Tonight I am a long way from home. My son and I are in Warsaw, Poland, visiting my grandfather’s homeland, and while it has been a trip of many joys I don’t have words for what we saw today or what I feel now.
In the wind and snow and rain, we explored the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the Second World War, the Nazis confined 450,000 Jews in one small part of the city.
The Nazis killed at least 300,000 of the Ghetto’s residents. Many died by starvation, others were shot or burned, and the Nazi occupiers transported many more to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Today we visited a memorial marking the place where Nazi troops loaded hundreds of thousands of Jews onto the trains to the death camps.
We toured the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that is in the area that was the Warsaw Ghetto.
We also visited a memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
During the Uprising, thousands of Jews took up small arms and Molotov cocktails and did battle against the German army. They had decided that they would rather die fighting than wait for their end in the death camps.
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Several of our Polish friends told us that we should also visit the Jewish Cemetery.
According to our friends, the Nazis, enemies of remembering, reduced the cemetery to rubble.
Our Polish friends said that you can still see piles of rubble in the cemetery that once were gravestones.
They told us that forest and bramble have overtaken even many of the graves that were reconstructed after the war.
Not enough Jews were left to tend the graves. Not enough husbands or wives remained to look after their loved ones’ graves, and not enough children were left to grow up and take their turn.
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The other night we had dinner with a woman who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto when she was a child.
I tried to imagine what she had experienced. She was only a young girl alone in Warsaw’s streets, and German troops were everywhere.
She was fortunate: she found a Christian family that allowed her to masquerade as one of their children. If she had been discovered, the Nazis, of course, would have killed them all.
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The exhibits at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews have haunted my thoughts all day.
One of the exhibits quoted a young man’s diary from the Warsaw Ghetto in December 1939.
At night I read a lot, constantly envying all the heroes of my novels because they lived in different times.
The young man’s name was Adam Czerniakow. I wondered, what had young Adam witnessed, and what had happened to him, that he would write something like that in a diary?
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Another museum exhibit described a long walk made by the children from the Orphans’ House at 16 Sienna St. through the Ghetto’s streets.
The children went silently, carrying blankets, walking hand-in-hand… led by Dr. Korczak, a stooped, aging man.
That is a quote from Vladka Meed, one of the Ghetto’s inhabitants.
Like Jewish orphans all over the city, the children from the Orphans’ House at 16 Sienna St. were headed to the site of their deportation to a death camp.
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At the museum, we also saw exhibits about the struggles of the Warsaw Ghetto’s residents to be remembered.
One of the museum’s exhibits featured a group that secretly chronicled life in the Ghetto.
Led by a Jewish historian named Emanuel Ringelblum, writers, historians, social workers, rabbis and others collected diaries, took testimonies, and gathered posters, paintings and other documents.
Under the code name Oyneg Shabes, they did this between September 1939 and January 1943.
According to the museum’s exhibit, on August 3, 1942, a teacher named Izrael Lichtensztajn and his pupils buried ten metal boxes in the cellar of their school at 68 Nowolipi Street.
A few months later, two more containers, metal milk cans, were buried in the same place. They then bricked up the hiding place.
The metal boxes and milk containers contained a large part of Oyneg Shabes’ archives.
It was a gesture of fragile, breathless hope. They hoped in the possibility that some of the Oyneg Shabes volunteers might survive (three did) and return to those hiding places after the war.
Or, if they did not survive, they prayed that somebody else might one day discover the archives so that the world would remember what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto.
As the German forces began to raze the Ghetto, one of Izrael Lichtensztajn’s pupils, David Graber, wrote of the moment that they buried the boxes:
What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground….
He knew that they did not have much time. He wrote:
Neighboring street besieged. We are all feverish. We prepare for the worst. We hurry.
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After the war, two large caches of Oyneg Shabes’ archives were recovered, six thousand documents in all. They are preserved at the Jewish Historical Institute here in Warsaw. Another is still missing.
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The secret archive of Oyneg Shabes is one of the most important collections documenting the Holocaust—the story of the genocide told by the victims themselves.
But here in Warsaw, it was hardly the only archives. The insides of walls, garden beds, cracks in brick chimneys, loose cobblestones in sidewalks—in a way, they all became archives.
In those makeshift archives, whether they were metal milk containers or cigar boxes, the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto hid diaries, family photographs, love letters, children’s artwork.
You cannot walk the streets of this beautiful city, so full of music and poetry, and not wonder what memories lay hidden beneath your feet.