Thoughts on the Journey to Poland, November 2022
Days I and II
Monday and Tuesday Nov 14 & 15
We landed in Warsaw bright and early on this brisk Monday morning and our first stop was the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw. Interestingly we visited the cemetery to witness life. There was indeed a vast Jewish life in Poland before the Nazis came to power in WW2. During this trip it became increasingly obvious that tombstones are not to be taken for granted. Unfortunately, 6 million of our brethren did not have the luxury of having one.
On Tuesday we visited beautiful Krakow. We went to the Remuh Synagogue and old Jewish cemetery. The Remuh Synagogue is named after 16th century Rabbi Moshe Isserles known as the “Rema” (or “Remuh” in Yiddish) the famous author of HaMappah (literally “The Tablecloth”), a collection of commentaries that complement Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch with Ashkenazi traditions and customs.
(The Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, was written in the 16th Century by Rav Yosef Karo—Shulchan Aruch literally means “Set table”. HaMappah is the addition; the tablecloth.)
The old Jewish cemetery of Krakow is located just behind the Remuh synagogue. It houses the tombstones of a few very notable Rabbis. I was excited, after a few minutes of walking and searching through the stones, to discover that of my ancestor Rabbi Natan Nata Spira aka the Megaleh Amukot. There was also a unit on him at the Old Synagogue Museum a few steps away, that we visited right after. Rabbi Natan Nata Spira was a Polish rabbi and kabbalist, who served as Chief Rabbi of Krakow. He was the author of a number of works, most notably the Megaleh Amukot, which is why he is often refered to as The “Megaleh Amukot.”
On Tuesday afternoon we visited the former Krakow Ghetto. We saw the Pankiewicz Pharmacy right at the entrance to the Ghetto. This pharmacy was held by Tadeusz Pankiewicz. Him and his staff were strategically located to witness Jewish suffering and when possible, helped those in need. In the 1980s Tadeusz Pankiewicz was awarded the title of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
We ended the day by visiting the Plaszow Concentration Camp, where many Jews, Poles and Russians were burned and buried in a huge pit. It almost looks like a peaceful place today with a monument that commemorates the Dead and a garden-like space where mothers stroll their babies, dog-owners walk their dog and runners go for a jog. I was outraged by the mundanity of it all. This has been a Nazi concentration camp operated by the SS in Płaszow. Most of the prisoners were Polish Jews who were targeted for destruction by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, because they were Jewish.
To quote our guide, Lior Zagury: Though we all come from different birthplaces, standing here on top of our brothers’ ashes, we all have the same hole in our heart.
Wednesday Nov 16
Wednesday was a difficult, sad and emotional day for all of us and for me on a personal level as we visited Auschwitz Birkenau, that infamous place that I had been hearing about from my grandparents z”l even before I knew how to read.
We headed to Auschwitz, symbol of Holocaust tragedies and of Evil, on this dreary morning. The mood was set as we boarded our bus at 7am in the foggy and rainy weather. I had never yet set foot in that place but felt like I knew so much about it, first hand from my grandparents Andre Yisrael Halevi Pollak and Rosalie Pollak z”l. I was filled with trepidation as I thought of them, remembered their sad stories of that tragic time in their lives, their loving smile and their inspirational life together.
I have vivid memories of the bedtime stories my dear grandmother used to tell me about her time at Auschwitz. She of course left out details that might give nightmares to 7-year-old me. But she did talk about the separation from her family (without stressing the permanence of this separation). Eventually I also found out about the stripping, shaving, starving and all around effort to dehumanize.
Of course, it is much later that I Learned and realized that this was part of the Nazis’ calculated and meticulous plans to degrade the Jews. If the Jews are dehumanized, they will lose their spirit, their will to fight back, and eventually their will to live.
We saw piles of eyeglasses, suitcases, photos and hair. We saw children’s drawings, some mundane and happy, some tragic. We visited the database of Holocaust victim names where I found the names I was looking for, all mentioned here.
My dear grandfather Andre Yisrael Pollak had a life in Debrecen, Hungary before deportation. He had a wife; they were expecting their first child. She was put to death immediately as likely deemed unfit to work. In Auschwitz my grandfather contracted Typhus and was placed in the infirmary. Word got out of what happens to “patients” in the infirmary so at night my grandfathers’ brothers came to tell him to leave the place…that saved him. Andre’s father Shmuel Halevy Pollak , his younger brother Ziskind (Zissy) and little sister Lilly all perished at Auschwitz.
My grandmother Rosalie Pollak was a beautiful young lady in Munkacz, Czechoslovakia. They were able to afford “fake papers” for her and her sister Ibby to go live as Christians in Budapest. As they were getting ready to board the bus that would take the two beautiful sisters away from their mother and their much younger sister Goldie, their mother showed despair at being separated from her older daughters so Rosalie stayed back. She ended up in Auschwitz. Her mother Freide, father Gershon Manes Pollak and little sister Goldie all perished at Auschwitz.
I was thinking of all of them during the visit at Auschwitz, as well as of 3-year-old Shaindy, daughter of our dear cousin Roizi z”l, who disappeared soon after their arrival to the camp.
As I walked inside the barracks, I found myself looking for signs of them. Where were they standing, I asked myself, when they saw the faraway smoke and wondered if that was their family? Where were they sitting when they ate that diluted soup with potato-peel? I felt it was not far from where I was walking that day, amid the cold, the rain and the noisy silence that surrounds the place.
The high-point was ending the day with a ceremony at Birkenau as the sun went down, where we all sang Hatikva -Hope- clad with our national Flags. I could then feel my grandparents’ pride. They were indeed staunch Zionists.
I thank my beloved grandparents Andre and Rosalie Pollak for having so much Love left in them, even after everything they went through, and for making sure I know and never forget.
On Wednesday evening we walked out of Birkenau, our spirits down but our heads up high.
Thursday Nov 17
We started the day at the Kielce cemetery where we paid homage to the 45 children that were murdered in that town. At the memorial for these beautiful children, one can find dolls and toys that current children left as a tribute. I left a picture that my 10 year-old son made for the occasion.
Giza was one of the children brutally murdered. Her mother wrote a heartbreaking letter to her daughter, distressed by the very fact that the last thing these children saw on earth was the face of pure Evil.
Giza was only 18 months old.
At the cemetery we also paid homage to the 250 Jews who, after having returned to Kielce post-war, were brutally killed in 1946 by a mob. The mass violence of the Kielce pogrom is another example of the local history of antisemitism, occurred after a blood libel accusation by a child. This Kielce massacre happened only one year after the end of WW2 and proved that antisemitism was still rampant.
At the cemetery, we held a ceremony where we each said the names of our family members who perished in the Holocaust. It is important to remember them and sometimes just mention their names; we did that do the backdrop of the song “Lechol ish yesh shem…(every person has a name)”
In the afternoon we visited Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. With several gas chambers, Majdanek was among the largest of Nazi concentration camps. While it was initially intended for forced labor rather than extermination, the camp was used to murder people on an industrial scale. The SS did not succeed in destroying most of the camp’s infrastructure. The crematorium ovens and gas chambers are largely intact. But that left me wondering how many more structures of Evil existed in this place, perhaps buildings that have indeed been destroyed.
The memorial monument at Majdanek is a structure that houses 7 tons of human Jewish ashes. On the side of the mausoleum’s dome, the creator of the monument, Wiktor Tołkin, engraved the message: “Let our fate be a warning to you.”
I believe this is a cry against Hate, a reminder to what hate can do and lead to.
We ended the day on a high note, at the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin which was founded by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira, who in the 1920s introduced the groundbreaking concept of the “Daf Yomi,” a tradition that continues to this very day. At the Yeshiva, we sang and danced and rejoiced at being alive as a people.
Friday – Sunday Nov 18- 20
On Friday we visited what is left of the old Warsaw Ghetto. It was the largest of the Nazi ghettos during the Holocaust. From the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews were deported to Nazi concentration and extermination camps. We learned about the conditions in the Ghetto, with its overcrowding and food rationing. We also learned about the Ghetto uprising and its leader, 24 year-old hero Mordechai Anielevicz. We finished our tour at the Rappaport Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The monument is the same as the one in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, except for one small difference. In Jerusalem, the heroic woman is fully covered.
We brought in Shabbat and walked to the Nozyk Shul in Warsaw, a 12-minute walk from our hotel. There were a few delegations present that evening and the excitement of celebrating Shabbat was palpable. Spending time after dinner that evening with students from the delegation, noshing and schmoozing, was certainly a highlight of my Shabbat in Warsaw.
The next morning, I went to shul without the delegation. Something interesting happened as I walked in the shul after circling around a couple of times and trying to open the locked doors. The security guard finally opened for me but before letting me through he asked me to wait for the rabbi. The rabbi came and asked me if I was here to pray or to look. I told him I am here to daven. He then let me through. I thought that was quite unwelcoming but then I understood, they want to be a community and not constantly looked at from the outside by curious tourists. As one of the rabbis gave his Shabbat speech in Polish and Hebrew, I couldn’t help wonder why would people settle here? Why are there Jews in this place? What is here for us? After everything we saw…
But then I realized the same can be said for so many other places, especially in Europe. Who can forget the Dreyfus Affair, the Vel d’Hiv, Internment camps etc. Yet French Jews are proud Jews and the community in France is thriving.
After Aleinu, Adon Olam and Anim Zemirot, I partook in a delicious chicken and cholent kiddush, socialized with locals and other tourists and returned to my hotel room, grateful for the experience.
Sunday was our last day in Poland. It was a sad day. We started with visiting Tykochin, and its Shul which now only acts as a museum as there is no community left. Tykochin is a shtetl. A Shtetl is a small Jewish town or village. Poland’s big cities such as Warsaw and Krakow had a large Jewish population before the war. However, most of Poland’s Jewish life was in the Shtetls. We went to Lupochova Forest, close to Tykochin. In this forest, Jews were murdered and buried in pits. People were buried, sometimes still alive. Unfortunately, there are many forests like this throughout Poland. On 25–26 August 1941, the Jewish residents of Tykocin were assembled at the market square for “relocation”, and then marched and trucked by the Nazis into the nearby Lupochova Forest. Within 48 hours, men, women, and children, and with them 550 years of Jewish tradition, were buried in pits.
In the afternoon we visited the Treblinka extermination camp. Treblinka was a pure death machine. Most of the camp was burned and erased by the Nazis. Today 17,000 stones are scattered throughout the ground of the camp, most bearing the names of towns from which the victims of Treblinka were deported. Only one stone bears not the name of a town but that of a man: Janusz Korczak.
Korczak was the well-known doctor who ran a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. Him and his staff stayed with the children, even though he was given the choice to walk away, as the Nazis deported them all to their deaths at Treblinka in August 1942.
We ended the day, and our journey, with a ceremony at Treblinka. We sang the Hatikvah loudly in anticipation of our imminent return Home. Our hearts were heavy but we were happy to be together, to have had this experience of a lifetime, to vow to continue educating ourselves and others, and ultimately to be greeted at Ben Gurion by the everlasting WELCOME TO ISRAEL sign.
I went to Poland on a trip of a lifetime, an important trip to witness and remember. I thought I would find answers but returned with even more questions. How can man be so evil? The simple answer is Hate. But that is not enough of an answer to me. People hate and will unfortunately continue to do so. How do we prevent this from happening again, to us or to any people? We have a responsibility to denounce even early signs of hate when we witness it, be it on a large scale or small. This is the only way to prevent escalating violence. Let us remember the words of Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor; never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. We must always take sides.”
Am Yisrael Chai.