I took a trip to Poland to try find out my father’s family roots, which for all I know is in Warsaw. Here in Poland they spell the city name Warszawa. It is rather unplanned and seems to have been built from scratch, in a hurry, during and after its communist period. It was because Nazi Germany bombed it to one huge heap of rubble during WWII.
Warsaw is what I call a city that does not bear witness to its sorrow past. While you walk the streets you have to imagine what was there once upon a time as the city was wiped out during the war. When you walk the streets your guide constantly indicates of what was there once upon a time.
Since that I spend most of my first day in the city tracing Jewish history, I walked the area where the Jewish ghetto once stood. “Here, you see this tall MetLife building,” my guide pointed at a modern style building. “Here stood the largest synagogue in Warsaw prior to the Nazi occupation. This beautiful park, see. Right here was the Ghetto border.”
My guide pointed at the memorial line that passes where that border once was. These were two examples of so many. All over the city there are memorializing rocks on them inscribed the number of Polish people who died in that spot during their resistance to Nazi occupation.
The Holocaust was not an abstract event, rather it was well planned and evil. In Warsaw almost every street can tell the Holocaust story.
After occupying Poland, the Nazis began, systematically, to demonize the Jews in Poland and strip them of their true identity and right to live.
In Warsaw the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto on 3 square kilometers of land, surrounded by a 3-meter-high brick wall, built by forced labor workers. There, in that Ghetto, Jewish life, inside the walls, with no possibility to escape alive, was held on a shoe string until the liquidation of the Ghetto in 1943. That emptied Poland of its Jews and severed the country from 1000 years of Jewish life and culture.
The Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto
I visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. I believe much guilt brought about the building of this museum. Firstly, the museum is built on land that was part of the former Warsaw Ghetto, fifteen minutes from ‘Umschlagplatz’ (German: collection point or reloading point). It was the square from where the Nazis forcefully gathered all the Jews for deportation and transportation to their death in the Treblinka extermination camp. That was part of Operation Reinhard, to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, following the punishment for the Jewish uprising in the Ghetto. The uprising was led by Mordechai Anielewicz and preceded the Nazis’ Final Solution plan for Jews.
Mordechai Anielewicz (1919 – 8 May, 1943) was the leader of Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (English: Jewish Combat Organization), also known as ŻOB, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from January to May 1943.
Near the Umschlagplatz there are, rather tall, apartment buildings. While standing in the memorial place I kept on thinking, do these people living there even know what they see each day though their windows? Do they know what took place, less than a century ago, so close to where they live now? I wonder.
Today, what remained of the ‘Umschlagplatz’ is the knowing of its location and the stories. What is showing is a memorial, erected in 1988 on Stawki Street, where the Umschlagplatz was located.
The Polin museum, where I spent most of the afternoon. The cornerstone was laid in 2007, and the museum was first opened on April 19, 2013. It is a large building but modest, made of sand color walls and holds, in great detail, the history of the Polish Jews, not the Jews in Poland, as my tour guide emphasized several times, who were an integral part of Poland history for 1000 years until Hitler murdered almost all of them.
The museum’s Core Exhibition, which took ants’ work to gather, opened in October 2014 featuring a multimedia narrative exhibition about the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years up to the Holocaust. The building, a postmodern structure in glass, copper, and concrete, was designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma.
Warsaw was obliterated by Hitler. After Hitler was finally defeated, barely one building remained standing. The Jewish Ghetto was razed to the ground to never be able to tell its beyond the walls, story. But in the Polin museum this story is told in detail and in the most profound way. No description could do justice to what the eye sees and the mind learns.
I strolled from one section of the exhibit story to another and have learned the history of my father’s family. Its roots are in Warsaw. How far back? Perhaps 1000 years?! What remained of my late father’s family? Not one human being. Hitler made sure of that.
It is impossible to foot note the Polin museum and the story it tells, the story of the Eastern European Jews of which Poland was part of through the centuries, on a larger or smaller scale territory, as geopolitics took place in the region.
For two hours my heart was bleeding and my eyes were wet. I will try to summarize in a few short sentences what I saw, though one could spend one month in the museum to learn what I passed by quickly and absorbed in those two hours.
Jews came to Poland escaping persecution in western Europe, either from Spain or the Germanic territory. Poland was no paradise but in those days Poland was a safer place for Jews to settle, bearing in mind that the wandering Jews had no homeland. In fact, Jews lived in Poland from its inception as a Christian country, as it is today. As a disenfranchised minority, the Jews built their communities along what they were permitted, work and human rights wise. With it came along a rich Jewish art, literary and science culture. They built schools for Jewish learning; they built synagogues with ornate images, some with Spanish art elements, and conservatively and cautiously the Polish Jews evolved and progressed with the times.
But anti-Semitism from which they suffered was a dominating part of Jewish life in Poland.
“Please bring me a copy of anti-Semitic newspaper, which would not contain a single lie,” ~ wrote Izraelita (Israelite) in 1912.
Then came the second world war and eventually the Nazis’ dehumanization of Jews led to the Holocaust, which in Poland displayed itself so overwhelmingly.
Today the target for anti-Semitism is collective; it is the ongoing attempt to dehumanize the Jewish state, Israel, and the Jews who live there.
I end with a thought; in Poland they call the land Polania, which translates into Hebrew, ‘here rests God.’ God was not there and in His absence, mostly Polania turned to be a place where a well-planned mass murder of 6 million Jews took place, not in the abstract, rather in real life. And Polania was emptied of Jews.
Today some 7,500 Jews live in Poland, those who have the stomach to walk the streets of congealed Jewish blood under every cobblestone stone and pavement.
Warsaw is a sad city, though it is dynamically growing. Time and economic progress, after the Communist era, will bring more healing. And the mankind of Poland will smile more and the atrocities against Jews will be removed into a far distance history, till forgotten, lest one visits the Polin Museum.
It took 1000 years for the Polish Jews to evolve and grow in numbers to reach over 3 million in 1939. It took Hitler and his Nazi gendarmerie savages three years to destroy 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland.
The question I have is, had Hitler not arrived on the world’s scene, then what we would be looking at today, 4 million under privileged and marginalized Polish Jews living in Poland?
Every human being should visit the Polin museum to learn what could happen when God leaves the rule of the land to the wicked.
For many hours I walked the streets of Warsaw having to imagine what it looked like when Hitler’s henchmen marched in the city streets. For many hours I walked the streets of Warsaw thinking, did my father’s family walk those same street before me, before they were murdered for being Jews?
On a positive note, much thanks to Ronald Regan, Poland was freed from the claws of Communist Russia and is now forging to take its place as a modern, progressed free nation among all other free nations and that includes the broad skepticism in Poland of the future of the European Union.
Go visit Polania and be a proud American to have helped bring about freedom to the proud and patriotic Polish people who did not fear to fight for it too.