The first time I visited Poland – or indeed eastern Europe, the birthplace of my ancestors – was to witness the opening of a museum celebrating the thousand-year history of the country’s Jewish community.
That of course includes their rich cultural contribution to Poland, as well as the community’s tragic decimation in the wake of the Holocaust.
The systematic mass murder of Jews by Nazis during the Second World War resulted in the deaths of approximately 90 percent of the country’s 3.3 million Jews.
Time did not allow for me to visit one of the former Nazi death camps located in Poland, which include Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec and notably, Auschwitz, where some 1.1million Jews were deported.
But then I returned again to Poland as a participant on March of the Living, to delve deeper into the country’s Jewish roots and to understand more about this modern day tragedy.
When I think of Poland, it’s difficult to separate it from its indomitable Jewish past.
Arriving on a chilly spring day in April, I was greeted by Warsaw’s grey and dull bloc buildings. The city can be a little depressing, having been bombed in the war, and rebuilt with a cold war-style Soviet influence.
Perhaps it isn’t to everyone’s taste, but there is a certain simplistic charm which grew on me.
Warsaw’s Jewish past is woven into every element. Boasting a Jewish presence since the 14th century, Poland’s capital was the epicenter of cultural life before the Holocaust, so it’s very much defined by what was lost.
I walked along the street and saw plaques and monuments telling me about heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The Umschlagplatz, an area used by the Nazis to assemble and deport Jewish victims, sits between blocks of modern flats, and opposite is the former Nazi SS headquarters, which is plastered with posters and graffiti.
While remnants of a disquieting past were all around us, Warsaw Jewish Community Centre – as well as the one in Krakow – are signs of Jewish rebuilding and revival of in Poland.
Anyone could come in, and everyone was welcomed. Every year, more Poles discover previously unknown Jewish roots, and they literally do walk in to find out more.
While Warsaw is notable as the capital, for me Krakow has more soul. Used as the Nazi headquarters in Poland during the war, the city remained largely intact, including its grand, historic synagogues. In the Jewish district of Kazimierz, seven such synagogues still stand.
While the community is not what it once was, Krakow’s Izaak Synagogue was gratifyingly brought back to life as hundreds of march participants filed in for a pre-Shabbat service, leaving standing room only.
Just south of the city lies the remnants of Płaszów camp, populated by the liquidated Krakow ghetto and where 9,000 prisoners lost their lives.
I had the honour of visiting there with survivor, Chaim Olmer. We also travelled to Majdanek, before making our way to Auschwitz.
My experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau was hard to process at the time. During the trip, I first visited Auschwitz with a small group of around 35 people, and then returned, but this time with more than 11,000, for the march itself.
On my first visit, it was empty, quiet, and grey. All I could see were barracks. As the rain came down and the biting wind lashed my face, all we could think about was what it must have been like to endure life here, and what could have been done to prevent all the suffering that took place on this land. It was something I found difficult to comprehend.
When we returned for the march, beginning at Auschwitz I and ending one-and-a-half miles along at Birkenau, thousands of people were in attendance.
People waved flags, exchanged badges from around the world, and sang Jewish songs. Along the route, Christian and Polish groups lined the streets, in support of the marchers. In many ways it was surreal. I was surrounded by the joy that we were alive, while acknowledging that we were marching in a place where so many perished.
While a part of that did not feel right, the message was also empowering.
The community may have been close to being extinguished, but Polish-Jewry will never be forgotten.
Holocaust Memorial Day is marked this Saturday, 27 January. Jack was a participant on March of the Living, which this year takes place from 8 to 13 April. For more details, visit marchoftheliving.org.uk
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