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Destination: Poland : THE SCHINDLER'S LIST TOUR : A journey, inspired by Spielberg's Holocaust film, through the remnants of Jewish life in Poland

August 21, 1994|JACK SCHNEDLER J.S...BD: Schnedler is travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

NOWY SACZ, Poland — Behind Shimon Holzer, the last Jewish man in Nowy Sacz, stretched the cemetery wall, built as a memorial after World War II from broken tombstones that the Germans had uprooted to pave the streets in this southern Polish town.

Beside the stocky factory worker stood 10 solemn Americans, the Jews among us reciting the Kaddish--the ancient Hebrew prayer of mourning--at the grave of his father, Kalman Holzer.

"This is very important to Shimon, because he doesn't know the words of the Kaddish himself, and there's nobody else to pray for his father," said tour leader Stu Feiler. A Chicagoan who lost more than 30 relatives in the Holocaust, Feiler was spurred by Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning movie "Schindler's List" to organize several "Oskar Schindler's Poland" tours such as the one we joined in July.

The soft-spoken Holzer had steered us across the wet morning grass, stopping at monuments inscribed in Yiddish, and sometimes in Polish, as well. Erected for the most part since democracy took hold in Poland five years ago, they memorialize some of the 5,000 Nowy Sacz Jews executed by Nazi firing squads in the centuries-old cemetery or deported to the gas chambers of the Nazi death camp in Belzec.

"There were nine synagogues in Nowy Sacz in 1939," Holzer told us through an interpreter. "Jews made up a third of the 15,000 population back then. About 20 surviving Jewish families returned after the war. Some went to Israel in 1956, and the others to Sweden and Australia in 1968."

That slender remnant of survivors departed their native Poland, he said, "because the Jewish people were not liked here. But it doesn't make a difference to me."

So Holzer remains, along with one Jewish woman still living in Nowy Sacz, now a pollution-shrouded industrial city of 75,000. He tends to his ailing Roman Catholic mother, who hid his Jewish father at home during the five years of German occupation.

The elder Holzer emigrated to Israel in the '60s, but came back because of bad health and died here in 1984 at age 78. Only when the occasional Jewish visitors come to Nowy Sacz from Israel or America can the proper prayer be said for his soul.

Deserted Jewish cemeteries, with their haunting echoes of a venerable civilization snuffed out overnight, became one leitmotif of our 11-day tour. And "Oskar Schindler's Poland" proved to be an emotionally wringing crash course in a vibrant culture that all but vanished in a five-year blink of the eye beneath the barbarity of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution.

In Krakow, the trip's hub, we even met a startling apparition--a Holocaust survivor who believes she is the true-life incarnation of a character killed off in the movie version of "Schindler's List." Roma Ligocka, a 55-year-old painter of ineffably sorrowful portraits with bottomless eyes much like her own, believes she was the little "Girl in the Red Coat," the powerful lone color image used amid Spielberg's black-and-white footage to pinpoint Oskar Schindler's conversion from war profiteer to savior.

A morning's excursion to "Schindler's List" locations in and around Krakow, enlightened by Spielberg production consultant Franciszek Palowski, spotlighted the movie's heartening tale of courage and rescue.

Five of us were inspired enough to see the film again the next afternoon (with Polish subtitles, for $1.80, in a sweltering Main Market Square cinema with no air-conditioning).

But our long day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 30 miles west of Krakow, painted the full canvas of the Holocaust in deepest black with vignettes such as these:

* Two tons of human hair, turned gray by the Zyklon B gas before it was shorn from the freshly asphyxiated victims, to be sold for carpet padding and coat lining in Germany.

* An entire gallery of shoes, some of the 40,000 pairs found when Soviet troops reached Auschwitz in January, 1945.

* Another room containing heaps of battered suitcases with their owners' names chalked hopefully on the side.

* The hulking ruins of five huge gas chambers and crematories, the killing machines of the Nazi inferno.

* The slippery feel of the slivered human bones that can be found in almost any handful of dirt scooped up near several cloudy ponds still clogged with the ashes of men, women and children gassed and burned at a pace that sometimes reached 20,000 a day.

Seven hours inside Nazi Germany's most prolific death factory hammered home the message that the "Schindler's List" saga--as true and inspirational as it surely is--ranks as an extreme exception to the rule. For the overwhelming majority of Jews who fell under the swastika's shadow, the bottom line was death by disease, starvation, slave labor, torture, shooting or gassing.

Oskar Schindler saved 1,300 Jews. Close to 6 million other Jews--roughly half of them Polish citizens--perished in the Holocaust. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we gazed into the heart of that darkness.

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