Updated: Sep 15
The trip to Poland has affected all of us in different ways. On this page, we share our feelings.
It has been a week and I am still thoughtful and present to our Polish trip.
I cannot find many words to describe the time we spent together visiting ghettos, cemeteries, our family home town, death camps and concentration camps. And the visit to the cattle trucks utterly shocking me into tears where previously I think I was numb.
But now I know back here in the UK , that the experiences we shared, are doing their work in me, without me necessarily giving it words and I am changed by that journey we did together. It woke something sleepy in me as I have not had much of a traditional Jewish upbringing. I am more aware of my ancestors in a positive way, and I wish that my parents were here to talk to, some of you know my mother died this year. But they both had no belief in God after the Holocaust and thus no connection really as Jews to the rituals that our families in Poland held so dear. I think I could say that I feel more integrated as there was a part of me missing and now it is coming alive in a healthy way.
Much love to you all.
In one of those moments of synchronicity, I was starting to write reflectively about the trip when I received Gabrielle’s email, so much of which I identify with.
I remember the feeling the minute Steve met me at Heathrow on the 31st August, with me munching on chicken liver pate and toast at Carluccio’s. We were on our way, finally the trip had become a reality.
I had no conception of how the week would affect me. I too found myself all of last week not being fully in the present – simply going through the mechanics of what was in front of me – but I was all the time in Poland, with you all and with our ancestors.
It has changed something in me profoundly, opened something up that I didn’t know was waiting to be experienced. Knowing historical facts is one thing but being so close to the feelings and places associated with them is an experience of many dimensions, impossible at this stage to describe.
It was helped enormously by the profound sense of shared experience and feelings expressed by all of us. I found all the Kaddish’s immensely moving and Lois’s singing beautiful.
I mentioned to some of you that when we had lunch on the way from Chmielnik to Kielce, I felt dad saying to me “I’m glad you’re here”.
Even as I write it, I feel choked with emotion as I did when I experienced it.
I’ve felt the same as Gabrielle in not finding out more about the Zmidek side of our family whilst dad was alive and Steve and I have had many conversations about it. Maybe we can do the same with the Elberg side one day – who knows.
there will be more to come of course but a huge thanks to Jeff for putting the Family Tree Website together, to Steve for finding it in the middle of the night, 25th/26th December 2014, and for Marq in being the first in the race to contact Jeff.
Lots of love to you all.
I think we are all cloaked in our Polish experience which will be with us forever. It binds us together.
Thank you all for making this trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will remain with us and has become part of us and our thinking. It was an amazing experience.
At a singing group, who met at our house last night to look at tunes for the High Holy Days, I found myself sharing things from the trip. It is all fitting into my preparing for the H.H days.
There were times during our excursions into the tragic history of the Jews in Poland that I wanted to go somewhere where I could be alone and cry.
In Israel, in the course of two days, the country goes through a schizophrenic episode. On Memorial Day, we commemorate our fallen, starting with a ceremony on Mount Herzl. At the sound of the siren, we stop what we’re doing and stand still for two minutes – head bowed. Somber yet melodic songs play on the radio; TV stations broadcast painful interviews with families who are bereft of their sons, husbands and daughters.
And then, following the closing ceremony on Mount Herzl, the country erupts into joyful celebration for Independence Day. Boisterous music blares from the radio, television and loudspeakers in town centres; towns and villages put on a show with local kids and professional performers; there’s street food, fireworks, plastic hammers and crazy headgear.
I experienced some of that schizophrenia on our journey. We came as visitors to sites where acts of incomprehensible depravity had been committed. I think then we were alone with ourselves.
But between times, we had fun. We ate, talked and laughed together and bonded. We started off as a bunch of individuals with ancestors in common; by the end of the week, we had morphed into family.
Thanks to Jeff and Anton for finding the time and energy to put it all together.
Reciting Kaddish in Poland
You could spend a whole year in Poland and still have nowhere near enough opportunities to recite Kaddish. The memory of the three million Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust along with the millions of others murdered in the German death camps on Polish territory is an unavoidable presence.
We were a group of thirteen cousins, mostly the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my paternal grandmother and her siblings. The purpose of our visit was to visit some of the places associated with our family: I don’t think any of us quite expected the impact it would have.
The visit began in Krakow in the south of country which feels too much like a tourist attraction, chief of which is the nearby Auschwitz death camp.
Tourism in Krakow
We don’t have a family connection with Krakow but were there to visit Auschwitz, where a relative was sent to in April 1944. Nathan Rozenblum was originally from Warsaw but fled Poland for Belgium in 1930 because he was an active Communist. He and his family went into hiding during the war and Nathan became a leader of the Communist resistance in Brussels before he was betrayed by a fellow Jew and sent to Auschwitz. He was sent to Gross-Rosen on one of the death marches and from there to Buchenwald, where he died just before the camp was liberated.
We said Kaddish for Nathan by the railway track in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then we headed north, to the small town of Chmielnik in central Poland, not too far from Kielce. The town did have a large Jewish population at one point, but the story of our family was typical. Some emigrated – the UK and the USA – and others moved to the big cities, particularly Warsaw and Lodz.
The synagogue in Chmielnik has been restored and is now another stop on the tourist trail. The synagogue features a remarkable glass bimah, installed as part of the restoration. We said our second Kaddish on the bimah.
Our next stop was Lodz where some of the family moved to. We know some lived in the ghetto and either died in it or were transported to one of the death camps and murdered there. The cemetery in Lodz is vast, reputed to be the largest in Europe. We somehow managed to find the grave of a distant relation and said our third Kaddish there.
Then it was on to Warsaw. The Polish capital is an extraordinary place. The city was more or less destroyed by the end of the Second World War. It wasn’t just the Jewish ghetto that was leveled: a city with a population of well over one million in 1939 had little more than 10,000 residents by the time it was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. And yet despite that, there’s an abiding sense of history about the city and nowhere more so in areas associated with Warsaw’s Jewish population, which approached four hundred thousand before the war and reached half a million before the deportations to Treblinka began from the Ghetto.
We visited the impressive Polin Museum and the remains of the ghetto and it was there the remarkable story of another relation came to life.
Itzhak Suknik (it’s also spelt Sukenik) was 23 when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on 19th April, 1943. Itzhak was part of the main Jewish Fighting Organisation which comprised two groups, the socialist & non-Zionist Bund and the left-wing Zionists (he belonged to the latter). They accounted for around 800 fighters and were based at 18 Mila Street (known as Mila 18). There was also a smaller group of right-wing Zionists who took part in the Uprising. Itzhak had been conscripted into the Polish army and because of this was given a machine gun and various histories of the Ghetto Uprising mention him by name and credit him with the deaths of a number of Nazi soldiers. He also had a nom de guerre, Koza. Koza died on 8th May trying to escape from the Ghetto with half a dozen others through a sewer.
We know they died near Mildowa Street, just outside the Ghetto. That was where we recited our fourth Kaddish.
We also visited the vast Okopwa Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, still functioning today and on the edge of what was the Ghetto. Much of it is overgrown, although a group of local non-Jews (one of whom acted as our guide) work hard to keep it under control. Prominent at the front of the cemetery is the grave of Marek Edelman, a modern day Jewish hero. He was the leader of the Bund in the Ghetto Uprising and managed to escape, working then with the Polish resistance. After the war he became a leading cardiologist in Lodz and an active member of Solidarity. When he died in 2009 his a state funeral was conducted by the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
Deeper into the cemetery we found the grave of another relation, Chana Suknik (a first cousin of Itzhak) who died of typhoid in 1942 age 16. Her grave is in good condition: we discovered another relation (in Sweden) of whom we were unaware pays for its upkeep. That’s where we said our fifth Kaddish.