Poland: a Perspective
by Jo Diamond
Good evening all
I thank Rebbetzin Gila and Deanne for inviting me along this evening to speak about my experience following my 4 day trip to Poland in February last year
If I was technical enough to screen share and able to show the photographs I took during my trip then I could simply give you all a blow by blow account of my trip. That might have been an easier option for me. But Honestly I think that would be boring for you all (especially for those that were with me on the trip and might be watching this evening!) but for those that have also been fortunate enough to have visited Poland.
I don’t necessarily want to focus just on the part of my trip to Auschwitz, as it undeniably, a very sad place to visit but it is one of the very few places in the world today that reinforces the atrocities that the Jews were subjected to during the Holocaust. If you haven’t been for fear of not wanting to see what you think will be horrific, and that is partly true, Poland is still a fantastic place to visit in order to understand the roots of perhaps many of our ancestors, and also appreciate that years before us there were incredibly large fantastic communities of Jewish people living all around the world.
I got to see many synagogues, villages and towns that were once thriving with Jewish culture and that today have been turned into must-see sites. I got to understand how communities were created and how they stuck together, supported each other through the most difficult of times. So as we all gather here on Zoom this evening to come together, learn and celebrate ahead of the upcoming festival of Shavuot, it hit the fact that we have spent 68 days in isolation and lockdown to date and as Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, I feel that for many of us those fifty days will have passed us by in a way that will definitely be different to how we counted the days last year and in previous years. As I walked through Kasmeirsz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow and when I followed the Bohaterow Ghetto Memory Trail in Krakow, it often occurred to me among other things how it must have been practically impossible for the Jews during their time in the ghettos and concentration camps to learn Torah as their books and belongings were take a away and destroyed, and prayer houses and synagogues destroyed. We all gather here to listen to the ladies read and sing and we are freely able to count these precious 50 days, but for those who perished in the Holocaust, they just simply could not and were not allowed, and if caught reading or having a learning group they would be killed. And yet despite the odd times we are current facing, this is nothing compared to how these people had to live each day, and therefore I’m truly grateful that can still learn and count the days until Succott.
When we visited Zamosc and Josefow, I learned that there once existed huge Jewish communities, who lived and worked in these areas, only to be wiped out. Whilst witnessing and visiting these places is heart-breaking, the one thing I did find positive is that many of the towns and places we visited are now museums, or memorial sites, some coming under UNESCO world heritage sites and for me this meant ‘AM YISREAL CHAI’. We live on and what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust will never be forgotten. I guess in some respects I’m also grateful to the Polish government (along with the backing and support of many American and foreign investments) that these sites can continue to be open for all, so that the story can be told for generations to come.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the village of Tarnów. We were very lucky to visit The Muzeum Der Yiddisher Huiz... the house of Jewish history, known to us as “project with a vision“. Mr Renato Rossetto an Italian non-Jew, purchased the building upon discovery of its history. He will now turn this into a museum which was once the site of old Jewish residences. We were allowed inside despite it being only part renovated and at that time a building site, as originally it was purchased to be made into a shopping centre. Rossetto found coins and personal items that belonged to the Jews who lived there before they were shipped off to the camps, and he had to fight authorities for many many years for them to agree for the site to become a museum so as to never forget the Jews of Tarnow Village. For me this was yet another example of how the story of the Holocaust will live on and those whose lives perished will always be remembered.
I don’t think I can talk about in too much depth the impact of seeing the concentration camps and the various places, forests and ghettos that we saw because it is too sad to speak of. However, what i can say is that when seeing such places it brings the truth of what happened to the surface and you begin to see a picture with a completely different perspective, something that not just Jews but every person in the world should feel and experience
Prayers are said on Shavuot to thank God for the five Books of Moses (collectively known as the Torah) and for his law. Prayers are what kept many of the Jews focused during their time in the ghettos and in the concentration camps and the belief that there would be an end to their suffering. We as Jews are lucky to have such guidance in the Torah- a record of Jewish history and a place we often to look to for reason, understanding and explanation of various things that have happened in history that impact our lives today.
And so I want to talk about GRATITUDE. You’re probably sitting there thinking how can a trip to Poland make you feel grateful after what you see there? And You’re right...but we have all seen the many films and read books about the Holocaust - yet until you are afforded the opportunity to visit Poland and see the many areas significantly relating to the Holocaust, and learn how the Jews were treated in the Second World War, you never really can understand it or comprehend what you see in films and read in books. So first I am grateful to Debra Morris who sent me the invitation to join the wonderful group of people that went on this trip. I’m further grateful to the fact that I was in a position to afford to go on this trip - I have David to thank for that! - but truthfully I thought I knew quite a bit about the Holocaust, however, to be given the opportunity to learn more, visit a country where you can ‘feel’ the history and it gets into your bones, something you will never forget, I am grateful to have deepened my knowledge and understanding of what of course is an undeniably horrific but true event and never to be forgotten.
I went on this trip purely because I wanted to learn more about Jews living in Poland, and of the Holocaust. We visited Yeshiva Chachmei in Lublin, a Talmudic institution in the Second World War, and was the centre of Jewish intellect going as far back as the 16th century. This wonderful yellow building is now 4/5 star hotel, but was once the learning centre that created many great teachers. Rabbi Shapiro was the creator and instigator of the ‘Dafiomi’ – ‘ a page a day’ learning program that has reached many regions in the world today. I know a friend who has embarked on this program, and was so impressed with myself that I knew what she was talking about! So without having been to Poland and visiting this site, I would never have known about Dafiomi, so for me every moment of my trip to Poland provided a constant source of education and learning of which I’m truly grateful for.
When something you’ve seen is quite incomprehensible, unbelievable and impactful and if you’re like me have a terrible memory, it is so important to document what you’ve seen. So I have produced this wonderful photo book logging in detail my 4 day trip highlighting all the places we visited. I’d be happy to share this with you in the event I’ve made those that haven’t been to Poland want to go...and you can devise an itinerary that would hopefully give you the same experience that I had. Just a shame at present you can’t all rush to buy flights!!! But let’s hope there will be a time that the new normal of our future will mean that opportunities to travel, learn more and educate others will continue to present themselves
I did come away from Poland feeling somewhat saddened by our visit but in an odd and peculiar way, i felt enriched by what I had learned and touched by what i saw.
My trip to Poland has impacted my life and certainly made me look deeper to find strength to deal with difficult situations or events that have presented themselves since my trip. Furthermore, and all the more relevant in light of the current coronavirus pandemic, my trip to Poland made me appreciate and be grateful for what I have in my life and how I now neverforget how lucky we are despite what’s happening in the world and to all of us right now.
Thank you for listening to me this evening.