After spending six days in Belarus, our group arrived in Poland ready to explore new lands and cities. On Wednesday, our group spent the whole day exploring and learning about the city of Bialystok. I had a great experience visiting this city. I learned so many stories about the town, the old Jewish community, and different individuals who did what they could to help the Jews before and during WWII.
I learned about the Bialystok ghetto uprising against the Nazis, which in itself was extremely impressive. I was also told that many of the people who lead this charge were women which made the connection even deeper and prouder. Our group visited the old Jewish ghetto in Bialystok, the Jewish graveyard, and several memorials for people and places that used to be there. Bialystok was so rich in history and memory and it was really a sight to see.
Our group’s tour guide was amazing person to be with the whole day. Our guide’s name was Tomek Wisniewski. He is a commonly heard name around Bialystok, and to the rest of the Jewish scholarly world he is quite famous for his research in the history of the Jews of Bialystok and his activism in promoting its remembrance. I LOVED Tomek. Tomek was funny, engaging, and extremely passionate about Poland and its connection to the Jewish people. Tomek is not Jewish, but I remember him saying, “I am from Poland, thus I am Jewish. We are all Jewish. We are all connected.” Tomek promoted the idea that no one in Poland is just Polish. Poland is a country of many ethnicities – immigrants came to Poland from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, etc, thus it is very multi-cultural. As a Polish citizen, you don’t just embrace your identity, you embrace the cultures of your country men as well.
Afterwards, our group went to the interactive museum that Tomek designed himself about Jewish history in Poland and we watched two interesting videos that sparked different opinions but important discussion. We watched a video that Tomek made where he interviewed residents of a small town in Poland who were all in their nineties. These seniors were asked to recall their experience witnessing Jewish murder and harrasment during the Second World War. The people interviewed in the video were ordinary people with morals and feelings. They felt for the Jews but also knew the horrifying price one had to pay if caught helping a Jew: death to one and their entire family. Seeing the guilt in their speeches, and the pain in their eyes, helped me to understand that the Jews were not the only victims in the Holocaust. I never took the time to view the genocide from the eyes of a bystander. But I can imagine that to watch genocide and not do anything can be traumatizing, scarring, and leave a guilt that haunts for life. This video impacted me greatly because it taught me a lesson about forgiveness, and how important it is to look at situations from all angles. It taught me to not judge people for their actions in the past because suffering can remain and be passed on, even if one is not necessarily considered a “target of the Genocide.” The Polish non-Jews may not have been targets during the Holocaust, but they were also victims. This video was proof.
I really enjoyed my day with Tomek – I felt like I learned a lot from him. His kindness and passion for studying Jewish history, culture, life, and the Holocaust resonated with me because I share this passion with him – that is the reason I’m here.
Thank you all so much for reading. In my next post, I’m going to discuss another encounter with strangers that somehow lead to a musical celebration. I also have a special surprise that I must say, is pretty darn cool, but you’ll have to wait and see what it is! Stay tuned and have a great weekend.
All the best,