Understanding Auschwitz

One of the reasons why we came to Poland in the spring of 2017 was to visit Auschwitz. I have been to Dachau outside of Munich about 12 years ago, but even so was unprepared for this visit. The first hurdle was getting a ticket to the site. The problem: it was the week of Yom HaShoah, and the day we wanted to go was the day when thousands would be participating in the annual March of the Living. Various tour operators were sold out or said the place was closed, so we tried to get tickets for the following days, and they were also all sold out.

There are two ways to visit the place: one is by being part of a group tour, which is what the vast majority of people do. They take you from Krakow (usually), get you a guide that takes you around to the various exhibits and tells stories and answers your questions, and gets you back to your hotel. Two of the major tour operators — out of the dozens there are http://SeeKrakow.com and https://discovercracow.com.

The other is as an individual. You have to make your own arrangements for the transportation to and from Krakow. There are four public bus companies that run frequent service from the main bus station directly to Auschwitz, and it takes about 90 minutes. There is also a train, but the Auschwitz station is a bit of a walk. We took the bus. If you go this route, you save money (bus tickets are 12-15 zl. each way) and there is no entrance fee. But you have to get there early (say around 9 am), as they sell out quickly of the walk-in tickets. Once you get to Auschwitz, you can sign up for their own tours that the museum offers if you wish, there are a dozen each day in various languages, listed as you enter like an airport departure screen. For some reason, these tours are different than the public tours that the museum has listed on its website. I don’t know why. Also, when you visit you can go to two sites: the original Auschwitz site, where the tickets are required, and Birkenau, where you can literally walk in without any prior arrangement.

Enough of the logistics. You can read this guide here which is very well researched, and offers more pro/con details. I mostly agree with the author’s recommendations. What you should know is that there are so many people walking around that it is easy to leave one tour and join another if you are there on your own. Which is what we did.

One of the guides we met was the patriarch of an Orthodox Jewish family from NYC telling his stories to his grandchildren about his experiences. We stayed with them for a bit, as he has been to the camps numerous times and gives organized tours to Jewish groups quite often. You can check out his website here.

At Dachau, there is some curation and exhibits, but mostly it is restored to what it would look like back during its use. You walk around and get a sense of what life was like back during the war. Everything is pretty much rebuilt, because the German officials in charge of that camp had time and the inclination to destroy most everything before the camp was liberated. I learned at Auschwitz that this was an individual decision: some officials were proud of their work and wanted to leave the place intact. At Auschwitz, much was destroyed. With the neighboring Birkenau camp (which is a couple of miles away), much was left alone.

Even the buildings that were intact after the war are now long gone: they weren’t constructed to last. At Birkenau you got to see the foundations and the remnants of two stone chimneys that remained at each barracks site. One guide told us that these primitive heating systems — essentially a small firebox attached to the chimney — were placed there just for show. They never were lit. People froze in the winter and boiled in the summers. Ironically, like Ozymandius, the stone chimneys remain standing.

Each barracks in the Auschwitz camp has been turned into a different museum exhibit, focusing on the particular national identity of the prisoners and the relief organization that was sponsoring the exhibit: so one hut might contain a memorial to the Dutch Jews, one to the Romanian Gypsies, one to the Poles, and so forth. Each exhibit is curated differently and some are designed simply, others are more elaborate. There is a lot to read, and I imagine that if you are with a group you don’t have much time to spend in each building, plus you spend a lot of time waiting to get in and out of the buildings as the place fills up. None of the buildings is set up in Auschwitz to show its original use: that is the case in Birkenau, where you can see how closely packed the inmates are housed, and how many barracks there are. It would take you probably 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. If you want to read more from someone who does a better job describing the current state of the camps, check out what my colleague Shelly Palmer wrote in a post he did here in January.

Perhaps the most infamous part of the camps were the crematoria. They have been demolished at Birkenau and have been reduced to a pile of rubble (as you see here), made all the more somber by the thought of what happened there. At Auschwitz (and Dachau) they have been reconstructed, so you have some understanding of what they looked like.

In addition to these reconstructions, the most moving exhibit we saw on our visit was a temporary one about the crematoria were constructed, from a German engineering firm called Topf and Sons that still is in business today. I never really thought about this in engineering terms, and the problem they were faced with was that the gas chambers could kill more people than the Nazis could dispose of the bodies. These engineers developed higher-capacity crematoria. It was clear from the documents shown in this exhibit how complicit they were in this process and how cooperative they were in designing the ultimate killing machines used at the camps. In this brochure linked to this page above, you can see something interesting: The original engineering plans were unavailable for many years because the archives were purchased from a leading Holocaust denier. When he reviewed the plans, he eventually came around to accept the reality of what happened. Indeed, how anyone can deny that these events of the Holocaust took place is beyond me.

The horrors of the place are made even more so because you are actually there. The crumbling structures make it feel even more intense. Every Israeli school kid goes on a field trip to Auschwitz as part of their education. I think this is a good idea: I wish it was a part of my own education too.

What Schindler represents to us today

Krakow once had a very vibrant Jewish Quarter where tens of thousands of Jews lived before the war. Now there are virtually none, as in many other Polish and European cities. But their presence is very strongly felt: there are numerous synagogues within a few blocks of each other (this one shown here was used by the Nazis as a stable during the war), and remnants of places where they lived and owned businesses. That area of the city isn’t as renovated as other parts, although it does seem to be making a comeback.

My sister and I visited Krakow in the spring of 2017. If you go, you can choose to tour the city independently (which we did) or join one of the numerous tour groups that walk you around the city (which you can easily tag along). Krakow is the home of Oskar Schindler’s actual metalworking factory and is now a museum.  The factory which was featured so famously in the Speilberg movie is actually across the river from the original Jewish quarter. (BTW, Schindler had a second factory which is also being turned into a museum in what is now the Czech Republic).

If you go to the Krakow Schindler museum, go early especially if you want to see the place and have time to go your own pace. The problem is that the rooms are small, and the crowds large. It is well worth the visit, well curated with lots to read and videos to watch.

Be warned though that most of the place isn’t about Schindler, which I think is a good perspective. Instead, you see the progress of the war through Krakow and how they treated many of the residents subsequently. The exhibits document the original invasion of Krakow by the Nazis in the early part of WWII and how quickly they established control over the city and created the Jewish Ghetto. The number of artifacts from the wartime activities, the photos of both Polish and Germans involved, and street scenes was all overwhelming. I particularly liked the art projects that were created as contemplative spaces, and reminded me of the large Serra sculptures that put you inside of them.

The couple of rooms that documented the life of Schindler are also interesting.  What I learned is how he is a very complex person, that you may not have gotten the first time you read the book or saw the movie. Yes, he saved 1200 Jews and was honored for that later in life, well before the movie came out. (He died in the 1970s.)  But he wasn’t saving Jews just because he had a soft spot for us: he wanted free labor and wanted the profits. Granted, he spent the vast majority of his firm’s profits on bribes to keep his workers alive later on in the war.

He was also an entrepreneur but not a very good one. Almost all of his businesses eventually failed. He was a Nazi spy, joining the German intelligence agencies early on and spying against his fellow Czechs. He was arrested numerous times and barely managed to escape death himself. And he was a rogue, interested in wine, women and having a good time.

But it turns out understanding Schindler is a good entry point to learn more about the wartime era and its complexities. Many people were semi-complicit in terms of outwardly supporting Nazi policies but personally affected by helping to save Jews. Many profited by the wartime business, only to donate vast sums of money to Jewish causes and reparations or philanthropy. It is important to see the shades of gray here.

One tour guide told us that the Spielberg “Schindler’s List” movie (here is an alley that was used in the movie) was a big economic engine that began in the mid-1990s after the movie came out. While it has taken time for this development to get started it can be seen as a lot of construction is happening and the original Jewish Quarter of Krakow now has a solid bar/club scene which is always a sign that the neighborhood is on the way up. At the local flea market, one table was filled with Nazi memorabilia. Not sure if genuine or reproduction, but either way somewhat unsettling.

If Krakow has any downside, it is because it attracts too many tourists and the infrastructure just can’t support the hordes. The vast majority of tourists come there as part of groups and so the big attractions, such as the salt mine, Schindler’s factory and Auschwitz have to cater to them, leaving little opportunity for independent travelers such as Carrie and me to get in and maneuver around them. I guess this is a good problem to have but it means if you want to see these sites you need to plan a lot further ahead than we did.

Conflicted over Bialystok

My sister and I visited Bialystok, in NE Poland, as part of our discovery trip in the spring of 2017. Here is my report.

Our grandfather’s family comes from a small town about 20 miles from there. Luckily for us, he left before the outbreak of WWII and raised his kids in America. I tried to find out more information about his town (Zambrow) and get someone to show us around, but I wasn’t successful. So going to Bialystok was the next best thing: the town of about 300k people is famous for two of its residents who were the inventors of Esperanto and the polio vaccine. It has enough of a tourist infrastructure — but barely, especially for American Jewish tourists. More on that in a moment. It is a two hour train ride from Warsaw and the trains operate frequently, which is how we got there.

But it is a study of conflict, and that is an interesting part of our trip and could be part of your own, should you decide to go there. It is absent of the big-ticket items of Warsaw and Krakow that attract thousands of tourists. But it also absent of many of the things that an American Jew would want to see from the wartime years: the city was heavily bombed and the Jewish districts pretty much obliterated. The city once had Jews for half of its population: now there are almost none.

So the challenge of visiting someplace is understanding its history, and understanding the various layers of the city that you don’t see, along with the ones that are part of the modern fabric. Part of travel is discovering these new places and how they weave the old with the new. One of the reasons why I am drawn to Europe is that the old is very old, and the new is often very new. The contrasts are interesting. You see centuries-old structures next to new shopping malls and restaurants. Or renovations that incorporate both new and old in interesting and clever ways.

Let’s take as one example the Great Synagogue in Bialystok. It was built in 1913, replacing another structure on that spot that dated from the 1770s. In 1941, the Germans entered the city, rounded up 700 Jews, and brought them there. They then fire bombed the place, killing everyone inside and destroying the building. Here is a picture of me standing inside a replica of what was left of one of the domes of the building. You can see me standing in a parking lot, surrounded by a set of apartment blocks that were built in the 1950s.

It took us over an hour to find this memorial, even though we had all sorts of maps and brochures that mentioned it. And that is the conflict of Bialystok: yes, they did honor this terrible moment in their history. But it is almost an afterthought now, and that is sad and frustrating. Another former synagogue is now the HQ for the Esperanto society, which is somehow a fitting adaptive reuse. Their grand palace that was built in the 1700s was destroyed in the war, rebuilt in the 1950s by the Russians and is now their medical school. Again, somewhat appropriate reuse. But the difference is the palace is still palatial, and the grounds remind one of the grounds around many palaces, such as Versailles. The Great Synagogue was never rebuilt, and the memorial stands surrounded by parking spaces.

If you want to see more, here is a brochure for Jewish sites in and around Bialystok. But here is the problem: the brochure is several years old. Many of the sites mentioned in the guide don’t exist, have been significantly changed, because as I said there aren’t many Jews there now.

Should a Jew visit Bialystok? Yes, certainly, if you are interested in seeing these sorts of things. The restaurants are extremely cheap and good, the people friendly, the town square is lovely and there are numerous festivals that add lots of charm to the city. (We stayed in an excellent AirBnB BTW that was steps from all the major center-city attractions.) But be prepared to look long and hard to find the evidence of the past that connects our shared heritage.

Remembrance Day 2017

I was a teenager before I first even knew about the Holocaust. My parents never told me about it, and as a baby boomer growing up in the 1960s I didn’t learn about it in school. The numerous Holocaust museums that have sprung up in recent years didn’t exist either. Learning more about the Holocaust was one of my reasons for going on this trip to Poland with my sister in the spring of 2017.

Carrie and I didn’t plan our trip to spend Yom Ha Shoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland but I am glad we did. Last year she and I were in Israel for my daughter’s wedding, and first I want to tell you about that experience.

The day is a normal working day in Israel, as it is in most places around the world. Most of you probably don’t give it much thought or if you do this year it is because of certain ridiculous remarks earlier by Spicer. But in Israel there is a moment where everyone stops what they are doing, and sirens go off. You can’t miss it. I was walking around the center of Jerusalem with my friends, doing the normal touristy things that one does there. Traffic all over Israel comes to a standstill, and some people get out of their cars. The normal sounds of the city are replaced with the sounds of nature. It is somewhat eerie, somewhat beautiful, somewhat odd. You certainly will remember the moment if you are there. Carrie and her family were driving near Tel Aviv and listening to the radio, where the announcers tell you what to expect. (They are speaking Hebrew, so it didn’t much help her.) If you are on the freeway, people start pulling over early. If you have seen any videos of this, it looks like a science fiction movie. But it is very real. Anyway, that was last year.

As I said, this year Carrie and I were in Poland. We were in Krakow, and walking around the city. I wish I had gone to Auschwitz but we were told (incorrectly) that the site would be closed to the public and only people who were part of the March of the Living, which happens every year on that day, would be allowed in. I heard 20,000 people attended this march, but can’t verify that figure. We did get to go to the site the following day and I have posted some thoughts about that elsewhere.

While in Poland, I thought about the first time that I learned about the Holocaust — it was when I was 15, and with my family to visit Israel for the first time. We went to Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust outside of Jerusalem. At that time it was a much smaller facility but the little that was there back then was very moving. As I said, I had no idea about the Holocaust– my parents weren’t direct survivors but both of their families had many members who perished then and they just decided not to say anything to their kids. I remember how annoyed I was about that decision and glad that at least I had some solid foundation to learn more.

Part of that desire was why I was motivated to go on this trip with Carrie — I wanted to see more of what happened during wartime firsthand. It is one thing to read books about the Holocaust and I have read many of them: some non-fiction, some deliberately fiction (meaning not written by deniers but using wartime fictional settings to tell a story). It is another thing to actually live in Europe and be reminded of this era all the time. Granted, a lot has changed: cities have been rebuilt. Monuments erected. But there are a lot of memories captured in many different places and different ways. These blog posts and pictures are to document my own search.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like, to be sure. I am glad that I went on my trip to Poland. There is perhaps no more complex Holocaust story than there: the country was quickly occupied by both Russians and Germans, saw many casualties of Jews and non-Jews, housed many of the concentration camps, and had many cities obliterated at different times. My trip was a beginning for me to learn more about our family roots, and start to see both the bigger picture and some of the nuances about those times.

What makes it hard when as a Holocaust tourist is the delicate balance between being morbid and sympathetic, being understanding and being judgemental, being nosy and being inquisitive. I learned a lot this past week.

Many Jews are taught to ask a lot of questions. (If you have any doubt, try one of this series of books in The Jewish Book of Why, one of my favorites.) That is how I dealt with, and still deal with the Holocaust today. This trip has raised many more questions than answers for me, which is a good thing.

It is a delicate balance because we didn’t live through it, and can’t possibly comprehend the horrors of the times. But I think it is important to learn more, which gets back to my frustration with my parents about not saying anything to us when we were growing up. That was their way of dealing with their loss, and I have to respect that.

I think Israelis have the right idea and glad that my daughter is getting their perspective first-hand. Take a few minutes out of your day, think about what happened during then. And if you have questions, find your own answers.

My personal voyage of discovery


I happen to live in the general vicinity of where Lewis and Clark set forth on their “corps of discovery” up to the Missouri headwaters back in the early 1800s. Today I want to tell you about my own discovery voyage that I begin today, to visit my mother’s ancestral grounds in northeast Poland with my sister.

I first thought about this trip several years ago when I came across a distant cousin living in Tel Aviv. Cousin Ori had mapped out my entire maternal family tree on Geni.com, spending countless hours tracking down relatives going back into the 1800s. At the time that we were first introduced, I had no idea that he even existed. But I am grateful for his efforts, especially in re-kindling this quest that I am on this week.

My grandfather came to the States about 100 years ago, and lucky for him he did. Almost all of his contemporaries perished in the Holocaust, including his father. They came from a small Polish town called Zambrow (also spelled Zembrov and other combinations as well) of a few thousand people. That is where my sister and I are headed, along with seeing the larger cities of Poland too. So consider this my first report of my travels.

I am lucky that I am going now when it is relatively easy to do online research and find out things such as tourist sites, maps, train schedules, reservations for AirBnBs, and the like. The more I did the research, the more excited I have gotten about our trip. Right now I am just trying to manage my expectations.

But there was plenty to find online to whet my discovery appetite. For example, here is a brochure for Jewish sites in and around Bialystok, one of the places we are visiting.

For those who are interested, many of the smaller European towns which had significant losses during WWII produced these hard-copy memory books that documented all of those who once lived there. Here is the history of these books, and the community associations that created them called landsmanshafts.

The book for Zambrow can be found here, and right on p. 167 is my relative, Shabtai  or Shepsl Kramarsky, who was a rabbinic judge 100 years ago.  When my grandfather came to the States, he shortened his last name to Kramer, which was very common as the Ellis Island authorities had long lines of people and not much patience with all those syllables.

One of the things I love about Jewish geography is how small a world it really is. In addition to finding cousin Ori, one of my most faithful readers is Hank Mishkoff, who visited Zambrow almost 20 years ago and posted his travels here. He is putting me in touch with some folks that he knows in Poland, and we’ll see what happens!