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The Melton Poland-Israel Study Seminar

Photos by Sherri Weiss

 "This is not a Holocaust tour", our leader, Haim Aronovitz, emphasized in emails prior to our gathering in Warsaw. But if you are a Jew visiting Poland the fragmentary remains of the synagogues, the cemeteries, the monuments, the thousands of empty spaces once occupied by three million Jews are your constant companions, haunting your every moment.

Leader Haim Aronovitz
Tour guide Basia Stojowska

This was a seminar trip, organized by the Melton offices at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the U.S. Center in Chicago. We were a group of 20 adults from the U.S., all graduates of Melton courses and/or travel seminars. Most of us had family members who had emigrated from Poland, or perished there. The only member of the group from Australia had parents who were both survivors of the camps. Yet Haim's words were correct in a very real sense. This was not JUST a Holocaust tour. We explored aspects of Jewish life in Poland as it had existed for many hundreds of years, the development of the Hasidic movements, the countless contributions of Jews in commerce, the sciences, the arts, and in government. But, how many times and in how many places did we recite Kaddish?

We were also lucky to have a native Polish guide, Basia. Her excellent English, and her warmth, understanding and heartfelt compassion endeared her to all of us. Haim and Basia teamed up to give us a full, in-depth course in only nine days.

We began in Warsaw, a city reduced to rubble by the Germans in retaliation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Polish citizens' revolt against the occupiers in 1944. Perhaps only 3 buildings in 10 were left standing, but the Poles rebuilt the old city in its original design and added the new modern city which serves as the Polish capital and center of commerce. In April of 1948 the Polish government erected a large bronze memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, designed by Nathan Rapoport, a replica of which is at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It stands on a large empty square in the area that had been part of the ghetto. On the opposite side of this square is the recently opened Museum of the History of the Jewish People of Poland, 1000 Years. When it opened its doors in April thousands of Poles came to see this architectural marvel and the exhibits.

We visited many memorial sites throughout the city, walked for miles as Basia pointed out the early homes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Y.L. Peretz, the school where Menachem Begin had been a young student, the orphanage where Dr. Janusz Korczak sheltered and taught over 40 boys until he and they were all sent to their deaths in Treblinka. We stood at of the site of the Umschlagplatz, the railroad station, from which 300,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka. Today Warsaw has one Orthodox synagogue and two groups trying to attract congregants who prefer to worship in less traditional ways. There is a Jewish Day School, one kosher restaurant, and the beginning of an effort to create a Jewish Community Center. 

Treblinka’s Field of Markers

Outside of Warsaw we visited the hollow shell which was the original home of the Gerer Hasidim, none of whom reside in Poland at present (an estimated 200,000 live in Israel), but who come from abroad to this crumbling old building as a shrine in which to study and to pray. In many small towns we visited there are restored remains of synagogues and cemeteries, in some only names, Jewish symbols and inscriptions are still visible, but elsewhere there were nothing but shards of desecrated grave markers piled in a makeshift memorial. In the once thriving commercial city of Tikocyn, which boasts a remarkable vaulted-ceiling synagogue dating from the 15th century, Tikocyn's Polish residents hold an annual Purim festival complete with the reading of Megillat Esther and costume parties. Is this a true wave of Philo-Judaism - Poles wanting to know, to remember, to honor the population which for centuries lived among them, which contributed so much to Polish culture and then disappeared, or is this simply a way of cashing in on Jewish tourism, on "Roots" tours? Perhaps both.

On a grey day, with a chill wind blowing, we arrived at Treblinka, now a memorial site, but in its day one of the six extermination camps built by the Germans in Poland. Here were massacred over 800,000 Jews from Germany, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia and Romania. Surrounded by dense woods, the camp has been completely destroyed, replaced by a grim circle of 1,700 rough stone markers of varying sizes, each representing a destroyed community, with a large central stone monument located approximately on the spot where the gas chamber stood. Walking among those stones one cannot help but shudder in horror, feeling the anguish of what was lost forever. Leaving Treblinka we were speechless, spent with grief and a fresh sense of the enormity of our loss.

Poland's second largest city, Krakow, has a much different story. In previous periods of history, this area of Southern Poland along the Vistula River had been part of Prussia with a large German population, so the Nazi army made this city its headquarters, feeling right at home. None of Krakow was destroyed. It remains the same beautiful city built centuries ago, reminiscent of Prague, Budapest, or Vienna. The old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, fell into neglect and ruin after the city's 60,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, but in recent years much of the area has been rebuilt and renovated so that it is once again a pleasant residential and commercial area, though no longer Jewish in character. Krakow is where Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and insisting to the Nazis that they were essential to the war effort.

A resurgence of Jewish life is apparent in the city: an annual Jewish Festival takes place centered in the seven synagogues, which are struggling but functioning. The Jewish Community Center, under the leadership of American-born Jonathan Orenstein, is a bustling place of courses, meetings, a pre-school program, social gatherings, Shabbat and holiday observances. Here at the Krakow JCC we enjoyed a delicious lunch and a talk by Paulina, the daughter of parents honored among the "Righteous of the Nations". Sixteen years old at the time of the Nazi occupation, Paulina watched as her parents and some of their friends hid and protected over 120 Jews on remote farms. Our Basia acts as interpreter as this dignified lady of 87 tells her story, adding that for many years after the war she kept in touch with those who had been saved by her family and neighbors. Every Friday evening the JCC hosts a Shabbat dinner, free to all comers, usually 40-50 guests each week, prepared and served by a volunteer staff, many of whom are not Jewish. After services at the synagogue nearby, our group and a group from England had been invited to join, crowding in to sit at beautifully laid tables for a delightful evening which included the Shabbat blessings, a rousing rendition of Shalom Aleichem by all in attendance, a traditional meal, a dvar torah by a local young man, a few words of greeting from Poland's Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich (also an American by birth), and even a Yiddish song sung by one of the older members of the new Krakow community. We felt completely at home among this diverse collection of our people celebrating Shabbat together.

We concluded our days in this area with a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous of the labor/extermination camps. We were one of hundreds of groups visiting that day, led through the exhibits by an experienced guide, moving out of the way to make room for other groups, adjusting our space and time to accommodate those in front of and behind us. We saw and we listened, we understood and we absorbed, but for me this hellish place, though its buildings, barracks, and remnants of chimneys are preserved, does not have the same impact as the desolation at Treblinka. Leaving Birkenau we gather to say Kaddish one more time. I break down after the first two words and cannot control my sobs, the accumulation of emotions building up over nine days. 

Museum of Polish Jewish history

We traveled together to Israel for a continuation of the story: When did Polish Jews begin to come to Palestine, where did the early arrivals settle, who were some of the Polish Jews who made significant contributions to the establishment of the State of Israel and to its culture, economic growth, government? In Tel Aviv we walked through old neighborhoods where many of the early Polish residents of the city lived, and we met Shalmi Ben-Mor, an educator and son of Israel's first diplomat to Poland. He told us of growing up in Tel Aviv, with the beach as his backyard and playground. He and his friends are first generation Israelis, taught to think of themselves as 'new Jews', strong and independent, putting the European past behind them. For another very special hour we met with the Polish Ambassador to Israel whose views on Polish-Israeli relations are generally positive and, of course, diplomatic. We had lunch in old Jaffa, where our host was a third generation descendant of the original Polish founder of this modest little restaurant, where his mother prepared traditional, plentiful, delicious Eastern European dishes in the tiny kitchen.

We traveled to the Galilee, to visit Givat Haviva, a center for Arab-Jewish studies, where we were met by staff member Lydia Aisenberg, a native of South Wales, well-known to the readers of ESRAmagazine. Givat Haviva was founded by members of HaShomer HaTzair (the Young Guard), the first Zionist youth movement established in Poland in the early years of the 20th century. Its members based their philosophy on Hasidic doctrines of equality, but they eschewed much of the formalized, ritualistic practices of their parents. They wrote their own ten commandments, which over the years has been modified to fit the changing social and political environment.

From Givat Haviva we went to Kfar Hassidim where our hostess for lunch was Shosh Yonnai. The story of this rural outpost is that of a determined, charismatic Hassidic rabbi in Poland who, in 1924, convinced several hundred of his followers to leave their comfortable homes to live in Eretz Yisroel on a desolate, isolated hillside with no shelter, no way of supporting themselves, no nearby community of Jews. Many died of illness or simply fled back to Poland in the first year, but the rabbi persevered and eventually they made a success of their village. Shosh's late husband was the grandson of that rabbi. 

Farewell dinner at the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem

Our last day was spent in Jerusalem, stopping first at the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem. Several members of our group told of their family roots in the villages and towns whose names are carved on the walls. From there we had a short ride to the beautiful campus of the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, where the Melton Center has its offices. We listened to Prof. Gad Yair and his reflections on how the Shoah has shaped 'Israeliness', the topic of his recently published book. We had time for reflections of our own, pulling together our impressions, our most vivid memories of places and persons we had met over the past 11 days, and we finished our Poland-Israel tour with dinner at the Begin Center, on the terrace of a gourmet restaurant which overlooks the walls of the old city. This museum-study center commemorates the life and accomplishments of Menachem Begin, the boy who grew up in Poland, who served in the Polish army, who headed the Revisionist youth movement, Betar, who came to Palestine and was the leader of the Irgun, a man hunted for his underground activities against the British Mandate and reviled by many of the Zionist left, a man who became Israel's Prime Minister, who signed the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and was awarded the Nobel Prize. Certainly a fitting setting for our farewells, the perfect site to end our Poland-Israel experience.

Is there a future for a Jewish community in Poland? We asked this question of everyone we met, of our speakers and the Jews we met in Warsaw and Krakow. Is anti-Semitism still a factor, particularly in rural areas? Do the Jews in Poland, now actively raising their heads and leading Jewish lives, feel threatened or insecure? The answers varied. Yes, their Polish neighbors are now interested in welcoming Jews among them again, but maybe not too many. They point out that none of the Jewish sites have any security devices or guards and they go about their business as any other Polish citizens. There is no real count of how many Jews are currently in Poland. Estimates range from 1000-2500, but there are those who prefer to remain well under the radar, unaffiliated and uncounted. Many are optimistic, just as many are cautious in their views of a Polish-Jewish future. Only time will tell. 



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Monday, 20 September 2021

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