by Peter Philippsohn OAM, President JCA
For the last 10 days, 29 of us have been travelling around Poland visiting places with names known to all such as Treblinka and Auschwitz and to places with names known to few such as Lupochowa.
Many of the Polish names are not just unpronounceable to our English speaking brains but are impossible to remember because we have nothing to hang them on. An integral part of our process of memory and learning is to connect a name to something we already know. We are introduced to someone new whose name is John, we immediately think of all the other Johns we know. We slot them in. But I have a problem connecting with these Polish names.
At least the main street of Warsaw is Jerozolimskie Street – Jerusalem Street. That I can remember.
We came to the Umschlagsplatz in Warsaw. What a strange word for the place of deportation. I have some German heritage and I know “umschlag” is an “envelope” or wrapping. Did the Germans mean that this was a point from which they shipped packages, inanimate objects from point A to point B.
On the memorial at the Warsaw Umschlagsplatz, on the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto there are names. The walls of the memorial would need to stretch as far as the Ghetto walls if they had to list the names of all the 310,322 who were sent to their deaths from this point. How does a community try to memorialize those 310,322 on 50 square metres of wall. They record just the first names. All the first names of those 310,322.
We stand there, each writing one name on a piece of paper – a name from the Wall which means something to us.
Later that same day we stand in the forest at Lupochowa. We had walked here in silence from the road leading back some 8 Km to the little town of Tykocina which had a Jewish population pre-Holocaust of 1400. Today there is still a synagogue but there no Jews. The synagogue stands empty at one end of the town and the church at the other end. So typical of a country where Jew and Catholic coexisted for 1000 years.
Deep in the forest, we come to the site of three mass graves. We stand in a circle. Each of us reads out the name we had transcribed from the wall of the Warsaw memorial and in just a few words states why we had chosen that name. Someone lost in the Holocaust, a neighbour, a grand-parent, a child, even the Hebrew or Yiddish version of one’s own name.
We were not alone in this forest. While we had walked into the forest in silence, joining other groups quietly gathered around the low metal fences, a school group of Israeli teenagers wrapped in the flag of the state of Israel strode in singing. This was no sign of disrespect for those who lay there under the ground. This was a sign of triumph. Moishe and Golda live on as Matan and Galia.
Not all of us can travel to Poland and personally see where man has inflicted such atrocities on his fellow. We cannot take 17,000 NSW school children to Poland each year to join Israeli school kids, but for them, the Sydney Jewish Museum offers the next best alternative.
For the last 20 years, the exhibitions and the survivors have vividly recounted the story of the Holocaust. But lives of these are finite and the Museum must look to the future.
Over the next two weeks, the Museum will be holding its Capital Appeal to raise funds to upgrade its exhibits embedded with layers of testimony, artefacts and historical documentation that communicate a power and poignancy of this tragic time in our history.
You too can put your name to this project. For more information and to support their appeal please click here.
I wish you all Shana Tova and well over the fast.