Why I have no regrets about visiting Poland

“Now that we’re that close to Europe, it makes sense to go there,” she told me. At first I was very uncomfortable with the idea.

Café Ariel in Krakow with a menu advertising non-kosher Jewish dishes and a Klezmer concert (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Café Ariel in Krakow with a menu advertising non-kosher Jewish dishes and a Klezmer concert
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

Polish President
Andrzej Duda decided not to attend the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on January 23. He wanted to speak at the event and he had also requested that the event be held at Auschwitz. He was refused both requests.Ever since the Polish government tried to stifle open conversations about war crimes and Poland’s record during the Holocaust, relations between Israel and that country have soured.
Visiting Poland and the historical sites attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, bringing in substantial revenue for the country. A recent article in The Jerusalem Post mentioned the fact that the numbers of visitors to Auschwitz increased by upwards of 170,000 in 2019. Nevertheless, there are many Jews who are quite adamant about not visiting Poland.
Back in 1995, my wife and I faced that dilemma. My wife, Annie, who moved from New York to London when we got married, wanted to go on a “roots trip.”
“Now that we’re that close to Europe, it makes sense to go there,” she told me. At first I was very uncomfortable with the idea.
“Why do we have to go and visit a country soaked in Jewish blood?” I protested.
My father-in-law, too, had reservations about his daughter going back to a place where his entire family were murdered. In the end I understood that Annie needed “closure” to connect with her family’s past and find out exactly what happened to them.
She did all the research and contacted a travel company called Our Roots based in Warsaw. Her family, the Zlotnicks, came from the town of Rypin in northwest Poland.
In keeping with family tradition and because my late father-in-law, Chaim, was the youngest of four observant Jewish sons, he was sent to learn in the Yeshiva of Radin. The family’s decision to send him back to Radin a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1939 saved his life.
On September 1 of that year, the Germans invaded Poland and a few days later on September 4, they entered Rypin. Before the outbreak of World War II, there were 2,500 Jews living in Rypin. Only 280 Jews survived, Chaim Zlotnick being one of them.
Despite the concerns we forged ahead with our plans and left for Warsaw on Friday, August 25, at midday.
No sooner had we boarded the British Airways aircraft when we were informed by the captain that the plane had gone “technical” and that we would have to disembark. I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief.
I felt as if this was a sign from above, reinforcing the notion that visiting Poland was not a good idea. But I could see that my wife was disappointed. She had so been looking forward to the visit. We went back to the gate and began making contingency plans for Shabbat. Ten minutes later, British Airways announced that the problem had been resolved and that we were taking off. Once we had reboarded the plane I recognized one of the flight attendants, a nice Jewish girl from northwest London by the name of Barbara. She recognized me straight away and came over to greet us.
“What on earth are you doing on a flight going to Warsaw on a Friday afternoon?” she asked incredulously.
“I could ask you the same question,” I retorted.
“Well I work for the airline and I have to go where they send me. This is not a matter of choice. And besides I’m not frum [religious],” she joked.
Poland had only been free of the Soviets for six years and was just beginning to open up to Western visitors We explained the purpose of our visit and she acknowledged that she had done the trip many times and that she had come across quite a few Jewish “roots” tourists.
The flight lasted two and a half hours and we landed in Warsaw where the temperature was a sweltering 28 degrees Celsius. We got a taxi to the hotel and as we drove toward central Warsaw, we noticed the ugly flat landscape with row upon row of poorly built blocks of Soviet-style four-story apartment buildings. Jutting out of the blandness, a huge towering building suddenly came into view. Known as the Palace of Culture, the art deco building was built by Joseph Stalin in the early 50s to remind the Poles of their Soviet masters.
After unpacking, we realized we needed to take a walk to find out where we were in relation to the synagogue and kosher restaurant, where we had planned to eat that night. By sheer coincidence the synagogue was located around the corner from our hotel. As we entered the courtyard of the Nozyk Synagogue complex, some old men approached us. We spoke to them in Yiddish. They told us that there were once 300 synagogues in Warsaw. The old men were the remnants of the local Jewish community. We soon discovered that we were in the area of the Small Ghetto. There were two ghettos in Warsaw, the larger and the smaller, both flattened by the Nazis together with the rest of Warsaw in 1944. The synagogue had been used by the Germans to stable their horses. As we walked towards the synagogue, we passed Warsaw’s Yiddish Theater with its huge billboards advertising the next all Yiddish production. Later on, we discovered that the entire company of actors were Polish gentiles. We turned the corner and eventually arrived at the impressive synagogue, which was completely refurbished and restored by the Lauder Foundation in the 1990s after detailed architectural plans were discovered in the US. The synagogue’s interior, with its elegant decor and arched ceilings, was magnificent and we joined the tiny congregation of about 30 people for services on both Friday night and Shabbat morning.
On Friday evening we had dinner at the Menorah Kosher Restaurant (the only kosher eatery at that time). We met a wealthy Jewish man from Houston, Texas, who was taking his son on a trip around Poland. He had lived in Warsaw as a child and he told us that the synagogue was known for its Zionist orientation and in the 1930s, he remembered standing on the steps of the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur collecting money for the Jewish National Fund. He spoke fluent Polish and helped all the visiting guests to order their meals. He also told us how he had returned to the place where his family had once owned property.
“Don’t even think about getting any confiscated Jewish assets back,” he scoffed in his strong Yiddish-American accent. “Yes, you can get it back for a pittance, but then there’s a catch; they want you to pay back taxes to the time when the property was stolen 50 years ago!”
The next day my wife and I set off for Krakow by train. We booked first-class tickets and had an entire compartment to ourselves. We were a little nervous, not knowing what to expect. We had heard so much about antisemitism in Poland. In Warsaw, we had not encountered any antisemitism, quite the contrary. People were friendly and when we stopped to ask directions in the street, some of the locals guessed that we were Jewish and asked if we were visiting from Israel. The journey took two and a half hours through the drab treeless countryside. We kept thinking about the history of the place and wondered whether we were traveling on the same railway tracks that took the hapless Jews of Warsaw to Auschwitz. We got to the ancient city of Krakow in the early afternoon. Unlike many Polish cities, the Germans left it untouched and it was never bombed by the allies.
The main city square with its cathedral overlooking elegant baroque buildings, shops, cafés and restaurants was a throwback to pre-war Poland. We walked around the town square where they were celebrating the late summer harvest. People were dressed in folkloric costumes singing and playing traditional instruments. There were dozens of souvenir shops and stands. Many of them were selling carved wooden caricatures of Jewish fiddlers with their black hats and sad Jewish faces. We walked toward Kazimierz, the ancient Jewish quarter of Krakow founded in 1234 by the Jews who were given permission to live there by the pro-Jewish King Kazimierz. He was a good man and confirmed the privileges and protections previously granted to Jews, encouraging them to settle in Poland in great numbers. Legend has it that Kazimierz had a beautiful Jewish mistress by the name of Esterka. We finally found the Jewish quarter, beautifully restored with Jewish landmarks everywhere. We discovered a “kosher style” cafe called Cafe Ariel, where they advertised a Klezmer concert (Jewish jazz) that evening. We booked tickets and returned at 8 p.m. to experience one of the weirdest events of our entire trip. We were the only two Jewish people in the restaurant surrounded by Polish gentiles and a group of German tourists all listening to Jewish Soul music played by non-Jewish Polish men dressed up as Jews, while everyone (excluding ourselves) sat eating gefilte fish!
The next morning we were picked up at 8 a.m. by our guide, Peter, who took us to Oswiciem-Auschwitz. It had started to rain and the weather turned appropriately gloomy and bleak. It took over an hour to reach the town. It is afairly large town with 40,000 people living there today.
There were three camps at Auschwitz covering an area of 40 sq km. Auschwitz I was originally part of a Polish Army barracks. When the war started, the Germans began bringing Polish political prisoners there until it was transformed into a major deportation center and death camp. Auschwitz I has been turned into a museum with an entrance area, consisting of a cinema, a small bank and canteen. We were somewhat put off by the hoards of tourists, many of them youngsters dressed in shorts, sandals and T-shirts.
We noticed that the museum at Auschwitz was focusing on the Polish narrative despite the fact that 80% of those murdered in the camp were Jewish, compared to the 10.8% who were Polish. We signed up for a private tour and were asked whether we had any relatives who had died in the camp. We answered in the affirmative and were relieved to learn that we would be guided by an English-speaking Polish guide who had been trained at Yad Vashem. Before beginning our tour, we were urged to attend a showing of an introductory film about Auschwitz. The auditorium was packed with chattering, laughing enthusiastic young tourists, most of whom had probably never heard of the Holocaust. We were both a little shocked at the atmosphere of levity and the lack of decorum. The lights were dimmed and the movie began. At the end of the film, which lasted only 20 minutes, the levity had disappeared and was replaced by hushed silence, cowed heads and the sound of stifled sobs.
Despite having seen the photographs at Yad Vashem and elsewhere, the actual experience of walking through the exhibits, seeing the photographs, the block where medical experiments were carried out, the tons of cut off hair, shoes, spectacles, piles of prosthetic limbs and the pitiful sight of suitcases piled high to the ceiling was harrowing. Worse was to come when the guide led us through the gas chamber and crematorium where more than 70,000 people were murdered. Although many Jews died in Auschwitz I, most were taken to Auschwitz II, now known as Birkenau. The site is about two miles away from the main camp. Birkenau is vast and covers an area of 171 hectares.
We went back to meet Peter, who drove us to Birkenau and resumed his dual role of driver and guide. He stopped to show us the notorious railway spur that was especially extended to lead right up to the camp and the infamous ramp where the selections were made. The two gas chambers and crematoria were at the far end of the camp. These were blown up by the Germans as they fled from the Russians. Here more than one million Jewish souls were gassed and cremated. Their ashes still lie caked in the mud and soil. Within the perimeter of the once electrified fence, row upon row of rectangular wooden barracks fill the vast space. Although most of the structures were torn down, there are still 20 wooden structures that provide evidence of the unbearable conditions that inmates had to endure. We entered one of the huge huts near the entrance where Jewish prisoners were initially brought to be beaten and humiliated before being allocated to a work detail. Peter left us to wander around on our own. Standing in that dank, dark wooden building on a cold, rainy afternoon made me wonder what it must have been like during the Polish winter. I saw my wife becoming very emotional. I knew that she was thinking about her grandparents and whether or not they were brought to this horrible place.
One of the main reasons for our “roots trip” was to research documents and find information about what exactly had happened to the family. When and where were they murdered? Did anyone survive? The Germans kept meticulous records at Auschwitz and we spent our last hour vainly searching through the manual index cards in the archives. The search yielded nothing.
We returned to Warsaw that night by train. As the train departed, an officious looking ticket inspector entered the compartment and asked to see our tickets. She began speaking loudly and rather aggressively in Polish. There were two Polish men in the compartment with us. The older one spoke English and told us that we were on the wrong train! We had got on a train from Bucharest, which was a slower train to Warsaw. There was nothing we could do but sit tight. I started talking to the older man, who turned out to be a career diplomat. He was a charming fellow who proceeded to tell us about his childhood in Nowy Saczs, which was a town where Jews made up 30% of the population. He talked of how his parents had tried to save their neighbor’s daughter, how he as a young boy of 11 had witnessed her fiancé, a young rabbi,being thrown into a well and left to drown by German soldiers.
The next day we went to the Jewish Historical Institute, which is in the center of Warsaw. It is located opposite the site where the Great Synagogue of Warsaw once stood. We met the archivist, Yechiel, an American who worked for the Lauder Foundation. He soon came up with one of the Ringelblum documents found hidden in a milk churn buried under the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. The document contained testimony written by a Jew from Rypin describing the German invasion of the town on September 4, 1939. It made incredibly distressing reading. The elders of the town were tortured to make them divulge where Jewish money had been hidden. A number of Jewish men were murdered in the surrounding forests but most of the Jews, men women and children, were sent to nearby ghettos and then on to Treblinka and Auschwitz.
On the following day Annie arranged for a guide to take us on the 140 km trip to Rypin. As if in a time warp, we saw Polish peasants, women with scarves around their heads pushing wooden plows with their husbands. We also saw horses and carts being used as transport for farmers and their families. Upon approaching Rypin, the landscape changed. It became more forested and quite pretty. We kept thinking about how difficult or easy it would have been to hide in those forests. We found the remains of the Jewish cemetery outside the town and Annie tried unsuccessfully to look for her great-grandmother’s grave. Many of the graves had been destroyed and the tombstones used as paving stones.
Afterwards we went back to the town to find number 19 Rynek (which means market square in Polish) where the Zlotnicks once lived. Most of the houses were intact but number 19 was pulled down in 1970 to make way for a new apartment block. George, our guide, approached an older man and spoke to him. His name was Gutkowski. He was my father-in-law’s age and the son of the local police chief in the 1930s. He remembered the Zlotnick family and their textile shop. I asked permission to film him and he spoke in Polish. Many years later, long after my in-laws had passed, we watched the video and found someone who could translate what was being said. It seems that after the war, police chief Gutkowski had been arrested by the KGB for being a collaborator and subsequently served a long prison sentence!
Our last day in Warsaw was marked by very bad weather. We hadn’t booked any tours and decided to hire a cab driver through the Our Roots tour company. An older Polish man who could speak some English collected us. He took us to various sites including a place where one could see a remaining piece of the Ghetto wall. From there we went to the Umschlag Platz, where the Jews were rounded up to board the trains to Treblinka. We drove past the bunker on Mila 18.
One of the most ironic facts about the city of Warsaw is that two of its main thoroughfares, Ulica Zamenhof and Ulica Anilewicz are named after Jews. Our final stop was the old Jewish cemetery, a national monument. By then it was raining steadily. The guide told us to follow a little old man who carried a black umbrella and was hurrying towards the main gate.
“He’ll show you where to go.”
Despite the downpour, the cemetery was an astonishing sight. We walked through acres of towering black marble tombstones surrounded by ancient trees covered in twisted tendrils and a forest of ferns and foliage. Suddenly it dawned on me that we were taking a great risk, walking deeper and deeper into the unknown city of the Jewish dead. I grabbed Annie’s hand and we caught up with the little old man.
“Excuse me,” I yelled. “Do you speak Yiddish.” He spun around and answered us in English.
“Only a little English,” he said. “Who are you?”
We explained that we were Jewish tourists.
“Can you tell us something about the cemetery?”
He nodded. “Today is a yahrzeit. Come with me.”
“A yahrzeit for what?” we asked. The drenching rain streamed over our umbrellas and onto our raincoats.
“For the revolt in Sobibor.”
“Oh my goodness, we just saw the movie on television a few weeks ago. It’s with Rutger Hauer,” I gabbled. He smiled.
“I have a copy of that video at home. You see I am one of the survivors of the revolt.”
“Who are you?” I stammered.
“Do you remember the young teenage boy?”
We nodded enthusiastically.
“Well, I am Leonid Schimmel.”
“You mean the 15-year-old hero who fought back and helped to kill a few Nazis?”
“That was me.”
He smiled disconsolately. “The film told the story very well.”
“You are a hero!” Annie cried out. “People in the Jewish world need to know your story. Why are you still living here in Poland? You should come to Israel. The Jewish Agency will help to bring you to Israel where you belong. They’ll take care of you.”
“I’m too old to go anywhere,” he said. “After the war, I made the mistake of joining the Red Army. I became an officer and married my Jewish wife, who died last year. I still get a small pension from the Russians. Now I live alone in a one-room apartment in Warsaw. My time has come and gone. But please come with me to say kaddish for the Jews who fell while escaping from Sobibor.”
We felt guilty but the ground was becoming waterlogged and we were getting drenched. We apologized profusely, wished him well and shook his wet hand.
We made our way back to the entrance, relieved to find our driver waiting patiently. All the way back to the hotel, we sat in silence thinking about Leonid Schimmel. It was probably the most poignant moment of the entire trip.
On the flight home, my thoughts were filled with images of “the land that’s soaked in Jewish blood” yet I had no regrets about going to Poland. I learned a great deal about my wife and her family. It made me appreciate and understand her parents in a completely different light.
It also made me acutely aware of our recent Jewish past and Winston Churchill’s famous utterance: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”