A trip to Poland isn’t the standard Jewish vacation destination. Travelers know they are about to undergo an intense and emotional experience that will take them through centuries of Jewish living – both the highs and lows of Jewish history.
That was certainly the expectation of Gary Diamond, a Tarzana, California traveler who traveled to Poland recently with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation — Valley Alliance, on a trip organized by Da’at – Educational Expeditions. With his own father born in Poland in 1918, a country that he left and never returned to, Gary felt it was important to see where his father was born and raised. Yet he felt more than a little trepidation about treading on Polish soil.
“People’s experiences are characterized by these kinds of personal stories,” says Mike Hollander, the Da’at tour educator who led the Valley Alliance group on a Jewish heritage tour through Poland and Israel.
“Each trip is very similar and yet quite different,” he said. “People are similar emotionally but react differently because of their own personal stories, and that’s the enriching part of it.”
For Gary, visiting the concentration camps was painful, and “the most difficult” was Majdanek, with its rooms full of peoples’ things, including one with tens of thousands of shoes. Yet what surprised him most was modern Poland, with its well-developed cities, many completely rebuilt since the war, and much of the development financed with Israeli money and investments.
“Israelis have invested in hotels and shopping centers,” he said, “and I didn’t expect that.”
He was also disarmed by Krakow’s beauty, its charming, old-fashioned streets and buildings of Jewish interest that offer testament to a city that once teemed with Jewish life and learning. Warsaw impressed him with its modern infrastructure, busy streets and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
“Poland runs the gamut, from modern to ancient,” says Mike, “which is sometimes hard for Jewish travelers to see. You have to recognize that Israel and Poland have strong relations today, and that Polish Jewish life is more complicated than just reducing it to 1939 to 1945. You can’t disregard 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland.”
WARSAW, POLAND: A LOCAL TOUR
A city with a tortured past of invasion, destruction and reconstruction, Warsaw has been nearly entirely rebuilt since the agonies and tragedies of World War Two. Many historic buildings from different periods were restored, rejuvenating the city’s architectural past and offering some cultural healing to its residents and its visitors. It may seem contrary to consider visiting Warsaw for fun, given the difficult relationship many travelers have with this city and country that was such a complicated part of the Holocaust. Yet Warsaw also had a vibrant Jewish life before the war and has been reenergizing itself Jewishly and culturally in the years since. In all, it’s a city that deserves a visit.
- See the Warsaw University Library: Stroll along the banks of the river and then walk by the outside of the library and admire the facade. As you head back toward the city, stop at the Tarabuk Café, Browarna 6, a local student meeting place near Warsaw’s main university campus. Order a cup of Prosz´ kaw´— the Polish coffee version of Turkish coffee — as you people-watch and enjoy the atmosphere.
- Interested in rediscovering your family’s past? Stop by the Jewish Genealogy & Family Heritage Center at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute (off of Plac Bankowy—Tłomackie 3/5). The institute is one of the few pre-war Jewish buildings to survive the war.
- Visit the Polonia Hotel on Aleje Jeruszolomskie opposite the Palace of Culture. The hotel, which was completely renovated, is a wonderful reminder of Warsaw’s pre-war grandeur. Be sure to study the photo display off the main lobby, offering some historical context to the building and the city.
- Tour the Palace of Culture. Take yourself to the top of the building and enjoy a bird’s eye of the entire city.
- Have a drink at Chłodna 25. A café/club on the spot where the bridge stood between Warsaw’s small and large ghettos, the bar hosts many cultural events, including ones of Jewish interest.
- As you walk in this area, look out for the 21 plaques embedded in the sidewalks, marking the walls that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto.
- Relax with a coffee or a fresh limonana, the ubiquitous Israeli frozen lemon and crushed mint drink at the new kosher café in town, serving a variety of Polish takes on Israeli delicacies. Tel Aviv Café and Delicatessen, 11 Pozńanska Street.
- Walk down Aleje Ujazdowskie. This street will take you past beautiful parks, old palaces, and the famous Chopin statue where there are free, open-air concerts in the summer on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
- Stroll along Kłopotowskiego and Ząbkowska Streets in the Praga District and walk across the Vistula. Pre-war Praga was home to many of Warsaw’s Jews before the war, and renovations in this area include old signage, giving a hint of early 20th century life.
Thanks to Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland Foundation, an expat American who is a longtime denizen of Warsaw and helped create this walking tour.