By Noah Graff
Wood Figurines of Jews sold in Warsaw Old Town
Two weeks ago I spent several days in Poland, staying in Kraków and Warsaw.
Poland is a country full of beauty with a rich history. Unfortunately much of that history has been a bloody one due to its location between Germany and Russia.
I knew that while there it was imperative for me to learn about the history of the Jews in Poland—my roots. Many of my ancestors lived in Poland; fortunately a lot of them left before World War II.
While staying in Kraków I drove an hour away to visit Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps. I had been to a different concentration camp a few years ago, Dachau, nearby Munich, and while that was a powerful experience, visiting Auschwitz brought about emotions of another level of intensity. I walked into rooms with ovens to incinerate the dead and into gas chambers with photos on a wall of individual prisoners accompanied by information, such as their country of origin, if they were Jewish or Gypsy, and when they were killed—1942 for all those in that particular room. In one room I saw a pile of Tallites, the
Prisoner uniforms at Aushwitz with photos of murdered prisoners on the wall.
Jewish prayer shawls that had been collected from Jews upon their arrival at the camp. Another room contained the original striped prisoner uniforms with more photos of victims on the walls. I saw the barracks where prisoners slept two people per bed. I walked around the grounds and imagined prisoners assembling for role call. The original barbed wire double fences still surround the camp, along with the guard towers that prevented prisoners from escaping alive.
It feels different to see where the horrors took place in person—not looking at a photo or movie screen—but up close and in color. The horrors become real, rather than just a bad dream.
Before I left for Poland I was curious to find out how Polish people today see Jews. I have many Polish friends in Chicago, young First Generation Polish people, and a few of them have asked me if I am Polish. It feels a little awkward when I get the question. I say that my ancestors were from Poland, but they were Jewish, so I’m not sure if that makes me Polish. My parents always told me that the Jews were second-class citizens in Poland, segregated from the main-stream Christian Poles, which meant that they were not Polish. However, after my experiences in Poland, the places I visited and the Polish people I met, I feel a little more Polish than I did before. I guess I could go as far as to say that I feel “Polish-ish.”
In Warsaw I visited the Polin Museum, a museum devoted to telling the history of Jews in Poland. I learned that Jews first settled in the area of today’s Poland back in the 1200s. They were traders traversing Europe who decided it seemed like a good spot to put down roots. It started with about 200 Jews, who made up approximately 5% of the population. The Jewish communities were isolated in their own areas, and although they did not enjoy the same rights as non-Jewish people of the region, the nobility provided them a livelihood, employing them with jobs that were outlawed by Christianity at the time such as money lending—funny that 800 years later we are still known for the same occupation and often still resented for it.
As the centuries passed Poland gained a reputation in Europe as “the place where the Jews were treated too well,” so Jews kept settling there, eventually becoming a significant portion of the nation’s population. By the turn of the Twentieth Century many Jews had assimilated into Polish society and Jews were on the cusp of gaining equal rights and Polish citizenship. Some Jews fought in World War I to assert themselves as true Poles. During the same period many Jewish traditionalists feared that Jews were assimilating too much in Polish society. They feared that having the same rights as gentiles would cause Jewish culture and traditions to fade away. I think their fears were valid to some extent judging by the assimilation of American Jews in today’s predominantly tolerant American society. Also, history has shown repeatedly that when Jews become too comfortable in their surroundings it is a precursor to some sort of catastrophe.
Right when the Jews were starting to be officially accepted by Polish society World War II began. In a few years Warsaw went from a city with a 30% Jewish population to one with just a handful of Jews. Today one can walk through the touristy Old Town of Warsaw and see street vendors selling figurines of religious Jews so people can know what this extinct group of people looked like.
Some of the perspectives on Jews from people I met in Poland blew my mind. One woman in Warsaw told me that later in life she discovered she had a Jewish grandparent. She claimed that prior to World War II 70% of Warsaw was Jewish! A taxi driver told me that he was married to an ethnically Jewish woman—her mom was Jewish because her Grandmother was Jewish. He claimed that prior to World War II Warsaw was likely 50% Jewish. I interpret these shocking statistics to signify that Jews had been in Poland so long that they had spread their gene pool throughout the country. This probably was one reason Hitler killed so many Poles.
Just days after I returned home the world famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author, Elie Wiesel, passed away. He had devoted his life to ensuring that the world never forget what happened in the Holocaust. I hope I will never understand what it was like to be a prisoner in Auschwitz. Yet I feel grateful that on this trip I was able to see where the tragedy happened and better understand where I come from.
Question: Does today’s genocide in the Middle East remind you of the Holocaust?