September 11, 2001. An infamous date. We were at the airport in Warsaw, Poland, awaiting our flight back to civilization. Ironic? Yes!
This was our first trip to Poland and we had seen the horrors firsthand. We stayed in plasticized Jewish Krakow, with its dearth of Jews and Hebrew names scattered throughout the Kazimierz, historic Jewish quarter. Hebrew sounding names on hotels and restaurants and bookstores. Jewish memorabilia had become a brilliant marketing tool for the Poles, as it remains to this day.
From there we did the compulsory tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A tour made more tragic by the aged man amongst us who recognized his wife’s suitcase. At last he knew for sure where she had met her fate.
We visited Warsaw, before the remarkable new museum, Polin, that commemorated Jewish history in the city, was built. The museum warranted a return trip last year. It doesn’t disappoint.
In Warsaw, that first trip, we went to a sparsely populated shul service on Shabbat and spoke to the remnants of the Jewish community, including many who had grown up not knowing of their Jewish roots. They were rebuilding their kehilla under the steerage of an American born rabbi who remains there until this day.
We also visited the site of the destroyed Jewish quarter and the famous Warsaw Ghetto, where armed Jewish heroes and heroines fought bravely to their last breaths.
Warsaw was rebuilt. The famous square is a clone of what it had been before its destruction during the war. The buildings could be recreated of course. Not so the millions of Jewish lives that were destroyed.
We took a driver and visited the towns where our families had lived, probably for centuries. Luckily for both of us our grandparents had left Poland long before WWII. Very very lucky.
But we have often thought that we might have met and married even if they had remained in Poland. Strangely all four sets of grandparents lived in towns surrounding Bialystok. Whether we would have survived is a darker question. Odds are not.
I wondered if I might enjoy a bialy in Bialystok. No luck in that department. Directly across the street from our hotel was a neon sign, glowing above a small shop advertising New York Bagels. I kid you not! I guess no Jews so no bialys in Bialystok.
From our perch in Bialystok we toured the towns of our families, my maternal grandmother’s being the most lovely. She grew up in Augustow, a pretty village of canals and resorts. Perhaps that’s how and why she became a hotelier in her second chance at life, as an American citizen owning a Catskills hotel.
Our trips to the cemeteries were ample signs of the evil that had preceded us. We could find no graves. Some of the cemeteries were barely recognizable.
And so it was with no regret that we headed to the airport to return to New Jersey on September 11, 2001.. We had seen and we would never forget.
Except that we didn’t actually leave that day. The unthinkable happened. In our safe homeland, an immense tragedy had unfolded. It was impossible to comprehend.
Sitting in the departure lounge, awaiting an announcement of what we should do next (which turned out to be another week in Poland) we tried, with our new (and still somewhat rare) cellphone to reach our four children in the United States. We knew that three of them would be in New York City, site of the heinous crime. Our son-in-law would also be working in the city, in lower Manhattan. The circuits were busy. Calls could not go through.
Finally we called our daughter in Palo Alto, California. We caught her as she was driving our granddaughter to nursery school. Gasping I screamed, Have you spoken to anyone yet? Are they all right? She had no idea what I was talking about. Driving to the nearby school she had a tape of Barney, that purple dinosaur who I miss not at all, playing. No radio. No news.
Eventually we were able to contact everyone. They were all inconvenienced but nothing more.
Not so with others that we knew. A tragedy of unprecedented proportion. An evil that shook the world.
And wasn’t that the story of the shoah as well? Unprecedented. Evil. Shocking. Shaking.
Don’t look in my direction for explanations. People far wiser than I have none. Nor do I.
Let’s just repeat again, never again! And hope that the world is listening.