A Holocaust study tour is powerful and timely

by | Aug 11, 2022 | Trending News

The group that traveled to Poland.

The trip started with a crazy coincidence.

I have been director of the Holocaust Commission for 12 years, and was a volunteer for the previous 10. After working with educators, the Virginia Department of Education, and the public on Holocaust education for 22 years, I decided it was time to put boots on the ground where much of the history happened and travel to Poland.

I traveled with a group of educators and center supporters from the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, a wonderful small museum founded by the survivors and their children in that area. The first evening as we gathered in a Warsaw hotel and introduced ourselves, a gregarious man named Ron Friedman asked me where I was from.


“Where in Virginia?” he asked.

“Norfolk,” I said, figuring, that like most West Coasters, he would end the inquiry there. Instead, he said, “I’m from Norfolk,” and asked, “What school did you go to?”

When I said, “Norfolk Academy,” he said, “I did too!”

A lightbulb went off in my head, as the Commission has been working to publish a second edition to the 2002 volume To Life: Stories of Courage and Survival, a volume of stories of Hampton Roads survivors, liberators, and rescuers. “You’re Herb Friedman’s son, aren’t you?!” I said, connecting the dots having recently edited survivor Herbert Friedman’s story for the new book, and knowing he had a son in Seattle. Though we were two of the three Jews on the trip of 19 people, the usual Jewish Geography ensued. Of course, we knew people in common.

Thus started a powerful, enlightening, and emotional Holocaust study tour that took us up and down central Poland, engaging our minds in not only the history, but also the culture of a country that has been home to Jews since years had only three digits.

We stayed in Bialystok, Warsaw, and Krakow, with excursions to major and minor Holocaust sites. The highlights (some of which represent the lowlights of humanity) follow. One day in particular stands out.

After seeing several monuments to Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, we saw a gravestone for him on our morning visit to the site of the Treblinka death camp. Korczak has been described as the “Dr. Spock of Poland,” having written parenting books in the early 20th century. He also established an orphanage where he practiced his philosophy of raising children with love and respect. During the war, he tried to keep “his children” safe in the Warsaw Ghetto, but it became impossible. Though he was offered safe passage out of Warsaw by the Red Cross, he chose to stay with his charges, and went to his death with them at Treblinka. While the Nazis completely destroyed Treblinka, there is a museum on the site, as well as a commemorative monument and a large representation of a cemetery on the vast grounds, next to the ever-present railroad tracks that brought Jews to their deaths. While there are huge stones engraved with the names of the countries and cities whose citizens died there, Korczak is the only person with his name on a marker. It was at that site where I led my first kaddish of what would be four that day.

From Treblinka, we visited the town of Stoczek for a more uplifting experience. There we met the last surviving member of the Stys family, Righteous Gentiles who saved several Jews, including Sam and Esther Goldberg. Sam was one of the 65 known survivors among the nearly 900,000 victims of Treblinka, and he found himself in the Stys barn after he escaped Treblinka in a rare prisoner uprising. Eugeniusz Stys, 86, is the last living of this family of the righteous. Among other duties, it was his job as a teenager to stealthily put food for Sam and Esther in a dog bowl outside the family’s barn, for them to sneak out of their hiding place in the forest to pick up the only rations they did not have to forage for. He and his wife welcomed us in their modest home, and shared, through a translator, some reflections on the time, and what their actions have meant to them over the years. (You can find this story in the book My Soul is Filled with Joy by Karen Treiger, the Goldbergs’ daughter-in-law). The fact that there are still people in their town who don’t like it when people come in and honor them for helping Jews when their lives were at risk made us wonder if perhaps not much has changed? That said, he told us, sometimes with tears in his eyes, that they did it because it was the right thing to do. This is exactly what we hear in the What We Carry film of Dame Mary Barraco, local rescuer who died in 2019. We need to celebrate these heroes whenever and wherever we can.

When we left the emotional high of Stoczek, we visited Tykocin, a small town in northeastern Poland. There, on August 24, 1941, the Nazi occupiers of the town, with the help of the local Polish police, rounded up and murdered all but a few of the town’s 1,400 Jews and buried them in three pits that local youth had dug for the purpose in a nearby forest. Before the war, Tykocin had been about 50% Jewish, and we visited the synagogue building that still stands near the town square where the Jews were rounded up. It is now a museum with no congregation. Our guide mentioned that the only people who visit this town these days are Jews (from Israel, Europe, and the USA) and those on Holocaust study trips. The town is like a ghost town, and we wondered what the inhabitants did now, since most of their craftspeople and many professionals were murdered in the war. As we left the building, we could feel the stares of the few visible townspeople, sitting on their porches, and it was not just Ron and me who could sense the antisemitism in the air. We could not leave fast enough. On our way out of town, we visited the forest site where the Jews of Tykocin perished. I said kaddish another three times, once over each pit where their remains rested. I got back on the bus in a state of emotional exhaustion. It had been a LONG day!

No Holocaust study tour of Poland would be complete without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. We had a full day for this, with the morning at Auschwitz I, where the most familiar image is the ironic sign at the entrance saying, ”Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free.” Honestly, there are no words that can describe a visit to Auschwitz. The horror and systematic inhumanity speaks for itself. In the afternoon, we visited Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau. This is the site of the iconic brick railway gate. I was unaware until this trip that the rail line to Birkenau was built in 1944 as a spur from the regular tracks to the Polish town of Osweicim. It was constructed specifically to accommodate what the Nazis knew would be a large influx of Hungarian Jews, whom they were trying frantically to exterminate in the last throes of a war they were then badly losing.

The visit was intensified by the fact that on our trip were two sisters whose grandmother had been imprisoned at Block 3 at Birkenau. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for these fellow travelers that was different from that of the rest of us, but we made it our job to care for them as best we could on this difficult day. I said kaddish three more times that afternoon, in front of three imploded crematoria. The third time I recited it, the words “drop in the bucket” kept going through my mind. Having had my own father’s yahrzeit while on the trip, and saying kaddish for one loved one, I just kept wondering, how does one say kaddish for 1.1 million people? What I was doing was a mere drop in a bucket that could never be filled.

Sometimes it feels better to DO something than to SEE something. Such was the afternoon we spent clearing part of the Jewish cemetery of Jedwabne. On July 10, 1941, the residents of the small town of Jedwabne killed 340 of their Jewish neighbors, over 300 of them locked in a barn that was set on fire. Little was known about this heinous pogrom until 2001, when Jan T. Gross published his book Neighbors. As the anniversary of this massacre approached, our group, armed with sunscreen, bug spray, loppers, weed whackers, and work gloves, attacked the overgrown plot that had been the Jewish cemetery in the town before the massacre. For many of my fellow travelers, this was the highlight of the trip, because we were accomplishing something that we felt needed to be done, out of respect for those who had died senselessly, who would have been the ones to keep this sacred space from becoming the overgrown mess (in no way resembling a cemetery) that it has become. At the annual memorial held there this July 10, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, told our partner from Forum for Dialogue who arranged and led our effort, that he was surprised to see such a clean cemetery. We felt even more validated for our efforts.

When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, one third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish. Warsaw is now a bustling metropolitan city with very few Jews, but the Old Town—reconstructed from the ruins left by the Nazis to resemble the images captured by the early 18th century Venetian painter Giovanni Canaletto—gives a flavor of what life was like from the 18th to mid-20th centuries. A 21st century addition to Old Town was the installation of two destroyed Russian tanks in front of the reconstructed Royal Castle, on the banks of the Vistula River. They had been destroyed by Ukrainian forces and were in place to help raise awareness and funds for the besieged country that has sent millions of its women and children across Poland’s borders for safety during this war. The comparisons of the current war in Ukraine to World War II cannot be avoided in Poland. The population of Warsaw increased by 20% in the war’s first month, and they speak not of “refugees,” but of “guests.”

One of the trip’s most powerful experiences  was our meeting with five Ukrainian mothers and their children. All had fled their home country after Russia attacked it in February. They’d had to leave the children’s fathers behind, as men are not allowed to leave the country. One story was more heartbreaking than the next. One example: Diana from Bucha talked of the loud explosions on February 24. She told us (again, through a translator) that there was fighting 500 meters from her house, and bombings went on morning and night for two weeks. She and her toddler son stayed in their building’s basement with no water or electricity. She had some sausage and cookies for her son to eat once their fresh food stores were quickly gone. She said her husband and older son risked their lives staying upstairs, out of the basement, in case the building was bombed and collapsed, and they needed to pull her and her younger child out. Imagine making that choice?

Eventually she knew they had to leave, and she “packed in 30 seconds, grabbing the stroller and some diapers.” While the Russian soldiers would not help them, she told us she was grateful to them for not shooting them in the back as they left. On March 15, after they had been taken in by a lovely Polish woman, Diana heard that their apartment building had been completely destroyed. She ended her story with (in translation) “We have no place to go back to. I hope no other country has to go through this.” We all saw what happened in Bucha later, as it was one of the sites of the alleged war crimes committed by the Russian soldiers.

It was like a modern day incarnation of our What We Carry program, as these women literally left their homes, some carrying young children, and the only suitcase they could manage. Like Holocaust survivors from our community and others, they told stories of bribing soldiers with cigarettes to allow them to pass; long trips on bombed out roads, hiding from those who would do them harm, simply because of who they were. At the end of our time together, the children presented us with drawings they had made while their mothers shared their stories. Young children drew tanks firing at each other, soldiers shooting people, bodies in pools of blood, Ukrainian flags, and slogans of war. Unspeakably heartbreaking. This meeting elicited a great deal of emotion and dedication to help in our group of educators, because it was apparent that the toys and snacks we had brought for the children from the U.S. were nice, but also, “a drop in the bucket.” There is so much more that needs to be done.

My group, still connected via What’sApp and referred to by our tour leader as “our Polish family,” has decided we want to do more. At the time of this writing, we are working with the woman who arranged our meeting with these “guests” on a proposal for a Ukrainian Children’s Center or support group. There, some of these children, lucky to be in Warsaw, can meet and socialize, learn the language, receive toys or school supplies, and simply relax while they worry about their future and their families in Ukraine facing unknown hardships. Those who are interested in possibly supporting such an effort if it materializes, should contact me personally, at elenabaum64@yahoo.com.

The work of the Holocaust Commission, educating students of all ages about the lessons of the Holocaust, which the world continues to ignore all too often, must continue. Please consider supporting the Commission throughout the year at https://holocaustcommission.jewishva.org/home-page/white-rose.

-Elena Barr Baum