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Holocaust Remembrance Day in Warsaw

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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.

Next we visited the Umschlagplatz Monument, a former train depot where tens of thousands of people a day were deported to certain death in Treblinka, Majdanek, or Auschwitz. One hundred thousand Jews had already died from starvation and diseases in the inhumane living conditions of the ghetto by the time the Nazis started the daily deportation of thousands. The monument is extremely emotionally stirring, with hundreds of names of the victims etched in white marble in the shape of a cattle car. They chose to list only the first names, so that Poles and visitors can see that many of the people who were murdered had traditional Polish names. This gives the Jewish victims a more human face rather than identifying them by their often distinctly Jewish surnames.

Our guide believes that Treblinka was the cruelest of all the camps, whereas Auschwitz is undoubtedly the more famous. At Treblinka, Jews were duped into believing they were being taken on a journey of relocation, up until the last possible moment. The Nazis went so far as to install a phony train station counter with actual names of departing trains to keep the Jews calm as they were told to shed all their clothing and jewelry and step into their showers of death. There, they were slowly gassed to death with carbon monoxide, which was cheaper and took much longer than the Cyclon B gas used in other death camps. They had 15 or 20 minutes to realize that the shower they were promised was an elaborate lie and death was imminent. By forcing Jews to enter the gas chambers with their arms up, thus squeezing in as many bodies as possible, the Nazis were able to efficiently slaughter 10,000 people an hour.

We then visited the Jewish cemetery at Okopawa street. It covers 33,4 hectares and was established in 1806. It miraculously escaped bombings and the wrath of the Nazis. Countless other Jewish cemeteries were razed and the gravestones broken up to pave roads and build walls, but this peaceful resting place remains as eternal proof of the magnitude and the variety of the Warsaw Jewish community. It was the biggest Jewish cemetery I have seen outside of New York and Israel.

Next, we visited the last actual remnant of the Ghetto wall. It is just a portion of a battered and chipped 15 or 20-foot brick wall, but it is symbolic of the insurmountable odds that European Jewry faced under Hitlers’ tyranny. I touched that wall and left a stone for all the innocents who died wishing they would see the other side.

We ended our tour at the beautiful Nozyk Synagogue built between 1893 and 1902. It was the only shul in Warsaw to survive the Holocaust and now is home to a thriving Orthodox Jewish community of about 15,000. There is a Yiddish theater around the corner from the temple and a kosher market. There is also a bar under construction where they will have live klezmer music nightly.

Whenever I am on tour, though I don’t usually have much time in my schedule, I try to visit the synagogue or Jewish sector of each town. I have seen synagogues in Frankfurt, Athens, Rome, Marseilles, Istanbul and Paris. I have taken the Jewish Prague tour and visited cemeteries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jewish Warsaw was by far the most interesting tour I have ever taken. The Poles seem to be genuinely remorseful and miss their Jewish community. Recently, the Polish government sued to remove the word “Polish” from association with death camps. The camps were located in Poland because of the Germans, not the Polish, and they want to make that clear.

I recommend a trip to Warsaw for anyone who is Jewish, curious about Jewish history, or simply interested in history itself. Though it is an uncomfortable subject, it should not be relegated to once a year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We should never forget, lest it happen again to any peoples – in Europe, Rwanda or God forbid, the good ol’ US of A.

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  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    A very interesting description of Yom haShoah as you saw it in Warsaw. Thank you. I would only think again about what you wrote here,

    “They chose to list only the first names so that Poles and visitors can see that many of the people who were murdered had traditional Polish names. This gives the Jewish victims a more human face rather than identifying them by their often distinctly Jewish surnames.”

    Do names like Goldberg, Zylberknopf, Sokolower, Wengrow, Rubinstein or Cohen (or Kane) make someone less human, or give him a less human face?

  • Today, April 25, 2006 is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah). On this day, we should ask that our children study the Holocaust (the Shoah) and learn the lessons of one of the darkest of times in our history. I hope that my new book, Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame, can help young Americans do just that.

    In the book, my real-life son, twelve-year-old Anthony, time-travels into the past. I used advanced digital photography to place Anthony in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis with Charles Lindbergh, on the moon with Neil Armstrong, in the laboratory of Thomas Edison, at Jonas Salk’s side during the invention of the polio vaccine, on Normandy beach on D-Day, and with soldiers liberating the death camps of the Holocaust.

    The storyline is fictional, but the history is authentic. I spoke with relatives of famous scientists and inventors, Holocaust survivors, award-winning biographers, and others who could help him ensure that the facts of the book were both accurate and vivid. Historical accuracy rules on every page: Even Anthony’s conversations with America’s heroes are based on things they really said.

    One of the people I consulted was Alan Zimm, a Holocaust survivor liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. In the book, Anthony’s conversation with Alan Zimm is based on Zimm’s own testimony and description of the day of his liberation.

    “This book provides great insight into historical events,” Alan Zimm told me afterward. “Anthony’s trip through history provides a positive influence on young readers. My family and I feel very honored and privileged to be able to share some of my Holocaust experiences with today’s young readers.”

    I am thankful to have had the help of Alan Zimm.

    My book directly attacks modern-day Holocaust deniers. When Anthony first enters the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp after the Nazis flee, he has difficulty believing what he is seeing. “No! It’s not possible,” Anthony cries. “I don’t believe it.” But soldiers with Anthony tell him that “there is evidence and there are witnesses.” The book lays out the evidence, and uses first-hand accounts from Alan Zimm and other Holocaust survivors to reveal the truth. The book also includes recommendations for hundreds of books, movies, music, and places to visit – dozens for the Holocaust. Anthony’s top recommendations: Night, by Elie Weisel; Judgment at Nuremburg (1961); Songs of the Jewish Resistance (Partisans of Vilna); and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

    It’s not an easy book. Anthony compares the people and events of the past with the people and events of his own time. Anthony discusses the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, war and peace, what it means to be an American, honor and discipline, success and achievement, courage and destiny, marriage and family, God and purpose.

    At close of World War II, Anthony reflects on all that he has seen. “I felt a deep shame for humanity as a whole,” he says, “but I couldn’t help thinking that all the horrors I had seen during this war were somehow connected: the thirty-six million dead, the Death Camps in Europe, and the dropping of two atomic bombs were all part of the shameful price for not stopping evil early enough.”

    Commenting on his own time, Anthony says: “It’s a lesson that still hasn’t been learned. Nearly a million bodies floated down the rivers of Rwanda, while the whole world watched and did nothing. Four hundred thousand men, women, and children were murdered and then buried in the sands of Iraq, while the United Nations mailed neatly typed letters to Saddam. Entire villages were wiped out in Sudan, while the world’s leaders calmly debated the definition of genocide. In Israel, suicide bombers detonated themselves on school buses, in grocery stores, and at wedding celebrations, while nations argued about a fence. Osama bin Laden directs on his henchmen to kill Americans and Jews, while Americans march in the streets and blame themselves and their president for the attacks. Yes, in my own time, evil is visible again – and I have seen it.”

    I was motivated to write the book because too many people are confused about the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villains. My book makes these distinctions clear, and I use historical perspective to make the point.

    But the book is also meant to inspire and to offer hope. The heroes of the past have something important to tell us: that the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose, one person really can make a difference, and doing the right thing always matters.

    I tried to get that message across in every chapter. The chapter about Lindbergh’s flight is really about choosing one’s destiny. The story of Lou Gehrig is one of a virtuous life. The chapter about Thomas Edison is really about the benefits of hard work. The story of Apollo 11 is about wonder, taking risks, and courage. The story of Dr. Jonas Salk and the cure for polio is really about dedicating one’s life to a higher purpose. When Anthony “meets” his immigrant great-grandfather at Ellis Island in 1907, it’s really a story about what it means to be an American. Anthony’s observation of D-Day and the liberation of the death camps during the Holocaust is a testament to the reality of evil and the need to fight it.

    I chose a quote from Edmund Burke to open the chapter on World War II: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The quote is a reflection of the hope I have for America’s young people.

    On this solemn day, let’s recommit ourselves to raise good men and women who take action.

    Thank you.

    Michael S. Class

  • I take Ruvy’s point. Perhaps a better word would be “universal” instead of “human.”

  • Jadzia


    Please remember that the Warsaw Uprising was a Polish uprising. Your site makes it appear as if the Warsaw uprising was an exclusively Jewish event. this is untrue. I know, because my relatives, who are Polish, not Jewish, died trying to free Poland in that uprising.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    Toward the end of WWII there was a Warszawa uprising against the Nazis by Poles. Nearly all the Jews in the capital were already dead by then. The Ghetto Revolt that Yom haShoah commemorates was a Jewish enterpise in the Jewish ghetto of Warzsawa – a very different activity that took place earlier than the Polish revolt in the capital.

  • As a son of Poland, let me point out that before the slaughter of the Jews in WWII, the Polish people have been raped, pillaged and reduced to rubble more than once in history. There were periods when the country did not even exist on the map because she was a pawn used by the Germans and Russians. Poles know only too well what it was and is like to be persecuted mercilessly. It’s disheartening to me that so many forget those non-Jewish Poles who were slaughtered along side their Jewish brothers and sisters.

    Jeszcze Polska nie zginela,
    Kiedy my zyjemy.
    Co nam obca przemoc wziela,
    Szabla odbierzemy.

    Marsz, marsz, Dabrowski,
    Z ziemi wloskiej do Polski,
    Za twoim przewodem
    Zlaczym sie z narodem.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    You could at least tell the other readers that you are reciting lines from the Polish national anthem, “Poland is Not Yet Dead.” I realize that translating those lines may be difficult without context – you need to know who Dabrowski was in order to know why he is being hailed to march on, for ezample.

    Poland was once a prosperous land that saved Christendom from the Turks. Jews lived an prospered there, governed by a “Council of the Four Lands” that made up the country. Even in Yiddish, Jan Sobieski, the Polish king who helped drive back the Turks from Vienna, is remembered.

    But first Poland was wracked by a revolt of the Ukrainian peasantry under Hmyelenitsi, and then weakened, and slowly gobbled up by the nascent Prussia, Russia and Austria that she had saved from oppression. By 1795, Poland, the first European country to have universal education of its citizenry, was gone from the map.

  • Thanks, Ruvy. I forgot about the great Jan Sobieski .

    Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła,
    Poland has not yet perished
    Kiedy my żyjemy.
    So long as we live.
    Co nam obca przemoc wzięła,
    What foreign force has seized,
    Szablą odbierzemy.
    We’ll reclaim with sabre.

    Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski,
    March, march, Dąbrowski,
    Z ziemi włoskiej do Polski,
    From Italy to Poland,
    Za twoim przewodem
    We shall follow you
    Złączym się z narodem.
    To unite with our people.

    The Poles were and are a proud people. They’ve endured through the harshest of times and conditions. There’s much that can be learned from Polonia.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski,

    It appears that Moveable Type is as friendly to Polish modifications of letters as it is to Hebrew letters.

    For all the rest of you folks, the symbols Silas was using were largely the cedillas Polish uses to nasalize vowels. In the case above, Dabrowski is pronounced Dambrowski. A descendent of the Dabrowski in the song told me this – which is why I know what the Polish national anthem is, and why I was able to recognize it when Silas typed it up…