Reflections

Jewish community building in Warsaw, in use until its destruction in 1943(Witness to History)/Westin Hotel 2022.

The official address of the Westin Hotel in Warsaw is Aljana Pawla II 21. But it’s better known as Grzybowska Street. Here and in the nearby streets and avenues, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in prewar Warsaw. Here, 80 years ago, the Jews were caught in the clutches of the Nazi beast.

The Polish authorities did not change the street names when they rebuilt Warsaw after its destruction; therefore, when I walked around, I felt transported back in time.

This is the Warsaw where Jews lived with fear, hope and anxiety about their future, starved to death, got sick and died from different epidemics. In these same streets 80 years ago, the horrifying deportations began. First with the help of the Jewish police who had to supply a certain quota; then the Germans were assisted by Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian soldiers. In this space an estimated 299,500 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and surrounding area were sent to an agonizing end in the Treblinka gas chambers. Hy”d.

Back to the present. At the Westin Hotel there is a beautiful glass wall going all the way up to the 20th floor. Once you are in the elevator you can see a panoramic view of new buildings. Someone brought to my attention that the 20-some-story building across the street was 24 Grzybowska Street, which was once the location of the Jewish community building known as the Judenrat.

Walking around, I realized that all these buildings were built on the ruins of the ghetto area where Jews were starved to death, died by bullet, burned alive or, in the “best-case scenario,” were sent to Treblinka or Majdanek to die after suffering there.

The next morning at the Westin Hotel, small groups of people in different parts of the lobby were standing around. One can see immediately that they are refugees, holding on to their suitcases, hand-luggage, another package, another shopping bag. They look around, worried about what’s next.

The elevators are very busy. The refugees pack themselves in and out, quietly and sadly. They are careful. They don’t speak an extra word. It’s as if they are telling the rest of the people in the elevator, “What do you understand about running away, about wanderings, about becoming a refugee?”

Upstairs in the conference room, a young woman is breaking into the conversation of a group as she heard the word Ukraine and thought that someone in the group was praising Putin. Everyone tries to calm her down, to tell her that they understand her pain, but she doesn’t stop crying, explaining that she doesn’t have any information on the whereabouts of her mother in Ukraine.

A day later, again in the elevator, between refugees, suitcases, and hand-luggage, the same woman is standing. Across, I can see the beautiful tower that was built on the ruins of the Jewish Judenrat building.

Between the floors I ask her, “How is your mother doing?”

“How do you know me?” she reacts, shocked.

“From last night,” I answer.

“I don’t know yet, but thank you for remembering and asking me.” She bursts out crying again.

How the world turns.

The next morning there are more groups in the lobby. The predominant language is now Arabic. It seems the Egyptian government organized rooms in the hotel for Egyptian students who studied or toured in Ukraine, as well as flights to return home. In addition, there are Jewish activists in the lobby. One arrived from Israel, the second is about to return to Israel, the third is already on the way to the border of Poland and Ukraine. The fourth is trying to help the daughter of a Jewish friend who cannot leave Ukraine because he is under the age of 60 and is expected to join the army. His daughter with her child were able to leave. The activist traveled over four hours to bring her the money she needed.

Long lines at the check-in and check-out desks. The Poles feel very strongly towards their former enemies, the Ukrainians. They donate to them, help them, and accept them; maybe Russia, the common enemy, is bringing them together.

I can’t help but think to myself, who wanted to welcome Jewish refugees 80 years ago? Who traveled near the border to offer help? Who cared?

No one.

I cannot forget a quote from an article written by my grandfather, Harav Yitzchok Meir Levin, zt”l, in the fall of 1942, where he said, “What will be our response on the day the survivors, ud mutzal m’eish, will call us to judgment and ask us, ‘What did you do in order to save us?’”

The Warsaw of 2022 is a reflection of today’s situation. It’s also a reflection of the situation of yesteryear. Whoever wants to remember, does so. It’s easy to forget!

The Warsaw of 2022 is a reminder that each human being can see what they want to and react to it the way they want.

Only the Nozyk Shul, the one shul to survive the destruction, reminds us all at the 7:15 a.m. minyan every morning that after all, Hashem was here 80 years ago and is still here to accept our prayers. n

Ruth Lichtenstein, Publisher

Warsaw, March 1, 2022

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