Friday, March 25, 2011

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

Location:Warsaw, Poland


Blogger e said...

A poignant post. As I was reading this, I thought back to various groups of Polish teens our temple has sponsored. Every year, the temple sponsors a group of Jewish teens from Poland. They come to study and meet other Jews. Many of these kids never realised their Jewish heritage until told by a grandparent or other family member, largely because after the atrocities of WWII, the few Jews remaining in Poland went underground. I guess they just wanted to survive.

Our rabbis have told us that Judaism is making a resurgence in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. The kids that come each year are high school age and many of them are searching for their Jewish identity, something a lot of American kids their age take for granted or try to ignore.

Thanks for this post.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

E -- Yes, it is really interesting what is happening in Poland today. We went to a Reform service tonight with a small but enthusiastic crowd and a vibrant young female rabbi.

It is definitely true that a lot of Poles are suddenly discovering their Jewish roots. The Catholic Church still attracts about 95% of the population with other Christian denominations taking up most of the other 5%.

There are reminders of the Holocaust everywhere for people of all religions and those unaffiliated with religion. It is inescapable.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

The hardest thing about the movie for me was the shot of a 10 year old boy shuffling along with a cane with exposed stick like legs. He looked like he was 90 years old with 1 foot in the grave - a pale, gaunt suffering ghost like figure. it was harder for me to look at him than the dead bodies of small skinny as stick children being loaded onto push carts to be carted off to mass graves.

6:42 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

I'm not a very religious person, but I don't think I could walk through there without coming completely unstrung.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Remembering man's inhumanity to man is supposed to keep atrocities from recurring. If only that were true. I guess the best any of us can do is to make sure WE don't fall under the spell of supposed superiority. Your account is authentically written, Barbara. Thanks for sharing your trip.

6:30 AM  
Blogger karen said...

Hi Barbara. I've been away so long, I had no idea you were off to Poland! Thanks for the post about the ghetto - it is good to remember these things, though it must have been harrowing indeed to visit the various locations/exhibits etc.

I was horrified to hear of your exit from the bathroom at Schipol and finding your group gone without you - that must have been just awful. Poor you - I can just imagine how it felt..

Looking forward to more updates from your trip..

9:56 AM  
Blogger Rayna said...

To see all of those spots where I had been in 1997, brought it all back and filled my heart with anger and my eyes with tears. The ghetto has been paved over and the streets don't even exist any more.

In Krakow you will be treated to Kazmierez - supposedly the Jewish Quarter (it was not), along with fake Jewish restaurants and music.
But Krakow is more charming than Warsaw.
If you go to my website you will see my Poland series, made when I returned from my trip because I could not talk about it -- I could only make art to process what I had seen.

10:49 AM  

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