Poland Country Guide, Holocaust

Poland's Talmudic academies were famed throughout Europe

Poland Country Guide, Holocaust

Fifty years ago, April 19, 1943, entered history as the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Rising. For almost a month, until May 16, the poorly armed units of the Jewish Fighting Organisation and the Jewish Military Union battled regular formations of the Nazi police, SS and Wehrmacht. As the organisers and participants were well aware, the rising had no chance of success; it represented a cry of human protest against the systematic genocide of a nation, a conscious and free choice to die a dignified death. The defeat of the rising and the extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto became a symbolic expression of the tragic end that had met Polish Jewry.

The official patrons of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Rising are the presidents of Poland, Lech Walesa, and of Israel, Chaim Herzog. The ORBIS Incoming Tourism Bureau has organised the participation in the commemorative ceremonies of eight thousand Jews from Israel and the whole diaspora. While 1993 marks the 50th anniversary of the Rising, every year Warsaw and Poland in general host increasing numbers of Jews from all continents, retracing the steps of their forefathers. Up until the Nazi Holocaust, Poland had one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the diaspora, and was also one of the most important centres of Jewish cultural and religious life. From the XIth century onwards, Poland had been noted for its hospitality towards the Jews, who arrived here from Germany, Austria and Hungary, from Spain and Portugal, from Italy and Turkey. Freedom of religious worship, together with the right to come together in their own communities and resolve their own problems by themselves, was granted to the Jews by Casimir the Great in the XIVth century, and this was subsequently reaffirmed by later kings of Poland.

Poland's Talmudic academies were famed throughout Europe. The XVIIIth century saw the birth of orthodox hasidism in the Podolia region, then part of south-eastern Poland; this sect was to produce whole generations of illustrious tzaddik families. The XIXth century, on the other hand, witnessed the growth of a civic and cultural movement focussed on the assimilation of the Jews within their country of residence. The XIXth and XXth centuries also brought the development of a splendidly flourishing Jewish literature, epitomised in the names of Isaac Loeb Peretz, Sholem Asch, Yitzyk Mander and the subsequent Noble Prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community in Poland totalled around 3,500,000. However, the vast majority were to perish in the Holocaust, when the Nazis murdered some 4,500,000 Jews from all over Europe in concentration camps and death camps established in occupied Poland. Less than 300,000 of Poland's Jews survived World War II, and waves of emigration since then have reduced this number to around 10,000. Those practising the Jewish faith are grouped in 16 Jewish congregations.

Most historical Jewish architecture and monuments were also destroyed during the war. However, the many examples of Jewish heritage which have remained are under protection, while the most precious among them, such as the historical buildings of the Kazimierz district in Cracow, are subject to renovation and permanent ongoing conservation.

In following in the footsteps of Poland's Jews, various itineraries can be drawn up. The two routes presented below are regularly used by tour groups run by ORBIS, which arranges travel, accommodation and - on request - kosher meals, and which also provides expert multilingual guides. In addition, ORBIS will arrange for other itineraries, which can be booked individually to meet particular requirements.

Route I (Duration: 9 Days)

Warsaw - Treblinka - Tykocin - Lublin - Majdanek - Cracow - Auschwitz-birkenau - Czestochowa

Warsaw - Commemorative monuments at the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, whose 450,000 inhabitants were deported by the Nazis to the Treblinka II death camp. Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising (19 April -16 May, 1943). Large Jewish cemeteries, Brodno and Powazki: the latter, in particular, retains many matzeva (graveside stelae, often outstanding works of stonemasonry) and tombs containing the ashes of many distinguished politicians, businessmen, artists and scientists, including historian Simon Ashkenazi, archaeologist, collector and philanthropist Mathias Bersohn, chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat during the Nazi occupation Adam Czerniakow, founder of the first steamboat line on the Vistula Maurycy Fajans, actress Esther R. Kaminska, publisher of the monumental Universal Encyclopaedia Samuel Orgelbrand, founder of Warsaw Technical College Hipolit Wawelberg, and doctor and inventor of esperanto Ludwik Zamenhof. Powazki Jewish cemetery also includes the symbolic grave of the great teacher and writer Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit), and the mausoleum of three other writers: Solomon Zangwill Rappaport (pen-name - An-ski), Isaac Loeb Peretz and Jacob Dinezon. Early XXth century Nozykow Synagogue, open for worship.

Jewish Theatre - one of only two full-time theatre companies worldwide performing in Yiddish, with a repertoire of works by both classic writers and contemporary Jewish playwrights writing in this language. Headquarters of Jewish Civic and Cultural Association, together with Jewish Historical Institute, housing valuable archives and small museum. Editorial offices of Jewish periodical "Volks Stimme". TREBLINKA Site of the Treblinka II death camp, established in 1942 and wound up in November 1943.

Approximately 750,000 Jews were slaughtered there - many from Warsaw, but also from Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium and Holland. A revolt took place in the camp on August 2, 1943, and around 20 prisoners managed to escape. Today, there is a symbolic cemetery and a Monument to the Memory of the Victims. TYKOCIN Today a village, but in the XVth - XVIIIth centuries: an important administrative and commercial centre, and a major centre of the Jewish community in Poland. Baroque synagogue dating from 1642, rebuilt after World War II, currently housing a Judaic Museum. LUBLIN Classicist XIXth century synagogue, functioning today as a house of prayer, together with commemorative chamber. Former building of the Yeshibah Chahmei (Rabbinical Seminary), opened in 1930, today housing Lublin Medical Academy.

Historical cemetery dating from XVIth century, still containing around 200 tombs, including those of Shalom Shakhna (died 1558), founder of the Talmudic Academy, and Solomon Luria (1573), rector of the Academy, and of tzaddik Jacob Yitzhak Horovitz (1815), known as the Clairvoyant of Lublin.

Majdanek - Nazi death camp on the outskirts of Lublin, in which around 120,000 Jews lost their lives. Mausoleum and monument to the victims.

Cracow - District of Kazimerz, from the end of the XVth century onwards a town of Polish Jews, one of the principal centres of Jewish religion, culture and learning in Poland and all Europe. Large complex of partly restored historical architecture, including the Old Synagogue (late XVth century), today housing a Judaic Museum; the Remuh Synagogue (Ist half XVIth century), which continues to be used for worship, together with a cemetery from the years 1552 -1799, containing the tombs of Moses Isserles, known as Remuh, rabbi of Cracow and rector of the Talmudic Academy, and of his numerous successors; the Tall Synagogue (XVIth century); with an exhibition of restored works of Jewish art; the Aizyka Synagogue (XVIIth century); the Kupa (in Hebrew - treasure of the kahal) Synagogue; the Stork Synagogue (built 1620), today home to a cultural centre and the site of numerous art exhibitions; and the Tempel Synagogue (1862), another still used as a place of worship. In the district of Plaszow: commemorative monument at the site of Nazi slave labour camp for Jews.

Auschwitz-birkenau - Largest complex of Nazi camps, established in 1940 and comprising 3 main camps (Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowice-Dwory) together with 39 lesser camps in various localities. Site of the slavery and death of prisoners brought here from all over Poland and many other countries of Europe. From the spring of 1942, approximately 1,500,000 Jews were murdered in the Birkenau death camp, having been brought here mainly from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece; most groups were led directly from the railway sidings to the gas chamber. The buildings and equipment that have survived here are maintained as a testament to the past by the Polish state and the International Auschwitz Committee. The memory of those slaughtered here is commemorated at Birkenau by an immense Monument to the Victims of the Fascism, and at Auschwitz by a Museum of Martyrology within the old camp barracks, which chronicles the workings of this, the greatest death factory in the history of mankind.

Czestochowa - Old Jewish cemetery, established after 1808, with several hundred extant tombstones.

ROUTE II (duration:10 days)

Warsaw - Treblinka - Tykocin - Bialystok - Lublin - Majdanek - Zamosc - Lancut - Rzeszow - Cracow - Auschwitz-birkenau - Czestochowa - Lodz
  • Bialystok - From the Ist half of the XIXth century, rivalled Lodz as a centre of the textile industry. Large centre of the Jewish population. Some 40,000 Jews were confined to the Bialystok ghetto, set up in 1941 and liquidated after an uprising in August 1943. Within the former walls of the ghetto, totally destroyed during the war, a plaque by no. 4, Zamenhof street, marks the family home of the creator of esperanto, while a bust of Ludwik Zamenhof stands in a small square by Yitzhak Malmed street. The Jewish cemetery, established in 1890, contains several thousand surviving tombstones and a Monument to the Heroes of the Bialystok Ghetto Rising.
  • Zamosc - Historical town, only Renaissance town centre in Poland to have been planned and built as one whole - constructed during the last quarter of the XVIth century. Late Renaissance synagogue of the early XVIIth century with extant interiors, currently serving as a library. Around 9,000 Jews lived in the Zamosc ghetto from spring 1942 until the autumn of that year; the victims of Nazism are commemorated in a Museum of Martyrology, located in a building known as the "Zamosc Rotunda", used by the Nazis during the war as a detention centre.
  • Lancut - Early Baroque palace and gardens (XVIIth - XVIIIth centuries), now a museum. Former Jewish cemetery, established in the XVIIth century, with ohel of the famed Tzaddik of Ropczyce, Naftali Zvi Horovitz. Baroque synagogue built in 1761 with original polychromy, today housing a Judaic Museum.
  • Rzeszow - Around 25,000 Jews were held in the Rzeszow ghetto from January 1942 to August of that year. Renaissance New Town Synagogue (XVIIth century), destroyed during World War II, today retaining only its original exterior, with the converted interior housing the gallery of the Bureau of Art Exhibitions. Renaissance Old Town Synagogue, dating from the turn of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, rebuilt after the war and now home to the Town Archives, which include a Jewish History Research Centre.
  • Lodz - Second largest city in Poland, large textile centre (often dubbed "the Polish Manchester"), whose rapid growth from the mid-XIXth century onwards owed much to the role played by Jewish industrialists. The three palaces of the Poznanski family today house the Art Museum, Academy of Music and Lodz Historical Museum, the residence of the Hertz family is home to the Rector's Office of the Medical Academy, while the residences of the Konsztadt, Silberstein, Stiller and other families house cultural institutes or public offices. During World War II, the Nazis set up a ghetto in which they confined some 200,000 Polish Jews, together with another 20,000 from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland and Luxembourg. The inhuman living conditions and mass deportations to death camps meant that, by the time Lodz was liberated, there were only a few hundred survivors. Today, the victims are commemorated by a small cemetery with a monument. The main Jewish cemetery in Lodz, established in 1882, is the largest in Europe. At rest there, beside well known industrialists are those who made distinguished contributions to the Jewish community in Lodz, such as Rabbi Elias Chaim Maizel and the parents of the famous pianist Artur Rubinstein. A synagogue and a house of prayer in Lodz are open to worshippers.

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