THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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August 2015

Jewish Life in Poland

In 2013 a new museum opened in Warsaw. We visited it today. It is a public/private partnership between the Polish, German and Norwegian governments and many corporate and individual donors. It is in a magnificent building standing in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. It is understated on the outside but has a spectacular interior. The design of the entrance hall suggests, with its curved walls, the Bible story of Moses parting the Red Sea.

There are few artefacts inside, perhaps because few survive. Each one is embellished, illustrated and put in context by multimedia presentations that invite visitors to touch and engage. Even on a day when temperatures in Warsaw reached 38º Celsius, it was very well attended. I briefly wondered if the glossy, corporate presentation might trigger "rich Jew" stereotypes in any anti-semites who visit. But then I reflected that (a) it's unlikely to attract anti-semites and (b) to hell with them!

The exhibition tells the long joint history of Jews and Poles from the beginnings of the Polish state to today. Interestingly the country was first mentioned in writing in Hebrew (written in Arabic script!) by a visiting Jewish merchant. Our educational tour this week has focussed on the horrific end to that story. There's no avoiding the fact that the Holocaust now defines the history of the Jews in Poland in most peoples' minds, but there were many centuries during which Jews lived, raised families and knew both joys and sorrows.

Of course the exhibition addressed the horrors. How could it not? But it at least raised the prospect that the good history might not be entirely erased. In an optimistic film screened in the final room of our visit, Rabbi Michael Schudrich - Chief Rabbi of Poland and someone I knew when I lived here because our daughters were school friends - even suggested that as the small community rebuilds itself, there may be a future for Jews in the country where so many of them lived for so long. Amen to that, optimistic though I fear it may be.

My fellow participants then went to walk around the Old Town. As I visited it almost every week in the eleven years I lived in Poland and given the temperature today I sat that one out. If it's cooler before I leave on Tuesday maybe I will have a chance to stroll around it with my camera. I hope so.

Now I am off to our final dinner, after which the tour (although not my visit) is over.

Graffiti on warm street
Entrance to the exhibition
Quotations from Polish edicts granting privileges to the Jewish population

The updated map of the tour is here and all of my photos are here in as high definition as your screen can support.

Back to Warsaw for Shabbat

One of the Jewish members of our group evoked an embarrassed laugh this morning as we walked into the Jewish cemetery in Kielce.  "Another perfect day; let's go visit some dead Jews", he said. It was dark humour to relieve the tension of an emotional week.

At times, this tour has seemed like a very long funeral. We have respectfully shuffled, solemn-faced, through cemeteries. We have filed past memorials to horrors so implausible that one can almost understand those who deny them. We have tried to take pleasure in loving restoration work to buildings that now only symbolise the millions of murdered people they used to serve.

Our group at Kielce Jewish cemetery

When our Jewish friends prayed, sang and danced in renovated synagogues, it only intensified a chilling truth expressed last night at the Jan Karski Society's centre for "culture, meeting and dialogue". In a film about the Society's attempts to get to the truth about the Kielce Pogrom, we saw its founder, Bogdan Białek say "like all Poles, I have lived my life in a Jewish graveyard."

It's important to understand that, with the shocking exception in Kielce, the Polish people did not do this terrible thing. For six centuries their country was the safest place for Europe's Jews. Anti-semitism existed here, as elsewhere, but it should not define the common history of Poles and Jews.

On the way back from Kielce to Warsaw we visited the ongoing reconstruction works of the synagogue in Przysucha. We arrived in Warsaw, after one short break for a packed lunch, in the mid afternoon. This gives plenty of time for the Jewish members of our group to prepare for a service tonight at Warsaw's synagogue, followed by a Shabbat dinner. We goyim are cordially invited, but one and a half hours of religious worship in a language I don't speak might be taking curiosity too far. Especially as, understandably, no photography is allowed.

Przysucha Synagogue

Tomorrow is the final day of the tour and we will visit various places in Warsaw including the new Museum of Jewish Life in Poland. In the meantime, Shabbat shalom.

As always, the updated route for the tour is here and all of my photos (including the ones above in far higher resolution) are here.

Kraków and Kielce

After all the death and despair we have reviewed this week it was good to be regular tourists this morning. We visited the Wawel, seat of Polish kings. We toured the Royal Cathedral, of which John Paul II was formerly the bishop. We enjoyed the largest and, in my opinion the most magnificent, market square in Europe.

I had seen it all before, having brought my family for weekend trips when we lived in Poland. I was delighted to see it all in far better condition than in those days. Poland's evident prosperity pleases me a lot. I spent 11 years of my life working, with my clients, on its development in the immediate post-communist era. The Polish people, liberated from the idiocies of socialism, have achieved marvels already and are not finished yet. I smiled at every example I saw.

After lunch we headed to Kielce and back to dark history. In a shocking incident in 1946, after the defeat of the Nazis, 40 Jews who had survived the Holocaust and returned to their homes were killed by some of the city's Polish residents. It was the country's last pogrom. The news spread fast and persuaded Poland's few remaining Jews to leave; mostly to Israel.

The Communist Government suppressed all further reference to the incident. It simply did not fit its simplistic political narrative. Once Communism fell, good people in Kielce began working (with opposition from some who resist an uncomfortable truth) to commemorate the pogrom respectfully and address its horror in a spirit of reconciliation.

A centre for "culture, meeting and dialogue" has been established at the site of the pogrom and the volunteers who run it work tirelessly to educate the young people of the city in particular. We visited the centre and viewed its current poignant exhibition of family photographs of the Jews of Poland in the years leading to the Holocaust.

Pope John Paul II Centre, Krakow
Street performer, Krakow
Leaving the market square, Krakow
The hourly bugle call, Krakow

The updated map of our tour is here and all my photos are here.

An icon of genocide

Auschwitz is the German name for Oświęcim in Poland. To the majority of its inhabitants before the Second World War, it was known by its Yiddish name, Oshpitzin. Because of the notorious concentration camp, Oświęcim's main industry is now - as the unpleasant jargon has it - "necrotourism".

The number of visitors on an unpleasantly hot Summer day was astonishing. The parking and other facilities (though improved since I first visited in the 1990s) are barely adequate. One of our group commented that it was too "touristic" for his taste, but what are the locals to do? More than a million people have already visited this year and - though it can hardly be pleasant to have your town known for genocide - they must be served.

Birkenau - the purpose built extension to Auschwitz - was many times bigger and much more typical. It was where the railway terminated that served both camps. Its building at that railhead is iconic, but "Auschwitz" is the name that everybody knows.

It is no rail-side killing ground nor ramshackle set of wooden huts. It is a substantial set of buildings; originally erected as barracks for pre-war Polish soldiers. It was adapted to its infamous use by occupying German forces, who cleared a 40km zone around it so that they could work in secret.

I have visited before but found it no less uncomfortable a second time. I found that being there made me not only sad but somehow angry. I feel sorry for the guides. They are professional, informative and empathetic. They strike a perfect tone in their explanations, but they must quail at the strong emotions in their visitors.

Our morning ended at an exhibition of photographs and film clips of the lives of European Jews before the Holocaust. It brought home the reality of what we have lost. The Nazis almost delivered their "final solution". Sixty percent of the world's Jews lived in Europe and they killed more than half. Our continent cannot possibly be what it would have been had they lived.

At this point - reflecting over our simple lunch on visiting three death camps in as many days - I reached my limits. Artfully composing images of the site of a genocidal outrage just seemed a vile thing to do and I wanted to stop.  Instead of going on to Birkenau with the rest of my group, I sat and reflected nearby over a cold drink. Perhaps I should have been stronger.

As our tour bus took us back to Kraków, our leader told us that he had cancelled our planned meeting for the evening. He sensed we needed time to recover. Of course, compared to what the prisoners at these camps endured, we have nothing that remotely approximates to a problem, but I for one was grateful. I need a chance to be my essentially happy self and not just a sad, dutiful witness to disgusting history.

At some point we must raise a glass and drink "to life". That is my plan for this evening. L'chaim!


Our guide, Sylwia shows photographs taken by Nazi soldiers, contrary to orders
[Click to enlarge] The rationale for this disturbing museum

To Krakow, via beauty and horror

Museum-Memorial Site in Bełżec.

We started our day in Zamość, visiting the synagogue there restored by the Foundation organising my tour. The Polish state has handed back such sites in the 1,200 places where there were Jewish communities in Poland before the Holocaust. There are now 10 places where Jews live in Poland. They number, not the pre-war millions, but only 5,000 souls. These few people now have the responsibility of maintaining the sites. 
There has been no restitution of the private property of the millions murdered by the Nazis nor even of the few survivors or their heirs. The buildings are generally in poor shape and require expensive work if they are to be preserved. As to the cemeteries this is a religious duty that falls on the small community. If the Foundation visited the cemeteries alone, at the rate of one a day, it would take three years. Security (the sites are sadly sometimes desecrated again when restored) is a problem.
After a stroll in the pretty market square of Zamość, we moved on Bełżec. This was perhaps even more disturbing than the concentration camps I have visited before. There were never any huts here. It was simply a railway siding in the countryside, far from view, where Poland's Jews - and a few from Germany and other countries - were shipped to be killed. There were three such sites in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most of Poland's Jews died there before the infamous camps like Auschwitz were even built. When victims from elsewhere in Europe were being worked to death or murdered, Poland's Jews were already no more. Bełżec was the place where the first stationary gas chamber was used.
After they finished "Operation Reinhard", the Nazis cleared the sites. Bełżec, where it's estimated that 600,000 died, was reclaimed by nature. For years the only attention paid to it was by successive generations of local school children who kept it clean. In the 1960's the first monument was erected in the forest. In 2004 the present starkly-modern memorial was opened - the site having been cleared again for the purpose. No records were kept of the people murdered here so the monument simply features typical first names.
From this horror we moved on to the synagogue in the town of  Łańcut. The legend is that it survives because the Polish nobleman who owned the town faced down the German soldiers; telling them they could not destroy his property. The most famous rabbi here was a mystic known (as he was later a rabbi in Lublin) as "the seer of Lublin".
At the end of a long day we came to a much-needed rest in Krakow. 
Bełżec Memorial
Inside the Łańcut Synagogue
The Seer of Lublin's desk

The updated map of my route can be seen here. More pictures can be seen here.

The road of life

This is not a jolly tour by its nature, though the people on it are mostly happy sorts. When we visit a site (like the Yeshiva at Lublin, pictured) we are glad it survives but sad the people it once served are gone. When we visit a death camp like Majdanek, it's all sadness. Such places must be preserved so that Man remembers where an over-mighty state with a warped ideology can lead. They must be visited but it's a sad duty, like tending a grave.

Majdanek was not my first such visit. I went to Auschwitz when I lived in Poland and was similarly moved. But I am here now with survivors' families. I felt desperately sad and can only imagine how it feels to them.

I was disappointed that we spent so little time in Lublin. I had never visited it and some interesting historical buildings flashed by as we passed through.

My main impressions of Poland today (sad history apart) were of vastly improved roads and of towns and villages that seem more prosperous. Life goes on. Most people are good. The only reason to remember the past is to learn.

My progress is being mapped here. And my photos are to be seen here.

Lublin Yeshiva, now an hotel
The last door

On the Polish road without Speranza

Tributes to the fallen of the Warsaw Uprising on the streets after the recent anniversary

I couldn't spare the time to drive on this trip to I am reduced to planes and coaches. I am touring Poland for the next nine days with an organisation called The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. A friend of mine - a former colleague from my days working in Poland from 1992 - 2003 - is the CEO of the Foundation and is leading a tour to show 55 visitors (including some of the donors who made its work possible) what it has achieved.

For centuries many of the Jewish people lived in Poland. They came because, at a time when nowhere in Europe was safe from pogroms, King Kazimierz the Great offered them a place of safety. They lived under legal disabilities and were never fully accepted as Polish (I used to joke when I lived here - "How does a Jew become Polish? He wins a Nobel Prize") but they were relatively safe, at least compared to their other options.

All that ended with the Holocaust. In the wake of the horror many synagogues, yeshivas, cemeteries and other Jewish buildings were destroyed. After the war, most of those who didn't die in the Shoah fled. This Foundation, and other charities, is trying to recover at least some of the heritage and to restore the Jewish peoples' rightful place in Polish history.

When my friend told me about the tour I decided to go along. I have no personal place in this story but I have Jewish friends, support the State of Israel and love the idea of reconciliation that underlies this project. The Foundation could not have achieved its goals without the support of Poles, their local government institutions and the Catholic Church.  Our group includes people from 18 nations, not least of which is Germany. It contains Christians, Jews and others united in a desire to put this dark history in its place - not forgotten but behind us.

Of course this trip also allows me an opportunity to follow two pieces of advice I have been given in my photographic studies. Firstly, if you want to take better pictures, "stand in front of some more interesting stuff". Secondly "show me a picture I have never seen before". 

I will be posting pictures here as the tour proceeds. And all the pictures (including random portraits of friends I meet along the way) can be seen here.