Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Not Jumping to Conclusions (July 5)

I'm having a hard time figuring out how I feel about Krakow. I think I need to avoid jumping to conclusions and just absorb experiences until I have enough time to sort things out.

Last night I bumped into two of my board members, Gerda and Harold, here in Krakow (actually, we had talked ahead of time, so I knew they were going to be here). Gerda has a little mobile scooter that she uses to get around the Polish streets, so I still don't know how she deals with all the ubiquitous stairs. We talked briefly last night about Przemysl, and they told me that the cemetery has been partially restored there, but entirely through the activities of Jews outside Poland.

Afterwards, I went to a klezmer concert that was part of the festival. It was held in the Tempel Synagogue, which has just been beautifully restored, in part with money from the Ronald Lauder foundation. It reminded me, in its golden arabesques and domed aron-hakodeh, of the much larger and grander synagogue in Budapest. It's one of the central locations for the concerts, which caused me a little difficulty when I went back today to photograph the interior, but was told that it was closed for sound checks for tonight's concerts.

I heard the Andy Stetman Trio. He's a hasid from Brooklyn, who combines both klezmer and blue grass with jazz. Unlike the earlier concert (the tail end of which I could hear from outside), they didn't have the people dancing in the aisles. It was more contemplative. I really enjoyed it.

The only problem is that the 10 pm concerts let out at midnight (after the trams stop). While it's only a 15 minute walk back to the hotel, give the sheer curtains, I was up at 6 am this morning, with less than 6 hours of sleep. That's left me feeling a bit "punchy" today.

Nonetheless, I had a very nice breakfast at the hotel. They have a nice spread, designed to appeal to various demographic groups: they have the frankfurters, meats, and cheeses that Poles and Germans like; they had the cereal, milk, and yoghurt Americans like; they had the bread, butter and jam the French like; and they had cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, and bell peppers that Israelis like. I had a little of each.

Afterwards, I went back to the central bus station to plan out my trip tomorrow to Nowy Targ and then I headed to Wawel Castle. This is original capital of Poland, and the place where Polish kings were crowned, and for many years, lived. To visit parts of the castle, you must be individual separate tickets. Having read that the treasury was repeatedly robbed by Austrian, Russian, and German forces, I decided to skip it. Instead, I bought tickets to the Royal State Apartments, the Private Royal Apartments, the Gallery of Asian Art, and the so-called "Lost" Wawel. The private apartments were beautiful, with many of the 16th century Belgian tapestries preserved. A very nice collection of renaissance paintings was donated to the castle to replace pieces stolen by the Nazis and never recovered.

I then toured the State Apartments, which were also quite interesting, particularly, the audience room with thirty carved wooden heads of individual renaissance Krakovians portruding from the ceiling (there used to be 200 but the rest did not survive). On my way down, I saw the entry way to the Oriental Art wing and went in. It turned out to be three small rooms. The first just had some paintings depicting the great Polish victory over the Turks in 1683, when King Jan Sobienski III saved Vienna (I think the Poles would have been better off to let the Turks take the city). The next long room is of flags, carpets, and weapons the Poles captured from the Turks during the battle. The final room is a collection of Japanese ceramics. I began to feel that the tourist board was taking advantage of me by making me buy a separate ticket just for this short exhibit.

I grabbed a tuna sandwich and some water for lunch, and overheard two tour guides swapping horror stories, and I had to laugh. One told me how he was guiding a tour group of American students and teachers when a teacher came to his room at 10pm with a student in agony. "She only has one kidney," the teacher said, "and it's failing. We need to go to the hospital." In the hospital the student complained of pain on both sides, despite only having one kidney. By the morning, the teacher told him she hoped the hospital maxxed out the student's credit card, as she had Baron Munchhausen syndrome. The doctor proclaimed a miracle: she had arrived at the hospital with only one failing kidney, but she was leaving with two healthy ones.

After the snack I went to the "lost" Wawel exhibition, which turned out to be a short walk through some excavations of medieval structures, with none of it signed in English, followed by a short computer animated film in Polish, showing the medieval structure. I left again feeling a bit ripped off.

I left the castle and strolled to the main square. The rynek in Krakow has to be the largest public square I've ever seen. Bisected by the renaissance cloth house, it looks like two large public squares. I bought yesterday's International Herald Tribune and had an ice cream sundae in a cafe on the square under an umbrella. Very nice.

Then I headed to the Museum of the City of Krakow. Very similar in its structure to the corresponding museum in Warsaw. The history of the city is presented as the history of the politicians and wars that shaped it. When prominent cultural figures appear, they are figures from high status institutions, such as the church or Jagellonian University. It goes without saying, therefore, that Jews were barely present. In a painting of a funeral in Kazimierz, three Jews can be seen in the background off to the side. Later, I saw three Jews as members of the 19th century town council.

But the problem is that while Krakow housed some of the most important figures in European Jewish history, they are not seen as "high" culture or as part of Krakow's history. The museum exhibit only goes up until the 1920s, which I found odd, so there are no discussions of the Holocaust or the aftermath in Krakow. I'm certain this exhibit was put together decades ago, and the city has certainly tried to include Jews and Jewish history in other exhibitions (the books of which were for sale in the shop), but I would be happier if they were directly integrated into the city's official history.

After walking downstairs, I noticed what was a continuation of the museum. I entered and a woman asked for my ticket. I got out my ticket, but she said, no, that's for the museum upstairs, you have to buy a separate museum for the downstairs. I had had enough of that and left.

I headed back to Kazimierz and to the New Cemetery. Usually I don't look for relatives names in the graveyard since the only tombstones that tend to be visible are the large tombs of the rich and famous. Since my family has never been either, I know that there's almost no chance of finding something, but I found myself scanning the wall of reconstructed tombstones nonetheless. The cemetery is being restored, and there are workmen removing weeds, repairing walkways, and steam cleaning the grime off tombstones. I looked for "Herman"s (my mother's mother's family came from Krakow), but no luck. Then I headed to the Isaac Synagogue, which has recently been restored.

They have several movies, filmed in Krakow in the 1930s and 40s playing continuously. I watched one film from 1937 on the work of T.O.Z. (a Jewish health organization). It was sort of like those infomercials that often play at night urging viewers to donate a quarter a day to provide fresh water to an urchin, only here they were ghetto children getting fresh food, excercise, and nursing. It was heartbreaking, actually, knowing that in a few years all these children (and nurses) would most certainly be dead.

After that I went to hear a debate over the Kielce pogrom and then have dinner with Gerda, Harold, and some friends of theirs, two of whom, like Gerda, survived the war on false papers.

I've got to end it here as again I'm out of time.

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