Today we continued our quest to find out more about Jewish life in the area, as well as learning about the culture of the Polish Highlanders, the mountain people of the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane.
Our first stop on our journey south of Krakow was the small town of Rabka Zdroj, a spa resort town that has been a source of fresh air for people suffering from lung ailments for more than a century. Before the war, there was a Jewish community living here in part of the city; however, during the war the Gestapo took over part of a convent and used it as a school for interrogation training. Their practice came from torturing Jews to death, then throwing the bodies out behind the convent building. Some of the nuns here, at great personal risk, drug the bodies uphill to a remote wooded area where they buried the bodies as best as possible given the circumstances.
We walked through the damp, cold grass beside the convent, uphill through the woods on a barely distinguishable path. Now a memorial and fence surrounds the area of burial, and a memorial marker reads: “In honor of the martyrs who dies at the hand of Hitlerites 1941-1942.”
Shalmi told us that this place represents both the depths to which society can sink, evidenced by the Gestapo using Jews for torturous interrogation practice; and the heights to which society can rise, evidenced by the nuns risking their lives to properly bury the Jewish bodies.
We continue by bus up into the Tatra mountains to Zakopane, where we enjoy a delicious Polish meal and buying souvenirs from the local vendors.
On our way back to Zakopane, Shalmi told us the story of his childhood in Poland, where his father served as the Israeli ambassador to Poland. Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Shalmi and his family moved to Warsaw in 1954, where he lived “a privileged life” compared to most Poles. He attended a school for diplomats with American students and here learned the English language. The Poles struggled to make a life in Warsaw a city in ruins hidden by elaborate facades depicting painted buildings, some even with window boxes of flowers painted on them. Here is where Shalmi learned about being Jewish, something he wasn’t even cognizant of as a child in Israel.
When he was 13, he was the first person to have his Bar Mitzvah in the only remaining synagogue in Warsaw. He assumed that no one would come because there were very few Jews here. However, he and his family were surprised when they arrived to a synagogue packed with Jews from all over Poland who came to see the Israeli boy read from the Torah. After reciting from the Torah, his father pushed him into the crowd, where Shalmi said people touched him and kissed their fingers, as if he were a holy object like the Torah carried throughout the synagogue for Simchat Torah. For these people who had survived the Holocaust, Shalmi represented hope and new life for the Jewish people of Poland.
Although he is not certain if this is why he became a Holocaust scholar, spending his formative years in Warsaw changed him. We are thankful that he has been with us throughout our Holocaust Study Tour 2014. We all hugged him when he left us this evening at our hotel, thanking him for teaching us so well.
Today we learned of the story of bravery by the nuns of Rabjka Convent where they strived to give a proper burial to the Jewish people that were tortured ad used as guinea pigs by the Nazis. We climbed the mountain to visit the cemetery and to see for ourselves the dangers the nuns went through to insure last rights to the murdered people.
Today we visited a cemetery that had an incredible background. At a monastery in Rabjka on our way to Zakopane we visited a burial site in which the nuns gave Jews killed by the Nazis in the town proper Jewish burial. It was very moving to know that the nuns made the effort to give these people a burial. This showed the true humanity and bravery of these nuns.
Over the past two days I have learned a lot about people. From the reconstruction of the synagogue to Dabrowna Tarnoska, to the bravery of the nuns in Rabjka, I saw the height of humanity as a response to humanity’s lowest point and that people are capable of doing what is right.
The past few days have days have been unlike anything I could have expected. Mr. Barmore has taught us more than I can even process in such a short period of time. Today we visited a mass grave in Rabjka in which the nuns of the convent gave the Jews killed by the Nazis a proper burial. This showed me a glimmer of hope during a very dark period in history and that it is possible that humanity can respond properly in such circumstances.
Today I found it compelling that a group of Catholic nuns gave the Jews killed in their convent in Rabjka a proper Jewish burial. Visiting this cemetery and mass grave caused me to admire these nuns greatly because they defied evil with humanity. I learned that even during such dark times, humanity is possible.
Yesterday we travelled to Tarnow and we saw the ruins of the synagogue that had been burned by the Nazis in 1939. This stood out to me because Mr. Barmore said how they would hold concerts and events now near the bima ruins. This showed me how Poland today is capable of acknowledging and preserving Jewish heritage.
Seeing the cemetery today in Rabjka in which the nuns of the convent gave the murdered Jews a proper burial made me realize how much these nuns risked to honor these victims. Their heroism was not lost on me and I will always remember this very powerful place.
Visiting the hidden Jewish cemetery today, made me realize what true respect and humanity is. Learning about how the nuns risked their lives to gather the bodies of the dead Jews and give them a proper burial was eye-opening. It proved to me that no matter how awful or low people can fall, there will always be others to rise to the occasion and do what is right.
I found the Galicia museum in Krakow very intriguing. I really liked how it showed pictures of past and present Jewish life in Galicia. The picture of the missing mezuzah on a door post especially impacted me. The museum displayed Jewish places of disrespect, murder, and dilapidation; however the museum did a really great job of showing monuments to perished Jews, renovated synagogues, and memorials.
In the past couple days I have witnesses the preservation of Jewish heritage in small Polish towns, whose Jewish populations were decimated during the Holocaust. In Tarnow, which used to be 45% Jewish, they have preserved the bima of the old synagogue that the Nazis had destroyed in 1939. It now proudly stands as a testament to the once-thriving Jewish quarter there, a reminder that the Nazis ultimately failed in their attempt to erase the influential presence of Jewish life in Europe.
I thought that the cemetery that we had visited today had a very powerful story. . The nuns of the monastery nearby had preserved and buried the bodies of the murdered Jewish people who were killed by the Nazis. It is a powerful story that they would be so respectful of these people’s lives to properly bury them out of respect.
Today walking through the woods to visit the “hidden” Jewish cemetery in Rabka, gave me some thought as to why it was hidden in the woods. Just knowing that not many people know or even care about this cemetery is heartbreaking because it was part of a history and a big part of the survivors of the Holocaust. People may not care but just before you know it history can repeat itself.
Today I witnessed the place where the Christian nuns left a nameless mass grave for the tortured Jews which left me awestruck for the compassion and caring for others that the nuns had shown. The selfless acts were an amazing thing just for the pure fact that they had done it without anyone asking them to do so and without the proper knowledge of a Jewish funeral. They gave a proper resting place to the murdered Jews just out of the goodness of their hearts.
During yesterday’s visit to the museum about Pope John Paul II, I liked how he was in theater and the arts before switching majors to theology, which eventually led him to becoming the pope. I, too, am interested in a lot of different things, particularly the arts, and the fact that he was so successful, despite completely changing his mind due to his liking of a myriad of activities and ideas was inspiring.
Yesterday we visited a restored synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska. This synagogue stood out to me because it shows how the some members of the Polish community are recognizing and honoring the history of the Jewish people in Poland. What that means to me is that people are remembering the past and learning from it rather than forgetting it.