Sunday, April 15, 2012

Trip to Poland and Pesach Vacation (Part 1)

As Marina mentioned in the most recent post, the last month here in Israel has been pretty busy, both scholastically and socially.  This post will be about two things - my recent trip to Poland and our Pesach vacation up north, broken up into two parts.

When I first came to Israel, a friend of mine from school sent me an email about an educational trip to Poland for students studying abroad.  The program was a partnership effort by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC and the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC) in Poland.  At first I wasn’t sure if I qualified since it seemed like the program was geared for undergraduates studying abroad, but I applied nevertheless.  Fortunately for me, I was accepted.  The trip consisted of ten students (2 guys + 8 girls = Good Ratio) plus our guide who was an American student living in Poland on a Fulbright Scholarship.  For many of you who know my background, I love learning about Jewish history, specifically World War II/Holocaust history so this trip was geared to be right up my alley!!!

I flew into Crakow (or Krakow depending on how you spell it) - P.S. in Polish, the “w” is pronounced like a “v” - to meet the other students who had come from all over Europe; France, Italy, Scotland, Austria, and Germany.  Our group had a great dynamic and with just 10 people we all go the chance to know each other over the course or the 4 day trip.  For anyone who has not been to Poland before, please do not miss out on going to Crakow.  The city is unbelievably beautiful.  When the Nazi’s invaded and occupied Poland, they turned the country into what was termed the Generalgouvernement (General Government) a semi-rump state of the Third Reich which controlled the area.  For some reason, the Germans loved the city and decided to leave most of the buildings intact, including many of the buildings in the former Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. 

The city has a distinctly old world European feel that I can only compare to cities like Amsterdam or those that survived the ravages of world wars.  Almost all of the original 15th, 16th, and 17th century architecture is still in place - this includes churches, synagogues, castles, etc.  The old city, which in the middle ages was surrounded by a moat and drawbridge (the drawbridge building still exists!), is now surrounded by a park that goes in a circle all the way to the Wistula River.  Great restaurants and pubs liter the city center and with the Polish złoty being extremely undervalued compared to the US dollar, it almost felt like spending monopoly money on food and drinks. P.S. in Polish the “ł” with a slash through it is pronounced like a “w” so złoty should sound like zwoty but really sounds like zvoty. Confusing I know.

We had a great tour through the cities former Jewish district which has survived although there are almost no Jews living there.  There are currently only around 30,000 registered Jews living in all Poland, whereas over 3,000,000 lived there before the war.  In Crakow itself, there are around 150 registered Jews, but there may be more people with Jewish descent who aren't registered or are simply hiding their identity out of fear.  Surprisingly, there is a JCC, several synagogues, and several “Jewish” themed restaurants for tourists.  On the course of the tour, we saw several areas where Schindler’s List was filmed and learned some surprising facts about the production of the movie.

After walking through Kazimierz, we went to the neighborhood which housed the Crakow Ghetto were Jews were housed during the Nazi occupation.  We were able to walk on the umschlagplatz where Jews were herded together before being sent off to the camps, many for immediate gassing.  We saw the remaining part of the original ghetto wall (which if you look at my pictures on facebook are actually constructed much like Jewish tombstones) and then we went to Schindler’s factory where many Jews were saved by his noble motives.  Following the factory museum tour, we met with a Polish woman whose family saved a young Jewish girl during the war.  She has since been recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem and it was an honor and great experience to hear her testimony.  We finished off the long day with a nice dinner out followed by ice cold shots of Polish vodka and great beer!!!

The next day, our group woke up bright and early to get on the bus for Oswiecim, the town occupied by the Nazis and known to most as Auschwitz.  Not many people are aware that there are actually two separate camps at Auschwitz, first the smaller camp named Auschwitz and then the much larger camp named Birkenau.  Together they combine to form the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex that housed around 100,000 prisoners at any time. I’ve loaded a lot of pictures from the trip online so I’ll keep it brief by saying that the two camps are very different.  The Auschwitz camp eerily resembles a quaint university campus setting with its two story brick buildings and wide street that runs down the middle.  When you add the guard towers, barbed-wire fence, and the knowledge of what took place there, it definitely doesn’t feel like a campus anymore.  It is a strange feeling to be inside a Nazi concentration-camp.  Having been to Dachau before (Nazi camp outside of Munich), I knew what to expect but the rest of my group had never been to a camp before.  We all basically felt emotional, not happy or sad, really without emotion.  Our tour guide was a wealth of knowledge and I think the thing that hit me the most was seeing the pictures of the first Polish prisoners faces with the dates of their arrival and departure, departure most likely meaning death.  Most lasted just a few weeks, some just a few days.

That night, we went back to Oswiecim and had a night cap at the local watering hole which was an interested experience considering what we had just seen earlier.  We drank some nice Polish vodka, had a few beers and danced with all the local Poles.  The next morning, we headed to the Birkenau camp which is the complete polar opposite of the Auschwitz camp.  Birkenau is what you would imagine when you think of a concentration-camp.  A vast expanse, 20 times larger than the Auschwitz camp, with the remnants of wooden barracks and the train tracks running through the infamous gate.  We spent almost 4 hours walking around the camp, seeing the different sections where prisoners lived and died.  There were many groups of Israelis with flags walking around the camp, testament to the Jewish perseverance and spirit.  We saw the demolished gas chambers and crematoria, two destroyed by an inmate revolt close to the end of the war, the other two destroyed by the Germans, proof that what they were doing was wrong, something they wanted to cover up by any means possible.

We finished up the trip by returning to Crakow and having an afternoon tour of the old city.  As I mentioned earlier, Crakow has a beautiful old city that was spared from the destruction of both world wars and we got to see almost everything there is to see of historical importance.  I would without a doubt recommend a trip to Crakow for anyone thinking about visiting Poland.  I don’t have as many good things to say about Warsaw.  I took a train there to see the Polish countryside (which was beautiful) and on the train I had a verbal fight with the ticket collector who couldn’t count and told me I was already 27 even though my birthday is not until May.  I was forced to pay the extra amount since I was no longer a “student” and I promptly told the imbecile that he should learn how to count.  I arrived in Warsaw, a huge city compared to Crakow, and walked all the way to my hostel from the central train station since I didn't feel like trying to navigate public transportation in a completely foreign language.  Warsaw is very modern compared to Crakow since 90% of the city was destroyed during the 2nd World War.  Nevertheless, I got to see Warsaw’s old city, have dinner and drinks with a friend from school, and walk all over the city on the last day of the trip.  I saw remnants of the Warsaw ghetto wall, the umschlagplatz where Jews were deported and the only remaining synagogue to survive the war in Warsaw.  I flew back to Israel that  evening feeling content and happy with the results of the trip, and ready to see Marina!

Part 2 of this blog will follow in the next few days.