Greetings from Warsaw!
When time and exhaustion allow, I will be sending dispatches from our TBE Jewish Heritage Trip. I am very grateful to the twenty who have chosen to give up a little beach time to accompany Mara and myself on a journey that is the farthest thing from an R & R vacation imaginable – yet infinitely more meaningful.
Following exhausting travels and some delayed flights, there was no rest for the weary as our tour began right away with a stop at the Umschlagplatz, on the northern boundary of the Warsaw Ghetto, from where hundreds of thousands were sent to their deaths in Treblinka. The ghetto was completely destroyed in 1943, but memorials and markers can be found everywhere, including one just across from our hotel.
From there we went to the new museum dedicated to the long and complicated history of Polish Jewry. It is called the Po-Lin museum because, as legend goes, medieval Jews migrating east from various calamities and expulsions found solace in this place, where destiny called out to them to settle – in Hebrew, “reside here” translates to “Po-Lin,” which is the Hebrew name for Poland.
Before entering the museum, we stopped out front at the breathtaking Monument to Ghetto Heroes, which on one side depicts the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and on the other, the victims of the deportations. As luck would have it, we came just in time to view a group of Israeli soldiers posing on the side depicting the heroes. The monument will be familiar to anyone who has seen the replica at Yad Vashem.
In the museum, the complex relationship of Jews and Poland was laid out in all of its complexity. Some in the group were concerned that the museum has a not-so-hidden agenda of portraying the Poles as fellow sufferers rather than the raging anti-semites that so many think they were. Many historians see that as accounting for the fact that the Nazis chose to build their industrial complex of killing right here. Some 3 million Jews died here during the Holocaust, a million at Auschwitz alone, and another 900,000 in Treblinka.
The group has not yet had time to process and discuss what we saw today – we’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that on the bus this week. But from my perspective, the museum was not a whitewash at all. Among the photos I’ve included in our Heritage Tour album (link below) is one that speaks very frankly about the apathy of many Poles to the killings and deportations that they saw happening in front of them, plus some of the killings perpetrated by Poles themselves. Still, one unanswered question is whether Polish schoolchildren are taught to take some responsibility for what happened here.
The museum shares some basic facts that cannot be shoved aside even in light of what happened in 1939-1945.
1) Jews did thrive here as almost nowhere else in our history. Before the war, Warsaw was the second largest Jewish city in the world, trailing only New York, and the intellectual and cultural life here was unrivaled. Even now, it is impossible to find a place on the planet that teems with vibrant ideological debate and artistic creativity as the Poland of the pre-war period. This vibrancy also characterized early eras. Poland is where the early Hasidim found their roots, along with their ideological, rationalist opposites, the “Mitnagdim.” We saw the centerpiece of the museum, a breathtaking replica of a 17th century wooden synagogue from a shtetl called Gwozdziec – I was able to point out to the group where on the ceiling it instructs worshippers not to talk during the Torah reading.
2) Horrible things happened here to the Jews, but they happened to the Poles too, and the most vehement anti-Semitic episodes were not perpetrated by Poles. The 1648 massacre was Cossack driven and of course the Holocaust was in plan and execution entirely a Nazi production. The Poles in fact have much in common with the Jews. This land has been sliced and diced more than just about any other – other than perhaps the land of Israel. With empiric Russia on one side and aggressive Germany on the other, and throw in the Hapsburg empire for good measure, I’m not sure we give Poland its due for standing up to oppression as often as it has. One can make a solid claim that the two biggest root causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union were the worldwide Soviet Jewry movement on the one hand (and the accompanying US moves) and the Polish Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, on the other. So I think it’s important to rethink this relationship. Before today, I never made the connection between the term “Slav” and slave, and in fact, more than once the Slavs have been treated as an inferior race by their neighbors.
3) There are countries that we'll visit on this trip where Jews have returned in significant numbers. Poland is not one of them. So a city that was overwhelmingly Jewish now barely has any. That overwhelming fact will color this part of the trip. This entire country is a mass Jewish graveyard. So one purpose of our visit is to listen to the voices of those who lived here, created here, and who showed such courage. Many of those heroes have come to life again through this museum. Their quotes and poetry are inscribed on the museum's walls. Theirs is a legacy that will not die.
After the museum, we went in various directions for dinner, several of us enjoying the festive Sunday evening in the Old Town. A nice way to end a long, long day. If you are ever in Warsaw, plan to spend at LEAST three hours at this museum - and then have a bite at the cafe that I hear serves the best hummus in town.
Happy Fourth of July to everyone back home (or where ever you are!)
Tuesday July 4 - Welcome from Krakow.
We arrived here this evening after a long drive from Warsaw, by way of Maidanek and Lublin. We had decided at the last minute to add Maidanek to our itinerary because it provides both a smaller-scale prelude for and a contrast to Auschwitz, where we will be later this week. Maidanek was liberated by the Russians with little warning, so unlike other death camps, it has been preserved in much the same form in which it was used. For the first time on this trip, our group stood in a place of unspeakable horror, the gas chambers and crematoria of a death camp.
Our photo album brings home just how close Maidanek is – and was - to the surrounding neighborhood, which brings up a major theme of our trip thus far. We have challenged our guides (who have been very good) on the topic of the guilt or innocence of the Polish people. Tomorrow we will have the chance to meet with a righteous gentile who hid Jews. Poland has more righteous gentiles at Yad Vashem than any other country – a future that is both laudatory and misleading, since the number of Jews who lived and died here dwarfs the other nations of this continent – fully half of the six million were killed here. One guide said that six million POLES died, of three million were Jews. It’s nice to hear the Jews spoken of as fully accepted Polish citizens, but we know that through the centuries, this has not always been Mister Rogers’ neighborhood for Jews.
Yesterday we had a lovely tour of Warsaw – we drove past the famous Warsaw Zoo and visited the museum of the Polish Uprising in 1944. We also saw the site of Mila 18, headquarters for the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A highlight came early in the day with a visit to the orphanage of Janus Korczak, one of the great heroes of the Holocaust. The orphanage amazingly still stands and is still in use. Korczak is mistakenly assumed not to have been Jewish, since he was given the chance to escape the fate determined for his orphans. In fact he was Jewish - he had changed his name years before. His special treatment was due to his inordinate fame among the Polish people as an intellectual (a psychologist and foremost expert on parenting). But Korczak, when the time came to decide, chose to cast his lot not only with “his” children, but with his people. I found that an interesting response to those who claim that Jews who “make it” through assimilation are hopelessly lost to the Jewish world.
The admiration for Korczak’s work is a key differentiator between Polish culture and that of other nations. The Nazis burned books, but here in Warsaw, writers, musicians and artists are national icons. Last evening some of us went to a Chopin recital in Warsaw’s brimming-with-life Old Town (see my slice of life photos from there). There were actually competing Chopin recitals, in fact, and ticket sellers were vying for our attention and hawking tix – to a PIANO recital – as if they were standing outside Madison Square Garden a half hour before a Knicks game. I was so happy that the concert we attended concluded with Chopin’s “Promenade,” something my mom has played quite often and which I’ve also played for her more recently at the nursing home.
We also walked past some of Warsaw’s stately national shrines and idyllic public parks – keeping in mind that this was a city nearly totally destroyed 70 years ago. The Old Town looks old, but it's actually a replica. Still, lots of fun.
That’s all for today – and for all those who know people in our group, I can assure you that everyone is eating well!
Our group visited Auschwitz today, capping what has been an emotional week. Then, following a long ride though the Slovakian countryside, we arrived in Budapest this evening, where we will be spending Shabbat. The trip is nearly halfway through. See the entire photo album at https://goo.gl/photos/eW12dZJPcDnk82g57
This anti Soros billboard was the VERY FIRST THING I saw as our tour bus crossed over into Hungary on Thursday. It is everywhere. Our group spent Shabbat in Budapest, which included an unforgettable encounter with a local congregation that I cannot wait to tell folks back home more about - as well as a sobering assessment of the current situation here by a freelance journalist.
I was shaken more by what I learned here in Budapest this Shabbat than I was when visiting Auschwitz the day before. The community here is genuinely concerned - though they put on a brave face. But in a Jewish community where everyone has a thousand yahrzeits every week, yet one that has done incredible things despite that, I could sense the fear.
The far right wing government has consolidated power by following a familiar playbook: demonize the press, co-opt the judiciary and direct the anger toward familiar scapegoats - hence the none-too-subtle anti-Semitic overtones of this massive campaign against Soros (and many of these billboards have been touched up with blatantly anti Semitic graffiti).
All of these things are happening here, as well as dramatic changes in their constitution and - naturally - cozying up to Russia. And did I mention the delegitimization of human rights NGOs? It's happening here, most recently with the shutting down of the Aurora cafe, a local hangout for young Jews and others. Oh, and the intimidation and silencing of religious leaders. That's the formula for threatening the underpinnings of a democracy. Shake and stir.
Not everything happening here is applicable to America - or Israel, for that matter - but there is enough to be concerned about. I'm glad that after an embarrassing silence, Israeli authorities have returned to their sacred mission to defend Jews in distress, even those ruled by governments led by authoritarian strongmen.
I cannot emphasize enough the danger of what is happening here. I am encouraged by the courage of my rabbinic colleagues in the US to stand up against the cynical demolition of democratic institutions - particularly the intimidation of a free press - wherever it is found. I for one will be carrying that banner over the coming weeks. I will not let down the Jews of Hungary or the values embedded in the faith I am duty-bound to protect. Given what we have been seeing recently all around the world, an emboldened American Jewish leadership might just be a key to preserving the values we hold so dear.
I came here to help people back home remember the last Holocaust, and I leave Hungary more determined than ever to prevent the next one.
Our group's journey ended a couple of days ago, and still we are all only beginning to digest what we encountered. Below are just a few initial impressions...
By design, this trip began in the Jewish graveyard that is Poland, where few Jews live and where three million died, where the Polish population has tried, at times valiantly and at times insufficiently, to come to grips with their past. The journey took us through various iterations of Jewish destruction and revival, but in Warsaw, what we faced most of all was evidence of the former. In Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Dresden, there was a mix of despair and hopefulness, punctuated by bleak landscapes of death and fear mixed with oases of promise.
By design, we ended at the "beginning," in Berlin, the place where the Nazi ideology was allowed to incubate within a devastating economy and a zeitgeist of anarchy and despair, until it was able to slowly swallow up a country and a continent. Berlin is also a beginning in another sense, as we witnessed - at long last - a country willing to fully embrace its responsibility, not only learning lessons of the past, but intent on teaching them. We saw school children in one neighborhood take on the identities of young Jews who had once walked those same streets before being deported and killed. We saw a city and country that has - despite enormous pressures - chosen to embrace refugees, not because the Germans were once "strangers in the land of Egypt," as we were, but because they were Egypt itself. No other country on our itinerary has owned the Holocaust as the Germans have. They've turned entire neighborhoods into living memorials. Reminders are everywhere.
I've stayed in Berlin after the departure of the group - still here - and now I can understand more fully why so many Jews are moving here, especially Russians and Israelis, and why Germany has become the de facto moral leader of the free world, holding America's place until sanity returns to Washington. What an amazing irony it is that Jews are returning here, even moving en masse from England to retain EU citizenship, under a recent "law of return"- style edict that offers easy citizenship to those with German ancestry, the very ones whom the Germans once chased out and murdered. Germans have learned so much from their past that they are teaching the world how to embrace the same Syrian refugees America is now rejecting. And far right, xenophobic, Russia-supporting parties that could have ridden the refugee issue to victory in the upcoming German elections have been hemorrhaging support in the polls (especially since January, for some reason). The people are refusing to buy into the hate that has infected so many in our world. Germany has become the champion of tolerance.
This weekend, 350,000 supporters of the LGBT community descended on Berlin, the world's third largest LGBT city, for a mass celebration. This weekend there is also a large interfaith music festival here and Berlin is building the world's first house of prayer for three religions, containing a synagogue, a mosque and a church. It will be called the "House of One." I'll bet a Conservative Rabbi might even be able to perform a wedding here and have it be recognized by the government! Berlin has truly become a house of peace. I can't bring myself to love the city. There's simply too much water under the bridge. But I've no choice but to admire it.
The world's turned upside down!
So our trip ended at the beginning. And along the way, we witnessed lots of walls and borders, good walls and bad walls, going up and coming down, amidst the continuous shape shifting of nations. We saw remnants of the Berlin Wall and explored that wall's meaning for our times. We saw the remains of the ghetto wall in Warsaw. We saw fences that protect synagogues, including one shul in Budapest built with an entire neighborhood surrounding it for protection. We saw the loving bricks of the children at that Berlin school as they endeavored to rebuild a synagogue that once stood where their school now stands, and we saw "Wailing Walls" in cemeteries in Krakow and Prague, constructed of dislodged and desecrated Jewish gravestones. We experienced the borderless EU nations and contrasted that free flow to the shifting, confusing national and ethnic boundaries of these nations, and the sharp lines of hate and suspicion they have for former occupiers, for Germans and Russians especially. And amidst all of this, the Jewish story played out, as we wandered from country to country, seeing how our wandering ancestors accomplishing so much and changed the world for the better in so many ways.
Dennis, our fantastic Berlin guide, reminded us at Olympic Stadium how the Nazis got Darwin all wrong. The survival of the fittest did not mean the survival of the STRONGEST. Darwinian theory is all about the survival of those species who ADAPT the best to changing conditions, not those who try to overwhelm obstacles with power alone. Darwin could well have gotten along with the prophet Zachariah, who said "Not by might, not by power but by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts."
One lesson we most definitely learned is that this Jewish struggle is not one that we have to fight alone - even in our darkest hours, there were others willing to fight with us. We met one of them, a woman who sheltered a Jewish girl escaping the destruction of the Krakow ghetto.
So what we gained on this trip was ultimately a very positive message. And our group, ever inquisitive, was able to refine that message with each stop. Jewish survival is an art that has been honed by centuries of displacement, and the more we've wandered, the better we've gotten at surviving each challenge. We even survived the greatest crime ever committed, and we are here to tell the next generation about it. We have now become experts in the art of telling both parts of the Jewish story: the tale of Night and the tale of Light. We have seen it all.
The Jewish community of Budapest will transcend its challenges, and the rebirth of Jewish life here in Berlin is just the latest example of how Hitler has been denied the last laugh. We shed lots of tears - some that were very personal and a few that wee very unexpected. But as they say, what happens on the bus, stays on the bus.
Photo link is below for the complete photo album of the 2017 TBE Jewish Heritage Tour. In this album you'll see photos from many of the events and places described above. Enjoy!!
Shalom from Berlin!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman