Felix Karpman, 78, is waiting to guide us through his town when our bus arrives in Gora Kalwaria.
He leads us to the synagogue in the Polish village and tells us that when he was a young man, the rabbi here was so esteemed that you had to arrive early even for standing room. Boys climbed hat pegs and hung from the pillars to watch. The courtyard outside was often a dark sea of black coats and hats as the rabbi addressed the faithful from the second-floor balcony of his home.
Tour participant Lawrence Shuman of Fairfax reads -- and reacts to -- displays at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
(Czarek Sokolowski/AP/special For The Washington Post)
You can almost for a moment see the crowds, hear the murmuring of voices. Then you jolt back to reality: The synagogue is empty, crumbling, smelling of dirt and mildew.
There have been no services in this synagogue since 1940. Karpman has long been the last Jew of Gora Kalwaria.
There are 28 Americans on this tour led by Claire Simmons, a Holocaust scholar and the child of survivors, a Rockville woman born in the ruins of Czechoslovakia in 1946. She's been leading Holocaust tours of Eastern Europe for 15 years. Like three of every four American Jews, most of my fellow travelers have Polish roots. I am one of two Gentiles on the trip.
We will spend eight days in late spring in Poland and the Czech Republic, in beautiful cities, in small towns and in death camps, learning more about what happened here. We come to witness not only what was lost, but to see what remains of a great Jewish civilization built in Europe over seven centuries.
Our group, including college students and retirees, also comes to honor the dead.
In gas chambers with concrete walls still stained a poisonous greenish-blue, the group recites Kaddish -- the Hebrew prayer for the dead. We also pray next to grassy fields that undulate in strange patterns. The dips and depressions are evidence of the uneven decomposition of thousands of bodies dumped into shallow, unmarked graves.
"By being here and acknowledging what happened, we are their markers," Simmons tells us. "We are their tombstones."
In Gora Kalwaria, in eastern Poland, we pray before a tombstone that honors Karpman's family. Beneath the stone lies an anonymous mixture of bones and ashes that Karpman collected from a heap near a crematorium in Treblinka. It's possible, he thinks, that the ashes of some relative may be among what he found in the death camp. It's the best he can do.
Some of us cry along with Karpman as we say the prayer for the dead before his family's monument. But a few minutes later, in the courtyard outside the synagogue, we dance. There is no music. But we form a circle, holding hands and high-stepping a folk dance of ancient Jewish origin. We dance, Simmons says, for the rabbi of Gora Kalwaria.
The bleak, gray city of Warsaw changed little during the post-World War II years of Soviet domination. Recently, though, residents have begun long-delayed renovations. As they tear up floor boards and knock down walls, they've been finding letters, diaries and hastily scrawled notes from people who knew they were about to die.
"They had a drive to record their existence, to be known by name, to tell the world what happened," Simmons says.
So many names. Up to 475,000 people at a time were crammed into this ghetto surrounded by a 11 1/2-foot wall and topped with three feet of barbed wire. About 100,000 died of starvation. The rest were sent to Treblinka's gas chambers.