Warsaw: Trains and Memory

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw, Poland © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018

Sunday, October 21, 2018: We take an Express InterCity Premium train from Kraków to Warsaw in the afternoon. We purchase first-class tickets because there are no second-class seats available on the train we want to take. I can’t recall ever traveling first class before this trip; so it’s something new for me. I think I could get used to it though.

One of the first-class benefits is a “complimentary” meal at our seat. Unfortunately, Beth and I are unable to enjoy this particular benefit since the food is not kosher. Beth does get to eat some fine chocolate, but I have to pass even on this since, although the chocolate is kosher dairy, it is not Cholov Yisroel, a problem for me, not her. I have this issue sometimes even in Israel. But I feel, somehow, that my sparkling water has a certain je ne sais quoi, perhaps the product of my overly active romantic imagination from musing that I am riding first-class on a train in Poland through lovely countryside with a beautiful woman beside me. There are few passengers, and it is quiet in the car. The trip is not long, just a little over two hours.

But it’s not possible, not for me at least, to ride a train in Poland, or anywhere, and not remember. Jewish history is a tale of great joy interwoven with almost unbearable sorrow. Even in the celebration of his wedding, a Jewish groom breaks a glass to remember the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. As I sit in my first- class car gazing out the window at a splendid landscape, I remember other trains in our history, trains that departed from Warsaw’s Umschlagplatz, for example, as part of the ghetto deportations between July and September 1942.

In his book, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, Władysław Szpilman describes the meal that he and his family ate while waiting for the train that would take them to their deaths.

At one point a boy made his way through the crowd in our direction with a box of sweets on a string round his neck. He was selling them at ridiculous prices, although heaven knows what he thought he was going to do with the money. Scraping together the last of our small change, we bought a single cream caramel. Father divided it into six parts with his penknife. That was our last meal together.¹

To miss a meal on my train to Warsaw is nothing. Also, the train I am on has plenty of seats available, a restroom if I need it, and the car is clean. Szpilman describes the arrival of the train for which he and his family had been waiting.

A few more minutes, and the train came into sight: more than a dozen cattle trucks and goods trucks rolling slowly towards us. The evening breeze, blowing in the same direction, wafted a suffocating wave of chlorine our way….Loud wailing from the women and the sound of children weeping rose from the close-packed crowd. We got ready to leave. Why wait?…

By the time we had made our way to the train the first trucks were already full. People were standing in them pressed close to each other. SS men were still pushing with their rifle butts, although there were loud cries from inside and complaints about the lack of air. And indeed the smell of chlorine made breathing difficult, even some distance from the trucks. What went on in there if the floors had to be so heavily chlorinated?²

We arrive in Warsaw and from the train station, we take a tram to the area where we are staying and walk the short distance from the tram stop to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Centrum. The hotel is conveniently located near most of the Jewish sites we want to visit in Warsaw and comes recommended by Beth’s cousin, Shnayer Leiman. Apart from the David Tower Hotel in Netanya, where Beth and I had the opportunity to stay as wedding guests for the marriage of the daughter of a good friend, the Radisson Blu Centrum is the only other five-star hotel I can recall where I’ve had a room.

After getting settled in our room, we walk the short distance to the Nożyk Synagogue. A lone man is praying at the time we arrive. When he finishes, I speak with him about the times for the Evening and Morning Services. It turns out that the man is Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Beth corresponded with him before our coming to Poland. He answered questions we had had, and he also sent us a copy of a guide for Jewish tourists. Now he tells us about a small kosher grocery store on the ground floor at the back of the shul, and he recommends a nearby kosher restaurant for dinner. We’re all set.

Next time: Dinner at the Galil Restaurant, the Nożyk Synagogue, and an Evening Service.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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