October 13, 2014
Game of Stones – Searching for Jewish Heritage in Poland and Lithuania
FADE IN: Old map of Poland. Music: Untamed conjurer from freeplaymusic (FPM) Leave music stand alone for two seconds or so.
For much of its history, Poland was a safe haven. Jews faced persecution in Western Europe. They were expelled from England, France, Spain and Germany. Poland provided a safe haven. For centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was Europe’s most tolerant state. In a time of religious strife, Poland became the center of Jewish culture.
FADE IN: Title Card: Game of Stones – Searching for Jewish Heritage in Poland and Lithuania
FADE IN: Images of Group on arrival in Warsaw. Music: Busy Doing Nothing from FPM
We want to find out more. We are a group of 16 students from California State University Northridge. We are traveling to Poland and Lithuania.
FADE IN: Portraits of each student with their first name.
We share a desire to learn about the complicated history of these contested lands.
FADE IN: Group Photo Warsaw.
FADE IN: Portraits of Jody Myers and Dónal O’Sullivan
Our leaders are Jewish Studies Professor Dr Jody Myers and History professor Dr Dónal O’Sullivan.
FADE IN: Old map showing Russia and Germany.
Rival nations partitioned Poland several times, starting in 1772. For over 120 years, Poland vanished from the map.
Music: medieval battle sounds.
FADE IN: Jan Matejko’s Grunwald painting.
The glory of the nation was preserved in images like these, celebrating past military victories such as the one in Grunwald in 1410.
Despite being overwhelmed by foreign powers, Poland still remained a good place to live for Jews.
FADE IN: B/W images of Jewish life in Poland and Lithuania. Buildings, synagogues, people.
Music: Rhumba from FPM.
Before the Second World War, over three hundred thousand Jews lived in Warsaw. They made up a third of the city’s population. And Vilnius was called the ‘Jerusalem of the North’ because of its educated Jewish community.
FADE IN: Today’s Warsaw. Old Town. Castle square.
At first glance, the Old Town of Warsaw looks beautiful. And authentically medieval, if you do not look too closely. Houses sport arches and colorful decorations. They crowd together as if to give each other support. In fact, all this was reconstructed. None of these buildings survived World War Two intact.
FADE IN: Images of destruction in Warsaw. Music: Brotherhood from FPM
In September 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland. Poland did not capitulate. Warsaw erupted twice, once in 1943, when the Warsaw Jews rose up against the Nazis, and again in 1944, when the Home Army called on the remaining population, large and small, to attack the Germans.
FADE IN: Images: The Sewer memorial. The Little Insurgent.
When Germans began to isolate Jews. They had to wear armbands. They were confined into Ghettoes. The Nazis attempted to destroy every trace of Jewish life in Europe.
FADE IN: Images of Warsaw Ghetto.
Then, the deportations began. Thousands of Jewish men, women and children were rounded up at the Umschlagplatz. Armed guards pushed them onto cattle cars. The destination was Treblinka.
FADE IN: Images of Treblinka. Stone markers. Replica pits. Music: Ever evolving from FPM
LETTERS APPEAR ON SCREEN
“Treblinka operated from July 1942 to October 1943. Between 800,000 and 1,200,000 Jews were gassed to death here. The SS first buried their bodies in open-air pits. But soon, in an attempt to destroy evidence, the guards burnt the bodies and razed all the structures of Treblinka Concentration Camp. The area was reforested. Nothing was supposed to remind people of the horrors that happened here.”
FADE IN: Image of the Black Road.
We are walking on the remains of the Jewish community of Warsaw, Radom, Bialystok and 17,000 communities across Poland and other countries. To cover up their crimes, the SS forced prisoners to scatter the ashes of murdered Jews along the road. It became known as the Black Road.
FADE IN: Images of Treblinka.
If the Nazis had their way, there no longer would be any trace of Jewish life here.
Our attempt to turn over the stones and look at what was here before is our small way to defeat the Nazis. Archaeologists are trying to do the same, digging up the remains of the camp.
FADE IN: Suwalki cemetery. ‘Wailing wall’.
Seven faiths are commemorated in this town in North-Eastern Poland. They lived together mostly peacefully for centuries. Then the Nazis expelled the Jews into Lithuania and attempted to erase their memory as well, by destroying the cemetery.
FADE IN: Letters on screen, Video clip of Dr Myers
FADE IN: East Prussia map.
Our trip takes us to Northern Poland, to the Masurian Lake District. Up until 1945, this was part of East Prussia, and therefore, Germany. Towns have two names, and many Germans visit their ancestral homes.
FADE IN: Landscapes of Mazury. Music: Michele Biki Panitti: Earth (Soprano Version) from beatpick.com
It is a land of great natural beauty, with lakes and swamps and forests and more mosquitoes than people.
FADE IN: Boat Ride Video Clip. Music.
FADE IN: The Wolf’s Lair (B/W). Stauffenberg image. Music: Oppressive Gloom from Incompetech.com
The dense forests provided the backdrop for Hitler’s headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair. Here, the dictator spent most of the war years. [PAUSE] In July 1944, Claus Graf von Stauffenberg attempted to save his Prussian soldier’s honor by assassinating Hitler. But, the attempt to remove Hitler from power failed. The war continued.
FADE IN: Olsztyn. Nicholas Copernicus. (Letters on screen) Music: Teller of Tales from Incompetech.com
The Lake District is dotted with historical sights, not all of them connected to the worst of humanity. The famous astronomer Nicholas Copernicus worked in Olsztyn as an official and had to deal with mundane matters such as coinage and fortifications. He developed his revolutionary concept of the universe in his spare time! That’s unfair, he set the bar really high for us students!
FADE IN: Lithuania landscape. Kaunas. Chiune Sugihara.
Our group crosses a border. Now we don’t even have to stop but in the past, borders divided people. Germans from Russians, Poles from Lithuanians. Between 1918 and 1940, Kaunas served as ‘Temporary Capital’ for the newly independent Lithuanian state.
Music: Prepared for Adventure from FPM
For a short period, the city became a refuge for thousands of Jews fleeing the Germans. Desperate to escape, families thronged in front of every embassy and consulate.
FADE IN: Sugihara photo. Stamps. Office, Typewriter.
A young Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, was faced with a dilemma. Should he abide by the rules and leave these people to their fate? [PAUSE] Or should he follow his conscience? [PAUSE] He decided to issue thousands of transit visas so Jews could make their way across the Soviet Union to find refuge either in Japan or the tiny Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. Today, people compare him - favorably - to Oskar Schindler, and the museum displays the list of so-called ‘Sugihara Jews’ who survived because of the courageous diplomat.
FADE IN: Group photos. Plaque. Music continues.
The example of Sugihara makes us think. What would we have done? Is it right to judge the past harshly? Perpetrators, bystanders, victims. Both Polish and Lithuanian society have started the painful discussion on the dark chapters of their past. We are turning over stones that some people would like us to leave untouched.
FADE IN: Marijampole. Bend of the Sesupe river. Music: Brotherhood from FPM.
A small city in Southern Lithuania. Named after the Mother of Jesus. Marijampole. Here, shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the city’s Jews were rounded up. Something similar happened all across the country, as the Nazis invaded and the Soviets fled.
LETTERS ON SCREEN
“On Monday, 9 Elul, 5701 (September 1, 1941), the Jews of Marijampole were among the 9,000 people who were murdered here.
The mass executions started at 10 o’clock in the morning and continued until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The majority of the murderers were Lithuanians. Among them were many high school and university students.”
FADE IN: Jackson placing an Israeli flag on the monument.
Along the river, the beautiful setting marks a stark contrast to the tragic history. As the monument erected in 1992 states, ‘local helpers’ aided the Germans in their task to liquidate the Jews. Neighbors. People who knew their victims personally.
FADE IN: Ponary Memorial. Music continues.
Close to Vilnius, the Forest of Panierai or Ponary was the final destination for hundreds of thousands of victims. The memorial stones tell a complicated story. Under Communism, no mention could be made of the Jewish identity of the majority of victims. Instead, the text referred to ‘Polish’ or ‘Soviet’ citizens’ murdered by the Nazi aggressors. After the fall of communism, the inscriptions changed. But the fact that some Lithuanians participated in the murder remains a difficult subject.
FADE IN: Images of Jewish Vilnius. Vilna Gaon Monument. Music: Lachaim from Incompetech.com
The Vilna Gaon was the pride of the Jewish Community. From a young age, Elijah gave advice based on his extensive knowledge of the Torah. Before the Second World War, there were over one hundred synagogues in town. Over 45% of the population was Jewish. Traces of Jewish life are everywhere. Yiddish was spoken in streets and squares.
FADE IN: Choral Synagogue inside and outside view.
The Choral synagogue, built in the Romanesque-Moorish style in 1903, is the only functioning synagogue today. Less than 3,000 Jews remain in Lithuania today. They tell stories of survival and determination.
FADE IN: View of Vilnius from Gediminas Hill. The river.
Vilnius, just like Warsaw, is a city with a complex past. Poland and Lithuania share what has been called an ‘unfortunate geography’, often in the path of invasions and conquest by powerful neighbors.
FADE IN: Images of Uzhupis Republic. Music: Nothing Broken from Incompetech.com
Little wonder that after wars and numerous foreign occupations, people are carving out their own space. Like the artists’ republic of ‘across the river’ or Uzhupis in Vilnius. Before the war, Jews lived here. After the Holocaust, the state neglected the area. Artists moved in and declared their independence. The national day is April Fools’ Day, and the Constitution, written on mirrors, proudly declares:
LETTERS APPEAR ON SCREEN
“People have the right to be happy”
“People have the right to be unhappy”
“A dog has the right to be a dog”
“Everyone has the right to love and to take care of a cat”
FADE IN: Old Town Vilnius images, ending on Sunset pictures. Music: Brotherhood from FPM.
We have tried to uncover some of the layers, and we encountered new layers. Every stone we touched gave us another clue, and yet, while our journey has come to an end, the story is not finished. We want to continue to learn. We’d love to return one day, to overturn the stones once more.
FADE IN: Group photos, Out-takes. Music: Been Lost in A Dream (Vocal version) from FPM.
FADE IN: Title Card: The End.
FADE IN: Title Card: Credits:
Music: Happy Strum from FPM.
Mention Music titles and source.