One night in early March, my husband, Warren, and I were curled up watching The Zookeeper’s Wife, a movie that tells the story of how Jan and Antonia Zabinski saved the lives of many Polish Jews by hiding them in and around the Warsaw Zoo (which the couple ran) and finding ways to shepherd most to safety.
At that time—the 1930s—the Warsaw Zoo was one of the largest in the world and run by no ordinary couple. Jan Zabinski wrote books about animal psychology; Antonia had an extraordinary ability to communicate with creatures of all kinds (including humans). This zoo’s animal population—the Zabinskis dubbed them “Guests”—was the envy of other zoologists, including the Nazi constable posted to Warsaw.
With hearts breaking from their Guests’ untimely deaths—the Germans stole some, murdered the rest—Jan and Antonia turned to help their Jewish friends inside the Warsaw Ghetto. The odds were against them that they could succeed. But they did.
Unwilling to leave that time and place, the next night we watched Uprising, which tells how a small band of Jews fought bravely back against the Nazis—again, against all odds.
Warren and I are both Jewish. We both have been keenly aware of the Holocaust for as long as we can remember. But watching these two movies made something rise up inside me.
“Let’s go to Poland,” I said.
Warren turned to me, his brown eyes alight. (He is the best husband for me because he always welcomes the ideas that flow constantly from my brain to my mouth, many of which never happen.) “Okay,” he said. “Let’s!”
The next day, going to Poland seemed another crazy idea—but idly searching airfares, I found two $402 one-way seats to Warsaw in late August—and nabbed them. And though August felt fuzzily in the future, I soon began planning.
Starting with Warsaw to Krakow, for a while we made giddy plans, looking at the world map in my studio. Krakow to Italy? Venice! Why not Greece? But soon, we decided this 21-day trip would be our “World War II/Holocaust” journey. Warsaw to Krakow to Prague; then, Berlin, where an equally low airfare would take us home to Denver.
And then the really fun part: dotting this journey with events. One reason I love planning faraway trips is how it makes me feel—that we are all alike, all connected, just have to reach out—as opposed to today’s world, where obstructive layers choke the most ordinary interactions. Trying to ask my doctor a simple question about my health over the phone proves astoundingly difficult. But getting train tickets for a date two months away, between two cities whose names I can’t pronounce, in currency I’m not familiar with, is surprisingly easy.
Getting both walking and tram directions between our Krakow hotel and an out-of-the-way café with rave Yelp reviews is so doable it makes me laugh out loud with delight. So does the Shabbat dinner invitation from a Warsaw rabbi I sent an email to some weeks ago.
I am writing this from a desk in the Polonia Palace Hotel, which is even prettier than the photos, whose staff is even nicer–and location unforeseeably fabulous: not only is it central to so much we want to see, but right across the street is a shopping mall, where, totally jetlagged, we decided to spend our first hours in Poland. Joining the fast-moving crowds, we felt the bustling, capitalistic energy that is Poland today.