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A Mysterious Underground City and a Jewish Polish Wedding

A Mysterious Underground City and a Jewish Polish Wedding

I got back late last night from a Jewish wedding in Wrocław in Poland. This was the first (or maybe second?) wedding between two Polish Jews at the White Stork Synagogue there for 50 years. Unfortunately, after the Holocaust and during the communist period, there wasn’t much room for Jewish life in this town. Today, Jewish life in Poland is not what it was before the war, but there is a strong community that is continuing to grow. This wedding is a fantastic show of the religious freedom and modern day society that we now live in here in Poland.

Jewish Wedding in Wroclaw
Jewish Wedding in Wroclaw

It was a really fun and enjoyable day which was a contrast to the day before.

My girlfriend and I drove down a day early, in search of an “Underground City” that the Germans supposedly built during the war. Wanting to learn everything at the location, I simply looked up where to go and drove there. We arrived at the Ksiaz Castle where this city was meant to be underneath. Immediately I got a horrible feeling from just standing there. I have only felt like this before in the Nuremberg trial rooms. It is hard to describe, but I just didn’t want to be there, it just wasn’t right.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

Only now, after the visit, do I realise that this castle was meant to be one of the major Nazi headquarters for Hitler where a lot of the decisions would be made throughout the reign. A really evil place. This was the centre of the Nazi project Riese, the main purpose was to create a main site of control in the Owl mountains of Lower Silesia.

We eventually discovered that this “Underground City” was in fact 30km away. This was just one of at least 9 underground structures built. After a short drive we arrived at a hillside forest named Osówka. Underneath there was a vast, multi-layered system of tunnels and halls. The Nazi’s got Jews (mostly Hungarian who were sent to Auschwitz) to build this place over the course of two years. They estimate that if the war had not have ended, they would have completed the structure in another year.

Original weapons and helmets
Original weapons and helmets

Nobody really knows what these underground constructs were for. Potentially nuclear shelters, weapons storage, a treasure location, a secret laboratory…but there is no sufficient evidence for any one in particular. What is known, is that the workers were treated just as inhumanely as elsewhere in the Nazi regime. One bowl of soup a day, barely 200 calories, and long working days. If they were lucky, they would survive a few weeks. Many would die. Only a few would survive until the end of the war when the Red Army would free them. At this time, so malnourished that the Russians told them not to eat too much at once, but of course given food and not having eaten in weeks, people ate as much as they could – unfortunately their bodies couldn’t take it and 50 were recorded to have died from “overeating” after liberation.

The multi-layered incomplete underground structure
The multi-layered incomplete underground structure

This learning experience was contrasted with the happy environment of a wedding the following day. A joyous celebration of the union of two Jewish people. Finally, we wandered back to the car via the picturesque main square. A sunny day with lots of tourists, families and children having ice-cream and sweets. Inevitably however, we were reminded of the history just before we reached the car, there was a memorial plaque for the Jews killed in the ghetto of Wrocław during World War II.

The history is incredibly important and necessary to remember, but current life in Poland is as modern as anywhere else in Europe. The Jewish community is unbreakable and we will continue to enjoy such pleasures as weddings. A big Mazaltov to Katka and Sławek!

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 1

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 1

March of the Living is an annual commemorative walk from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland. It’s main purpose (in my view) is to show the world that we (“the Jews”) are still here. The much longer death marches took place in 1945 when the Nazis knew the Russians were close; the purpose then was to remove the Jews from the death camps. Many died on these marches and we march to show that we are still here.

The march has been going for more than 25 years now and this is the 5th Year there has been an official UK delegation, of which there are 200 of us. This trip is not just about the walk, but a week trip to educate the participants about the holocaust as we tour Poland’s historical sites, from the Warsaw ghetto down past Lublin to Majdanek, on to Bełżec and ending in Auschwitz after a visit to Kraków.

Since I have been living in Katowice, Poland for 6 months now I only had to make a short haul internal flight to Warsaw to meet the group. Keen, I got there at 9am and greeted the first groups that came through. A mixture of novices to the holocaust, to people who had even been on the trip before many times.

A strange moment occurred, still in the airport, when a man with a security lanyard came to our group and tried to usher us upstairs and outside. An unfortunate situation with a mainly Jewish group visiting Poland for the purpose of Holocaust learning, being ordered sternly by a foreigner. I (and many others in our group) immediately questioned his credentials as he seemed keen on ushering just the March of the Living Group and not anyone else. He responded with: “it’s an emergency, please go outside”. I, along with many, stood our ground and waited for a proper authority who seemed to suggest we go to the coaches anyway.

Half an hour later, still waiting for my coach group to come through baggage reclaim, there was a realisation of whatever emergency there was and the whole airport was shut down. No-one moving in or out, and the group I was waiting for was still in baggage reclaim. An unfortunate situation but after some patience (and two hours) we continued our journey to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.

Broken headstones that had been returned to the Cemetery
Broken headstones that had been returned to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

The cemetery is filled with many famous Jewish people from before and during the war. The man Korczak ran an orphanage who was given a free pass to leave Poland, but wanted to stay with his children. He was forced to march to his death with them. The man, Zamenhof, who created the language Esperanto to try and alleviate the issues with poor communication is also buried here. There are many more stories, but unfortunately a mass grave is left to commemorate the memory of so many who couldn’t be buried because of space.

We went on to visit a part of the Jewish Ghetto wall and learnt of the stories of the uprising in the ghetto. Following a walking path around where the old ghetto used to be, we saw where the Jews, who knew their fate, decided to stand up and fight back, giving their lives to the uprising in the hope to get some revenge on the inevitable.

We finished with the monument outside of the Museum of Jewish Life, in front of the two sided Rapoport sculpture. We had an interesting discussion about whether it was right to have a memorial day on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, or on the 27th April, the anniversary of the Ghetto uprising in Warsaw.

The Rapoport Monument, on one side a sign of the uprising, on the other, a view of the inevitable death they went to
The Rapoport Monument, on one side a sign of the uprising, on the other, a view of the inevitable death they went to

One represents commemorating the death from the period, e.g. in death camps like Auschwitz; the other representing the fighting spirit of the uprising attempts, e.g. the Warsaw uprising. I contributed to the discussion, saying that there is a time for both and we must not forget the importance of either.

After dinner and “processing” (where we talk about our experiences from the day) I had a good one-on-one chat with the survivor who accompanies our group – Eve. She reminded me there is no quantity to suffering; I reminded her that the most valuable thing that one can do is to educate others, as she is so rightly doing. We thanked each other and wished each other a good night sleep ahead of a long journey to Majdanek tomorrow.

Day 2 – Majdanek >>

Jewish Life in Kraków Poland

Jewish Life in Kraków Poland

After my 2222km, 25 day cycle from London to Auschwitz, which I completed alone and unsupported, I stayed for Shabbat in Kraków, a major city close by in Poland. I visited here a few years ago with my father, cousin and friend in what was a very moving trip. We visited the Auschwitz camp and traced my family roots back to the Ukraine, close to Kiev.

The Kraków Jewish community was extremely welcoming again. Both my girlfriend and I were given a delicious Friday night meal in the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). Here we met many people from Kraków and others who were visiting from all around the world.

I remember my first few weeks at the Cambridge University Jewish Society where some 50-100 people regularly attended Friday night dinners. Each week new people would come up to me: “I don’t think we’ve met, I’m X, what’s your name?”. It didn’t take long before I knew everyone, and the same friendly atmosphere was here in Kraków.

I was asked to talk about my bike ride during their weekly announcements and with the help of a volunteer, it was translated into Polish for everyone. Knowing that Jews like their food, I only gave a brief account of the trip and invited any interested people to talk to me afterwards.

Immediately the Rabbi, Avi Baumol, introduced himself to me. He only recently joined the community but was very interested in my story. A very modern and intelligent man, he understands the people, he quite simply gets it. This Rabbi is a true asset to this community.

I met several full time employees of the JCC, some of whom are not Jewish but started off as volunteers for the experience. There is no prejudice against any form of Judaism or even non-Judaism here. The Rabbi discussed that the key part of this community is not necessarily Judaism, but kindness. This is incredibly forward thinking and leads to an incredible atmosphere.

I also joined the Saturday morning explanatory service with the Rabbi and several members of the Polish community. Speaking in Polish, English, Hebrew (and I think German), we managed to discuss and learn together.

There are many examples of families that have lost a Jewish identity either because of the War or the following communist era. Today, however, there is the opportunity at the JCC to rediscover their heritage, for example some of the students are able to recognise traditions their grandparents or parents had.

There are countless stories that the Rabbi has heard in his short time here so far. Some of the older members of the community casually mention some things that both he and I are astonished by. After the morning service we bumped into Jonathan Ornstein, who runs the whole JCC here. He had just been sitting in a “Children from the Holocaust” lunch where the older lady next to him happened to mention how her mother was hidden in a small hole in a non-Jew’s basement throughout the occupation.

Whilst in Kraków I was advised to take a tour around Schindler’s Factory which has been turned into a museum; I found myself wandering around the exhibition feeling ill from learning about the torture that the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish and Polish people here. Spending almost a month solid learning about these events had taken it’s toll on me. I now understand why many of the older generation don’t like talking about the war.

My bike trip had the purpose of learning about the past and to experience this journey in 2013. What I hadn’t realised is just how important it is to have a thriving community today. The extremely welcoming experience at the JCC in Kraków showed me how it is vital that we look forward. Jewish life here is brilliant, the community is growing and rebuilding. It is important to look back and understand the past, whilst ensuring that we learn from it as we look to the future. This is certainly being achieved here and it was an extremely happy place to end to my journey across Europe.

I would like to thank Jonathan, the Rabbi and everyone else at the community for a tremendous weekend in Kraków. I will no doubt be visiting again soon.

Jonathan and Kasia, myself and Basia
Jonathan and Kasia, myself and Basia

<< DAY 25, KATOWICE TO AUSCHWITZ (OŚWIĘCIM) 42KM TODAY, 2222KM TOTAL

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

My final day on this journey was expectedly unforgettable. Again the weather gods were on my side as I was awoken by the sun shining on my face. I had just over 40km to reach the destination that was still so distant in my mind. I held a strange sense of excitement of reaching the end of the trip, yet knew the day would be filled with sombre emotion.

The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp
The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp

I visited Lvov in the Ukraine earlier this year (by plane) and learnt about more of the mass killings that were carried out throughout the country. Jews were rounded up and shot mercilessly, only to be buried over with no memorial. This happened in almost every town in the Ukraine, where the majority of the population was almost always Jewish before the war, and almost non-existent after. That trip was filled with sad thoughts but I found myself returning home angry. Angry that these things could ever happen in the world (past, present and future).

I found the same anger hit me whilst contemplating the last push on my journey. I screamed reaching the top of hills with sweat dripping down my face. I gave every last bit of my legs to this final day on the bike. I am a lot fitter since the beginning of the trip; I was speeding along at speeds I never thought I would be able to sustain to finish the 2,222 kilometre journey. Gritting my teeth, breathing heavily, heart pounding hard, I pushed through the familiar feeling of pain in my legs.

Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau
Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau

Finally arriving at Auschwitz I was out of anger, I had used it all up. My legs complained to me in agony, but they quickly quietened down when my mind switched to thinking about the victims of this place. 1,500,000 people were killed in this camp. Women and children innocently slaughtered because they could not work for the Nazis. Only the men fit enough to work could extend their torture by weeks or perhaps months, if they were lucky, before malnutrition, disease or an SS guard would end it for them.

Sadness now filled my mind – despite having visited here before, despite having imagined reaching this well known place, despite learning about so much death, torture and tragedy over the past 25 days on my liberation path cycle. My eyes still drowning with emotion uncontrollably.

People from the whole of Europe were brought here in a logistically challenging exercise. On arrival the women, children and elderly were set aside to go straight to the gas chambers to be killed. They were told they were going to have a shower. The men would be determined fit by one man making a split-second decision based solely on appearance.

The Nazis took all possessions from the victims of the camp, even if they were part of the 25% lucky enough to not be killed immediately. Suitcases were searched carefully for any money or valuable items before being sent back to Germany for re-use.

Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here
Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here

Shoes of the dead were stacked high, 40,000 pairs of them were shown in a display cabinet. They were left when the Nazis evacuated. The laces of shoes were taken out for re-use; nothing was left unused. Body hair was removed before the culling in the gas chamber and used for textiles. Gold teeth were pulled out too after death.

Another display showed empty canisters, once containing Cyclone-B pellets that would turn to gas and cause cyanide poisoning to those inside the dark and small room. Pictures all over the museum show disturbing images, including piles of dead, naked bodies that were moved about in the organised mass killings. These pictures taken by the Nazis as they were so keen on documenting everything properly.

The intact gas chamber at Auschwitz is the most emotional place I have visited. I said Kaddish as I stood alone in the room. The same place my father and I had stood several years ago, now I was reciting the same Jewish remembrance prayer. The same place where many innocent people were deceived into thinking they were taking a shower, but were really going to their death by suffocation. It took up to 40 minutes before the guards were sure everyone was killed.

There are many more lessons and stories I can tell. I strongly believe that there is a value about visiting a place like this, it helps you to grow as a person and to understand the world more. There are some things you can’t learn in books. If you can go with family or a loved one then it helps not only to be there together, but also strengthens your bond.

The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz
The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz

Finally we were shown around Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp built to increase the capacity for killing. If you take the Nazi story step by step, you can see how they moved from isolating Jews in ghettos, to moving them to other work camps, to mass killing in this fashion. It did not happen overnight and took years to get to the stage it did.

The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber
The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber

There were many attempts at uprisings but anyone associated was killed. The local people in the town smelt something wrong, they heard rumours about what was going on. They knew. But they were powerless as any of their attempts at resistance were immediately punished with death.

Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau

I lay my tokens next to the main monument: first a British flag which has travelled with me the whole way; sand from the Normandy beaches stormed by British, American and Canadians; dirt from the forests of Verdun where the devastating parts of WWI took place and another fight occurred in WWII; stones from outside the Nuremberg trial rooms where some of the Nazis were sentenced to death; pebbles from the Flossenberg concentration camp where many died due to torturous conditions; and conkers from the Terezin concentration camp where we were warned to walk around the tree – a health and safety rule that we take for granted today but never came into consideration during the war. Finally, I placed a piece of rubble from one of the ruins of the gas chambers here at Auschwitz where many innocent people passed. I will never forget this end to my journey as long as I live.

Final quote

I have finally finished my journey. Being both British and Jewish I have related to the places the British soldiers trod to free the enslaved and tortured Jewish people. I definitely take great pride in being both, especially now.

JEWISH LIFE IN KRAKÓW POLAND