Europe

 

Judaic Journey
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 experiences.

WARSAW, POLAND
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.

KRAKOW, POLAND
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 Schindler's List.

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.

BERLIN, GERMANY
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 displays.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA
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 assimilated.

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 Franz Kafka.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
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.

JEWISH EUROPE
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; www.czechtourism.com), 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 Vacations (www.insightvacations.com/ca) 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; www.crystalcruises.com) 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

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