Our day began with a hotel breakfast that rivaled any Israeli breakfast I've ever had.
Joanna and Ziggy picked us up at the hotel and we drove to our first stop, the Janusz Korczak Memorial. Korsak is one of my few personal heroes. His dedication to his students, his progressive ideas about a child's capability and his resolve that led him to never abandon a child which led him to accompany his children to the death camp.
We then visited the last remaining Warsaw synagogue from before the Holocaust and toured the remnants and history of the Warsaw Ghetto. There are so few buildings and sections of the Ghetto wall remaining we were able
to see them all. We saw photos and memorials to the Ghetto fighters, learned how some of them survived and the visited the memorials to the fighters of the Warsaw uprising that occurred the next year.
On the way to the Jewish cemetery we stopped at a memorial to the Ghetto fighters who survived and escaped the Ghetto thanks to an "Aryan" looking Jew, Simcha Rotem-Ratayzer with the help of some Polish sewer workers. Rotem-Ratayzer got a truck and parked it so it blocked the view of a sewer cover being worked on by the sewer workers. One by one these surviving Jewish warriors climbed out of the sewer and into the truck which then drove off. While we were there, another sewer crew was standing near by and we wondered if perhaps they were the grandchildren of those righteous Poles who helped save these brave Jews. The memorial has hands climbing the ladder out of the sewer as well as what happened to each of the survivors.
We arrived at the Jewish cemetery 70 acres with over 200,000 graves including some mass graves of those who died in the Ghetto in the years before the uprising. The size and scope of the cemetery overwhelmed our senses. The highlight for me was a visit to the grave of the great Yiddish writers Y. L. Peretz and S. Ansky. I've studied and taught their stories for nearly 40 years. To stand before their impressive memorial in the midst of thousands upon thousands of Jewish graves my soul shivered.
At the memorial to children murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) we met a group of students from Trinity College Hillel. Ziggy recognized a young woman with them whose family he had guided two years ago. The reunion and the presence of the students were moments of life and hope in this sacred place of history and pain. As we walked back to the cemetery gate, we again saw the Trinity students. This time they were raking leaves, cutting brush and removing debris from a series of graves. As I watched them I wondered how many of them had ever done yard work before or if they did how hard their parents fought with them to do it. Here they cut and raked and cleared enthusiastically: More signs of life, hope and memory.
We left the cemetery and went to a memorial the size of a box car on the sight of the train stop used to transport the Jews from the Ghetto to Treblinka and other death camps. The memorial is stark but moving.
Our next stop - a visit to Mila 18 - the bunker in which the last of the Ghetto fighters were hiding in Jewish Warsaw melded perfectly with the stop before the cemetery. As the Nazis were about to enter the bunker the fighters emulated the zealots on Masada and killed themselves rather than be killed or captured by the Nazis. I've never liked that message of Masada, kill oneself and negate the possibility, no matter how slim of survival. But I was not there. I've never been in that position and God willing never will. Maybe I would make the same choice, maybe not.
By 1947 the Poles in Warsaw had built a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters. It is a powerful piece. Knowing that it was built from Swedish granite originally commissioned by Hitler for a monument to his glory, the monument carries even more power. On one side you see Jews escorted to death by Nazi soldiers. Men, women and children all walking silently in a shallow bas relief. On the other side, bursting forth in total 3-D the men and women fighters. It took my breath away. Recently the Polish Government has built a Jewish History Museum adjacent to the Memorial. The museum building is finished but the permanent exhibit is unfinished. We decided to eat lunch there to support the museum again finding life in the midst of pain.
Our final Jewish stop was the Jewish archives from the Ghetto. Hidden in milk cans found after the war, the archive contains documents, photos and examples of daily life in the ghetto. We watched a film made from those archives and from Nazi records. As Ziggy noted, hearing about it and seeing the actual people, conditions and destruction of the Ghetto concretized the reality in our minds.
After the Archives we began our tour of historic Warsaw, government buildings and embassies, monuments and memorials ending at the original site of the city. By the end of the WW II the Nazis had razed Warsaw's old town. Even under communist rule with its bulky, utilitarian, bunker style of building, by 1957 old town had been rebuilt exactly as it looked in the 18th Century. The reconstruction used paintings from that time period to ensure the authenticity of the reconstruction. The only building not rebuilt at that time was the great palace, home to Poland's kings. That was not rebuilt until Poland began a liberalization in the 1970's. Today the building houses a museum.
We are only supposed to have our guides until 5 PM. But, like Ljuba in Prague, Ziggy and Joanna stayed with us well past that hour. As they left for the evening Joanna gave us a present of chocolate so we would have a sweet Shabbat.
The hotel had a Polish buffet for dinner so after a long day of walking and sightseeing we decided to have Shabbat dinner at the hotel. It was a true feast and a fitting way to conclude our day with a taste of Poland and Shabbat in the same moment.