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Revisiting the KMS Poland Trip

Laura Warshawsky

Going to Poland was not on my bucket list. Some of Mark’s cousins went a few years ago and visited both Warsaw and the little town outside Warsaw where my father-in-law was born. We read the accounts of their trip and thought it might be good to make the trip someday ourselves, but we didn’t have a serious plan to do so. As for visiting concentration camps, that is not something one ever desires to do. There is always a ready excuse for not going. When KMS announced the Poland trip, we realized that none of the usual excuses applied—the kids were old enough to leave at home, my parents were well enough that we could be away for two weeks, there was nothing major going on at work or at home, we had enough leave, etc. So we signed up to go. 

Initially, I didn’t give much thought to what I hoped to get out of the trip, but as the departure got closer, two goals became clear—one was to explore Mark’s family roots, the other was to explore our relationship with the Holocaust. 

Mark’s family lived in Warsaw for several generations. He did a lot of research before the trip and we planned to arrive a day early, hired a private guide, and identified significant sites we wanted to see. Our first stop was the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. Usually a cemetery is maintained by the descendants of the deceased and by the community. After World War II and during forty years of communism there were few Jews in Warsaw to provide maintenance, and the cemetery fell into disrepair and became overgrown with tall trees and weeds.This was a better fate than the Jewish cemeteries in smaller towns where the gravestones were plundered by the Nazis to pave roads. Mark had identified eight graves of ancestors that he wanted to visit. We asked the caretaker for assistance in finding them and he commented that it would take us at least a week to find them on our own. He wasn’t kidding. The cemetery is very large and not particularly well marked. The caretaker offered to take us to the sites and he led us through waist-high weeds in a light drizzle, stopping every now and then and parting the weeds to reveal the gravestone of a Warshawsky ancestor. Mark found the grave of his great-great-great grandmother, among others.

We had also found Mark’s grandparent’s wedding invitation and hoped to see the site of Sala Pariska, the wedding hall where they were married. It turned out that the site was part of the Warsaw ghetto and the ghetto, as well as most of the rest of Warsaw, was reduced to rubble during the war. The site of the hall is now an empty field just behind the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising at Mila 18. We also looked for the address where Mark’s grandfather was born in 1882.However, a church was built on that site in 1895, so the house was long gone. Still, it was meaningful to establish the locations of these family events and therefore the presence of the family in the city whose name we bear.

Exploring our relationship with the Holocaust was more difficult. While Mark’s grandparents emigrated from Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, all four of my grandparents were born in North America (my mother’s parents were born in Canada). All eight of my great grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1890s as young adults and met each other and married in the United States. They came from various towns in what are now Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. There may have been distant cousins who perished in the Holocaust, but my family never mentioned any of them. When I learned about the Holocaust in school, and marked Yom Hashoah, I felt no personal connection. Even though I knew a few survivors and children of survivors, it wasn’t real to me. That changed in Poland.

First of all, I don’t think one can visit a Nazi gas chamber or crematorium and walk away untouched. One also cannot view the piles of shoes and other possessions or the heaps of human hair that represent a small fraction of what was taken by the Nazis without sensing the incredible loss. There were children of survivors on the trip, and we supported them, listened to them, and shared their journey in part. We said kaddish for the victims and reflected on what we saw and experienced. It personalized the tragedy in a way that a slide presentation in an auditorium could never do, and so we became secondary witnesses to history.

One site in particular touched me even more. We visited a site in the woods outside of Tarnov, the town where Sabine Himmelfarb’s family came from. This site, known as Zbilatowska Gora or Zbilatowska Mountain, was where Jews and Poles were taken out to be shot over open pits. There are three mass graves at the site, each fenced off separately with a towering Soviet-era memorial looming over everything. One grave in particular holds 800 Jewish children. We lit memorial candles for the children, said kaddish and sprinkled soil from Israel (brought by Michael Berle, one of the organizers, from his yard) over the grave. We also read a letter written by the mother of a child who was given away by her parents on the eve of deportation so that she survived the war and grew up to publish the letter. Then we had a few moments to reflect. I started thinking about my parents. The massacre occurred in July 1942, at which time my parents were 5 and 8 years old. My parents are now great-grandparents. The children who were buried in that grave would have been great grandparents now, too. If every one of those children had had 10 descendants (a modest estimate), the real number of souls buried in that grave is not 800 but 8,000, and the 1.2 million children murdered in the Holocaust is really 12 million! Twelve million people who didn’t get a chance to learn, live, or love, who never contributed what they could have contributed to the world. The enormity of this loss is overwhelming.

Then I had another thought: my great-grandparents came from small towns in Eastern Europe.Those were the areas where the Einsatzgruppen were dispatched to shoot Jews over open pits. Any of my family members who were still in those towns during the war were most likely shot and buried in a mass grave similar to the one before me. I didn’t have any names of specific family members to look up in the big book at Auschwitz, but I found the various family names—possible relatives.

We visited Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, but I didn’t shed a tear. And I didn’t cry at Zbilatowska Gora, because I was still processing the information. However, less than two weeks later when I was sitting on the floor in the dark on Tisha B’Av, I was struck by the words of Yirmiyahu that so accurately describe the horrors of the Holocaust even though they were written 2,000 years before. When we started signing Ani Ma’amin (which we had learned was composed by Jews on their way to Treblinka), I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by grief and started sobbing for the two great losses experienced by the Jewish people—the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of so many people in the Holocaust. 


Tue, September 22 2020 4 Tishrei 5781