7/19/16 – My friend and Stanford University colleague Jason Francisco has spent a lot of time in southeastern Poland photographing traces of the Holocaust. In our research for this trip Walker and I had done a lot of research on former Jewish synagogues in this area that had now become libraries. Jason mentioned ones that we should see as well. Our first stop was in the tiny town of Niebylec. Their library contained some of the finest paintings we saw on the trip in any old former synagogue. This little building was a sacred space for the Jewish people of this region until they they were almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis. Being a library is, perhaps, a little like being a sacred space. But the books in the room could not replace the memories of the synagogue paintings that were still hauntingly displayed on the walls and ceiling. We traveled on to the small town of Strzyźów which also had a former synagogue which was now a library. Unlike our last library this one appeared to be rebuilt and appeared to be new. In restoring this building they had left remnants of the former synagogue. Ellen read in the guest book notes from people visiting from all over the world who were Jewish, or had families from here or just were interested in Holocaust history.
We spend the night in the medium sized city of Rzeszów.
7/20/16 – Today we visited synagogue-now-libraries in the small villages of Jośetów and Tarnogrod. Jason had suggested Tarnogrod and it turned out to be almost as interesting as the one yesterday in Niebylec. The building was large and was definitely the original synagogue. Inside were haunting reminders of its original purpose with relevant exhibits on its Jewish past. It worked well as a library but also honored its Jewish and partisan fighter past during WW II. We began to realize that we were unwittingly following a pre-existing route of Jewish history in this area. Ellen even found a map of the route which included many of the places we were visiting in this region. We ended the day in the beautiful town of Zamość. Jason had said this town had a deep history which we discovered was also a dark history. Like many towns here all the Jews were killed during the war. The beautiful synagogue was briefly turned into a library after the Holocaust but later became a community center. It is now used by everyone but is occasionally still used by the small Jewish community as a place of prayer and remembrance. We had dinner off the beautiful town square while a kick-ass blues band played to a mostly empty outdoor square. We walked through the streets at dusk soaking up the history and impressions of this beautiful place with its troubled past. Again, the burden of the past felt close in Zamość.
7/21/16 – We felt we needed a break from the history of the Holocaust. So we spent most of the day driving to the largest stand of original forest left in Europe – The Białowieza National Park. Located in northeastern Poland this UNESCO World Heritage Site is also home to the last herd of European Bison. My impression was that the forests here seemed pretty tame compared to forests in the American West and we never did see any Bison. But it felt good to be away from the bustling European cities and we felt a long ways from the Holocaust.
7/22/16 – We started the day by walking through the beautiful forest. Although tame compared to American Western forests the solace of nature filled us with the kind of peace that we missed in the cities. Deep in the dark woods we came to a border. Poland’s border with Belarus is literally the end of one world (the European Union) and the beginning of another (Europe’s longest running dictatorship and close ally to Putin’s Russia). The threatening border signs felt like a splash of cold water in these peaceful woods. We turned away and walked back into Poland. We visited the Park Headquarters and learned that this land was preserved by being the hunting preserve for kings and czars. This was often the case in Europe and explained why the forests seemed so managed. Our last hike of the day was the best and the longest so far. We walked through a forest/bog that had elevated trails and long boardwalks over the marshy area. The forest here did not seem managed and we got more of a sense of this environment as a natural area rather than a human created one. The chaotic marshes in this area could not be farmed which helped preserve it. During WW II these marshes stretching into Belarus were a major hideout for the Partisans fighting the Nazis. I tried to imagine what life was like for them as we walked through these rough but beautiful woods. We hiked approximately 11 miles total for the day.