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Photo Journal and Report on My First Trip to Poland and Lithuania, May 25 - June 9, 2005

by Rochelle G. Saidel

The March of the Dead,  A Trip to Nothing


Wednesday, May 25

            The journey into the land of the dead began on Wednesday, May 25, when I arrived in Warsaw on an El Al plane filled with living Israelis. I took a taxi to the central train station, and met Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth and her husband, and we were soon off to Krakow. We went in a first class no-smoking car, and I could not help thinking that these same tracks toward Krakow took countless Jews toward Birkenau under very different conditions. I wondered if some of the houses along the track were in place at that time. Meanwhile, the lilacs were in full bloom and the countryside was in its best spring glory.  All in all, it was still eerie for this Jew to be on a train going through the Polish countryside toward Krakow

             We stayed at the Jagellonian University Guesthouse, in the center of Krakow's historic old town. We were in the shadow of the part of the old city wall that stands on this side of the city, and almost at the famous medieval city square. I wonder if the Jews of Krakow observed Shushan Purim.

The market square is medieval in its original state, with an ancient cathedral (which I meant to enter but somehow never did), a guild hall that now has souvenir shops, and outdoor flower stalls filling the square. Horse-drawn buggies, a tower, cafes and restaurants are all around—a combination that has become too touristy but has authentic old Europe ambiance.


            We went to Kazimierz, which is also touristy, but with a Jewish theme. In this former Jewish section of the city there are now no Jews, but there are Jewish hotels and restaurants, quite a number of synagogues (with only one functioning), and the Galicia Jewish Museum. The Ester Hotel commemorates a Jewish woman named Ester who was supposedly the lover of the Polish noble, Kazimier. She was said to have given birth to his only son, according to the guide book. We ate gefilte fish, matzoh, “Passover cheese cake” (no crust), and other supposedly authentic Jewish food at the Ariel hotel. Cholent and chopped liver were also on the menu (none of this is kosher). We walked around and saw several former synagogues (now mostly used for various arts groups).


           We saw in Kazimierz and in many places around town little Jewish male dolls of various sizes—the most offensive of them held money in their hands—antisemitic, if you ask me. I inquired in the Ariel restaurant why there were only males, and was told it was a good question that no one had asked before.





Thursday. May 26, Krakow

            Our conference on Women and the Holocaust began at Jagellonian University, which  is medieval and has magnificent inner courtyards. Copernicus and Pope John Paul II were students here. Dr. Nechama Tec gave the keynote address.

            Sharing my session was Dr. Ellen Ben-Sefer, a professor of nursing now in Australia but born in New Jersey.  I spoke on mothers and daughters at Ravensbrück and there were good questions. The next session was with Kirsty Chatwood, Dr. Miriam Sivan from Tivon, Israel and Dr. Myrna Goldenberg. It was about rape and sexual abuse, and was excellent and pathbreaking. Everyone was speechless.

            The banquet in the evening was in a restaurant that dated from the 1500s, or earlier. There is documentation of the kings and queens who have dined there over the centuries. There are tapestries that look like those in the Cloisters. The food and service were superb. Pictured at the banquet are Dr. Rochelle Saidel with Remember the Women Institute Advisory Board members Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth, Dr. Myrna Goldenberg, and Dr. Necham Tec.




Friday, May 27 – Auschwitz-Birkenau

            The conference participants went to Auschwitz-Birkenau on an air-conditioned bus on a very hot day, unlike the transportation provided for our forebears. I cannot imagine how anyone survived the hot summer or the cold winter. The countryside was showing off its spring glory, full of lilac bushes and lush green. We saw several storks and stork nests. Everything was very peaceful, which did not make the trip any easier.

            We had a guided tour of Auschwitz and noted there are now new signs all over, done in the last few years, with Jewish victims are prominently mentioned. As you enter the camp on the left, the first building is Block 24. The plaque does not mention that this was the camp bordello. I asked the young guide (a student at Jagallonian)  why not, and she said it was too hard to explain to youngsters and might be taken the wrong way. It seems that it is easier to explain mass murder of Jews by gassing than to explain why the camp had a bordello. Is genocide less offensive than sexual slavery?



            We went in and out of the former barracks, which all have displays such as shoes, eyeglasses, cups and utensils. One had a huge case filled with a display of tallitot (prayer shawls). In one bathroom for political prisoners someone had decorated the wall with a picture of a mother cat cleaning a kitten. There were many tourists, and I took a photo of a man carrying his infant while reading the plaque outside a barrack. I don't know how anyone can bring an infant to this place of horror, where so many infants were murdered. Between two of the barracks there is a shooting gallery, much wider than the one at Ravensbrück. There was a punishment bunker in the basement of one of these barracks.


             By the time we arrived at Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, it was early afternoon and the height of the day's steamy temperatures—perhaps 34 degrees C. Birkenau in late spring is a big baking open space with absolutely no shade. The barracks were stinking of mold and rot, and I immediately felt ill from the heat and the allergens. I felt faint and drank lots of water, marveling that anyone could have survived while standing in the harsh sun and heat for hours with no water. I lit a yartzeit candle at the end of the train track.


            After we returned to Krakow from Auschwitz-Birkenau, several of us went to the Remu synagogue (the only one still functioning) for the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I couldn't understand a word of the strange Galiciana Yiddishized Hebrew, and had to be told I was hearing Lecha Dodi. We were in the women's section, on primitive hard benches, no opportunity to participate, and not able to see much of the men's section. There was a second men's minyan in a smaller room, a delegation from the United States—all in fur hats with the temperature over 30 degrees C--observing the yartzeit of Rabbi Moses Iserles, founder of the first synagogue in Krakow. His grave is in the adjacent old cemetery.


Saturday, May 28


            Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth gave an excellent paper on Margit Bartfeld-Feller, a woman from Czernowitch, now in Tel Aviv, who ended up in Siberia during the Holocaust. After the sessions were over, she and I walked across the river and to the site of the Krakow ghetto. In the ghetto museum in the former pharmacy we saw pictures of the Jews of Krakow moving their belongings to the ghetto. We could hardly move ourselves in the unusual heat and, again, I wondered how anyone could survive the required physical effort just to stay alive. The pharmacy was owned by the only non-Jew allowed to stay in the ghetto, and he later received “righteous among the nations” status from Yad Vashem.  We also visited the site of Schindler's factory (which is going to be a museum).


Sunday, May 29—Mielec

            People kept asking me why I was going to Mielec, a small city about a two-hour drive from Krakow, and I replied I was going to see nothing. I was right. This is the hometown of Moshe Borger, a survivor who is a friend in Jerusalem. It was the first Jewish population deported from the Generalgouvernment in Poland, during the first week of March 1942. No one and almost nothing are left to show they were ever there. However, I am planning to do a research project on this town, followed by an exhibit co-curated by Dr. Nancy Ordway, and I needed to get a feeling for this “nothingness.”


            After a trip from Krakow with an English-speaking taxi driver, I arrived in Mielec and stopped at the big market square. There was absolutely no sign that Jews ever lived her. We were directed toward the site of the burned synagogue (later destroyed by the Soviets). This site is not cared for, and is filled with tall grass and weeds. There are some large rocks around it, and a memorial stone with a plaque in the center.





            The Jewish cemetery is behind an old metal fence with locked iron gates with Mogen Dovids (stars of David). I could not go in, but I could see that it was in total disrepair, with old stones barely visible in the very high grass and white dandelions.





Monday, May 30 – On to Warsaw

                I stayed in the Hotel Europejski, and was told this was the hotel of choice for Generalgoverneur Hans Frank when he was in Warsaw. I asked for and received a room with a view, facing the beautiful Saxon Gardens and the tomb of the unknown soldier, complete with changing of the guard.


 Tuesday, May 31 – Warsaw

            I met Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, editor of the Jewish communal Midrasz Magazine. As we walked through the Saxon Gardens to the synagogue, she told me that in pre-war days (religious) Jews were not allowed to walk here. Evidently their presence would detract from the beauty of the park. We visited the synagogue, and I also saw the outside of the communal building that houses the Lauder Foundation and other offices; and then we visited the lobby of the Jewish theater. We then went to the Jewish Historical Institute, where I did research on Mielec for several hours.

            Afterward, I wanted to walk in the area that has the Warsaw Ghetto monuments. The research institute and synagogue are already in the area that was the ghetto, which was huge. I followed my map of Jewish Warsaw toward the Rappoport monument. I think we see too many movies, and expect the ghettos, camps, and shtetls to look like they did during the Holocaust. This, of course, is false. There is no Warsaw ghetto, nor much evidence there ever was one. The area is mostly lower income housing blocks. The Rappoport memorial is in a lovely park, where a young couple was kissing on a nearby bench. The Mila 18 marker mound is also in a park, and there are stone markers for the way to death, from there to the Umschlagplatz.

[Rappoport monument]                                                                    [Mila 18]












Wednesday, June 1 - Warsaw

I had the morning free, and I had read that the Museum of Contemporary Art had an exhibit on Polish women, described as very intellectual and intelligent. The exhibit is indeed interesting and stimulating, integrating women into Polish history. There was even some Holocaust component. Unfortunately, the whole exhibit was in Polish, with no English translation anywhere. I therefore missed well over 90% of it, because the written messages were at least as important as the visuals. Afterward, Dr. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, the director of the Department of Jewish Studies at Marie Curie Sklodowska  University (and a member of Remember the Women Institute Advisory Board), arrived from Lublin, and I met her and Dr. Nechama Tec for lunch. In the evening there was a concert of sacred music in the synagogue, part of a series in the churches of Warsaw.                                                                [Warsaw synagogue exterior]



Thursday, June 2 – From Warsaw to Vilna

             In the morning I went to the airport and flew to Vilna. Being in Vilna was special because I was accompanied by my cousin Esther Hellman, who left there for Israel in 1972. This was her first trip back, and I was able to see the city through her eyes and to meet some of her old friends. We walked around the area that had been the Jewish quarter, and saw the big and the small ghetto sites, where some plaques mark deportation areas and the former uses of buildings. We saw the courtyard and statue of the Vilna Gaon, and the site where the Soviets razed a synagogue that had withstood the Nazi years. We walked on the former Jewish Street and the former German street. We went to the synagogue, which is closed, with heavy plastic forming a kind of tent flap on the front porch. We learned that Chabad Rabbi Krinsky is trying to take over the synagogue, so the community closed it. Rabbi Krinsky camps out there for daily and Shabbat services on the porch, with the plastic to protect from the elements. The community, which has a rabbi from Israel, has moved its Shabbat services to the Jewish Community Center building, and the synagogue remains locked.


Friday, June 3—Kaunas/Kovno and the Ninth Fort

In Kovno we drove to the former ghetto area, Slobatka, where Esther Hellman's mother, Yenta Becker, had stayed with her uncle (my grandmother Esther Ofchinskas Saidel's brother), Falk, during the Holocaust. He and his family were taken from there and murdered at the Ninth Fort in 1941. Yenta was taken as a slave laborer, and was in camps including Stutthof. She survived and lived in Vilna after the war. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1974. Except for a plaque, there is no evidence of a ghetto and this is just a normal residential neighborhood. Esther and I had our photo taken with the plaque, to show her mother we had been there.




Afterward, we went to the Ninth Fort. Inside and out, this is truly horrible. Its effect on me was worse than Auschwitz. There is a huge grassy area, where the killings took place in 1941, a museum, and the fort itself, which is also a museum. The museum is mostly about the Lithuanian citizens murdered by the Nazis and the Soviets, with a small section on Jewish victims. The fort has exhibits on Jewish victims, and special outdoor and indoor memorials to French Jewish murdered here, arranged by the Klarsfeld foundation. There are now exhibits on the Jewish massacre here, as well as the Kovno ghetto. There are many photos and household objects from the ghetto. There is also a Sugihara exhibit. 30,000 Jews and 25,000 others were murdered here by the Nazis. There is a outdoor monument marking the mass killings.

Returning to Vilna, we found the Jewish Community Center and tried to attend the community Kabbalat Shabbat service. However, we were told there was no service that evening, so we went to  the synagogue, where the service was run by Chabad. A man immediately handed me a Hebrew-Russian siddur. Rabbi Krinsky and another Chabad man led the service, with the  assistance of several children. The rest of the people there were not Chabad. I really enjoyed the service, because all of the tunes were familiar and I was able to participate (unlike the week before in Krakow). And I really needed Shabbat, after the   terrible day at the Ninth Fort. As is typical of Chabad, Rabbi Krinsky invited everyone to his Chabad center for Shabbat dinner.


Saturday, June 4

            We walked around the Old Town area of Vilna. We stumbled upon and went into the Shakespeare Hotel, because someone had told Esther it was very special. As we were walking up the stairs, famous actor Jeremy Irons was walking down with his entourage, including two dogs. I was busy admiring the dogs, while Esther was excited to be in the presence of Jeremy Irons. He is making a film in Vilna. We also went to Esther's old neighborhood, in the center of town, right across from her secondary school conservatory and the former KGB headquarters, now a museum. The park where Lenin's statue had been is also there.


Sunday, June 5

            We visited the Vilna Jewish cemetery, where a lot of family members were there with work gloves, small shovels, flowers, and plastic bags. A magnificent cat was posing near a headstone, both when we entered and left the cemetery. This may be one of my best photos.













            From the cemetery we went to the Ponar Forest, site of the mass murder of Vilna's Jewish population. Ponar is a peaceful, beautiful green and very big forest, with birds singing and everything right in the world. Unless you know what happened there. Plaques tell the story at the entrance, and now there is even a plaque that tells that the people were in fact Jews. The old plaques from the Soviet days didn't mention Jews. The local Jews were sent here by foot or in trucks; others were sent by train. There is a convenient adjacent railroad track, and quite a few trains came by while we were in the forest. I could almost hear the screams. When we were walking back to the car some boys came out of the woods carrying beer bottles as though this were just an ordinary place for a morning drinking binge with friends. The killing fields of Europe....there are so many of them, probably some that we will never know.



Monday, June 6 – From Vilna to Kopcheva

            I said goodbye to my cousin Esther Hellman and joined another cousin from Israel, Carol Hoffman, for a genealogy roots trip to my grandmother Esther Saidel's shtetl, Kopcheva (now Kapciamiestis).

We were with a guide, Regina Kopilevich, and Dorothy Leivers from England, who also has Kopcheva roots. After we left the Vilna area, the roadside began to look like the vegetation of the Adirondacks (where my grandparents settled in the United States), with birch, pine, and all kinds of thick wooded areas. We also saw signs to Yaffa Eliach's shtetl, Eishyshok.

            We arrived in a drizzle and drove around looking for landmarks Carol would remember from her last trip. Near the school a woman was standing in the rain washing clothes in a stream, a scene from my grandmother's time. The town today has a church, a school, a small grocery store, a smaller combination store and pub, a post office, and small wooden homes. There is also an old Jewish cemetery, not in good condition, overgrown, but with a government-issued memorial stone. Kopcheva is very close to the Polish border. As it was raining hard, we drove to Druskininkai and checked into our hotel there. Druskininkai is a jewel, a health resort and spa, with “the waters.”


            Being in Kopcheva made my family's history in Kopcheva real, and I went to sleep thinking that it was quite unbelievable that I had actually been to Kopcheva! Who would ever believe this would happen—97 years after my grandmother left? What would she think, or my father or aunt? There is no one left to discuss it with. It is a crazy thing to do, and yet so very amazing and special. No one and nothing are left. All of the Jews, my great grandfather and his entire family, every Jew in Kopcheva at the time, were murdered on the 13th of Cheshvan 5702, November 3, 1941 at Katkishok, near Lazdei. The life and culture that were here are destroyed and gone forever. There is in truth nothing to go back to. For me, memorializing the dead is the most important thing that can be done now.


Tuesday, June 7 – Kopcheva and Druskininkai

            I urgently wanted to go to the Katkishok memorial. I proposed that we end the day in Kopcheva with a visit to Katkishok, rather than going on Wednesday. That way I would stay in Druskininkai Wednesday and take an afternoon minibus back to Vilna, where I was sleeping that night. We went back to Kopcheva for most of the day. It was becoming seductive, and I was glad I had already made the decision to extricate myself, making this my last day there.


         We went to the museum in the school and looked around. There are some displays of old Kopcheva, books and photos. I didn't see anything about the Jewish community, except for three copies of a general book on genocide in Lithuania. We went to the home of Zigmas Sabalius, the former director of the school, a retired chemistry teacher. It was very interesting and informative to be in a local home. All of the buildings were burned in 1941, but this and the other brightly painted wooden homes all look old and weathered. The home was quite poor and primitive, with a wood-burning stove or furnace in the living room. The Sabalius cat snuggled with me on their couch, which made me very happy.

             Mr. Sabalius told us that on June 22, 1941 he heard shots and smelled burning in Kopcheva. He saw Germans on motorcycles and he saw the center of the town burning. Jewish women sat near the river in shock as their houses burned; it was a terrible sight. He came with is father to look, and the Jewish women pointed out that there were Russian soldiers. One was burnt and shot while holding a rifle, and there were nine people in trenches.  The town was bombed by German airplanes and Russian soldiers were targeted from the air. Then a Russian airplane approached and bombed and the road was full of Germans. However, the bombs didn't hit anyone. The Jews were then forced to put on stars and they were all forced into a mill next to the Harmania factory. At first there was no food in the mill and students brought them food. They stayed there until the end of August. He saw five or six of them taken to work to fix the roads after the bombing.  The were taken to Lazdei.

            We went to the municipal office where we met with the mayor, Romanus. Carol discussed the possibility of a wooden fence around the Jewish cemetery, and he happily offered her his business card; he is in the lumber business. I also asked him about a plaque at the site of the synagogue. I had this idea after seeing the one in Mielec. Romanus seemed agreeable about helping to get the required permissions for the fence and the synagogue marker. I hope he follows through. He gave us some booklets about the Lazdei area and his assistant brought out some old maps and photos of Kopcheva.

            Afterward we went to the home of Julia, an elderly woman who knows where the Jews lived and where the synagogue stood, across from her home. Her daughter, a local teacher, was also there. Like the other home we had visited, it was old fashioned and simple. She had a lot of young cats in the yard and one in the house, all of them dark brown. The one in the house was happily lifted to my lap and sat with me, purred, kissed me, and was the highlight of the day for me. I wish I could have put the Kopcheva cat in my pocket. That would be quite a link with the past. Julia came outside with us and we took photos of where the synagogue had stood. She showed me the “narrow street” where the home of David Ofchinskas supposedly stood, and we had our photo taken together there.


        We went to the Jewish cemetery, which is in bad repair and has some stones from our Ofchinskas family. The one that moved me tremendously says Devora Rifka, daughter of David Ofchinskas, died in 1924. I verified later that this was indeed my grandmother's sister. The eight children of David and Yenta Ofchinskas (in order of their birth) were: Esther, Raisel, Hirsch, Berl, Chaim, Devora Rifka, Ruchel, and Leizer Falk. My grandmother Esther left for the United States with her Aunt Peshe Miller (her mother's sister) in 1908. Raisel (Yenta Becker's mother and Esther Hellman's grandmother), Hirsh, and Berl were murdered at Katkishok, and Leizer Falk was murdered in Kovno in the Ninth Fort. Chaim disappeared in Mexico.  Rochel died before Katkishok—but her stone does not seem to be in the Kopcheva Jewish cemetery. We don't know whether it was removed or never was there. The more we learn, the more we realize we don't know. I had my photo taken next to the grave of my newly discovered great aunt Devora Rifka.


            From the cemetery we drove to Katkishok, where the Jews of Kopcheva, Lazdei, and elsewhere in the area were murdered on November 3, 1941. The monument is very difficult to find, in the middle of fields and only accessible by very primitive dirt paths. I lit an Israeli yartzeit candle, also placed some stones, and we said El Moley Rachamim. This was the most important reason for coming here.





Wednesday, June 9—Druskininkai and back to Vilna


            Before my departure, I tried to visit the Jacques Lipschitz museum—he was born in Druskininkai. It appears to be in disrepair and looks like it has not been open for a long time. I walked around Druskininkai and ended my walk at the city museum on the lake. It is a very beautiful old house, which belonged to a Polish family before World War II.

After a late lunch of blintzes and tea, I took a minibus back to Vilna..




Thursday, June 9 –From Vilna to Tel Aviv

            I woke up at before 5 a.m. and my plane was at 7:10 a.m. Going to Israel from Kopcheva was a very powerful emotional trip. I kept thinking that it wasn't even easy for me to get out of Kopcheva and get back home. For the first time I began to wonder how my grandmother actually got out of Kopcheva. What were the logistics? What kind of emotional turmoil did she go through? Landing at Ellis Island after living only in Kopcheva must have been equivalent to landing on Mars. By the time you are smart enough to ask the questions, there is no one left to answer them. I am more thankful than ever that all four of my grandparents had the courage and incentive to leave the Pale of Settlement and start new lives in the United States. As they didn't chose Palestine, it was left to me to set their course right by choosing Israel as my part-time home nearly a century later. Maybe I had to go back to where they came from nearly 100 years ago to complete their journey and mine and come home to Jerusalem.


June 26, 2005


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