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December 12, 2022 8:15 am
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What I Saw as a Jewish Teen Visiting Poland

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avatar by Luiz Gandelman

Opinion

Powązki Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, Oct. 25, 2012. Photo: Jolanta Dyr via Wikimedia Commons.

During Thanksgiving break, I had the privilege of taking a trip to Poland with my father. We visited Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, and Łódź. As someone with large swaths of Polish heritage and a family history with the Holocaust, I felt very moved by the prospect of spending a week in Poland. As soon as my dad made the decision, he entered into a mode of heavy research to find out more about our heritage and history. I did my part, and began to self-study and learn Polish on the Internet.

Upon arriving in Warsaw, our first outing was to Polin, the museum of the Jewish people in Poland. Coupled with the Jewish cemetery and a comprehensive ghetto tour, we got our fair share of Warsaw’s Jewish history over the course of the next two days.

On the third day, we took a trip to Łódź. I had heard about the ghetto there, and was shocked at what I found. The remnants of the ghetto were a plethora of abandoned buildings, all crumbling apart, with a small and hidden memorial inside a public park. The sight broke my heart. A demolition team was actively taking down two buildings from the ghetto time period when I visited, meaning history was being destroyed before my very eyes.

The remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto were not very different. Save for a few fragments of the ghetto wall (hidden inside a school, apartment building, and near an electrical closet), there were close to no remnants of the once expansive ghetto. Polish people walked to and fro as if nothing ever existed there, and besides the occasional Israeli tour group, no one acknowledged the history, behind the spaces we were in. My dad did, however. The center of the Jewish ghetto resistance (which ended with a mass suicide compared often to Masada) occurred at 18 Miła street in Warsaw. Incredibly enough, my family lived on 15 Miła street.

People in Poland seemed to understand the history. Not a single one of my tour guides were Jewish, yet all of them were not only well versed on the Holocaust, but also on contemporary antisemitism. They cared, and genuinely showed concern for the Jewish people and the preservation of these sites. There was one very stark exception, however. I am a coin collector, so my dad decided to take me to a coin seller. I walked into the store, eager to buy, and greeted the owner with “Dzien dobry” (good morning in Polish). His eyes widened and he immediately yelled out “nie Żydów” (“No Jew”). I was stunned. My dad kept asking me to translate, but I was too stunned to process it. Simply because of my kippah, this man refused to sell to me. Once I translated, my dad immediately grabbed me and we walked out of the store. We walked to the hotel in silence. It hurt to know that even through everything the Jewish people suffered through in Poland, there is still antisemitism rampant there today.

A mere two days after, in Krakow, I woke up early in the morning and drank a cup of Polish hot chocolate. After the two hour train ride, where I closely watched the World Cup, we arrived at Auschwitz. I pushed through the crowds of Israelis and Polish schoolchildren at the visitor center to make my way to our guide. I had the ability to pray Shacharit at the entrance to the camp, something I try to do at almost every camp. I was shivering in the cold with nothing but a shirt on, my Tallit being my only source of warmth as I boldly recited my usual morning prayers. My dad joined in for the Shma, which we sang at the top of our lungs. Auschwitz was an incredibly powerful and humbling experience.

Besides the fact that ham is sold in the visitor center inside the camp, the entire visitation experience was incredible. Knowledgeable guides and a convenient structure made the logistics of the tour easy, but the sheer scale of it was something I will never be able to capture in a mere set of words. I am still in shock and awe from the camp to fully be able to express it. Majdanek was no different. The extremely well preserved camp, alongside with a two mile walk in the snow, made the experience incredibly humbling and powerful.

I still get chills simply from thinking about my trip. I have visited a camp in the past, but spending an entire week dedicated to the Holocaust, and doing so just with my dad, was life changing. From synagogues and Jewish museums, to Oskar Schindler’s factory, the preservation of Jewish history was incredible, and seeing the Krakow JCC being active in its aid to Ukrainian refugees and Jewish youth groups showed me that Jewish life is still vibrant in Poland. But the contrary is also true. From derelict ghetto buildings to the gas chambers of Majdanek and Auschwitz, it is absurd to think that the buildings I stood in were the very places where my people, the Jewish people, were executed en mass in the savage genocide of the Holocaust.

The main takeaway from this trip for me was the importance of preservation. These buildings were being destroyed in front of me, and if we do not work to preserve spaces and keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we very well may let the Holocaust fade into memory. I would have had a different experience had those buildings not been present, and they must be preserved so that future generations can experience the same thing.

Never forget, and never again.

The author is a 17-year old student, writer, and community activist.

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