My first official tour of 2006 starts tomorrow in Krakow, but I had a day off here in Warsaw and I decided to take a tour of the city, starting with the Jewish Section (or what is left of it.) I didn’t even realize that it was Holocaust Remembrance Day until I turned on the TV this morning and saw footage of Israelis stopping their cars in the middle of the streets and getting out for a moment of reflection as the sirens blasted for two entire minutes. Knowing that it was a day of remembrance made the tour even more special and poignant.
I have always wanted to visit Warsaw, the city depicted so movingly in the movie The Pianist with Adrien Brody and mentioned in detail by one of my favorite writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Warsaw once had the largest Jewish population in Europe. After six million Jews were annihilated during the Shoah, the Jewish cemetery, tragically, still holds the largest concentration of Jews in Europe.
Our tour guide was a darling Polish boy named Adam. He wasn’t Jewish but he had an extensive knowledge about Judaism and its customs. He was sensitive and kind and said he has many close friends who are Jewish. He looked pretty good in his kippah too as he walked us through the different memorial sites and tried to explain the Nazi occupation and the atrocities against the Jews in excellent English.
The sun shone hot as we approached the Monument to the heroes of the Ghetto. It seemed unfair to have such a beautiful sunny day while we discussed such indescribable horror. The Warsaw Ghetto was created by the Nazis on November 16, 1940 and eventually imprisoned over 450,000 people in an area meant for about 60,000. The Nazis first built a barbed wire fence around the area and then a 15-foot brick wall to keep the Polish Jews in and the rest of the world out.
The Warsaw uprising of 1943 was a choice that noble and heroic Jews made, to die honorably while fighting or choose suicide rather than die at the hands of a brutal and merciless Nazi. Starving, emaciated, and armed only with homemade or smuggled weapons against automatic machine-guns, this group of heroes fought off the Nazis for close to a month from the confines of the ghetto. Reliefs on the monument depict men, women, and children struggling to flee the burning ghetto, together with a procession of Jews being driven to death camps under the threat of Nazi bayonets. There were large bouquets adorning the monument today, hundreds of candles and a large group of Israeli students waving the Israeli flag and singing in Hebrew. They were a welcome sign of defiance and survival.