Saturday, June 28, 2008

Poland Journal - Day 4 - Krakow

My apologies for the long break in completing my Poland entries. I needed to be away from the material for a while as it was anger inducing. Thanks for your patience.

May 28, 2008
כ"ג אייר תשס"ח

We spend most of the day on the bus on the way to Krakow. There, we are to visit the old Jewish quarter and several old, restored synagogues. The Jewish community of Krakow today numbers some 200 souls. In the months before the Shoah, there were some 60,000 Jews in Krakow. There is nostalgia here for the Jews. It appears in the Hebrew and Yiddish signage all around the Kazmierz area – the historic Jewish section of town. In all honesty, it feels a bit like what the Jewish Quarter of the Poland exhibit at Epcot would feel like if it existed.

Prior to our arrival, we stop in Kielce. Kielce is famous for nothing Jewishly except for the fact that it is the one place where a pogrom took place AFTER the end of the Shoah and the end of World War II. That’s right – after virtually all of Polish Jewry was annihilated, while the world just started to grasp the enormity of the final solution, the residents of Kielce felt it necessary to murder forty or more Jews based on a classic anti-Semitic canard – the blood libel.

Before arriving in Krakow, we visit another Jewish cemetery desecrated by the Nazis and restored as a memorial monument. An old Polish woman, at least eighty years of age, wearing a crucifix, comes to meet us. The privilege of paying respects to desecrated Jews graves cost our group 60 zloty or about $30. The “fee” supposedly goes to maintain the site, but the way cash payment is made betrays any sense of “good” as it is palmed from our polish docent, “Tomasz” to the woman. Profiteering. I am nauseous.

The old city of Krakow is beautiful and for a short time, I can imagine myself returning to this quaint but cosmopolitan place, until we reach the craft market. On the one hand, the market looks like just about any other fold art festival: wood carvings, jewelry, etc. There is, however, one particular art form specific to this region: the Jew Doll. Many stalls sell them: wood carved Hasidim, they look like they could have walked here from Anatevka. Some smile and some frown. There are mostly male figurines but there are also a few females. Some play the violin while others hold pitchforks and sport pointed ears designed to look like the devil. They all, however, share one feature in common: long, very long, prominent Jewish noses. But if the noses and the pitchforks aren’t disturbing enough, they pale in comparison to the unique feature of the most common Jew Dolls throughout the market: the ones that clutch large gold coins close to their hearts. Nostalgia for the old days or blatant anti-Semitism? You will have to decide for yourselves. As for me, well, any thoughts I might have harbored about returning to visit beautiful Krakow vaporize the minute I lay my eyes on my first Jew Doll with the large nose viciously protecting his heart made of a gold coin.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Poland Journal - Day III - Death Camps

May 27, 2008
כ"ב אייר תשס"ח

I have been dreading this day in particular: A day of dead cities, death forests, and death camps. Our first stop: the Umschlagplatz – the gathering point for the deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. It sits surrounded by green trees and office buildings. Like so many places of Holocaust significance, this one is in an urban area that is modern and banal. We quickly board the bus and travel back in time to a shtetl.

We arrive at Tykocin. A former shtetl, half the town is Polish Catholic, dominated by the Cathedral. The other half of the town was the Jewish shtetl dominated by the Tykocin Shul built in the mid-1600’s. The surrounding buildings sit virtually unchanged from the time of the establishment of the shul and just as they did in the 1930’s: whitewashed walls, terra cotta roofs, cobblestone streets. The television satellite dishes do betray the museum like feel of the shtetl. Their presence announces that all did not stop in Tykocin. In fact, there are new residents in these old buildings – none of them Jews.

We enter the cavernous synagogue of Tykocin. This was a shul built as a statement of importance, as if to say in 1652, “We made it!” Today, the shul is a museum. It is restored with funding from the Lauder Foundation and others and it is possible to sense what the grandeur of the place was. We look at the photos of the Jewish residents no longer among the living. The megillat Esther is open to Chapter 9 where Esther and Mordechai and the Jews of Persia fight back and specifically, to the portion where Haman and his ten sons are hanged from the gallows prepared for Mordechai. Haim, our leader, calls me up to the bimah, along with Ilyse, and our friends shower us with candy in honor of our respective sons’ bnai mitzvah. It is our “Am Yisrael Chai” moment: Look you bystanders! You failed! We are still here.”

We leave the shul and there are a few residents sitting on the stoops looking at us with looks of curiosity. Most of them are rather elderly – ninety if they are a day. They too suffered during World War II. I “should” feel some modicum of sympathy for them. But I do not. I cannot imagine their narrative and, frankly, I am not interested. I want to approach them and ask:

Did you know the Jews that lived here in 1939?

Were you friends with them?

How long did you wait to move into their homes after they disappeared?

A day?
A week?
A month?

Did you even wonder where they went or what happened to them?

Tykocin, you see, gives new meaning to the phrase “Here today. Gone Tomorrow.” Soon after the Nazis conquered Poland, they came to Tykocin. The 2,500 Jewish residence of the town were called to assemble in the evening, were marched 7 kilometers to the forest of Pochova, and murdered en mass, shot into mass graves. Imagine going to sleep one night with 2,500 Jewish neighbors and waking up the next day with half the town missing. So, what do you do, you 90 year old woman giving me the dirty looks? You move into a now formerly Jewish home…

We finish our visit to the shtetl. Time for lunch. By the waters of Tykocin we are to eat. “A beautiful spot,” we are told. One of our colleagues is uncomfortable: “Maybe they made the Jews march across the bridge on the way to their deaths. It freaks me out. Can we eat somewhere else?” So instead, we eat in the nicely manicured town square, right in front of the Big Church, where we are promptly told that all of the men of the town were gathered by the Nazis and put to work in forced labor groups until the Jews were separated out and sent to the slaughter. In places like this, I cannot imagine that there is any spot we can sit and eat that isn’t shaded by the shadow of the Angel of Death or poisoned by the tumat met – the impurity of the dead – that pervades this part of Europe. As we leave Tykocin, I start to notice a vague familiarity in the small towns we drive through. It bothers me but I don’t pay much attention.

We drive seven kilometers through winding roads into the middle of the Polish forest of Pochova. Tall, thin pines and a few birch trees line the road. I am more uncomfortable than ever here in this forest; the winding roads feel even more familiar. I feel like I know them like the back of my hand. We walk the last few meters to our destination: the final resting place of the Jews of Tykocin – three pits in the middle of the forest. I am frozen. Disbelief. Anger. I wonder if this is how incomprehensibility feels. We hold a brief memorial ceremony. Our candles join those of the Israeli Police and other groups that were here the day before holding their own memorial ceremonies and the wreaths of the March of the Living groups that preceded us by a few weeks. We walk back through the forest to our bus and proceed to our next stop: The Death Camp of Treblinka.

Notorious for its relatively short life and great success in exterminating Polish Jewry, Treblinka was essentially dismantled by the Nazis after its purpose was fulfilled. There is virtually nothing of the Death Camp left, except for the “Roasting Pits” where the hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned. Since none of the buildings remain, there is just an enormous field left, cut into the Pine and Birch forest. A gigantic Soviet Era – or at least Eastern European – style monument dominates the site. Throughout the area are 17,000 stones, many bearing the names of communities wiped out by the Nazis. Only one stone has the name of a person on it, that of Dr. Janusz Korczak, hero to Poles and Jews alike. Again, the familiarity of the place overwhelms me, as does the enormity of the number of Jews murdered here.

Danny, an art educator and installation artist, shares his opinion, his distaste actually, for the monument. In his opinion, the mysterious horror of the place would have been best preserved by leaving the parameters of the camp empty. And then, at that moment, all the stones, the monument, disappear for me and I can see the answer. It is a moment similar to that in “Searching for Bobby Fisher” when Ben Kingsley, in an attempt teach his protégé to see what is not yet there, slams all the chess pieces of the board. “Can you see it now?” he asks. Silence reigns until the boy sees it. And now I see it to and recognize the familiarity that is haunting me. The winding roads through pine and birch forests, the smell of the pine needles and the fallen leaves, the sounds of the birds, the winding road that opens to an enormous field: This could just as easily be Conover, Wisconsin, my summer home for twenty years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, as it is the Pochova forest. This could just as easily be a summer camp, a place of life for Jewish children as it is a place of hatred, murder, collective annihilation.

I can see it: to the left is the perfect spot for a chadar ochel, a dining hall; to the right, a welcome center and business office. Over there, on the other side of the field, I spy the place where I would put a circle of boy’s cabins and a circle of girls cabins. There is a massive weeping willow just off the center of the main field. There, I would put benches for people to sit and talk, to enjoy the shade of the enormous tree – the gathering place for friends. I am sick to my stomach. Fury fills my every muscle, bone, and nerve. Can a place that looks like this really be used either for good or evil? Can the difference between a summer camp and a death camp be the intentionality of the leader and his followers? Leaving Treblinka does not relieve the anger, for driving through the little towns of rural Poland looks just like driving through the little towns of rural Northern Wisconsin: Wittenberg, Antigo, etc. The disconcerting nature of the similarity is just too much for me.

Like rural Wisconsin, there are rolling hills here, subdivided into farms. Often, the fields are separated by small patches of woods. The only difference is that in central Wisconsin, I don’t ask myself if Jews were rounded up and shot en-mass in these small wooden patches.

We return to Warsaw, where we will have a wonderful visit at the home of our classmate, Helise. On the way to her apartment, we walk through downtown and a man, somewhat drunk, calls us over. We stop. He pulls up his paunch, which hangs over his belt, and gestures at the belt where he proudly wears a Swastika. Seventy-two hours in Poland and I feel like someone is finally honest with us. He yells “Heil Hitler” and we just walk away.

Is there a renaissance of Jewish life in Poland or is it a patient taking its last breaths? I don’t know. What I do know, with great certainty, is that I don’t plan to stick around long enough to find out.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Poland Journal - Day 2- Warsaw

May 26, 2008
כ"א אייר תשס"ח

Monday: A day of anger; a day of contrasts. We visit the “active” Jewish sites: The Nozick synagogue (restored) where the March of the Living takes over when it comes to visit; the Lauder School which our friend Helise established; and the “Youth Lounge” for lack of a better term. These are the places that are “alive.”


We visit the places that are dead…

The Warsaw Ghetto

A last remaining fragments of the Ghetto Wall

The Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw

A Monument to the Ghetto Uprising and The Holocaust Center

It is at the Holocaust Center that the anger, already brewing in anticipation of the trip, really bubbles to the surface. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is terrifying and disturbing and the Center tells the story in words, in still photos, and in archival film footage. Here is what the Shoah is or was. There is no whitewashing here.

In many, if not most educational settings today, we are afraid that pictures of the Shoah will frighten or disturb and so we do not show them. The turn to personal testimonies of survivors as the central way to teach the Shoah is crucial. They bear witness to this incomprehensible tragedy and murder and will do so long after those who suffered but survived are gone. The personal testimony captures the experience of the individual, of the one. To begin to grasp the enormity, the collective suffering, murder and death of six million Jews, one must, at the right age, see these pictures and films. They ARE grotesque. They ARE horrifying. And…They must be seen in order to try and conceive the inconceivable.

My blood boils. The feeling of impurity, the poison of the place, grows stronger and stronger.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Poland Day 1 - Arrival

May 25, 2008
כ אייר תשס"ח

I don’t want to be awake at this hour. In fact, I don’t want to be going to my destination at all. It is 1:45 am I am overtired and I don’t want to go. But I am going because that is what we do. Baruch and I stand on the corner waiting for our Nesher to pick us up. Our professor calls and says the driver doesn't see us. "Look for the two Jews standing on the corner at the stoplight with the suitcases," I reply...

I wake up with a start as the plane does not really touch down in Warsaw as much as pounds down on the tarmac at Frederick Chopin International Airport. Brand new, or very recently renovated, Chopin is not a warm place – it is grey and glass and cold – or perhaps that is just how I feel on this morning. Despite my reluctance, we are off to Warsaw.

I have not seen a park like this in a very long time. Everything is so green and lush, with a lot of old growth. Around a small, man-made lake, people sit politely, waiting for a concert of piano pieces by Chopin. Perhaps I would feel differently were I not wearing a kippah, but I feel so very out of place, as though the entire park is looking at the back of my head trying to figure out what in the world I am doing there…what we are doing there.

At some point, we check into our hotel and then go to dinner at a restaurant that defrosts the kosher food sent for us from Israel. Walking back through downtown Warsaw, I again feel very self-conscious. For years, I refrained from wearing my kippah in Europe. On this trip, however, I insist on wearing it sans baseball cap, proudly and openly. In any event, I look at the grim faces looking at us. I don’t feel so safe outside, but the kippah stays on. Some members of our group choose to go out to pubs. I just want to get back to the room. My pace gets faster as I walk through the pedestrian tunnel.

I enter the hotel and suddenly feel safe. The lobby is filled with police officers dressed in light blue shirts and dark blue pants like police officers from anywhere in the world. These police officers, however, speak Hebrew. They are mishteret Yisrael – the Israeli Police – here on a memorial mission just as we are. I am among my own. I am not powerless. I am safe.

Parashat Shlah Lekha 2008

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of our dear friend, Rabbi Aaron Alexander and his fiancé, Peninah Podwol. I also had the privilege of standing under the chuppah with Peninah’s father, also a rabbi, and mother, and participating in the ceremony. With friends and family beaming with joy, the couple made their way down the stairs of the outdoor patio at the American Jewish University just before the sun started its descent. If the spot where the Milken School sits were replaced with the Temple Mount, this could just as easily been the Maiersdorf Plaza at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It is a rarity for me to co-officiate at a wedding and I usually only do so at the weddings of people that I know well. Under the chuppah, you are privy to the entire ritual, to the looks of the bride and groom, to have the opportunity to share thoughts, hopes, prayers, and advice at the very moment boyfriend and girlfriend, fiancée and affianced, become chattan and kallah – bride and groom. Since it was Sunday, I based my remarks on this week’s parashah, Shlah Lekha. Since I almost never write down my remarks at a wedding so I can spend the time looking directly into the eyes of the bride and groom, here is a summary, to the best of my recollection, of my words to Aaron and Peninah:

“You know that I like to think and speak in threes (chuckles from the Ramah Darom chevre present) and so I am going to focus on two words at the beginning of the parashah and then one paragraph at the end. Our parashah opens with the story of the m’raglim – the spies – that Moshe sends to check out the land of Israel. Aaron, we first met because while I thought I was on a recruitment mission to the University of Florida, I think your mother, Linda, had me sent on a spy mission to make sure that you were well. Peninah, when I met Aaron at the Swamp at UF, I knew immediately that he would be a fantastic madrich (counselor). I didn’t know that he would become a talmid (student), a chaver (a dear friend), a teacher, a confidant, and a brother.

Aaron, it is because of another word in the parashah that I know Peninah’s family. Moshe instructs the spies to go and check out the land. Do they live in wooded areas or barren lands? Do they reside in fortresses or in machanayim, which shares the same root as machaneh, which of course, as most of us know, means camp? In fact, fifteen years ago, one of my first recruitment trips for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was to the South suburbs of Chicago, where I met Peninah’s father at the home of Sarah Graff. So in a sense, I know both of you because of the camps Ramah.

Peninah, Aaron, I want to turn to the end of our parashah because there is crucial advice for you as you begin your married life together. Here, we read the paragraph that tells us of the mitzvah of tzitzit, the command to place fringes on the corners of all four cornered garments. The purpose of tzitzit, we are taught, is to remind us, to remind us of the Commandments and to do them, to remember them, and to refrain from pursuing those things that draw our attention away from our fidelity to our covenanted relationship with God.

Today, Aaron and Peninah, you place rings on your fingers, wedding rings, which serve a similar purpose to tzitzit. They are the outward expression of an internal fidelity, a commitment to one another that you are more important, unique, kadosh, than any other human relationship in the world; that you make promises to one another, commitments. You will both be very successful in your careers. You will be pursued by others who want you to give just one more class, one more lecture, to attend just one more meeting for the good of the Jewish people. And because you are both so committed to the Avodat Kodesh – the Sacred Work – that you do, you too will want to give just one more class, one more lecture, touch one more set of lives. You will pursue those interests with gusto. These rings remind you that before you can be excellent servants of the community and the Kadosh Baruch Hu, you must be excellent partners to one another. Remember that whenever you look at the wedding rings on your fingers.

Aaron, Peninah, Rebecca and I wish you unlimited happiness in this ultimate relationship and look forward to decades of continued friendship. Mazal Tov!”

After reciting the Sheva Berachot, together with Matthew Alexander who has an incredible voice, the glass was broken, a cheer went up and the new husband and wife were escorted to a few minutes of privacy. When they emerged at the reception, the dancing went on for a very long time and it was wonderful to see so many people surrounding the chattan and kallah in joy and love.

Mazal Tov!

Shabbat Shalom!


To those coming to Israel on Ramah Israel Seminar, I look forward to seeing you very soon. If you are coming from Poland, I will see you at the Hava and not at the airport. If you are coming the day after on the regular Seminar, I will see you at the group area at Ben Gurion! I can’t wait to welcome you to מדינת ישראל !

Mazal Tov to our friend Marc Silberstein on his recent engagement!

Mazal Tov to our friend Anna Stern on her recent engagement!

Mazal Tov to Vicki and Jason on their pending move to Chattanooga, TN (which is about 3 hours closer to us in Atlanta)!

Yasher Koah to my colleagues at the Melton Senior Educator Program on the completion of the Program.

Starting on Motzei Shabbat, I will be posting journal entries from my recent trip to Poland and Hungary both to the google group and to my blog at . The blog site will include photos from the trip. Please note that this was an intense and difficult trip for me and the entries will communicate that very clearly.