Why We Went. What We Found

The Journey: Why We Went,
What We Found

So many people have asked, “Did you have a good trip?”

Yes, but that was the wrong question.

Ours was a very moving experience.

When you specifically go visit an area, which had been the center of Jewish thought and life just one hundred years ago and find that while some of the places still exist; many don’t and most importantly the people and community have vanished.

That in itself is a shock.

Intellectually, one knew prior to the Journey (it wasn’t a trip, it was indeed a Journey), that what we were to see had been destroyed.

Almost completely.

In Poland today, in Warsaw, Lublin, Cracow and even the small former shtetl areas, remnants of Jewish things such as synagogues and cemeteries exist.

But there are no Jewish people there.

We knew that before we traveled. Yet, the devastation of an entire people remains shocking. Mind numbing. Hard to grasp.

The first very strange thing that struck us was things Jewish in Poland are now tourist destinations especially the former Warsaw Ghetto, the Lublin Ghetto, Kazimierz, and even in the smallest of towns.

Tourists visit former synagogues, cemeteries, monuments, and museums and of course, the concentration and death camps to see where and how Jews lived and died.

There are no Jewish people in these areas now, just sites. In and of itself, the idea that things Jewish could be a tourist attraction is foreign to my personal way of thinking.

(Israel is different and is not visited in a similar way to that of the former Jewish areas of Poland).

Museums are crowded, and not just with Jewish tourists. The concentration camps have so many tourists it is hard to believe. In each camp, or camp museum, the docents do not minimize the horror the Nazis brought to the prisoners. They do not trivialize how the “selections” were done; how the tortures were conducted. In fact, they appear to go out of their way to show how heartless the Nazis were. It really is difficult to grasp the inhumanity of the situation.

One photo sticks in my mind.

We were at the memorial museum at Belzec, and there was a photo of a group of soldiers around a religious Jew. The leader was cutting off the Jew’s beard while the seven on-lookers smiled as if it were a joke. Here was evil shown at a level most people would never have seen. Or fathomed!

The Belzec experience itself was shocking. The memorial is at a far end of an open area filled with mounds of earth and boulders. Underneath lie 500,000 people who were exterminated in just 10 months. It is simply hard to understand the evil and the precision with which the evil was conducted. Belzec was horrible!

If Belzec was terrible, the shear size of Auschwitz-Berkenau compound was astounding. Auschwitz housed 40,000 prisoners while just a few moments away the death camp of Birkenau handled 100,000 prisoners. The size, the rail lines, and the remaining camp are reminders of how malevolent men can be.

The Nazis wanted to show how little respect they had for things Jewish. They used synagogues as stables. They used headstones from Jewish cemeteries as paving stones. In any way they could, they denigrated things Jewish.

Evil, just plain evil.

The movie we viewed on the 900 days of the Warsaw Ghetto left us emotionally raw. Seeing the naked bodies of starved fellow Jews thrown on the streets to be picked up by wagons and then dumped into mass graves is not to be taken lightly.

The experience weighed heavily on us as we had just been to the Warsaw Rising Museum where a large number of Israeli military were guests of the Polish Army. Seeing so many Israeli officers in Poland was the proper juxtaposition to the Final Solution.

The Jewish People do survive.

And thrive.

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