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Poland i visited last month was radically different from where I first went in 1987 – before it transitioned from communist rule to a market economy, before it elected dissident Lech Walesa as president, before it he doesn’t join NATO. Of course, I, too, have transformed — then a teenage leader of United Synagogue Youth on the group’s second mission through the concentration camps en route to Israel, now a middle-aged mother and seasoned journalist.
My memories of that first trip, aside from the searing experiences of walking through the camps themselves, are both indelible and, admittedly, caricatural: of being watched while we sang Hebrew songs in walking to the synagogue for Shabbat services, buying purple ice cream cones for two zlotys, drab Soviet-style apartment buildings that seemed to go on forever. Looking out the plane window as we landed in Warsaw this time, I saw these drab apartment buildings, but also, apparently drawn by a cartoonist right in the middle, a handful of gleaming skyscrapers built in the over the past decade that our Polish guide called “Little Manhattan.”
The Westin hotel where I stayed last month, to follow on a Jewish Federation mission to support Ukrainian refugees, is in this shiny new area. A few blocks away stand the restored brick walls behind which the Nazis forced some 450,000 Jews into misery beginning in 1942 — 100,000 died of starvation, 300,000 were deported to death at Treblinka, most of the others were murdered after a heroic uprising in 1943. Yes, the Warsaw Ghetto is now home to five-star hotels and chic boutiques.
One of the images etched in my brain during the 1987 visit is that of the Umschlagplatz — the point near the ghetto from which these 300,000 Jews were loaded onto trains bound for hell. There was a gas station on the site when we visited, cars coming and going without a wink to the brick wall displaying a few thank you notes and some flowers. Thirty-five years later, I needed to see what the place had become.
Today the Umschlagplatz is a stop on what our guide called the “Path of Heroes and Monuments”, where stone markers in the former ghetto commemorate its history, culminating at the uprising memorial outside the POLIN Jewish History Museum . Turns out the serene gray stone Umschlagplatz The memorial was erected in 1988, just a year after my teenager was horrified by this gas station.
Designed by a Polish architect, Hanna Szmalenberg, and a sculptor, Władysław Klamerus, the walls of the memorial enclose approximately 1,300 square feet of contemplative space. Above the entrance is a frieze depicting a broken forest, a Jewish funerary symbol of premature and violent death. The back wall has a vertical gap through which you see a tree that grew after the war – a symbol of hope and rebirth.
This back wall is engraved with names listed in alphabetical order. Aba, Abel, Abiel, Abigail, Abital, Abner, Abraham down to Zakkai, Zachariasz, Zanwel, Zofia, Zuzanna, Zanna. Our guide said they were 300 Jewish names typical of pre-war Poland, each believed to represent 1,000 of the people taken from the site to Treblinka. The Wikipedia entry for the memorial says there are 400 – each commemorating a thousand victims of the Warsaw ghetto – and that they are a mixture of typical Jewish and Polish names, to “put highlight several hundred years of coexistence of the two nations in Warsaw and the intertwining of their cultures and religions.I will have to return there one day to count.
A quote from the Book of Job is inscribed on a building adjoining the memorial: “O Earth, cover not my blood, and let my cry have no place.
I think of Umschlagplatz and Poland in general, of course, because yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and the annual march of the living from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Some 260,000 people from 52 countries have joined the march since it began in 1988. Thousands more have visited the camps, and likely the Umschlagplatzon summer programs like mine, on school trips that most Jewish Israelis take at least once, or on visits to family roots.
This year’s march, as our Nora Berman and others have writing, may be the last to include actual Holocaust survivors, as they die quickly. This is partly why I was so proud to post a interview of a survivor, Ruth Hass Meissner, by her 17-year-old nephew, Nathaniel Schmidt.
“You really can’t explain what it’s like to be really hungry,” Meissner said of his three years at Theresienstadt. “It’s funny, my son would come home from school and say he was hungry, and when I offered him something, he said he didn’t want it. So I said, so you’re not really hungry, because when you’re hungry, you eat anything.
You can read the rest of their conversation in our weekend magazine, below – it’s Ruth as a young girl in Czechoslovakia on the cover. We should read and listen to all the survivor stories we can, while we can. Because soon we will be left with only the memorials of cold gray stone, imagining the horrors suffered by Abital and Zofia, Abner and Zuzanna.
Your weekend reads
Download the printable PDF of our free Top Stories of the Week magazine here. Or read them online at the links below:
With Nathaniel’s interview on Ruth, this week’s edition is full of treasures: ‘A Bintel Brief’ tackles Holocaust denial and distortion. A new memoir details sexual abuse at a Jewish summer camp. Three decades after the Los Angeles riots, two Latino Jews are working to revitalize Ground Zero. Irene Katz Connelly explains why Audrey Gelman’s new boutique in Brooklyn doesn’t make sense for Jews. And a baseball player who thanks Hashem every time he shows up at home plate.
Watch: The striker at 125
What an honor it was to welcome Seth Lipsky, JJ Goldberg and Jane Eisner this week for a conversation about the Forward’s past, present and future. Seth, now editor of the New York Sun, explained how he convinced Forward’s board to launch an English edition in 1990. JJ spoke about his crusading advocacy for a two-state solution to the conflict Israeli-Palestinian. Jane shared how she got a historic interview with President Obama. A tremendous tribute as we celebrate our historic anniversary.