Returning to Poland and Visiting Prague

Images and Reflections with Myer Bloom

Our last meeting, held on a cold and wintry Melbourne evening (in autumn) was very well attended, obviously indicating the interest in hearing about Myer’s journey to Eastern Europe; a journey many of us are contemplating.

Myer’s presentation recounted his journey to Poland and Prague. His talk was interspersed with video footage, slides and photos. It was a multi-media presentation - not surprising as Myer is a lecturer in photography and video production at the Photographic Imaging College in Hawthorn.

Myer undertook this trip two years ago, while his son was spending time in Israel. His children know their grandparents, so he felt the need to learn more about his own, by “returning” to their birthplaces.

Myer was interested to discover that the practice of Judaism is increasing in Poland at the same rate as it is decreasing in England and other parts of Europe. A lot of Polish people have discovered their Jewish roots. He found a Jewish school in Warsaw with 160 students. At the Nozyc Shule, also in Warsaw, there is a minyan every Friday night. (You can find a photograph of this shule in the Holocaust Museum).

The 16-minute video (from 1 hour of original footage) showed us various Jewish sites in Poland. Of particular interest to Myer was the town of Ostrolenka, north of Warsaw, where his father came from. The video also covered Warsaw, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, Krakow, Kazimerz and Prague. During the video the silence from the audio was almost tangible and visible as people watched images of a world lost forever…images of old synagogue walls, which had echoes of the past…ruins of cemeteries hundreds of years old.

Ostrolenka is a village 100 kilometres north of Warsaw, which has existed since the 14th century. In 1800 there were 99 Jews; in 1857, less that 1000; by 1939 there were 5000 Jews out of a total population of 11,000. There were scholars, Hassidim, rich people, poor people, Bundist groups and sports clubs – a typical pre-war Jewish community. The whole town was burnt and flattened during the war.

Myer then visited Krakow and amazing 800-year-old city. It was not bombed during the war because it was a university town. Before the war, 70,000 out of a population of 250,000 were Jews. After the war, 6000 remained. Now 150 Jews live there.

From there Myer went to Prague, which is a beautiful, old city, also untouched by war. It is a cosmopolitan, lively city, architecturally magnificent. We saw pictures of the Alte Neue Shule, was built in 1220 and it is believed the Golem rests there in the attic. The Jewish Town Hall of Prague has letters in Hebrew on the clock face, instead of numbers. Shabbat dinners are held there every Friday night for which you can book. Interest in Prague is growing, attracting a lot of tourists to the old Jewish sites.

Myer’s journey has filled in the pieces of the puzzle for him, now he knows more about what his parent’s lives were like in Jewish Europe before the war. He found the Czech Republic to be modern and cosmopolitan and Poland on the cusp of modernising. It was both a sad and happy trip. Myer said the trip was very worthwhile, the chance to walk in his family’s footsteps. His recommendation to anyone contemplating such a trip to do their homework first, and to not be surprised if, in some places, there is no evidence left of the former Jewish life.

A lively discussion followed and the room had displays of photography, books and pamphlets of great interest. I was very moved by Myer’s sincerity and personal touch in his delivery. Obviously this trip had some very emotional moments for him, which he shared with us. We are very grateful for the time and effort Myer put into his presentation, which is, as he calls it “a work in progress”. Maybe it will be made into a film or a book.

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