January 10: Today we got our first taste of Warsaw, and Poland in general. Might I add, Poland is cold and the language is super hard to learn. All I know so far is Djekuje (pronounced like zjen-coo-ja), which means Thank You. I may be perceived as a stupid American, but at least they cannot say I’m not polite!
We started the day off early with a walking/bus tour of the former Warsaw Ghetto. To give you a brief history, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe during the WWII period. This is why many of the concentration camps were located in this area, because it allowed for easier transportation and extermination of the Jewish (and non-Aryan) communities. It was ideal to set-up camps and ghettos in Poland because Germany would not be directly connected to the horrific acts. Finally, it is also important to note that Poland had a fantastic railway system set up previous to the war. Over 20% of the country is wooded, and one of the largest industries was lumber. The systems were already set up and provided the means to ship victims to their fates.
The Warsaw Ghetto has an interesting history and I encourage each of you to read more about it. If I remember correctly, over 300,000 Jews were confined in the ghetto walls for several years. Living conditions for them, as with many other ghettos, progressively worsened to the point that people began to die from starvation and disease. Inside the ghetto walls became a death-trap and those who were lucky to survive were simply sent to death camps, Treblinka to be exact. There was an uprising towards the end of the ghetto’s existence, though many of the ringleaders were too weak to make a major difference. No matter, the action was still incredible and brought hope and a needed sense of resistance to the survivors.
During our tour, we also learned about one leader who made a personal impression on me. His name was Janusz Korcak and he ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He was a renaissance thinker for his time, encouraging his kids to think more democratically and to challenge the present. When the Final Solution was enacted and his Jewish orphans were forced to go to Treblinka, he volunteered to go with them so they would not be alone. I think this is not only an act of true character, but reinforces the best qualities of leadership. He put others’ needs in front of his own and demonstrated an act of humanity during a time of evil. There is a stone in Treblinka with his name inscribed on it, the only stone not possessed by a name of a city.
We studied the Judaism in Warsaw for the rest of the day. This included visits to the only pre-war synagogue left in Warsaw and the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery contains over 250,000 graves, making it one of the largest, if not THE largest, Jewish cemeteries in the world.
Although Warsaw had a large number of Jews before the events of the Holocaust, Polish Jews are still struggling to find their place in the country. Today there are only about 2,000 registered Jews in Warsaw, and many people are starting to make efforts to learn more about their roots. We visited with the head Rabbi at the synagogue and he told us that most Jewish people that survived the war abandoned their Jewish roots, because they were so scared to identify themselves in that tradition. These histories are starting to unearth, slowly growing the Polish Jewish population.