I have really been struggling to figure out how to write about our second day in Poland, which started with a trip to the ghetto established by the Nazis in Podgorze, across the river from Krakow, and ended with a trip to Auschwitz.  We had an incredible guide, Tomasz Cebulski from Polin Travel.  He is a scholar in the field of the history of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust as well as an articulate, thoughtful, and sensitive person, and he wanted us to understand on a deeper level the methodology used by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  Without Tomasz and his way of preparing us for Auschwitz, I do not think we would have fully appreciated the horror of what we were seeing.

The ghetto in Podgorze.  The empty chairs evoke the chairs that were left behind by those who had been sitting while awaiting the transports that took them to the camps

The ghetto in Podgorze. The empty chairs evoke the chairs that were left behind by those who had been sitting while awaiting the transports that took them to the camps

Having said that, there is just no way that I can do the same for anyone reading this post.  Most of us have seen photographs; we’ve seen movies and read books about Auschwitz. Many of us have been to Yad Vashem and/or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We think we understand what happened there.  But we don’t.  Even being there, I still don’t.  The more you learn about it, the less you understand.

What we learned from Tomasz was how ingenious the Nazis were in using psychology and technology and the instinct for greed to enlist not only Germans but citizens of other countries including France, Austria, Hungary, and Poland into their program for annihilating the Jewish population of the world.  And Jews weren’t helpless sheep being led to the slaughter; they also were the victims of the Nazi propaganda machine and its use of psychology to create the impression that somehow all would be fine in the end.   Corporations like IBM and many others saw the opportunities for making fortunes in developing the technology and equipment needed to facilitate the operation of the Nazi death machine.  Jews were also used as slave labor in the companies of many industrialists; Oskar Schindler was the exception, doing something to protect these people who were being forced to work in his factory across the river from Krakow and close to the concentration camp at Plaszow, which we also visited.


Ghetto Wall in Podgorze, built to look like headstones to demoralize the Jewish residents

Ghetto Wall in Podgorze, built to look like headstones to demoralize the Jewish residents

And the world sat back and let it happen, pretending that things could not be that bad, that focusing on the war effort itself was sufficient, and that there really could not be such things as death camps.  That a place like Auschwitz could not exist.  Are we any better today? Just as the Jews could not believe that they would be slaughtered like animals but that things would be okay in the end, so do we all.  We delude ourselves over and over again into believing that we can’t do anything to stop genocide, just as the world did during World War II.  We bend to the profit motive, and we buy into propaganda.  We forget, and we move on.

But Auschwitz is still there.  Although the other death camps were destroyed by the Nazis when they realized that they were losing the war (see Note below), Auschwitz survived more or less intact.  The Nazis did bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria, but there was enough evidence left to show the world what happened there.  And the fact that the Nazis made one serious error—placing the gas chambers and crematoria adjacent to barracks for concentration camp prisoners who could witness how they were being used—also ensured that history would not allow the Nazis to cover up their satanic ways completely.

Auschwitz memorial

Auschwitz is still there.  You can stand on the watchtower, and you can see the foundations of hundreds of barracks almost as far as the eye can see.  You can see the crematoria, the remains of the gas chambers, the barracks, the train tracks.  You can see the confiscated property of the people who were killed there—glasses, suitcases, clothing, ritual objects. Their hair and their prosthetic devices.  The glass case exhibiting baby clothes made me weep.  The clothes of children younger than my grandsons—evidence of the complete evil of these animals who watched babies get carried to their deaths with their mothers.  More than anything else, that devastated me.

How do you walk away from this and still have faith in humanity?  How can you have hope that good and beauty and love will prevail when there is so much capacity for evil? How can you ever trust anyone to be compassionate, fair, understanding?

You just have to.  Because it is just too painful to think that people can be so evil.  Because in fact most of us are good and loving and compassionate and fair.  Because we have no choice but to see the beauty and the love and the hope or we would all just give up and fall into the darkness.  We have to walk away, and we have to get up the next day and embrace life.  Otherwise, the Nazis and all the other evildoers in the world defeat us.  Yes, we need to stand up to evil.  Yes, we cannot close our eyes and hide.  But we also have to go on seeing the good in each other and loving each other as best we can.



Important Note: Although the other death camps were substantially destroyed by the Nazis to hide their genocidal activities, there is a movement to preserve the limited remains of the Belzec death camp in eastern Poland.  You can read about that project here.  It’s in German, but you can use Google Translate to read it in English.  There is some urgency as the property is to be sold at a public auction on June 22.  Please help preserve this place as another reminder us of our potential for evil and our need to fight against it.

UPDATE:  Due to public pressure, the auction has been cancelled, and the money already collected will be used for preservation.  The organization is no longer collecting donations.


We arrived in Krakow after a pretty much sleepless night on the train, and the weather was nasty—very cool and raining hard.  Once again, we overpaid a cabdriver (though not by nearly as much) to get to our hotel at 7 am, where our room was, as expected, not ready.  (Check-in wasn’t until 3 pm.)  But the young man at the reception desk was so friendly and helpful that it immediately changed my outlook.  I highly recommend the Metropolitan Boutique Hotel in Krakow—a small and friendly hotel with an incredibly professional, efficient, and friendly staff.  Although the location on a small side street at first seemed odd, we soon realized how ideal that location was—about ten minutes from the main square in Krakow and even closer to the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz.

Our sleeping accommodations from Prague to Krakow

Our sleeping accommodations from Prague to Krakow

After breakfast at the hotel, we decided to venture out and see the city.  We took umbrellas, but fortunately we never had to open them; the skies never turned blue, but the rain was gone.  We walked to the market in the main square of Krakow where we had planned to go on two group walking tours that day, one of the Old Town, the other of the Jewish quarter.  When we got to the main square, vendors were just starting to open their stands, and the square itself was fairly empty.  The square is magnificent in size—reportedly, the largest public square in Europe.  There are cafes and shops surrounding the square as well as a number of churches and government buildings.  We wandered around a bit, and there was almost a Fanueil Hall feel to the place—a large indoor market lined with souvenir stands.  Unfortunately, the weather really was not great, but we did take a few photographs.

IMG_2625 Main Square Old Town Krakow 5 24 IMG_2626 Cloth Hall Main Square Old Town Krakow IMG_2627 Krakow Street IMG_2628 Krakow Street scene

Krakow main square krakow

After some deliberation, we decided to go on a tour of the Jewish Quarter in the morning and Old Town in the afternoon with SeeKrakow.  Our tour guide was a middle-aged Polish man who spoke English well, and the group of about sixteen people was quite diverse in background.  We were the only people from an English speaking country.  There were people from Spain, France, Belgium, and Switzerland.  They all understood English; it was embarrassing.  We were the only people in the group who could not speak a second language.  Most of the others could speak three.  The American educational system is an utter failure in preparing our children for the global world we live in.

Anyway, we marched off with our leader (whose name escapes me, perhaps for good reason), and after a few stops, I realized that he was not a good fit for me.  Maybe it was the contrast to Andrea and Helena, our guides in Prague; maybe it was the nature of being on a group rather than private tour.  The tour leader was knowledgeable and pleasant, but I felt that he had a personal agenda to promote instead of providing an in-depth and historical view of the Jewish Quarter.  Over and over his message seemed to be that Poland had always been tolerant and accepting of its Jewish citizens and that the Polish people were also victims of the Holocaust.  What he said is historically accurate in many ways, but it was the way he delivered his message and his seeming defensiveness that troubled me.

After about the first hour, I started to think that (a) I didn’t want to go on the Old Town afternoon tour with this guide, and (b) I didn’t want to continue on the Jewish Quarter tour with this guide.  When we realized that his tour would not give us a chance to enter into any of the synagogues we passed (which he did describe, but at times showed us only the back or side of the building), we made a decision to leave the tour and explained to the guide that we wanted to spend more time in the Quarter rather than continue with the group.

Unfortunately, I had made one serious error in planning our itinerary—I had failed to check a Jewish calendar beforehand, and I had not realized that our one day in Krakow would be the holiday of Shavuot.  That meant that many of the synagogues, at least those still operating as synagogues, would not be open to the public for tours that day.  (It was also the Catholic holiday Pentecost, meaning that many stores and offices were also closed that day.)  If I could have changed one thing on our trip itinerary, I would have added at least another day to our stay in Krakow—not only because of the conflict with Shavuot, but also because we just did not have enough time to do the city justice.

But when you are traveling, you do what you can do.  So over lunch, we realized that we did not have time to see many of the sites in Krakow outside the Jewish Quarter—the Wawel Castle and the churches and other buildings we’d only glimpsed in Old Town.  We also realized that our sleepless night was catching up with us.  So we spent the afternoon wandering through the Jewish Quarter, soaking up what we could, and visiting the places we could enter.  I hope that someday we can return to Krakow and see the city in more depth.

Unlike the Jewish Quarter in Prague, which as I wrote was substantially torn down in the late 19th century, most of the structures from the original Jewish Quarter in Krakow are still standing—the winding cobblestones streets and old worn buildings have been there for hundreds of years.  As our guide said, Krakow’s Jewish quarter is much more “authentic” than that in Prague because it reflects the way the ghetto looked when it was a ghetto. It also reflects more of the wear and tear of time, neglect, and the war.  Here are some photos of the square where the Jewish market once operated; it still operates as a market—a flea market when we were there, although, of course, there are no Jewish vendors or customers today.

IMG_2631 former Jewish marketplace, still a market 5 24 IMG_2633 former Jewish marketplace

We saw six still-existing buildings in the Krakow Jewish Quarter that were once operating synagogues. As with the synagogues in Prague, the only reason they are still standing is that the Nazis found the spaces useful for storage.  The oldest of the existing synagogue buildings, appropriately referred to as the Old Synagogue, was built at the beginning of the 15th century.  Its interior was destroyed by the Nazis, and it was then used for storage during their occupation of Poland.  Today the building is operated as a museum, displaying Jewish ritual objects and a historical exhibition of Krakow before and during the Nazi occupation.

IMG_2641 Old Synagogue IMG_2642 front of Old Synagogue old synagogue 2 old synagogue krakow

The second oldest synagogue still standing is the Remu’h Synagogue.  It is still an active congregation, so we were not able to enter it during our visit, nor we could enter the Old Jewish cemetery that is located adjacent to the synagogue building.  All I could get was the one photograph through the gate.  The Remu’h synagogue was built in the mid-16th century, and its interior also was substantially destroyed by the Nazis and then used for storage.

Remu'h Synagogue

Remu’h Synagogue

Both the Old and the Remu’h synagogues are located on what was the main square in the Jewish quarter where today there are numerous restaurants, many providing “Jewish” dishes on their menus (but not kosher) and klezmer music at night.  It’s a very pretty square, but the faux Jewishness is clearly intended to manipulate Jewish tourists like us, coming to see a world that no longer exists.

IMG_2643 main square in Jewish Quarter Krakow 5 24 IMG_2644 Jewish Quarter Krakow

The High Synagogue was the third synagogue built in Krakow, sometime after the Remu’h but also in the 16th century.  It was called the High Synagogue because the prayer hall was located upstairs.  We were able to climb those stairs and visit the former prayer hall because today it is a museum.  The exhibit there was very moving.  Several families of former Krakow Jews provided photographs to the museum of their families, depicting what their lives were like in the 1920s and 1930s before the Nazis arrived.  I was surprised to see very modern-looking families, engaged in activities like skiing and boating, as opposed to the images I had had in my head of ultra-Orthodox men with payes and long black coats.  As in Prague, by the early 20th century Jews in Krakow were full citizens, no longer required to live in a ghetto.  Many were quite successful merchants, and their families lived very comfortable and modern lives.

IMG_2639 High Synagogue IMG_2640 Jewish quarter Jewish school

Of course, it doesn’t matter whether they were Hasidim or assimilated, but I have to admit it made it easier for me to identify with these people, knowing their lives were not unlike mine.  Reading the stories of what happened to these families was heartbreaking.  Even though someone survived in these families and was thus able to preserve the photographs and the stories, each of these families lost many members during the Holocaust.

The only other synagogue building we could enter was that of the former Kupa Synagogue.  It was built in the 17th century, and like the other synagogues, was severely damaged by the Nazis.  We were able to enter the building and see the prayer hall, where people seemed to be setting up for some event.  We are not sure exactly how this synagogue is used today since it was open for visitors on the holiday.

Back of Kupa Synagogue

Back of Kupa Synagogue showing the ghetto wall


We also stopped to see the outside of the Isaac Synagogue, also built in the 17th century and now the headquarters for Chabad in Krakow, and the newest of the synagogues, the Tempel Synagogue, a Reform synagogue built in the mid-19th century.  Neither was open to visitors.

Tempel Synagogue

Tempel Synagogue

IMG_2638 Izaak Synagogue now Chabad

Isaac Synagogue


But next to the Tempel Synagogue is the JCC of Krakow, which was open and where we spoke with a woman at the reception desk.  She told us that they have 500 members, although only 120 are “registered” Jews.  The JCC provides educational and cultural programming, Shabbat dinners, and holiday celebrations, and aims to revive a Jewish community in Krakow.  It was uplifting to be in this new building and see some signs of hope for the very small Jewish community that exists today in Krakow.

jcc krakow

We ended our walk through the Jewish Quarter on that somewhat high note.  We later returned for dinner at the Klezmer Huis, where we ate “Jewish-style” food and listened to Klezmer music (sung by three young people who I assume are not Jewish, but who were excellent).

IMG_2646 Klezmer Huis IMG_2648 Klezmer Huis harvey IMG_2649 interior of Klezmer Huis IMG_2650 IMG_2652 Klezmer peformers

But although that was fun (if somewhat corny), it did not really cover up the reality.  Before World War II, there were about 65,000 Jews in Krakow, and they made up about 25% of the city’s population.  Today, as I said, there are 120 Jews living in Krakow.  Walking those streets and seeing the old houses once occupied by Jewish families, entering those once flourishing synagogues that are now just museums, seeing those photographs of the families who were destroyed, I could not help but feel thousands of ghosts following us around.  What would Krakow be like today if the descendants of those 65,000 people were alive? My day in Krakow left me angry and very sad.

The second day of our visit to Poland we learned more about what happened to those people.  More on that in my next post.



Home Sweet Home

We are back from our trip, and I have so much to say that I don’t even know where or how to start.  Traveling to a different place can change your whole view of the world, of your place in the world, and of yourself.  This trip did that in so many different ways.  I have hundreds of photographs to sort and label, a lot of notes to transcribe and ponder, and so many thoughts and memories floating through my head that I need to write them all down before I forget them.  So I can’t just start blogging in detail about the trip right away.  I will certainly report about the parts of the trip that related directly to my own family—the trip to Poland in particular—once I have it all digested.

For now I have these overall thoughts and a few photographs to share.  First, standing in the former Jewish quarters in Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and Vienna, some of which still have several synagogues (a few even still in operation), is a chilling and horrifying experience.  For me, these places that once bustled with Jewish grandparents, mothers, fathers, and children, going to work and going to school and going to shul, were a graphic and vivid reminder of what the world lost in the Holocaust.  Had it not been for the Nazis, these Jewish communities could and likely would still exist, adding to the culture and economy of these places and of the world just as they did for hundreds of years before their Jewish citizens were murdered.

A street in the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow

A street in the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow

Nothing made this more painfully vivid for me than standing in Tarnobrzeg, the town where my Brotman great-grandparents lived, a town that was once 75% Jewish and where not one Jew lives today.  The only signs that there were once Jews there were a small plaque on the library, a building that had once been the synagogue, and a Star of David near the gate to the neglected Jewish cemetery, where only a handful of headstones remain.

gravestone on the ground in the Jewish cemetery in Tarnobrzeg

gravestone on the ground in the Jewish cemetery in Tarnobrzeg

Second, every person, Jewish or not, should visit Terezin and Auschwitz.  I cannot say more.  The places say it all.  You cannot go to these places and not be changed.  No matter what you may have read or seen or heard about the Holocaust, you cannot be prepared for what you experience walking in those places of terror and death.  I have only two photographs of Terezin and no photographs of Auschwitz.  I could not bear to think about taking a photograph while standing where so many were slaughtered.



Third, I had little idea what life was like under Soviet domination in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary until we met several people who had lived during that era.  We were lucky to have guides in Prague, Poland, and Budapest who had witnessed the changes and were able to describe to us how different life was before and after the Soviets left in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  Today all these places are clearly capitalist, for better in many ways, for worse in others.  Seeing Starbucks and McDonalds and KFC everywhere amidst the old buildings in these gorgeous cities is jolting, but much better than seeing empty store windows and children forced to march at rallies to support the “state.”

Despite all the sadness that we felt as we learned about the past in these places, overall we experienced these cities as places of joyfulness, liveliness, and overall comfort.  Yes, there were beggars and homeless people, especially in Budapest, and I am sure that outside the areas where tourists congregate there is plenty of poverty and misery.  But each of the cities we visited were beautiful places filled with incredible and fascinating architecture, a huge number of cafes and restaurants and bars, museums teeming with people, cobblestone streets crowded with tourists and tour groups, and the sounds of happy, excited people.  There was music everywhere—in the streets, in the churches, and in the concert halls.

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

We had an incredible time.  Our tears and sadness were well-balanced with times of pure joy—climbing the tower to see all of Prague, clapping to Klezmer music in Krakow, walking along the river in Budapest, and eating unbelievable pastries in Vienna.  We heard music in every city, we stood in awe in Gothic cathedrals, we watched people laughing and drinking and eating in the cafes, and we walked and walked and walked until our feet were numb.  We had an incredible time.

Musikverein in Vienna

Musikverein in Vienna