The child of Holocaust survivors travels to five countries of her
parents' pre-war past
BY TOBY SALTZMAN
Like many Holocaust survivors, my parents were more inclined to
recall the good times from their lives before the war - the concerts,
the walks in the park in Lodz, the jaunts to nearby Warsaw or Krakow.
They reminisced fondly of past journeys to Vienna, Berlin, Budapest
and Prague, before the incarceration and terror abruptly ended the
serenity of their lives.
They rarely mentioned their first spouses and children who perished,
their arrivals at Auschwitz, or how my mother, a petite blue-eyed
blond with "Aryan looks," was left with a scar on her forehead after
Dr. Josef Mengele operated to remove "the Jewish part" of her brain.
My first visit to the Europe of my parents' past was psychologically
driven. Like most children of survivors - especially those forced
to start life anew after losing entire families - I carried an inexplicable
guilt framed by my relatively happy life, so sheltered from the
horrors they had endured. I felt compelled to walk in the shadow
of their good times and bad, and to see the barbed-wire confines
from which they had miraculously survived.
My first visit - several years after both my parents had died and
deliberately alone - was initially daunting. Yet, when I stepped
away from the gates of Auschwitz, spanned by the notorious mantra
"Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work brings freedom), it wasn't guilt
that I felt, but relief and a subdued euphoria.
By surviving, my parents had eluded the Nazi's "Final solution"
to eliminate Jews. And, rather than burdening them both with tsuris
(Yiddish for distress), their union had forged a fresh start and
my birth had brought new hope.
Needless to say, my heart was lighter when I toured the Jewish
sites of Europe this past fall, especially as I was joined by my
husband, Ken, and dear friends Dr. Gordon Weisbrod - a staff radiologist
at Toronto's University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital
as well as Professor of Medical Imaging at University of Toronto
- and his wife Sharon. All of their parents had arrived in Canada
in the early 1900s and avoided the horrors of the war, but there's
no doubt that the sites we visited moved them deeply.
This year, the world marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World
War II with monuments and commemorations. Evident in many European
capitals is a deepening interest in Jewish culture. Monuments devoted
to the Holocaust are often underscored by sentiments that echo "never
again." Travellers to Europe who combine visits to sites of importance
to both Jews and Christians will be fascinated to learn how the
social and political thought of the era gave rise to the Holocaust.
Whether your tour of Jewish sites encompasses several cities or
just one, putting the sites into historical context and making time
to take in the local arts and culture will greatly enhance your
Before the Second World War, Eastern European cities had thriving
Jewish communities. However, it was Poland's capital that was the
cultural and intellectual heart of the Jewish diaspora.
Warsaw was the birthplace or adopted home of many prominent Jewish
writers, actors and scholars, many of whom lived in a district near
the Old Town. This is where the Nazis set up the Warsaw Ghetto in
November, 1940. On June 22, 1942, they began deporting hundreds
of thousands of people in cattle cars to their deaths at Treblinka.
Today, Warsaw is a bustling metropolis. The Old Town, rebuilt within
the original medieval walls, is a copy of the original with artful
facades facing a lively market square. A Commemorative Trail leads
visitors along a path of plaques and monuments from a massive monument
to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to a marble monument representing
an open-air railway car at Umschlagplatz - the platform from which
people were shipped to Treblinka - to a laneway leading from the
grime-encrusted ghetto tenements on ul. Prozna to the only remnants
of the original red-brick ghetto wall.
The Nozyks synagogue survived virtually intact because it served
as a Nazi stable. Today, it has a tiny 200-member congregation.
Adjacent is the Jewish newspaper, the Our Roots Jewish Travel Bureau
and the Jewish community centre.
A short drive away, the Jewish Institute, Museum and Archives documents
Jewish history back to the 17th century, with tens of thousands
of books, manuscripts, and about 30,000 precious photographs.
Warsaw's old Jewish cemetery is a warren of overgrown graves and
moss-covered tombstones, their inscriptions and carvings faded with
age: two-hands signify priestly Cohens, lions symbolize the tribe
of Judah, candlesticks honour women who lit Sabbath candles and
broken trees mark lives cut short. At a vast expanse of grass, one
small stone denotes a mass grave for the unknown dead.
By the 16th century, the Kazimierz district of Krakow thrived as
a significant centre of Judaic law, particularly due to philosopher
Moses Isserles, who founded the Talmudic Academy. Today, the restored
Remuh synagogue (circa 1553), with its adjacent Old Cemetery, is
a place of pilgrimage for religious Jews.
When the Germans occupied Krakow in September, 1939, the 70,000
Jews - Poland's most important Jewish community - were assigned
to labour. After the cordoning off of the ghetto in March, 1941,
most of them died in mass deportations to concentration camps.
For decades, Kazimierz was dilapidated and deserted. But today,
there is a huge revival of interest in Jewish history and culture,
much of it instigated by the Jagellonian University. You can spend
a day exploring Kazimierz, browsing the narrow streets leading from
ul. Szeroka and returning at night for dinner and the music of a
Klezmer band. The 15-century Old Synagogue is now the fascinating
Museum of Jewish History and Culture.
All that remains of the Krakow Ghetto in Podgorz District are remnants
of the stone wall, the vast Heroes Square and the old "At the Sign
of the Eagle" Pharmacy. Previously owned by Tadeusz Pankiewicz,
who hid many Jews, the pharmacy is now the museum of National Commemoration.
A short drive away stand the gates of the famed Schindler factory,
a haven provided by the "righteous Gentile" featured in the film
From Krakow, it is 60 kilometres (a 45-minute drive) to the village
of Oswiecim and the iron gates of Auschwitz.
From 1940 to 1945, the Nazis deported more than 1,100,000 Jews,
almost 150,000 Poles and 50,000 prisoners (including homosexuals)
of other nationalities for mass annihilation. Though most Jews died
in the gas chambers immediately after arriving, their numbers swelled.
So the Nazis expanded by building Birkenau on the vast, flat plains
of the nearby village of Brzezinka.
Soon dubbed Auschwitz II, it became the Third Reich's main death
complex. Here the Nazis erected more than 300 primitive barracks,
capable of sheltering 100,000 prisoners at a time by stacking them
on shelf-like wooden bunks.
Railway tracks running across the camp shuttled people to the three
massive crematoria, which, according to calculations by German authorities,
burned 340 corpses every 24 hours. It is estimated today that more
than a million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is now recognized
as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fourteen years after the reunification of Germany, Berlin has blossomed
into a cosmopolitan capital scattered with numerous memorials that
express a palpable sense of tolerance as well as regret for the
city's past as a political hub for oppression - a past in which
160,000 Jews were annihilated, including significant scholars, artists,
philosophers and scientists.
Today, the Jewish community thrives again with some 12,000 citizens.
Berlin never had a Jewish ghetto, the Jews were deported by train
to those in Lodz, Riga or Warsaw. On a half-day walking tour, one
can explore the interesting sites, most concentrated in the Mitte
district, the historic centre of town, near 29 Oranienburger Strasse
and the gleaming cupola of the restored New Synagogue (circa 1903).
Every corner turned reveals another story. For example, a quiet
parkette commemorates a spontaneous protest in 1943 staged by 1500
Aryan women whose noisy furor saved their Jewish husbands from being
deported to a death camp - an event portrayed in the recent, award-winning
film Rosenstrasse. A permanent exhibit on site, The Topography
of Terror, also denounces the Third Reich's actions.
Many visitors head to the new Holocaust Memorial to search for
lost relatives among the 50,000 names inscribed in stone.
Don't miss the Jewish Museum, a contemporary architectural icon
designed by Daniel Libeskind. The building recreates aspects of
the physical journey to the camps, and incorporates train tracks,
cavernous voids and narrow window slits, not to mention heart-wrenching
In the heart of culturally vibrant Vienna, the prominent Memorial
Against War and Fascism features clusters of agonized humans and
a head wreathed with barbed wire. The monument conveys a sense that
remembering the Holocaust, as well as the catastrophic era from1938
to 1945 when Hitler annexed Austria to Germany, is of vital importance.
In 1995, archeologists discovered the remains of a 500-year-old
synagogue that had been desecrated in 1421 with the first edict
to kill or drive Jews from Vienna. These excavations are housed
today in the Jewish Museum at the serene Judenplatz. Aside from
the museum's astonishing archive of ritual objects, the square itself
is notable for the massive Memorial to Austrian Holocaust Victims
etched with the names of 65,000 Austrian Jews who were exterminated,
and the Misrachi Information Rooms on the Shoah where people can
search for the names of victims. Interestingly, the City Temple
(circa 1824) - Vienna's only synagogue to survive the Nazi pogrom
in 1938 - is a place of pilgrimage, not just for Jews, but for architects
and designers as a classic example of Vienna Biedermeier style.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Prague is a treasure trove of Jewish history and culture. Jews contributed
greatly to the economic and cultural growth of the democratic Czechoslovak
Republic, founded in 1918. After occupying Bohemia and Moravia,
the Nazis destroyed Jewish properties and synagogues on the infamous
Kristallnacht or November 9, 1938. Since most Czech Jews died in
the Terezin ghetto or at Auschwitz, the few who remained quietly
With the end of Communism in 1989, Prague has seen a revival of
interest in its Jewish heritage. Indeed, my guide explained that
it is suddenly "hip to be Jewish" and many young Czechs are searching
family trees to be sure of their heritage.
The best way to explore Josefov (Jewish Town) and the Jewish Museum
(which is scattered around a dozen historic synagogues in Prague)
is to buy an all-inclusive ticket in the 13-th century Old New Synagogue
(circa 1270) and follow the free map. Ironically, it is with the
help of the Nazis that the museum's relics survive in astonishingly
pristine condition: the collection was meant to serve as the Museum
of an Extinct Race.
Josefov grew around the Old New Synagogue and the 16th-century
Jewish Town Hall, with its clock tower marked by distinctive Hebrew
letters that tell time counter-clockwise. Other sites include the
Old Jewish Cemetery crowded with 12,000 tombstones, the splendid
white Maisel Synagogue, a treasure-trove of precious ritual artifacts,
the Spanish synagogue, an extravaganza of gilt Moorish arabesques;
the exotic Byzantine-Moorish style of the Jubilee Synagogue and
the New Cemetery where arrows lead to the humble gravestone of writer
As proven by an ancient Roman tombstone with Hebrew letters, housed
in Hungary's National Museum, Jews inhabited the land long before
the Magyars arrived.
In April 1944, when the Germans occupied the country, Adolph Eichmann
ordered that Jews be deported to ghettos or to Auschwitz. Most were
simply shot and thrown into the Danube River.
Fortunately, some 125,000 were spared when the Soviet army marched
into Budapest on January 16, 1945. Today, the 80,000 Jews of Budapest
comprise the largest Jewish community of Western and Central Europe.
Jewish sites exist on both banks of the Danube River. Near the
Castle District in the hilly Old Town of Buda are excavated remains
of a Gothic synagogue and a medieval house of prayer. In Obuda,
a Neoclassical-style synagogue now houses a television studio. Hungary's
most fascinating Jewish site is by far the 1859 Moorish-style Dohany
utca Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and the second-largest
in the world. It survived the war because the building, capable
of housing 3000 people, served as a concentration camp for Jews
en route to Auschwitz.
Nearby stand the poignant monuments to Raoul Wallenburg, the Swedish
diplomat who saved thousands of Budapest Jews and Swiss consul Charles
Lutz, who set up "protected" houses and issued identity papers.
The thought that kept recurring during my first travels to the
Jewish sites of Europe was echoed by Ken, Gordon and Sharon on their
first visit. "How could those who outlived the horrors carry on
psychologically, never mind with dignity intact?" Thanks to the
grace of the indomitable human spirit, those who survived did so
with melancholy, but also with joy.
For more information on Jewish history and Holocaust memorials in
Central and Eastern Europe, contact the Polish
National Tourist Office (tel: 212-338-9412; www.polandtour.org),
the Czech Tourism (tel: 416-363-9928;
the Austrian National Tourism Office
(tel: 416-967-3381; www.austria.info),
the German National Tourist Office
( tel: 416-598-5353; www.cometogermany.com)
and the Hungarian National Tourist Office
(tel: 212-207-4103; www.gotohungary.com/index.php).
If you're interested in traveling with a group, Insight
offers an excellent itinerary with two nights in Vienna, Budapest,
Krakow, Warsaw, Prague and Berlin, as well as a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Contact your travel agent to reserve.
Also Crystal Cruises (tel: 800-804-1500;
has European itineraries with scheduled excursions to Jewish sites
in all the major cities mentioned above as well as Spain and England.
Copyright: Toby Saltzman 2005