We left from Luton airport, going through security we were stopped for one of those random checks. The security guard asked us where we were flying to and why. We said we were going on an educational tour to Poland. Thinking we were all going on a stag party or something he said, “An education in drinking beer, eh??” “Actually! We are going to visit the death and concentration camps! His grandparents were survivors as well.” His jaw hit the floor. After he had picked it up he apologised and let us through.
Unlike many Poland tours, this was a bit different. The organisers decided not to take us to Auschwitz. We would visit other camps, but it was not supposed to be only focused on the holocaust. Prior to WW2, over three million Jews lived in Poland. It was for a long period of time the centre of Jewish life in Europe, the trip aimed to try to explore this Jewish world that was eventually destroyed in a few years by the Nazis. Most of us were descended from Jews who came to London before the war fleeing pogroms in countries like Poland and Russia. Nearly all of my great grandparents came from Poland or Russia, apart from some on my dad’s mum’s side who came from Austria.
Our tour began with a visit to Kazimierz, a district of Krakow. Jews were granted freedom of worship, trade and travel by Boleslaw the Pious in his Charter of Jewish Liberties issued in 1264. This made Krakow a very attractive place for Jews to migrate to where they lived alongside their Christian neighbours under the protection of King Kazimierz III, the last King of the Piast dynasty. Relations between the Jews and non-Jews in the region would vary over the centuries, depending on the rulers.
We visited a number of synagogues that prior to the war were home to a thriving Jewish community. We visited both Orthodox and Reform synagogues. The synagogues were different to London, again the Reform ones were more grand in appearance than the Orthodox ones. What was more perplexing was that there was clearly a lot of signs and evidence of thriving Jewish life that was once there.
But today there are very few Jews living in Krakow, because they were murdered during the holocaust and many of those who survived could not face returning to their homes in Poland, they emigrated to Israel or the United States, Australia, Canada or to other places where there was not a strong history of anti-Semitism and that was more friendly to the Jews.
So questions hovered over everyone’s heads with regards to the property owned by the Jewish community that was destroyed. Who did it belong to today and what was to be done with it with the absence of a large permanent Jewish community in Poland. These synagogues were maintained and kept open for the most part as a result of Jewish groups like ours who came to Poland throughout the year on trips like March of the Living, Israeli high school trips or tours organised by synagogues and Jewish community centres for adults. One of the synagogues we visited was also used like a Jewish museum for Polish primary school children to learn about Judaism.
Many local Poles felt quite angry by this situation, that for a long time the greatest attraction for tourism to their country was of tourists who were not coming because they had any real interest in learning about Poland itself, but to learn about a horrendous crime that was carried out on their soil by an occupying power and as we were doing, learning about the Jewish history there, a minority that lived in Poland.
Sadly this was one hundred percent true. If it weren’t for the holocaust and Jewish history in Poland, it would not be on my list of places I wished to visit. There are plenty of places that I would like to see, regardless of whether there is anything of Jewish interest to see there, Poland was not one of them. My perception of what Poland was like before we went was pretty accurate as it turned out. A cold, grey country, not as developed as London, several years behind economically, largely as a result of communist domination. Looking at the scenery on the coach at the fields and woods, I could only see them as the sites where the atrocities carried out by the Nazis could have taken place.
After spending the morning walking around the old Jewish quarter of Krakow visiting synagogues, we went to the Galicja Jewish museum. The museum commemorates the victims of the holocaust and celebrates the Jewish history and culture of Poland. It consisted of a gallery and photo exhibits of places throughout Poland.
The photos were taken by a man named Chris Schwarz, he was also the founding director of the museum. He was born in London to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. His work photographing the remains of Jewish life in Poland lead him to a deeper connection to his Jewish roots. This museum was clearly the expression of this. Some of the photos and the accompanying stories were incredibly difficult to take in, even though they were just photos, many of synagogues, familiar images I had seen before of the concentration camps, the walls of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos still standing or Jewish symbols that are still found on buildings. Chris had a book with a lot of his pictures, which I bought a signed copy of when we left the museum.
One picture really struck me. The picture shows the doorway into a building, with two Jewish tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions written on them. Accompanying the photo read the following:
“I was photographing an abandoned synagogue in this small village when a farmer came to talk to me; saying that his father-in-law, who had recently died, had taken the stones from the Jewish cemetery after the war to pave the path leading to his house. The farmer felt this was wrong, and asked if I wanted to see the stones. Half an hour later, using a crowbar from the farmers shed, we lifted up the stones to see the Hebrew text on the stones which was also mirrored in the soft earth. He asked what he should do with them. I said there was only one thing to do: take them back to the Jewish cemetery, and when there, say a good Catholic prayer. I hope he did this.”1
Desecrated tomb stones and vandalism by locals of Jewish cemeteries we discovered was quite normal throughout Poland as we would see when we visited them. But this was something else altogether. After all that the Jews had been through, someone could not even respect the dead and could do such a thing. After having been exposed over the years to the gas chambers, the medical experiments and all the truly graphic horrors that years ago would make me cry my eyes out, that were just so difficult to hear, after a while you become used to hearing it. The emotions are no longer there and it becomes easier to approach the subject in a more sober manner and study and learn from it. It then becomes these kinds of little details and stories of disrespect and dehumanization by everyday people, that whilst they are clearly not crimes of comparable magnitude to those committed by those who ran the camps and the ghettos, they emerge as the ones that continue to ensure that that feeling of pain and emotional sensitivity to the subject is never completely lost.
We walked around the Krakow ghetto. The walls of the ghetto are still there in many places. We saw saw places that began to be instantly familiar to most of us from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List which was filmed in Krakow.
In the evening we went to the Jewish quarter of the city to a Jewish restaurant. This was not a Kosher restaurant like we have in London, nor was it run by Jews. It was run by non-Jews. During the war, many Jewish people saved the lives of their children by giving them to Christian families, who would then raise them as non-Jews. At a later date in their lives, usually just before their parents death, they would then reveal to their children that they are Jewish, or that their father was Jewish. They are referred to as Hidden Jews. Many of these people do not wish to convert to Judaism or even know a lot about Jews or Judaism but some seek to reconnect with their heritage that was taken from them. In this instance it was through food and music. It was very funny, we were served Matzah for a starter dish, we had some strange garlic bread as a main, and Hamantaschen for dessert. Whilst they played Klezmer music and music from Schindler’s List and Fiddler on the Roof.
Our next stop was to head to Lublin. The following day would be our first day visiting concentration camps. We woke up early and went a few minutes drive to Majdanek. I simply could not understand from the minute we arrived, we parked on a road that was high up. The road overlooked the entire camp. Locals walking along this road had a clear view either side of them, depending on which direction they were heading of the fields that the Jews would have been labouring, the barracks around them where they would have slept, the guards in their watchtowers. The barbed wire fences preventing anyone from escaping, and a long road leading to a crematoria where smoke would have been coming from the chimneys with a terrible smell. I couldn’t see how it would have been possible, given the arrangement for the people living in Lublin to say that they did not know what was going on in the camp. It wasn’t even located a long way from the cities, it was just outside the town.
We stood at the top overlooking what was a giant memorial about 100ft in front of us. All the memorials to the holocaust were built by the Soviet Union and were very big. We walked down some steps, along a long path and then back up some steps leading to the memorial, which was raised from the ground so that you walked underneath it. We then walked down again and to the left to the entrance of the camp. As we entered, we found that we were not the only tour group there, there were other Jewish groups of teenagers there wearing Israeli flags from South America. As we entered the gates, straight in front of us was a gas chamber. Obviously the signs outside read “Showers” to not create hysteria amongst those who had just arrived. Our guide explained that initially the camp was built as a forced labour camp, but in 1942 became an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard, the codename for the Nazis attempt to wipe out all of Europe’s Jews by way of death camps. The number of Jews murdered here within its 34 month existence is heavily debated, some saying it was as low as 50,000 to some at figures nearer to 350-400,000. It was chosen for our trip because of all the camps, it remains the most well preserved. Little had been done to the site as well as the Nazis failing to destroy much of the evidence as the war was coming to an end.
I was not expecting to arrive and go straight into the gas chambers. For some reason I thought that this part would have been somewhere within the middle of the tour. So I was trying to imagine what the victims must have felt, whether or not they had or hadn’t heard rumours or not about the gas chambers, we went in and saw the changing areas, where they would be commanded to undress and leave their belongings and then enter the showers. These were all scenes that I had seen in photos at holocaust museums and hollywood movies, but this was the real thing. We entered into the actual gas chambers, where there were memorials and some flowers that people had placed in there to pay their respects. We looked up and saw the taps that were there just for show and shown where the Zyklon B was thrown in after the big heavy door was sealed shut. You could still see the marks all over the walls from the victims trying however possible in a hopeless effort to escape.
We did not all enter in one group, we took our time and when we were ready, we turned around and were able to exit via the door that we went in. We waited outside on the grass for everyone to come out.
One of the members in our group came out a bit more traumatized than the rest of us. He was inside the gas chamber on his own and then some of the kids on the South American tour group thought it would be funny to slam the door shut on him. He came out completely shocked. Why would anyone be so stupid to do such a thing for a start, but secondly he said he felt for a split second what he imagined the victims may have felt when they heard that door shut.
Whilst the camp was in operation, people who went in those doors did not come out alive. They were then removed, by prisoners of the camp by wheel barrows. We would now follow the route of the dead bodies, as well as see the life of those who worked on the camp making all of this horror possible. We would walk up a path with barracks to our right and a field to our left. The barracks were previously where the inmates would sleep on the wooden bunk beds, these buildings had the conditions fit for animals to live in.
Inside some of the barracks were stored and displayed the belongings of the victims taken from them after they got changed before entering the gas chambers. Including piles upon piles of shoes and other belongings.
We followed on along the path up and then turned left, where there were more barracks to our right, crossing over to the other side of the field. The path then turned right onto an open road that led to the crematoria.
The inmates would walk this path wheelbarrowing the dead bodies. It was a dreaded walk, ahead of us we could see the chimney of the crematoria. When we arrived we went inside and could see the ovens, everything was still as it was. They were lined up, people would have been working on them, receiving the victims bodies unloaded from the wheelbarrows onto some kind of stretcher and then served into an oven and burned. As the victims ashes came out of the chimney, they would return to the gas chamber to bring the next lot.
Outside of the crematoria were steps leading up to something circular, with a few pathways going up to a platform in the middle where there was an open gap with something in the middle, and a concrete dome above covering it. It looked like a UFO landing from a distance. It was not clear exactly what this was at first, but it could be seen from the entrance to the camp. We walked up some steps and when we reached the top there was in the middle a giant round mound of something. Our guide explained to us that what were were looking at was a memorial to the victims that was built by the Russians. It was supposed to be an earn. Within arms reach was the ash of the victims that had been collected from nearby and piled up into an mass exposed earn. The ash was now solid and perfectly round.
I felt sick, I came down from the steps and was about to vomit. After we got back on the bus I was still in shock. I spoke to our guide about it, I didn’t understand why the Russians would have thought that this was an appropriate way to respect the dead. She said that the reason I most likely felt like this was due to cultural differences between how Judaism deals with respecting the dead, to how other cultures do. I had not thought about it like that. Judaism does not believe in cremation and keeping the ashes of the dead in jars in ones home, as some people do. I was used to going to funerals, burying the dead somewhere, small modest tombstones on their place of burial as a means to remembering them. Obviously it was not the Russians decision to cremate the victims bodies, but it felt at first glance as though this was not a very sensitive means of memorial, given that most of the victims were Jews and this is not how Jews commemorate their dead. But then the Russians did not see them as Jews, they saw all their subjects as just people. Subsequently, most of their memorials did not mention that the victims were Jews specifically.
From Majdanek we went on a much longer journey out into somewhere more rural. It seemed like the middle of nowhere, to Treblinka. When the Nazis decided to liquidated the Warsaw ghetto, many were sent to Treblinka, another death camp. We had to walk off a country road through the woods for a while before we arrived. Along this route were thick marble slabs placed horizontally and parallel to one another to mark where the train track that led up to the camp was.
We then walked up a grass hill away from the track into a very large open space with no more trees. In front of us stood another large memorial stone, behind it was what looked like a pit where a big bonfire had taken place. Surrounding all of this were thousands of what looked like tombstones of some description, but they weren’t. They were presumably there as some sort of memorial to the victims.
Treblinka was not a concentration camp, it was a death camp. Trains would bring Jews straight from the Warsaw ghetto by train. They would come off of the trains, be undressed and then wait their turn to walk up the hill into a gas chamber. The memorial was where the gas chamber once stood. The Nazis did not do the work here, they had some Kapos, Jews whom they had selected to remove the bodies from the chamber after each gassing and then throw them onto an open burning pit a few meters away from the gas chamber. There is today on that location some artistic replica of what this space looked like after a day of burning bodies. One million Jews were murdered there in one year.
As far as my eye could see the fields were full of these memorial stones for what looked like a few kilometers. I asked our guide if there was one stone for each victim. She then told me that there were roughly 17,000 stones. It was at that moment that I realised just how large a number a million is. I couldn’t conceive of the numbers visually. There were sports stadiums that could seat more people than the number of stones that I could see in front of me. I had to look at what was in front of me and multiply it by 58.8 and that would be one million. As shocking as that was, I couldn’t conceive of that figure visually, I then had to multiply that by six in order to reach the total number of Jews slaughtered in total by the Nazis.
Most of the mass murder of Jews took place within a short period of time, between mid-March 1942 and mid-February 1943. Before this period some 25 percent of the victims of the holocaust were still alive, after February 1943 this was the reverse. Approximately 75-80 percent were murdered and 20-25 percent still alive.
This period involved an onslaught on the Polish ghettos and deportation to death camps as we had seen. Our next stop would be to Jozefow, which has a unique and very disturbing story to it, regarding the men who who carried out these atrocities.
To carry out this task, the Nazis recruited the man-power from among Police battalions. When the Nazis came to control more occupied territory throughout Europe they began to rely on calling on civilian people who were too old or not fit enough for frontline combat units in the military. One of these units was known as Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg that was stationed in Lublin. According to Christopher Browning who studied this case extensively he describes the backgrounds of these Ordinary Men in an essay titled Lessons and Legacies:The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World:
“The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, were from the lower orders of German society. They had experienced neither social nor geographic mobility. Very few were economically independent. Except for apprenticeship or vocational training, virtually none had any education after leaving the Volksshule at age 14 or 15. About 25 percent were Nazi Party members in 1942, most having joined later in 1937 or later. Though not questioned about their pre-1933 political affiliation during their interrogations, presumably many had been Communists, Socialists, and labour union members before 1933. By virtue of their age, of course all went through their formative period in the pre-Nazi era. These were men who had known political standards and moral norms other than those of the Nazis. Most came from Hamburg, one of the least Nazified cities in Germany, and the majority came from a social class that in its political culture had been anti-Nazi.
These men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers of the Holocaust. Yet this unit was to be extraordinarily active both in clearing ghettos and in massacring Jews outright during the blitzkrieg against Polish Jewry. If these middle-aged reserve policemen became one major component of the murderers, the second question posed is how? Specifically, what happened when they were first assigned to kill Jews? What choices did they have and how did they react?”2
This units first assignment was to destroy some 1800 Jews living in a village called Jozefow. At this time there was a stoppage of trains making deportation of these Jews to any of the camps not possible. The unit rounded up the young Jewish men that were fit enough to work and sent them to a work camp in Lublin. This left 1,500 women, children and the elderly who had to be shot.
The officer in charge of this unit, Major Trapp, before telling them of this not very pleasant task of having to shoot defenceless women and children sought to justify such actions to make the task easier to undertake, but then he made them an extraordinary offer to his battalion. He said that if any among them did not feel up to the difficult task they may step out. One man then stepped forward. A captain was angry at him for doing so and began to yell at him. The Major held him back. Then ten to twelve more stepped forward. They handed in their rifles and the major told them to wait to be given a new assignment.
Those who remained were ordered to go to the village, bring the Jews to the market place, some were to accompany the men to Lublin to the labour camp, the rest were to be boarded onto trucks and taken to the forest to the firing squads. Anyone who tried to escape was to be shot. The men were willing to shoot those who were weak or sick but were a bit shy of shooting infants.
Before they began their assignment, they were given a quick lesson in what they were about to do. The battalion doctor showed them the place between and just above the shoulder blades where they were to aim their shot. Several men then turned to the 1st captain and asked for a different assignment. He refused, but then others turned to the sergeant rather than the captain, who relieved them of their role and were told to do guard duty along the road to the forest instead.
Some of the members of the unit remained in Jozefow holding the Jews in the market place, whilst they were transported in groups of thirty five at a time to the forest. There was roughly one policeman to each each Jew. The Jews were then told to lie down facing the floor in a row and were shot at point blank range as commanded between the shoulder blades. By midday, alcohol had appeared at the site and some more men had asked to leave.
By the time the first shots were fired from the woods, the Jews in the village knew their fate and began to cry and panic but then soon became very quiet. By midday, the unit realised that at the current rate they would not be able to complete the job by the end of the day. So more men were ordered to join the firing squad, so more could be killed at once. All the while the sergeant did not force anyone in the unit to undergo this task if they did not feel up to it and they would be released and given a different job. No one stepped forward. Browning gives us a chilling description of what happened next:
“Among those who began shooting, some could not last long. One man shot an old woman on his first round, after which his nerves were finished and he could not continue. Another discovered to his dismay that his second victim was a German Jew-a mother from Kassel with her daughter. He too then asked out. This encounter with a German Jew was not exceptional. Several other men also remembered Hamburg and Bremen Jews in Jozefow. It was a grotesque irony that some of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had guarded the collection centre in Hamburg, the confiscated freemason lodge house on the Moorweide next to the university library, from which the Hamburg Jews had been deported to the previous fall. A few had guarded the deportation transports to Lodz, Riga, and Minsk. These Hamburg policemen had now followed other Jews deported from northern Germany, in order to shoot them in southern Poland.
A third policeman was in such an agitated state that on his first shot he aimed too high. He shot off the top of the head of his victim, splattering brains into the face of the sergeant. His request to be relieved was granted. One policeman made it to the fourth round when his nerves gave way. He shot past his victim, then turned and ran deep into the forest and vomited. After several hours he returned to the trucks and rode back to the market place.
As had happened with 1st company, bottles of vodka appeared at the unloading point and were passed around. There was much demand, for among the 2nd company, shooting instructions had been less explicit and initially bayonets had not been fixed as an aiming guide. The result was that many of the men did not give neck shots but fired directly into the heads of their victims at point blank range. The victims’ heads exploded, and in no time the policemen’s uniforms were saturated with blood and splattered with brains and splinters of bone. When several officers noted that some of their men could no longer continue or had begun intentionally to fire past their victims, they excused them from the firing squads.”
We heard this story about what had happened, whilst sitting on the floor in the woods at the spot where all of this had taken place. Aside from the level of horror and gruesomeness of the story, what is particularly disturbing is that it poses some very challenging questions about human nature. It is often asked why did the Germans not rebel against the Nazis or refuse to obey orders to murder Jews in the concentration camps. The most common answer, aside from those who were brainwashed and influenced by the propaganda of the Nazi ideology, is that people who did not agree had little choice in the matter. If they did not obey their orders they too would be killed. This may well have been the case in a lot of instances. In the case of Jozefow, the men were aware of what the task was ahead of them. They were from the beginning and throughout the entire process told by their superiors that at any point that they did not wish to take part they should just say so. They would not get punished, their lives were not at stake and they would be given a new assignment. Some of them did drop out, so those who hadn’t at any later stage knew that all they had to do was stop.
We might suggest that perhaps the men who refused to take part might have ostracized their careers by doing so. In fact the opposite, one of the men who refused to take part and protested, did not have to take part in any of the later killing activities of this unit. In 1942 he was recalled to Hamburg and promoted to adjutant to the Police President of the city!
The price that these men who did not take part in these activities did pay for their refusal was that they were seen as not ‘real men’ by those who had done the murdering. Browning when interviewing the very men who served in this unit years later after the war wrote:
“One said that he had not wanted to be considered a coward by his comrades. Another more aware of what truly required courage-said quite simply: “I was cowardly.” A few others also made the attempt to confront the question of choice but failed to find words. It was a different time and place, as if they had been on another political planet, and the political vocabulary and values of the 1960’s were helpless to explain the situation in which they had found themselves in 1943. As one man admitted, it was not until years later that he began to consider that what he had done had not been right. He had not given it a thought at the time.
Several men who chose not to take part were more specific about their motives. One said that he accepted the possible disadvantages of his course of action because “I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather an independent skilled craftsman, and I had my business back home… thus it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper. The reserve lieutenant of 1st company placed a similar emphasis on the importance of economic independence when explaining why his situation was not analogous to that of the two SS captains on trial. I was somewhat older then and moreover a reserve officer, so it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise advance, because I had my prosperous business back home. The company chiefs, on the other hand were young men and career policemen, who wanted to become something. Through my business experience, especially because it extended abroad, I had gained a better overview of things.” He alone then broached the most taboo subject of all: “Moreover through my earlier business activities I already knew many Jews.”
Of the factors involved in the decision of ordinary men to become mass murderers were peer pressure and being perceived in a positive light by others. Economic considerations and career progression. It left me at least, very disturbed at just how far people can go in doing such terrible things in return for such things if called on under such circumstances.
Following the war a number of experiments and studies in the field of human psychology and particularly evil human nature were conducted, particularly in an effort to understand how the holocaust and events like that of Jozefow could have happened.
This included a very famous study, the Milgram Experiment -Obedience to Authority (1963). The experiment took place shortly after the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Milgram wanted to explore whether the claim made by many Nazi war criminals that they did what they did simply because they were following their orders was true. Milgram set up an experiment aiming to know how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. The experiment involved three people, the scientist and two volunteers. They would be separated into two separate rooms, able to communicate with one another but not see each other. One played the role of teacher, the other the learner. The person playing the role of the teacher was the subject of the experiment, they were unaware that the person playing the role of learner was an actor.
The teacher was to read a series of word pairs to the learner, he would then read the first word of the pair and give a choice of four possible answers. The learner would then press a button to answer which he thought was correct. Each time he was answered incorrectly, the teacher was told to give him an electric shock using an electrostatic generator that the learner was connected to. With each wrong answer the voltage increased by 15 volts. There was in reality no shock being administered. After each shock the reaction from the learner got worse and worse, banging on the walls, begging the teacher to stop.
In some instances the experiment was carried out with the teacher being informed by the learner that they had a heart condition at the start and then at a later point would give the impression that their life was at risk from the shocks. The subject playing the teacher would at various points become concerned and turn to the scientist saying that they want to stop. The scientist would respond with the following: 1) Please continue 2) The experiment requires that you continue 3) It is absolutely essential that you continue 4) You have no other choice, you must go on. If the subject still objected after the fourth response then the experiment was stopped.
The study showed that 65% of his participants administered the highest voltage and completed the experiment to the end. Milgram polled other scientists prior to the experiment on what percentage they believed would go through with the experiment. The majority believed that after administering the first couple of shocks that most would refuse to continue after administering 300 volt shock, they believed three percent would continue and that less than one percent would administer the highest shock. The study was repeated several times in different places and whilst the percentages varied, the essential findings were consistent. Milgram summarized the experiment:
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terribly destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”3
The Milgram and other experiments may provide some insights in general to explaining how ordinary people may have become complicit in the holocaust and done the terrible things that they did. But the case of of Jozefow was different. It shows just how far people can be willing to go and so easily in doing such things for economic gains, peer pressure and making a name for themselves. Perhaps we see examples of this on a much lower level within our own societies as well, in the workplace for example. Colleagues may betray their co workers, seek favour and alliances with their managers, those with power and influence with the goal of promotion or career advancement. It is nothing personal, just business. The lessons were very disturbing about the dark side of human nature and what man is capable of when the circumstances permit it. We got back on the bus and headed to Warsaw.
(Memorial stone in the forest outside Jozefow where the Jews were murdered)
This was probably the hardest day on our trip, it was emotionally exhausting. In Warsaw we would focus more on learning about life in the Warsaw ghetto and again like in Krakow, the walls of the ghettos were still visible. What we saw in Warsaw was a combination of remnants of Jewish life that preceded the Nazi era, similar to Krakow, we visited cemeteries and learned of the diversity of the Jews of Poland, particularly of Warsaw, being a big city, as opposed to some of the Shtetls outside of the cities.
The modern Jewish world of the period that we were learning about, throughout the 1800’s up until the 1930s and 40s looked very different to what it does today. One of the events we looked at in Warsaw was the Warsaw ghetto uprising. This was something that was taught to us in our youth movement. Hanoar is a scouting youth movement, part of the education system involved a curriculum that each person would have to learn if they wanted to achieve a badge.This involved having to learn about various topics at different levels within Zionism, Jewish History or Judaism. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was a part of it. Particularly of the role played by Zionist youth movements and Jewish youth in leading this uprising by Mordechai Anielewicz.
Historically, the Zionist movement in the land of Israel, in its early years believed that the diaspora Jew was weak, powerless, downtrodden, passive and despised. The Zionists saw this as shameful. They believed that Jews should take control of their destiny, learn to fight and defend themselves and become a political power again with independence in their homeland. When they first heard of the stories of what had happened in Europe, they were not sympathetic. They often mocked the survivors of the camps, who arrived in Palestine with nothing almost starved to death. The holocaust, not only proved that the Zionists arguments were correct, but they seemed in many instances to blame the survivors as well as the Nazis. It was their own fault for not listening to them and moving to Palestine earlier.
The Zionist movements sympathies however, was in the heroism of those who fought back against the Nazis, who refused to be led like sheep to the slaughter. Israel’s Yom HaShoah/Holocaust memorial day, falls on the day that the Warsaw ghetto uprising began. It was originally not so much about honouring and respecting the six million Jews who were murdered, they were seen as an embarrassment. It was to remember and honour those who fought back. These were the Jews that Israel wanted to identify with. Their heroism was believed to be a result of Zionism. Mordechai Anielewicz himself was a member of Hashomer Hatzair. In both Warsaw and at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem are two big statues of him, looking powerful and strong, a shining example of the Zionist ideal of the “New Jew.”
The message that Zionism conveyed was that it was only Zionism that inspired Jews to fight back and could provide a viable solution for Jewish survival through making Aliyah. It is certainly true that following the holocaust Zionism emerged as one of the most popular solutions to the Jewish question, but it isn’t true that only Zionist Jews fought back against the Nazis. Many Jews joined the revolutionary movements of the time and became Bolsheviks, they too fell victim to the Nazis in the ghettos and camps. Jews became extremely active within the Communist movement. The Jewish Communists, like their Zionist counterparts had their own youth movement called the ‘Bund.’
The Bund Communists were anti-Zionists. They saw Zionism as separatist and Communism as universalist. They believed that through Communism both Jews and non-Jews would be free of all past prejudices and in an equal utopian era. The holocaust put an end to Europe as being the centre stage of the Jewish people for centuries. Of all the solutions to the Jewish problem from Reform, Territorialism, Assimilation and Communism. Two of them grew in influence and survived as the most successful paths for the future of the Jewish people, the first was Zionism through its success in establishing the state of Israel and the second was emigration to the Liberal west. Today there are two main centres of Jewish life, Israel and the United states.
In Warsaw we visited the orphanage of another figure who we learned about in Hanoar, Janusz Korczak.
Korczak was a pediatrician who ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He became a famous Polish national hero in many ways for his work in advocating for the rights of children. His work was pivotal as a contribution to the field of Democratic education. This was something that I had learned about at university as well as finding some of its ideas manifest within Jewish youth movements. Korczak was also a supporter of Zionism and the Kibbutz movement. He would go to visit annually. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he was forced to move his orphanage with some 200 children to within the Warsaw ghetto. Due to his stature and position, he had been offered opportunities at numerous points to escape Poland and the Nazis. He refused all of them, including the opportunity to flee to Israel, because he could not leave his children. The Nazis then came to liquidate the ghetto and sent Korczak and all the children to Treblinka. Even at this stage, Korczak was still offered the chance to leave and refused. He boarded the trains and went with the children to the gas chamber in Treblinka.
Whilst the story of Jozefow demonstrated humanity at its worse, the story of Korczak was a case of humanity at its best. He could have saved himself on numerous opportunities. It flies in the face of the claim that we always act in accordance with our own survival. It shows that it is possible for such acts of love and righteousness to prevail even under the most evil of circumstances. The true heroes, are people like Janusz Korczak. It is their actions as well as those of others that gives us a very different picture of what humanity is also capable of. It seemed however that in most cases evil triumphs, but hope is not lost. The Jewish people survived for thousands of years of persecution and never let go of a messianic utopian vision of the world.
This all happened in a world that had rejected God and religion and put their faith in humanity, and its ability to know right from wrong on its own, on secular ideologies that promised peace and equality. It was not only the Nazis who turned their back on the Jews, it was also the Europeans who willingly handed over their Jewish citizens to the Nazis. Ironically it was the Fascist countries, Italy and Spain who were the most reluctant to hand over their Jews to the Nazis. Countries like France or Poland complied without resistance.
Or the question that bothers everyone was why the allies who were bombing Germany and Poland, knew what was going on in the concentration camps, didn’t bomb the camps or railway lines at least leading to the camps. The allies were offered on several occasions opportunities to save Jews in Europe by trading goods to the Nazis in exchange for Jews. The allies believed that anything that may strengthen the Nazis should not be done. For the few Jews who managed to escape Nazi occupied Europe they were caught by the allies making their way to Palestine, and they closed the doors. Sent them back to Europe, many ended up in Auschwitz because the Arabs were rioting over it. America was not much better, they too had restricted emigration to the United States during those years. The whole world directly or indirectly were complicit in enabling the holocaust to happen by their action or inaction.
1) Schwarz, C (2005) Photographing Traces of Memory, A Contemporary View of the Jewish Past in Polish Galicia, Galicia Jewish Museum: Poland, pp.54 – Wielkie Oczy.
2) Browning, C (1991) One Day in Jozefow: Initiation to Mass Murder in Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, edited by Peter Hayes, Northwestern University Press
3) Milgram, Stanley (1974) “The Perils of Obedience” Harper’s Magazine.