The Reality of the Ghetto
I was not at all prepared for being in the ghetto -- the Warsaw Ghetto that by some estimates held as many as 590,000 Jews in the space where 50,000 once lived.
The photo above is one of the few remaining fragments of the wall designed to separate the Jewish population of Warsaw from their Aryan neighbors. This chunk of the wall sits in the middle of an urban apartment complex. The residents walked by not even noticing the decaying bricks and our group of 16 looking at the wall.
Every place we went today included readings from those who had experienced firsthand life in the ghetto.
The building above was the only colorful building we saw all morning among the nondescript buildings of the Communist era, still in the same color as the paper that once was used to cover the bodies as they lay in the street.
We went to the Jewish Museum, housed in one of the few buildings that survived the war. It was opposite the main synagogue, now a Porsche dealership, which was burned to the ground by the Nazis in 1943. The museum today houses an amazing collection of Jewish art and ritual objects, all donated after the war by the few Poles who remained. We saw a group of Polish high school students taking a tour, a very good sign that Polish education today includes the study of the Holocaust. The rather lengthy movie included actually footage shot in the ghetto during its existence. I could feel my stomach tighten as I saw pictures of starving children and corpses being thrown onto a wagon.
We visited the Okopowa Cemetery, where Jews have been buried since the 1800's. Since there are virtually no Jews left in Poland today, most graves are untended. The red tulips on this grave stood out like a beacon among the other empty stones.
By the years of the ghetto, death was so common that mass graves became the burying place for most of the dead. In this cemetery, such areas are delimited by stones with a single black mark on them. The areas where the thousands of bodies were dumped are now somewhat sunken due to the deterioration of the corpses.
Never has saying the Kaddish had more meaning for me. Every week we are reminded to pray those familiar words for those who have no one to say it for them. It was clear that those buried in this cemetery are just such people.
One of the heroes of the Polish Ghetto was Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician who cared for the growing number of orphans. Not only did he minister to their physical and psychological well-being, but he also chose to go with his charges when they were chosen for the next transport to Treblinka, where they all perished. Even non-Jewish Poles today mourn his loss.
Our last stop was at Umschlagplatz, where 300,000 Jews boarded trains that would carry them to their deaths. you could almost feel the anguish of those who said their final goodbyes to friends, families, and their homes. A simple marble memorial pays tribute to those who left from this place.
It was cold and gray and almost raining all morning as we learned about the ghetto. But we had the luxury of getting back on our heated bus to travel on to Krakow, where we will celebrate Shabbat with other Reform Jews. So many others never had a way out.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad