Friday, June 13, 2014

Introduction to Warsaw's Jewish history ~ Friday, June 13, 2014

No day is better than Friday the 13th to have our first full day in Warsaw. Most students awoke with the sunrise at 4 a.m., bright and energetic partly wondering why we were all up so freaking early.  Some went out to explore the neighborhood, to find coffee and croissants, and to gaze at the buildings.  The hostel served breakfast at 7:30: fresh rolls, slices of cheese and meat, tomatoes, cucumbers, butter and jam, OJ, tea and coffee.  By 9 a.m. we assembled outside the hostel to walk together to the bus stop unprepared for the long emotional day ahead of us.
The day’s program took us from hell to heaven!  Our Warsaw guide, Kasia, works as a translator of documents hidden in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw that are held in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, and so lucky for us, we got special access to the Institute’s holdings. 

First we watched “912 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto,” which showed original photo footage and maps about the fate of Warsaw’s Jews after Nazi Germany conquered Poland.  About 30% of Warsaw’s population was Jewish, and so the walled region of the city in which the Jews were forced to move was pretty large.  It was very difficult to hear about the terrible deprivation and cruelty, to see the photos of emaciated people and dead bodies, the “deportations” of Jews onto trains that took them to death camps, and the massive destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  For a film being only 37 minutes long, it felt as if we had all aged ten years. 

Unearthed milk cans
Emotionally numbed, we went into a room of photographs of the Jewish people of Poland when they were alive and well.  The historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, who had lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, had hidden Polish and Yiddish documents and reports from Jews in Warsaw and from other Polish ghettos in three metal milk cans and small metal boxes and buried them underground.  Recovered after the war’s end, the documents give the world a glimpse into the lives of these Jews who were so mercilessly killed.  
Anthony absorbed in study

After such a gut-wrenching experience, what greater relief than to go to a cemetery? We took a bus to the huge Warsaw Jewish burial ground dating back to the 17th century. The area was overgrown with tall trees that surrounded the graves that were covered in vines and moss. 

Where o' where could he be?

Many of the gravestones were toppled over and so eroded that they were impossible to read. Unexpectedly, the cemetery evoked feelings of calm and positive sentiment towards the past. The great grandfather of Adam, a member of our group, is buried there, and although we searched, we eventually concluded that it would take a lifetime to find that stone!

Memorial dead tree at the
Gestapo Pawiak Prison site

In hindsight, it is astonishing to remember the next few activities, so we will just list them here and let you all gasp:

(1) we took a tram to the center of town for lunch, stopping on the way to gawk at the memorial site where the Gestapo imprisoned and tortured Polish dissidents;

(2) we took a bus to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Monument;

Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Memorial 
(3) seeking cover from the rain, we went into the unfinished Museum of the History of Polish Jews (nice gift shop!);

(4) we walked through the rain to the remains of the bunker of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, who blew themselves up rather than submit to the Nazis;

(5) and it was all climaxed by a rainy visit to the Umschagplatz memorial — that’s where the Jews were forcibly loaded into trains.  You get the idea.  Thank goodness it was time to return to our cozy Hostel Helvetia!   

The mood of the day changed with the Sabbath evening service and meal at the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw.  The regular Jewish Sabbath joy was elevated by a young boy’s Bar Mitzvah celebrated during the service.  In the men’s section on the first floor, our guys joined hands with the other male congregants and guests to dance, and up in the balcony the women in our group urged them on with pride!  Afterwards, we ate together with the Bar Mitzvah family, the chief rabbi of Poland Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and regular members of the Warsaw community — about 45 people crammed into a small dining room with a 5-course meal.  In addition to the lively conversations, we were treated to the boy’s Bar Mitzvah chanting and his father’s loving and warm speech.  The family was so grateful for our presence: we magnified their happiness, and they were a balm for our spirits.

The long festivities caused us to miss the last bus, and we walked back to the hostel in the cool night air.  It was a very good first day with memories that will last a long time.

There are just no words for this.


  1. Thank you so much for compiling this. I know that while you are traveling, it is hard to memorialize your experiences, and I really appreciate the glimpse into your activities.

    1. Thank you for reading!! It is exciting to know that people are following us. The students are helping write the posts, and we will be enriching the different parts of the blog also.

  2. Have you done any Warsaw guided tours? I've heard they are very good and very interesting. Warsaw is in general an amazing city so I guess some tours with locals would only make the feeling deeper!