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Temple Sinai in Poland 2017

06/28/2017 05:00:19 PM


Rabbi Ron M. Segal

Temple Sinai members are in Poland with Rabbi Ron Segal.  Follow their experience on this blog and through our Facebook photo album here

Temple Sinai in Poland – Thursday, July 6

Dzien Dobry (Good Day) Friends –

Our final day together in Poland began with a focus on more of the Jewish history and its tragic end in Krakow.  Our tour operator Yurek (formal name ‘Jerzy’) took us first across the Wisla River to the district of Podgorze.   Initially founded as an Austrian city in the 18th century when the river was the border with Poland, Podgorze is the area which was turned into the Jewish Ghetto during WWII.    From March 1941 through March 1943, the Nazis forced the Jewish community into only one square mile, with a population reaching as many as 18K people at its peak.  Historical reports tell us the ghetto was liquidated in two phases:  1942 saw the deportation of the elderly and families with children to the Belzec death camp and the balance of the camp was deported primarily to the Plaszow Concentration Camp which had been established in Krakow.  An important historical figure in the ghetto was Tadeusz Pankiewicz, owner of the pharmacy on the corner of the square in Podgorze, who worked covertly to save as many Jewish lives as he could and was recognized as one of the “Righteous among the Nations” at Yad Vashem.  Pankiewicz wrote powerfully about what he witnessed and, prior to his death in 1993, he also arranged for the Ghetto Memorial with the empty chairs to be erected in the square.  (see photos in album)

It was only a few minutes drive from Podgorze to the Plaszow Concentration and Labor Camp (FYI - Plaszow is the camp featured in Schindler’s List, a film which figured prominently at several stops throughout our trip).  Plaszow opened on March 13, 1943 and by that the end of that evening, all Jews had been removed from Podgorze – six centuries of Jewish life in Krakow came to an end.   In the one year of its existence, approximately 10K Jews died in Plaszow.  The photos in the album show the large stone monument, as well as smaller memorials dedicated to the Hungarian Jews and Polish Jews, at the site where Plaszow once stood before being destroyed by the Nazis (actions which they took at every site in the hopes of erasing evidence of their crimes against humanity).

After some time for lunch and a little bit of shopping, we assembled for one final tour of the Old Market Square, a few of its 100 churches, and Wawel Castle.  As should be clear from the pictures, the Market Square is immense - the largest in all of Europe - and it is bustling with energy and activity: restaurants and shops filled with thousands upon thousands of tourists, vendors, performers, and horse-drawn carriages.  In the center of the square is Cloth Hall (built in the 16th c), what our afternoon guide described as the oldest continuously functioning shopping mall in Europe.  The album also includes photos of numerous churches, of particular note the spectacular interior of the Church of St. Mary with its famous “Bible carved in Linden wood” altar, stolen by the Nazis but later recovered.  Other pictures show the Church of St Peter & Paul, Church of St Andrew, and the incredible Royal Cathedral where, amongst other things, Pope John II was ordained as Pope in 1946.  (Poles – and especially residents of Krakow - are incredibly proud of Pope John Paul II’s Polish roots, evident by several statues throughout the country and also by the way in which his former residence is identified.)   The walk through Wawel Castle - formerly the seat of government until 1595 when the King of Poland moved the capitol to Warsaw - was brief, but more than sufficient after another day of touring. 

We walked along the Wisla River for “10 minutes” (learned this is Polish for 25 minutes) to arrive back in Kazimierz for our final dinner.  Fortunately the weather was beautiful and all enjoyed a lovely meal celebrating our impactful, educational, emotional and memorable time together in Poland.   As we depart at 4 AM for the airport for the journey home, this will be the final post.

For all who have followed this blog, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to add Poland to your must- visit destinations!  This is a beautiful country with an incredible amount to see, learn, experience, and feel.  I believe we all depart Poland with a genuine sense of hope for the future.

Na zdrowie – Cheers – L’chaim!

Temple Sinai in Poland – Wednesday, July 5

In 2015, Rabbi Lee Bycel wrote, “I went to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau to bear witness to the innocent victims who perished by the hands of those who appeared in human bodies but lacked a heart, a soul, a conscience… I will never forget the hallowed grounds that I walked upon, where I heard the silent screams of the 1.1 million people who are buried there… Permanently emblazoned in my soul are the images that each victim had a life, and that so many victims were children who were immediately sent to the gas chambers as they could not work…”

Undoubtedly, each of us approached today’s visit to Oswiecim (Auschwitz in Polish) with a heaviness of heart, uncertain of the intense feelings and experiences awaiting us.  Personally, what ran through my mind was ultimately how fortunate we all were to be arriving aboard an air-conditioned bus, from which we would soon disembark without anyone waiting to determine our fate with a simple nod or a flick of the wrist, without a concern of whether we would live or die because of our religious identity, age, gender, infirmity, or sexual preference.  We each experienced Auschwitz I and then Auschwitz II-Birkenau today with the sincere intention of doing our best to acknowledge and honor each of the individual lives who perished here.  

The history, statistics, images, terror, dehumanization, and unspeakable loss are either familiar or available with research.  (A few photos included in the album also speak to these realities.)   Thus to close, I will once again quote Rabbi Bycel, who aptly noted that the statement ‘Never Again’ is meaningless unless it is coupled with real intentionality and action. “Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was, but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again.  This is the work of humans and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return” (Waedyslaw Bartoszewski, Auschwitz Survivor).

After an early start and an emotionally exhausting day, we all enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the hotel and turned in early.  Sadly, our Jewish heritage experience in Poland ends tomorrow.

Note:    The photo accompanying this blog entry is of the camp’s memorial, consisting of 23 plaques written in the 23 different languages spoken by those who were brought to Auschwitz -Birkenau.  Each plaque contains the same message:  “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.“ Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

Temple Sinai in Poland – Tuesday, July 4

Happy Independence Day from Krakow!  Though none of us were able to participate in today’s Peachtree Road Race, rest assured we did plenty of walking during our first full and incredible day in Krakow.  One is immediately able to appreciate why so many people love Krakow and why it is such a popular tourist destination (12 million tourists per year).  With 1 million inhabitants, Krakow is the second largest city in Poland.  In 1978, it was added to UNESCO’s first list of historical sites to be preserved. 

Unlike most of the rest of Poland, Krakow was not destroyed during WWII, for the simple reason that the Nazi leadership chose Krakow as its headquarters.  Thus, other than the bridges that were bombed at the end of the war, everything else - buildings, synagogues, streets, churches, market squares and more – is original from the time it was first built – sometimes 400-500 years ago or longer.   This morning’s tour focused on the Kazimierz district, once the center of Jewish life in Krakow.  Prior to WWII, it is estimated that 70K Jews lived in Krakow, approximately 1/3 of the city’s population.   The number of Jews today, as we came to learn, is a much more complicated conversation; the answer depends upon who is doing the counting and what criteria one is willing to use to define ‘member of the Jewish community.’   Our tour of Kazimierz took us in and by several old synagogues - most of which serve as museums today.  Two synagogues of special note were that of the great 16th c sage R. Moshe Isserles (who is also buried here), and the 19th century Reform Temple (the interior of which had to be restored as the Nazis used it for a horse stables during the war). We walked down Szeroka St, flanked on both sides by restaurants with Jewish and Israeli themes and food, offering live Klezmer music every night for the thousands of tourists who find their way to Kazimierz, but none of which is owned or operated by Jews today.  Rather, there is simply a fascination with ‘all things culturally Jewish’, and Kazimierz is thus an active scene for tourists, young adult Poles and others seeking a little Jewish cultural flavor.  Photos in the Poland album can hopefully give one an appreciation of the Jewish life that once flourished here prior to WWII and for many centuries before.

Following lunch (four of us ate at a trendy Kazimierz/fusion restaurant offering falafel, a few traditional polish dishes, and.. pad thai!), we all went to the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum.   The museum is an excellent, informative and engaging presentation of Krakow during WWII, with a special focus, of course, on the plight of the Jews in Krakow/Kazimierz and Schindler’s ultimate ability – along with his wife Emilie -- to assist and help save approximately 1200 Jews.  (During our morning walking tour, our guide pointed out several places where scenes from Spielberg’s movie were filmed).   If ever in Krakow – which I highly encourage – the Schindler Factory Museum should definitely be on the itinerary.

Our final planned stop for the day was, for many, an absolute highlight – the Krakow JCC.  We had the opportunity to meet with the JCC’s founding and current Executive Director, Jonathan Ornstein, along with Jenn Singer, an Atlantan who is presently serving out a fellowship in Krakow at the JCC.  Jonathan’s impassioned message is to help any and all visitors understand that a visit to Poland must include balance and perspective.  We must, of course, learn about, recognize, remember our tragic past and honor the memories of those who died here.   But, we must also remember that Poland is not only a place of death.   Jonathan has built a team that includes 45 employees and 55 non-Jewish volunteers whose mission it is to “welcome young Jews, who are just now discovering their Jewish roots  - sometimes through a deathbed confession, sometimes through finding papers in the attic - back into the Jewish family.”   Their efforts are yielding great success, with over 630 members of the Krakow JCC today as well as openness and acceptance within the community, and amazingly, they are opening a preschool in the Fall – the first Jewish preschool to open in Poland in75 years!  (enjoy the photos of the newly completed spaces for the Fall’s school, called “Frajde” which means “joy.”)  Unlike what we experience at virtually every Jewish institution in the States and elsewhere throughout Europe, it cannot go unstated that when we arrived… the JCC gates were wide open, the door to the center was open, there was no metal detector, no one scanning bags, and the Jewish Community Center is labeled clearly and proudly.  Having spent several days exploring Polish and Jewish history, including truly tragic chapters of Jewish life in Poland – with more to come tomorrow – our time at the Krakow JCC was understandably a source of great encouragement.

Temple Sinai in Poland – Monday, July 3

We departed Lublin this morning and began the multi-hour journey south and west toward Krakow.  Our first stop was the mountain village of Lancut.  Once the site of an important center of Hasidut frequently visited by Elimelekh of Lyzanszh, the Lancut synagogue which was built in the 17th c is truly spectacular (definitely see the photos).  Recognized for its beauty by Polish leadership and nobility, locals made the decision to save the synagogue when the Nazis set fire to it during the war. Today, the synagogue is maintained by a local citizen who has become its shammes.  In fact, he found many of the items in the synagogue’s small museum – old books, pieces of tefillin, etc – in local markets and collected them to help preserve memories of Jewish life there.

We re-boarded the bus and drove another few hours until we arrived in Wielezcke, site of the UNESCO recognized Salt Mine.  Following lunch, we crossed the street to tour the Salt Mine.  Salt mining actually began in Poland in the 14th c, and what has been developed at this site is visually impressive.  The mine was active until 1964, but today it is solely a tourist destination.  It is amazing to consider that everything shown in the shared photos from the salt mine – the wall reliefs, the statues, the chandeliers, every part of the chapels, and more – was all carved from salt.   

After touring for a few hours, we concluded our drive until finally arriving in Krakow.  We checked in to our final hotel and had a quick turnaround so we could make it in time to Klezmer Hojs in the formerly Jewish district of Kazimierz for dinner and Klezmer concert.  The dinner and entertainment were terrific, but it was the final presentation by Gabi and Uwe von Seltmann that truly ended the day on a special note.   Their story is compelling and inspiring – Uwe’s GF was an SS officer; Gabi’s GF was killed in Auschwitz.  The two of them met eleven years ago, fell in love and married, and continued to explore their roots, uncovering many hidden truths along the way.  In addition to their professional work as a journalist (Uwe and filmmaker (Gabi), the two speak about “how love can heal the past,” delivering a message that speaks to every listener. 

Temple Sinai in Poland – Sunday, July 2

Lublin has been an important city in Poland’s history for well over 700 years, for the Polish people and for Jews as well.  Throughout the middle ages, the Council of Four Lands would travel several times during the year to Lublin to discuss issues confronting the Jewish people.  Important synagogues, such as that of the 16thc Maharshal synagogue (established by R. Solomon Luria, 16th c Ashkenazic scholar) and yeshivot such as Yeshivat Chochmei Lev (established by R. Meir Shapiro, 19th-20th c), attested to the importance of Lublin as a center for Jewish life.  Prior to WWII, more than ¼ of the residents were Jewish - 33K Jews out of a total 120K residents, but all was destroyed by the Nazis.  Tragically, it is estimated that there are perhaps only 1K Jews living in Lublin today, though none self-identify or practice; there is no active synagogue in Lublin today.  The few Jewish historical establishments, such as our first stop this morning, are run by the Jewish community of Warsaw.

Our morning began with a visit to Yeshivat Chochmei Lev, established by the Lubliner Rebbe, R. Meir Shapiro.   He was a charismatic figure, both a rabbinic leader and a politician in Polish government, he raised the funds to build this large, influential yeshiva which serves solely as a museum today.    Some of the photos show spaces within the yeshiva.  We next enjoyed a walking tour through Old Town in Lublin.  Unlike “Old Town” in Warsaw which was completely destroyed and reconstructed, 95% of Lublin’s Old Town survived the war.  As such, most of the architecture retains its original character, charm, and commitment to culture (hopefully evident in some of the photos).   One of the enduring architectural sites on the edge of Old Town is the Trinity Chapel, originally built in the 14th c, by Kazimierz the Great.   The beautiful Chapel, which was part of the King’s Castle until 1795, is unique in that it reflects both Western and Eastern influences.  During the 19th and 20th c, the castle and chapel were used as a prison and stables.  The restoration of the castle – now a Lublin Museum – and the Chapel - including its spectacular 600 year old frescoes - was completed in 1997. 

We escaped from the rain for a quick lunch before heading to what all have been trying to prepare for emotionally – the visit to our first Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek (pronounced “my-da’-nek”).  It is sincerely impossible to convey the feelings and reactions people had both during and after our experience at Majdanek.   All participants also agreed that posting photos on social media could never appropriately capture or explain the depth of sadness and pain that emerged from this extermination camp.  As such, I’ll share only a few notes and observations:

  • Factual notes:  Majdanek was the first camp discovered by the Soviets, who sent back reports of its reality which were initially not believed.  Of the 80K people murdered at Majdanek, 60K were Jews.  Majdanek is gripping in that, unlike the other extermination camps, the Nazis were unable to effectively destroy the evidence of its existence in time and much has remained intact.
  • The exceptionally close proximity of Majdanek to Lublin is shocking and distressing.  The outskirts of Lublin literally run along the edge of the camp, Lublin proper is clearly visible, only minutes away.
  • The weather – upon our arrival at the camp the sky was entirely grey, and it was blustery and chilly – in fact the coldest it has been during our trip.  As we made our way through the various parts of the camp, however, the weather amazingly transitioned and by the time we concluded, coats were off, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining.   Participants derived their own conclusions and spiritual messages.
  • The opening “Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom” –  the only photo I included in the album is the striking and dramatic first image one sees upon arriving at Majdanek.  Lying before it is a symbolic valley depicting the reality of Jews during WWII – a valley which it was easy to enter but difficult to emerge.

Our draining and emotional day concluded with an important opportunity to process reactions and then a group dinner at the hotel.   We depart Lublin early tomorrow morning for Krakow.

Temple Sinai in Poland – Shabbat, June 30-July 1

What an incredible Shabbat evening!  Our Shabbat experience at Beit Warsawa exceeded every possible expectation.  The Shabbat service, co-led by one of the congregation’s trained cantors and Rabbi Haim Beliak was warm, engaging, musical (including many familiar melodies) and inviting. There is a photo of the cover of their newly created, nationally recognized siddur, in the album.  The Shabbat dinner that followed (and which takes place every Shabbat evening) was also outstanding.  We had the opportunity to visit with members of the community during the meal, as well as hear from one of the founding members of the congregation about Beit Warsawa and Jewish life in Warsaw.  The effort that this progressive Jewish community in Warsaw is going to, not only to welcome visitors but, more importantly, to also help Poles find their way to – or back to – Judaism are inspiring.  This is a community that deserves continued support and encouragement.

Shabbat morning began with a creative worship and learning experience in the hotel.  We then boarded the bus and stopped by one final, impactful site before leaving Warsaw.  The memorial recognizes the escape through the sewer system of the few Ghetto uprising fighters who managed to get out (e.g. Marek Edelman, mentioned in an earlier post).   

Linda Bachmann shared these thoughtful words: 

“For me, the mantra as we leave Warsaw today, still with the heaviness of knowing that walking through the gates of the death camps lies ahead, is to always choose life. To be part of the familiar joy and music of Shabbat services among welcoming strangers and to gather for Shabbat morning services with Ron and Sinai friends is witness to Judaism's warmth.  It's a hug.  It's choosing life.”

After a few hours of driving, we arrived at Kazimierz Dolny, a small Polish town in the countryside along the Vistula River with significant Jewish history.   We stopped first at an impactful memorial dedicated to what was on a substantial Jewish cemetery prior to WWII.  The stone wall that greets visitors upon arrival is made of reclaimed headstones which had been torn from Jewish gravesites by the Nazis and others and turned into sidewalks, yard decorations, and pavers.   The break in the wall symbolizes the rupture in Jewish life caused by WWII – there has not been a Jewish community here since 1942.  Upon walking through the crack in the wall one sees a sloping hillside dotted with other remaining graves and headstones.  It is a powerful and compelling memorial to what once was in this place.   That reality was further illustrated when we visited the old synagogue.  From the mid-17th c until WWII, the synagogue’s location just off the market square communicated the influence and size of the Jewish community in Kazimierz Dolny.   While now a museum operated by the Warsaw Jewish community, the external structure and interior photos and artifacts tell of its historical significance. The balance of our time here included lunch and an opportunity to walk through the market and on the cobblestone streets, hike up to the old castle (for some), and enjoy some “Lody” (ice cream in Polish).

We left Kazimierz Dolny and drove the balance of the way to Lublin where we are at present.  Upon checking into our rooms in the Grand Hotel, we gathered for Havdalah (using wine, three white tapers bound together for the braided candle, and three roses for the spices), before those with any remaining energy headed out to explore the active Lublin town square.   Havdalah reminds us that Shabbat separates between the sacred and the profane … indeed, all are especially cognizant of the truth of these words as we prepare for tomorrow afternoon’s visit to Majdanek.  Shavua tov – best wishes to all for a good week.

Temple Sinai in Poland – Friday, June 30

It is safe to say that every member of our group came to Poland with a clear understanding of the narrative of the Jews’ systematic murder during WW II.  Far less familiar, though, is the history of Poland’s massive destruction at the hands of the Nazis (and in some cases the Soviets), both in human lives and in physical infrastructure.  Today’s sites helped shine more of a light on the fate of Warsaw and its civilians.   Following a bus tour of more of the city, we got off at the plaza featuring a monument honoring and commemorating the Warsaw Uprising.  In 1944, eighteen months after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, citizens of Warsaw also rose up against the occupation.   The uprising lasted two months and the results were devastating: while the Nazis did sustain losses, more than 200K Poles died, some managed to escape, some were captured and taken back to Germany for slave labor.  The two photos in the album depict the 3 components of the Warsaw Uprising Memorial:  the fighters themselves, the wall of memory, and the statue representing those who managed to escape through the city sewers. 

As we walked toward Old Town, we were also reminded that the Germans essentially wanted nothing left to remind them of Warsaw, and so bombed and razed approximately 85-90% of the entire city.  Thus, virtually every building one sees in Warsaw is the result of reconstruction.  Some segments of the city, like all of Old Town, are intentional in their efforts to recapture the original style, others completely new.   Several photos in the album show images of the Old Market Square, the Royal Palace, colorful buildings and more along with our fellow travelers.  Many stopped for a relaxing lunch of some traditional Polish Cuisine (pierogis, potato pancakes, etc), while others chose to explore a bit more.

After lunch, most of the group continued their learning at the Warsaw Uprising Museum with a more in depth exploration and introduction to the history of WWII, Poland’s involvement, and the consequences for the region.  The rest of the afternoon allows time for rest and Shabbat preparation.  Tonight we will enjoy Shabbat services and dinner with members of Beit Warsawa (Warsaw in Polish), the Progressive Jewish Congregation.

Hope you enjoy more of today’s photos.  Shabbat shalom.

Temple Sinai in Poland – Thursday, June 29

It is hard to believe that we are concluding only our second day together in Poland.  Though only a few sites comprised the bulk of today’s journey, heads and hearts are already filled to overflowing, and the effort to assimilate all we are learning and experiencing is overwhelming.  

Following breakfast at the hotel, we proceeded to a staggering and moving outdoor exhibit of Nalewki Street – or at least what once was Nalewki Street, a central, bustling thoroughfare through the heart of the Jewish life in Poland prior to WWII and the complete, 100% destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto which included Nalewki Street for a period.  Some of the photos I’ve posted in the album attempt to capture ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs which clearly illustrate the gut-wrenching reality of what happened in this place (see yesterday’s post for some of the tragic statistics).  Allowing time to comprehend the enormity of the Warsaw Ghetto’s destruction and the fact that nothing but rubble remained after the Nazi’s bombed and razed it in 1943, we then fittingly walked to an immense statue memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto fighters on the grounds of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.   This memorial depicts the Ghetto fighters under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewics on one side, in stark contrast with an image of Jews walking to their deaths on the other (a powerful juxtaposition, but surely limited and incomplete in the story it relates regarding the fates of our six million Jewish ancestors who perished).  

We then turned our attention to the absolutely incredible museum itself.  Voted the most outstanding museum in all of Europe last year, the Polin Jewish Museum formally opened in 2005.  Designed by Daniel Libeskind, every aspect of the museum’s physical structure is imbued with meaning, from the gap in the external wall symbolizing the parting of the sea as well as the opening of a new chapter in Polish Jewish history, to the internal undulating walls intended to convey the sense that Jewish life was grabbed and yanked out of Poland during WWII.   Incredible docents/educators took us on a 1000 year tour of Jewish life in Poland, from the earliest Jewish settlements in the 13th c until the present day, helping all to appreciate the chapters of greatest acceptance and opportunity for Jews, to those defined by our peoples’ greatest horrors and persecution, including the Shoah.  Of special interest to our group was the exhibit featuring the history of the ancient wooden synagogues of Poland, all of which were destroyed, particularly the Gwozdziec Synagogue, whose roof was recreated by a team of architects, students and craftsmen and installed as a permanent part of the Polin Museum.  This story, by the way, is featured in a documentary “Raise the Roof” that was aired at the AJFF and at Temple Sinai this past year.  Photos are attached to this blog.

We could have spent hours longer touring the Polin Jewish Museum, but we did, however, have lunch at the Museum and were fortunate to be joined by Israel’s Ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari.  Ambassador Azari shared with us a bit more about the strengthening relationship between Israel and Poland as well as the fact that more and more Israelis are seeking out Poland as a vacation destination. 

Lunch was followed by today’s other significant destination, a visit to the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw, located on Gesia Street.  First opened in 1806, the cemetery remains a functioning Jewish cemetery to the present time.  The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery is either the second or third largest Jewish cemetery in the world, with over 400K definitive graves, headstones, obelisks, and memorials marking the burial sites of Jews from all walks of life.  Some historians estimate, though, that the cemetery could actually include the remains of up to two million Jews whose sites were never marked.  The cemetery includes the gravesites of Hasidic rabbinic sages of the 19 century, Bund activists, famous Jewish Poles, and heroic figures such as Marek Edelman (mentioned in yesterday’s post), the sole survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters.  The Warsaw Jewish cemetery also includes a touching statue depicting Dr. Janusz Korczak and children from the orphanage whom he accompanied to the gas chambers at Treblinka.  A national hero, this is Poland’s formal memorial site at which to honor Korczak’s life and lay a stone when visiting (his story is a must if you are unfamiliar with it). 

Following a brief rest back at the hotel, we all enjoyed the amazing gift of an outstanding, private Chopin Piano Recital performed by Katarzyna Glensk, a pianist who has performed throughout the world and is today a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Music.  The evening concluded with a delicious, leisurely dinner at S’Antonio Restaurant.  It was a beautiful setting in which to unpack and process some of today’s experiences.   Tomorrow, we experience Warsaw’s Old Town, the Warsaw Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, and a much needed Shabbat.

Wednesday, June 28

After months of planning and anticipation, the 30 members of our congregational family sharing the next 9 days together in Poland finally converged this afternoon in Warsaw for the formal start of our journey. This afternoon’s tour included an introduction to some of Poland’s and Warsaw’s history, along with a visit to several significant sites (photos available in the Sinai Facebook Poland Album) which relate the tragic story of the Warsaw Jewish community following WWII and the atrocities of the Shoah, including:

  • The Nozick Synagogue, the only synagogue building which still exists from pre-war Warsaw.  Originally built in 1902, its restoration was completed in 1983 and is now a functioning Orthodox synagogue.
  • The sole remaining remnant of one of the Warsaw Ghetto walls.  The site now includes a map that attempts to illustrate where the Ghetto once stood, though it is admittedly hard to grasp due to the fact that 100% of the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis (followed soon after by what most estimate to be 85% of all of Warsaw).  The Warsaw Ghetto consisted of approximately 6 square miles, into which 380K Jews were forced to live.  
  • The Umschlagplatz.  This was the site from which over 300,000 Jews were deported to Nazi extermination camps in 1942-1943.  The memorial, commemorated in 1983 on the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, includes the first names of Jewish Ghetto residents
  • The site of what was once Mila 18, the Warsaw Ghetto address where the plans for the Ghetto uprising were made and carried out under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewicz.  The site consists of a hill, on top of which sits a stone monument commemorating the heroism of the Ghetto fighters, all whom lost their lives in the battle save one (Marek Edelman) who was not in the bunker when it was bombed.  The Ghetto uprising began on April 19, 1943 and lasted less than one month.
  • We also drove by the orphanage building run by Janusz Korczak prior to being forced to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Trying to grasp the enormity of the loss of the Jewish community here is virtually impossible, as the numbers are staggering.  Prior to WWII, there were @ 3+ million Jews in Poland.  Approximately 1 million Jews lived in Warsaw, fully 1/3 of the city’s entire population (It was the 3rd largest Jewish population outside of Israel and New York).  Today, it is estimated that only between 10K and 20K Jews remain in Warsaw, but far less than 10K are willing at present to share their Jewish identity publicly.

  • Our evening concluded with a group dinner during which we were privileged to hear from Agnieszka Morkewicz, the Acting Director of the Central Europe office of the American Jewish Committee located in Warsaw.  Agnieszka added meaningfully to our understanding or the current state of Jewish life and relations in Warsaw and Poland today – both the opportunities and some of the remaining challenges.

Now, as they say in Poland, “Ðobranoc!” 

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780