2017-12-20 / Voice at the Shore

JCC’s Eastern Europe was an emotional journey for travelers

Voice shore editor

JCC Program Director Josh Cutler in Warsaw. JCC Program Director Josh Cutler in Warsaw. For 37 people who went on a tour of Eastern Europe with the Margate JCC in November, the old-world beauty of cities like Prague and Warsaw stood in sharp contrast with the stark horrors of Auschwitz and Terezin.

There were moments of surprise as well—like when they came upon statues of Peter Falk and Ronald Reagan, and when they learned it is now trendy for young Polish hipsters to research their ancestry in hopes of finding some Jewish heritage. “That’s a good thing,” said JCC program director Josh Cutler, who led the trip and presented an audiovisual recap to a packed auditorium at a JCC Brunch and Learn on November 29.

“It was a really good trip, with a lot of fun people,” said Janette Keen, a participant who attended the brunch. “I couldn’t get over how beautiful and clean the cities were!”

Seeing Auschwitz (above) and Terezin was the toughest but most meaningful part of the trip, said several travelers. Seeing Auschwitz (above) and Terezin was the toughest but most meaningful part of the trip, said several travelers. But it was also “a hard trip physically, mentally and emotionally,” said fellow traveler Anita Robinson.

Both said seeing the death camps was the toughest but most meaningful part of the trip. Robinson, a retired teacher, had taught students about the Holocaust, but said “when you go there and see it, it’s so emotional and sad!”

Likewise, traveling through these countries while knowing so many Jews had been murdered there was also difficult, said Robinson, who added: “I am so glad I’m an American.”

Cutler began his presentation with a photo of an unadorned doorway from the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow. The roughly painted doorframe still had an indentation where a mezuzah had once been. For Cutler, this photo was emblematic of the Jewish experience in Poland.

“The Jews of Poland were decimated,” said Cutler flatly as his talk began. “Only a ghost of them is left.”

At one point, three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Of the 3.25 million that lived there before the Holocaust, only 20,000 are left, said Cutler, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton.

Cutler went on to show beautiful images of Warsaw, a city that was recreated based on paintings and old photographs after being “pretty much leveled in World War II.”

One wall from the Warsaw Ghetto still stands, said Cutler. Nearby is a memorial commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, “a very powerful monument” built on the spot where the uprising’s first armed clash took place. Cutler recalled the incredible sadness that overtook him upon first seeing the memorial, a huge wall with sculpted bronze depictions of persecuted Jews on one side and ghetto insurgents who died fighting on the other side.

The monument faces The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opened in 2013, also built on the site of the former ghetto. The museum shows the rich history of Jews in Poland dating back to the 10th century, with exhibits spanning from a 13th century Yiddish prayer book and the partial reconstruction of a 17th century synagogue, to a Holocaust gallery that details the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

After seeing the latter exhibit, Cutler vividly recalled how a sense of pride mixed with his sadness as he passed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument on his way out of the museum.

Elsewhere in the city, near the U.S. Embassy, the JCC group saw the Ronald Reagan Monument erected in 2011 by Lech Walesa. Poland is “not happy with its communist past,” explained Cutler. “They loved Ronald Reagan. He was one of the people who brought down Communism.”

The group also visited the Jewish sections of several cities. According to Robinson, they enjoyed a lively dinner in the Krakow Jewish Quarter. She also got a kick out of Krakow’s Singer Café, where each table was an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine.

Although all structures in the Krakow Jewish Quarter were gutted by the Nazis, said Cutler, the exterior structures were preserved, and the area has been recreated, with “lots of Klezmer-themed restaurants,” he added.

The Legend of the Golem— a clay creature depicted as either a protector or monster brought to life by a 16th century rabbi — was very much alive in the Jewish section of Prague, said Cutler, where Golem- themed restaurants and shops abounded.

In Budapest, the group toured the Dohany Steet Synagogue, the world’s second largest, built in 1859, where Zionism pioneer Theodor Herzl had his bar mitzvah. Robinson was not only moved by the synagogue, but also by the tour guide. The young man said he found out he was Jewish at the age of 15, when he discovered papers his family had buried during the Holocaust.

“How sad is that?” said Robinson, reflecting on all the Jewish culture she had enjoyed as a child that this young man had missed.

Also in Budapest, the group saw a statue depicting Peter Falk as the well-known T.V. detective Columbo. “Peter Falk was a Hungarian Jew!” noted Robinson.

The days spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Terezin were a stark contrast to the group’s tourist activities in Eastern Europe’s great cities.

In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Cutler vividly recalled seeing “train tracks used to transport people to their death”; the barracks crammed with wood-slatted bunks where Jewish prisoners would sleep together five to a bunk, with no mattress, pillow, or heat; and the “starvation room,” where prisoners were methodically starved to death while German doctors monitored them, collecting medical data.

Over nine thousand people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland during the first three months it was open, noted Cutler; by the time it closed, an estimated 1.3 million prisoners had been killed or died there.

Preserved at the site were two rooms filled with prisoners’ shoes—over 2 million pairs—as well as a room filled with human hair shaved from the heads of inmates and murder victims. “Seven tons of hair was collected from inmates of Auschwitz—they were making fabric out of it!” said Cutler, who was overcome with revulsion by the sight of it.

The JCC group also went to Terezin, a concentration camp in Czechoslavakia, which was set up to look like a model Jewish settlement of artists and musicians for a Red Cross visit in 1944. This sham portrayal was also made into in a Nazi propaganda film entitled “The Fuhrer gives the Jews a City,” said Cutler. All prisoners in the film were shipped to Auschwitz and killed after the film was completed, he noted.

Although Terezin was not an extermination camp, “85,000 people died there where no one could see,” their bodies either buried or cremated, said Cutler.

One of the most highly visible and moving memorials the group saw, according to Cutler, was Shoes on the Danube Bank in Budapest. The memorial, which features 60 scattered pairs of shoes sculpted out of iron, commemorates the 3,500 Czechs, including 800 Jews, who were lined up on the edge of the Danube, asked to remove their shoes, and then shot so that their bodies fell into the river.

“The memorial is right at the steps of the Parliament building, in a very visible place,” noted Cutler.

Cutler told brunch attendees that he recently took on the new role planning “adult and senior trips and travel” for the JCC. His upcoming trips include two to Israel (one is already full) as well as a Sukkot in South Africa trip that already has a waitlist. For more information on future trips, contact Cutler at (609) 822-1167, extension 138, or jcutler@jccatlantic.org. 

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