Jewish heritage sites in Poland

By Larry Gordon

July 7—8–It’s late Tuesday night, and we are preparing to fly to Warsaw, Poland, with the Mesorah Heritage Tours group led by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Our Polish Airlines departure is delayed by a little more than an hour. The group mills about the airport terminal, reacquainting with old friends and introducing ourselves to new ones. It’s getting late. It’s been a long day and people look tired.

Jewish heritage sites in Poland
Jewish heritage sites in Poland

One thing quickly becomes abundantly clear–there is little enthusiasm here. Someone says, “When you go to Poland, do you say ‘have a nice trip, have a good time’?” And that kind of sums up this endeavor–for some, an experience that must be had. It is not supposed to be enjoyable, but we have to do it.

In our old camp days, back when we were kids, there was an old refrain that went something like this, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here . . .” There’s a sense in the expansive walkways of JFK and later on our Lot Airlines 787 Dreamliner that we, as a group, are going to Poland to remember and also make sure we never forget.

Since we decided to make this trip, I’ve been checking out maps and researching the names of cities and towns I heard about as a child. The names of those towns either went in one ear and out the other or just bounced off the side of my head. I heard the names of those places and the people that did not make it out alive. Some of my children carry those people’s names today. But that’s all we know, nothing else. All these decades later, I remember the places and the people and I am searching for some sign, a hint, a wink, anything.

Jewish heritage sites in Poland
Jewish heritage sites in Poland

My fear and concern is that there is a great deal to be discovered here but unfortunately there will be no signs of life. My wife says that her father would not want her to make this trip, to once again enter the murderous, evil “dalet amos” (four cubits) of what was once believed to be the Jerusalem of Europe. Poland wasn’t some brief way station on the Jews’ route from the Middle East to the United States. Jewish life flourished here for more than a thousand years.

Sure, there were difficulties, hardships, and obstacles. That’s Jewish life. That might be life in general, the human condition perhaps. But then the killers showed up and the rest is our blood-soaked history.

So why are we here? I’m still cerebrally sorting that out. I can’t help but examine the faces of the Polish airline crew. Something as simple as waiting on the line to board the aircraft made me wonder. I stood and watched one of the ground crew set up a rope line in the terminal so that the boarding would be orderly and methodical. He moved and adjusted the velvet ropes first this way, then that. He kept stepping back to survey what looked like the simplest and most mundane activity but moved it an inch this way, then two inches that way. In the meantime, we waited and watched until it was perfect enough for him.

– – –

As dawn broke, some men nearby reached for their carry-on bags and tallis and tefillin. Several men traversed the aisles dressed and ready to davenShacharis. This is a big jet. There must be close to 400 people on board. The passengers look to be mainly young people, families, students, and so on. I cannot resist wondering if they recognize the sight of men in tallis and tefillin. For me, it conjures up images. I have no idea what they are thinking, but that doesn’t really matter. This is the dynamic at play that explains why we are here. Years ago, I used to attend commemorative ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The motto of the group was both heart-rending and simple. It was “Mir zenin du,” we are here.

– – –

Warsaw is a bustling city. In its relationship to the world, it is a city like all others. Buses and trains dot the landscape, kids are walking with book bags, dog owners trot alongside their pets. My mental image and mind’s vision of everything Polish was not like this.

– – –

One week later–I came to Poland try to connect some dots. Frankly, I haven’t figured out yet whether my ability to grasp and understand what happened to our families and people here is closer to being realized or further away than ever before. In less than five days, we covered an enormous amount of ground and gained significant insight into the phenomenon of the Holocaust and its uniquely Jewish dimension here in Poland. So let’s get one other important thing out of the way. Only the Jews were murdered because of inexplicable, irrational, and insane hatred. Everyone else that was murdered was for the most part just in the way.

Our people were so deeply vested in Poland, were apparently so comfortable and so at home, which makes the reality of the violence, the devastation, and the sheer brutality so much more difficult and irreconcilable. It is impossible to focus on the entirety of the trip or this mission in a single essay.

For now, let’s focus on what can be accomplished or why it’s important to visit this country whether you have family that suffered and perished there or not. My father and his family escaped oppression in a part of this country in the early 1930s. My wife’s family was not that fortunate. Two families were decimated, obliterated–grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and so on. Gone without any trace or sign, or even a grave to visit, stand by, pray, and remember.

Most immediately, that’s what stands out. We saw clear signs of it in Majdanek, outside of Lublin, and later at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And that was Jewish trust of the authorities which then translated itself into the most extreme and most tragic form of helplessness. But what could they have done but trusted and obeyed? The Nazis had the guns, the vicious dogs, and the most proficient killing machine.

I don’t think we will ever be able to grasp the Jew-hatred spread by the Nazis and then picked up with nonchalance by the locals, whether in Poland, Hungary, France, or a host of other countries. Nazism and the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. We had a history of isolation and persecution dating back to the beginning of our nationhood in Egypt. What leadership and the rank-and-file witnessed in places like Poland was perhaps just perceived as another historical bump in the road that somehow would pass as they always had. It did pass but the price was steep and the pain extraordinary and still felt today.

And that’s why many of us on the Project Mesorah trip went to Poland at this point in time. The group was composed of about 80 people. Many from New York, others from California, London, Israel, and so on. Most had a common thread or interest: We wanted to be there, to stand there, to see, absorb, and breathe it all in if we could. But why?

About that I can only theorize. It looked to me that most of us wanted to see firsthand what we had heard about and lived with on some dreamy or nightmarish and intangible level all these years. We envisioned a dark and dank Poland filled with people with a scowl-like persona and still after all these years harboring feelings ranging from indifference to animosity for Jews.

We didn’t find that. Some of us were disappointed that we found a modern, clean, advanced country. There is no national denial of what took place here 70 years ago. Still, Poland could be more accommodating to those victimized so brutally within the confines of its borders. This would be particularly true when it comes to matters of returning confiscated and plainly stolen Jewish properties and businesses.

Poland has returned some communal properties to the Jewish community–shuls in particular–but is reluctant to be more forthcoming. The effort to recover more of these as well as more private properties continues. The position of the Polish government is that the Poles, too, were victims of Hitler and his demonic bloodthirsty killers. How culpable the Poles were continues to be debated all these decades later. Testimonies of countless victims cast Poland in an unfavorable light.

Threaded into the sad memories and mysteries of our history in Poland are some bright spots too. Like last Friday afternoon, at the entrance to the death camp of Birkenau, we joined two separate circles of young American yeshiva students–boys and girls–as they danced in the shadows of the crematoriums where hundreds of thousands were ruthlessly murdered. The students waved Israeli flags, singing, dancing, and declaring for the Polish people and the world to hear, “Od Avinu Chai . . . Am Yisrael Chai,” the people and the nation of Israel is very much alive.

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