The Surprises of Jewish and Polish Poland

by Judith Fein June 29, 2017


birkenauThe last thing I expected to find in Poland was a hot Jewish scene. I had to rub my eyes to believe what I was seeing. Travelers of all religions, ages, cultural backgrounds, and nationalities flocked to Jewish-related sites eager to explore a world that was all but eliminated when Nazi Germany murdered 3,000,000 Jews, or 90 percent of the Jewish population. They gasp when their guides tell them that starting in 1942, 60,000 Jews were killed each day.

This was not the only surprise. I learned that the Nazi occupation targeted non-Jewish Poles as well because it considered them an inferior race. They attempted to wipe out Polish culture by eliminating religious figures, the intelligentsia, and political leaders. Fifty thousand Polish children were ripped away from their parents in an attempt to Germanize them. More than 1.5 million Poles were deported to Germany and used as forced labor. A horrifying 1.9 million Poles were murdered. And yet, despite this decimation of non-Jewish Poles, and contrary to what I had heard about their anti-Semitism, many of them protected their Jewish neighbors at their own peril, and an astounding 6,620 of them earned the designation of Righteous Among Nations –more than in any other country.

The last place I expected to find a paean to Jews was in Wadowice, in southern Poland, at the childhood home of Pope John Paul II. His family moved to the first floor of the house in 1919 and Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the future Pope, was born in 1920. Three years ago, the home was transformed from a small-ish space into a compelling, designerly, high-tech museum experience that presents a humanized Pope. His ski boots and hiking equipment are displayed, as is a photo of him when he was young, bare-chested, and wearing a Catholic scapular around his neck. Testimony from childhood friends attest to the fact that he was devout and honest, with a well-developed sense of morality and respect. He tragically lost his mother a month before his first communion, and three years later his brother died.

Museum visitors also learn that one fifth of the population of Wadowice at that time was Jewish, and their photos are prominently displayed along with a laser model of the synagogue that was destroyed. The owner of the house young Karol’s family lived in was Jewish, and photos of him as well as Karol’s Jewish childhood buddy are exhibited. The latter remained a close friend throughout the papacy.

A video shows the Pope putting on a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the Wailing Wall. He was the first Pope to pray in Jerusalem in the Orthodox Jewish fashion, and he also placed a paper with his prayers in the wall. A copy of his words are blown up and exhibited: he prayed for brotherhood. There is also a video of him praying in a synagogue in Rome, and photos of a Polish family that saved a Jew by hiding him in the attic of a mill; they too were designated Righteous Among Nations.

The museum ends in a dark room with a persistent heartbeat. It is a reminder of the Pope’s life drawing to a close. There’s a Hebrew Bible open to the Book of Kings II, with the word “Amen” highlighted. This is what the Pope’s assistant was reading to him when he passed.

Fifty kilometers away, in Krakow, I was again surprised to discover a most singular memorial at the Ghetto Heroes Square. Thirty-eight large, empty bronze chairs, almost all of which face in the same direction, symbolize the 38,000 Jews who lived in the city before the Second World War. They brought basic furniture like chairs and tables with them when they were relocated to the ghetto, and left them behind when they were shipped off to the camps.

Almost all of the chairs face the pharmacy on the corner to honor the Polish owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who helped the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto. He was the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the ghetto, and his pharmacy was called the “Embassy of Freedom.” A few chairs face the direction where Jews were sent off to the camps, and every year people gather there for a memorial walk to a camp that is a kilometer away.

About 10 years ago I visited Kazimierz (the Jewish section of Krakow since the Middle Ages), but discovered on this most recent trip that the area is now the trendy, sort of bohemian part of the city, with Jewish-themed bars, restaurants, shops, and gaggles of tourists everywhere.

I remembered several ancient synagogues in the area, especially the Remuh synagogue – a small, intact 16th century synagogue that is still active. I recalled the adjacent, restored 16th to 17th century cemetery whose headstones had been badly damaged by the Nazis, and the fragments of tombstones which could not be restored, assembled to create a “wailing wall.”

What I didn’t expect on this visit was the story I heard when I was standing in front of the grave of the famous Rabbi Moses Isserles, who was known by a Hebrew acronym pronounced “Remuh.”

Apparently, there was a legend that if you demolished the grave of the Remuh you would die at once. So the Nazis, who were superstitious, left it alone. Today people petition the deceased holy man for help by leaving handwritten prayers at his tomb.

The internet lists a free Jewish walking tour of Krakow and several custom tours ranging from $20-$110. One tour, offered by Schindler’s Museum, includes many sites where “Schindler’s List” was filmed in Krakow.

On the subject of Schindler, the last time I was in Krakow, I stood outside the gates of his old factory. This time, the Oskar Schindler Museum in the factory was open. I expected it to deal with the extraordinary story of a man who was a member of the Nazi party, a rich, profit-driven industrialist, and a human being who underwent such an opening of the heart that he saved at least 1,200 ghetto Jews from deportation and extermination by employing them in his ammunition and enamel factory. What I didn’t know was a remarkable tale of karma: after the war, Schindler’s financial situation was dire, and the very Jews he had saved supported him. He was the only Nazi named a Righteous Among Nations, and was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

I didn’t know that the museum is also about pre-war Krakow, the misery of Polish life under Nazi occupation, the bravery of the resistance, and the eventual domination by the Soviets. The film clips of Jews in Krakow before and during the war are moving and priceless. The recreation of the war atmosphere is chilling. In rare footage, Jewish children carry chairs from Kazimierz to the ghetto. The filmmaker Roman Polanski, who lived in the ghetto, wrote, at age 8, that they built a wall around the ghetto, and he was so scared he was crying. A propaganda poster proclaims that “Jews Mean Lice.” Hatred and anti-Semitism are everywhere, but nearby, a large image of Schindler is accompanied by his words, which are an antidote: “Life makes sense as long as you save people.”

I was surprised to see that my Gentile Polish guide, Anna, was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She quietly confessed that “I am always sorry that because of World War II I didn’t have Jewish neighbors and friends. It is impossible to have met these Jews. But I can cry and I can tell people the story about them. They are a part of us. A part of Polish history.”

As we walked the streets, she pointed out Krakow pretzels for sale. Made by boiling and then baking, they are like bagels. And she told me about “Jewish style fish” that her family ate on Christmas Eve, made with almonds and sugar. She said her grandmother never used the Polish word for oven. “Instead, she referred to it as a ‘shabasnik,’ which refers to the Jewish Shabbos.”

Anna took a deep breath, and said that, “Twenty five percent of the population here was Jews. My family had Jewish friends, dentists, doctors, and 60 percent of the students in my grandfather’s school were Jewish. It is such a sad story – all those people disappeared. Yes, there was anti-Semitism. It is true. But we could all still live together.”

As I drank warm borscht in a glass before lunch, Anna’s words were soothing to me, in terms of intercultural and interfaith understanding and hopeful for the capacity of people to live peacably together at any particularly polarized period in human history.

Nothing will ever diminish the impact and the horror of seeing rooms full of human hair, shoes and suitcases in Aushwitz, or walking into the barracks at Birkenau and staring into a crematory oven. But this time my mouth dropped open when I saw that they were selling ice cream, and we had to pay to use the toilet.  The site is in such high demand (more than 1.7 million visitors a year!) that now you can only tour it with an official guide, and must reserve in advance.

In Warsaw, we visited the zoo made famous by Diane Ackerman’s book “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Germany had invaded Poland in 1939, and many of the animals at the zoo had been killed cruelly and the buildings ruined. The zoo’s director Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina, who were active in the underground resistance, continued to live in their villa on the grounds, and secretly hid Jews despite the fact that the punishment for helping Jews was death.

At the villa, the Zabiniski’s story is told in more detail. They are said to have helped the Jews out of “common decency” and diminished their impact as nothing extraordinary. I stood in front of the piano where Antonino entertained the German troops who arrived each day. Her playing signaled to the Jews in hiding that the Germans were around, functioning like a kind of musical alarm. I walked down to the basement where only Antonino had the key. Jews, especially children, stayed there, and were fed and clothed. I peered into the secret tunnel that led outside of the building; it was used by the Jews to get in and out.

Everywhere in Poland there were tantalizing remnants of the once thriving Jewish presence. At the Sunday outdoor Breakfast Market, which started a few years ago, one of the vendors offered Gesi Pipek. I was raised on chicken soup with gorgel (throat) and pupik (stomach). Could pipek be the pupik of my memories? I cautiously asked the seller if this meant anything to him. He grinned widely and said, of course. He used to own a Jewish restaurant in Kazimierz with stuffed gorgel and pipik. He makes gefilte fish. 

“The whole fish is gefilte – stuffed,” he said. He serves it with jelly.

The most delightful surprise of the trip was the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in the area where the Warsaw ghetto stood. It was selected as the Best European Museum in 2016; it covers and honors more than a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland.

From the outside, the building looks fairly simple and I think the opening resembles the Hebrew letter chet, which means life. The stone mezuzah is made from a ghetto brick. I heard people from all over the world discussing the meaning of the building’s shape and opening.

Inside, there are no straight lines; everything curves and swoops and leads to dynamic, sophisticated exhibitions that let us not only learn about but experience what Jewish life was like. The eight galleries are animated with video projections, installations, art, interactive video and digital displays where visitors can answer questions, create objects, and meet Jews from centuries of Polish history.

We learn about Jewish traders who brought spices, jewelry and expensive stones to the country and took away furs and weapons and slaves. Most of those who settled there had come from overpopulated German towns. The earliest mention of Jews in Warsaw was 1414, when they comprised five percent of the population. They had a kahal (council), slaughterhouse, mikvah (ritual bath) and a cemetery outside of town with matsevot or headstones.

One gallery takes you to Jewish Paradise, which was a description of life in the 16th to the first half of the 17th century, where tolerance of all religions was the norm. By the 18th century, Poland was huge and included Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania; 700,000 Jews comprised about l0 percent of the population.

Continuing through history, the museum examines the horrors of World War II, resistance and secret synagogues, to 20th century events like the l968 protests at the University of Warsaw, when Jewish students were expelled and blamed as organizers.

Many non-Jewish Poles stood up for them and protested their expulsion.

The most precious jewel of the museum is the reconstructed vault and bimah (platform part of altar) from the 17th century Gwozdziec wooden synagogue. It is a breathtakingly polychromatic, ornate interior with images of deer, squirrels, lions, hands, flowers, zodiac signs, Ten Commandments, and other symbols. The reconstruction took years of collaboration between historians, carpenters, engineers, timber experts, artists, and student volunteers from around the world to complete. That process is memorialized in a documentary film “Raise the Roof.” 

Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist. Her website is She thanks the Polish Tourism Board and LOT Polish Airlines, which now offers direct flights from Los Angeles and Chicago to Warsaw, for making this trip possible.


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