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Polski





JEROME OSTROV
Received from Lucyna Artymiuk
January 28, 2005

Introduction

As I boarded my flight from Warsaw to Washington, DC, I tried to distill my many experiences, thoughts and emotions acquired during a whirlwind 8-day trip through Poland.  Of the painful trips to the death camps, the meetings with the nascent Jewish communities of Warsaw and Krakow, the tours of the few reminders of what had been 700 years of Jewish life in Poland, the sorrowful yet uplifting stories of survivors having been reunited years after separation, and the saga of the righteous gentile who risked all to save an unknown Jewish child, these are the memories of my eight-day stay that permeated my thinking:

On the day of my departure from Warsaw, I stopped at the duty-free shop to purchase some Polish Vodka and chocolate.  The clerk dutifully accepted my zloti and placed my articles in the customary duty-free plastic bag which he obtained from a stack of such bags.  I casually looked at the bag.  On one side was imprinted the words "Duty Free Shop."  On the other, surrounding a prominently depicted menorah, were the words "Protect our Jewish Heritage."

On the Shabbat evening before, I sought out the synagogue in Warsaw for Friday night services.  Predictably, I got lost.  At a point, I saw three taxi drivers.  I uttered the word "synagogue," but none of them understood.  Finally, I took off my ever-present baseball cap and pointed to the kipah underneath.  All of a sudden in unison with a smile on each of their faces, they blurted out the word "synagoga" and pointed me in the correct direction.

In Warsaw, the Mayor of Warsaw proudly unveiled the plans for a new $55,000,000 Museum of the Heritage of the Jewish People which will be located in the middle of the city, close to the landmark Palace of Culture.

In Lublin, home of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I met with the Archbishop of Lublin who talked about his efforts to achieve Jewish-Christian reconciliation and of the annual Jewish Day sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Lublin for the purpose of prayer and remembrance.

One week earlier after an enriching and exhausting Shabbat in Krakow, during which I met with the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the American Consul to Krakow, the former Polish Ambassador to Israel, the editor of a Jewish weekly magazine and a Righteous Gentile, I finally stepped out of our meeting place so as to observe the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival that was swirling toward its concluding seventh day.  There, in what had been the central square of the Jewish District, or Kazimierz, I was greeted with the spectacle of 15,000 predominantly Polish Catholics listening to the haunting sound of a Jewish cantor singing liturgical music from a sound stage positioned against the backdrop of a giant menorah.  An hour later, I found myself dancing the hora with the editor of the Jewish weekly, his wife and fifteen to twenty ethnic poles, all to the music of none other than Theodore Bickel.

The significance of these experiences and the role that they play in modern-day Polish attitudes toward Polish Jews and World Jewry is the subject of this article.  But, as with every good tale, I should begin at the beginning.

In July 2005, I was a member of a ten-person exchange program with Poland.  Our trip would take us to Krakow, Lublin, Warsaw and Lodz, as well as death camps, cemeteries and other points of interest.  The delegation consisted of Guy Billauer, the young, American Jewish Committee Deputy Director for International Jewish Affairs and nine AJC lay leaders from eight different communities in the United States.  We represented Washington, DC, Boca Raton, Florida, New York City, Westchester County, Detroit, Boston, Dallas and Houston.  I was the AJC representative from the Washington, DC area. 

The Forum For Dialogue Among Nations

The exchange program is now in its sixth year and is cooperatively sponsored by AJC and the Warsaw-based Forum For Dialogue Among Nations, an organization founded on a shoestring by Andrzej Folwarczny, a young intellectual and a former Polish politician, for the purpose of promoting understanding between the Polish and Jewish people.  Though married to a Polish Jew, Andrzej is Lutheran. Indeed, Andrzej's father was a Lutheran priest.  When the Germans annexed what had been western Poland, they engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing and either killed, removed or forced the conversion of all of the Polish residents. As a Lutheran, Andrzei's father stood to gain preferential treatment if he acknowledged that he was a German.  This, he refused to do, and, for his forthrightness, he was sent to Buchenwald, where he managed to survive and raise a son of whom any father would be proud.

Andrzej became interested in establishing a Polish/Jewish dialogue after visiting Israel.  Much to his surprise, Israelis, as was true of myself, viewed Poland as evil incarnate, even more so than Germany.  Andrzej-then a young legislator--decided he must do something to foster understanding between both the Polish and Jewish communities, but without minimizing or distorting Polish/Jewish history.  His Forum For Dialogue Among Nations is the only one of its kind.  Among other programs, the program has fostered the exchange program with AJC which brought me to Poland and brings ethnic Poles to visit Jewish communities within the United States.  This past April, the Forum hosted two American Rabbis - one Reform and the other Orthodox - for a four-day lecture tour in Polish high schools and universities in Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin.  The program was a tremendous success. The rabbis and the students (many of whom had never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi) confronted existing stereotypes and reconciled their prejudices through a variety of personal interactions.  The Forum seeks to expand the rabbi exchange program to include a representative delegation of six American rabbis, who will travel throughout Poland for seven days, meeting with students as well as with leaders in the field of Polish-Jewish relations.

My Introduction to Poland

My introduction to Poland started At the Krakow airport on a Friday morning.  There, I was greeted by a smiley young lady named Patricia Slawuta, a volunteer working for the Forum For Dialogue Among Nations. Patricia, age 22 and referred to in our group as the "boss," was to be our shepherd, inspiration and cheerleader for the eight days of our stay. Not only did Patricia prove to be extraordinary as a guide, interpreter, insightful observer of the scene and ringmaster, her personal story proved to be equally extraordinary. As we discovered later, Patricia's parents waited until she was 16 before telling her she was Jewish - a fact which delighted her and launched her onto her current path of discovery. She is now engaged in a wondrous tour of her past and her present which she hopes will include a tour of duty with the Israeli Defense Forces.

After a long nap and a short jog along the Vistula River which works its way north from the Carpathians in the south through Krakow, Warsaw and on to the Baltic, we nine participants, our AJC host, Guy Billauer, Dylan Tatz, an insightful and sensitive, young AJC Goldman intern from Princeton who was working at the Forum for the summer, and Patricia convened for an orientation meeting and Shabbat dinner at the Klezmer House, a Jewish-style restaurant in Kazimierz - the reconstructed area which had been the Jewish sector of Krakow.  There, we were in, introduced to Rabbi Andy Baker, AJC's director for International Jewish Affairs, an attorney from Detroit who spends one week a month in Poland, Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Jewish weekly, Midrasz, as well as a leader of the Polish Jewish community, Ruth Grubar, a noted author on central European Jewish affairs, and an ethnic Polish woman who had been decorated at Yad Vashem for being a righteous gentile.  After talking long into the night, slowly a picture of the Poland of today began to emerge.  But, before continuing with my tale, its time to expose my thoughts as I sat down for that wondrous Shabbat meal.

My Prejudices Before the Trip

As with virtually every other citizen of the Western World, I was an admirer of Lech Walesa and of the Solidarity movement that had toppled the seemingly invincible control exerted by the former Soviet Union over its vassal state, Poland.  I had been following Poland's new place in the world and admired its march toward democracy and open markets, its 1999 entry into Nato and its 2004 entry into the European Union.  I also knew that Poland is Israel's closest friend in Central Europe and one of Israel's strongest trading partners.  Nevertheless, prior to my trip, I had spent a lifetime developing negative views of Poland. My prejudices were very clear, well defined and unequivocal--probably, identical to most of you who are reading this article.  As I saw it, Poland was the monster nation of World War II, perhaps, even more so than Germany.  Why? Poland was where the extermination camps were located.  Poland once proudly boasted the largest population in Jewish Europe and its loss still remains unbearable in the Jewish psyche. Finally, Poland had a history of pogroms and of segregating its Jews, and, as I saw it, the Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Polish soil would have been impossible without Polish complicity. 

Strangely, my contempt for Poland even exceeded the harsh place in my mind reserved for Germany?  I knew and felt that no reconstruction of history and no contrition on the part of the German people could wipe away the nightmare that was the Holocaust. But, as I also saw it, at least, prior to the run up to the War, German Jews were well integrated into German society and flourished in German intellectual and economic life, while, in Poland, my understanding was that Jews had always been made to lead a separate, severe and segregated existence and that they had always been relegated to those walks of life that were beneath the dignity of Polish nobility but suited their needs because of the inexperience and ineptitude of the  Polish peasantry.  

What I discovered is that, with any complex question, generalizations, while still tempting, are not appropriate in many instances and wholly inappropriate in others.  For reasons dwelling deeply and irrationally in the Polish soul of many sectors of the country, anti-Semitism remains alive and more than healthy.  Recent scholarship has unearthed the truth of Jedwabne, a Polish village where Catholic Poles, unprompted by the Germans, herded those of their 1,600 Jewish counterparts who weren't bludgeoned to death into a barn where they were burned alive.  For many ethnic Poles, this revelation has ushered in a time of deep contemplation and remorse; for others, denial and resentment.  Though anti-Semitism still exists, this willingness to confront the past appears to have permeated virtually all walks of Polish life.  But, once again, I am getting ahead of myself.  For to understand Polish attitudes toward its Jews and world Jewry, one must first delve into Poland's own history to learn about what it has endured, how it has emerged from its history, and how it wants to be perceived by the world community, and especially the world Jewish community.

Poland's Past -- Its Glories and Its Defeats

In many ways, Poland's history, though not one of Diaspora, reflects the many hardships experienced by Jews over the years.  In a way that it is difficult to described, Poland adulates its victorious heroes and, as it mourns those fallen in battle, it also covers them with glory.  Because Poland's past has seen so much suppression as well as redemption, its history is imbedded in the soul of its people.  In particular, Polish suffering under the Nazis and later under the Soviet Union is so universally felt that, until recognized by an outsider, it can and will act as a barrier to understanding.  In many respects, Polish attitudes toward such suffering track Jewish attitudes toward its own past.  In both cases, the past is indelibly imprinted and, in both cases, the people of each community cry out for recognition and understanding.  In the case of Poland, it is my intuition is that, once Jews are finished licking their own wounds and willing to acknowledge Poland's own suffering during the Nazi and Stalenesque periods, Poles of all convictions may be willing to shed age-old anti-Semitic prejudices which any right-thinking Pole will readily admit have no place in the modern world. 

In many respects, much of the past glorified in Poland's long history occurred many years ago.  In 1241, Poles, with the help of Germany's vaunted Teutonic Knights, were able to decisively thwart the Tatars who at that time were the most feared group of Mongol warriors, striking terror everywhere they roamed and pillaging Polish communities for the shear pleasure of plunder.  In 1410, the tables were turned and now the Teutonic Knights were the threat.  At the celebrated Battle of Grunwald, King Casmirus the Great led a Polish army which vanquished the Teutonic Knights  -- the most heralded army in Europe of its day -- and the threat of German invasion.  Casmirus, who, by his marriage to the young Queen Jadwiga of Poland, had created an alliance between Poland and Lithuania, was also responsible for the creation of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the second oldest university in Central Europe and the place where Copernicus rocked the Christian world by announcing that the Earth revolved around the sun. 

Years later, in 1683, King Jan Sobieski III, occupying a much watered-down monarchy rallied the nobles who had voted him into office and led what was then considered to be the most powerful military force in Europe to a march of almost unprecedented hardship from Warsaw to Vienna where Sobieski's troups joined with other Christian forces to deal an irreversible blow to the Turks, under the command of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who had sought to spread the word of Islam across Europe to the English Channel.  However, ruled more by greedy nobles often sponsored by foreign powers than by the kings elected by such nobles, Polish military influence waned and its eastern and western borders, unguarded by any natural barriers, became a tempting morsel on the plates of the great powers of Europe.  Meanwhile, the great majority of Poland's people worked the land and bowed to the will of their masters.  Poland did flirt with democracy for a brief period at the end of the 18th Century and even produced Europe's first constitution in 1791.  On May 5, 1774, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, later to become a hero of the American Revolution, published a proclamation doing away with serfdom.  However, this incipient democratic movement was too much for its monarchial neighbors whose designs on Poland were by now long standing, and, in 1795, Poland was partitioned by the Prussians, Russians and Austrians. 

The name Poland disappeared from the face of the Earth and did not reappear until 1918, when, through the intervention of Poland's great pianist and statesman, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, President Woodrow Wilson's, who was already concerned about the Bolshevik revolution that had begun in Russia, made a free Poland one of his post-war Fourteen Points.  Even at that, Poland once again had to fight for its sovereignty, and, in 1920, at the Battle of Radzymin, Polish forces, in what has become known as the Miracle on the Vistula, had to fight off the Red Army as it advanced westward.  According to one account, the Polish victory at Radzymin has been ranked as the 18th most important military battle in world history.

Between 1920 and 1939, Poland experienced almost 20 years of freedom until the Nazi invasion of 1939.  Prior to, but especially during this time, Poland's people flourished briefly as did its Jews who, during this interwar period, were involved in all walks of life, including academia, politics, medicine, law and the arts. With the Depression, Poland's fortunes began to sink once again, as did its tolerance toward its Jewish population. 

On September 1, 1939, the Nazi war machine sliced through Poland.  Soon after, the Russians, acting under the Molotov-Ribbentrop non aggression pact of August 23, 1939, invaded eastern Poland.  Contrary to view of some that Poland supinely allowed the Germans and Russians to walk over it, the Poles fought as best they could and Polish losses were substantial, with 70,000 Polish soldiers being slain during the Nazi invasion, and an estimated 300,000 being made prisoner by the Germans and 180,000 being held by the Soviets.  Nazi occupation was brutal and merciless, with its goal being nothing short of erasing Poland as a nation and a people, at the same time that as the Nazis also sought to exterminate the Jews of Poland.  Terror gripped Poland's cities and villages at the same time that the Final Solution was being implemented by the Nazis on Polish soil. 

During the War, Poland, which lost 3 million of its own citizens, was an occupied country in the most brutal of ways.  Its intellectuals and leaders were slaughtered.  Its people were carted away when it served the needs of the Nazi's.  Poland was the only occupied country where the law of the land specified death as the only punishment for giving aid to Jews or for not reporting anyone who did.  Through the concentration camps intended for ethnic Poles, the people were provided with vivid examples of what even the slightest threat to Nazi supremacy might produce.  In such circumstances, people often became desperate if not craven.  Self-survival became a premium.  There were, indeed, paid Polish informers and collaborators.  But, an even more pervasive wartime reality colored the actions of the Poles, whether quiescent or inimical to the Jews.  With the penalty for assisting Jews being a hideous death - sometimes by public hanging, sometimes by confinement to a starvation cell, or sometimes by grotesque torture, few Poles were inclined to risk life and limb in support of the plight of the Jews.  But, those Jews who did survive the War in Poland can probably thank ordinary Poles. 

In total, Poland lost as many ethnic Poles during the War as the Jewish community in Poland lost Polish Jews.  On September 1, 1944, the Nazi war machine moved on Warsaw to squelch the impetuous Warsaw Rising.  Many of the 10,000 Jewish survivors of the earlier 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stood shoulder to shoulder with their ethnic Polish counterparts in defense of the Old City of Warsaw.  Jewish survivors of the ghetto uprising served as guides for Polish civilians trying to escape Warsaw through the sewers.  For 63 days, the Nazi war machine reined a war of terror on the hapless Polish defenders. Then, the partisan's brief moment of glory came to an end with 20,000 Polish soldiers and 200,000 Polish citizens having perished.  The city was in ruins, but Hitler was not satisfied.  On his order, the city was virtually leveled.  Then, as the few weary survivors dug their way out of the rubble, the Red Army marched in from its vantage point across the Vistula River and with it came 45 years of grinding Communism.  Only with the rise of Solidarity in 1989 could Poles again begin to breathe freely and only then did Poland really begin to confront its Jewish past. 

Poland Today

Poland is newly admitted to the EU and is the most populous country in central Europe with a population of almost 40 million people.  It is monolithically Catholic.  After an initial spurt, its economy has sputtered with 18% unemployment spread disproportionately among outdated walks of life previously subsidized by Soviet centralized planning.  The average annual income in Warsaw is about $1,200 a month, with the rest of the country experiencing a wage level of about half that amount.  It is also a country of great surprises.  Its countryside is beau colic, its women beautiful, its people clean, orderly and intelligent, its food admittedly hearty, but abundant and uniformly delicious, and its future unlimited. In more than a week in the country, I do not believe I saw more than a dozen police officers.  Many parts of Poland equal or exceed in appearance and apparent quality of life much of what exists in the United States.   Its more provincial cities are charming, even as Warsaw's skyline reaches to the sky.

Today, Israel is Poland's third largest trading partner in the continent of Asia and Poland's strategic partnership with Israel is of incalculable importance.  Poland's Moslem population is small and historic, thus enabling it to avoid many of the issues confronting its Western European neighbors.

Poland's Jewish Past

While Poland's ethnic past, and, indeed, its present, may be news to most Jews, few Jews will recoil at an opportunity to spew venom at the sound of the word Poland, and most will summarize its Jewish history in just one word, anti-Semitism.  That anti-Semitism has been an ever-present part of Poland's past and, to a large degree, its present can not be disputed and should not be understated, the story of Poland's Jewish population and how it came to Poland, survived and flourished until the Nazi era, is more interesting and more complex than merely stating that the Jewish experience in Poland has been one of anti-Semitism. 

Jews have been in Poland for almost 1,000 years.  Early records reveal Jews plying their trade as merchants along the trade routes from Lisbon through Poland and down to Istanbul.  In the 14th Century, Casmirus the Great, in addition to founding Poland's first university, showed further evidence of his visionary outlook by encouraging Jews to move to Poland to fill a void in the merchant class.  As other countries such as Spain, Portugal and England were closing their doors to or persecuting their Jewish minorities, Poland's doors remained open.  The earliest records of Jews in Warsaw date back to 1414.  However, the first of many pogroms against Warsaw's Jews occurred in 1483 when Boleslaw IV, Duke of Mazovia, expelled Warsaw's Jews from the city limits, with the same pattern of persecution and expulsion being followed throughout the centuries until 1775 when a resolution was passed by the Polish Sejm encouraging Jews to return to the Mazovian province of Warsaw provided they lived on the lesser populated side of the Vistula River now known as Praga. 

In 1794, just prior to the partition of Poland, Jews took part in the ill-fated peasant uprising of that year, known as the Kosciuszko Uprising. By 1795, Polish Jews accounted for between 70% and 80% of World Jewry. After the 1795 partition of Poland, Prussia, which then controlled the Mazovian province, finally provided Jews the right to settle in all parts of Warsaw, with such entitlement once again being cut back again in 1809 by the Decree of the Establishment of the Jewish Quarter in Warsaw.  By 1856, the Jewish population of Warsaw numbered more than 41,000 or approximately 25% of the population, and Jews were increasing in population throughout the country.

Aside from designated areas with the cities, most of Poland's Jews lived in towns or small communities either because of edict, security in numbers or other reasons.  In 1862, Jews were given the right to own land anywhere in Poland, although, in practice, the right did not really ripen until the interwar years following 1918.  During this period, Jewish involvement in all walks of life flourished.  In 1929, the Jewish Writers and Journalists Union was formed in Warsaw, producing three future Nobel Prize Winners:  Isaac Bashevis Singer, Szalom Asz and Matitiahu Szoham.  Before the Nazi invasion In pre-War Krakow, fully 25% of the people were Jewish, with a pre-War population of 65,000.  In Warsaw, the pre-War Jewish community numbered approximately 350,000, or more than 20% of the city. 

Of course, the Nazi years saw atrocities unprecedented in the annals of human history.  These are well known to most secular of Jews and some are described later in this article.  Significantly, by 1943, the Polish underground was well aware of what was taking place and communicated what it knew to the Polish government in exile in London.  Yet, in Allied circles, such reports fell on deaf ears.  Even when the Allies had detailed aerial photos of Auschwitz and actually bombed a chemical plant a mere few kilometers away, a military decision was made not to do anything to destroy the nearby vulnerable camp or the rail lines leading to it.  At another point, only one rail line existed for bringing Hungary's 150,000 Jews to Poland and certain death, and, yet, no Allied aerial action was taken.  And, importantly, the Russians were completely absent during this period, despite the fact that Red Army air bases were even closer to the death camps than the bases in the West? 

These acts of commission and omission all contributed to the dark period of time that enveloped all of Poland, both its Jewish populations and the people around them.

Jewish Life in Poland After the War and Today

When Poland's 300,000 surviving Jews staggered out of Poland after the War with many finding their way to Israel, fully 62 of the first 120 Knesset seats were occupied by Jews of Polish ancestry. Thus, Israel's modern history is intertwined with the Poland of the past. 

Roughly, 30,000 Jews remained in Poland after the War.  Despite early pogroms, particularly in 1956, most Jews were ultimately treated with tolerance if not enthusiasm.  Until 1968, Poland was very supportive of Israel as well.  However, after the Seven Day War and at a time when it suited Russia to take an anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli stance, Polish attitudes toward both its Jews and Israel turned sour.  In 1968, Poland expelled 20,000 of its remaining active Jewish community of 30,000 Jews.  After 1989, when Poland was wrested from the grip of the Soviet bear, relations between Israel and Poland thawed and, today, Polish-Israeli ties are strong and Poland is a significant importer of Israeli arms.

Today, the numbers of Jews in Poland is tiny. Poland's Jews are spread throughout the country. But, among the largest Jewish communities are those in Warsaw, Lodz, and Kulmof Am Ner. By some estimates, there are between 5,000 and 8,000 affiliated Jews remaining in Poland.  By other estimates, there are closer to 16,000 if one counts Jews having at least one Jewish parent.  By other estimates, there are as few as 3,500, if one counts only Jews who are affiliated with Jewish organizations, or as many as 80,000, if one counts those of Jewish ancestry.  But, what is clear is that Polish Jewry - numbering 3,300,000 before the Holocaust - has left its mark on the country.  Previously unknown to me, ethnic Poles and Jewish Poles have interacted from almost the beginning. For brief periods, under the Polish constitution of 1791, and later under Napoleonic law, Jews were given many rights, with the right to own land emerging in 1862.  As Poland's Jews became more successful, the more affluent shared city areas reserved for only the most successful ethnic Poles, though the rest remained confined to their own areas.

How I learned about these things and the impressions my discoveries made on me is the subject of the remaining portion of this article.  What follows is the week long journey of discovery which enabled me to see Poland in a far different light-though one often tinged with sadness and skepticism - than I had ever previously imagined would be the case.  The following travelogue is also my way of providing a record for my colleagues in Poland, the Forum, AJC and the Polish Government so that each may benefit in his, her or its own way.

Krakow

The first four days of our trip were spent in Krakow.  The first synagogue in Krakow dates back to 1620.  At various points in time, Jews have been influential in all walks of life in Krakow - including law, medicine and politics. During much of the time, Jews lived in the area of the city known as Kazimierz.  Prior to the War, Kazmierez boasted seven synagogues and two cemeteries.  Two synagogues survive today, one used largely for ceremonial events and the other a working house of worship.  Krakow's cemeteries did not fare as well.  As one walks through the remnants of the city's two Jewish cemeteries, stones are neatly arranged and names are as familiar as my daughter's class list at her Jewish Day School, but, alas, the gravestones were all desecrated by the  Germans and no stone and its site necessarily correspond to the remains beneath.

During the war, the Jews were made to leave the relatively friendly confines of Kazimierz where they numbered 65,000 in exchange for 320 cramped houses on the other side of town.  Life was difficult in their new quarters with all of Kazimierz having been squeezed into such a small, unfamiliar place.  Ultimately, only 20,000 remained after the death-camp deportations.  This number eventually dwindled to 2,000, with about 1,000 surviving by working for the now-storied Schindler factory which made mess kits for the German army.  One gentile pharmacist witnessed the daily gathering and deportation of the Jews from the place of embarkation opposite his pharmacy, which now serves as a monument.  There, a small museum provides records of his wartime observations, in which he recorded scenes of barbaric proportions as Jews were herded into the square while awaiting deportation to the camps.

Today, Kazimierz has been largely restored and is the busy scene of a revival in Jewish culture.  Its small area is lined with Jewish-style restaurants and it is the annual scene of the Jewish Culture Festival.  There are some Jewish businesses, but, in the main, the Jewish population is tiny.  One AJC friend has since called it eerie -- Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish dining, but hardly any Jews.

Shabbat in Krakow

On Shabbat morning, our group proceeded to the one remaining minyan in the city and one of only two standing synagogues in Krakow - the circa 1620 historic synagogue.  There, the orthodox service was led by a visiting British university professor and historian.  The sanctuary, at best, measured about 20 feet by 40 feet.  On this Shabbat, the sanctuary was full - a USY group from the US, our group, tourists, the visiting chief rabbi of Poland - and several Polish Jews whom we were to meet later on.  I was honored with galel - the dressing the Torah. After shul, we gathered at the Klezmer House Jewish-style restaurant for a midday Shabbat meal and for an endless series of discoveries as we were introduced to personage after personage. 

Maciej Kozlowski

We first met with Maciej Kozlowski - a gentile and the former ambassador to Israel - who turned out to be both open, highly supportive of Israel and well schooled in Jewish history.  Ambassador Kozlowski noted that Poland does not have a sizeable Arab population, as in Western Europe, and, as such, is not subject to the same anti-Israeli political forces overtaking Western Europe and is friendly toward the U.S. He also noted that Poland's history and US history are intertwined going back to the American Revolutionary War when the first two recipients of the Order of the Cincinattius - a heralded medal for valor were the Poles, Kosicusko and Pulaski. 

Michael Schudrich

We then met with Michael Schudrich, a New Yorker and orthodox Jew, and, more recently, Chief Rabbi of Poland.  Rabbi Schudrich described a slowly emergent Jewish community in Poland, with Poles awakening daily to the fact that they have Jewish blood.  Rabbi Schudrich told some remarkable stories of Jewish awakening.  Here are two of them:

One day, an elderly woman suffering with cancer approached Rabbi Schudrich.  For years, she had been tormented with the knowledge that she was Jewish, and, now as her days were diminishing, she wanted to tell her story to her family, but she was afraid that, when they found out, they might abandon her in her need.  Rabbi Schudrich suggested she leave a note with a trusted friend attesting to her Jewish identity.  This she did.  Some months later, Rabbi Schudrich was driven to his synagogue by a cab driver.  Upon seeing the synagogue, the cab driver asked if Schudrich was a rabbi.  Upon being told that he was, the driver revealed what he considered to be a remarkable tale.  He related that his grandmother had just died of cancer and that, after her death, his family had discovered she was Jewish.  The driver wanted to know how his grandmother's religion affected him.  After a moment of prodding, Rabbi Schudrich discovered that the young man's grandmother was the same woman the rabbi had counseled several months before. 

Rabbi Schudrich also told a story about a young Polish woman who wanted to know if she was Jewish by virtue of her great-great-grandmother having been Jewish.  Curiously, as she began to unpeel the onion of her past, her husband's parents displayed considerable resistance.  "Why do you want to go there?" said they. Of course, the parents objections only goaded their son and daughter-in-law to prod further, whence they discovered that not only did the daughter-in-law have Jewish roots, but that both of her husband's parents were Jewish and that both had been loathe to disclose their Jewish identities for fear of the consequences. 

Rabbi Schudrich also stated that the influence of Pope John Paul II, in particular, his pronouncements equating anti-Semitism with sinfulness, can not be overstated and that the relative openness of current day Poles toward Jews can be linked in large part to the John Paul's own openness to the Jewish world.

Konstanty Genbert

We next met with Konstanty Genbert, a Jewish Polish intellectual, and publisher of Midrasz Magazine.  Konstanty apprised us of Polish economic conditions, in particular, the current unemployment rate of 20%.  He offered the following observation: Ask a group of Poles if things were better prior to 1989, and half will say yes; ask this same group of Poles if they wished to return to pre-1989 Soviet ruled Poland and 95% will say no.

Mary - A Righteous Gentile

Next we met with Mary, a Polish woman who came from a family of righteous gentiles and of the Jewish girl who lived with her for 18 months.  Here is Mary's story and of the girl, Miriam, whom Mary's family saved:

Miriam was brought to Mary's apartment late in 1943.  The family thought they would only have to put her up a few days.  The days stretched into months.  Eventually, the Nazis required the family to move and share an apartment with another family which was not happy with its new bedfellows and, therefore, posed a serious risk to Miriam's well being.  Miriam was very much in danger, so the mother of our Polish guest arranged for a sympathetic priest to provide Miriam with Baptismal documents.  Even so, at one point, a former neighbor identified her in the street and, unwittingly, almost placed her in jeopardy.  But, matters remained calm, with the family finding support for Miriam using the proceeds of goods stored with neighbors derived from the shop run by Miriam's family.  One day, three Nazis armed with weapons came to the door of the apartment.  The family thought the ruse was over with certain death to follow, but the Nazis were only interested in making sure that the apartment drapes were opaque enough to prevent allied planes from seeing light from within the apartment.  Eighteen months after Miriam arrived, the Nazis left Krakow.  Miriam eventually made her way to Israel.  Thirty four years later after Poland was freed from the grip of Soviet rule, Miriam was reunited with her Polish family and invited them to come to Israel where they were honored at Yad Vashem as righteous gentiles.

The Krakow Jewish Culture Festival and Theodore Bickel

Saturday night was a stunning window in time and a mind bending, mind teasing and mind satisfying experience.  In the Jewish Quarter of Krakow in front of the Aleph Hotel - an establishment owned by a half Jew and one where we were to dine on kosher goose sausage - I found myself in the presence of almost 15,000 Poles listening to Kletzmer music from a huge sound stage set against the backdrop of an equally huge menorah.  All of a sudden I was caught in the moment and found myself dancing the Horah with Konstanty Genbert, some fellow Jews, and an orderly group of Poles - all of us swaying ecstatically to the sound of Theodore Bickel.  I had the privilege at the end of the evening to wish Theodore Bickel a well-earned Y'asher Koach.  What more could one want from the second day in the country.

Janusz Makuch

Later in our stay, we met Janusz Makuch, the inspired director of the Jewish Culture Festival.  Makuch recognizes the presence of anti-Semitism in Polish society.  But, at the same time, he has discovered from 15 years of producing the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival that the interest of Poles in their Jewish history is truly genuine, that Poles sense a loss and feel the need to learn about their Jewish routes. Yet, Makuch does not see his festivals as incubators for a revival of the Jewish presence in Poland-although he would find such a prospect completely acceptable.  Rather, he sees his roll as bringing back life to something which was intertwined with Polish history for 1,000 years.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

Today, bleary eyed from the prior evening's festivities, we started off early for Oswiecim, the site of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.  Here, some 1,300,000 Jews met hideous fates, gasping their final breaths, as Zyklon B was dropped into its gas chamber.  But, Auschwitz also started its existence as holding center for Russian prisoners of war and as a place to discipline Poles considered to be a political threat. Some 150,000 Polish intellectuals, priests, teachers, opposition leaders and gypsies met equally gruesome fates in the part of the camp now known as Auschwitz I. 

Auschwitz sits on a rail head.  Its efficient murdering chambers operated in super high gear during the late spring and summer of 1944 when 400,000 Jews met their deaths.  At its height, Jews from dozens of European cities were shipped by rail to Auschwitz.  One must assume that the immense transportation program put in place must have required the administrative cooperation of countless civilians from all over Europe.

There are no myths about Auschwitz.  The stories are true.  We saw the ramp in Birkenau, now known as Auschwitz II, where Dr. Mengele and his misanthropic associates separated Jews for immediate death in the gas chambers or slower deaths after bone-jarring work details, or, even worse, Mengele's distorted experiments.  But, over time, the Allies not only knew of the camp, they had detailed aerial photographs. Not only did they possess such intelligence, they actually bombed a suspected chemical plant a mere six kilometers away. Yet, despite this knowledge and capability for launching an effective aerial strike, no allied forces lifted a finger against the gas chambers or the notorious rail lines.  The why of such indifference is one of the great mysteries of the War, nay, one of the great, dark unanswered voids in the most sinister annals of human immorality.  The world's failure to relax immigration policy during the 1930/s and 1940's is a similarly sad chapter.  Only the tiny Dominican Republic opened its doors during most of that dark time.

We said Kadish at the remnants of the Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II} gas chamber and sang Hatikvah, a tribute both to the rebirth of Jewish life in Israel and to my children's wonderful Jewish Day School which sends its graduates to Auschwitz each year where they have initiated the tradition of singing Hatikvah.  Tears do not necessarily come at a moment such as this one.  It is hard to put a human face on such a pile of rubble, but the message sinks in for later thought and contemplation.

Anomalously, we finished our day of contemplation at a Klezmer concert given by Leopold Kozlowski, an octogenarian Brit, and four striking, young Polish women who sang with both beautiful voices and much feeling.  The setting was the Krakow Temple, a beautifully restored, gold-gilded and barrel-domed structure with lovely stained glass windows.  The concert, the setting and the music almost produced the tears that Auschwitz did not.

Belzec

Our four days in Krakow having come to an end, we headed toward Warsaw by way of the infamous death camp at Belzec and, later, the city of Lublin.  If Auschwitz was more numbing then moving, how could Belzec - a mere memorial to what had been a Nazi death camp - leave a more penetrating impression.  But, that it did.  The construction at Belzec began even before the Wahnsee Conference during January 1942 when the Final Solution became official Nazi policy and, in less than 30 minutes, was enshrined in ignominy by Hitler's twelve most senior advisors.  The camp was built using local materials within plain view of the rest of the small town nearby.  Here, 500,000 predominantly Jews from Poland met their fate in the gas chambers.  A walk up the ramp to the carefully designed gas chamber and two hours later they were gone.  At its worst, Belzec could exterminate 4,000 unfortunate souls at an instant.  Belzec was run by the SS and guarded by Ukranian from the nearby border area.  One month before the arrival of the Russians, Belzec was leveled by the Nazis, the graves were exhumed and the bodies burned in four giant mass graves of bone and ashes.  Only notes left by its inmates buried in the ground attested to what went on at this place.  In two years and 500,000 deaths, only two persons survived Belzec, although testimony also survived from others who managed to jump off of transport trains before arriving at the death camp.

Until 1963, Belzec was ignored.  Its killing ground was used as a local short cut and people were observed picnicking on its grounds.  In 1963, it became a place of memory but nothing more.  Commencing in 1997, work began on a cooperative Polish-American Jewish Committee effort at a physical memorial site.  The work culminated a year ago.  Today, Belzec is burial ground, its dead memorialized by acres of jagged slag.  Only the ramp leading to the gas chamber is exposed as is the walkway around the burial ground.  Placed at periodic intervals along the walkway, and representing different time periods of the Shoah are the names of the communities from which Belzec's dead were transported.  The amazingly, familiar names were merely interesting until the name Ostrava appeared.  Might this be the ancestral burial ground for my family name.  I will never know.  But, at that moment, Belzec was no longer an impersonal place of the past.  I could barely pull myself away and devoured with hunger each of the exhibits produced by AJC in conjunction with the Polish government.  Belzec - a name I had hardly known prior to my visit - had become mine.

Lublin

On to Lublin, a charming provincial center that once was 40% Jewish.  Today, virtually nothing other than a pre-war cemetery remains.  A local group has created a modest exhibit of Lublin's Jewish past.  But, it is too spare to leave an impression.  Our guide conceded that school children visiting the exhibit still express anti-Semitic tendencies. 

Josef Zycinski

After our "tour" of Jewish Lublin, we met with Jozef Zycinski, Archbishop of the province of Lublin, His eminence - a former university professor of physics - is both engaging, open and hopeful for the future of Polish-Jewish relations.  He believes that John Paul has left a great impression on Poland's Catholics.  He supports exchange programs between Polish seminarian and Jewish rabbinical students.  He would welcome the opportunity to introduce Jewish children to Lublin's Catholic youth. January 18 each year is a Day of Judaism in Lublin, and the archbishop has conducted 10 mourning services on behalf of past Jewish life in Lublin.  But, the archbishop acknowledges that he is very much in the forefront of his colleagues on the question of Jewish-Polish relations. 

Warsaw

In Warsaw, we were joined by our Ministry of Culture representative, Anya Rochacka-Cherno, a delightful young woman whose step-father was born Jewish and whose mother, after marriage, converted to Judaism. 

Like Krakow, Warsaw sits astride the Vistula River as it continues to work its way northward to Gdansk and the Baltic. Warsaw is a city of surprises.  Little remains of pre-war Warsaw as a result of Nazi reprisals in response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, with virtually all of the city having been rebuilt after the War.

Only by viewing pictures of pre-War Warsaw, can one appreciate how totally it was destroyed and how miraculous was its reconstruction.  Today, "Old Town," as it is known, as well as the equally reconstructed, but somewhat less venerable, "New Town" comprise as charming a tourist destination as any ancient European city.  When Eisenhower first saw Warsaw before its reconstruction, he concluded that reconstruction was hopeless and that the Polish capital be moved to Lodz, which had escaped an aerial attack by the Nazis.  The city was nevertheless rebuilt, largely as a political statement and testament to Russian and Stalenesque know-how.  The rebuilt Old Town is a gem and has existed since its reconstruction as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It represents the most extensive reconstruction project in the history of the world.

As a result of the reconstruction project, both old Old Town and New Town give the appearance of having been in place throughout the ages.  Instead of the city conveying the impression of a weary veteran of 45 years of Communism, it is bright, clean and gleams with new skyscrapers and stately, lush parks.  At the center of the city is the monolithic Palace of Culture -- Stalin's "gift" to the Polish people.  Panhandlers are nowhere to be seen and few patrolmen walk the streets.  Its suburbs appear comfortable and well designed. It is a city that has carefully laid out plans for future construction and one day may well reclaim the name, Paris of the East. 

Lech Kaczynski

Among its plans for the future is the Museum of the History of the Jewish People which will be located in the center of the city near the Palace of Culture and, by the estimate of our group, will occupy an area larger than an American football field.  We were briefed on the Museum by Lech Kaczynski - the outgoing mayor of Warsaw and a serious presidential Candidate in this fall's national presidential campaign.  He described the recently concluded architectural contest for the Museum which had attracted 119 contestants world wide, and which was front page news in the Polish press.  The Museum will cost $55,000,000 and is being built with state (40%), city (40%) and private funding (20%) recruited through the Jewish Institute - a governmental entity.

Warsaw's Former Jewish Sector

Of the previous Jewish sector of Warsaw, all that remains is a synagogue and part of a second building which now houses a Jewish school, community center and Senior activity center.  We met with the energetic director of the Lauder School, which is run at the center and which is considered one of the best private schools in Warsaw and has a 40% gentile student body to go along with its Jewish students.  We also met with the director of the center who described its programs, told us about the camp he runs and introduced us to some of the center's seniors.

Museum of the Warsaw Rising

As part of our tour of the city, we visited the Museum of the Warsaw Rising. It is said that no one can understand the soul of Poland without understanding the Warsaw Rising.  Part heroism and part folly, the Warsaw Rising alone claimed 220,000 Polish lives and led to the utter destruction of the city. It stands today as Poland's worst military defeat in history.  Yet, it also represents the Polish will to survive against all odds.  It is a combination of Bunker Hill, Gettysburg and Omaha Beach.  Aspects of the events of August 1 through October 2 1944 are now commemorated in the small, but impressive, Museum of the Warsaw Rising.

Victor Ashe

While we were in Warsaw, Ambassador Ashe-the US Ambassador to Poland graciously hosted our group to a morning coffee.  Ambassador Ashe - a former Mayor of Knoxville - is confident that Poland will continue to be supportive of both Israel and the US, even as Poland negotiates its way through the EU.  Ambassador Ashe noted that he feels completely secure in the country and is  comfortable taking walks in his neighborhood, effectively placing himself in the same shoes as an everyday citizen.

Darius Stola

We met with Darius Stola, Vice-President of Collegium Civitas University, an expert on the Holocaust and a tightly-wound tower of intellectual power.  Advertised as one of the highlights of our trip, we were not disappointed. After pleasantries and an exchange of soft-pitched questions, we finally got to questions concerning the role of the Polish people during the Holocaust.  Professor Stola acknowledged that Poles knew what was happening around them, but asked us to consider the fear which consumed them.  Poland was the only occupied country where, as a matter of law, giving comfort to a Jew was punishable by death.  Professor Stola acknowledged that high on Germany's death chart was the extermination of the Jews, but that a close second was the decimation of the Polish people.  Poles suffered more than any other occupied nation.  Admittedly, Poland and its people had a long history of anti-Semitism, but stated Professor Stola, that fact alone can not be used as an indictment against the Poles for their failure to move against the camps.  Asks Professor Stola, should Pole's also be considered as anti-Polish and anti-Catholic since they were also helpless in the face of 150,000 of their own being held at Auschwitz I? 

David Peleg

We later were treated to a reception at the residence of David Peleg, Israeli Ambassador to Poland.  Ambassador Peleg emphasized the need for dialogue between Israeli and Polish youth.  He noted the embassy's plans for exchange programs, including the arrival of the Israeli Philharmonic next year.  Ambassador Peleg reiterated the harrowing circumstances to which Poles were subjected while under the heel of the Nazis.  He noted his view that there were collaborators in virtually every country including even the more benign nations.  He also noted that Poland was one of the few countries where there were now virtually no incidences of overt anti-Semitism.  Finally, he expressed the view that Poland has been a fast learner in the EU and that it would continue to vote its interests, including its support of Israel.

At the reception, I, again, met with Professor Stola and asked his views on why the allies never acted against the camps.  His response:  The arrogance of military leaders not wanting to be directed by civilian objectives, and the stupidity of local commanders who had no idea of the consequences of their failure to take steps against the camps.

Jewish Historical Society of Warsaw

The Jewish Historical Society is located in Warsaw.  Its Director, Lena Bergman, has been involved in her work for thirty years and is both informative and sensitive.  The Museum possesses countless archives matched only by Yad Vashem.  Its computerized genealogy archives have enabled countless Jews to find family and friends.  It also possesses a substantial collection of works or art, which attest to the secular character and involvement of various elements of Poland's past Jewish community.  The artistic exhibits are eye openers.  Soft-lit portraits as if they had been painted by a Flemish master, nude sculptures and brash modernistic paintings.