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  • Writer's pictureKaren L

Travels in Poland and Ukraine, December 2019

A very long day, actually two days of travel to Poland. Now resting in Gdansk, touring begins tomorrow. Watching voting in House of Representatives.(Wednesday)

Day 1–Thursday—Gdansk was worthwhile. First we visited the shipyard , and we learned about Lech Walesa and the solidarity movement in 1980. This was the beginning of the end for Communism. Then off to Stuthof, the longest running labor and death camp, not that well known. My first encounter with the business of evil. It was chilling, metaphorically and actually. After, we drove to Warsaw and arrived in the evening. We took in the nighttime sights and Christmas decorations. And like the Poles, we had kielbasa and slivovitz in the cold , frosty night. It is actually mild for December in Poland, in the 40's F. Darkness comes at 3:30.

Today was very significant in that we visited Treblinka. This is where my Great Grandmother Elise was murdered. Treblinka was purely a death camp and was only open for 13 months. Mostly Jews from Warsaw were killed there, though people from all over Europe were exterminated at this sight of murderous evil. I gave a tribute to Elise and to my grandmother who was wracked with guilt over her mother’s death by the Nazis. The Levi family had left Elise in Germany, which was a common practice. The common belief was that the older people would not be able to handle a move to the United States. And affidavits of support (for the United States) were difficult to obtain, so the younger ones had priority to leave Germany. The killing center is located deep in a pine forest, hidden from population centers and close to railway lines. The place is quiet and smells fresh and clean. But it is not difficult to evoke the screams of yesteryear. The Germans destroyed the camp as the Soviets were rapidly approaching. Now Treblinka is a stark memorial, consisting of symbolic markers.The land one walks on is a graveyard of ashes. Our leader said that Europe is actually a graveyard, since victims were killed everywhere and anywhere.

AfterTreblinka, we headed to a sad place in a small town, Jedwarbna. This is the the town where the Polish citizens murdered their Jewish neighbors for ostensibly collaborating with the Soviets. The non Jews lead the Jews into a barn and  burned them alive.

Signing off for now!

Today, I was struck by the complexity of evil. First, it takes a great deal of effort to devise bizarre methods of extermination. And that is not considering the immense coordination of governmental agencies, private companies, and labor. Who would ever conceive of death vans? Well, the Nazis did at Chelmno, murdering at least 300,000 from Jewish towns in Poland. Who would separate children from their parents--of course Trump and his cronies did--but then murder those children;the Nazis did in Lodz (pronounced Woodge). Europe, Great Britain, North America, actually the world, chose to ignore unbelievable atrocities in the 1930's and 1940's. At every site, we say, "never again," but genocide has occurred since and continues. How do I properly describe a stretch of road leading to cleared acres of land surrounded by birch and pine trees? The air is clean, fresh, and fragrant. But my mind sees naked dead bodies thrown onto the ground. Gravestones are placed at random, tributes from families and towns in memory of the dead. Jews from all over the world have visited to pay their respects. This is Chelmno, Poland, otherwise a sleepy town in southwestern Poland. The vibrant Jewish communities are gone.... How do I explain how weird it is to see Polish children on the streets of Warsaw, enjoying the Christmas season? When a few hours back I stood on the unmarked graves of children and their families? Soon, I forget and join in the festive spirit. What else can I do? And freedom feels fine. I do not forget. If my emails are upsetting, I understand. We cannot escape the truth. Some will say it is over. But we seem not to be finished with genocide and evil.

More misery to be witnessed and recorded in the bleak, dark winter of Central Europe. Belzec, in eastern Poland, one of the infamous three of Operation Reinhard, is a grim hill of lava rock, surrounded by iron pipes and a stone wall down the middle. Why the rocks? Children used to sled down the hill of decomposed human remains while the adults dug for gold(from teeth), so the hill was covered with rocks and surrounded by dark pipes protruding in strange shapes. Belzec, like Treblinka and Sobibor, were purely death sites, their sole purpose to kill as many as possible by the gas chamber. There were a few Jewish helpers and a handful of SS soldiers who worked there. The place is not large.The people of the town could see what was happening from their windows and the streets. There were hundreds of villages and towns in the area that were systematically emptied of their inhabitants. These unfortunate souls were sent to Belzec. Ghettos, in the larger cities, were way stations before extermination. At Belzec, I felt overwhelmed with anger. I kicked a bucket of rocks. Later in the museum, we had a chance to stand in an empty concrete room, to replicate a gas chamber, I think. I was encouraged to go in the room with one of the group leaders and let out my emotions. I did take their advice and screamed in anger in the room, as the victims must have done.Of course, I knew I could leave. The echo and reverberation of noise was deafening. After Belzec, we boarded the bus and headed to Lviv, Ukraine to see an area( Galicia) that was filled with Jews prior to World War 2. Crossing from Poland to Ukraine was long and involved. While in the Ukraine, I thought about the Russian imperialism, the present war between Russia and the Ukraine, and the take-over of Crimea (another area of Ukraine). The town of Lviv resembled towns in Cuba, deteriorating, once beautiful buildings and people—very alive—scurrying around, in this case for Christmas; decay and vibrant life occurred  simultaneously.The city had random memorial sites, commemorating various events, buildings, victims, and perpetrators of the pre-war, war, and post-war period. There are presently strong forces to suppress the past, due to the Soviet influence and inherent anti Semitism in the region. Our guide is a brave upstander, who is trying to impart the true history. I choose to be exposed to this tragedy,  to bear witness and to face evil. It is a truth of our existence and past. Tonight, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner in the hotel, back in Lublin, Poland. We have periodic group sessions to discuss our emotions, thoughts, and well-being. The people on the trip are interesting, fun, and remarkable. Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah.

These are the faces of Auschwitz. My second cousins, father’s side, were murdered in Auschwitz. They were twins and died at age 16 or 17. Rene and Alice Kappel, the parents, survived, emigrated to NY, and committed suicide in the United States.

These are the faces of Auschwitz. The family moved to Belgium from Germany, hoping for safety. The  Kappels survived a relatively long time in Belgium; the records indicate that the girls died in 1944. Perhaps, the Kappels were prisoners, and the girls were worked to death? I was thinking that the Holocaust shrunk our family. Losing an uncle and second cousins decreased the possibility for more offspring and a healthy extension of the family. I said the Kaddish for the girls and left a rock for them next to a memorial candle. They will not be forgotten. I shared their story with our group. Auschwitz-Birkenau is huge! The site is more sanitized and tourist oriented, since millions visit every year. As positive as this statistic is, the result is a less intense and personalized experience.The most chilling aspects for me were the sheer magnitude of the operation and the exhibit of actual human hair that was taken from the victims. The hair was utilized by the Germans for textiles. Seeing the hair was akin to observing a dead body. Merely seeing hair strongly suggested the rest of the victims’ bodies. The women’s locks were discolored by age but still in braids or curls. Auschwitz-Birkenau was a prison and death camp. All aspects of the death machine were in evidence—train tracks leading through the camp entrance, prison, solitary confinement and torture rooms, gas chamber, ovens, brick buildings confiscated from the Poles, barracks (former horse stables), and areas that were used for industry and agriculture. Auschwitz was also infamous for the ghastly "medical" experiments done on the prisoners.

Warsaw is actually a very nice city, reminiscent of Berlin, trees, all types of buildings from different eras, and wide sidewalks. The Jewish Museum was fantastic, great exhibits on the history of Jews in Poland and excellent poppyseed cake. The building and memorial are beautiful. The memorial is specific to the Warsaw Uprising. 

Mila 18 is nearby which is where the final encounter between the Jewish fighters and the Gestapo occurred, in the Warsaw Ghetto. My memorial (assignment) was at Umschlagplatz, the site for gathering the Jews before transport, usually to Treblinka. Treblinka was a dead end; no selections, all went to their death.

The day before, we visited Gross Rosen, a horrible prison camp. Again the bunks filled with the spirits of desperate souls, memorial stones, and empty barracks. This particular prison camp had a quarry where prisoners labored. Many died here at the hands of sadistic guards. Survivors have been the living proof of this horrific place.I have said the Kaddish more times than in my entire life. I have placed more stones on memorial markers than I ever thought possible.

Kraków is cool, similar to Prague. We had some nice meals--similar to up-to-date restaurants in the U.S., with some Polish and European touches, i.e. red cabbage, pierogi in mushroom soup. And we shopped! The "Jewish Quarter"--not the ghetto--is hip and artsy. The area is known as Kazimier. We visited a lovely museum of Galicia. The latter was a large geographic area, encompassing parts of Poland and Ukraine, but now is a smaller region. We heard three speakers today, first a survivor and then two young men from the JCC. Yes, you heard me correctly,  a JCC in Krakow. Poles are discovering they are actually Jewish, and are seeking support and education. The survivor told her story about being saved from probable death when she was a baby. Her parents gave her to an orphanage. (They were murdered.) She was then adopted by a Christian Polish family towards the end of the war. I learned of another incredible story of hope. A Polish pharmacist was allowed to keep his store open in the Kraków Ghetto. Unbeknownst to the Germans, he provided sedatives for babies so they wouldn't cry during escapes, forged documents and gave helpful assistance. On the way to Wroclaw, Poland in the Southwest of the country, we stopped at the site of a former prison camp on the outskirts of Kraków. Our group holds memorials at the various sites of tragedy . We stand in the cold, listen to short readings, light a candle, leave stones, say prayers, and have a moment of silence. I am not courageous. I merely believe in facing the truth, learning from history, helping to ensure "never again", bearing witness, and remembering the martyrs. The murdered people did not die in vain. 

I am not certain how to process this amazing experience. I do know that I am an up stander not a bystander. If there is a book you should read, our group leader, Dr. Rick Halperin, highly recommends "Man's Search for Meaning," by Victor Frankel.

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