“Stories Put Names & Faces to the Locations”: Day Three, March 27, 2012
Today was a whirlwind of Jewish culture before and during World War II, and then a haunting feeling of a beautiful people who had gone extinct from Poland. We started off with a tour of Alta Schul, a five hundred year old synagogue and the oldest synagogue on Polish land, and as we examined the beautiful artifacts we learned about how the scrolls are made and the significance of many different aspects of Judaism. Sadly, however, we also learned that the artifacts we were seeing, called “Our Precious Legacy,” were the result of the Nazis looting synagogues from all over for the time when they had completed their systematic total destruction of the Jewish people. The artifacts were meant to be like an anthropological study of an extinct culture.
We then walked through the Jewish Quarter to the Rama Synagogue and Cemetery, which house the remains of over 400 years of Jewish people. While in the cemetery we learned about the Jewish burial practices, but also the adaptations to the practices after continual exile, when the old practices were no longer possible. We also examined a beautiful wall made of parts of old tombstones that were left from a time when the Nazis were taking whatever they could, including Jewish tombstones, for building materials. The Jewish people in that community removed the tombstones and buried them in the ground to protect them and then, after the war, the tombstones were uncovered and were set up as best as they could be. The remaining headstones were used to create an amazing wall at the back of the cemetery.
As we walked through Kazimierz, the old town, we went visited many synagogues, and learned about major events and people in Polish history, focusing a great deal on the Jewish history of Krakow. We learned that six million Polish people were killed during WWII – three million Jews and three million other Polish citizens.
Our travels then took us to examine the location of the Jewish Ghetto, which was in use for two years and spent some time looking at the remnants of the wall that used to surround the ghetto. Interestingly enough, the psychology that went into the design of the wall was part of the torture. The wall is shaped like a giant row of tombstones, as if to send the message, you are being buried alive. We also visited the very moving monument that was set up to honor the deportees from the Krakow Ghetto who were sent to Belzec or Plaszow.
On one of the short bus rides from stop to stop, we celebrated the news that a Jewish man was for the first time elected mayor of Frankfurt Germany yesterday, however, it further represents a significant contrast to the absence of Jews- not only in the leadership of Poland, but in all of Poland. At this point our guide, Jacob, shared how he, at five years of age, got his start in this work. He kept lists of the names read during an afternoon radio program, survivors seeking out family members, and made a match reuniting two such searching individuals. The actions of one person very clearly matter. Jacob went on to lead several of the first trips of survivors back to Poland more than 20 years after the war ended and then has dedicated much of his life to organizing and leading such tours. His stories put names and faces to the locations that we are visiting.
We travelled next to Schindler’s factory which has changed hands countless times since the end of the war, changing purposes with each transfer. In 2010 it opened under management by the country of Poland as a museum. The exhibit covers the occupation of Poland, the ghettoization of Krakow, the creation and liquidation of Plaszow labor and concentration camp. This visceral experience is nuanced even into the temperature of the rooms, the textures of the floor coverings and the lighting, or lack there of, in order to reflect in some ways the emotions of those involved. While we did not see the actual production floor as depicted in the movie, the exhibit does contain several elements honoring the memory and actions of Oscar Schindler and the Jews he was able to save.
Our next stop took us to the former site of the Plaszow labor and concentration camp. This area does not bear a trace of the camp that operated there. The Nazis dismantled and removed every element of the camp. Instead it is a wide open grassy area that seems to be used as a type of park. An immense monument now stands sentry at the top of the hill, five individuals depicted bearing a burden of indeterminate shape and immeasurable weight; their eyes are downcast, their hands in various poses of defiance, resistance, acceptance and the place where the hearts would reside is conspicuously void. Ironically in the inscription on the back there is mention of the many who died, but no mention of the fact that one hundred percent of the victims of Plaszow were Jewish. Our dear and treasured friend, survivor Gisela Glaser was once confined on these grounds so it was an especially personal connection for those of us who have heard her story. The wind and a preset appointment at the Galicia Museum drove us off the hill and back to the bus.
We experienced the Galicia Museum, which examines and chronicles Poland’s Jewish heritage through the photography of Chris Schwarz. Ruined synagogues and cemeteries make a powerful impression, as do many other thought-provoking images that explore the Jewish question in Poland.
Our next stop was the Castle Wawel where we heard from Artur, our local Polish guide and proud Polish citizen, the history of a country where leadership has changed many times, reflected even in the architecture of the castle itself. We visited the tomb of Polish hero Marshal Jozef Pilsudski and toured the immense grounds of the Castle over looking the Vistula River.
We ended a very full day with a visit to the St. Mary’s Basilica in the heart of old Krakow, some shopping and an authentic Polish dinner.
~Kellie Hannum & Angela Harvey