What Schindler Means for 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 Spielberg 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...

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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...

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Holocaust 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...

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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. http://www.beyondmyfrontdoor.com/wp/tips-for-visiting-auschwitz/ 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. 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...

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Making Hanukkah Green, Inspiring Future Generations

This blog is by guest writer Leah Schuckit, JCRC Fall 2016 Social Justice Intern. As a young Jewish kid, Hanukkah was my favorite time of the year. I can still remember being in grade school and impatiently waiting for my Hebrew School lessons to turn to the Maccabees and the Temple menorah’s miracle. I remember the way that certain brands of candles smelled once you lit them and the excitement I felt when my family would start singing Hanukkah songs. I remember all of this alongside the more central concepts of Judaism I was taught in my childhood—most notably, the Jewish focus on making the world a better place for future generations. Hanukkah, while it may be a minor Jewish holiday to some, is an especially significant event every year for many Jewish children. Incorporating eco-friendly practices into your family’s Hanukkah rituals not only contributes to healing our Earth but also instills the importance of being environmentally-conscious in the next generation of Jewish children. Here are a few ways to incorporate environmentalism into your upcoming Hanukkah festivities: • Buy Local for your Latkes o Shrink your carbon footprint by getting potatoes and onions from local markets that operate winter hours like City Greens Market, Soulard Farmers Market, or Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. Large-scale, non-local food companies often use harmful agricultural processes to boost profits through increased production of pesticide-ridden, chemically-altered foods. Talk to your children about the value of buying local: you help to heal the earth while supporting local businesses. • Make the Most of your Menorah o Candle lighting is a staple of Hanukkah festivities, but you can reduce the harm it causes while still maintaining its magical effect. Look into buying candles made from natural beeswax or vegetable oil. If you have more than one child, consider only lighting one menorah and have your children take turns lighting the candles. It is custom to leave your menorah in the window for the public to see, so turn off some or all of your lights to better appreciate the menorah’s magic. • Do-It-Yourself Recycled Hanukkah Decorations o In the time leading up to Hanukkah, save up scraps of materials you might otherwise throw away. Have a craft day with your children to make recycled and recyclable decorations for your home. Consider helping your children to make their own wrapping paper with scraps of paper left behind from other projects. Chag...

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Three Simple Steps toward Going Green

If you are someone who cares about protecting the environment, you may find yourself frustrated at times because you are not doing as much as you could to change your lifestyle. While caring for God’s creation and reducing waste (baal tashchit) are important principles in Judaism, you don’t have to do it all to make a difference. Here are a few simple suggestions to get you going on the right path. 1. Start slow and keep it going: As with anything in life, creating eco-friendly change is more likely to succeed if you take it one small step at a time. Don’t try to change too much, too fast. For example, as you run out of conventional cleaning supplies, replace them with natural alternatives. Allow each change to settle in and become more routine before you attempt a new one. Your changes will be less dramatic but more sustainable. 2. Not doing everything does not mean you can’t do anything: You may not realistically be able to put solar panels along your entire roof or get 100 percent off the grid, but don’t let that stop you from doing the smaller things that still matter. There are many simple things you can do that cost almost nothing and make a difference. A few examples include using public transportation, shopping at secondhand stores and eating a more plant-based diet. Shift your focus from what you are not doing to what you are doing. 3. What you buy is less important than what you do: Don’t beat yourself over the head because you don’t drive a hybrid or have a closet full of fair trade organic clothing. The simplest and most effective way to create a positive environmental impact is by reducing your consumption. Buy less. An eco-friendly life does not have to be time consuming or expensive. Do what you can and start with small steps. The change will add up. Resources: Earth...

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