In 2019, my husband Mike and I participated in a tour through Poland. I was driven to go; I did not know if there would be another similar opportunity, and although I had read many books about the holocaust – the Shoah – I felt it would be important to actually see what I could for myself. It was pretty devastating. We came away with the determination that this could never happen again. Mike and I did give a few presentations when we returned, but for the most part what we saw and experienced has not been shared further.

This did not concern us greatly; after all, we could always do more later. However, less than 5 years later, on October 7, 2023 Israel experienced an unexpected and tragic attack which was worse than anything that has occurred to the Jewish community since World War II and which has been followed, to our dismay, by an outbreak of antisemitism throughout much of the world including the United States. From recorded interviews it appears that many of those participating in the antisemitic rallies in the United States, especially the students, have no historical knowledge and have accepted lies as the truth. It has therefore become evident to us that we cannot be silent, and we must bear witness. This is my first attempt.

BACKGROUND

Let’s talk first about Poland. It is a pretty country; as we drove across the country we saw many forested areas, farmland, and quaint cottages that would be comfortable in a fairy tale.

Poland is a country located between Germany and Russia and has no natural boundaries, which has left it open to invasion many times over the centuries. The Polish Kingdom was begun shortly before 1000 AD, received a crown from the Vatican and was regarded as a Christian (Catholic) country. That being the case, why, at the beginning of WWII were there 3.5 million Jews there?

Poland has a few large cities, and many smaller towns. It turns out that each landowner wanted his own town. But to be successful, they had to invite in the Jews. Why? Unlike the general populace made up principally of uneducated farmers, the Jews were educated, merchants, tailors, innkeepers, intellectuals. The Jews apparently were prohibited from farming, but ended up being essential if a town was to succeed. Imcidentally it was a Jewish merchant, Ibrahim ibn Yakub from Cordoba, Spain, who wrote the first history of Poland.

But even more importantly, Jews were provided significant freedom of religion from the 1400’s, at a time where they were being persecuted in Western Europe. See, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statute_of_Kalisz and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Confederation

The result was that there was a huge growth in the Jewish communities. In the 16th century when Poland and Lithuania established a commonwealth, Jews moved into Lithuania as well.

This did not mean there was no religious discrimination. In many of the towns, the Jews were relegated to living in ghettos, often outside the city walls. Even when they constituted a large portion of the population (in Southeast Poland some of the towns were made up of 60, 70 and 80% Jews), the towns would be divided into the Jewish and the Catholic portions. The Catholic Church was always required to be placed higher than the Jewish synagogue. In addition, because the Jews were often identified with the landowners (since they were employed by them and provided services for them), any anger against the landowners was transferred to the more easily accessible Jews. However, for centuries, Poland was much safer than other countries in Europe.

Poland ultimately became the central place of Jewish studies and learning. In addition to the intellectual elite, the “common” Jews also wanted to learn. The resultant Hasidic movement started with the Baal Shem Tov in Ukraine, which was a part of Poland at the time. The children started to study at 3 years old; by 10 to 12 years old they knew the Torah, and then spent 10 years studying the Talmud and Jewish law. There were large yeshivas established in both Krakow and Lublin, which developed the leading rabbis throughout Europe. Below is a photo of the Lublin Yeshiva (now a hotel).

By the end of the 18th century, Poland no longer had a royal bloodline, and the remaining nobility borrowed leaders from other countries. This led to partitions: Russia, Prussia, and the Austro Hungarian empires took over most of Poland, and the people were suddenly faced with new laws. Jewish enlightenment was not particularly welcome in Russia. This situation existed until after WWI, at which point Poland was restored as an independent country. But the reinvigorated nationalism also resulted in a growth of antisemitism.

By the beginning of WWII, the 3.5 million Jews in Poland equaled 10% of the entire population. It was the largest community of Jews in the world. At the end of the war, this number had been reduced to approximately 250,000 that were still alive (liberated from the death camps or came out of hiding). When they returned to their homes, they found sadness and nothing left – their posessions had disappeared, and most of their friends and relatives had been killed. Some 150,000 left Poland, most to displaced persons camps. After Stalin died in 1953, another 50,000 left. As of 2019 there were only 4,000 registered Jews in 9 communities in Poland.

When you realize that, in addition to the 10% of the entire population of Poland made up of Jews being wiped out, with many other Poles (including groups such as the Roma – Gypsies) also killed, it is clear that by the end of the war, Poland had been pretty much devastated.

Who was responsible? When the Germans came in to a country, they started by killing the Jewish men, leaving it up to the locals in the community to deal with the women and children. Many locals helped. Even some that might have otherwise been sympathetic realized that if they were found to be helping the Jews they also would be sentenced to death and were unwilling to take the risk. It should be noted however, that there were many who did help even with the risk involved; the list of the Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem contains more Poles than any other nationality (Holland is second).

SYNAGOGUES IN POLAND

The Germans did not only destroy the Jews; they also desecrated most of the synagogues. The synagogue in the town of Przysudra (above and below) is now in the process of being preserved. Of the 3000 Jews that worshipped there, none are left. Another 200 synagogues in Poland are in a similar state of disrepair. The small Jewish community is working to get the ownership of the synagogues back, although it is another issue of finding the funds to repair them if and when they obtain ownership. At least some of the synagogues were used by the Germans to house animals and equipment during the war.

Some synagogues have been turned into museums. One town has renovated their synagogue and turned it into a state museum. That town had 13,000 residents, of which 10,000 were Jews. One day 9,000 of the Jews were gathered and sent to Treblinka to be killed; the rest were also subsequently removed. The curator nonchalantly remarked that after the war a few of them came back, but there was nothing there for them, so they left. He also said that one day each year they have a “Jewish festival” where they eat Jewish food, sing Jewish songs, and otherwise celebrate the Jewish culture, apparently in honor of their dead Jews –honoring the prophets they killed. Such a travesty.

Mezuzzah on display.

We did see two synagogues that were still in quite good condition. The Polish aristocrat, Alfred Podzwierzy, who had a large estate, had built it for the Jews he invited in. He apparently told the Germans that they could NOT burn the synagogue because it belonged to him. He also continued to hide some of the Jews on his estate – he considered them His Jews, for whom he was responsible. The synagogue is now owned by the Jewish community. This gives an idea of what the other synagogues could have looked like before their destruction.

The second synagogue in relatively decent condition (has been restored) is in Zamosc. This has an interesting story behind it. The landowner was going to limit the town to Christians. It did not take him long to figure out that he needed the Jews in order for the town to be successful. However, he did not want any poor Jews. So he invited in Sephardic Jews who were in the Ukraine and were rich tradesmen and intellectuals, and agreed to build the synagogue for them. Of course, by WWII 45% of the town was Jewish, although they were not allowed to live within the city walls.

The community house and yeshiva which is older than the synagogue but connected to it, is privately owned and not part of the restoration

THE CITIES/ THE GHETTOS – KRAKOW

WWII started in September, 1939 with the invasion of Poland – Germany on one side, Russia on the other. In German occupied Poland, the Jews immediately had their rights restricted. Part of it was immediately treated as part of Germany; the rest as occupied territory. The occupied territory set Krakow as its capital.

At that time, 80,000 Jews lived in Krakow – approximately 25% of the population. The Jewish Quarter, which was right on the river, was recognized by the Germans as a very nice part of the city. So they kicked almost everyone out. Most were sent someplace else, with the majority ultimately ending up being sent to Belzec (see Part II). Only 15,000 were allowed to stay in town, and only because they were considered useful to the 3rd Reich, working in factories. But these people were required to move from their homes in the Jewish Quarter into a separate, small part of the town near the factories, and ultimately the entire ghetto itself was disbanded. As of 2019 only about 200 Jews lived in Krakow.

River seen from the former Jewish Quarter.

This qhettoizing of the Jews was carried out throughout Poland. There were several hundred ghettos, usually very crowded (remember we are talking about 3.5 million Jews). Jews from small towns were forced to move into a ghetto of a larger town. The Krakow ghetto was on the other side of the river from the Jewish Quarter, next to the factories in which they worked. One of the factories was the one belonging to Oskar Schindler. Over time, Schindler saw what was happening, and was determined to spare some of his people from the horrid fate that awaited them. When he knew they were going to send his workers to Aushwitz, he moved his factory AND workers to Czechoslovakia, and was successful in doing this. His building is still here and has a museum inside – but it is about Krakow and not about Schindler. The movie about Schindler was actually shot in Krakow.

Hero’s Square in Krakow. Where the Jews were sorted and either allowed to go into the ghetto, or were sent to Belzec. The chairs are memorializing the people waiting.

Building in the Krakow Ghetto – a Pharmacy that stayed in the ghetto despite offers by the Nazis to move it out of the ghetto. The pharmacist had a pass to go in and out, which allowed him to deliver messages. He also provided medicine to the imprisoned Jews, provided a place for Jewish leaders to safely meet, and hid many Jews in his backroom. The pharmacist was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

A note about the Jewish Quarter. What was a place of study and religious worship has been converted into a party town. Except for one synagogue, everything still existing has a new purpose; for example, the mikvah is now a bakery. Walking through it and realizing that the people having fun likely had no idea of what had been replaced was pretty sobering.

When the ghetto itself was liquidated, the prisoners lived for a time in a camp built on top of a Jewish cemetery. The gravestones were used for the streets. Memorial at the site pictured.

THE CITIES/ THE GHETTOS – LUBLIN

Lublin was a major center of Jewish learning. The Yeshiva is now a hotel; however a small renovated synagogue/place of prayer has been set aside for use by visitors.

Approximately 42,000, or 30% of the population of Lublin was Jewish. The Yeshiva building was taken over by the Germans, and the Jewish quarter (outside the city walls) was made into a ghetto, that totally demolished by the end of the war. It is now a park, with a permanent light. Of the 42,000 Jews, maybe 100 survived. Some 20 Jews still live in Lublin but are not part of a community.

Acknowledgment of the historical Jewish connection in one of the local restaurants.

THE CITIES/ THE GHETTOS – WARSAW

Before the war, Warsaw had 378,000 jews – one-third of the entire city. It was the second largest Jewish community in the world; only New York was larger. These plus an additional 100,000 Jews from surrounding communities were forced into the ghetto. They had to move into a space occupying 2.3% of the city, they had to pay for the bricks (walls often built between buildings, bricking out windows and doors), and had to build their own prison. Food rations were 200 calories a day. Lack of food, warmth, and with such crowded conditions, diseases spread rapidly. Approximately 100,000 died from the living conditions – first stage of mass murder. Initially they tried to carry out proper Jewish burials, but soon were overwhelmed. Three mass graves were created, 2 in the Jewish cemetery (a part of the ghetto) and one outside, even though this was against Jewish practice.

Anyone with Jewish grandparents were considered Jewish even if they had converted to Christianity.

The ghetto was made smaller and smaller.

Getting out of the ghetto was not the hard part; surviving outside was harder. You did not know who to trust. If found, you and those who helped would all be killed.

In addition to the 100,000 who died in the ghetto, some 300,000 or so were sent to Treblinka, leaving maybe 60,000. Made up mostly of men and women in their 20’s and 30’s, they started to prepare for what they knew to be inevitable. The idea of armed resistance was born. Their plan was not to win, but to choose the way they would die. The non-Jewish restance outside of the ghetto thought this was a waste – they only had maybe 50 pistols and a few hand grenades. However, when the second wave of transports started in April 1943, the Germans marched into the ghetto and were met with armed resistance. It surprised them so much that they withdrew and regrouped. The Jews managed to fight for 70 days before the Germans burned them out. Some of the fighters were able to escape, including two of the leaders who were able to tell the story. The monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising, photographed above, which sits at the site where the resistance began, was actually carved from stone which had been imported to build a monument to Hitler.

The leader of the resistance, Mordechai Anielewicz, did not survive; it is thought that his body remains below ground with others who perished fighting the Germans. However, in southern Israel there is Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz named after him, with many Jews from Poland. After Israel declared its independence, the Arabs were determined to wipe them out. In May of 1948 the Egyptians set out towards Tel Aviv with the intention of taking the city. They had to first pass Yad Mordechai. A 110 men and women from the kibbutz and 20 experienced fighters (130 in total) with a limited number of weapons held off the four battalions of Egyptians for 5 days, which was instrumental in giving the new IDF a chance to prepare. When they were no longer able to fight (26 killed, 49 wounded, and out of ammunition) they were finally directed to withdraw. The spirit of the resistance did not die in Warsaw.