By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Pilgrimage and commemoration form important components of Jewish travel in eastern and central Europe. In fact, in Poland in particular, few Jews visited in the post-war communist period for any other purpose.
There were -- and still are -- strictly religious pilgrimages to the tombs of great rabbis. These are facilitated now by new infrastructure including kosher food services and accommodation.
Commemorative pilgrimages to death camps and other Holocaust-related sites also still draw thousands of people each year. More than half a million people visit Auschwitz alone. Here too infrastructure has changed radically, enabling the experience to educate about the Shoah and about the Jewish communities that were destroyed, rather than to focus them on mourning and commemoration.
At Auschwitz, among other things, the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which opened in 2000 in the surviving synagogue in the town of Oswiecim, focuses on the life in a town that before World War II was a majority Jewish town.
Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was just an ordinary Polish town known as Oswiecim. The majority of its citizens were Jewish. Generations of merchants, rabbis, doctors, and lawyers raised families here and contributed to a richly textured Jewish culture. Jews worked, married, studied and worshipped, cared for their families, and served the community. The tragedy of Holocaust suddenly ended the centuries-old Jewish life of the town.The Center's current exhibition is on Jewish survivors from Oswiecim who now live in Israel.
The Center facilities include the Jewish Museum, Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, and Education Center. The Center’s exhibitions and programs are open to visitors and students from around the world. Dedicated to public education, the Center’s programs teach about the richness of pre-war Jewish life in Oswiecim and build awareness of the dangers of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and the other forms of intolerance.
New forms of commemorative pilgrimage increasingly involve bridge-building between Jews and local Poles.
The filmmaker Menachem Daum led such a trip last month -- accompanying a group of students and two Holocaust survivors from Lost Angeles to Dzialoszyce, Poland, where they commemorated Holocaust victims but also met with local students and town officials.
On May 15th, 2009 a group of Jewish high school seniors from the Shalhevet School in Los Angeles, accompanied by two Holocaust survivors, were greeted in Dzialoszyce by Polish students and teachers from the local high school as well as by students from Krakow's Jagiellonian University. The group marched together to the ruins of the town's once magnificent synagogue where they were addressed in Polish by one of the survivors. They also learned that the synagogue had housed a voluntary kitchen that the community operated with great sacrifice in order to keep thousands from starving during the Nazi occupation. The town's Mayor greeted the group and promised to shore up the synagogue ruins so they do not collapse. The group also paid their respects at the monument near the mass grave of over 1,500 Jews shot during the deportation on September 3rd, 1942. Finally, the group ascended the hill to the Jewish cemetery. Although there are no longer any tombstones or a wall, this site is sacred because of the thousands of Dzialoszyce Jews buried there. The final prayers of the Jews of Dzialoszyce at this cemetery were recalled and the shofar was again sounded, as it had been 67 earlier. The ceremony ended with Poles and Jews affixing symbolic tombstones to the trees that now cover the cemetery .
Menachem posted the following video on Youtube:
The synagogue still stands crumbling, and physically it all looks much the same. But what a difference in attitude this represents from the first time I visited Dzialozyce, in 1990. I wrote about that visit in the New York Times in October of that year in my first major article about Jewish travel in Poland, "Visiting the Vestiges of Jewish Poland."
An elderly woman, her face as brown and wrinkled as a walnut, approached us one day last June as we stood gazing at the yawning roofless wreck that was once the synagogue in Dzialoszyce, a sleepy village 30 miles or so northeast of Cracow in southern Poland.Read full article
''Do you speak Jewish?'' she asked in Polish, and mumbled a few words of Yiddish.
It's been a long time, she apologized; she's forgotten almost everything she knew of the language.
The woman came with us - three Americans and two Polish experts on synagogue architecture - as we inspected the battered masonry shell. Children lounging around a bumper car and video arcade in front of the ruin stared as we passed; a few of them joined us, too.
Built in 1852 according to a neo-classical design by Felicjan Frankowski, the synagogue is an impressive monument to the destruction of a people.
Before the Holocaust, Dzialoszyce was a Jewish town: in 1939, 7,000 of its 10,000 inhabitants were Jews. The synagogue would have been magnificent, with its tall arched windows and sculpted outer decorations. But all that remains of a frescoed interior is a few patches of flaking blue paint.
Later, the old woman and the children escorted us beyond the edge of the village, to the site of the Jewish cemetery, destroyed by the Nazis. A simple white monument, erected Sept. 1, 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, commemorates the thousands of Jews who were slaughtered here in mass graves or deported to Nazi death camps.
''I used to work for the rabbi here before the war,'' the old woman confided. ''I will never forget what he told me. He said that when the birds go away from here, the Jews will go away too. One year, there were no birds. And after that . . .''