Deborah Cardin, deputy director for programs and development for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, recently visited Poland for the first time on a trip sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums. The CAJM is an umbrella organization for the more than 80 Jewish museums in North America.
Cardin describes the visit as “a life-changing experience.” She wrote this journal for Jmore about her weeklong trip.
Day One — Oct. 21
Throngs of people spill out into the street. Mostly young and stylishly dressed, they are here to celebrate the Warsaw Jewish Community Center’s fourth anniversary.
It is my first night in Poland and I am desperately trying to stay awake. As we gather for Havdalah, three young children hold up a candle and spice box while leading the crowd in the blessings.
I get choked up. This is not what I expected from Poland. My itinerary is full of visits to historic sites and museums that interpret the tragic history of Poland’s Jewish community. And yet, what I am witnessing tonight bears witness to something that many people are unaware of — that Poland is in the midst of a Jewish renaissance.
As my work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland encompasses Holocaust education, I enthusiastically agreed to help lead this tour of five other museum professionals from museums across North America. During our week together, we will visit many museums, synagogues, cemeteries and sites of commemoration, while participating in spirited conversations with our Polish colleagues in a valuable exchange of ideas.
Day Two – Oct. 22
Our week begins with a walking tour of the Warsaw Old Town. Warsaw is unique among European cities as it was nearly entirely destroyed during World War II and the buildings in the old city are nearly all replicas of pre-war residences, palaces and churches.
We repeatedly encounter evidence of Poland’s tragic past and complex history, which includes invasions, subjugations, territorial division and mass slaughter. And yet somehow, despite these challenges, we are continually reminded about the resilience of the Polish people and their determination to rebuild from the ashes.
Day Three — Oct. 23
Uncovering Warsaw’s Jewish history is a painful exercise. This is especially true as we walk through the streets where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. Few physical remains of the Ghetto exist. Today, it seems like any other modern neighborhood with apartments, offices and shops. It is hard to reconcile how life goes on in such a place.
Our group stops at several memorials, including the Umschlagplatz where 300,000 Jewish residents of the Ghetto were deported to their deaths at Treblinka in 1942. We can’t help but wonder if the neighborhood residents notice these historical markers or if they think about the tragic events that took place here.
Where I feel most connected to Warsaw’s Jewish past is in the cemetery where we learn fascinating stories about Jewish businessmen, rabbis, writers, community leaders, artists and everyday people who are buried in its grounds. We stand in stunned silence at the roped-off sections of the grounds that mark mass graves, an underground bunker where Jews hid during the war and a wall made out of the remnants of tombstones that were destroyed by the Nazis. We pay our respects at the grave of Marek Edelman, one of the few surviving members of the Ghetto uprising, and at a memorial to Janusz Korkzac, the Ghetto’s orphanage director who accompanied the children to their deaths at Treblinka.
We learn that the history of Jewish Poland is much more than the Holocaust. Tracing roots to the 10th century, Jews have at times been welcomed, developing vibrant communities that resulted in the country having the largest number of Jewish residents outside of the United States on the eve of World War II.
The remainder of the day is spent at POLIN, a museum dedicated to interpreting the full 1,000-year span of Jewish history in Poland. Our three-hour tour at the four-year-old museum does not include enough time to see everything in its dynamic, multi-media core exhibition that emphasizes the extent to which Jewish and Polish history are intertwined. Visiting the exhibit provides valuable context for the rest of our trip.
Day Four — Oct. 24
Walking the streets of Warsaw, we often encounter rectangular scars on doorframes that are easily recognizable as places where mezuzot once hung. Over lunch, we meet Helena Czernak, an artist who has embarked on a fascinating preservation and research project of these empty door frames.
Helena travels to communities throughout Poland researching residences that once belonged to Jews and creates bronze casts of the doorframes’ scars out of which she creates new, beautiful mezuzot. Her work is just one example of the creative ways in which Polish Jews are commemorating and reclaiming their heritage.
Day Five – Oct. 25
Saying goodbye to Warsaw, our group piles into a van and heads into the Polish countryside. Visiting former shtetls and villages gives us the chance to observe the different ways that Poles commemorate and interpret their history.
At Chemielnik, where Jews once represented 80 percent of the town’s population, a restored synagogue serves an educational center about the town’s past. Despite the sincerity of the efforts to preserve the town’s lost history, we can’t help but feel that Jewish culture and history are presented in an inauthentic manner that reinforces stereotypes.
A different type of interpretive strategy is employed at the beautifully restored synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska, where our enthusiastic guide talks about how carefully the building was rebuilt in consultation with the Jewish community in Krakow.
And in the town of Tarnow — where 25,000 Jews lived before the war, the majority of whom perished in concentration camps — stands the remnants of a synagogue (including a towering bimah) that stand in an open-air plaza. It is so difficult to imagine that there are thousands of towns like these throughout Poland that once supported vibrant Jewish communities and are now completely devoid of Jewish life. All that remains are fragments, destroyed synagogues and cemeteries.
Day Six – Oct. 26
No exploration of Jewish history in Poland is complete without a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our time spent there was difficult and exhausting as we attempted to make our way through the many museum displays and memorials.
As moving as the day is, we can’t help but feel that something is missing. Because the interpretation is from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims, it is hard to find the personal stories that are so essential to understanding the tragedy of the Holocaust.
One exception is a recently opened exhibition in Block 27 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial, that displays photographs and films of pre-war Jewish communities and an enormous book listing names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust that visitors can peruse. This is an especially emotional experience for several members of our group who found listings of family members who perished during the Holocaust.
Although drained after spending six hours at the camp, we are revived by a visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center in the town of Oswiecim. Having hosted the traveling exhibit “A Town Known as Auschwitz” at the JMM, it is thrilling to see original artifacts documenting the town’s rich Jewish history. A lively conversation with the museum’s director gives us more opportunity to talk about what it means to interpret a town’s tragic history in the shadows of the most infamous symbol of the Holocaust.
We leave convinced that all visitors to the camp should also make a stop here to learn that Jewish history in Poland did not just begin and end with the Holocaust.
Day 7 – Oct. 27
Our last two days are spent in Krakow, the center of Jewish renewal in Poland, where we tour sites and engage in dialogue about the complexities of defining Jewish identity. With its preserved Jewish quarter that houses six restored synagogues and the location of a renowned summer Jewish festival that attracts thousands, this seemed like the perfect place to learn about the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish culture.
While much of the sentiment is genuine, we were also amused to learn about the phenomenon that locals refer to as “Jewrassic Park” named in honor of Steven Spielberg and his filming of “Schindler’s List” in the city sparked a boon in Jewish-themed tourism. Looking around at the kitschy and fake Jewish restaurants lining the streets and the market stalls hawking stereotypical figurines of old Chasidic Jews carrying coins, it becomes clear that the renewed interest in all things Jewish is not without problems.
Estimates of the number of Jews living in Poland today vary greatly, and official statistics do not include those who choose to identify as Jewish but do not affiliate with institutions such as the JCC or a synagogue. But we were struck by the many different ways in which Polish Jews are embracing their roots. The story of our tour leader, who only learned at the age of 16 that she had a Jewish grandmother, is not unusual in this country where people hid their Jewish heritage for more than 40 years after the end of the war because of the country’s communist regime.
On Shabbat, we are invited to dinner at the Krakow JCC that, along with the Galicia Jewish Museum, has played a major role in the city’s Jewish renaissance. With 650 members, the JCC is committed to showing the world that there is more to Jewish Poland than the Holocaust. Gathered around tables with more than 100 other Jews — including Holocaust survivors, tourists and young Poles who are in the process of exploring their Jewish roots — we are moved by the spirited versions of familiar Shabbat prayers. This is the perfect way to bring our week in Poland to a close.
I arrived in Poland expecting to learn about the tragic history of its Jewish community in order to enrich my work at the JMM, and also to bear witness to the loss of a culture. What sticks with me instead is just how nuanced and complex the history of Polish Jewry is, and despite the odds Jewish life is once again taking root with so many incredible institutions and individuals leading the charge.
Above photo courtesy of Deborah Cardin
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