by Steve Riekes
During the summer of 2012, Steve Riekes traveled to Eastern Europe. His wife Margo accompanied him, as did good friends Nathan and Hannah Schwalb, and Dr. Bernard Bloom, formerly of Omaha, and his wife, Naomi, of Dallas. What follows is a story about Warsaw, part one of a series of articles Steve wrote about his experiences. Part two, Krakow, and part three, Auschwitz, will appear during the coming weeks.
This long-planned trip was very special to us because, among other things, this is an area of the world in which so many of our ancestors had come from. While these places were special, in and of themselves, highlights were the exceptional lectures, comments, and insights of Professor Stephen Berk of Union College in New York. The tour was organized by Ayelet Tours of Albany, New York. About 50 persons from all over the United States participated.
While the Holocaust looms large, it is not the whole of the story of East European Jewry. Jews lived in this area for over 1,000 years. During that millennium, Jews in that area made enormous contributions to civilization. They created the Yiddish language and literature. They were engaged in tremendous scholarship, both religious and secular. They developed music, art, dance, and culinary creations. The Hassidic movement was created.
Warsaw, the capital, was devastated during World War II. It was rebuilt under Soviet occupation, evident by the many dull looking buildings designed in the Soviet style. But it also has a charming old town, beautiful parks, and some shopping centers that are as modern and attractive as one would find anywhere in the world. Chopin is the city’s cultural icon, and his music can be heard everywhere.
Before World War II, three million Jews lived in Poland, about 10% of the total population. However, the relation between Poles and Jews has been a “very mixed bag” of positive and negative, as Professor Berk frequently noted.
In the 13th Century, the Polish nobility eagerly sought Jewish immigrants in order to build the economy. King Casimir the Great gave Jews special protection. For several centuries, Jews prospered in the Polish-Lithuanian Empire. The Jewish population grew. It became self governing with an elected central governing body. Famous Yeshevot (houses of Jewish learning) were established.
Yet, even during this period of growth and prosperity, elements of the Polish Catholic Church remained hostile to Jews, and likewise, Polish peasantry and other segments of Polish society.
A severe crisis occurred in 1648 and 49 when a Ukrainian, Bogdan, Chmielnicki led a Cossack revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian empire. He had a particular hatred for the Jews, and wanted the Ukraine to be free of them. It is estimated that 100,000 Jews were killed and 300 Jewish towns destroyed. Many Jews were forced to convert and others were sold into slavery. All this put strains on Polish society as well as the Jewish community.
Poland itself disappeared at the end of the 18th Century, being gobbled up and divided by its neighbors, Russia, Austria, and Prussia.
The Treaty of Versailles reestablished an independent Poland, and required that it respect its minorities. But, in fact, it did not. Discrimination against Jews remained. For example, it limited the number of Jews that could attend Polish universities. (It should be noted that many American universities also had Jewish quotas.)
The newly independent Polish state collapsed with the Nazi invasion in September of 1939, aided a few weeks later by the Soviet invasion from the east. Then began one of the darkest chapters in Jewish history. The Germans immediately harassed and killed Jews. They established ghettos, of walled-in urban areas, all over Poland, forcing Gentiles to move out and Jews to move in.
The original Warsaw ghetto covered approximately 840 acres in the very center of the city. Four hundred thousand Jews were crowded into this area. The ghetto residents were given an allocation of food of 184 calories per day. Epidemics were frequent. There was constant harassment.
The ghetto became a warehouse from which Jews were deported to death camps. We visited the “Umschlagplatz,” the assembly point for the deportations. The Germans tried to disguise the purpose of these deportations by telling the Jews that they were simply being resettled or sent to labor camps.
When the Jews remaining in the ghetto finally understood what the Germans were doing, they formed underground groups. In the winter and spring of 1943, the ghetto rose in revolt. On April 19, 1943, the Germans, with tanks and artillery, entered the ghetto in order to resume deportations. The Jewish fighters resisted and, overcoming the odds, the Germans were repulsed from the ghetto after suffering heavy losses. Eventually, the Germans reconquered the ghetto by systematically burning down its houses. Despite the leveling of the ghetto, and the killing that went with it, the uprising had an enormous moral effect upon Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. (Encyclopedia Judaica).
The story of the Warsaw ghetto, its uprising and its destruction is graphically displayed at the Jewish Historical Institute. In this museum, there are films and photographs of the Jews and their suffering. Much of the photographic material was produced by the Germans, some of whom, apparently, were amused by the persecution they were causing.
Personally, after seeing much of this display, I left the expositions and sat down in a hallway. I could not continue because I was emotionally overcome. I could not understand how one people could perpetrate such horror upon another people. What does this say about humanity?
Although many Jewish fighters aided the Poles in their abortive uprising against the Nazis in 1944, anti-Semitism persisted in Poland. Thus, even after the war, there were horrible anti-Semitic pogroms committed by Poles.
The Soviet Union defeated the Germans, occupied Poland, and set up a Communist puppet government. That government had vitriolic anti-Zionist policies. The situation was so bad that the overwhelming majority of Polish Jews that survived the war refused to remain in Poland but instead went to Israel or other countries. Consequently, Warsaw today has an estimated population of 2,000 Jews.
The Nozyk Synagogue is the only one to have survived. Today, it has the largest Jewish congregation in Warsaw. It is orthodox. Dick Fellman recently wrote in The Jewish Press about attending services at the Nozyk Synagogue. He also attended a Reform service held in rented space in an office building not far from the train station.
As part of our tour, we were taken to a large house-type structure in a suburban area, operated by Beit Warsawa, a new progressive congregation. It is supported by a Jewish man living in California, who has roots in Warsaw. He hopes that a more progressive style of Judaism will help revive Jewish life in that city.
We toured the Gensa Cemetery, established in 1806, and containing the graves of about 250,000 Jews. As we were leaving, there was a happy coincidence. Dozens of Jewish teenagers in the Conservative USY Movement were awaiting their turn to visit, and, among them was Julia Edelstein, daughter of Stan and Ellene Edelstein of Omaha.
It must be remembered that 6,000 Poles have been recognized as being “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Poles, more than any other people, risked their lives to save Jews during the war.
A new museum being built in the former Warsaw ghetto will tell the 1,000-year history of the Jews in Poland. Piotr Wislicki, Chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, said: “There is no history of Poland without the Jews and no history of Jews without Poland.”