humanity were committed under the authority of the French government.
This is the gate that leads to a very moving memorial that is buried at the tip of this area above.
I was only looking for some of items. Others just popped up during our walks.
It tells us that the Jews of Paris were rounded up and locked in a velodrome before they were shipped off to be martyred at Auschwitz. And we will never forget, and every year there is a commemoration ceremony to remember this event.
This one particularly hit home as the school was in a building that was attached to the building where my grandpa lived, and presumably my grandma, once they got married in December 1933.
Several months after they got married they left Paris for Tel Aviv, where they lived safely through the war. If they wouldn’t have left, and my grandma would have had my dad in Paris instead of Israel, I most likely wouldn’t be here today. My dad may have been one of the kids taken away by the Nazis. Like the kids on the plaque above.
In the last six weeks of our traveling, we have been to cities and towns where the Jews had been rounded up, deported, and murdered in concentration camps. In those places we have been visiting, we had such a great time, life was wonderful, people were friendly and gracious, and everything was just so normal.
And yet now I see that all those places where we had so much fun, from the sunny Greek island towns to the cultural sophisticated neighborhoods of Paris, they were all leading in one direction, leading to one place. I circled in red all the places we've been so far, and included Budapest, since we are going there after Krakow.
And tomorrow, after being in Norway, Greece, Italy, and France, we are going to Auschwitz. Where 1.1 million Jews were sent, from which 960,000 were killed. 1.1 million people overall were killed in Auschwitz.
People were just living their lives like normal people, where they were an important and even critical part of the fabric of the culture and society, and yet were so easily almost totally wiped out.
It kind of boggles my mind, which is why I have to write this tonight, before we get to Auschwitz.
I’ll continue this tomorrow……
It’s tomorrow. Auschwitz is over.
I have to say that after visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem many times, and the US Holocaust Museum several times, and teaching the Holocaust to 7th graders, it was kind of weird actually being there.
I know people say it’s surreal to be there and I know that many of my readers have been to Auschwitz, and much has been written about it, so I will just give you some main impressions and big take-aways rather than tell you what I saw and what happened.
It was a cold and foggy day. Like really foggy and really cold. Very fitting for the place we were going. After almost 6 weeks of sunny, warm weather, it felt significant.
It was very easy to walk through and not look at any exhibit I chose not to see. Just looked at the floor.
There were a lot of people there. I learned that last year more than 2 MILLION visitors came to see Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The moment I saw these Israeli kids with their flags wrapped around their shoulders and hugging each other was the only moment I got really emotional.
We had signed up for the Auschwitz museum 6 hour “study tour” and our guide was a Polish, non-Jewish woman whose family members died at Auschwitz for being part of the resistance movement. It was fascinating to hear her perspective on the place.
Jay would like to share some thoughts with you...
We went to two different camps, Auschwitz, and Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau, which was the death camp located just down the road.
The camps are currently owned and run by the Polish government. Within two years after the war Poland had taken over the camps and soon after opened them to the public.
It's actually amazing how much of the camps are still there. A lot of the wooden structures are gone, a few from deterioration but mostly because the Nazis tried to destroy as much as they could as they were fleeing the Russian army.
The place is very peaceful, which is incredible taking into account how gruesome and horrific the things are that took place there.
Jay was appreciative that it is not theatrical in any way. It's amazing what was there and how much was there when the camps were liberated.
It was a somber experience to walk through the registration building, called the Sauna, to walk the same exact walk that hundreds of thousands of people walked as they went into the camp and soon after were sent to the gas chambers and then the crematorium.
It made a strong impression on Jay how many kids/teens were visiting and how good it is that they are being educated about this topic. But if it's unfathomable what took place there to us as mature adults, how does it really translate to these teens? The Israeli kids that were there were receiving a lot of instruction.
One thing that really moved Jay was the exhibit of photographs that were found in the camp buried in buckets. The photos are family picture that belonged to the prisoners before the war. But one question he has is how did these photos get buried in the camp if the people were stripped of all their belongings as soon as they got there. Jay can't imagine that we will, or have any need to, go to any other concentration camps. There is nothing more to see.
It was a truly memorable, emotional and somber experience. Everybody should go once.
And then we were done and on the bus back to Krakow.
The day before (yesterday) after arriving in Krakow, we went to an awesome restaurant for lunch. We had the best meal we’ve had in a long time. It felt like a Shabbat dinner: chicken schnitzel, mashed potatoes, barley soup, and borsht (which I very surprisingly loved).
After the meal we went to the coffee shop next door and saw a poster announcing a viewing of a film that evening right across the street at the Jewish Community Center. It was free (always a good thing for us) and the film-maker was going to be there for a Q&A session after the movie. We decided to go.
The movie was about a place in Chicago called Self-Help, an independent/assisted living home which was founded shortly after the war to provide a safe, dignified place for the Holocaust survivors who came to Chicago who were older and would not be able to start a career and new life in the US. Even today it is run by passionate people who work hard to provide a great living and cultural experience for the survivors.
In the audience were several Polish survivors. At the end of the movie there was a very lively discussion where a Polish lady expressed her opinion and shared her story. It was fascinating to hear that she looked at the survivors who were able to make their way to the U.S. after the war, and their lifestyle at a place like Self-Help, as the “elite” of the survivors.
By the tone of her voice and her body language (she spoke in Polish) you could tell she felt very resentful of the survivors that ended up in the US. She also expressed that America had let Poland down by allowing the Soviets to take control of it after the war. You could tell she had had a hard life. Her perspective really made me understand that there were issues with survivors that I had never been aware of before.
At the end of the event, we were invited to come back to the JCC the next night for Shabbat dinner. I quickly jumped at the opportunity, thinking that after a day at Auschwitz, this is exactly what I would need.
And it was.
You may have been to Krakow, or have read about its resurgence of Jewish life. The JCC is the center of that resurgence, and the central meeting place for the Jewish community.
They have Shabbat dinner every week, but tonight was a bit different because so many people were visiting Krakow. There were over 100 people there for the meal. Singing Shabbat songs and chanting the blessings together with all the people there was very emotional after just having returned from Auschwitz.
The whole room vibrated from the voices of Jewish people from the US, Israel, Germany, Poland, South Africa, Finland, and probably other countries I’m forgetting. And of course, we all knew the tunes, we all knew the prayers. We all sang together. It was definitely an uplifting moment to know that the Jews have survived and are a strong international community.
We sat with the film maker and his wife, (Ethan and Elizabeth) who were absolutely lovely people, the assistant directors of the JCC, (Sebastian and Anna) who provided us with fascinating information about Krakow and the JCC, and two gentlemen from Houston who were originally from South Africa, who were on a trip to discover their Polish roots. All fantastic stories.
There was a delegation there from Detroit, so Jay did a bit of Jewish Geography and discovered that some of them knew Jeremy and his parents (see summer trip blog to know who Jeremy is). So that was also such a great small world coincidence.
Here are a couple other facts about Krakow and the Jewish community:
There is a Cleveland connection, as the Cleveland Jewish News has written many articles about the Krakow Jewish community.
How fun was it to be in Krakow and see this article from the CJN hanging on the wall of the JCC?!!
You can see from the article that there is a strong connection between this family and the Krakow Jewish community.
The JCC staff has been to Cleveland to speak about Krakow.
There is a fascination and great interest among non-Jewish Poles about Judaism. About half the people who work at the JCC, and most of the volunteers are not Jewish. The people who fill the Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies at the university are not Jewish. Many people who participate in the JCC programming are not Jewish.
It was explained to us that the younger generation of Poles learn about what their country was like before the war, when over 3 million Jews lived there. Now there are only a couple hundred in Krakow who claim their Judaism and a little over a thousand in Poland overall.
Sebastian told us that when he was a young boy his grandfather explained to him that in their small town outside Krakow over half the population was Jewish before the war. That really struck him, and he feels a sense of loss that the entire town is totally different than it was and he never knew it the way it was. He now dedicates himself to educating the Polish people about the Jewish people and culture to combat anti-Semitism and to welcome Jews to Poland from around the world.
Many people in Poland are discovering only recently that they have Jewish roots. When their old relatives are dying, they are revealing to family members that they were Jewish.
Or, people knew they were Jewish but have hidden it all these years, and only now are stepping forward to reclaim and explore their Jewish heritage.
The d’var Torah was given by a 90-year-old woman who was a prominent law professor and prominent legal scholar who only recently decided to get in touch with her Jewish heritage and is studying Jewish law.
Pretty awesome stuff going on in Poland.
All in all, our very short trip to Krakow was really nice despite my hesitation and misgivings, We wish we had a few more days to explore. I’m very glad that we came here. It’s quite a beautiful city and I highly recommend you make this a stop on your world tour.