Heroism, Resistance and Renewal

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
Trip End Aug 05, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Central Poland,
Monday, August 5, 2013

On Sunday we fly back to Warsaw and we wind up our trip with an exploration of resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto, how Jews and others fought against the Nazis in big ways and small, and how today's community of Polish Jews lives in the shadow of all that.

We get a tour of the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It is a stunning building and puts all in one place the exhibits and stories we traveled the country to see. I wonder why in Boston we can’t pull together such a world class Jewish museum.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a reconstructed17th century wooden synagogue at 85% scale. There are only 3 known to be left in existence of this type. Two Mass College of Art professors (non-Jewish!) have spent the last few years gathering the plans and descriptions of how the one in? looked and are building it with 17th century methods.

We head over to the deportation site for the over 300,000 Jews that were sent to Treblinka directly from the Warsaw Ghetto and then we walk back towards the museum on the Ghetto Heroes Trail learning about the various forms of resistance – spiritual, smuggling, documenting, and lastly open revolt. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising held off the Germans for 6 weeks (the entire Polish Army held out for 2 weeks), after years of living off of official rations of 184 calories per person per day and without tanks, planes or artillery. The ghetto fighters flew the flag of Poland and the Magen David from the rooftop of their highest building, giving the rest of Warsaw the inspiration to launch their own uprising a year later. We visit the Milla18 bunker, the Jewish "Alamo" of the ghetto, where we read Mordecai Anilewicz’s (the leader of the uprising) last letter to the Jewish people. We end at Nathan Rapaport’s 1948 memorial “The Uprising.”

We had the opportunity to spend an hour with Paulina, a Yad Vashem anointed “Righteous Gentile” and learned how, when she was 16 years old, she watched her father and mother collaborate with a local farmer to hide 17 Jews in a bunker under a barn for 18 months and to have a Jewish mother and baby live with false papers in the house of relatives. All the Jews survived the war. Paulina told us that she never breathed a word of the story to anyone until in 1990 when she needed to take a day off to receive the award. Later we are told that there were incidents of Poles who helped Jews during the war being beaten and even killed by other Poles after the war was over!

Anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism coexist in Poland today. In tourist shops we see wooden miniatures of Hassidim holding money bags for sale – evidently Poles buy these for good luck. While we are in Poland, the battle over banning shechita is front page news. On the other hand, non-Jewish Poles organize and perform in Jewish cultural festivals including staging Yiddish plays, and performing Klezmer music concerts.

In a separate unbelievable sign of racism, LOT, the Polish national airline, has repainted the tail of some of its planes with Mike Tyson’s face and an ad for “Black Energy,” the #1 energy drink in Poland. Mike Tyson promotes it by promising that if you drink it you will have the sexual prowess of a black man – no joke. Mike Tyson, the convicted rapist, is now a national hero in Poland for his sexual prowess!

Today’s Jewish community of Poland numbers about 18,000, and Rabbi Michael Schudrich tells us unbelievable stories of grandparents on their deathbeds telling their 60 year old kids and their 40 year old grandkids that they are Jewish and these people coming to him to begin a new Jewish journey. Konstanty Gebert, a Polish-Jewish community leader, who was a student leader of Solidarity and now is a kippah wearing academic and journalist relates to us the complicated post war history of the Jews of Poland. 350,000 (10%) survived the war and over 100,000 came back to resettle in communist Poland, but about 90,000 of those left as communist anti-Semitic purges grew andthenpeaked in 1968 after the “wring side” won the Six Day War. Kostanty points out us that, today, he proudly wears his kippah in Warsaw without hassle, but when he recently spent a week in Paris he was physically attacked three different times. A final observation is on the composition of the Krakow Friday night minyan. It was 1 streimel, 6 black hats (some with and some without peyos), 25 locals (some in T shirts and jeans), and the rest tourists. It is for sure the most eclectic group I ever davened with.

So –do roots matter? On this trip I learn that they certainly do. The epicenter of Jewish life for hundreds of years – Poland – was forced by Nazism, communism and Polish anti-Semitism to become almost completely Judenrein, cutting off the surviving 2/3rds of world Jewry from their cultural and spiritual center. Our communities in America and in Israel developed in response to Never Again, but without the richness of our folk Yiddish culture and the deep bench of religious leaders who perished with their followers in the Shoah.

A trip to Poland gives one an appreciation of what we had and what we lost and gives us the passion and the tools to shape the Jewish future when we go back and find our roots.

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