This has been a hard blog to write. I started this post three weeks ago, thousands of feet up in the air on my 60th birthday, after having just finished an extraordinary trip to Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trip that began with spectacular sights in famous cities and charming towns all along the Danube River from Budapest to Vienna. That part of the trip was steeped in the finest luxury Europe had to offer. We ate amazing food, drank fine wines, and were shamelessly pampered all along the way. But there was a dissonant counterpoint to this journey, one that had us retracing the paths of our Jewish ancestors, following a trail that was defined more by what was no longer there than by what was. As we traveled along the Danube, and then later along the Vistula River in Poland, the scope of our tragic heritage enveloped us completely. We experienced quite vividly the violent, methodical rending of the Jewish culture from its long and richly entwined history with this part of the world. It was made more real to us than by any account we’d ever encountered in books, movies or news stories. My understanding of where I came from evolved as I walked down streets my ancestors had once traveled; as I saw the sights they would have found familiar, smelled aromas from the food they would have enjoyed, felt the warmth and joy of spring day as they might have, and as I heard the birds, the church bells, and the sounds of life that would once have accompanied their days.
All along the Danube and then the Vistula, we followed the path of the Jewish people from medieval times until today. We learned that there was so much more to the story than the parts we were familiar with; the religious persecution and pogroms that had driven our forebears from these lands. In the beginning, Jews were generally considered beneficial to the financial stability and growth of communities. They brought an understanding of currency with them from the Middle East that was often still unknown in this part of the world. They also brought literacy, and these two things together made them very desirable allies to those who were seeking to gain power. However, these connections weren’t always enough to spare the Jews. The common folk often resented the Jews’ elevated position, and it wasn’t hard for political rivals to use this jealousy to incite violence. But, when passions settled down, it was never long before some aspiring noble extended his hand in return for the assistance Jews could offer him. This repeating cycle of blame and acceptance followed the Jews through all of Europe, dating back as far as Roman times, but it became much more virulent in the nineteenth century after the Polish-Lithuanian Empire fell (an empire which had been known for religious tolerance). Anti-Semitism reached its darkest point with the Nazis’ rise to power in the late 1930’s. It was their intent to annihilate the Jewish people from all of Europe and beyond. It was a plan that came very close to succeeding.
As we traveled from Budapest to Vienna and then to Krakow and on to Warsaw, the memorials to the vanished Jewish communities mounted. We saw bronze shoes along the Danube in front of the Hungarian Parliament building. There, 4,000 Jews had been marched to the water’s edge and instructed to remove their shoes. They were then shot, and their bodies fell into and were carried away by the river. When the shooting finished, all that remained were the thousands of pairs of shoes lined up along the river’s edge. Now the memorial signifies the loss of more than 400,000 Jews who lost their lives in Hungary during World War II. In Vienna, we saw an empty tomb, it’s square sides compiled of 65,500 books carved in stone, each book representing one of the Jews of Austria who perished in World War II. In Austria, the names of most of lost Jews are known; it is also known where they once lived. We saw plaques on homes displaying the names of Jews who had once lived there and what concentration camp they had died in. There could be no grave, so this was the only marker of a life once lived. We visited the home studio of an Austrian artist and Holocaust survivor Arik Brauer. Having narrowly escaped death as a young boy on Krystal Nacht, he spent the rest of the war hidden away by his mother’s Christian side of the family. His Jewish father was not so lucky. He perished in a concentration camp. Arik discovered the details of his father’s last day of life after the war. He learned how it had been cold outside; that snow was falling as Jews were lined up to wait their turn in the gas chambers. An SS officer had draped a blue blanket over his father’s shoulders to keep him warm as he waited. Two of Arik’s most haunting paintings focused on these final moments of his father’s life, one he painted not long after learning how his father had died, the other he painted many years later. Both depicted the same scene, the cold winter day and his father wrapped in the blue blanket. The early painting was stark, the yellow star stood out prominently on his father’s chest; a look of hopelessness and resignation was on his face. The second showed his father dissolving into the snow, a large snow flake now in place of the yellow star on his chest, and emerging all around him was new life, even as he dissolved like the snowflakes all around him. In this second version, his arms are reaching upward, his face serene, as he leaves his body behind. The Jewish memorials along the Danube were a lot like Arik’s paintings. There was remembrance and pain, but life was irrepressible, fully absorbing the rivers of blood that had been spilled here, reshaping them into something entirely new.
When we left the Danube, we made our way to Poland. There we met up with my brother-in-law, Bill and his best friend, Brian, as we continued this journey of discovery. We learned that the Jews first arrived in Poland early in the middle ages, fleeing from religious persecution in Central Europe. When they first saw the land, they named it Polin – Po means here and Lin means rest in Hebrew. They chose this name because the land was so green and fertile, and the people welcoming. In Poland, the Jews were initially valued for being learned people, and for centuries Poland became known as a good place to live. The golden era for Poland and its Jews was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Poland was an empire aligned with Lithuania. It was an enlightened political system, a precursor to Democracy, with a legislature of the nobility that elected kings and helped effect political checks on the monarchy. The empire was known for having a large, ethnically diverse population, and for greater religious tolerance than other countries of that time. All that began to change around 1768, when the empire began experiencing internal rebellions and external pressures from Russia, as Catherine the Great began to have grand designs for Eastern Europe. By 1795, the political situation had deteriorated to the point that the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Hapsburg Monarchy divided up all the lands that once made up Poland and Lithuania, erasing the Poland Lithuania Empire completely from the map of Europe. Poland and Lithuania were not re-established as independent countries again until after World War I (in 1918).
Okay, that’s a lot of history, I admit, but suffice it to say there were good reasons why Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe at the start of World War II. The Nazi invasion of Poland changed the equation dramatically. If you were a Jew in Poland in the lead up to World War II, there was no worse place to be. Of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, three million were from Poland, which was close to the entire Jewish population of that country. World War II wasn’t good for the rest of the Polish population either. The Nazis understood that the Polish people had a strong national pride, despite (or maybe even because of) the long years of being denied the right to have their own country. The Nazis determined they would break the will of these people so thoroughly that they would never desire independence again. No quarter was given to anyone who even remotely resisted or dissented. In the end, the Nazis killed three million non-Jewish Poles as well, so combined, there were six million souls who were extinguished in Poland. The picture to the left is a portion of a wall riddled with bullet holes, where Nazis lined up people involved in the Warsaw Uprising and executed them. Many years later, an artist added the band aid you see in the center.
Mark Bill, Brian and I focused our time in Poland on Krakow and Warsaw. From the start, we were struck by some very beautiful sights. Despite the tragic history of World War II and the years after the war under communist rule, it is still a very green and fertile country. We stumbled into a farmer’s market and couldn’t help but be amazed at the size and the vibrancy of their produce. Our grocery store displays are pitiful by comparison. I can personally attest to the fact that not only can they grow food that looks beautiful, they know how to prepare it. Everything we ate in Poland was delicious, and very reminiscent of the foods my Grandmother used to make.
Our first glimpse of Krakow made us feel like we were walking back in time; so much of the medieval city is beautifully preserved. People remember the kings of old fondly, and with pride, not just for their warrior strength but for their love of learning and of the arts. One of Europe’s oldest universities is in Krakow, the Jagiellonian. Nicolaus Copernicus graduated from here, and some of Europe’s most notable alchemists learned their craft inside the university’s ancient walls. And, of course, what medieval city would be complete without a dragon? The story is told that the castle is built upon a hill where a dragon once lived. According to who is telling the story, the dragon was either killed by a farmer who got annoyed at how many sheep the dragon was pilfering; so he killed the dragon by filling a sheepskin with pitch and leaving it out for the dragon to find and consume; or, the dragon was killed by the first king of Krakow, Stephen Bathory of Transylvania.
The Jewish quarter of Krakow is now very much a tourist attraction, filled with restaurants and outdoor cafes serving traditional Jewish and Israeli food. From every establishment, you hear live Jewish folk music. It feels a little Disneyesque; a re-creation to delight the tourists, but the mood is festive and people come here in droves. What isn’t the least bit contrived within the Jewish quarter is the Remuh Synagogue. Here, a 16th century Rabbi, Moses Isserles is buried. In his time, he was a greatly revered man of learning and a very progressive thinker. He was also a renowned Kabbalist. Such was his reputation that from his death until World War II, thousands of Jews would converge on his gravesite on the anniversary of his death (or as near as they could get, the cemetery isn’t very big). They came to mourn his passing and to deliver their prayers. During World War II, when the Nazis were reducing all signs of Jewish life to rubble, they spared this synagogue and graveyard because even they were fearful of what the Remuh might do from the grave. I’m guessing the Soviets must have come to a similar conclusion, because they also left this place intact. When Mark and I showed up to visit the Rabbi’s grave, it turned out that we coincidentally arrived on the day of his death (the Jewish holiday of Lag-Ba Omer). When we walked into the cemetery, we found almost two dozen Hassidic Jews singing and praying. Their voices would alternate between joy and pain as they held their vigil. After following a trail of Jewish history where so much of what we’d seen had been memorials of stones and silence, here, in a cemetery, we were seeing something of the European Jewish experience that was life affirming. Both Mark and I walked away feeling like the Rabbi himself had wanted us to see, hear, and be a part of this moment.
It is still hard for me to reconcile that uplifting moment with what we saw next. The Jewish memorials in Krakow were beyond heart-breaking. The one that haunts me the most is the tour we took of Schindler’s Factory in Krakow (made famous in the novel and movie “Schindler’s List”). It was so intensely immersive, that from the moment we entered, we were living the nightmare that was the Krakow Ghetto. I was sickened and shaking as I walked through a maze that led us ever deeper into the life these people had been forced to live, and the inescapable death that eventually came to them all.
In Warsaw, the story of what happened during World War II took on an even darker shape and form. Warsaw’s Old Town Market is full of historic charm. But, while Krakow survived the war mostly intact, Warsaw bore the brunt of Nazi wrath. Many of you have probably heard of the plan Hitler had for Paris; to lay waste to the city with all its historical and cultural sites. He had given the same orders for Warsaw. While the General in Paris could not bring himself to enact such destruction, the orders were followed in Warsaw, and all its palaces, historic homes, and churches were severely damaged; many reduced to rubble. After the war, and notwithstanding the Soviet occupation, the Polish people raised the money themselves for meticulous reconstruction efforts. They salvaged as much of the ruins as they could, recreating as faithfully as possible the old town section of Warsaw. They restored it to a close semblance of what it had once looked like during the height of the Polish Empire. Objects of historical and artistic value that had been secreted away during the war years came out of hiding and were returned to their original spots. The heart of Chopin, which had been stolen by the Nazis from the Holy Cross Church, was returned to Poland and placed once again in the restored pillar of the church where it had once rested. For those of you curious as to why only Chopin’s heart is buried there, it is because Chopin, once he became famous and a source of national pride, was not allowed to return home to Poland. Chopin was alive at that point in time when Poland was no longer a country, but rather, an extension of Tsarist Russia. When Chopin died, the Russians were afraid of what kind of nationalism might be unleashed should the prodigal son come home for burial. Upon his deathbed, Chopin asked his sister to smuggle his heart back into Poland, so his heart could rest where he longed to be. She did as he asked. Storing the heart in a hermetically sealed jar of cognac, and then hiding the jar under her voluminous cloak, she secreted the heart home and delivered it to the Church for burial.
The Nazis were not the first to oppress the Polish people, but they were by far the worst. They waged a campaign of terror that placed no value on human life and cared nothing for human decency. Every act of bravery was responded to with crushing force. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising by the Jews, the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance, they all came at a heavy cost, snuffing out the very people who embodied the best and bravest of the people of Poland. The picture to the left is of Mark standing beside one of the few remaining sections of the wall that once surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto.
There is too much painful history here for me to adequately describe what happened to these people, or how this experience affected Mark and me. Here’s what I can say, the Polish people have preserved their tragic history with as much care and precision as they used in restoring Old Town Warsaw. There is a museum in Warsaw called Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Even if you spent a week here, you could not uncover all there is to learn in this museum. We took a tour with a guide who spent three hours just showing us the highlights. She talked until she was hoarse. She was not Jewish, but she was passionate about the subject and wanted to help us understand how it came to be that a place the Jews had once proclaimed Po-lin, “here I rest,” became a final resting place for millions of Jews and Poles.
Here’s perhaps the thing that struck me most: we focus way too much on looking for the ways we are different from each other. The truth is that there is no such thing as “pure” blood among anyone, anywhere. Borders have changed so much, people have traveled so much that within our genetic code, we are all constantly moving toward a greater merging of all our differences. One of our tour guides told us that he had only recently learned that he was the grandson of a Jewish woman who had hidden her identity during the war by converting to Catholicism. He said his story is proving to be a common one. If you scratch just below the surface of a great many Poles, you will find Jewish DNA. A former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski also referred to this, saying “If a Pole says ‘he has not even one drop of Jewish blood in this body,’ then he is not right.” So, maybe those very first Jewish settlers were not wrong in the name they chose for this place. Jewish blood has saturated the Polish earth, and even now it flows along hidden pathways through Polish veins. It’s like that Arik Brauer painting where his father is dissolving as new life is emerging. We are all part of one greater whole.