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.