A travel experience to Poland is what you make of it

There are many Jews who only travel to Poland on roots trips or to visit Holocaust sites, while many Israelis love Poland for its great food, picturesque countryside and historic cities. 

 The panoramic views of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula River (photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)
The panoramic views of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula River
(photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

Even before the two of us set off on our latest trip to Poland, we discussed how we would portray our visit in our Travel Edition of The Jerusalem Post Podcast. Our biweekly show is usually fun-filled, so the thought of portraying Jewish history both glorious and tragic in our broadcast was somewhat daunting. 

There are many Jews who only travel to Poland on roots trips or to visit Holocaust sites, while many Israelis love Poland for its great food, picturesque countryside and historic cities. 

Our destination: southeastern Poland, close to the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine.

Most visitors to Kraków don’t travel beyond the city’s limits but for us it was merely the gateway to the region. It’s an hour from Kraków’s airport to the 14th century town square of Tarnów. The town hall located at the center of the square dominates, with its bell sometimes chiming on time, if the official winder has remembered to do his job. A climb to the top rewards you with a great view of the town and particularly where its Jews once resided. 

With just one exception, the houses on all four sides of the square were once inhabited by Jews. The only remaining testimony is the carved-out space in one stone doorway, where a mezuzah once sat. The town museum tells the story of Tarnów, including that of its once-large Jewish population. The main museum building’s exhibits primarily aim at schoolchildren with the message: we learn the lessons of yesterday and go forward as equals, all of us.

There are other striking remnants of Tarnów’s Jewish past – a Jewish-style restaurant in the former mikveh building; the “Bimah,” a towering four-arched square that is all that remains of the main synagogue and, perhaps most poignantly, the restored Jewish cemetery, still used today. You can pick up a key to the cemetery at the tourist information center in the town square. Close to the Bimah are the offices of the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Tarnów where you can arrange tours given by the only known Jew in the town, Magda Michal Bartosz.

A side tour to Zalipie, a 40-minute drive away takes you to a village that was once grey and in need of loving care. Around 100 years ago, the residents decided they would spruce up their hamlet. Whitewashing was followed by a splash of color and eventually vivid flowers painted on every available space. A small technicolor museum tells the story of the project.

With a much larger town square, Rzeszów also has a rich Jewish story to tell. You can see remnants of the ghetto wall and two standing synagogues. Poignant memorials dot the old town.

An important stop is the Ulma-Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II in Markowa, a village southeast of Łańcut. It takes a no-holds-barred look at the Holocaust through the lens of the village: It tells of those Poles who either did nothing to save Jews or those who actively helped the Germans but its centerpiece is the story of those who paid with their lives for trying to save their Jewish neighbors.

Closer to the Ukranian border, a walk around Przemyśl takes you to a castle, churches of many stripes, through a beautiful town center and to a standing but now disused synagogue. The whimsical Museum of Bells and Pipes is definitely a good way to spend an hour but be prepared for lots of steps. The view at the top is sublime.

 Rzeszow has a rich Jewish story to tell (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) Rzeszow has a rich Jewish story to tell (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

Back in the Communist era, the Party enjoyed its stays at the Hotel Arłamów. Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa less so. He was imprisoned there for six months. Today it is a luxury sports hotel with pretty much every amenity you could wish for in stunning scenery. It’s easily accessed from Przemyśl.

The Sanok Museum of Folk Architecture gives you an idea of what life was once like in this corner of the world. The team moved buildings from abandoned villages around the region and lovingly restored them in Sanok. From October, the museum will include a synagogue. Sadly, none were left intact so the team built this one based on photos. It will house a large collection of Judaica.

As we passed through town after town, we came to the understanding that their populations often included a 40%-50% Jewish minority. Sanok’s was no exception.

One thing you see aplenty in this region is wooden churches. If you had time to visit just one, it should be the Assumption of Holy Mary Church in Haczów. It’s the UNESCO-recognized largest wooden Gothic church in Europe and one of the oldest wooden framework churches in Poland.

This region is also known for its glass – a reminder is housed at the working Glass Heritage Center in Krosno, just off yet another beautiful town square. Visitors watch the entire process with excellent guides and the ubiquitous store at the end of the tour. Kids will have fun with the magic mirrors, hands-on exhibits and an extremely clever 3-D painting they can walk on.

A great way to end a busy day is a visit to the excellent Carpathian Wine Salon in the Dwór Kombornia hotel and spa. While Polish wines are still finding their way, the cellar gives a great insight on wines of the broader region that takes in several countries. The owner and wine instructor is knowledgeable and funny with impeccable English.

It’s a long drive from there to Kazimierz Dolny but worth the trip. Situated on the Vistula River, the village’s hills offer panoramic views, with the castle perhaps the best vantage point. Down in the village’s second square, the synagogue and kosher butcher’s store have been recreated. The synagogue holds a small but fascinating exhibition of pre-war life in the area. A couple of minutes away is the goldsmiths’ museum, which includes displays of Jewish and other religious work alongside exquisite jewelry.

If, from there, you are headed to Lublin, do stop off at Kozłówka Palace, the home of the Zamoyski family (more on them in a minute). It’s a large rococo and neoclassical palace complex replete with hundreds of paintings, period furniture and lovely gardens.

OUR FINAL destination was Lublin. Its castle is a good starting point for understanding the city and its environs. It’s a church, castle-keep, museum, gallery combo. Allow plenty of time for a visit. The nearby old town makes for a pleasant stroll. Even if you keep kosher, it’s worth popping your head into the non-kosher Restaurante Judeu Mandrágora, with its traditional Ashkenazi menu. The walls are filled with images of rabbis and Jewish sayings. The piped music is distinctly hassidic and the staff costumes will take you back to shtetl days. There is one Jewish member of the family, which is committed to keeping alive Jewish culinary culture.

While in Lublin, a visit to the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin is highly recommended. The synagogue is still operational for visiting groups and the explanatory exhibit about the former Talmudical college is small but of great interest. The yeshiva is housed in the same building as the Hotel Ilan, which has a kosher kitchen for visiting groups. The regular restaurant serves up excellent gourmet food.

On the fringes of the city and a must-see is the Open Air Village Museum. If you are Ashkenazi, it is worth the journey to see one exhibit. Based on photos and interviews with neighbors, the village has recreated the homestead of a Jewish family – just like the one where your great-grandparents lived. With wonderful guides who tell the stories of this and other exhibits, you are taken back 100 years to a very different world.

After a haunting, emotional visit to Majdanek, on the edge of Lublin, our final stop was in the UNESCO World Heritage town Zamosc, built by the patriarch of the Zamoyski family, Jan. Its square was probably the most magnificent of those visited, with its Armenian influences. The walled town is easily walkable and is filled with the types of stores tourists like to browse. Zamosc boasts the only Sephardic synagogue in Poland and is a highlight in this beautifully-preserved town.

In these small towns and museums the people are remarkably friendly and open to discuss pretty-much anything. Take the time to listen to the guides and ask lots of questions and you will learn lots about Poland and its Jewish past.

The authors were guests of the Polish Tourism Organization, Małopolska Organizacja Turystyczna, Podkarpacka Regionalna Organizacja Turystyczna and the Lubelska Regionalna Organizacja Turystyczna.

You can hear their three-part Poland podcast series at: