Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 24 & 25, 2010

July 24 & July 25, 2010
Yesterday was a very long one for all of us. We left Warsaw at 9:30 am and flew to Frankfort arriving a little later than expected. We had to change terminals and didn’t have a good deal of time – so imagine 27 people double timing it through an airport and trying to stay together! We made it in time for the 8 ½ hour flight to Washington. Of course, the plane was full, but I had a window seat and it was a beautiful day - so I was able to see Scotland, the tip of Greenland, and Newfoundland. All of our luggage arrived safely!! The problem was that the bus that was to pick us up never showed, so we took several taxis to our hotel!!! It’s always something, but we handled it with ease!!!
Today we were at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum an hour before it opened, so that we could view it again. It was amazing how differently we looked at the artifacts and exhibits - knowing that we had stood at the sites we were seeing. There was a group of boy scouts that came in right after us and we felt good sharing some of our newfound knowledge with them. In the afternoon, we listened to a survivor, Mr. Henry Greenbaum, a local resident, who volunteers at the museum. He was extremely interesting and made us appreciate the importance of geography and luck. I was able to have my picture taken with him and was very proud to meet him.
Tonight, we had a farewell dinner, with steak (yeah, no chicken!!) and important memories from our trip. Many of the participants spoke about the importance of the women sharing time with Elaine at Belzec and our appreciation of her sharing part of her story with us. I shared my deeper appreciation of the survivors that I work with after taking in the feelings, sights and sounds of Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.
We meet tomorrow morning and then leave for various airports and railroad stations. We’ve grown very close over the last few weeks and it is going to be difficult to part – there is a reunion of all American Gathering groups every two years, and so we will plan to meet again in 2012. In the meantime, the New England contingent plan to meet in NYC in the fall!

I'm tired - as are the rest of us! We need a vacation from our vacation!

Thanks for being part of this wonderful journey!! Linda

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 23, 2010

Today is our last full day in Poland and we sadly left Lodz and headed towards Warsaw. We've returned to Warsaw so we can fly back to the United States tomorrow morning. We go from Warsaw to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to DC. If there aren't any delays we should arrive back in the U.S. just before 4 pm. The hotel we're staying at this evening, a Courtyard Marriott is within walking distance of the Warsaw airport. The walk is literally a 200 foot walk from the lobby to the Lufthansa check in desk. I've never seen anything like this before. We don't have to worry about wrestling bags onto a bus, we simply walk out the hotel's front door. This is the most "Americanized" of the international hotels we've visited. The rooms have both U.S. and European outlets and there's no shortage of English TV channels. I don't mean to sound like a spoiled American daytripper, but these small luxuries are nice to have. We spent most of today in a bus. Looking back on it, the day consisted of an endless cycle involving sleep, reading, listening to music, viewing the countryside, eating Peanut M&Ms, more sleep, eating chips and apples, and various conversations. The reason for the long bus ride was a visit to the site of Treblinka concentration camp. Treblinka is 4 hours away from Lodz, but the journey was a bit longer due to traffic delays.

Treblinka was the last emotional stop for our group. Treblinka was one of 6 Nazi killing camps and one of 3 Aktion Reinhardt camps solely devoted to murdering as many Jews as possible. Treblinka was responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 Jews. What is an even more disturbing fact is that all of these deaths occurred in a concentrated span of 16 months, roughly from July 1942-November 1943. Treblinka is really located in the middle of nowhere. You must travel great distances to visit as it is located in the middle of the forest. We traveled on various dirt roads to get to there. Auschwitz is located within a city and fairly close to Krakow. Belzec was built within viewing distance of the nearest town. During the time that Treblinka was fully operating, no outsiders came even remotely close to the camp. One photo exists of smoke coming from the pits of burning bodies and even that was taken from a considerable distance. The only camp which murdered more Jews was Auschwitz.

Today when you visit Treblinka nothing remains from the original camp. Upon abandoning the camp, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Treblinka be completely destroyed. The Nazis were very effective in carrying out Himmler's orders. All traces of the original camp were removed and destroyed. The Nazis bulldozed the entire camp. We know about the location of Treblinka due to a few valuable sources. An inmate who was taken to Treblinka was able to hide underneath one of the cattle cars and survived the journey back to Warsaw. He was able to sketch the camp's locations and dynamics onto a piece of paper that eventually made its way to the Jewish Underground. Inhabitants from a neighboring village noticed all of the activity and trains in the area and reported what they observed. Finally, a few people did survive Treblinka, but not many.

Treblinka is located amidst a very lush, beautiful forest that did not exist 67 years ago. As I walked up to the camp's entrance the forest reminded me of walking through local forest land. Scenically, Treblinka reminds me of Bergen Belsen in terms of how both camps are situated among a very beautiful forest. The most important thing to remember with this comparison is that Bergen Belsen doesn't even compare to Treblinka concerning the number of people murdered at the camp. A stoned path sits where the original railroad tracks once were. Next to the stone path is a series of stone slabs leading further into the camp. These slabs, which are part of the Soviet memorial at Treblinka symbolize the railroad tracks which one guided people into the camp. There wasn't much to Treblinka when it existed besides railroad tracks, a gas chamber an open pit to burn bodies and a few living quarters. Selections didn't take place at Treblinka because the camp's sole purpose was to murder as many Jews as possible. The most disturbing statistic I heard during my time at Treblinka was that 120 guards were responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 people. This isn't a statistical error. Human beings certainly have the potential to commit the gravest of atrocities.

As I walked through Treblinka I noticed the various rock fields. This was similar to Belzec's memorial, but different and unique because Treblinka's rock fields were spread out more and the stones were different in size. The first series of rocks I viewed were much larger than the rest and identified all of the countries where Jews came. The field of more but smaller stones has a village's name on each rock. Out of all the rocks, only one person's name exists: Janusz Korczak, an author and educator. Korczak ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto and cared for 200 children. Korczak knew that the ghetto would be liquidated and he knew that upon deportation his children would be immediately gassed. Korczak had many opportunities to flee and save himself, but he refused to abandon his children. Korczak boarded the train to Treblinka with his children and bravely marched with them to the gas chamber. Korczak knew there wasn't any hope for his survival, but it was more important that he remain with his children. I don't know many people who possess this level of bravery. Upon leaving the camp grounds, I placed a rock on the stone with his name to pay my respects and leave evidence of my visit.

A house-size rock memorial stands where the gas chambers once stood. Directly next to the gas chamber is a rock field of mostly black rocks. In this particular area is where the pit of burning bodies once existed. It was difficult to remain in this area for too long. The base of this pit contained many memorial candles and other traces of previous visits. Some people in our group who toured Treblinka today broke down for the first time all trip. I didn't show it on the outside, but internally I struggled with visiting a place that was responsible for such horrific atrocities. I will continue to think about and analyze the places I've visited long after I return home. Visiting these camps is a difficult, horrific experience, but one that people definitely need to take. The remnants of the concentration camps are direct evidence that such barbaric acts really occurred and they happened during the fairly recent past. As an educator, it's my responsibility to visit these places so I can pass along what I've witnessed to teachers and students.

Notice the picture that I took of the home in the countryside. The ride was like going back in time. Most of the houses were either cement or wood - crooked little buildings with fenced in yards. Cows were chained to trees in the front yard - chickens roamed the yard and horses were seen within barns. We even saw a few storks on chimneys (took quick for a photo)

After dinner, we gathered for an end of the tour get-together where we roasted our directors and each other. There were several very funny moments. We repeated the words to the Partisan Song which is usually sung at Holocaust Remembrance. We honored Vladka Meed - the originator of the program, and finally, we sang "Que Sera Sera" - Vladka's favorite song - What will be, will be --

This is our last international night. Some of the people in the group are re-packing their clothes. Other people have congregated in the hotel bar to share a few more laughs across the pond. I will leave you with a funny experience to end this dispatch. Last night we ate at a restaurant which serves traditional Polish food. The first dish served to us was a fish gelatin mostly consisting of carp. You read this last sentence correctly. At first I didn't know what to make of this dish placed in front of me, but after a series of incredulous looks I decided to try the fish jell-o mold. I made it through about a third of the mold. There were too many contrasting elements that my mind couldn't overcome. Carp meat, skin, almonds and fruit combined with the wiggly texture just didn't add up in my stomach, so I humbly set the fish jell-o aside. Thankfully, the main course of duck and the lime gelatto doused in vodka more than made up for the rocky beginning.

Tomorrow I'll write from the USA!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22, 2010

We had a tour of Lodz this morning. going to several of the places that would fit into our Holocaust trip. Lodz is an industrial cities, in fact our hotel is in one of the factories owned by the Poznanski family, whose palace is just around the corner. Lodz, with a Jewish population of over 230,000 before the war, was one of the first large cities to isolate their Jews in a ghetto. Rather than walls, there were high barbed wire fences surrounding an area. Mordechai Rumkowski, was chosen head of the Judenrat (the ruling group of Jews who helped organize and carry out the wishes of the Germans) He was quite a megamaniac and even had stamps and money printed with his picture. He's a very controversial person in that the Lodz ghetto had more people survive than other large city ghettos, but he also seemed to assist the Germans in eliminating groups of people, such as agreeing to deportation of a large group of children - saying that the parents could work for the Germans and they could have more children. In the Lodz ghetto he organized religious services, medical and post offices. There were trolleys running through the ghetto and bridges were erected to get from one side to another.
We visited St. Mary's a church(interior church picture) in the center of the ghetto where the Germans had stored the confiscated down comforters and spreads that the Jews owned. The feathers were bagged and sent to Germany, while the Jews were left to freeze.
Next, we drove to the Jewish cemetery of Lodz (under lock and key because of vandalism. It had avoided being destroyed during the war, but acres of stones sat overgrown as in the Warsaw Cemetery. There was a large area of mass graves noting those that died from starvation and disease in the ghettos. In addition, there were four large pits, that the last 88 prisoners in the ghetto were tasked to dig. The plan was to shoot them and cover up the last remains. The Soviets came in and liberated the ghetto before the prisoners were killed - thus the empty graves.
Our next stop was the Radegast Railway Station, which like Warsaw was the place of deportation. They had a huge wall with 1941-1945 - and a building with the words - "Thou Shalt Not Kill" inscribed above. The tracks at the station stopped within a large cement tunnel that had been created for the memorial. The sides of the walls were covered with the documents naming each individual on each deportation train. It was a long tunnel!! This station had authentic railway cars from Germany - one that we could walk in and touch - it was unsure whether these had actually been used in deportation.
Our final stops were at two memorials - One was the Park of the Saved and the Wall of the Righteous - where we saw Roman Kent's name as a Lodz Survivor - he spoke to us before we left Washington. When I walked around the Wall of the Righteous, I came across a marker for a man who shares my grandmother's last night - Wladaslaw Glowacki - I plan to look and see who he is and if we are related. That would be wonderful!
Our last stop was at the Broken Heart Cemetery - a monument to the Polish Children who were killed during the war. - There was so much thought that went into these monuments - I find it very interesting and try to find the meaning in all we have seen. We returned to our hotel, which, as I said was once a factory. Across the street are the apartments that were erected for the workers - quite a difference from our hotel.
We have had the afternoon free and a group of us ate at a Mexican Restaurant - A Polish Chimichanga and a Margarita - both of which tasted a bit different, but nonetheless, were delicious! We are meeting at the pool this afternoon and then dinner with the group. Tomorrow we leave Lodz for Treblinka and our last night here in Poland. It's hard to think that it's coming to an end.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 21, 2010

Today was spent traveling north to Lodz. The countryside reminds me so much of New England, but the condition of the homes and farms is remarkably different. Though, in most cases, neat, buildings are old and in need of more care. There is a good deal of work being done on roads, including drainage. It is evident that the residents care about their homes as there are flowers and flower gardens everywhere. In the cities, many of the buildings are Communist era block type houses - grey or beige. In the countryside, the fences are unpainted wood or a metal lattice. We see grain and corn growing in the fields, with cows and goats roaming. Some yards have a lone cow laying under a tree. I saw a man farming with just a horse and plow - very few tractors. The roads are very narrow and our bus driver amazes us, though many of us have taken to not looking!!
We stopped in the small town of Kielce where a Jewish cemetery was being tended by a local Catholic woman. We had to stop at her home to get the key. The stones had been broken, but were fixed and are neatly standing. There was a memorial there that many of us found quite moving. The Jews of Kielce had to undergo the same tragedies that other small towns endured, but in 1946, after liberation, several Jews returned Many of them were murdered by their Polish neighbors because of a lie that a young Polish boy had been forced (by his parents) to tell. He said that he had been kidnapped by the Jews and they were going to take his blood, but he was rescued by a young Jewish girl. He later admitted to the lie, but it was too late. Townspeople attacked these homeless Jews and killed most of them. After this, most of the Polish Jews fled to Israel. The memorial itself is a large smooth black stone with an irregular broken Jewish Star in the center. There is a large stone at the end of the monument to signify the traditional stones left on Jewish tombstones.
Along the way, we stopped at a "gas station" for lunch - the picture is a traditional hot dog - I took off the cucumbers and most of the sauce!
We traveled on and stopped at the town of Piotrkow Trybunalski where the first Jewish ghetto was erected. We visited the original synagogue which as been turned into a library.
We finally arrived in Lodz (pronounced Woodge) the third largest city in Poland. It is an industrial town and we are staying in a renovated factory - quite weird as the hallways and rooms have 16' ceilings with large barred windows. Though many of the buildings have been renovated, several now house apartments and are quite poor.
Tonight we came together for another evening of reflection. We discussed those artifiacts or places that affected us over the last few days. I spoke about the stone steps in the buildings at Auschwitz - they were so worn in particular areas, that I felt that I had sunk into the past. We were one with the prisoners. Others spoke of the hair or shoes - we all made connections and want to be able to bring those feelings back to our classrooms.
We are getting tired - we sleep on the bus - emotionally drained - we are starting to go into overload. A good night's sleep will help!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20, 2010

Today we had a local guide who took us on a tour of Krakow from a Jewish perspective. She pointed out the walls of the old town as we drove over the Vistula River to the industrial area. Here we found Shindler's factory - though it had been renovated, it was made to look the same. Here workers from Krakow Ghetto A walked to work. Though the factory is now a museum to the Holocaust, we viewed it from the outside and saw the original gates. We understood that Steven Spielberg had the help of the city of Krakow when he made Schindler's List, and was able to use many of the original sites. We then drove to the main part of the Krakow Ghetto to see part of the ghetto walls there - erected by the Germans, they looked like large Jewish Headstones. In the center of the square was a memorial called "Heroes of the Ghetto Square" which was the site of the Krakow deportations. Here there were large chairs spaced unevenly and facing in different directions to signify the fact that Jews from that area were sent in all directions. The chairs brought back the memory of people carrying their wordly belongings, such as chairs. The Jews had 800 years of history in Krakow before the Holocaust and it is important to remember that they were a large part of both Krakow's and Poland's history.
We then toured the Galicia Museum which was filled with beautiful photographs from the past and present looking at that part of Poland's cultural history. Many of us took the bus back to our hotel, had lunch in a nearby food court, and then headed into the Main Square of the city to search for the perfect souvenir or bargain. Most of us came back with sore feet and a few packages. Amber was the thing to get and we compared our finds.
I was very lucky today - I had set up a meeting with some of my Polish relatives - I had never met or talked with any of them, as they don't speak English. I set it up through a relative in the US, and she helped me organize it with an aunt here in Krakow. My roommate, Debi, and I walked to the restaurant and were met by eleven smiling faces. They had flowers and gifts for both of us. My cousin, Josefa, was there with several of her children and a few of their children. We had a delightful meal at Polska Smackie (The Taste of Poland) and though we sometimes struggled with communication, it was a wonderful meeting. I am so glad that we were able to connect and hope that we will keep in touch in the future. It was a great connection for me - I was able to speak to them about their grandparents plight during WWII. It turns out that their grandfather was in the Polish police and fought with the Germans. Though I did not find out much more, it was interesting learning about their view on things. We walked them back to their cars through the old town and gave lots of hugs and kisses to my "new" relatives.

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19, 2010

It is after 11 pm and it's been a very long and emotional day, though I think we're all still digesting everything we've seen today. We took a one hour drive to Auschwitz, which consists of the brick buildings that primarily housed the political prisoners, Soviet POW's, and other ethnic non-Jews. Several of the buildings have been turned into individual museums covering different aspects of the camps, such as camp life, things they left behind, etc... There was a room just filled with hair - the hair keeps growing, and by now the hair has turned grey which is rather eerie. The hair had been shaved from prisoners after they were killed, in most cases. We saw clothing and materials made of human hair – did the people who bought and wore this, know where it came from? At Auschwitz, they began by taking pictures of prisoners and giving them a number, as the number of slave laborers increased, they used the tattoo system in order to keep track.

The camps were first set up to separate political prisoners - primarily intellectuals such as teachers, religious leaders, writers, artists, lawyers, etc… - those people who could possibly lead a resistance. Auschwitz is located about one hour west of Krakow – right along the railway lines, surrounded by rivers. There were already abandoned army barracks on the property. When the concentration camp filled with Poles and gypsies grew too large, they created a second camp nearby (Birkenau) that became a death camp for the Jews.
As you walk into Auschwitz, there is a cleared area, where a group of prisoners played marching music prisoners were forced to march – making it easier to count, so that they could be marched out into the community to work. As many as 20,000 people could be counted in this way.
The buildings at Auschwitz were two story, with windows and large rooms down long corridors. The rooms could hold 200 prisoners or more. As we walked up the stairway to the second floor, the stone steps were smoothed and imprinted from the many feet that had walked on them. I could feel their presence. Most prisoners were forced to wear the striped clothing and wooden clogs. As we walked along the wide walkways with rocks popping up all around, we wonder how they could stand upright, let alone march. Their daily calorie intake was very low, and people in Auschwitz died from starvation. In the morning they would typically have a bowl of brownish “coffee”, soup with potatoes (or essence of potatoes) for lunch, and a small hunk of bread(with added sawdust) with margarine.
Many people that the suffering began long before the camp, on the trains that people were transported on. In some cases, such as those taken from Greece, they were on trains for nine days without food, water, even clean air.
We took the bus over to Birkenau and were dropped off where prisoners were originally taken before tracks were built right into the prison. We then walked their route into the camp. Now, there are homes around the property, which gave us all chills – especially when we saw locals working in their fields, fields that had been fertilized with the ashes of Birkenau.
The buildings in Birkenau were either wooden or brick - with dirt floors and three tiered bunks along each side of the buildings. Ten to twelve prisoners could sleep in one bunk, with the upper bunks being most desirable, as you were not allowed to leave during the night and if someone was sick, those on the bottom felt it. In addition, if the top bunk was too heavy, the bunk could collapse on those below. There was a heater in each barracks, but because of the cost of heat, it was not used. There were no windows other than some small eyebrow windows near the roof. There was no electricity or light. It was filthy, smelly, and claustrophic for me, I can’t imagine how it must have been then. There were large buildings for latrines which included long troughs for cleaning and three large rows of cement toilets – prisoners would have to share the toilets. They were given 5 minutes in this latrine – once in the morning and once at night. One writer called this excremental assault – another type of dehumanization.
Our director Elaine’s mother, Dora, was a survivor from Birkenau, though her aunt was lost. She related her mother’s story about wearing several layers of clothing to the deportation, being shaved, tattooed along with her older sister. Her mother weighed 140 lbs when she was taken, and 58 lbs at liberation. She had suffered from malaria, as Birkenau is built on a swamp. She and her sister, Fania, were working in a nearby quarry, and Fania was tasked to carry the hot soup kettle. They slipped in their wooden clogs and started falling down the slope, as they fell, they were both shot by the Nazi guard. Fania had to carry her sister’s body back to the camp so that it could be counted. Dora became very despondent and thought of touching the electrified fence in order to commit suicide, but she was taken under the wings of her fellow inmates and carried on.
There is more that I could tell – facts and figures – but the enormity of the place, the systematic way separation was carried out right there at the tracks, the organization of the gas chamber and crematorium, where they changed, were told to hang their clothes on hooks and remember the numbers so they could get them back, the gassing and crematoriums - I can’t explain - those these buildings are in ruins, they have been left the way they were. The place, the experience, the weight – too huge to explain ….
There were many “visitors” at these camps, especially at Auschwitz, as compared to the other places we have been. It was hard to be reflective with so many around, though most were respectful of this hallowed ground.
We spent eight hours there today and were all drained, though the weather was cool and misty, we enjoyed the change in temperature. At dinner at our hotel, a Polish teacher joined each table. Our teacher, Krzysztof Nurkowski, did not speak English very well, but we managed to get some information out of him. He is a history teacher from about one hour away. He loves American music, so that gave us a common ground for a few minutes, anyway. That is Krzysztof in the picture. After dinner, the group met with all the Polish teachers and we discussed Holocaust Education – very different in Poland as we discovered when we inquired about the treatment of Jews after the war.
Our group is melding well – we figure out where we can get free internet, and meet there or share the cost of room internet. Last night, many of us were in the bar skyping or writing blogs - it’s many laughs after an emotional day.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 18, 2010 continued

I just wanted to talk a little bit about the good times that we have, too. We are always looking for new things to eat. The first picture you see is Nick Hart and my roommate, Debi Maller, enjoying a picnic lunch that we picked up at a little grocery store - trying to read Polish words and decipher pictures has become quite an experience. We traveled to Krakow by two lane roads, primarily and we enjoyed the countryside. It has been very flat over the area from Warsaw to Zamosc, and we notice the rolling hills that break up the scenic vistas. I spotted a sign for my grandmother's village, Jaslo, but missed taking a picture. The scenery and house are typical of this area.
We had a traditional Polish dinner tonight with veal, boiled potatoes and beets, preceded by a crusty bread covered with an aged cheese with a cranberry sauce. We all know one Polish word for sure - Lody - which means ice cream - that, and gelato are everywhere!! Lody and toileta are the words for the day!