Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lopuszna (July 6)

Today was my day for visiting some Jewish and family-related sites in the mountains south of Krakow. After another very nice breakfast (with some tasty fresh strawberries on my cereal), I caught an express bus for the two-hour drive south to Nowy Targ.

Nowy Targ is the regional capital of the area known as Podhale, which encompasses the hills and mountain area of southern Poland. The views from the town are beautiful: the High Tatras hazily visible to the south, with the sunlight glistening off the view remaining spots of snow; and the Gorce, a range of wooded hills, running immediately to the north. Nowy Targ itself, however, is utterly forgettable and really does not have much to see. I came today because Thursday has been the market day in Nowy Targ for hundreds of years. Back when there were 1000 Jews living in town, this was a major day for Jewish traders to buy and sell goods from peasant farmers, who would bring in their goods in horse-drawn carts. Today the market area is a vast expanse of tin-roofed stalls, where the sellers show up with pick-up trucks.

In some ways, it reminded me a bit of the Polish-Ukrainian market in Przemysl, but this was at least twice as large. There was a lot less farm-related merchandise than I expected, much more finished goods. The first area I came to was the pet market. Sellers stood in the intersection of two large lanes with cardboard boxes full of mostly puppies (though I saw one woman selling kittens). I can only hope that these were not the products of the sort of pupply mills that dominate the U.S. pet market.

From there I passed people selling everything from cheese, candy, dried wild mushrooms on strings, shoes, music (the Polish version of shuk music). Eventually I did reach the stock section where there were a very few horse traders, and one or two cows. I took a picture of the only horse-drawn cart I saw and a 10 year-old boy started yelling at me. God, flashback to Bialystok. I don't know what he was saying, but I just high-tailed it out of there and lost myself in the crowds. I circled around and found the pig market, where there were three pick-up trucks with young pigs in the back. I asked a farmer if I could snap a shot and he let me.

From there I decided to make my way to the Jewish cemetery in Nowy Targ. It was a 15 minute walk (though I took a break is a small roadside cafe for some water). The cemetery was fenced in and the gate padlocked, but the fence was quite low and I had no problem jumping over it. Right in front was a monument to the murdered Jews of Nowy Targ and the surrounding region, erected in 1990 by the Israeli survivors of the Podhale region (the Nazis established a ghetto in Nowy Targ, where 2-3000 Jews from the town and surrounding villages were crammed into a few square blocks). Behind it was a large raised concrete square with a Jewish star pattern on top and a commemorative plaque. I believe this is where the Germans shot several hundred elderly Jews along with the head of the Jewish council when they liquidated the ghetto in 1942. Those like my great-grandmother, who were not shot in the cemetery, were put on trains to Belzec.

I looked around for tombstones of family members, but only a handful survived. Those have been set up right (except for one Mendel, whose headstone is on its side next to the gate). It looks as if the cemetery has been cleaned and weeded, and I noticed relatively fresh flowers and a memorial candle by the mass grave. I put a stone on it and said kaddish. Then I leapt over the wall and walked back to town.

On my way, I tried to keep an eye out for Nowy Targ's synagogue. I knew there was one that had survived the war, but didn't know the address. About a block from the Rynek, I noticed a three-story building with arched, bricked-in windows. The front, the building was surrounded on all sides by a new structure that formed the Kino Tatry (the Tatry cinema). Just across and down away from the cinema, I found the town's memorial to the Second World War. It contained a meter-wide brick wall, and a Polish text identifying it as a memorial to the victims of Hitler's terror during the years 1939-1945.

There was a city museum in the Rynek, so I went in hoping to find out more information on Nowy Targ, and maybe ask if anyone knew where the synagogue was. The museum, however, turned out to be postcards pictures of Nowy Targ from the 19th and 20th centuries. Although a few were sold by Jewish-owned stores (I recognized two names from the remaining tombstones in the cemetery), there was nothing on the history of the town or of the town's Jews. I asked the people who worked there if any of them spoke English or German. One man spoke a little German so I asked him about the synagogue. He translated and the woman showed me that one of the postcards, you could just make out the top of the synagogue in the background. I asked if it was now the cinema, and she said yes (the arched windows were on the East wall where presumably the ark was located).

She then told me that there was another building a few blocks away. I never could figure out what sort of building it was, she used the term "dom budnik" or "dom budynik" but I don't know what that means, and my German translator didn't know how to translate it. I walked down to it, but it didn't look like anything. I suspect it's one of the two batei midrash that survived the war.

By that point, I was pretty much done with Nowy Targ. I headed back to the bus station to catch the noon bus to Lopuszna. The "L" in the city's name is one of those Polish "L"s with a line crossing the middle, meaning it's sort of pronounced like an English "W." That means the name of this small town is pronounced "woh-PUSH-na." When I asked the bus driver for a ticket to there, he gave me a funny look, like "why are you going there?"

After the bus passed the market and crossed the bridge over the Czarny Dunajec river, we were quickly back in the Polish countryside. As we passed small rural village after small rural village, I began (not for the first time on this trip) to question my hubris is thinking that just because I can read some lines someone drew on a map, some numbers on a bus schedule posted last year, and a dim memory of seeing an article posted on the internet 4 years ago about a museum in Lopuszna, I could just go there, equipped with nothing more than some colored pieces of paper that people treated as currency, and a guide book that said nothing about the place.

The bus dropped me off at the entrance to the village and I started walking through the fields. After a few minutes, I made out the museum. This is part of a series of museums throughout Podhale designed to preserve and teach about the unique culture and history of this region. This museum was the 18th-19th century manor house of the town. I had another reason, however, that explained my visit: my great-grandmother's grandfather lived and worked in Lopuszna in the middle of the 19th century. While the story passed down to his children was that he managed forests in the region for the Austro-Hungariarn emperor (not empire, mind you, but the emperor himself), I've always felt this was more than a tad exaggerated. Most likely he worked for the owner of the local manor (who, in turn, owed his title and position in part to the empire)

The museum has restored the manor house, though the main rooms are used as an art gallery, but you can also see the original kitchen. More interesting for me, however, was the 19th-century cottage near by. This cottage (not owned by my great-great-great grandfather either, by the way), was much more like the kind of place he would have lived in. In had three rooms: a short entry way, a basic kitchen, and then a large dining room/bedroom. The cottage was restored in period furnishings and was really interesting. After checking with the docent, I completely ignored the signs saying no photographs.

There were three other people there with me and as we were leaving, one of them asked how I had heard about the museum. It turns out they were tour guides from Krakow doing some background research and were extremely surprised that I as an American had ever even heard of the museum, let alone decided to visit it. I explained about my family connection and how I had read about it on the internet. Actually, Lopuszna played a rather significant role in my grandmother's life, since it was her parent's decision in 1909 to take her back to Poland to meet the grandparents that led to their decision not to return to America.

After that short visit, I decided to catch the 1pm bus back to Nowy Targ. Unfortunately it didn't show up, leaving me wondering how out of date the old, faded schedule was. Thankfully, another bus showed up 15 minutes later and I was able to get back to Nowy Targ and from catch a bus back to Krakow. I wanted to get back by 5pm, because they were having a public reception for the new museum of the history of Polish Jews, planned for Warsaw. The reception included a computer animated video on what the museum will look like, and the speakers included the leading historical advisor, the architect, and the principle donor.

The museum is bisected by a curving, jagged line, that to me looked like a break, a cataclysmic split, similar to the large crack that forms the gateway to the cemetery at Kazimierz Dolny. I asked the historian Michael Berkowicz about it and he said that the architect, who is Finnish, had seen it as a parting of the Red Sea, as a rupture. I replied that to me, the parting of the Red Sea implies a path to salvation, not rupture, and asked him if he intended to refer to the Jewish legend of how Poland got its name (a group of wandering Jews found a piece paper that had fallen from heaven reading "po lin" -- rest here). He said that the architect was outside the Jewish tradition and therefore really unaware of many of these associations, but that this was the beauty of architecture in that it is the audience who projects meaning onto the building, rather than the other way around.

We chatted for a bit and he mentioned that he was raised in Wroclaw after the war, was taught yiddish, attended Jewish schools, and Jewish summer camps, all in Poland up to the 1960s. This was a Poland, he said, that no one ever talks about. I told him that I very much agreed with him, and didn't like the March of the Living, which isolates its participants from contemporary Poland, and instead seems to be more interesting in protesting (though I'm not sure who the target audience is). Berkowicz completely agreed with me and said that it's all about politics. I said that I really disliked the theology, which presents the holocaust as the sacrifice and the state of Israel as the redemption. He nodded strenously.

I mentioned that I would like to bring students to Poland next summer and that it was important for me that they meet with Polish Jews and Christians, not travel around in a bubble. He said, well, there's someone here you should really meet then. He brought me to Andrzej Folwarczny who runs a program called "Forum for Dialogue Among Nations." This group brings together American students with Polish students as a way of opening up discussion. We all exchanged cards and I said I would get in touch when I got back to the States.

After that I rushed over to the Tempel Synagogue for the first of this evening's concerts. It was Midnight Minyan, featuring Paul Shapiro. Like the Andy Stetman Trio, this wasn't really a klezmer concert but rather a jazz concert using Jewish melodic riffs. Shapiro's music was much more energetic and active, however. Many of his melodies began as traditional Jewish tunes, e.g., the Kiddish, Lecha Dodi, etc., but were given contemporary jazz arrangements. His final number was a roaring 1930s swing tune. It was a lot of fun.

Tomorrow night I'm going to see another non-klezmer group: ha-breera ha-teeveet. Originally I planned to go to Auschwitz during the day, but I have to change hotels in the morning and I don't want to have to rush back to make the 6 pm concert. I think I'm going to hit the art museums in the morning and go to Auschwitz on Sunday (I'm also hoping the weather on Sunday will be a bit cooler).

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