Opinion | Remembering Polish Jewish History


By Rabbi Barry and Amy Blum

“Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a monument and a memorial (yad vashem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 46:5).”

You may recognize this quote found at the entrance of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is the power of memory, the history, the stories and traditions of Polish Jewry, that transcend the Holocaust.

During the month of June, we traveled to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland. In Warsaw, we visited the Polin Museum that describes the history of 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland. The large windows at the entrance enable light to shine in, symbolizing the hope for the future.

In a prominent location, one sees a replica of a bimah where once a Torah was read. This inspirational project, a wooden replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue in Poland, was built by hand with the help of students, volunteers, and staff of the Hand House Studio.

This breathtaking site defines the Jewish passion toward prayer and study, and serves as a reminder with its images of animals and Rabbinic quotes, of the great houses of worship during the era of Polish wooden synagogues. Tragically, the Nazis destroyed all of the 200 former wooden synagogues of Poland.

A few miles away is the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, which houses a special exhibit “What We’ve Been Unable to Shout Out to the World” dedicated to the underground Warsaw Ghetto archives written by Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oneg Shabbat group.

Members of the Oneg Shabbat group met secretly to preserve and tell the story of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto. These archives serve as testimonies of the victims and were preserved by being stored in two, possibly three metal milk crates and canisters buried underground.

For the first time in 70 years, the exhibit presents original documents written by the Oneg Shabbat group. Ringelblum, a historian, wanted every single fact meticulously written. The final request of the victims was, “We have names … Don’t forget us.”

In the city of Krakow, the buildings of the Jewish ghetto and synagogues were not destroyed during the war. The Jews were rounded up and sent to death camps. Today, nearly every building in the ghetto has a plaque and memorial affixed to it.

Krakow was a site used by director Steven Spielberg to film portions of the movie Schindler’s List. The haunting images of Jewish homes looted and shootings, along with the relocation of the Jews of Krakow crossing the still-present bridge to the ghetto and working at the nearby Schindler factory, can all be seen in the film. The film brought the tragic story of the Holocaust to the next generation.

Walking along the streets of Warsaw and Krakow, one can still feel a Jewish presence.

Doorways that once had mezzuzot affixed to the dwellings are gone. However, Mi Polin’s (the first Polish Judaica company since World War II) Aleksander Prugar and Helena Czernek have found impressions on doors where mezzuzot had hung and, from them, made impressions and fashioned bronze casts of mezzuzot from various cities around Poland. It is as if the mystical and spiritual elements of the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, continue to echo in parts of Poland where 3.5 million Jews had lived prior to World War II.

As Elie Wiesel said: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” 

Rabbi Barry Blum is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El–Ner Tamid in Broomall.


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