Whichever song about September has significance to you, I’m guessing its theme includes hope, loss, and memories.
The first week of September was POLAND for me, revealing hope and loss and memories – mine and others.
Welcome to my September Song. I hope it brings you hope amidst losses of the past – yours and others’ – and memories that will change you for the good.
Whenever friends sit together, it seems they eat, so we’ll begin with a few quick meals. I love to eat.
I realized how spoiled I’ve become, finally able to read some Hebrew.
Can you find words you recognize in these Polish menus?
I was told Polish is a language-cousin of Czech, but then they could have told me anything. How would I know any differently?
The trip to Poland began with the process of deciding to go. What were my goals? Why, of all the places in the world, did I need to see the two sites I had in mind? Was I ready?
Sometime after the first year living in Israel, a dear friend asked whether I’d found what I was looking for. Was I looking for something? What? Would I know when I’d found it?
I “wear” decisions, like trying on shoes, to see how they feel over time. Praying, thinking, and learning are all part of the process. The longer I stomped around in the Poland Decision, it felt good, right for me: worth the emotional investment, time and money, and hopefully the inevitable unknowns.
I lost count of the times I was asked, “Why Poland?!” Does it help to say that the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz were the must see’s, after years of images from movies and books?
The risks of Living Whole-Heartedly demand that I walk forward. Paying attention, even ready to turn back. Praying. Learning. Listening.
With far greater ease than I make most decisions, group tours were dismissed in lieu of independent travel. In hindsight, that choice made the trip far more difficult to plan, and far, far less difficult on the emotional plane — from the moment I entered Poland.
Schindler’s Factory Museum and Majdanek Death Camp emerged through Internet research, follow-up emails, and talking with those who had visited. Both grew into must-see’s, and so the journey had a skeleton.
Oscar Schindler, as portrayed in Spielberg’s award winning film, has been my hero for decades. Schindler’s List is one of the few DVDs I own, although this Lenovo 11″ laptop has no DVD player and I’m told most people don’t have them anymore. Have DVD’s for movies gone the way of 8-tracks for music? Being without grandchildren renders me distinctly technologically ancient, along with a host of other regretables.
From self-centered and self-promoting into a sacrificing, caring person, the story represents to me redemption of a man. HOPE, at so many levels.
During the trip, I read David M. Crowe’s biography of Oscar Schindler, to swap Hollywood’s version for reality. It was comprehensive as I’d hoped, and while a bit more scholarly than my needs, a worthy read.
Sadly, most Poles became betrayers of Polish Jews to gain Nazi favor. How lovely it would have been for them to nationally resist the Nazi agenda alongside their Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues, rather then participating in history yet again throwing the Jews “under the bus.”
Below are one of several collections of Schindler’s Jews portraits in the Museum. Click on the arrow to activate the video (Please let me know if these videos don’t work for you) As poorly executed as it is, I’m sharing the video with you because each face is a life!
A father, a sister, daughter, grandfather because of Oscar Schindler. These faces represent to me Courage X3:
- Schindler’s Courage to risk all for others because its RIGHT;
- the survivors’ Courage to continue trying to live, while suffering without hope;
- and the Courage of millions more who did not survive.
For those under Oscar Schindler’s care, being a “Schindler’s Jew,” became a coveted title, a badge worn proudly their entire lives, even after his death in 1974. Many (perhaps not all, since some survivors never discussed the suffering of the war years) taught their children that their very lives were also owed to Schindler. Grateful without measure, they were devoted to him and advocated for a pension from Germany as well as assorted loans and grants, since business success eluded him after the war. It was the Schindler Jew’s advocacy that earned him multiple recognition and awards for his sacrifices on their behalf, and for Yad Vashem’s highest honor as a “Righteous among the Nations.”
The scene in the movie when Schindler and Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley’s character) create the list was pure fiction, for the romance of the concept. There were in fact several lists at different times, but no definitive, single Schindler’s list. Hence, accounts of numbers of Schindler’s Jews vary. However, whether he saved 1,200 or 1,100 or ??? makes no difference except for those not saved.
Initially, Schindler employed primarily Poles who, under German restrictions, worked for impossibly low wages and a few Jews, who could be paid a fraction of the Poles’ pay, but as time passed, the Jews proved to be better workers. Better, perhaps for assorted reasons, but certainly partly because those with work permits + work were exempted from Ghetto deportations. Over time, he saw the brutality, starvation, murder of Jews and knew through his Nazi contacts of the Final Solution – the plan to murder all European Jewry.
Extermination is done to rodents and insects. I refuse the word in application to people.
Many Jews benefited from working for Schindler at one point or another at his several factories. Those most fortunate were the few Jews with him the entire time, but those working for him many months or even a year benefited as well – a far greater chance of survival. Each Schindler-month of being fed adequately, living and working in tolerable conditions, and not being constantly brutalized was far more than a temporary respite from suffering.
The reprieve strengthened them, increasing their likelihood of survival – a sort of “re-boot” – in preparation for the next round of starvation and abject brutality. Finally, those brought by Schindler to his last factory in Czechoslovakia are the star-survivors of the story, escaping death in the face of Nazi’s escalation of murder of as many Jews as possible in the final years of the war – hence the dramatic scenes as the film’s end.
The link below takes you to the museum. PLEASE NOTE: I’ve not planted any horrific photos from death-camps here or anywhere in the blog, and have selected links without them as well.
Impassioned recommendations and reading online compelled me to devote a day to the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow. Regardless of having become a “must see,” I set my expectations low, partly because this Schindler character is an important person in my life and I didn’t want to be disappointed. It’s better to be surprised by joy.
As a stand alone, The Schindler Factory Museum would have been worth the trip, and reading his biography extended and magnified my day’s visit for a month.
The other place that became a priority was a concentration/death camp of which I’d never heard: Majdanek. I found it outside a small town, Lublin, a long distance northeast of Warsaw, in the opposite direction of Krakow.
The detour to Lublin launched exploring travel options: train, bus, plane. I opted for train travel for cost and opportunity to see the country, and made 3 online reservations for my destinations: Warsaw to Lublin to Krakow.
It seemed the week of rain that brought me also brought green-green-andmoregreen across grassy plains, hills, and forests through which my trains chugged. Farm homes – some pristine, other not so much – cows, horses and crops dotted the landscape. Some homes seemed entirely isolated, others clustered but too small to call a village, and many train stops at small towns gave me a view of Poland beyond two major cities (Warsaw and Krakow) and a small city (Lublin).
Eight hours of train travel on two separate days lit my imagination of partisans and Jews hiding in Poland’s forests. Some managed for years, I’ve learned. Utterly challenging. Impossible.
Decades ago, I enjoyed one or two night tent-camping excursions with friends in Colorado. We had propane and food and water and vehicles for escape if need be. Those experiences are light-years from qualifying for survival in Polish forests. How did they know what to eat? Where to find water? How to survive sleeping?
Traveling alone was enough of a risk for this gal. English was hard to find on many of Poland’s streets, seldom in menus, and absolutely not to be found in the Lublin Train Station. I was grateful I’d arrived an hour early. I watched trains and people come and go and compared the words on my ticket with posted signs (I couldn’t actually read the ticket) to discover which platform my train would appear.
During the hour of waiting, not one train stopped long enough for me to have time to make my way from the wrong platform. I had one chance to get it right. No pressure.
All ridiculously minor challenges compared to living in those forests alone, clueless.
The Nazi’s established many thousands of Ghettos and camps for slave labor and murder throughout Europe – other camps specialized in forced abortions of non-Arians, political prisoners, sex-slave brothels, and POWs.
Click on the link below for more information on camps
With countless places of horror all over Poland, some would wonder why I needed to go out of my way, investing two days of 3 separate train rides, away from my target destinations in Warsaw and Krakow “just” to see Majdanek?
Because during the war, a friend from Jerusalem was there, as a child.
It’s that simple.
I can’t tell you his story because I don’t know it.
Grief is managed differently by each of us, and in this case, the story and the subject are not discussed. However, because I love and respect this friend beyond measure, I was compelled to learn of and visit this place. It’s my puny way of honoring his suffering.
The link below takes you to more Majdanek information. No disturbing photos are in this one:
The concept is disturbing enough, and I appreciate you hanging in with me this far. It means so much to share this experience with you.
The link below has one small photo of too-thin inmates standing at a fence, that could catch the eye of those of you more sensitive souls, but the information provided is more detailed and might be of interest to others, so I’m including it
A Colorado ballroom dancer buddy, who happens to be a photographer (he has all 4 often-clustered skills: dancer, IT/engineer type, musician, photography!) urged me towards special photography for the Poland sites. I could probably have learned to set my iPhone 6 for black and white, but he described other techniques that I didn’t even understand. Since that wasn’t going to happen, rainy, grey, cloudy days replaced the expected late summer/early fall sunshine, and I didn’t need to change a thing!
A few photos in reverse, from the End moving backwards into Life.
One is not inclined towards whining about not having an umbrella while visiting a rainy concentration camp.
Above is a video of the building in the above photo – click on the arrow to play
The nearby town, Lublin has a charm and a history all it’s own. Centered around its enchanting Old Town and Castle are plenty of history of murders and prisoners long before the Nazi’s used it.
The link below suggests there’s enough to do there to warrant a week of touring. For me, Majdanek and walks through the Old Town was it.
More than 90% of Lublin’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Who can not wonder about those living in the town back in the day, knowing, or wishing they didn’t know what was going on . . . or in denial because it’s more comfortable . . . OR agreeing that all their problems are the Jews fault . . .
Majdanek stories from survivors’ interviews
The following are told by survivors in their language. I recorded the translations for you by reading the English subtitles into my phone’s recorder. The clumsy language flow reflects the speakers’ spontaneity and emotion, as well as awkwardness of translation, without any editing by me. Tearless emotion was evident in their voices’ tension, pauses, facial expressions. Some are Jews, other’s Poles
1. “That’s a shock. The first hours, the first day, the second day, that’s the second shock. They are making me take off the clothes I am wearing, shaving my head, taking my clothes somewhere. They disappear. My outfit is a part of me. That’s all I have. They have taken everything. The only thing I have is my clothes and now I haven’t got it. A shaved head. That is a sign of humiliation or negative distinction in the society.”
2. “The first memory, or should I say, the terrible shock for me was when they took away our clothes, the civilian clothes. And it was the first time I had seen my mum naked. In the countryside nakedness was something either condemned or nonexistent, and suddenly I saw my mother so deprived of something, so embarrassed, and I remember it was a shocking experience for me.”
3. “And here a glance at the future again. This camp anxiety, the fear and vigilance were one of the basic causes of stress for someone who survived the camp. 50 years have passed now, and I got over it, but it was something like 30 years after the camp that I still didn’t like sitting in a room with a door behind my back. So if I still live with these subconscious fears, I think they are the reason for the stress which can wake you up at night from your dream for 30 years or more”
4. “They brought these little kids, and even they looked good at first. There was this baby seven or eight months old, who didn’t want to let go when I took him into my arms. I couldn’t hold him as I was unable to do anything so they somehow tied him to me with some bandages and a piece of a blanket. We didn’t have any nappies. We didn’t have anything. And then this horrible day came when they took the kids away. And a lorry came. Hanna Protowska climbed the lorry and we handed the kids over and the SS were standing around us. Hanna said, ‘Listen we could have refused, but do you know what they did with the children?’ We know. We’ve seen that. They threw them, took a leg and threw. So we should keep them by our side as long as possible. But she stands to lift Isaac off my back and I say ‘Why, let him stay.’ In fact I don’t have any choice, I thought. I couldn’t leave this child, and then Hanna banged me on the ear and took the child. We seated the kids carefully. They cried. They knew what was going on. They cried. We flung ourselves. We almost convulsed and then we started to cry. We cried all night long.”
5. This last speaker had the bearing of a professional – in stark contrast with how difficult it was for him to get started. He gestured helplessness with his hands. He sighs and shakes head. Another sigh. Pause, then sighs again and finally begins with, “I said I’d left Majdanek for home, however Majdanek didn’t leave me. It’s here,” gesturing to his heart. “Each time I got my academic degree, the first one, the second one, and the third, I always said, ‘I first graduated from Majdanek.’ I think that one minute spend in Majdanek is like one year, or even more.”
Those in the know stressed that the Warsaw Ghetto is impossible to tour independently, so my research turned towards finding a terrific guide. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, gave me several names and I settled with Pawel Szczerkowski, a 30-40-ish Polish Jew who was worth far more than the surprisingly reasonable “private guide” fee.
I love looking back on great decisions!
I’d been a bit discomfited by concerned friends and strangers, who were shocked by a solo trip. Was it really unwise? I discovered that mentioning I’d reserved a Guide for my first destination, the Warsaw Ghetto, comforted them a bit. It’s always lovely to be cared for with concern, and surely they were also saying they would never consider going it alone. I understand that. For all we share with our friends, we have vastly different life experiences and needs.
Having never hired a private guide, I fretted a little that it would be awkward to be paired up for hours with a stranger, and so promised myself that I would change the plan, linger, take a break…whatever. All were options precisely because he was a private guide.
In my wanderings before the scheduled Warsaw Ghetto tour, I happened upon the History of Jews in Poland Museum. Here’s the link
It proved to be worthy of many more than the recommended 2-3 hours, and perfectly timed at the front end of my week – a sweep of history that framed the days ahead. The visit fit snugly into the day after the Warsaw Ghetto tour and before the 1:50 train to Lublin.
I was in Warsaw only about 40 hours. As the plan was evolving, I looked at art museums of interest and even searched for concerts in Warsaw. But soon dismissed these “fun” options. How could I enjoy the work of Monet or Picasso in the morning, and spend the afternoon visiting a concentration camp?
Like the cleanse regimen of a serious fast, it seemed easier on my emotional system to be there solely for what I came to call “The Hard Places”
Since I wasn’t confident of the emotional energy to bounce from beauty to suffering, I opted to assume that in the decades since the war, Poland has found for herself beauty and newness. I’d return another time, if need be, to see Poland’s contemporary culture.
I understood that those who fretted about my solo journey to Hard Places envisioned me crying or upset. But, who would comfort me? My choices boiled down to two options:
- a group of strangers in the midst of a tour’s busy agenda, filled with busses and places and timelines, or
- go it solo.
It didn’t take long to realize a tour group of strangers would likely bring far less comfort than having the liberty to take an hour alone, alter plans, sit under a tree and cry, whatever. I love getting to say this: It was a good decision for me.
And I never needed to cry. I was OK
I’d searched maps the evening I arrived in Warsaw. WHERE was the Ghetto?
For a meal after the long flight from California, the hotel directed me to Old Town Warsaw, and I initially thought its streets of charming restaurants and shops, historic churches, synagogues, and homes was a restored section of the Ghetto. Until I realized it wasn’t.
The next day, my guide, Pawel, explained the Ghetto was entirely demolished after the war, that new Warsaw was built on top of what was or wasn’t fully scrapped away. The city’s post-war apartments at what was the north end of the Ghetto is where the resistance was fought – a long murderous month. The German’s succeeded, but only by burning the entire area to incinerate or flushout the last of the resistance fighters.
As we strolled through a complex of lovely apartments situated on gentle slopes, surrounded by esthetically pleasing greenery and playgrounds, Pawel explained that these apartments were built WITH as well as on top of the burnt-to-dust remains of incinerated fighters and buildings. A-lot-of-dust. Macabre as it sounds, the gentle slopes were/are the uncleared remains of the Ghetto and it’s Jewish fighters, forever together.
And, not surprisingly, decades have revealed that the ruins are an unstable foundation for homes. The parallel must not be missed: that the foundation upon which we build our homes – our lives – must be reliably solid and pure.
Only two segments of the Ghetto’s wall were preserved. Elsewhere, throughout the city of today’s Warsaw are reminders of the Ghetto – signs and memorials, markers on sidewalks and streets. I imagine routine and the blindness of busy-ness makes residents mostly unseeing of such things.
Daniel Libeskind, who designed (new)One World Trade Center after the Twin Towers were taken down by terrorists, also designed Zlota 44, a breathtakingly beautiful residential high-rise in the center of Warsaw. You can see both here, like siblings from the same parent: https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=Daniel+Libeskind+Buildings&FORM=RESTAB
a lonely corner
the day i walked to Schindler’s Factory, i found myself at an oddly empty corner
empty except for chairs and a water pump
identical empty chairs, permanently place, and oversized
then I found the sign
should i have been able to “feel” the murders, the death?
is that what compelled me to investigate?
what other places of horror have i passed, without knowing?
On to Auschwitz
I hope by now you trust that this journey isn’t about emaciated bodies and death. It’s about remembering them, honoring their lives, and LIVING ours.
Dessert First: The END
Morbid recycling for the war effort: confiscating prisoners’ valuables
One last, unplanned visit:
Thank you for sharing this journey. Please write about whatever’s on your mind — in the comment space below (private for my eyes only) or send me an email.
לינדה ~ Linda