A Tour of Hell, from Hell

On the Road to Warsaw

My first full day of a two-week Holocaust tour and already I'm buying into racial stereotypes.

by Jerry Stahl
Feb 21 2017, 4:06pm

Koren Shadmi

This is part two of a six-part series. Read the other installments here.

It's the first full day of the tour and our orders are to be up at six. Leave luggage in front of the door. Make it down to the meaty buffet breakfast at 7. Be on the bus by 8. It is, fittingly, a regimented schedule.

As is my wont, I sit in the back of the bus. Putting a lot of seats between me and the group. It's a habit I've had since grade school, but bad form on a bus tour. It's not long before I'm spotted and invited up to the front.

"Look at Gerald all by himself on the back of the bus. Well what do you know, you've won the lottery and now you get to sit up front behind our wonderful driver, Josef!" All eyes turn.

I make the walk of shame up the aisle and take the uncomfortably visible seat behind the driver. I didn't mention this—why would I—but I have a thing about people staring at the back of my head. I like people where I can see them. Having people behind me, staring at me, makes me so uncomfortable I sweat.

No way around it, I have to sit for seven hours, with 19 people behind me aiming their eyes at my occiput. The set-up induces the same crawl-out-of-my-skin-and-slide-down-a-cheese-grater sensation as kicking dope. Not as intense, but the same family of squirm.

Adding to this unease is the feeling I imagine a lot of people get while moving through erstwhile Nazi turf. Peer into a café, step onto an elevator, and you can't help but wonder if every hairy-nostrilled old timer giving you stink-eye has a secret history. Case in point, the sausage-bobbling geezer at an adjoining table this morning at breakfast. I wondered if the old bastard was unaware he was scowling at me. No way to tell if his Pirogi-chafed piles are killing him or if, in happier times, he was bayonetting babies just up the road. And feels nostalgic.

The problem, when Nazis are involved, is that paranoia doesn't register as paranoia. It's just there. Like gravity.

As my grandfather used to say, "If you ever forget you're a Jew, a Gentile will remind you. Especially a Third Reich gentile."

I'm hoping this paranoia abates as I spend more time in the Hebe-Killing Countries. But in fact, it just gets worse. The problem, when Nazis are involved, is that paranoia doesn't register as paranoia. It's just there. Like gravity.

We're headed toward Warsaw's "Wedding Cake" palace of culture and science. Our tour guide, Margaret, is a silver-haired wire thin Brit who has that kind of competent, Helen Mirren beauty that holds up even when you're Helen Mirren's age. The professional embodiment of "carry on." Her job, I soon learn, is a hybrid of professor, shepherd, and tummler.

On the way to the palace she tells us about the mythical Mermaid of Warsaw, who once upon a time fell in love with a local fisherman and devoted herself to protecting the city. She tells us to keep our eyes peeled for mermaid doorknobs, a small nod to the heroine from local residents. She's telling us this fable, I think, as a way to ease us into the trip—going straight to the heavy shit would be too jarring. We need to hear a nice story before diving into hell.

Impressively, Margaret doesn't work off of notes, and when we finally get to the famous Wedding Cake she manages to make the architectural oddity weirdly interesting. "In the Stalin era, the building was known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science," she tells us. "After Stalin, they took his name off the front, and out of the lobby. But you don't live through Stalin without a sense of humor, and today Warsaw locals who don't refer to it as the Wedding Cake prefer Stalin's Syringe, or Elephant in Lacy Panties." Having had some experience with syringes, I get the Stalin thing. The Elephant in Lacy Panties, I suspect, may involve vodka. That said, the building is a jarring combination of phallic and fussy. But I don't get to a lot of weddings.

Stepping off the bus, I realize there is no self-esteem booster like pulling up to some prosperous corner, getting out with a Globus strap around your neck and taking marching orders from a stern tour guide. Speaking of orders, the strap is to hold our Whisper, a headset that enables tourists to hear what the guide is saying without having to hang around her like little lambs with a mama sheep. (The feeling is not unlike that of being in rehab and taking a van to baseball games, where other fans regard you like you're vaguely mentally challenged when you get off the short bus in public.)

After the Wedding Cake we stop in a charming square, where I buy a little Jew. A tiny wooden rabbi, with a coin in his hand. The shelves are full of them. I ask the storekeeper, a grinning fellow with a trim beard, no moustache, and a pearl button country western shirt, "What's the significance of the mini Jews?" He's more than happy to explain. "They're cute, Ja? They're lucky Jews. The Zydki. Put them by the door, so money won't go out of the house."

I chew on that, and he amplifies. "In Poland, we have saying: 'A Jew in the room—a coin in the pocket."

Well OK then! I take six. On the one hand, it is a racial stereotype. The rabbi's holding a coin! On the other, it's a happy stereotype. Cute as a Leprechaun (or a lawn jockey), as opposed, say, to a vicious Semite slitting the throat of Christian babies for blood matzo. The Poles traditionally are no great fans of the sons of Moses.

It's the little things!

I've got my bag of rabbis when we get off the bus and saunter over to what's left of our second destination: the Warsaw ghetto.

The Warsaw ghetto, for those who don't know, is where Nazis stuffed Jews—not just those from Warsaw, but from nearby towns as well. At its height there were half a million people crammed into a 1.3-mile area. That works out to 7.2 people per room. Counting closets as rooms. So basically, the Jews were walled into a vertical coffin. The crack Third Reich nutritionists decided that if residents consumed less than 800 calories a day, they'd all be dead in under a year. They had a lot of scientists on that. The plan was slow motion genocide. ("One famous survivor," Margaret tells us, "was Roman Polanski. Who of course went on to make The Pianist.")

More than three million Jews lived in Poland before the start of World War II. Today, there are around 20,000. But there could be millions of Zydki. So why not drop a couple hundred zloty to buy a half dozen Lucky Charm rabbi? One zloty is worth a quarter. The bill even looks shabby. It's the Burt Young of international currency. What else are you gonna do with it but buy tiny Jews?

In a tragic example of the law of unintended consequences, our guide informs us the failure of the Nazi plan to starve out 500,000 Warsaw Jews spurred the High Command to grease the wheels for another solution: The Final One. Wherein they built camps, and packed the future dead onto boxcars. By strange coincidence, even before the fascist wave broke in America, the prison industry was booming in Eastern Europe. Hiring workers to add chimneys and crematoriums could be a real jobmaker! I can already hear Newt Gingrich on Meet the Press: Say what you will about Hitler, he was big on infrastructure!

Illustration by Koren Shadmi

World War II
The holocaust
Jerry Stahl