Taking one of the nicest trains I’ve been on for the fairly short journey from Krakow to Warsaw was pleasant. Leaving Krakow I was having some pretty strong feelings about Poland and intrigued by what my experience in Warsaw would be.
Upon arrival there is an immediate difference even in just the type of city it is. A biggish city, with tall buildings and many lanes of roads and these pretty smart underground pass through for crossing massive intersections. There are tons of newish buildings and open spaces in Warsaw because the city was destroyed in the Second World War. So while in some of the other places I’ve been, there were ghettos and buildings damaged on different levels, Warsaw was really destroyed.
A unique thing about one of my first stops, the JCC in Warsaw, is its ground floor. It’s not a huge building but the ground floor has the feeling of a coffee shop, or co-working space. Welcoming and as if you almost don’t realize what happens in the building. On three levels there is a Sunday school, an all ages “university” with interesting classes and speakers coming in each week to teach lifelong learners on current and relevant Jewish topics, yoga classes, camp planning and more. The highlight of the week, and one of my highlights was attending their Boker Tov brunch on Sunday. It was this beautiful brunch served family style at long tables where parents of students in Sunday school, hipsters, the young and old, all enjoy a beautiful meal together, with people waiting to get in.
How do you build community?
It has to start from somewhere, and this is one of the places. It’s a low barrier entry for people who are discovering that they are Jewish and trying to understand what that means. The JCCs in these communities often serve as a place for someone to start when they discover they have Jewish roots. They walk in and sort of say, now what? One of the staff, says she often greets people who are having this experience. That is one of the questions I’m really struggling with. When you’ve lived your whole life, or most of your life not knowing this piece of your identity, what does it mean? Where do you start, at what point does it become part of your identity? How can you engage with it? Once you learn the history of these people who are apparently your people, how do you deal? These are questions many of these communities must grapple with.
But on the Sunday I was there, I witnessed the spark of an opportunity with someone asking to start an Israeli folk dancing group and when would there be space. Inspiration from casual conversation. I also met the artist and woman behind an initiative to display a digital image of the old synagogue in Warsaw that was burned down on the current high-rise building standing in its space, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. Check out here for more info, or watch last year's here.
Jewish Historical Museum
I visited the Jewish Historical Institute. This was an afternoon well spent. While not a huge museum, it was a fascinating story to understand, covering the Ringleblum Archives. A very brief background on this museum is it shares the archives that were created by a diverse group of Jews who were in the Warsaw ghetto, and met each week to document different aspects of life and what was happening from 1939 – 1944. If you haven’t heard of it, look it up, it’s a fascinating story. Even more so to understand that someone had the forethought to record their stories so that the future would know what happened. These were people who witnessed the end, who slipped their notes with their deepest thoughts into the documents in the final moments of their lives.
The depth of knowledge that comes from an exhibit like this is incredible. For me it also is a living piece of L’dor V’Dor, “generation to generation”. That connective piece that keeps stories and history alive. Each one of the names of the people involved is a name of someone we know, someone we could’ve known. While the majority of these people or their families did not survive, I do feel this interesting connection to be part of the voice to carry it on to the next generations, this was their legacy, as a voice so many without. No matter what your religion, culture, or history, it’s also a reminder of the importance of making sure to share stories, and to write.
The other must visit in Warsaw is the Polin museum. I’ll echo literally every person who I talked to prior to going. Leave yourself lots of time. It’s almost too much. But this museum documents the history of the Jews in Poland, going back hundreds of years. It is interactive with what feels like a zillion things to read. If you are going, I’d probably give you some highlights of where to spend time, but seriously it’s pretty amazing. I’d definitely go back. Another reminder of the depth of the history of the Jews in Poland and surrounding areas.
I attended services at two synagogues in Warsaw. The “reform” service, which looks more like a typical American conservative synagogues service, and one at the only still standing shul, from the War which was an orthodox service. Again I have lots of thoughts, but I’ll share one or two takeaways.
The amount of choice in how to "do Jewish" or which services to attend in these cities is very different than the choices we have in at least medium to large Jewish communities in the states. Additionally, even if you are Jewish, or you find out you are Jewish it doesn’t mean that you are immediately – or ever, religious, and even if you want to be, you have to start from scratch. You haven’t been taught songs, or prayers, or the like. It adds those layers again. And again brings up these questions around what does it mean to be Jewish, to have an identity that you don’t really know what it means aside from people have killed your ancestors, and your own parents/grandparents hid their identities for years out of fear, or necessity.
Warsaw has a beautiful old town, tons of vegan restaurants, some great parks (one I wished I had discovered earlier, I only found it on a run), and many options for public transportation.
How am I?
In Warsaw I also started to feel a little bit overwhelmed. At some point, it can be too much to process. We’ll find this in my Riga reflections as well, I am immersing myself in these topics I’m learning about: Jewish communities, Jewish identity, often in these cities with rich histories, Jewish history. It's a lot. I’ve given myself a pass on some days, or sometimes to wander a little, or just check out a bit. Warsaw some of this hit me, for no other reason than I think it was just that point in the trip.
Upon leaving Poland, I decided is that it’s an incredible place. Much as you read in the Krakow piece, I have lots of questions. Aside from that I think there is an enormous amount to learn. I told most all of the people I met in Poland, in both cities, that I feel like I’ll be back. I’m not sure why, when, for what reason, or if it’ll be this year. But something about the country moved me. It might be a little bit cliché, but it’s what I got.
Also, I promise I am trying to take more pictures. I just am not great at uploading them :)