Even before we both left for our last trip to Poland, we discussed how we would present our visit in our travel edition of Jerusalem post Podcast. Our bi-monthly show is generally fun, so the idea of portraying both glorious and tragic Jewish history on our show was somewhat daunting.
Our destination: the south-east of Poland, close to the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine.
Most visitors to Krakow don’t travel beyond the city limits, but for us it was simply the gateway to the region. Krakow Airport is an hour from Tarnów Town Square, dating from the 14th century. The town hall in the center of the square dominates, with its bell sometimes ringing on time, if the official winder has remembered to do its job. A climb to the top rewards you with a magnificent view of the city and in particular the place where its Jews once resided.
With one exception, the houses on all four sides of the square were once inhabited by Jews. The only remaining evidence is the space carved into a stone door, where a mezuzah once sat. The town museum tells the story of Tarnów, including that of its once large Jewish population. The exhibits in the museum’s main building are primarily aimed at school children with the message: we learn from yesterday’s lessons and move forward as equals, all.
There are other striking remains of Tarnów’s Jewish past – a Jewish-style restaurant in the old mikvah building; the “Bimah”, an imposing four-arched plaza that is all that remains of the main synagogue and, perhaps the most poignant, of the restored Jewish cemetery, still in use today. You can pick up a key to the cemetery from the tourist office in the town square. Near the Bimah are the offices of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Tarnów where you can organize guided tours given by the city’s only known Jew, Magda Michal Bartosz.
A side visit to Zalipie, a 40-minute drive away, takes you to a once gray village in need of loving care. About 100 years ago, the inhabitants decided to give their hamlet a makeover. The whitewashing was followed by a pop of color and finally vivid flowers painted on every available space. A small technicolor museum tells the story of the project.
With a much larger town square, Rzeszów also has a rich Jewish history to tell. You can see the remains of the ghetto wall and two standing synagogues. Poignant monuments dot the old town.
An important stop is the museum of the Ulma family of Poles who rescued Jews during WWII in Markowa, a village southeast of Łańcut. It casts an unfailing look at the Holocaust through the village lens: it tells about those Poles who did nothing to save the Jews or those who actively helped the Germans, but its centerpiece is the story of those who paid with their lives for trying to save their Jewish neighbors.
Closer to the Ukrainian border, a walk around Przemyśl will take you to a castle, colorful churches, through a beautiful city center, and a standing but now disused synagogue. The whimsical Bell and Bagpipe Museum is certainly a good way to spend an hour, but there are plenty of stops to be prepared. The view at the top is sublime.
During the Communist era, the Party enjoyed its stays at the Hotel Arłamów. The Polish leader of Solidarity Lech Walesa less. He was imprisoned there for six months. Today it is a luxury sports hotel with just about all the amenities you could want in a beautiful landscape. It is easily accessible from Przemyśl.
The Sanok Museum of Folk Architecture gives you an idea of what life used to be like in this corner of the world. The team moved buildings from abandoned villages in the area and lovingly restored them to Sanok. From October, the museum will include a synagogue. Unfortunately none were left untouched, so the team built this one based on photos. It will house an important collection of Judaica.
As we walked through town after town, we realized that their populations often included a 40-50% Jewish minority. Sanok was no exception.
One thing that you see in abundance in this region is the wooden churches. If you’ve had time to visit just one, it should be the Church of the Assumption of St. Mary in Haczów. It is the largest UNESCO-recognized Gothic wooden church in Europe and one of the oldest wooden frame churches in Poland.
This area is also known for its glass – a reminder is hosted at the Glass Heritage Center in Krosno, right next to another beautiful town square. Visitors watch the whole process with excellent guides and the ubiquitous store at the end of the tour. Kids will have fun with the magic mirrors, hands-on exhibits, and extremely smart 3D painting they can walk on.
A great way to end a busy day is to visit the excellent Carpathian Wine Fair at Dwór Kombornia Hotel and Spa. While Polish wines still find their way, the cellar gives an excellent overview of wines from the wider region which includes several countries. The owner and wine teacher is knowledgeable and funny with impeccable English.
It’s a long drive from there to Kazimierz Dolny but well worth the trip. Situated on the Vistula, the hills of the village offer panoramic views, the castle being perhaps the best vantage point. Below in the second village square, the synagogue and the kosher butcher’s shop have been recreated. The synagogue houses a small but fascinating exhibit of pre-war life in the area. A few minutes away is the Goldsmith’s Museum, which includes displays of Jewish and religious works as well as exquisite jewelry.
If, from there, you are heading towards Lublin, stop at Kozłówka Palace, the home of the Zamoyski family (more information in a minute). It is a large rococo and neoclassical palace complex filled with hundreds of paintings, period furniture and beautiful gardens.
OUR final destination was Lublin. Its castle is a good starting point for understanding the city and its surroundings. It is a church, castle-keep, museum, gallery ensemble. Allow enough time for a visit. The neighboring old town allows a pleasant stroll. Even if you stay kosher, it’s worth setting your sights on the non-kosher restaurant Judeu Mandrágora, with its traditional Ashkenazi menu. The walls are filled with images of rabbis and Jewish sayings. The background music is distinctly Hasidic, and the staff costumes will take you back to the days of the shtetl. There is a Jewish family member who is committed to keeping Jewish culinary culture alive.
While in Lublin, a visit to the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin is highly recommended. The synagogue is still operational for groups of visitors and the explanatory exhibition on the old Talmudic college is small but of great interest. The yeshiva is housed in the same building as the Ilan Hotel, which has a kosher kitchen for groups of visitors. The regular restaurant serves excellent gourmet cuisine.
On the outskirts of the city and not to be missed, the open-air village museum. If you are Ashkenazi, it is worth the trip to see an exhibit. Based on photos and interviews with neighbors, the village recreated the property of a Jewish family, just like the one where your great-grandparents lived. With wonderful guides telling the story of this exhibition and others, you are taken back 100 years to a very different world.
After a haunting and moving visit to Majdanek, on the outskirts of Lublin, our last stop was in the UNESCO World Heritage town Zamosc, built by the patriarch of the Zamoyski family, Jan. Its place was probably the most magnificent of those visited, with its Armenian influences. The walled city is easily accessible on foot and is full of types of shops that tourists love to browse. Zamosc has the only Sephardic synagogue in Poland and is a highlight of this beautifully preserved city.
In these small towns and museums, people are remarkably friendly and open to discussing almost anything. Take the time to listen to the guides and ask lots of questions and you will learn a lot about Poland and its Jewish past.
The authors were guests of the Polish Tourism Organization, Małopolska Organizacja Turystyczna, Podkarpacka Regionalna Organizacja Turystyczna and Lubelska Regionalna Organizacja Turystyczna.
You can listen to their three-part podcast series on Poland at: