History and beauty intertwine in Poland

From Lodz to Warsaw to Krakow, the specter of the Holocaust is never far away.

June 5, 2016 06:42
nazi train

A TRAIN TRAVELS where a Nazi train rumored to have gone missing at the end of World War II is believed to be in southwestern Poland. (photo credit: REUTERS)

High upon a hill in the Polish city of Lodz, a life-sized statue of a distressed Jan Karski gazes into the distance at a symbolic Star of David.

Karski, a non-Jewish Pole, tried unsuccessfully to convince the American president that a Holocaust of unimaginable dimensions was taking place in Europe – and that the US needed to take a stand. The Karski statue and the Star of David stand at opposite ends of Survivors’ Park, a site dedicated to Poles who risked everything in order to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

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Tourists to Warsaw and Krakow generally don’t plan a stop in Lodz, only a few hours driving from both. But Lodz, which was a bustling industrial metropolis before the Holocaust decimated its Jewish population, is bursting with fascinating sites.

Recently, we visited Poland for the first time, stopping for a few days each in Lodz, Warsaw and Krakow and discovering that they could hardly be more dissimilar.

Still, one common theme binds all three: authorities and private citizens alike are making a concerted effort to remind the public that a huge chunk of the country’s history and diversity was lost together with her more than 3,000,000 murdered Jews.

LODZ STARTED out as a farm, becoming a small town in the Middle Ages with a church, a market and some fields. Who could have guessed that, with the establishment of a few textile factories in 1820, it would become the most important industrial city in the country? In 1939, the Nazis incorporated Lodz into Germany, determining to transform it into an all-German city. After wiping out the Jewish population and moving out the Poles, not much of the earlier town was left. The Communist regime that took over after the war kept most of the 1,000 factories going, but after Poland gained independence in 1989, the factories collapsed.

Lodz has never fully recovered, yet tremendous efforts are being made to attract tourists and change the city’s look.

Take Manufaktur. Once the second- largest factory in Lodz, today it is a gigantic entertainment center boasting a shopping mall, fountains, restaurants and a theater.

Or consider Piotrkowska Street, a major byway, lined with intriguing statues and elegant buildings.

Survivor’s Park features a pool reflecting its wonderful sculptures, together with beautifully landscaped paths. Although it is unfortunate that so few prewar buildings in the city center have been renovated, producers frequently pick Lodz as a backdrop for movies about World War II! Lodz’s extraordinarily moving Holocaust Memorial incorporates the infamous train station where so many Polish Jews were sent to the death camps. The town’s enormous Jewish cemetery, cared for by an ever-growing Jewish community, tells the story of its Jewish past through mausoleums, unusual tombstones, and the touching ghetto fields.

Our fantastic guide to Lodz, Milena Wicepolska, realized one day that rapidly growing foliage in the Jewish cemetery was covering up many of the tombstones. Wicepolska is a young woman with no Jewish roots, but like so many other young Poles, she is passionately interested in Jewish culture and Jewish history. A few years ago she began a monthly clean-up in the cemetery with (non-Jewish) volunteers who answer her notices on Facebook and chop down the trees! WHEN COMMUNISM collapsed in 1989, the Poles could hardly wait to destroy everything that reminded them of Russia. In Warsaw, for example, there was a campaign to blow up the tallest building in the country. A project initiated by the Soviets, the Josef Stalin Palace of Culture and Science hosted all kinds of performers. Among them were the Rolling Stones, who in 1967 appeared there in their first concert behind the Iron Curtain.

The Stones were paid in zloty, which at the time could not be converted into British pounds. But after using the money to bring home wagon loads of vodka, British customs demanded a huge tax that the musicians refused to pay.

Instead, they returned the vodka to Poland – and, say the wags, it is still being enjoyed by Palace staff! Despite public pressure to destroy the Palace, which many still see as a symbol of Russian dominance, the building still stands. Today it holds theaters, cinemas, museums, cafés and bars, along with offices and a public swimming pool.

Unlike Lodz, Warsaw is rapidly developing into an ultra-modern metropolis. Skyscrapers (none as tall as the Palace, however) can be seen all over the city, many of them going up in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was systematically demolished by the Nazis after hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps.

In this city of stark contrasts, Warsaw’s 13th-century Old Town, destroyed during World War II, has been painstakingly reconstructed (and named a UNESCO Heritage Site). Inside its shattered walls are splendid churches, the archives of traitor/patriot Jack Strong, a bustling market square filled with cafés and restaurants, and a castle, complete with an exciting new historical museum. A marvelous promenade follows along the Vistula River, many a palatial residence still stands just outside the Old Town, and fabulous parks stretch from one part of the city to the other.

Visitors to the Warsaw Ghetto find few of the original buildings still standing, but there is still much to see: the touching monument at the infamous Umschlagplatz, where Jews were collected before being sent to the death camps; Mila 18, site of the bunker from which Jews revolted against the Nazis in 1943; the striking Ghetto Heroes Monument; and the newest attraction: the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

During the period when Communism ruled, history books refrained from mentioning that Jews and Poles had lived side-by-side for the thousand years of the country’s existence. Situated in the heart of the ghetto, the museum rectifies this travesty through wonderfully innovative and excitingly modern multimedia techniques that bring Polish and Jewish history to life, and demonstrate how impossible it is to separate one from the other.

The ghetto is also experiencing a revival of Jewish culture, with a restaurant offering Polish-Jewish cuisine to Polish guests, and jampacked Polish audiences flocking to the Jewish theater for the best in Jewish drama.

Of Warsaw’s prewar 400 Jewish houses of worship, only the Nożyk Synagogue still stands; it survived simply because it was spacious enough for use as both a storehouse and a stable for Nazi horses.

Inaugurated in 1902, today the synagogue serves as a focal point for the ever-expanding Jewish community. Indeed, we ran into two of its 600 members at Warsaw’s dazzling Łazienki Park, where a young Polish couple was taking pre-wedding photographs before tying the knot at the synagogue! IN KRAKOW’S Old Town, St.

Mary’s Church dates back to the 13th century. During the Middle Ages, a trumpeter would stand at the window of its highest tower to announce the opening and closing of the city gates – and to warn of imminent danger.

When the Tartars attacked in 1240, an archer shot him through the throat as he was sounding the alarm. Krakow is nothing if not traditional; since that time, to commemorate this dastardly act, a live trumpeter plays the same call every hour on the hour from windows in the tower. And the whole shtick is repeated every day at noon on Polish National Radio! Touring Krakow is a delight, especially because its magnificent buildings, historical sites and glistening Vistula River are so very close to one another. Good walkers can see absolutely everything on foot; while public transport is cheap and available to everyone else. Delicious meals in quaint and/ or elegant restaurants are ridiculously inexpensive. Souvenirs are concentrated in the 13th-century Cloth Hall, a castle-like structure in the middle of the square that also boasts an historical underground museum.

Founded in the seventh century, Krakow became so important that in 1038 it was declared capital of Poland. Later that title went to Warsaw, and the two cities still haven’t made their peace! Jews found their way there in the 11th or 12th centuries, when they were offered protection by its rulers, but often there were clashes with the local populace.

After severe riots in 1495, the Jews of Krakow were expelled to the adjacent town of Kazimierz.

Jews had settled in Kazimierz earlier on, and in the early 15th century had built what is, today, the oldest preserved synagogue in Poland. When Krakow and Kazimierz merged in 1868, Polish and Jewish commerce, trade, cultures and histories became inextricably intertwined.

Krakow’s rich cultural life disappeared forever when the Germans entered Krakow, crammed the Jews into a tiny ghetto on the southern banks of the Vistula River, and deported to the death camps everyone who didn’t die of starvation or disease. The only Jews to survive worked in the Oscar Schindler’s factory, manufacturing products for the German military machine.

Nothing is left of Jewish life in the ghetto, and Schindler’s factory has also ceased to exist, replaced in 2010 by a museum about World War II. What does remain, however, is Kazimierz, the best-preserved Jewish Quarter in Europe. Boasting seven renovated centuries-old synagogues, bursting with Jewish (and Polish) restaurants and shops, it also offers the best nightlife in Krakow. Believe it or not, this new return to Jewish culture is due, in large part, to the efforts of the city’s Catholic population! The Krakow Jewish Festival, a major bash held every summer since 2004, was founded by a non-Jewish Pole, and non-Jews make up its entire staff. At the same time, 55 non-Jewish high school and university students volunteer their time and energy at Krakow’s Jewish Community Center in Kazimierz.

Says JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein: “For years there has been an amazing amount of non-Jewish interest in all things Jewish. This has created an atmosphere in which grandparents who never told their families that they are Jewish are opening up about their roots. The result is an environment in which it is more than okay to be Jewish!” He adds that fully one-fourth of the JCC’s 600 current members discovered their Jewish roots over the past few years, and “they are becoming more and more involved in our activities.”

Krakow’s annual Ride for the Living, which had its start in 2014, is a 55-kilometer bike ride from Auschwitz to the JCC.

“We Jews have always experienced tragedy and loss,” notes Ornstein, “but imagine the experience of riding from a notorious death camp – to the site of an amazing rebirth of Jewish life!” A huge thank you to extraordinary guides: in Warsaw, Kuba Wesolowski and Agata Kabza of the Sparks Incoming Travel Agency, in Lodz Milena Wicepolska and in Krakow: Dorota (surname unknown) from http://freewalkingtour.com, whose excellent tours are available all over Poland.

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