I have to say that I was surprised at all that Warsaw had to offer. I was expecting a drab post-Eastern block city, and Warsaw proved to be much more.
After the long drive up from Krakow, we began our Warsaw adventure at the Museum of History of Polish Jews. Rather than serving as a depository for reclaimed Jewish articles, this museum followed the direction of many modern Israeli museums, as a vast interactive story-telling experience, beginning at Charlemagne’s invitation to Jews to come north and ending in present times. Well worth a trip.
We then toured on foot and wheel remnants of the Warsaw ghetto. I write ‘remnants’ because 80% of Warsaw was destroyed in the war. There are a few surviving buildings and wall fragments from the Warsaw ghetto that have been preserved with burn marks and bullet holes, and there are a few modern statues to mark the original supports for the bridge that connected both sections of the ghetto. As with Berlin, Warsaw seems to be working hard to preserve its Jewish history alongside its Polish one. And sadly, much of Warsaw’s recent history is death, for Poles and Jews. Our tour guide Magda off-handedly remarked that Warsaw is, in a way, one large graveyard.
We stopped in Warsaw’s one surviving synagogue, built in the 1800s. It lasted because the Nazis found it to be an effective stable (there were posts in the sanctuary perfect for tying up horses). Fortunately, the synagogue is once again active and beautifully (though relatively simply) restored. Security is tight.
Nearby the synagogue stands a major building in the life of the Jewish community. Inside its grand marble lobby are burn marks across the floors and walls from the war. This building houses the Jewish Historical Institute, with thousands of archival documents within its walls. Our destination here was one particular section – the Genealogy Department. Here, we learned, people from across the world whose Jewish ancestors come from Poland, contact the staff and with their help find out much more about their history. Apparently one lady proved able to find out about her grandfather’s family knowing only his name, a geographical region, and that he had patented some kind of fountain pen in the United States. Anyone from around the world can contact them, and they are thrilled to help connect people to their roots.
The next day we visited Warsaw’s old Jewish cemetery (Okapova cemetery), and I was blown away by the beauty in this place, graveyard or not. Unlike cemeteries back home, these matzeivot (tombstones) were each in their own rights works of beauty and art. They told stories in their Hebrew text, but taught even more through their carvings and shapes. Some were centuries old, others decades. Be sure to check out the photos when I get around to posting them. One practice that we also encountered at the old cemetery in Prague was how they handled all the fragments from the monuments damaged by the Nazis beyond repair. They combined them in a mosaic of memory to pave the many retaining walls in the cemetery. The result is beautiful and meaningful. Again, make sure to see the pictures.
We followed this cemetery visit with a trip to Chopin Park, a beautiful garden and pond honoring the famous composer, Frederick Chopin. An idyllic place, there were benches everywhere with speakers that would play a Chopin composition at the push of a button.
Our day’s tour concluded in Warsaw’s old town. Old town I say, though 80% was destroyed? How might this be? Well, immediately after the war the city began working on restoring and rebuilding the old section exactly as it was, and they were so successful that rebuilt Warsaw is now a UNESCO preserved historical site. And beautiful it is. A gorgeous European city in which I was happy to spend hours wandering, meandering in and out of shops galleries and cafes, enjoying views of the river. The teens were content for hours to sit atop the old city walls, basking in the sun and the views. This free time in the old town was a badly needed rest after a very intensive couple of days.
Fortunately, we encountered no over Antisemitism in Warsaw, or Poland for that matter. Not something I expected. One thing I did pick up on though, and I’m not sure of whether this matter is deliberate or simply deep-rooted. Many of the old-Hasidic Jew wood carvings sold at tourist stands, and much of the artwork of old Jews, all have some kind of money present in their imagery. As if a memory of a Jew is not complete without the symbol of money. Ugh.
We ended our trip together on a festive note, at a traditional Polish restaurant with a traditional Polish band (with dancers) for entertainment.
It seems that everyone on this trip has had a meaningful experience of growth. The teens were intrigued with our people’s deep connection to Eastern European land and people. They were distraught at the atrocities we have faced through the centuries, and they were energized by what appears to be an enormous revival of Jewry– that the flame of our spirit will always once again burn strong.