In February of this year, the Polish government enacted an amendment to their Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN law) which sought to criminalize speech or other behavior which would lay any kind of blame on the Polish people for the crimes of the Nazis during World War 2. This law came about in response to the use of terms such as “Polish death camps” by international media, politicians, and others. Poles felt that this linguistic shortcut unfairly shifts blame/complicity onto the Poles for crimes committed by the Nazis.
The new law became the subject of international outcry, in particular from Israel and the US, who Poland considers two of its strongest allies. For example, Israel had expressed concerns that Holocaust survivors could be prosecuted for telling their stories if there was a Pole involved in the killing or denouncement. In June, the Polish Government amended the law, removing any criminal penalties, although the government can still take civil actions.
Wanting to emphasize Poland’s positive works with the Jewish community, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put together a series of study trips for American Jewish groups to learn about what is happening in Poland. The first cohort went in June. 3GDC was selected to participate in the latest cohort, which travelled 12/5-12/12, and sent Matthew Gever, a member of our leadership committee. Below is his journal of this memorable and meaningful trip.
Day 1 - Warsaw
Not wasting any time, upon leaving the airport we were taken straight to our first meeting, with Anna Miszewska, Director General of the Auschwitz Birkenau Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for preservation of the camp, and in recent years has taken a more proactive approach to preservation, rather than simply reacting to signs of decay. Part of this effort involved creating an endowment, with contributions from democratic governments. Of the $120 million raised, $60 million came from Germany, $15 mil from the US, and $12 mil from Poland, with the rest in smaller donations from other European countries. It was noted that Auschwitz survived the war far more intact than other camps in Poland, which the Nazis tried to destroy during their retreats.
After the meeting, we were taken to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which commemorates the 1944 uprising of the people of Warsaw against the Nazi occupiers. Note, this is not the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto had been liquidated when the uprising commemorated in this museum started. The larger Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944, and was led by the Polish Home Army/Resistance, with the thought that the Soviet Army would enter Warsaw within a week. However, The Soviets halted their march into the city, which allowed the Germans to regroup. The fighting lasted for 63 days, and ended with 200,000 Poles killed and most of the city destroyed. There is some debate now about if and how the Uprising should be commemorated, whether it was a noble act of resistance or if the Uprising simply led to additional death and destruction.
Next stop was the Jewish Historical Institute, which sits in the Main Judaic Library, which was attached to the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie Street. The Nazis destroyed the Great Synagogue during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the library remained relatively intact, and now houses the Ringelblum Archive, which is a collection of documents and written testimonies of residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. Knowing what fate awaited the Ghetto, a secret group known as Oneg Shabbat collected any and all records they could of life in the ghetto, sharing them with the West through the Polish underground, and storing them underground so that they may be found by others after the Ghetto was destroyed.
One of the original milkcans found buried beneath the ghetto containing records of the Oneg Shabbat.
Current floor of the institute showing the edge of the fire damage from the destruction of the Ghetto.
After the war, survivors of the Ghetto returned and unearthed the hidden documents, which are the last testimonies of life, suffering and death of both individuals and entire communities of cities and towns scattered throughout the country.
Day 2 - Warsaw
The day began with Dr. Adam Bodnar, the Commissioner for Human Rights, and his deputies. Their office is charged with handling discrimination cases and combating hate speech and violence. They noted that biggest targets of ethnic violence are Muslims and immigrants from Arab countries, even though these groups are small in number in Poland. They also noted a growing movement on the Right against the ethnic Ukrainian minority (about 2 million), which dates back to Ukrainian-Polish violence in the border areas during the war.
Next stop was the Okopowa Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Poland. After going without care for decades, in 2014 a foundation started to restore the Cemetery. This was no easy task, as neglect left graves buried under mounds of dirt and leaves, with tree roots upending others.
The cemetery is home to several Polish luminaries, such as Marek Edelman, a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Ludwik Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto. We were led around the cemetery by local PhD student Piotr Hummel, a non-Jew, but with a keen interest in the cemetery and an encyclopedic knowledge of its history and the people buried there. It’s odd to think of a trip to a cemetery as being an uplifting experience, but it serves as a symbol of the renewal of Jewish life in Poland through honoring those that came before us.
Continuing the historical theme, our next stop was the Polin Museum, which covers the 1,000+ year history of Jews in Poland. Work on the museum started in 1995, and represented the first public-private partnership in post-Communist Poland. It opened to the public in 2005. It’s easier to describe in images than words.
Recreation of the Wooden Synagogue of Gwoździec, which was destroyed during the war.
Still Life with Kettle and Picture, by Artur Nacht-Samborski, 1942. One of few artworks to survive the ghetto.
Early Polish coins, possibly 13th century, displaying Jewish symbols.
Map showing Jewish neighborhoods in 16th century
Polish soliders celebrating Hanukkah during World War I
Monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The evening ended with a dinner with Father Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, spokesperson for the Polish Bishop’s Conference. Father Rytel is himself a 3G. His grandfather was sent to Treblinka for refusing to collaborate with the Nazis, but was able to escape. We spoke (partially in Hebrew) about the church’s efforts to build positive relations with the remnants of the Jewish community here.
Day 3 - Warsaw
This was perhaps the most official day the of trip in terms of who we met with. We started at the Chancellery of the President with Mr. Witold Dzielski, Director of the International Affairs Bureau. A very diplomatic meeting in that mannered high-level way, Dzielski and his colleagues discussed their positive relations with the U.S. and Israel, including their heavy purchases of Israeli military equipment.
From there we met with the Warsaw office of The European Leadership Network (ELNET), a non-profit working on strengthening ties between Israel and Europe. As noted by other offices, Poland and Israel share strong ties at the governmental level, but also in business and culture, with ELnet organizing trips with and meetings between Israeli and Polish leaders in those fields.
Next we had lunch with Dr. Maciej Lang, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Anna Perl, Director of the Department for Americas, and Mr. Przemysław Bobak, Director of the Department for Middle East and Africa in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These officials continued to emphasize Poland’s strong ties with Israel and the government’s role in trying to strengthen Polish-Jewish relations, in that classic government official way.
Afterwards we met with the Forum for Dialogue, an NGO that seeks to teach middle and high schoolers about the history of Jews in Poland and in their specific communities. Since launching the program “School for Dialogue” in 2008, the Forum has worked with about 300 schools in communities that once had a shtetl. The program consists of four days of workshops where students learn about the Jewish history of their town with visits to local remnants of that history. Forum staff discussed their inspiration in way that we would hear a lot during the trip – that many Poles feel a cultural void with the loss of the Jewish community, with 1,000+ years of history gone in an instant.
After the Forum for Dialogue, we were whisked away to the Nozyk Synagogue in a desperate attempt to hit a minyan before sundown. Fortunately they had already gathered the needed 10 by the time we got there, but we stayed for the service nonetheless. The Nozyk Synagogue was the only synagogue to survive the war, having been used as a horse stable by the Gestapo.
After the service we chatted with Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, a transplant from Overland Park, Kansas. Chatting with him felt like the first real insight into the Polish Jewish experience without anyone from the government present. Rabbi Ellis did express the sentiment that Poland is probably the safest place for Jews in Europe right now, but it is not without its problems. For example, he noted that staff is sometimes afraid to reveal that they are at times afraid to say they are working for a Jewish organization.
Day 4 - Warsaw
Today’s commemoration of mass murder took a non-specifically Jewish route with a visit to the Katyn Museum. This museum tells the story of the approximately 22,000 Poles, mostly army officers and intelligentsia, who were murdered by the Soviets in 1940 in and around the Katyn Forest. The mass graves were discovered by Nazis in 1943, and initially the Soviet Union assigned them blame, until 1990 when the Russian federation finally accepted responsibility.
The evening was a touch more light-hearted with the JCC Warsaw Hanukkah party. Will let the pics speak for themselves.
Up and atom with an early flight to Rzeszow, in the southeast corner near Ukraine. First stop was the farming village of Markowa to see the The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. The Ulma family hid 8 Jews of the Goldman, Grunel, and Didner families for approximately 1 ½ years. They were eventually denounced and all members of each family, including the children, were shot.
The museum includes stories of other Poles who risked their lives to hide Jews during the war, but has a focus on the Ulmas because Jozef, the patriarch, was an avid photographer, leaving behind an extensive photographic record. On the other hand, the museum does not say much about the Goldman, Grunel, and Didner families. The Ulmas were awarded “Righteous Among Nations” in 1995.
Back in Rzeszow, we met with Dr. Anna Dziama from Rzeszów University along with some PhD students from the Jewish Studies department. Dr. Dziama and others are responsible for the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Podkarpackie Province. Dziama and the others discussed the feeling of having a large part of Polish identity destroyed, and how they feel the need to keep the memory alive. They also organize a student exchange program where 200 Israeli high school students come to Rzeszow to stay with Polish families for about two months. Afterwards, Polish students make te trip to Israel.
After lunch they took us on a tour of what was Rzeszow’s Jewish neighborhood. The old synagogue still stands, and is now an art museum. We also visited the Jewish cemetery, which is in heavy disrepair. There is debate over what to do with the site, whether it’s worth investing the money to restore the synagogue or spend the money elsewhere.
The Old Rzeszow Synagogue, now an art museum. Front and side views.
Another surprising thing about Rzeszow is their airport has direct flights to Tel Aviv and Newark. This is to handle all of the Hassids making pilgrimage to the nearby town of Lizhensk, hometown of Elimelech Weisblum who was one of the founders of the Hassidic movement.
Day 6 - Krakow
Krakow is an odd city, the Jewish section of Kazimierz in particular. I’ve heard it referred to as “Jewish Disneyland”, which seems an appropriate moniker. There are Jewish-themed restaurants, hotels, stores, music venues….but no Jews
It also hosts the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which is the largest Jewish cultural event in Europe, and among the largest in the world. The idea for the festival sprang from Janusz Makuch, who shared his story with us over lunch at Café Cheder, a Jewish-themed cafe and restaurant opened in a former synagogue which also serves as home base for the festival and other Jewish events throughout the year. Makuch said he was 14 the first time he even heard the word Jew. Later on he was introduced to the history of the Jews in Krakow by a local university professor, inspiring him to study further and even learn Hebrew and Yiddish. He launched the first Jewish Festival in 1988. This was still Communist times, so the festival was a low-key affair of about 100 people meeting in a gym. In 1992, after the fall of Communism, Makuch travelled to Israel for the first time and got the idea to add an educational component. The Festival really blew up (figuratively) in 1995 when it was featured in the Yitzhak Perlman documentary “In the Fiddler’s House.” Now the Festival draws over 30,000 participants for 10 days of music, culture, learning, and other revelry. Also coinciding with the Festival is the Ride for the Living, a 60-mile bike ride from the Auschwitz to the Krakow Jewish Festival. Among the 2018 participants in the ride were two survivors of the camp, and previous Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Mark your calendars and learn more here.
Baltic herring and vodka in Old Town
Our other stop was the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum. You may have heard of him from the Spielberg movie. Although named after Schindler, the museum itself focuses little on him and more on the experience of Krakow during the war. Which like most cities in Poland, was pretty bad.
Day 7 – Krakow
Death and rebirth was the theme for the day. We began with a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkeneau camp, led by Łukasz Lipiński, press officer of the Museum. It was snowy and muddy that day, which felt the most appropriate way to visit the camp. It seems impossible to imagine that anyone could survive the camp in those conditions. I had the benefit of base layers and a down jacket and was still miserable. Now extrapolate that to spending days and months out in that wearing a thin prison camp uniform, or even being stripped naked as many new arrivals were.
The Camp Museum also featured an exhibition from David Olere, a French Jewish prisoner who was one of the few survivors of the Sonder Kommando, the prisoners charged with disposal of the bodies from the gas chambers. After the war, Olere channeled his trauma into art by painting visceral depictions of the annihilation process. Some examples below. (Warning – they are graphic)
The rebirth portion came with a visit to the Krakow JCC and a talk with its Director Jonathan Ornstein. Ornstein was born in New York, made Aliyah and served in the IDF, and married a Polish woman from his kibbutz, which is what led him to Krakow. The JCC opened in 2008 as part of an initiative spearheaded by Prince Charles. Charles visited Krakow in 2002 and met with local survivors, and moved by their stories, he worked with various groups to bring about the JCC as place where the survivors could meet and share stories and to be a home for the re-emerging Jewish community. The JCC is at the center of the Jewish renaissance happening in Krakow, with daily events such as Hebrew and Yiddish earning, talks with survivors, holiday celebrations, classes, and other events. The JCC has 55 non-Jewish volunteers who staff the center, also looking to connect with that missing part of their Polish identity.
In summary, Poland seems to be one of the few bright spots for Jews in the world. At a time when Jews of France and England and other Western countries are afraid to wear a kippah in public, Poles seem to be going out of their way to embrace Jewish culture and history. Still, it is hard to see Poland as anything but a giant Jewish graveyard. There are just a few thousand Jews left in Poland, compared to a pre-war population of 3 million. And yet, there is a part of me that wishes I could stay there and be a part of the movement.
The Ministry will likely be sponsoring another trip in March, with a different agenda than above. Once more details are avaialble I would be happy to answer questions and put you in touch with the necessary people. Send me a note at email@example.com.