09 November 2016

I made the worst decision to check my phone when I woke up at 3:00. After I read that Trump was gaining on Hillary I tried futilely to fall asleep. The rest of the night was a tense haze.

Broke the news to Dad around 7:30. I went to the gym and ran as I watched Trump give his victory speech. The anger and despair made for a very powerful run, which did not make the rest of the day any more bearable as I had hoped it would.

I felt frankly embarrassed as I’d promised so many friends and relatives that a Trump win was impossible- he’d marginalized too many people and our country had made too much progress in terms of social awareness to elect such a hateful demagogue who uses the vocabulary and grammar of a spoiled toddler. Needless to say, it did not help that our day was spent tracing the history of Jews in Warsaw, focused on their utter annihilation at the hands of a hateful demagogue who campaigned on making Germany great again at the expense of minorities.

Our personal tour guide was Pawel, he said we could call him Paul. Paul led us to his car under a light snow in a dense fog. He kindly took us to a French cafe where we bought breakfast before starting the tour. He pointed out a nearby Soviet complex and explained that it was quickly built with practicality in mind so as to house those who lost their homes during the war. I’d never considered that to be the reason for the consistent hideousness of Soviet structures.

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We started our tour at the only standing fragment of the ghetto wall.

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In the early 20th century, Jews accounted for over 90% of Warsaw with a population of over 800,000. It was then the second largest Jewish community in the world after New York City. By the eve of the Holocaust the Jewish population had shrunk by almost half due to emigration. The Jews that remained made up the vast majority of the ghetto, the rest were shipped there from around the region.

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Our next stop was the Okopowa Street Cemetery, one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world with over 200,000 interred. It was established in 1806, only a decade after Jews were given the right to resettle in Warsaw. They had lived there since the late 14th century, but were exiled in 1526 until Prussia gained control as a result of the Partition of 1795.

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Unfortunately we had only twenty minutes to browse as it was to close soon. Paul showed us some highlights though, including what he believed to be one of the most ornate monuments with reliefs on either side depicting psalms.

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He pointed out the grave of Ludwik Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto whose roots we explored in Bialystok.

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Near the gate we found a memorial to the hundreds of Jewish children murdered while trying to smuggle food and other essential goods through the cemetery into the ghetto.

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Another monument commemorated Janusz Korczak, the author, doctor, and director of an orphanage in Warsaw who given the option to either stay in Warsaw or go with his orphans to Treblinka Death Camp chose the latter. He was murdered there in 1942.

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From the cemetery we took a brief dip into the only synagogue to survive the war. The Nozyk Synagogue was built in 1898 by successful Jewish merchants Zalman and Rebecca Nozyk.

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Whereas the Great Synagogue (largest in the world at time of construction in 1878) served the progressive community, the Nozyk synagogue served the traditional.

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Weekly services are not held there, rather it is used on special occasions. I was quite frustrated with the extensive amount of time that Paul took at each site, there was so much else to see.

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The Jewish community administration was based in a building nearby that also houses a Jewish theater and Jewish restaurants.

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With that we traveled to the Footbridge of Memory, which once connected the ‘big ghetto’ from the ‘small ghetto’.

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Organized in 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto took up a large central chunk of the city. The smaller portion housed elites and intellectuals.

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Our last stop was the Umschlagplatz monument.

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It marked the platform where 300,000 Jews were herded into train cars for transit to their death in gas chambers.

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Paul kindly dropped us off back at the Polin Museum before parting ways. He’d often come up short with answers to my questions about Jewish history, and often said things that I knew to be blatantly inaccurate. He did however seem to command a decent understanding of the Holocaust in Warsaw.

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We grabbed a quick lunch and then started our tour. The museum opened in 2013 with the mission of preserving and sharing the history of Jews in Poland. The exhibit was organized in a relatively chronological order, but didn’t exactly offer a historical narrative. Rather, each section focused on specific aspects of Jewish society in that era.

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The exhibit naturally began with the migration of Jews to Poland from Germany, where they had formed a pigeon language between Hebrew and German known as Yiddish. There was a brief overview of the various edicts issued by Polish and Lithuanian monarchs that welcomed Jews to settle.

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Other sections discussed Jewish printing, the Khmelnitsky Massacre, shtetl-life, Hassidism etc.

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The crown jewel of the museum was a replica of the colorful Gwozdziec Synagogue, built in 1640 and destroyed by the Nazis.

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My favorite exhibit discussed the Yiddishist movement of the interwar period, in particular their cultural output of films, newspapers, art, music, novels, poetry. There was also an extensive Holocaust exhibit and overview of Jewish life in post-war Poland that Dad and I had to rush through.

Just outside stands the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place in April of 1943 soon after 265,000 Jews were deported to their deaths over the course of a few months. An armed struggle was organized by those remaining, which resulted in the deaths of 300 Nazis and 13,000 Jews. The ghetto was burned, culminating in the destruction of the Great Synagogue. The monument was created by the renowned sculptor and Warsaw native Nathan Rapoport only five years after the uprising took place.

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Around 7:30 we took a taxi back to the hotel. Our driver emphatically proclaimed his hatred for Germans among other flamboyant diatribes. Dad appreciated his openness so very much that he asked to shake his hand before we exited. It turns out the fifty zloty bill that he gave us in change has not been in circulation for decades.

Blogged a bit at the hotel before heading to dinner. The restaurant was lovely and the food was delicious. Dad asked the waiter for a photograph, we got a photoshoot.

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Walked back to the hotel and blogged a bit more before falling asleep.

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