Next Destination: Poland
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there was one thing on which the Italian, Irish, and Jewish kids could agree—anything Polish was worth making fun of. And so we did.
Fast-forward to the eve of my 18-day trip to Poland, and things sure look different.
For one week I’ll be on a special Jewish study tour co-sponsored by Hebrew University. With time in Warsaw and Krakow, we’ll explore the centuries-long cultural, economic, literary, and religious center of European Jewry. We’ll end at the concentration camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz, where a total of two million Jews were assembled and killed. A world-class faculty will help interpret the ups and downs of a thousand-year-old community.
There’s more to Poland than Jews, of course, and it all starts with location, location, location. Poland is the definition of a bad neighborhood—just a stone’s throw from both Germany and Russia. Or Hitler and Stalin, if you like. The country was first destroyed in 1795, partitioned by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Reestablished as a state after WWI, it was partitioned by the same gangsters again in 1939, triggering WWII. Like neighboring Ukraine, Poland was “liberated” from the Nazis by the Red Army in 1945, and spent the next 44 years under Soviet occupation. Unlike Ukraine (see my 2010 travel blog from there), it’s been relatively democratic and stable since throwing off Communism.
My trip will include small towns such as Kazimierz Dolny, named after King Kazimierz the Great (1333-70). His economic and building program is described as “transforming the Poland of wood into a Poland of stone,” and his castle’s supposed to be gorgeous. I’ll visit the birthplace of Copernicus and the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, founded during the Crusades in 1225.
As a bonus, my new book (Sexual Intelligence) is being published in Polish, so I’ve been asked to give a big talk at Crakow’s Cultural Center. What a perfect historical quartet—King Kazimierz, Copernicus, the Teutonic Knights—and me.
Do click the button on the right to subscribe, so you’ll get an email every time I write from Poland. Whether you subscribe or not, come back on August 23 to catch my first entry from Torun, a medieval trading town on the Vistula River.
Day 1 – Arrival in Torun
August 24, 2012
I’m here, back in Europe: land of non low-fat milk, cheese, and butter; high heels on cobblestones; people knowing English and me ignorant in their language; gorgeous medieval churches down the street from McDonalds; and jet lag that feels like malaria, whiskey, and the Three Stooges all at once.
Torun is a lovely city of 200,000 on the Vistula River, 3 hours west of Warsaw and 3 hours south of the Baltic Sea. Its riverside location in the center of the country’s grain fields made it a merchant’s dream as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. The Teutonic Knights—unemployed ex-Crusaders looking for action—helped “organize” towns along the river (think Mafia without the Italian food or buxom women) in the 13th century. About a hundred years later, high-class merchant towns to the west and east created the Hanseatic League, attempting to control and protect Baltic Sea trade running the London-Scandinavia-Northern Europe-Western Russia route.
Lufthansa Airlines? Luft (air) + Hansa.
As you know, Poland was pretty much flattened during WWII (it had a head start by being flat, which is why it was so easy for German and Russian tanks to invade. More on that next week).
Few medieval buildings survived, mostly in Krakow and Torun. So today will be an architectural feast.
Day Two – Copernicus: Still A Genius
Torun is a medieval gem on a par with Dubrovnik or Ghent (why so many people prefer Bruges over Ghent I don’t understand).
One thing I love about medieval and Renaissance towns is that the dynamics of geography, demography, economics, weather, and simple human needs are manifested so obviously. Either modern life is too complex for such observation, or I’m too immersed in it to see it so clearly.
And so in Torun we have the river (easy long-distance transportation), the abundant clay and dearth of stone (almost every building is made of brick), the flatness (easy for Prussians to invade, and therefore easy for people to accept the Teutonic Knights’ offer of protection), the location (on both a north-south and east-west trade route), and so on.
Once Torun hit it big, people started building. And because there was money here for several centuries, you can see a succession of building styles. Gothic was a new-fangled style. Some people disliked it, and insulted it by calling it barbaric. The best known barbarians were the Goths. The name stuck.
They built a wall around the town, of course, in the 1300s. I touched it. There were gates into the city, and I saw the three still standing—mute testimony to the genius of engineering. How would it change Americans if they grew up touching 700-year-old stone? No need to romanticize, though…there’s litter in Torun, too.
One of the city gates opens onto the river, and so this was the neighborhood of warehouses, guest houses, and accounting offices. Exactly as today, rats and humidity were the enemy of grain, and so cargo was held in the upper floors of warehouses, sturdy buildings designed to let air circulate. The largest still standing has windows decorated in the shape of bags of wheat.
Copernicus was born in Torun in 1473, and I visited the house in which he grew up. He figured out that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa. This was a dangerous idea at the time, and his books were banned for 400 years—not by politicians, but by the Church. Clearly they were on the wrong side of history—as every censor always will be. Good ideas will generally persist regardless of censorship. Bad ideas will generally die without the help of censors. One day “Vladimir Putin” will sound just like “Stalin.”
Get this—Copernicus discovered the true sun-earth relationship without astronomical observation—he figured it out with math. Fifteenth-century math. Heliocentrism really was an idea.
Today Nikolas Copernicus University honors him. The school’s symbol is a large sun, a much smaller earth beneath it, with a tiny little crescent moon below. Between Nikolas, the university, and genius medieval architecture, science informs the town. I live in one of the great anti-science periods of American history, and so I’m jealous.
Although I must say I’ve had it with cobblestones. After a whole day of walking on them, my feet feel 600 years old.
Day3 – Around Chelmno: Geography + Fear = Destiny
More and more, I’m learning—by actually seeing—the historical reality. There may be Poles and Polish culture, but there is no Poland. There’s just the border between Germany and Russia, which moves back and forth year by year, war by war.
We started the day by driving some 3 miles east of Torun to Fort IV. It’s part of an oval ribbon of forts built in the late 19th century by the Kaiser when Torun was part of eastern Germany, less than 15 miles from then-Russian territory. The goal was to protect Torun’s rail bridge over the Vistula, which connected Berlin with points east and north. This group of forts was one of 100 such installations all over Germany designed to protect it from invasion.
The fort was designed to be a self-contained unit of 800 men that could survive for three months on its own. It was assembled with the most advanced technology money could buy: steel drawbridge, dry moat, the latest barbed wire, hundreds of thorny rose bushes to deter any attacking infantrymen, artillery, earthworks 20 feet thick, reinforced powder magazine, and horses for the officers.
It was never used for battle. And a few years after being built it was completely obsolete. World War I passed it right by. As they say, generals are always preparing for the previous war—which never comes around again.
We wandered the halls of the good-looking corpse, clambering around observation posts, peering through rifleman slits, and creeping underground, emerging outside, and then back underground again. Outside, weeds were beginning to win their primeval battle with carved blocks of stone, well-marked walkways, and the mounds protecting ventilation and other structures.
It was an interesting contrast—the 15th century so alive, the 19th century so ghost-like.
We then drove west into what was Prussia before it was Germany. The town of Chelmno was another medieval jewel. Because it had been slated by the Teutonic Knights to be the capital of their state, all the religious orders wanted to be visible there, and so beautiful old brick buildings were erected by the Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, and Jesuits. I’ve always had trouble keeping the orders straight, and tracking the subtle differences in their architecture has eluded me as well.
I did go to a convent from the order of St. Vincent de Paul, which allowed me to stroll the hallways a bit. Inside the building’s Treasury an ancient nun tried to tell me about every single object—silver, wood, textile. I’d still be there nodding and smiling if her cellphone didn’t ring in the middle of her lecture, giving me the chance to bolt.
About ninety-nine churches later we were driving back to Torun. The landscape was flat, flat, flat, fields of sugar beets and corn on each side. Easy to invade from east or west. You can understand why Poles have historically been so religious; for centuries, they’ve needed special intervention just to stay in existence.
Day4 – Arriving in Warsaw
I love trains, and gladly seized the chance to travel from Torun to Warsaw by intercity train. I found my compartment and seat by the window, pulled out my book and snacks, and settled in for the three-hour trip.
A man on the platform wearing a cap blew his whistle, and we slowly pulled out into the Polish countryside. The clickety-clack, the Europeans sharing the compartment, the colors, and even the smells brought every World War II stereotype to mind—especially when a uniformed conductor came in to check for tickets. What, no “achtung, pazzport pleeze”? No withering gaze telling me I was in big, big trouble? All that was missing was that wah-wah, wah-wah sound of a European police van from central casting.
I silently laughed at myself, but was also sobered by the thought that I was driven by 50-year-old images drawn almost exclusively from films and seder tables. This being the case, how much stronger are the images for people who live here—driven not by Hollywood but by old stories, old blood feuds, old misunderstandings (or understandings)? How does anyone here live with a neighbor from Germany? From Russia? How does anyone anywhere live next to someone who isn’t from their own ethnic, religious, and racial stock? From their own family?
We in America are the anomalies. We think the right to make money and live comfortably has eliminated so-called petty differences between people. But the passion generated around subjects like religion and evolution give the lie to that comforting national myth. We’re this close to electing a vice-president who would throw you in jail just for getting an abortion. And we’ve already elected a half-dozen presidents who support the medieval idea that families should be able to “educate” their children at home—the way the Vikings and Visigoths used to.
So after I recovered from the perfectly nice conductor lady asking about tickets, I settled in with some light reading: “Death Dealer,” the memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. I figure since I’m going there in a few days, I might as well get the story from the horse’s mouth.
The time flew by, and at exactly 1pm we rolled into Warsaw—overcast, bustling, and no-longer Soviet controlled. I passed a Starbucks to get to the taxi stand, and recalled the tenacious American myth that Ronald Reagan had won the Cold War.
A few minutes later I checked into my room at the Hilton, splashed water on my face, established the all-important internet connection, and was on my way downstairs to join my study group for the coming week: the Melton Seminar in advanced Jewish studies, a project of Hebrew University. Our first exercise considered the question: should we think of Jewish history as the story of continual persecution, or the story of continual survival?
The Poles could ask the same question about themselves.
Day5 – Warsaw Ghetto
On May 16, 1943 the Nazis ended the 27-day Warsaw Ghetto uprising with a flourish, blowing up the city’s main synagogue at 8:15pm.
The Warsaw Ghetto had been created in late 1940, when the Germans herded 30% of the city’s population into 2.4% of its area. In order to contain its 360,000 Jews, each apartment typically held 7 or 8 families.
Today I saw all that’s left of the Warsaw Ghetto: nothing. The 10-foot high walls are gone. The bridge over Chlodna Street connecting the two sections of the Ghetto is gone. The mandatory blacked-out windows are gone. The disease and filth are gone, replaced by fancy hotels, banks, offices, and a Peugeot showroom. The 360,000 men, women, and children are gone, most of them shipped to Treblinka like rotten fruit. And exterminated.
What I did see were several monuments. The jagged outline of the Ghetto is bronzed into the sidewalks of the central city, memorialized with the date 5/16/43. Two symbolic supports on either side of Chlodna Street conspicuously mark the vanished bridge. And a large stone gateway with Hebrew inscription has replaced the Umschlagplatz—the collection and export railway point for a third of a million Jews.
Interestingly, every monument to the destruction of Warsaw’s Jews was built after 1989, when the Soviets left. Hitler’s plan was to destroy with violence. The USSR’s was to destroy with ignorance. Both plans came close to completion.
I’d started the day with a one-hour drive out to Gura Kalwaria, a small town that was home to a then-newfangled 17th-century Jewish sect that eventually grew into the worldwide Hassidic movement. Today’s adherents strive to dress and live exactly as these Polish (and Lithuanian) believers did 300 years ago—heavy black coats, black hats, black pants, white shirts. They’re what my father (whose Hungarian grandfather was a Rabbi) used to ambivalently call “real Jews.”
At Gura Kalwaria we went to a disused synagogue—only saved from wartime destruction because it was converted to a stable—and a Jewish cemetery completely destroyed except for a half-dozen headstones strewn about. The 84-year-old caretaker of both, Feliks Karpman, told us about participating in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and then fighting with the Polish Partisans. He had had to kill Ukrainian soldiers to survive. He also reminded us that Hassidism had been at most only a third of Polish Jewry, considered by many Jews at the time to be reactionary.
In 1942, all 3,000 of Gura Kalwaria’s Jews were shipped to the Warsaw Ghetto, processed through like barrels of flour, and then sent to Treblinka for elimination. All died except Feliks and another, even older man. They will, of course, each die soon enough.
No one can replace them.
Day6 – Down to Treblinka
I spent a horrific day today with dead Jews.
We started at 8am at the Umschlagplatz, the deportation station on the north edge of the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve never seen a more effective memorial to anything. The front of the station was symbolically outlined with gray marble walls. Engraved onto the inner walls was simply a long series of Jewish first names common in Poland at that time. Meir. Sylwia. Zanna. Debora.
Among the names was a simple engraved statement: “Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-43 from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.”
We each picked a name or two, wrote it down, and silently returned to the bus.
An hour outside of Warsaw, we pulled into Tikocyn. Ten Jewish families had arrived in 1522 under a royal charter. They prospered and eventually built a huge synagogue, which we stopped to admire. Pastel frescoes decorated the walls; tiled columns and graceful vaulting held up the elegantly simple ceiling; delicately hammered silver candelabra and ritual objects lived quietly in display cases.
This was no poor community. In four centuries they had grown to 1400 men, women, and children, more than half the town. But the Germans decided that Jews were dangerous to their future, and so in 1942 the entire Jewish community was marched to a nearby forest, shot, and buried in mass unmarked graves.
We drove to that forest, and walked into it. The trees towered over us; the ground was soft and giving beneath us. We formed a circle, read the names we’d selected from the Umschlagplatz, and told why. “Taube, my aunt’s name.” “Pinchas, my grandfather and son.” “Klara, my beloved old friend.” “Moses, my name.”
The sadness was overwhelming. The Holocaust was happening at this moment, in this circle. No one was untouched by it. The ache was a black hole, there was no end nor proportion to it, it was just too big, bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, bigger than this forest. The murdered Jews lay buried all around us. And there was nothing to do but feel.
And to walk back to the bus. And to get on with living.
Which meant driving to Treblinka, a death camp. Not a concentration camp where people lived like abused animals until they dropped of disease, starvation, or madness. A death camp. A camp that people were shipped to in order to be killed in the most efficient way possible.
850,000 Jews from every corner of Europe found themselves on trains bound for Treblinka. They thought they were going to their misery; they didn’t know they were going to their deaths.
The railway station, gas chambers, ovens, and buildings at Treblinka were abandoned by the Nazis in 1943, and were later destroyed in preparation for the war’s end. But the land is still there, the scars left by the railroad tracks are still there, and now monuments are there. Enormous stone railway ties, running along the camp’s edge toward the horizon. A concrete block where the ovens were, grotesque carved heads uttering pointless protest. And 17,000 jagged pieces of slate jammed into the ground, would-be tombstones for corpses that were turned into ashes.
A late-afternoon breeze followed us as we picked our way through the site. The stories of my childhood melted into the studies of my adulthood. This is where the stories actually happened. I had spent my whole life imagining this place and now I was in this place, returning to a place I’d never been.
Day7 – Driving South to Krakow
Today was a strange day.
We spent the morning driving south to Czestochowa, home of the famous Black Madonna icon. An enormous pilgrimage industry has developed around the 600-year-old piece of painted wood that supposedly protected Poland from a 17th-century Swedish invasion.
Now people walk there from across Poland (yes, walk), begging Mary to intercede and relieve their disease, their fear, their suffering. Some local people even line the roads here to feed the pilgrims.
We happened to arrive on a special holiday, and so the church was jammed with people in pain, desperate for hope. Old women, children in wheelchairs, men on crutches. And most disturbingly of all, apparently able-bodied people in their 20s and 30s. Some were earnestly instructing their young children or younger siblings in the finer points of begging for metaphysical help.
Everywhere I turned there were thousands of exhausted pilgrims, waiting for hours, fingering their rosaries, searching the walls, ceilings, even floors for some sign of hope. The huge building shimmered with emotion, and the continual, barely-perceptible murmur of people pushing against each other. Pilgrim and tourist alike were hot, sweaty, and self-involved amid the swaying human spectacle. A single one of us could have set off a panic that would kill hundreds.
We were surrounded by extraordinary Baroque and Rococo art. No surface was left undecorated by gold foil, colored marble, ivory, and more gold. People were standing, sitting, or leaning, waiting patiently for a glimpse of the Black Madonna, Queen of Poland (literally crowned in 1656).
We were led through the mob by a white-robed Pauline monk who guided us around the building through his microphone to our headsets. The pilgrims had anticipated this day for months; they didn’t like 28 strangers cutting in front of them, monk or no monk. We pretended not to notice their resentment. I was sweaty, tired, and resentful myself. But at least I was moving.
I got back on the bus and left the Gora Jasna Monastery.
But the image of all that pain, and the intensely irrational response to it, is burned into my mind. I’ve been to dozens of Europe’s most beautiful churches—repositories of art, music, architecture, textiles, illustrated manuscripts. I’d never seen one of these precious places turned into a temple of the most pedestrian suffering and greed. The irrationality of it simply disgusted me. I pitied them—not their ailments, but their lack of rationality; not their hopelessness, but their lack of dignity.
Fortunately, several hours later we pulled into Krakow. We then took a guided tour of Jagellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world. Remember Copernicus? This is his alma mater. Pope John Paul II’s, too.
It’s a gorgeous set of gothic buildings, set in a leafy Krakow neighborhood. We saw one of the world’s oldest libraries, a globe from 1510 that actually has America on it, and portraits of the faculty going back centuries. In the 1930s, many of the faculty were marched into prison by the Nazis. After considerable international pressure, all but five were released their portraits hang in a special place in the school’s meeting hall.
Two institutions: Jasna Gora Monastery and Jagellonian University. Founded about the same time, one patronizes, while the other challenges. One comforts, while the other empowers. One vibrates with irrationality, the other with reason.
Day8 – Poland’s Jewel, Krakow
50 miles from Auschwitz, 70 years from World War II, Krakow is astonishingly alive. Walking its streets today was a hot, tiring pleasure.
Because Krakow surrendered to the Nazis rather than fighting, and because there was no massive Resistance, and because the Red Army didn’t brutally invade, Krakow survived the war more or less physically intact. Warsaw, remember, was almost completely leveled—in addition to the creation of a municipal hell inside of it.
So unlike Warsaw, Krakow’s Old Town is a charming cacophony of architectural styles, all set on the original medieval and Renaissance-era streets. My eyes feasted on buildings with Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, Secession, and neo-everything features.
I wasn’t prepared for the number and richness of the Jewish sites. Seven synagogues, all at least a century old, each in its own style. Jewish cemeteries hundreds of years old, featuring elaborately carved headstones, some even indicating which tribe the person had belonged to. Jewish shops and restaurants—not just there for the tourists, but there to serve the local population.
We met with an 82-year-old non-Jewish woman who had been a child when the Nazis took over Krakow. Her parents secretly fed Jewish children, and eventually hid several families in their barn—risking death every day to do so. She and her parents have been honored as Righteous Gentiles. Her story was simple and moving.
Polonia, righteous gentile
The highlight of the day was a visit to the Krakow Jewish Community Center. The Director, Jonathan Ornstein, is a 40-something ex-New Yorker (via two years in the Israeli Army, but that’s another story) with the most inspirational perspective imaginable. He isn’t running some dour, black-and-white center serving a few desultory meals to Auschwitz survivors.
No, this place is colorful, vibrant, and so attractive that most of its volunteers aren’t even Jewish. “You have to decide what the Jewish narrative is,” he said excitedly. “We have to get past the Holocaust, and decide who we are going to be now.” Brash enough.
And Krakow, of all places? “The least anti-Semitic place in the world,” he told our surprised group. “The city loves us. The university students love us. This country is so ready to move forward, fully including its Jewish population. There’s no better place to be Jewish right now.”
And what kind of Judaism—liberal, Orthodox, ideological? “We embrace diversity,” he smiled. “The children of the Chabad Rabbi attend our pre-school. We support the LGBT movement. We have a kosher kitchen so no Jew is ever prevented from eating here, and we also involve women at every single level of participation.”
This guy is my kind of Jew. “We don’t just want to survive,” he said. “We want to affirm life.”
Right here in the middle of all that Jewish death.
Day9 – Auschwitz
I spent today at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sorry, but it was anti-climactic.
As a museum, Auschwitz is very well done. A visitor goes through the barracks, sees exhibits of maps and enlarged photos, walks the grounds the prisoners walked. We see enormous cases of human hair, piles of eyeglasses, mounds of shoes. A mountain of suitcases, each hand-lettered with a name, recalls how Jews from across Europe were told to pack their valuables for the forced journey. They did. The Germans then confiscated millions upon millions of dollars in jewelry and cash, and pried out the gold and silver dental work from the corpses.
We see the actual gas chambers and the actual ovens.
But enough of this. I’d heard about it since I was knee-high to a matzoh. Over the years I’ve watched Schindler’s List, Shoah, other documentaries. I’ve seen the black and white photos of tortured adults living like animals alongside neat and tidy German soldiers. I’ve heard endless statistics about how many deaths, how much gas, how many trains, how many dogs, how much pain.
I didn’t know what to expect from Auschwitz, but the whole thing was so familiar, so straightforward, I simply had no reaction. No, I wasn’t numb—just, well, bored. I felt I’d been to this place a million times. I knew the iconic sign over the entrance, knew the guard towers and electrified fences, knew the lines of barracks and latrines, knew the angle of the train tracks as they entered the complex.
“We must never forget”? Be serious. We can’t forget, it’s tattooed into our Jewish DNA. It’s the rest of the world that needs to remember. I don’t need Auschwitz, they do.
A few thoughts did occur to me:
* The famously rational Germans did something incredibly irrational: they persecuted Jews rather than win the war. I can imagine the military commanders in 1942, ’43, and ’44 thinking, “Ach, first we should win the war—then kill whomever we want.” Instead, the Nazis diverted valuable coal, oil, food, trains, munitions, and manpower away from fighting the Russians and Americans. In effect, they were fighting on three fronts—Western, Eastern, and Jewish.
* Birkenau, the concentration camp down the road from the Auschwitz death camp, is 160 acres—the size of a not-so-small town. We walked along the tracks, stopping at the siding where the cattle cars would open and, as incoming prisoners tumbled out, a doctor would divide them into either able-to-work or worthless. In two seconds you’d be eyeballed and sentenced to either hard labor or death.
Processing over a million humans this way was a massive organizational job. In his memoirs, for example, Camp Commander Rudolf Hess complains that he was unable to get the incoming trains to slow down whenever one of the crematoria malfunctioned for a day, overloading the camp.
* Let’s not forget that 5 million Poles died—about 17% of the population. In fact, 150,000 Polish political prisoners were the very first people to die at Auschwitz.
* I’ll never forget the sight of Korean tourists posing for photos in front of piles of dead children’s shoes.
* On our tour, some people argued with the Auschwitz guide. Later, I asked him if this was common. “Yes,” he smiled. “Usually Jewish tourists.”
* How to properly memorialize Auschwitz? Teodor Adorno famously said that after Auschwitz, all poetry is barbaric. I prefer Abraham Lincoln’s version in the Gettysburg Address: that the living cannot consecrate the killing field; those who struggled and suffered there have consecrated it. It’s up to us to simply continue working toward noble ends.
^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
“How could it happen?” “What could have interrupted it?” “How do we prevent the next one?”
Ultimately, Auschwitz is absolutely mute on the questions we all ask about the Holocaust. Maybe that’s what the place offers: it challenges us to live with our knowledge of this barbarity without the answers we desperately seek.
Day10 – Climax in Warsaw
This is the day when the whole Jewish trip came together for me. The history of Poland and the history of the Jews are inextricably linked.
After an uneventful train ride from Krakow to Warsaw, we spent the afternoon at the enormous Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery. Established in 1806, it contains over 200,000 marked graves, as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.
For starters, it has the tombs of dozens of world-famous Polish rabbis in a more or less unbroken intellectual line over two centuries. This includes many of the philosophers and teachers who developed followings at the old synagogues I’d seen days before in Krakow. The tombs of the most respected leaders are huge, featuring gorgeous carvings of Biblical scenes and 19th-century life.
I saw the tombs of Adamo Cherniakov, forced to head the Ghetto’s Jewish council, horribly assigned to select the earliest residents to be exterminated; Janusz Korchak, the educator who sacrificed himself so that his orphanage’s kids, marked for death, could die with dignity; and Marek Edelman, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (later cruelly marginalized by history because he was not a Zionist). As a bonus I also saw the tomb of Lazaro Ludoviko Zamenhoff, inventor of Esperanto.
The cemetery, itself once inside the ghetto walls, has a moving section of unmarked mass graves—a ring of blank tombstones each banded with a mute black ribbon.
Later, we saw the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It was erected in 1948—the 5th anniversary of the uprising—when post-war Warsaw was in ruins. Pictures at the time show the huge monument dramatically rising out of a completely flattened neighborhood. Aside from the moving iconography of the monument itself, the timing and location were powerful statements of the government’s intention: memorializing this event was an absolute priority: this isn’t simply Jewish history, it’s Polish history.
And that was the theme of our electrifying dinner speaker. Konstanty Geber is a journalist who was involved with Solidarity from its earliest days, a “dangerous” figure forced to live underground during the dark days of the Soviet regime. First he warmed us up by answering questions about every aspect of world politics imaginable: the gangster-led, divided Ukraine (“the Western part thinks they lost WW II, the Eastern part thinks they won”); Germany-Poland relations after 1989 (“Poland feared Germany’s money, and Germany feared Poland’s cheap labor; now Poland wants Germany’s money, and Germany wants Poland’s workers”); the role of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in the USSR’s history (“Moscow’s inability to send in tanks to stop it showed it was about to collapse”); there was no subject on which he lacked expertise.
But that was just a warmup.
Konstanty told the complex story of Poland and its Jews from WWI through last week.
He described Jews’ central role during the much yearned-for but short-lived Polish Republic, from 1920-1939; how Jews were part of the Stalinist leadership after the war; the purge that followed, giving full voice to Polish anti-semitism; the Jewish leadership in the Polish student rebellions of 1968 (during which Konstantin was expelled from high school for having Jewish blood, to the dismay of his atheist parents); to the post-1989 recognition that the Jews are central to Polish cultural and national identity.
With some 25,000 Jews in Poland today, Konstanty said, “we are thought about way out of proportion to our actual numbers.”
Konstanty also talked movingly about how the heavy-handed Soviet response to the student demonstrations of 1968 ultimately led to the creation of Solidarity. And how did Solidarity succeed? “Ten million workers suddenly realized they had rights, and had to fight for their country’s future.”
No sane person predicted that Poland would be free within a few years. “My generation,” said Konstanty with satisfaction, “has forfeited any right to ever again be pessimistic.”
Day11-12: Crakow: More Medieval Jewels, and Teaching Sexual Intelligence
Touring Crakow architecture is like eating a large piece of cheesecake—it’s so good you don’t want to stop, but eventually you feel stuffed.
After completing my Jewish study tour, I returned to Crakow, spending a day and a half touring the non-Jewish part of this medieval jewel (how funny to use “medieval” in a non-pejorative sense!). Church after church, one older than the other, crowd the streets and adorn the squares.
I saw the serene Dominican monastery, its outer door proudly guarded by the dog with fire in its jaws (these were, after all, the Pope’s Enforcers, the vicious bastards who ran the Inquisition); I saw the giant yet graceful St. Mary’s Cathedral, featuring an unusual oval, rather than round, chapel dome; early Renaissance (totally symmetrical, classic features), late Renaissance (more robust), early Baroque (a few curves and the beginnings of three-dimensional columned facades), late Baroque (leaving no surface undecorated), Mannerist, Secessionist, neo-classical, and most confusing of all, “eclectic”—several styles in which none predominate, frustrating the earnest, would-be scholar.
A city almost one thousand years old, it’s taken me 5 days to understand how the city unfolded, century by century. One arm of the Vistula was filled in, creating a greenbelt encircling Old Town; here are remnants of the old city wall, built in the 1300s for defense against the Mongols, later expanded for a different set of enemies; and there, on the grand hill, Wawel the Castle.
What a gorgeous complex of buildings, again in a succession of styles from a series of centuries. The Cathedral is ancient, with graceful stone vaulting so high it almost kept up heaven as well as the ceiling. Several round chapels were added later—the earlier one with finer stonework than the later one, as certain craftsmen died. Inside, dozens of tombs, including Kazimir the Great, who “found a wooden Poland and left behind one made of stone.” Several sculptors were brought in from Renaissance Italy, and never left—in fact, they helped make Poland a center of Italian Renaissance art. Think Paris in the 1920s without indoor plumbing.
Changing gears completely, I did get to see the Polish edition of my new book, as well as meeting the publisher and translator. Nice people. I gave a long interview to the 2nd-largest newspaper in Poland. The photographer really wanted me to pose with the reporter—who happened to be a lovely young woman—with my arms around her, or hers around me, which I vetoed. He tried to explain how cool it would look. Finally I said, “it’s bad for a journalist to become part of the story, even in just a photo,” and he backed off.
I then gave a talk to about 50 people—and just as in the U.S., 90% were women. I had a marvelous professional interpreter, and together we educated, entertained, challenged, and generally brought some sexual intelligence to a highly repressed society. After a little friendly banter, I asked about the Polish word for clitoris. I kept deliberately mispronouncing it and asking the audience for help (much as I did last year with sex education teachers in China, you may recall).
And as I say about every group to whom I speak in every country I visit, their questions were the same as everyone else’s—the relationship between sex, love, and intimacy; issues with pornography; appropriate sex education; the desire for a good-looking mate; etc.. As always, the question-and-answer session was charming and often funny.
I then went out for Italian food, drank Chilean wine, put my translator on a bus for her next gig in Croatia, and returned to my apartment to get onto the Internet. Ah, nyet connectski. Globalization isn’t perfect just yet.
Day12-13: Poland Today
Lest you think all of Poland is charming medieval cities…
Today I visited Germany’s money, driving through central Poland. There is construction on every road, and in every town. The 180 miles between Crakow and Lublin took slightly over 5 hours—and felt longer. Most roads are 1 lane in each direction, and if you get stuck behind a truck, bus, or Lithuanian (sorry, local joke), you could be creeping along at 20mph for an eternity.
Transportation in Poland is actually an issue of enormous interest and importance. The eastern border of Poland (with gangster-ocracies Belarus and Ukraine) is the eastern border of the European Union—that is, of non-Soviet, more-or-less civilized Europe. All eyes (on both sides of the border) are focused on smuggling, immigration, defense, weapons trafficking, and currency manipulation, and the faster the roads are upgraded and a modern computerized toll-and-tracking system is installed, the safer all of “Western” Europe will feel.
The “modern” Poland, unfortunately, still has plenty of old Communist mentality regarding “service” and hospitality. Waiters and sales clerks, for example, often seem quite put out if a customer actually has a question or request. And the hotel system outside of Hiltons and Radissons is still quite primitive.
For example, I had rented a “deluxe” apartment in Lublin, and had confirmed, by actual phone call, that it was quiet and contained all necessary amenities. When I showed up, the bedroom window had no curtain. I asked for one. They didn’t have one. I asked if the other empty apartments had them. “Probably.” Well, let’s take a curtain from one of them and put it in mine. “No.” But… “No.” Why? “You rent it as it is.” But what do you care whether the curtain is in the empty apartment or in mine?
I want to talk with the manager. “No.” Why? “He’s busy.” Yes, he should be busy talking with me. “No. He cannot tell you anything further than I have, so you cannot talk with him.”
“You must understand this is how it is.”
And when I requested extra towels, I was asked why I wanted them. I said “Just because.” He said no. “OK, one for my hair, one for my body, one for the floor, and one for my body again tomorrow morning, when the first one will still be wet.” OK, two extra towels made out of beige sandpaper eventually appeared.
To top it all off, they wanted payment—not a deposit, payment—for all three nights in advance. Who in their right mind would agree to that? I cynically paid by American credit card, confident that Visa would adjudicate any problems. And sure enough, the place was so noisy—the outdoor bar a few yards away didn’t close until 2am, and apparently reopened only five hours later—that I had to pack up and move to the Grand Hotel the next morning.
The Grand Hotel—part of an international chain—was old, impressive, clean, and expensive. I checked in and had breakfast—which they had said would be free, but then insisted on charging for. And no, the manager was too busy to talk with me on three separate occasions. On my second day there I moved the car to the nearby lot with whom they had a special arrangement. The old guy staffing the lot insisted I either hand him a hotel coupon or pay him 20 zlotys. I hadn’t been given a hotel coupon; I’d bring it tomorrow, I promised. Nyet. What’s the difference—I’ll come back with the coupon when I retrieve the car tomorrow? Nyet. “This is not how it works,” I was told. We argued back and forth, each using a language the other couldn’t understand. Finally the guy shrugged and beckoned me to leave him in peace.
When I got back to the hotel and asked for the parking coupon, the front desk clerk smiled and told me in perfect English, “Of course. We’ll charge the 35 zlotys to your room.” Wait. The guy at the lot said twenty. “This is our policy. 35 zlotys.” That makes no sense, I said. Why would anyone bother to get a coupon if they could park for half that much without it? “This is our policy. 35 zlotys,” I was told through a forced smile. I don’t understand, I said, not even pretending to smile. Why can’t you explain this to me?
“Do you want a coupon or not?” the clerk demanded. “You must understand, this is how it is.”
Give powerless people a tiny bit of power, and they exercise it heartlessly and shamelessly. Communism has damaged these people badly, and it will take a completely new generation to begin to undo it.
Day14: More Lublin
Are you tired yet of all this Jewish history? I am. I’m interested in history, period. The Civil War isn’t just Black history, and the theft of the Great Plains isn’t just Indian history. They’re both American history.
The Holocaust, the destruction of entire towns, the creation of ghettos, the deportations, the obsessive multi-billion-dollar Nazi murder schemes—these aren’t just Jewish history, they’re history. History everyone should know.
Apparently, when Lublin’s 40,000 Jews (one-third of the city) were deported and killed, the city gradually forgot about them. Post-war Lublin struggled along with its Jewish quarter destroyed, along with its Jewish cemetery, academies, and newspapers. The Communist government had its own historical narrative to impose on local Poles, mostly about Russian suffering and Russian heroics. Weeds grew over the increasingly-distant Jewish life of Lublin.
The Grodzka Gate, built in 1342, was the stone structure that had connected Lublin’s Christian and Jewish quarters for centuries. In 1992, it was rented by a new local theatre group (called NN), mostly uneducated about the structure’s history. As they began its renovation, they unearthed ceramics, kitchenware, and other artifacts hundreds of years old. Their curiosity and professional archeology led to a project that has now recreated Lublin’s medieval and later history—including its substantial Jewish history.
Through an innovative Google Maps presentation, I was able to walk those medieval streets, seeing the world-famous Yeshivas and Yiddish institutions. I saw the substantial collection of oral histories of elderly Lubliners. As I left the building, I was treated to a sneak preview of that night’s opening of a fantastic photo exhibition.
It seems that over 80 years ago, someone took almost 3,000 photographs of everyday life in Lublin—shopkeepers, synagogue openings, neighbors gossiping, and portrait after portrait. The photos were all lost in the rubble and chaos of the German war machine, but miraculously, the negatives survived—a cache of 2,700 glass negatives was discovered in a Lublin attic, they made their way to the Grodzka Gate photographer for printing, and the initial results were about to be unveiled at an exhibition. My guide and I saw the curator, who invited us in for a sneak preview.
Not only did I see the new treasures mounted, the curator showed me his private collection—precious antique equipment for printing the glass negatives, as well as large-scale portraits he’d taken of 32 former Lubliners who had gathered from around the world last year to commemorate the destruction of the Lublin ghetto. Jewish history, Lublin history, Polish history—human history.
I also saw astonishing Byzantine-style 14th-century frescoes, monuments to the Union of Lublin (1569, uniting Poland and Lithuania) and Josef Pilsudski (leader of the Polish republic between the two world wars, persona non grata after 1945) and the Majdanek concentration camp (literally just 5 minutes from the city—don’t tell me “nobody knew what was happening”). That’s seven centuries in one sentence.
Poland. Human history.
Day15: Kazimierz Dolny
Today I bid farewell to Lublin and began the 4-hour drive northwest to Warsaw, where I’d sleep and catch the first of three Sunday flights home.
After 90 minutes I stopped in the charming town of Kazimierz Dolny, where I spent the afternoon. Founded in the fourteenth century, this little jewel on the Vistula River is a favorite tourist spot of Poles.
Apparently vacationing Poles really like their pastry, as the town boasts one compelling bakery after another. Couples and families strolled hand-in-hand among dozens of art galleries and craft shops—a smaller Monterey or Providence, but with easier parking and lower prices.
Another difference is the gorgeous Renaissance buildings, made of local ivory-hued limestone. The buildings seemed so balanced and light they almost floated in the early autumn sun. The Renaissance came to Poland much later than in Italy or France, so architects here had learned plenty by the time they built these in the early seventeenth century.
I strolled along the river, envying the groups of Germans and Poles their gelato and Belgian waffles. I saw the granaries that had helped make Kazimierz Dolny rich. The town was perfectly located to be a big player in the medieval grain trade, processing, storing, and shipping grain upriver to Gdansk and thence across the Baltic Sea and beyond. The merchants? Jewish, of course—until they were prohibited, of course.
Turning back into town, I stopped at the former synagogue, now an exhibition hall for stunning interwar photos of the town’s Jewish populations, both rich and poor. I listened to Yiddish-language klezmer music as I perused the pictures of everyday life in a world that no longer exists.
On my way out of town, I stopped at the former Jewish cemetery, now a small memorial park. When the Germans came through and decimated the Jewish community in 1942, one of them decided to uproot and break up the headstones at the Jewish cemetery and use the pieces for building material. Apparently, a local persuaded them to simply turn the offensive Hebrew side face down and use the stones whole.
Some of these headstones survived, and have been assembled at the now-disused cemetery in a chilling monument. Turned sideways into a new meta-tombstone, the new monument is broken in half, reflecting the permanent damage suffered by the community. Immediately behind the monument, about two dozen stones that survived whole have been restored as they might have looked. The trees that have grown there since the war (Jewish cemeteries never have trees among the graves) gave the site an eerie, peaceful, satisfying ambience.
I said goodbye to the cemetery, got back in the car, and drove toward Warsaw Airport. A hot bath, thick goulash soup, and a clean bed awaited me at the Marriott. I’d be checking in with Lufthansa (Remember the Hanseatic League? Lublin and Kazimierz Dolny were members, too) soon enough.