Glimpse into the Past
Prior to World War II, Poland was home to the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in Europe due to the relatively tolerant attitude towards them during the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, Poland was regarded as the epicenter of Jewish learning and culture. However, by 1942, Poland was the Nazi regime's dumping site for Jews from all over Europe; first came the Polish ghettos, then followed the
concentration camps, acting as destinations for Jews rounded up in every Nazi-occupied country.
Eighty-five percent of Polish Jewry died in the Holocaust, and not until a few decades after WWII did Poland begin to try to improve its image regarding Jewish matters. Today, Jewish culture in Poland exists largely in the background, and thankfully, there is a greater awareness of Poland's rich Jewish past as well as of the tragedies of the Holocaust.
Commemorating and Remembering in the Present
Undoubtedly, the Jewish culture rose from the ashes of persecution, and as a way to honor this, Barry and I incorporated visiting a few sites which celebrated the Jewish historical presence in Poland, and their trauma throughout the Holocaust (excluding concentration camps which deserve a blog post of their own). Whether you are a history lover or not, we strongly suggest visiting the following locations:
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Polish: Muzeum Historii źydów Poliskich POLIN): Built on the site of Warsaw’s former ghetto, this must-visit museum is extremely interactive, informative, and it is presented in a logical, concise and clear manner. There is something for anyone and everyone of all ages. We spent over 3 hours and we barely scratched the surface! Plus, it has a café shop and a restaurant which offer good food and drinks...perfect places to unwind after a day's worth of learning sooooo much.
Jewish Ghetto Memorial (Polish: Pomnik Bohaterów Getta): Nathan Rapoport's 1948 Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It is located outside the POLIN museum which was formerly a part of the Warsaw Ghetto, and at the spot where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.
The relief below "shows men and women of all ages in dramatic poses, holding a range of weapons. The Uprising is vertical, expressive and dynamic, while The Last March is horizontal and balanced with a monotonous tempo - clearly expresses the contrast between the force and power of the heroes, and the passivity and weakness of the victims, who 'went like sheep to the slaughter.' " *
"The Last March, depicts the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps - old people, children, women and men - emphasizing the indiscriminate nature of the deportation and extermination of European Jewry." *
Jewish Historical Institute (Polish: Zydowski Instytut Historyczny): This free institute welcomes visitors with a riveting 40 minute documentary on the Warsaw ghetto. Up a couple flights of stairs is an exhibit of paintings by Jewish artists from 1890-1940 most of whom perished in the Holocaust. The building itself is famous for it survived the Nazi leveling of all the buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, including the Great Synagogue that once stood next to it (now the location of the blue tower skyscraper). What may appear as neglect and disrepair is actually the "creation" of a permanent memorial of the floor and entrance which were left damaged after the fire in this building caused the bombing of the Great Synagogue.
Umschlagplatz: This is the last stop in a 15 minute walk that Barry and I made starting at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Situated right in the center of Warsaw, this cold marble monument commemorates the 300,000 souls, mainly Jews, who were rounded up and inhumanly transported to the many concentration camps set up around Poland. Although there is nothing left from the original buildings (everything was burned to the ground by the Germans after the Ghetto Uprising), it is an important tribute to visit.
Fragment of the Ghetto Wall: This place of reflection offers an authentic piece of the wall that separated the Jews from the rest of Warsaw, and it makes that horrific chapter of WWII come to life. Barry and I had a tough time finding the Ghetto Wall for it is poorly signposted. One must go through a gate on Złota Street and into a courtyard surrounded by apartment buildings prior to reaching the unassuming brick wall with a small gold plaque on it. In order to get most of the experience, we suggest you brush up on your Warsaw Ghetto history before visiting here (or anywhere else, for that matter). Trust us, you will appreciate it so much more for very little information is given on the history of the wall and its destruction.
Holocaust Memorial Wall: During our travels out with Warsaw we found many memories of the Holocaust. Located in Kazimierz Dolny, which is an hour and a half away from Warsaw by car, this hardly-ever-mentioned, must-see peaceful memorial is part of a Jewish Cemetery. During the Holocaust, Nazi Germans forced the town's Jews into paving roads using tombstones from the local Jewish cemetery. After the atrocity of WWII, the wall was erected using the pieces that survived. Do not forget to go behind the wall and experience the tranquility felt amongst the trees.
As we reflected and touched this sad fragment of the past, we also felt the enduring Jewish spirit where the destruction of the Holocaust was rebuilt into such a poignant tribute.
Please join us for our next BESPOKE travel blog post where we will give you the dish on our favorite restaurants and Polish dishes.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels!
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