The day started off with a delicious breakfast at the Qubus Hotel in Krakow. We then boarded our tour bus and headed for Warsaw with en route stops at the Holocaust Memorial in Kielce, the Majdanek Concentration/Extermination camp near Lublin, and the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.
Kielce is a small city north of Krakow that once was home to a sizeable Jewish community (over 20,000 members). On March 31, 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in Kielce. It was surrounded by barbed wire and its inhabitants were not allowed to leave on pain of death. By the end of 1941, about 27,000 Jews lived in the ghetto. The able-bodied men were used in quarries for forced labor. In the ghetto itself cobblers, tailors and other artisans were able to operate their business. Approximately 6,000 people died from April 1941 to April 1942 from typhus; many others were shot, hanged or died of starvation. Within a few days (August 20-24, 1942) the ghetto was liquidated, and about 21,000 Jews were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered.
My great uncle, Erich Gruber, was deported from Vienna, Austria, to Kielce, Poland, in February 1941, along with over 1,000 other Viennese Jews. While he was living in the ghetto, he was able to send a postcard to my grandmother Ella, who was living in Brooklyn, New York, asking that she send him food. My grandmother had been married to Erich’s brother, and she fled Vienna for the U.S. with my mom on November 8, 1938. While on the tour bus, I passed around a copy of the postcard to our group and pointed out the Nazi swastika and the propaganda slogan stamped on it. The slogan said, “Germany, victorious on all fronts.” There is a plaque in front of the house that Erich lived in when he was deported from Vienna to Kielce that says, “Erich Maier, born July 27, 1895, and deported to Kielce on February 19, 1941. He was never heard of again.”
At the site of the Kielce ghetto, we all gathered around and I lit a candle in memory of my great Uncle Erich and all others who perished at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. I was impressed by the beautiful memorial recently built at the site of the ghetto. The memorial is in the shape of a Jewish menorah and is made from stainless steel.
Kielce is also known for a program that occurred on July 4, 1946 in which 42 holocaust survivors were murdered based on a false rumor. Many historians believe that this program led to the exodus of many Jews from Poland that might have otherwise stayed in Poland after the war was over.
Our next stop was Majdanek. Having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau the day before, I did not think my feeling of despair and disgust as to what happened in the Holocaust could get any worse. But it did. The Majdanek camp is located in an entirely open area with no trees around it to hide the activities inside the camp. Majdanek was originally a labor camp but was transformed into a death camp. It is estimated that 80,000 inmates were gassed at Majdanek. During 1941 and 1942, the Germans shot many thousands of victims. These included sick Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet Army officers, Jews and prisoners of all nationalities. On November 3, 1943, the Germans shot 18,000 Jews in one single day. The victims were shot in large pits, while in the background loud music was played to drown out the noise of the killings.
As we approached the camp, we saw a gigantic monument made of stone. We them came upon an equally huge Mausoleum, filled with ash from the remains of victims mixed with dirt and fertilizer. The Mausoleum is located next to camp’s crematorium building, which contains a row of several ovens – all pristine. We were told that the ovens were in such good condition that they could become operational again in a matter of weeks. We also visited the camp’s gas chamber and a row of barracks. In the barracks we saw many artifacts, exhibits, and photographs. Majdanek is a terribly sad place, indeed.
CHACHMEI LUBLIN YESHIVA
Nest we visited the site of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva. It was founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Daf Yomi fame and was once an important center for Torah study in Poland. During the Holocaust, the Nazis stripped its beautiful interior and destroyed its vast library.
Our tour group davened in the renovated shul that was located on the second floor of the stately building that once housed this magnificent yeshiva. Rabbi Tessler then led a group session of that day’s Daf Yomi (daf #16 of Tractate Sotah). Daf Yomi (“page of the day” or “daily folio”) is a daily regimen of learning the Oral Torah and its commentaries (also known as the Gemara), in which each of the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud are covered in sequence. It was started on Rosh Hashanah 5684 (Sept. 11, 1923) by Rabbi Shapiro, and it takes seven and a half years to complete the cycle. Visiting Rabbi Shapiro’s yeshiva was especially meaningful for those in the group (myself included) who have been engaged in this systematic study.
After checking into the Westin Hotel in Warsaw, we ate a scrumptious meal at the Galil Restaurant. This was our farewell dinner. Our guest speakers at the dinner were Judaica designers Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar, co-founders of “Mi Polin.” They are well known for their mezuzah project, in which they travel to different towns across Poland, locate and make casts of pre-war mezuzah traces, and turn the casts themselves into mezuzahs for Jews in Poland and around the world. Helena and Aleksander told us that their goal is “to give the old mezuzahs new life.” They passed around sample mezuzahs that were quite beautiful and impressive. Their website can be found at http://mipolin.pl.
After dinner, we all got together in the lobby of the Westin Hotel where we tasted Polish vodka, toasted our tour guide and leaders, discussed some of our most memorable experiences while on the tour, and had some last minute fun before our incredibly meaningful 2015 Poland Chesed Mission officially came to an end.