We finally got to see the Golden Autumn after days of grey. Our group was amazed by the panoramic bus tour of Warsaw. We caught glimpses of the Opera House, the famous Hotel Bristol where contemporary leaders and film stars sojourned, Warsaw’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, a memorial to those who died in Russian concentration camps and the Umschlagplatz. We were blown away when we saw the restoration of all the streets and buildings leveled during WWII. In addition, our guide Andrzej explained the historical significance of many monuments.
Following the bus tour, we went to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. We were shocked by the vastness of the 40 hector area of over 200,000 graves. It was chilling to see graves riddled with bullet holes. The grave of the Brisker Rav was at least a 20 minute walk from the entrance. It felt like we were in the middle of a forest. It was easy to forget we were in a major metropolitan city. We were moved by several highlights including the wall created with broken monuments, the Matzevot of Marek Edelman, Yiddish theater performers, the creator of the Esperanza language, Ludwig Zamenhof, a memorial sculpture depicting child advocate Janusz Korczak, as well as plaques on the walkway memorializing families with no graves.
Onward to coffee at the 2 year old JCC. The JCC has a kosher kitchen, wonderful activities including Ulpan classes for Jews and Non-Jews. Our guide Marta explained the challenges of engaging groups of volunteers to assist in programs from the US and Israel for very short one or two hour periods in a day. Marta’s face lit up when we suggested establishing some type of sustainable partnership between our communities. Alan presented a chanukia from our group to the center hoping to dedicate and rededicate relationships.
We said goodbye to Warsaw appreciating the history of the 2nd largest Jewish city in the world before WWII. Then we got back on the bus for a 2 hour journey to Lodz. We had a delicious box lunch and listened to some of the participants give a short report on historical figures important to our journey.
Lodz means boat and has a long standing history of being an industrial town. Once arriving in this city we went to another Jewish cemetery established in 1898. We had a 27 year old guide Milena whose passion and enthusiasm was contagious. Her knowledge of Lodz’s Jewish history was comprehensive in the way she presented the symbiosis of Jewish and Polish relations. She is a professional genealogist and tour guide. This incredible non-Jewish woman leads groups around the cemetery pointing out important graves linking Jewish history to Lodz’s past. She showed us the grave of the wealthy factory owner Poznanski. His grave was a huge temple and the focal point of the site. To top it all off, Milena volunteers once a month to clean up this cemetery through her Bridges Lodz Community Project. This groups goal is to connect the local community with other Jews from around the world. She has been doing this project for 4 years. Milena believes her work is to honor her Polish heritage. She hopefully will help Alison Green find her ancestors of the Frager Family from Lodz.
Milena then took us to the former Lodz Getto which was the last to be liquidated. We saw the railroad station where supplies were brought to the Ghetto and where Jews were transported to the concentration camps. The camps were represented by huge tombstones that displayed hands signifying those who perished.
After another emotional day, Andrzej, our guide par excellence, allowed us 15 minutes to shop!! What a treat and a much needed excursion!! We shopped at the converted Poznanski factory building complex. It was next to the American type mall.
We ended the evening with a fun and delicious dinner at the JCC of Lodz. We are now settling into our hotel and excited for another informative and emotional day.