History Comes to Life in Eastern Europe

By Travel Writers

August 23, 2008 8 min read

The reason for my trip to Eastern Europe was to study the art and culture of Prague, Krakow and Berlin, but since all of these cities once had large Jewish populations, our tour guides naturally took us to places that were significant in Jewish history. I'd read about them in textbooks, but standing on the spots where so much had happened, I felt as if the tragic past were coming to life.

In Prague we learned that Jews had been walled into a ghetto as early as the 13th century on instructions from the pope that they should live separately from Christians. In the 18th century they were driven from the city for three years and only later welcomed back for economic reasons. The Nazis and later the communists decimated the community so that today a relatively small number of Jews live in Prague. When our guide related this information, we were walking through centuries-old synagogues in the Jewish ghetto of Josefov and visiting the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the deceased are buried 12 deep with their headstones nestled one against the other. The most chilling fact of all was that these places were only left standing because Adolf Hitler planned to use them in a museum to an extinct race.

In Poland, the realities of Jewish life in the mid-20th century were even more graphic and disturbing. I got my first lesson when our motor coach made a stop in Bedzin. Here, in the shadow of a medieval castle, we saw the remains of a synagogue where local Jews, who had gone there for protection, were burned to death when the Nazis set the building afire.

The next morning, during a walking tour of Krakow's old Jewish Quarter, our guide told us that most of the 70,000 Jews who had once lived in the city and worshipped in the nearby synagogues were deported and later executed. During our walk she pointed out the enamelware factory where Oskar Shindler is credited for saving the lives of 1,000 of his Jewish employees and buildings where four and five families crowded into one flat because they were not allowed to leave the ghetto.

Despite all this, our coach passed freshly painted anti-Jewish graffiti on a wall along the roadside. Seeing that, I changed my mind about skipping the optional tour to Auschwitz and decided to make the pilgrimage.

In the drive from Krakow, our bus passed through green farmland and small towns that, if I hadn't known better, could have been the American Midwest. But then there it was — no mistaking the rows of barracks, the electrified barbed wire, the slogan "Work makes you free" fashioned from iron over the entrance gate.

Our guide was Agnes, a passionate young woman who is working on an exhibit of Auschwitz artifacts to take into Polish schools. For the next two hours she led us through dormitories where thousands of people had been warehoused in deplorable conditions, beaten and humiliated, without proper food, clothing or medical care. The stairs we climbed in the buildings were worn by the steps of the inmates — some bound for the gas chambers and gallows, their healthier friends and relatives left behind to do the deadly work. In the crude public latrines, 200 people at a time had just seconds a day to use the toilet. Outside, like a dark exercise in perspective, we saw the train tracks narrow to a vanishing point where carloads of people had been left on platforms to be "selected."

Our tour included the hospital where Josef Mengele performed his tortuous experiments, the gallows where rebellious inmates were hung while their friends and relatives were forced to watch. One exhibit behind glass included thousands of shoes — high-top boots, canvas sandals, wooden, red high heels. Another showed the suitcases on which people had written their names in anticipation of reclaiming them later. One room was piled high with pots and cooking utensils — a rolling pin, a cheese-grater — salvaged from their homes as they were deported in the hope of someday using them to start a new life.

I thought the glass case filled with baby clothes and toys was the most difficult part of the tour. Another member of my group said for her it was the artificial limbs.

"Those people had already gone through one nightmare," she said.

When the visit was over, we pressed tips into Agnes' hands, but she said the best thing we could do for her was to spread the word about what happened there.

"Please keep Auschwitz in your hearts for the rest of your lives," she

implored us "Auschwitz is a warning. Normal people just like us created a hell on Earth. We must prevent humankind from repeating history."

We rode back to Krakow in silence. Later we had dinner at the Klezmer-Hois restaurant back in the Jewish Quarter. As an accordion, violin and bass played traditional music in the background, we ate beetroot soup, gefilte fish and knedlach — juicy chicken in matzo balls. Clinking my wineglass with the others to shouts of "L'chaim!" (to life) was especially poignant that night.

In Berlin, after I'd poured out my observations to my German friend, Peter

Kuhrt, he suggested we tour the Jewish Museum. This is an extraordinary building designed by Daniel Libeskind, who has also designed the World Trade Center memorial that will be erected in New York City. The edifice looks from above like a bolt of lightning. The windows are irregular slashes that resemble gashes made by knives. The first floor is uneven, giving visitors a feeling of disorientation. This sensation is heightened outside in the Garden of Exile, where 49 leaning columns combine with the cobblestone hillside below to give the sense of isolation.

The museum chronicles Jewish history from its early beginnings to the present, with exhibits that celebrate Jewish contributions to music, art, writing, business and science. It also pays homage to those who were lost.

In the Holocaust Tower a guard shuts the door behind visitors, leaving them alone in a stories-high concrete chamber illuminated only by one of Libeskind's slits of light. In the Memory Void, metal faces cover the floor of a similarly bleak space in an installation by Menashe Kadishman called "Fallen Leaves." Visitors are encouraged to walk on the faces to hear the desolate clatter they make.

"I feel cheated," Peter said. "Think of what we lost in terms of how those people could have enriched our culture."

I discovered a lot about Jewish life — and death — on this journey, but a lot of what I learned wasn't specifically about being Jewish at all. As Agnes reminded us when we entered Auschwitz, the first people to be destroyed by the Nazis were students, intellectuals, dissidents, homosexuals, people with diseases, mothers with small children, pregnant women and the very old — people who were in any way "different."

"Auschwitz teaches common respect," Agnes told us as we left. "Respect your neighbors regardless of their religion, nationality, skin color, gender or sexual orientation. We are all the same, all equal. There is no difference."

IF YOU GO

Our tour guide in Prague was Edita Machova, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Prague's history and culture and who will customize a tour to a group's specific interests. Visit www.private-tours.net.

In Krakow, be sure and have dinner at Klezmer-Hois (www.klezmer.pl). Even if your focus isn't Jewish culture, the food, decor and music are unforgettable.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin: www.jmberlin.de.

Glenda Winders is a freelance travel writer. To find out more about Glenda Winders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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