Sara Weinberger: A visit to family home the Holocaust took away

Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — I spent the evening of July 31 at Logan Airport, waiting to fly to Krakow, Poland, to join my daughter on a journey to discover my deceased mother’s past.

My mother, Irena Schenker, grew up in a country that would lose about 3 million of its 3,300,000 Jews during World War II. Alone, amidst the travelers, I am overcome with doubt. Whatever possessed me to want to visit this place, so often referred to as a Jewish graveyard? I convince myself that this trip can only be a lose-lose situation. I would either walk the streets of Krakow feeling like the “other,” the “Jew,” or I would curse myself for falling in love with what I am told is a dazzling city.

In spite of misgivings, I board the plane. For six days, I wander the streets of Kazimierz, the former Jewish district of Krakow where Jewish life flourished until 1942, when its residents were ordered to march themselves and their belongings across the bridge over the Vistula River to the ghetto built for them in Podgorze.

The remains of the ghetto walls resemble curved tops of headstones. Across the street from my mother’s childhood home is a large, almost vacant square, barely noticeable amid today’s traffic and businesses. Our guide tells us this was where the Jews of Krakow were herded before being deported to Belzec extermination camp, where 500,000 people, including my grandmother, aunts and young cousins, were murdered.

Only two people lived to bear witness to Belzec’s existence. The silent square with sculpted metal chairs scattered in all directions resembles the scene after each deportation, when the elderly Jews of Krakow had left the chairs they were resting in to board their death-bound trains. Today’s Kazimierz has been reincarnated into a mecca for hipsters, as well as an effort to create a thriving Jewish community. Before 1939, 65,000 Jews lived in Kazimierz. Today, there are about 200, many elderly. A constant tension exists here between commemoration and commercialization.

Tiny trams travel Kazimierz’s cobblestone streets, beckoning tourists to hop on and see its attractions: “The Jewish Ghetto, Schindler’s Factory, the Jewish Cemetery.” Dilapidated synagogues stand near discos named “Schizophrenia” and “Opium.” Klezmer concerts, (a musical genre born in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe) take place daily. The musicians, however, are rarely Jewish. I am told that young, Christian Poles long for exposure to a Jewish culture that they, too, were robbed of knowing.

At times I am heartened. Across the street from our apartment stands the Jewish Community Center, a modern building offering a host of activities, including art and language classes, yoga and a community Sabbath dinner each Friday evening. Some Poles have been discovering and embracing their newly discovered Jewish roots.

Yet I experience an intense void as I roam the streets of Kazimierz, longing for the world that came alive in my mother’s stories.

I spend my third day in Poland at the largest cemetery on Earth, Auschwitz. Statistics (1½ million people murdered here) cushion visitors from the reality that each person entered Auschwitz as a human being — with passions, family, friends, talents, experiences. Bunkers filled with display cases of human hair, shoes, spectacles, even baby clothes, though horrifying, do not put a face on each person terrorized and tortured. Only a display of empty suitcases, each with a first and last name, gives evidence to the individuals who arrived and never left.

A small slab of stone beckons me to a stagnant pond in Birkenau, the portion of Auschwitz whose sole purpose was to murder quickly and efficiently. I flinch to learn this algae-covered pond is permanently weighted with human ashes.

During my time in Krakow, I am acutely aware that a global epidemic of anti-semitism has erupted, especially in Europe. Blaming all Jews for Israel’s actions in Gaza, protesters from Boston to Paris call for “Death to Jews.” Several hours after my visit to Auschwitz, I read that a Jewish woman in Belgium was refused medical help from her family doctor, who told her to “get help in Gaza.”

A few days later, Facebook messages announce that someone has set fire to the Israeli flag hanging from my synagogue in Northampton. I phone a friend who describes coming face to face with a group of anti-Israel protesters after leaving Sabbath services at the same synagogue. I am horrified.

Since arriving in Poland, I have asked myself many times, “Why has the world always hated the Jews?”

I have no answer. Like Krakow, Northampton is not immune to the anti-Semitism that culminated in the destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities, like Kazimierz. My extended family was murdered while so much of the world was silent, yet even in Poland, people like my mother’s Christian friend, Marisha, acted to help Jews.

I can only hope that Northampton will not remain silent in the face of any acts of public hatred towards anyone.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.