Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Nearly Home (July 25)

Well, it's the end of a very long day.

Up at 4:40 am this morning to catch my flight, then two security checks at Frankfurt airport (passengers flying to England get an extra second, more intense round of metal detectors), then passport control and another security check in England, followed by customs and yet another security check in New York. At least this time, I was selected for the special chemical analysis check at each stop as I was on my outbound flight.

I'm staying with friends in West Los Angeles, before heading down to San Diego tomorrow to pick up my car. Then I'll head home to check out how my dorm room is doing in the summer heat and make sure my portable air conditioning unit is working after a two month rest.

That being said, the air felt cooler and dryer in LA than in Europe, so I think as a baseline, it's going to be better here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Beginning of the End (July 24)

Well, I've begun my trip home.

I managed to achieve my goals this morning, visiting the grave of Leopold Zunz and then making some last-minute purchases at KaDeWe.

No problems at Berlin Hauptbahnhoff getting my ticket, but I had someone help me through all the multiple screens of the automated system. This has to be one of the most complicated ticket-purchasing systems on the planet. After you finally figure out the first machine, you have to take the print out to the second where you actually pay for and receive the ticket.

My hotel in Frankfurt is only one u-bahn station from the hauptbahnhoff. I'm at the airport right now trying to pre-check in for my flight. That way, I'll only have to be at the airport by 6:00 am to go through the two security checks, as opposed to 5:30.

Unfortunately, they won't let me do early check in until after 7pm, so it looks like I'm going to have dinner here while I wait. As long as it isn't McDonald's; so far I've avoided all American chain restaurants during my entire trip to Europe.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Wannsee (July 23)

Well, out of the frying pan into the fire. We have exchanged high heat for high humidity. It's hard to know precisely which is worst

Still, I slept in til 8 am and after breakfast headed out to Wannsee. This is often described as a suburb of Berlin, but it really is where wealthy Berliners built summer homes at the turn of the century, in order to enjoy the forests and lakes. My goal today was the house where the Wannsee conference was held.

In films, such as "Conspiracy" or even in Lanzmann's "Shoah," I had gotten the impression of a large, isolated mansion. In fact, it is located on a side street of similar summer homes and, while set back from the street, is not any further back than the houses of its neighbors, nor is it significantly larger. The house is in no way remarkable, other than the fact that the implementation of Nazi genocide was planned there.

Not the decision to commit genocide; that was made some (maybe 2-3) months before by Hitler and Himmler. This was where Himmler's assistant, Richard Heydrich, gathered the leading bureaucrats together to agree to his leadership of this project. When he was assisinated a few months later by Czech partisans, the named the major death camps in his honor.

Even though the house has recently undergone extensive renovations, no one bothered to add air conditioning, so we all had the soft drip drip of sweat from the humidity, accentuated by the heat from the display lighting. The display on the origins of racism, the rise of antisemitism, the rise of the Nazis and the increasing persecution of the Jews is all handled quite well, as is the material covering the early years of the war. The exhibit nicely distinguishes between the murderous policies of the Nazis during the first two years of the war and the growing extermination campaign that began with the invasion of the Soviet Union.

At that point, we move into the conference room itself, where the surviving copy of the protocols (and an English translation) is on display in the center of the room, so that one can read for oneself the complete text (it's not very long). On the walls, there are biographies of the participants, with each ending with the individual's fate after the war. Those who didn't die in the fighting, rarely received more than a few year's imprisonment for their actions. It was Stalin who said that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.

I decided not to have lunch next door, but instead walked 10 minutes down the road to Max Liebermann's villa. I had noticed it from the bus, and I thought it would be much more pleasant place to eat. Liebermann was one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement in Germany, and by the 1920s had become the head of the Prussian Arts Academy. At the turn of the century, he built this summer house in Wannsee, and put particular emphasis on the garden, which he incorporated in many of his paintings. The house and gardens have recently been restored, and it was a nice respite from my earlier tour of the Wannsee Conference house.

Not that one can ever really escape awareness of the Holocause anywhere in Europe. Liebermann was Jewish and forced to resign his post by the Nazis in May 1933. At his 87th birthday party in 1935, the Nazis tried to discourage non-Jews from attending. Liebermann died later that year and his daughter and granddaughter escaped to America in 1938, but his widow was forced to give up the house in 1940 when it was "aryanized," and she committed suicide in 1943, when faced with deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

After touring the house and gardens, which are lovely (but not airconditioned), I made my way to my last museum for this trip: the Brücke Museum in Dahlem. This was rather complicated, as I had to first take a bus, then the u-bahn, and then a second bus, but it wasn't that bad. The museum is small, but quite enjoyable. The current exhibition strongly emphasizes the work of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, with several works showing the strong emphasis of Seurault, Van Gogh, and other French Impressionists and particularly Post-Impressionists on the work of these German artists at the forefront of German Expressionism. A truly delightful museum and well worth the small effort to find it.

My only trouble was not buying the set of 3 large exhibition catalogues on sale for an absurdly low price. I just kept reminding myself that even if I threw out all my clothes so that it would fit, it would still weigh too much to lift repeatedly, as I will have to the next few days.

So now all that's left is to find some souvenirs as gifts for my niece and nephews, and have dinner. Today is really the last full day of being a tourist. Tomorrow morning I'll make a quick stop at the Schönhauser Allee Cemetery, where the man who founded my profession, Dr. Leopold Zunz is buried. Then one quick visit to KaDeWe again before taking the express train to Frankfurt. After that, I'll really be more in transit than on vacation. I have to get up ungodly early on Tuesday for my flight back to the States.

Wannsee (July 23)

Well, out of the frying pan into the fire. We have exchanged high heat for high humidity. It's hard to know precisely which is worst

Still, I slept in til 8 am and after breakfast headed out to Wannsee. This is often described as a suburb of Berlin, but it really is where wealthy Berliners built summer homes at the turn of the century, in order to enjoy the forests and lakes. My goal today was the house where the Wannsee conference was held.

In films, such as "Conspiracy" or even in Lanzmann's "Shoah," I had gotten the impression of a large, isolated mansion. In fact, it is located on a side street of similar summer homes and, while set back from the street, is not any further back than the houses of its neighbors, nor is it significantly larger. The house is in no way remarkable, other than the fact that the implementation of Nazi genocide was planned there.

Not the decision to commit genocide; that was made some (maybe 2-3) months before by Hitler and Himmler. This was where Himmler's assistant, Richard Heydrich, gathered the leading bureaucrats together to agree to his leadership of this project. When he was assisinated a few months later by Czech partisans, the named the major death camps in his honor.

Even though the house has recently undergone extensive renovations, no one bothered to add air conditioning, so we all had the soft drip drip of sweat from the humidity, accentuated by the heat from the display lighting. The display on the origins of racism, the rise of antisemitism, the rise of the Nazis and the increasing persecution of the Jews is all handled quite well, as is the material covering the early years of the war. The exhibit nicely distinguishes between the murderous policies of the Nazis during the first two years of the war and the growing extermination campaign that began with the invasion of the Soviet Union.

At that point, we move into the conference room itself, where the surviving copy of the protocols (and an English translation) is on display in the center of the room, so that one can read for oneself the complete text (it's not very long). On the walls, there are biographies of the participants, with each ending with the individual's fate after the war. Those who didn't die in the fighting, rarely received more than a few year's imprisonment for their actions. It was Stalin who said that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.

I decided not to have lunch next door, but instead walked 10 minutes down the road to Max Liebermann's villa. I had noticed it from the bus, and I thought it would be much more pleasant place to eat. Liebermann was one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement in Germany, and by the 1920s had become the head of the Prussian Arts Academy. At the turn of the century, he built this summer house in Wannsee, and put particular emphasis on the garden, which he incorporated in many of his paintings. The house and gardens have recently been restored, and it was a nice respite from my earlier tour of the Wannsee Conference house.

Not that one can ever really escape awareness of the Holocause anywhere in Europe. Liebermann was Jewish and forced to resign his post by the Nazis in May 1933. At his 87th birthday party in 1935, the Nazis tried to discourage non-Jews from attending. Liebermann died later that year and his daughter and granddaughter escaped to America in 1938, but his widow was forced to give up the house in 1940 when it was "aryanized," and she committed suicide in 1943, when faced with deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

After touring the house and gardens, which are lovely (but not airconditioned), I made my way to my last museum for this trip: the Brücke Museum in Dahlem. This was rather complicated, as I had to first take a bus, then the u-bahn, and then a second bus, but it wasn't that bad. The museum is small, but quite enjoyable. The current exhibition strongly emphasizes the work of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, with several works showing the strong emphasis of Seurault, Van Gogh, and other French Impressionists and particularly Post-Impressionists on the work of these German artists at the forefront of German Expressionism. A truly delightful museum and well worth the small effort to find it.

My only trouble was not buying the set of 3 large exhibition catalogues on sale for an absurdly low price. I just kept reminding myself that even if I threw out all my clothes so that it would fit, it would still weigh too much to lift repeatedly, as I will have to the next few days.

So now all that's left is to find some souvenirs as gifts for my niece and nephews, and have dinner. Today is really the last full day of being a tourist. Tomorrow morning I'll make a quick stop at the Schönhauser Allee Cemetery, where the man who founded my profession, Dr. Leopold Zunz is buried. Then one quick visit to KaDeWe again before taking the express train to Frankfurt. After that, I'll really be more in transit than on vacation. I have to get up ungodly early on Tuesday for my flight back to the States.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pride Day Berlin (July 22)

Well, it's actually called Christopher Street Day Parade here, the Berlin counterpart to Christopher Street West in Los Angeles, all of which take their cue from Stonewall in New York, but by any name it's still Pride Day.

The weather for it is wonderful, by the way; it's the coolest I've been since I left Prague. Temperatures in the mid to upper 80s F.

As the date for my return to the U.S. draws near, I've started to worry about all the work waiting for me back in Long Beach. In fact, I had a brief panic attack at 4 am, but managed to convince myself to fall back asleep. I'm going to try to put off thinking about as long as possible.

After breakfast I mailed my last postcards and headed to the film museum. This is in Potsdamer Platz and traces the history of German cinema from 1895 to the present. Most of the displays are on pre-Nazi cinema, with lots of material on the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the films of Murnau and Fritz Lang, but the real heart of the museum is Marlene Dietrich. There's virtually a shrine to her, with dresses, traveling items, diary entries, and a variety of short clips and images.

I grabbed a quick sandwich at Zoo Station, and then headed up to the Bröhan Museum, right across the street from Schoß Charlottenburg. This was a former private collection devoted to art nouveau and jugendstil. At first I thought it wasn't that interesting, but as I went further I was impressed by several of the pieces. Willy Jaeckel, for example, had some interesting works, though none were included in the postcards in the gift shop. (Here's an example of one painting of his: http://www.artfacts.net/artworkpics/2671b.jpg ). One of his more striking paintings, called simply "Paar", showed two naked figures, both apparently male, embracing.

From there I headed to Wittenburg Platz to catch the parade. I followed it all the way from there as it wound its way through Schönberg to the Brandenburg Tor and the Tiergarten, ending at the Siegesäule, Imperial Germany's statue honoring the wars it won (in the 19th century, obviously). All together, this was a loop that took nearly four hours. But with the cooler temperatures, a liter and a half of water, and carefully staying on the shady side of the street, I did alright.

I noticed some differences and similarities with other pride parades I've been to. It was much less political than either DC or New York; there were a few anti-AIDS and anti-defamation groups, and some political parties represented, but there was little in the way of community organizations that really define pride parades in the States. Even LA is more political than Berlin, and LA really isn't that political at all.

As usual, the clubs have the biggest floats which are covered with dancers. The music was all the classics from ABBA to Madonna to the Village People, with some Tarkan thrown in. I was really surprised when I heard "Ma Baker," a song I remember from my summer camp. This was a huge dance hit in Europe and Israel in the 1977, but got virtually no air play in the U.S. (To find out more about this song, check out the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_Baker ). I hadn't heard it in years.

One major difference I noticed with American pride parades didn't hit me until the end when I realized I hadn't seen the religious right counterdemonstration. As far as I could tell, there wasn't any. There were, however, a few floats making reference to the recent violence in Poland directed against gay rights groups there, as well as persecution in Central America, Iran, and Russia. Just a few days ago, the paper had an article referring to a speech made by one of the twins governing Poland (the President and the Prime Minister are twin brothers), denouncing EU values -- such as equal rights for gays and lesbians -- that he thinks conflicts with Poland's traditional values. It would seem to me that intolerance, violence, and persecution are not values to be particularly proud of.

By the time I reached the Siegessäule in the Tiergarten, I was pretty tired. I still had a half hour walk to get back to Zoo Station, so I took some rest stops at benches along the walk. In the shade of the trees, the park and city are quite pleasant. I only wish I could have had this weather for my entire stay here, instead of just at the end.

Tomorrow I'm heading to the southwest of the city to visit the mansion in Wannsee where the conference was held in January 1942, and then stop off at the Brücke museum on my way back. Then I need to pick up my train ticket for Frankfurt for Monday.

I can't believe my trip is nearly at an end. Part of me can't wait to get back to air conditioning and really clean clothes (as opposed to clothes that have been washed in the sink for two months). Wearing different clothes would also be nice, as would sleeping in my own bed. On the other hand, it's been so long since I was out of the U.S., part of me fears that it will be another 7 years before I come back (though I'm hoping for next summer).

Friday, July 21, 2006

I'm melting.... (July 21)

Well, it was supposed to be cooler this morning, but it sure didn't feel it.

After breakfast I had to pack up my things as I'm changing rooms in the guesthouse (it has to do with problems I had in booking all six days). Then I headed down to the local Prenzlauerberg museum. It was a small, local affair. The first set of displays were on the history of the highschool where the museum is located, as well as a set of pictures of the neighborhood using postcards. Unlike the museum at Nowy Targ, which also used postcards, this one actually grouped them by theme and provided captions where necessary.

Also unlike the museum in Nowy Targ, this one also included a whole set of displays on Jews in Prenzlauerberg and particularly on the Rykestraße Schul. There were many photos of Jewish schoolchildren on outings, with their teachers, in classes, etc. After Jewish students were expelled from public schools by the Nazis, these Jewish schools became their only source of education. I was particularly moved by the list of the teachers and their ultimate fate.

Although my grandmother grew up in Prenzlauerberg, it was very unlikely that she attended either the Jewish school or the high school. My great-grandparent's apartment was in the southernmost section of Prenzlauerberg, about half a block from Tuetobergerplatz, so she probably went to high school down there.

Last time I was in Berlin, I checked out the block of Templinerstraße where my great-grandparent's apartment was. It was all undergoing gentrification, which now proceeds along adjacent streets. This part of Prenzlauerberg seems to have escaped significant damage by allied bombardment, and a lot of the building facades seem to be pre-war. The building looks quite nice, though I know that it is highly unlikely that my great-grandparents -- one of whom was a mostly unemployed tailor and the other sold herbs at a stand in the open-air market -- could have afforded one of the nice apartments fronting the street. Most likely, their apartment was one of the poorer, smaller apartments facing the back courtyard.

I walked down to my grandparent's last apartment on Linienstraßse in the north end of the Scheunenviertel. The area on what is now Rosa Luxemburg Platz where my grandfather had his first beauty salon is now a small triangular park. Even though it was only 11 am, I was covered from sweat from the heat, and my head was hurting slightly, as if my brain was melting from the heat. I found a cafe around the corner from the Karl Liebknecht Haus (still communist party headquarters in Berlin), and got some soda water.

Then I headed down to find the new DDR Museum. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a half-hour walk, by which time, I was seriously exhausted. I did run across a group of Israeli tourists and we got to chatting. I asked if they were on a heritage tour, but they said no, just for fun. We joked about the heat and how at least in Israel there's air conditioning. One joked, we (meaning me) should head back there now. It's strange, the kind of raport that I feel with the Israelis I've met on this trip. Sort of a landsman experience.

The DDR Museum was a real trip. This is quite different from both the Museum of Terror in Budapest and the Museum of Communism in Prague; it is much more nostalgic than either. The Budapest museum was all about how unremittingly evil the communists were, while the Prague museum poked fun at their foibles, but also went into detail about political and social repression. The museum in Berlin, however, is much more about the social and every day life of Germans in the German Democratic Republic (the DDR auf Deutsch). A lot of the exhibits involved all sorts of clothing, utensils, and products that typified East German life, along with a full-sized Trabant in the entry way.

While the museum also dealt with Stasi surveillance and the wall, it got much lower key treatment than in the other museums I've been to. At the same time, it does make quite clear how limited the options for East Germans was in evading the state. My favorite part was the film clip of an East German fashion show, which was just laughably bad. There was a Spanish-language film crew following a reporter as she toured the exhibit. They stopped for a while in front of the East German answer to American blue jeans. Called boxers, many people complained that while the color in the pants wouldn't fade over time, it would ruin the fabric of any clothing worn with it. The entire exhibit ends with an extended exhibit on the East German penchant for clothing-free holidays, something which has been somewhat restricted since reunification.

After that I headed towards West Berlin to get a new travel pass and some lunch. At Alexanderplatz, the thermometer read 38, two degrees celcius higher than yesterday's record-breaking 36.1. By the time I reached Zoo Station, my head was pounding again. I decided to eat at Mövenpick, even though it's too pricey, just because they have AC. I had a nice assortment of salads, two diet colas, and a cool, tasty dessert of whipped lemon foam and raspberry sauce, all for 17 euros. More importantly, I had an hour of AC to cool off.

When I came out there was a bit of a breeze and some clouds in the sky. Hopefully this bodes well for a cooling front. Tomorrow is the annual Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin, but there's no way I'm going to spend any time in full sun unless the weather breaks.

I headed over to Potsdamer Platz. I saw the designs for this years ago, and the realization of them is a little strange. It's sort of like a stand-alone city, with not much else connected to it yet. There's also an odd urban wetland system they've created, but I wasn't quite sure how it was supposed to purify rainwater or prevent flooding.

My goal was the Neue Nationalgalerie, whose building was one of Mies van der Rohe's last designs. This normally houses the major collection of late 19th and 20th century art, but when I arrived, I saw that it the entire space had been dedicated to a new exhibit on Berlin-Tokyo, Tokyo-Berlin: the cultural and artistic interchanges between the two cities and societies. A little disappointed, I bought a ticket figuring to make the best of it; I mean, other than WWII, what sort of relationship was there?

It turns out I was in for a major and very pleasant surprise. The exhibition opened with several beautiful color prints from Meiji-era Japan, including one of Berlin from a book on capitals around the world, all reflecting the rapid modernization that had taken place in just a few years (though the audio guide gives the false impression that Japan opened up voluntarily). But the next room was even more impressive. It included works by German avante-garde artists, such as Kirschner and Emil Nolde, reflecting their interest in Japanese art. These included several water color and ink sketches done by Nolde on a visit to Japan in 1913.

But this interest didn't just run in one direction. The museum exhibition recreates (as much as possible) an exhibition of German avante-garde works that took place in Japan before WWI. It also includes works by Japanese artists who were strongly influenced by this new art. I was particularly moved by one painting of a running deer, which combines elements of Italian futurism with German expressionism. I couldn't find a print of it online, but here is a similar piece by the same artist: http://www.gallerysugie.com/mtdocs/artlog/archives/images/06.03.Fumon.jpg

The next part of the exhibit dealt with the influence of Dada and the Neue Sachlichkeit on Japanese artists, including one side by side comparison of Georg Grosz with a Japanese counterpart (whose name escapes my memory). There are explorations of German influence on Japanese architecture and Japanese influence on Bauhaus architects, followed by a look at the political and artistic relationships during WWII.

The exhibit also covers the extensive post-war relationship, but I must confess I've never particularly liked most post-war art. I find that in it's effort to shatter the values that led western civilization into the war, artistic aesthetic is often sacrificed for the larger political message. Still, it was interesting to see again how the two special exhibitions I saw in the Vienna modern gallery -- on the Vienna aktionismus and the Neue Realismus -- keep recurring in many of the modern art museums I've visited.

One of themost spectacular works in the exhibition is a quite modern one by the Japanese artists Yayoi Kusama, called "Dots Obsession." To see it, click on the link: http://www.kunstmarkt.de/pagesmag/kunst/_id99967-/marktberichte_grossbildansicht.html?_q=%20

After that I wandered over to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is located only a few blocks away. From the outside, it appears like a field of charcoal grey tombstones, arranged in rows. As you enter them, however, the ground seems to undulate, and you begin to notice that each pillar is placed individually, not always perpendicular to the ground. As you go deeper into the monument, the pillars grow higher, blocking one's view. To the extent they evoke impressions of Jewish cemetaries, than one finds oneself walled in by ever higher stacks of the dead.

At one end is the museum of the memorial. It is below ground, and in some way the pattern of the stelae on the surface is echoed by the standing information displays below. Each one covers one Jewish family during the Holocaust. In a final room, a voice reads out the biography of one victim, in a process that will take several years to complete. As you leave, there are computer terminals where you can access the Yad Vashem database on victims. As always, I have to remind myself to have my great-grandmother's information entered when I get back.

After that I headed back to my hotel and then to dinner. I tried an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. By now, the weather had gotten much cooler. Not exactly pleasant, but no longer unbearable. The food was good and the outdoor cafe would be lovely in nicer weather. Lots of young families, small children, and pregnant women, mixed in with a counterculture crowd.

Well, there about to lock up the internet cafe, so I will log off til tomorrow.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Hot Day in Berlin (July 20)

All the weather forecasts were for today to be one of the hottest days of the summer (and it has been a very hot summer in Europe), but when I got up this morning, it didn't seem that bad. I decided that I had to put off going to the Pergamon and head to the Jewish community center instead, if I wanted information on Shabbat services.

When I got to West Berlin, much of the area looked familiar from when I stayed here 8 years ago. There's been so much construction in Berlin over the last few years that I don't recognize much of it. The community center was also being renovated, but they told me that services had been moved out of the Rykestraße Schule while that is under reconstruction, and that they are now being held in the Oranienburgerstraße Schul.

After a brief stop at the Jewish bookstore on Joachimsthalerstraße, I decided to check out the City of Berlin museum. This is a rather kitschy, but fun, set of exhibits on the history of Berlin. It was the sort of museum where many of the exhibits present recreations of street or home life of the time. I was particularly pleased to see the history of Jewish Berlin given prominent inclusion from the beginning, not just emerging just before the Holocaust in order to be killed.

My favorite part was the 15-minute set of excerpts from German cinema of the Weimar period, when German films were some of the most creative and innovative in the world. Beneath the museum lies one of Berlin's atomic bomb shelters (still active, by the way). I missed the first english-language tour, so I decided to get lunch and come back for the next one.

I was just three stops away from KaDeWe, one of my favorite department stores. My favorite part is the food court, which has a lot in common with the one in Harrod's in London. Food courts, food halls, and food markets are some of my favorite places to visit. I'm always curious to see how food is marketed and displayed, and I just love wandering around them. Unfortunately, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked, so I decided to sit down at the pasta counter and order their spinach ravioli with cream and mushroom sauce. With mineral water it came to 11 Euros. That's a bit steep for ravioli, but I don't care. Some times you just need to forget the price and just enjoy it.

On my way out, I stopped at my favorite chocolate seller -- Neuhaus -- to buy a few bonbons for the road. Not that they made it to the road, they didn't even make it from the 6th floor to the 2nd. Good thing too, because they would have melted the moment I stepped outside, where the thermometer had really begun to creep up. I made it back to the museum and took the bomb shelter tour. It certainly had a strange form of nostalgia for people like me who can still remember duck and cover drills in elementary school.

I decided to visit the Neue Schul on Oranienburgerstraße to find out what time services would be on Friday night and Saturday. This is the big synagogue with the gold onion domes you see in books about Berlin. They gave me the info sheet on the services, and I took a quick tour. It was only 3:30, so I decided to head over to the Pergamon.

Walking down the street was tiring. The air was so hot, it felt like you had to push it out of the way. I took a shortcut to the Spree and found that they've set up a sort of beach, bringing in sand and chairs, so people can lie out and feel they're at the ocean. 30 minutes and 1 liter of liquid later, I reached the Pergamon.

I figured that I could cool off in the museum, but no such luck. Only one small wing of the museum is air conditioned (I didn't find that section til the very end). The docents all looked flushed and miserable, and every one was fanning themselves to cool off. Still, the Pergamon Altar is amazing; I used the audio commentary to follow the narrative on all the friezes. Then I headed off to the market of Miletus, only to find the 3-story gate is scaffolded for emergency restoration.

A little disappointed I continued on to what is to me the most amazing part of the museum: the recreation of the Ishtar Gate and ceremonial road from Babylon. It's not even the main gate, but one of the smaller ones (the full gate wouldn't fit in the museum). The German colonial empire was too small to allow them to rape and pillage the world the way the French and English did to create their major national museums, so the Germans made up for it by funding archaeological digs and then bringing some extraordinary, and extraordinarily large, pieces back to Berlin. I couldn't help but wonder, as I looked up at this amazing blue gate with its lions and griffins, did my ancestors come through it when Nebuchadnezzar took them into exile from Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

Upstairs is their incredible collection of Islamic art, including the palace facade of an unfinished Umiyad palace from the 8th century, and an incredible paneled room from 18th-century Aleppo. While not as extensive as the holdings at the Louvre, the Pergamon makes up for it with the size and quality of the art they have.

I made my way back to the Pergamon Altar and then went to the north wing. Now I found the (slightly) air conditioned section. By the time I reached the greek and roman sculpture, however, I'm ashamed to admit my energy was seriously flagging. They had a special exhibit on round things, timed to the World Cup, but it didn't do anything for me, and I just sort of skimmed it. After 2 and a half hours I left the museum exhausted.

Another water break on Unter den Linden, and then I made my way to dinner. My guide book mentioned a good French restaurant in Mitte and I decided to try it. Called "Entrecote" and located at Schützenstraße 5, near Checkpoint Charlie, the food and service were quite good. I was very pleased with my steak and frites (and salad). Two small beers later, I tried not to stumble as I made my way back to the U-Bahn.

I just checked the weather, and the temperature is now down to merely 30 C (86 F) from a high of 36 (96), but it doesn't really feel all that cooler, though, it should be noted, I'm in an internet cafe with poor air circulation and lots of hot computers.

Tomorrow I'm praying for a cool front and will try to stand indoors in museums again (hopefully air conditioned).

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Jewish Museum (July 19)

Given that my window opens right onto the courtyard where the trashcans are, I didn't expect to sleep particularly well last night, yet I didn't wake up until 7:45 am. Furthermore, the breakfast provided by the hotel was surprisingly good: not just cheese, ham, rolls, butter, and yoghurt, but also a whole variety of tasty mediterranean salads, apple torte, and real juice.

My primary goal today was to visit the Jewish Museum. In many ways the star of the museum is its unusual architecture, designed by Daniel Liebeskind. As you enter the main part of the musuem, the path is angled upwards, but also at a slant, which puts the visitor a little off balance. The way is interesected by paths relating to exile and the holocaust, but I decided to see those on the way out.

But before I reached the main exhibition, I was distracted by the special exhibit in honor of Freud's 150th birthday. In many ways, it was far superior to the exhibit in Freud's home in Vienna, because if focused almost entirely on his work and ideas. The main part of the exhibit was a series of exhibits, each illustrating and explaining key concepts in Freudian thought. It was an excellent primer in Freudian theory, with some amusing touches (the background music at one point included the song "Can't get you out of my head").

I'm sure I'm not discovering anything new if I say that what struck me the most about Freud's theories was how much they reflect the problems of embourgeoisement that the Jewish community was going through. In the third quarter of the 19th century, German (and Austrian) Jewry made a swift and radical shift into the middle class. This was not merely an economic change, but also a powerful social transformation. Jewish homes adopted the values of the 19th-century middle class and all that came with it. In many cases, this led to a radical shift in family dynamics. In her memoirs, Pauline Wengeroff described how this was often a double loss for Jewish women, as they were forced to give up their control over the home and forbidden from being involved in business. So many of the problems Freud was examining seem to have their roots in the difficulties families faced in instituting and enforcing middle class rules of decorum and parental expectations.

After visiting the Freud exhibit on continued on upstairs to the main Jewish exhibition. There's an interesting set of short film at the beginning on Jewish history in the Diaspora up to the Crusades, followed by another short 3-D film on the Worms Jewish community of 1000 years ago.

The exhibit follows a roughly linear pattern, but the flow is often interrupted by walls, side passage ways, and blind alleys. At one point, in fact, on the next floor, the exhibt actually double backs on itself. While the flow is roughly chronological, there is an interesting digression on Glikl of Hameln, which involves bringing in Bertha Pappenheim (who lived two centuries later).

By the time I reached the second floor, focusing on Jewish life from the 19th century to the present, I'd been in the museum 2 hours and needed a tea break. Rested, I continued on through the discussion of Jewish identity and Germanness, through to the Holocaust and afterwards. They also have a special exhibit right now on German-Jewish athletics in the 20th century, and I looked to see if there were any photos of my grandfather in the set on the Maccabi Berlin Jewish Boxing Club, but sadly no.

Going back down, I explored the two side aisles: the way of the Holocaust and the way of exile. The way of the Holocaust is illustrated with items originally owned by German Jews, most of whom perished in the gas chambers. At the end of the path is a heavy black door. Pushing it open, one enters into a tall, relatively narrow, concrete tower. I found myself moving towards a side wall and lookiing up at the one narrow ray of sunlight visible.

I watched as other people entered, and many, though not all, moved to the walls out of the middle. I couldn't help but think of a Kafka (very) short story:

"When I first came into the world," said the mouse, "it was so large and wide that I was frightened and I began to run, and I was glad when I finally saw walls appearing on my left and right. But now the walls have come closer and closer and I am in the final room where the trap lies in the corner into which I must run." "You must change your direction," says the cat, who ate it.

The path to exile, leads up to the garden of exile, which consists of 49 nine pillars, all at an angle, with willow trees growing out of their tops. 48 have the soil of Israel in them, the last from Berlin. The pillars are meant to disorient the visitor, so he or she feels the disorientation of exile, but what I noticed was the way the floor is slanted at a diagonal from the paths, so one is never on level ground and one is always off balance.

After a quick sandwich in the cafeteria, I went for a walk through Kreuzberg. I'd been in the museum nearly 4 hours, and I got to wondering how I would bring students through it. I would like to take them through quicker, but I was also wondering if it wouldn't be better just to let them go through at their own pace.

I also got to thinking about my blog on vengeance yesterday. Perhaps the reason I feel anger is that the discussion of the bombing of Dresden is a criticism of "my side" during the war, and my discomfort at such criticism in turn generates anger at the criticizer: how dare you complain about what the Allies did, you did much worse. Yet most individual Germans didn't do much worse. Most did nothing at all. And was their nothing worse than the nothing that Americans did when given the opportunity to rescue in the years before the Holocaust when 100,000s could have been saved?

After that I went to the Schwules Museum, which I had tried to visit in 1998, but had come on the only day it was closed. This time I checked its hours to make sure it was open. I talked to one of the people who worked there about donating a photo of my great-aunt and her girlfriend (if I can find it, my grandfather destroyed almost all his photo collection in the year prior to his death).

I spent almost all of today inside, as the weather continues to warm. All of Western Europe is in the grip of a terrible heat wave and the hot air is due to reach here tomorrow with temperatures in the high 30s (that's high 90s F). Tomorrow, I'm going to try to stay inside again with visits to the Pergamon Museum, and maybe one of the new art museums in the Tiergarten.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Vengeance (July 18)

I don't know where this anger in me is coming from, but I have been surprised in the last few days by how vengeful I can feel.

Some of it is coming out the current crisis in the Middle East, where I keep having to remind myself that most of the people in Lebanon and Gaza are not responsible for the rockets and attacks being launched from their territory.

But the vengeance I'm thinking of has been coming up in relation to events in German history. First in Wroclaw then in Dresden, I found myself withholding pity when reading about enormous German civilian casualties during the Second World War.

In Wroclaw, which used to be Breslau, I read how Hitler laid the foundations for the destruction of the city by demanding it be turned into a fortress against the Soviets. In January 1945, the civilian population was evacuated in the deep cold of winter, leading to about 100,000 civilians to die. All I kept thinking about, though, was the death marches leading out from Auschwitz at exactly the same time and all the Jewish prisoners dying in the same snow, only having to march in rags and wooden clogs, and being shot if they fell behind.

In Dresden, I read, of course, of the horrific Allied fire bombardment of February 1945, which utterly destroyed the historic inner city, as well as about 100,000 civilians. Last night, after a nice dinner in an italian restaurant off Theaterplatz that my mother recommended to me, I found the memorial to the central Dresden synagogue. A faded memorial barely visible on a small hill under a tree told of how the synagogue had been built around 1840, by the same architect who designed the Semperoper. The chief rabbi had been R. Zacharias Frankel, the same man who later led the first modern Jewish seminary, and who had hired Heinrich Graetz (on whom I wrote my dissertation) as its first professor. The synagogue was not destroyed in the firestorm of 1945, because it had already been put to the torch on Kristallnacht, 1938.

Just across the street, by the way, is the current Jewish community building and the new synagogue, built in 2000. The new synagogue looks like a stone square that has been twisted slightly, so the walls spiral outward counterclockwise. There are no windows.

I was thinking last night, again surprised at my initial reaction to the fire bombing -- served them right -- and my lack of sympathy for the tens of thousands of civilians burned to death as a result of deliberate Allied policy. Part of why I'm so surprised at my reaction is that I've never been one to be angry at Germans. I don't mentally ask myself when I meet a German, what his or her father or grandfather was doing during the war. So why this sudden thirst for vengeance?

The best I can think of is that while I don't hold the present generation guilty for their ancestors' crimes, I'm not willing (or able) to show sympathy for that same generation who suffered so much for allowing Hitler to come to power. On the one hand, I know that this suffering was not accidental, that Hitler intended to turn all of Germany into one vast personal funeral pyre in his own private Götterdamerung, but at the same time, part of me wants to hold the victims personally accountable for at least part of their suffering. I don't think this is particularly rational on my part, but perhaps it's just human.

So today I spent the morning at the Zwinger museum in the Old Masters Gallery. I think I need to revise my earlier posts about my distaste for the baroque by conceding that there was more than one baroque, and that the northern baroque included many fine pieces of art and excellent artists, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, etc. I spent an enjoyable hour and a half wandering through the galleries of 17th and 18th century painting. Then I went downstairs and found that while the New Masters Gallery is closed until 2009 for complete remodeling, their collection of paintings by Die Brücke, the formative group of German Expressionist art, was on display in a special exhibition. There were paintings by Nolde, Pechstein, Kokoschka ´-- it was great!

I didn't have much time left before I needed to head to the train station, but I did want to see some of the porcelain collection. I think I saw about 80% before I had to run out. I figured I had plenty of time to get back to my hotel, get my suitcases, and head to the trainstation. I reached the station a half hour before my train; more than enough time, I thought, to get my ticket and buy the paper. As it was, I barely made my train.

For reasons I cannot explain, it took nearly 30 minutes to buy my train ticket. I tried to use the automated machines, but they kept asking for my bahnkart information, and I had no idea what one was (I since learned this refers to a promotional program for rail users). So I was stuck in the slow moving line. There were four tellers open, but unlike all other train stations in Europe, where there are separate lines for information and for sales, here they are combined. That meant that two of the tellers were fully occupied with extended questions from just a few customers, while the rest of us prayed we would make our trains. I remember thinking that it was quicker and simpler in Poland!

I made it to a teller with five minutes to go. I made it to the platform just after the train arrived, and while I was still taking off my backpack in the compartment, the train pulled away. That's the closest I've come to missing a train. I thought perhaps the problem was a result of the construction at the station, but one of the people in the compartment said no, that this was a problem throughout Germany. I will need to plan ahead for next week.

I'm all settled in my hotel. No air conditioning, but it's a low floor on the interior, so I'm hoping it will be cool. Tomorrow the temperature is set to hit 36, so that will be the real test.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Dresden (July 17)

No problem at all getting to Dresden. In fact, it was a pleasant surprise to re-discover how fast trains can go. I realized that for the last 5 weeks, I had gone back some 40 years in time, transportation-wise.

My hotel in Dresden is one of the uglier ones I've stayed at, but, besides having air conditioning and a working thermostat, it is very conveniently located: just a 10 minute walk from Dresden Hauptbanhoff.

After checking in and changing, I took a stroll down to the historic center of the city. It turns out that Dresden is celebrating its 800th year, mostly by forcing locals to dress up in medieval costume to sell tourist items at small wooden booths. Think Renaissance Faire.

I headed over to the Zwinger museum complex only to discover to my horror that it and almost every other museum in Dresden in closed on Mondays. Great, I thought, another bone-headed itinerary decision (in my defense, I should explain that I used a guidebook that now appears to be have become quite out of date).

There was, however, one museum open to the public: the Grüne Gewölbe. This is a huge collection of oddities and artistic craftsmanship accumulated by the Elector of Saxony, including the time the family provided kings to Poland. Some really wild stuff. After an hour and a half of being amazed I was exhausted and needed a break, though they saved the best, the garniture collection for last. This is the collection of medals, swords, and staffs all covered in rubies, emeralds, topazes, and diamonds. The full collection is said to be the best outside of the Topkapi in Istanbul.

After a welcome cup of tea and strawberry torte, I went back up to tour the special photography exhibit, and then went back outside to wander a bit more. My general plan was to find this baroque dairy I sent my parents to last year. It took a while, but I finally found it. The interior is covered in porcelain tiles on a dairy theme. They have a restaurant upstairs, while downstairs they sell cheese. You can also buy glasses of fresh whole milk or fresh buttermilk (I chose the former). To see a picture of the interior, go to: http://www.pfunds.de/

I'm still trying to decide whether to try to visit the Zwinger collection tomorrow morning and just take the noon train to Berlin. I think I'll sleep on it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Theresienstadt (July 16)

After sleeping in again, I had breakfast and headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Terezin.

I hoped to catch the 9 am bus, but by 9:05 there was no sign of it, so I went in a bought a ticket to the 9:30 bus. Good thing, too, because it sold out a few minutes later.

Not that it arrived a few minutes later. There was no sign of it by 9:30, when I started chatting with an Israeli family who I saw in schul yesterday. I glanced at my watch and was shocked that it was 9:45 and still no sign of the bus. Finally, at 9:55, the bus arrived.

A huge crowd gathered around and an argument broke out between the driver and a woman who was part of a group of about 5 women, standing between me and the bus door. While I still don't know what they were arguing about, since I don't speak Czech, it seems that the bus was oversold, and there was much gnashing of teeth. After 3-4 minutes of blocking everyone's entrance, she stepped back, now only blocking my (and everyone behind me) entrance. When it became clear that she was just going to stand there talking and not let any of us on, I began to push the women in front of me until they realized they would have to move. A minute later and I was on the bus and in my assigned seat.

Thankfully, this was one of the newer buses with air conditioning (while the weather remains dry, it's also rather warm). The Israelis and I did a little comparison between the humid Prague weather of a few days ago and Tel-Aviv. Tel-Aviv gets very humid in the summer, but there, everyone has air conditioning. If you are overcome by the heat and humidity, you can step on any bus, in any store, in any hotel or movie theater, and you can cool and dry off. Here, there's no escape. It's like being wrapped in a large fuzzy, ugly pink, wet, heavy blanket and then forced to stand in the sauna. I don't care how beautiful Prague is, but after a while it becomes unbearable.

It's only an hour-long trip to Terezin and the bus let us off between the small fortress prison run by the SS and the walled ghetto. Terezin was originally established as a garrison town and fortress by the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II and named Theresienstadt after his mother, Maria Theresa. During the war, the Nazis decided to transform it into a ghetto for Bohemia and Moravian Jews, and later for elderly German and Austrian Jews, as well as the so-called "prominents." The original population of 5000 people were evicted, and tens of thousands of Jews were brought in. At its height the ghetto held 58,000 people in a space designed to house a tenth that number.

The ghetto museum is spread out across several buildings. I began at the main museum, which was a children's home for boys under 15. The exhibits on the ground floor are illustrated with the art work created by children in Theresienstadt. Several important artists were imprisoned in the ghetto, and they worked with the children doing innovative art therapy. Because the ghetto was not completely liquidated and was eventually liberated, much of the children's art survived. Sadly, of the 10,500 children imprisoned in the ghetto, 8,000 died either of starvation or disease within the ghetto or in the death camps to which most of the ghetto population was sent.

The most famous of these artist-teachers was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who later died in Auschwitz in 1944. To see an example of her art, go to http://nyartsmagazine.com/Files/Documents/phpk28smN_85_friedl.jpg

Downstairs was a documentary film on the history of Theresienstadt and the Small Fortress (which was a prison even before WWII and it's where the Bosnian Serb assassin of Archduke Ferdinand died), and of the awful conditions within Thereseinstadt during the war. By 1943, reports of Nazi atrocities and the holocaust had begun to appear in western newspapers, and so the Nazis decided to use Theresienstadt as a "model ghetto" to counter this. In 1944, the International Red Cross was brought in and bought the cover story hook, line, and sinker.

Many of the artists working in the ghetto had created secret pictures documenting the actual horrors of the ghetto, but when they tried to smuggle these pictures to the Red Cross, they were arrested and all sent to the Small Fortress, where most were killed or later died in Auschwitz. Only one or two survived to liberation.

Upstairs was a history of the camp, its creation, operation, and the fate of its inmates. That was a lot to take, so I took a break for lunch and chatted with a group of American study-abroad students and asked details about the logistics of their trip to get a better idea of how to arrange my class next summer.

After that I walked over the the Madgeburg barracks for the next part of the museum. In one of the rooms, a typical living area for dozens of women is recreated, using, I think, actual clothing and furnishings of the victims. The rest of the floor is given over to art created in the ghetto. First is music, including the children's opera Brundibar, which was performed over fifty times within the ghetto. Then paintings, drawings, and sketches by various individuals, followed by literary works created in the ghetto, such as poetry, and underground journals. Finally, there is a room devoted to the various theatrical productions staged within the ghetto.

It is hard not to be struck by how much art and literature created at Theresienstadt survived, particularly since almost all its creators perished. It is even harder not to wonder at the intense human need to create and enjoy art, even in the most tortured of circumstances. Art here was no luxury item or frivolous elective; it was essential for survival. It seems to me that in Theresienstadt one really sees the true power and role of art, stripped of its various fads and affectations. Art was about expressing loss, and grief, and longing. It was both an escape from hell and a reflection of it. It raised people's spirits and it was a political cry of protest. In a very real way, it was a form of resistance.

Of course, Theresienstadt was not the only ghetto to produce art and literature. I saw a very moving poem written by Mordechai Geburtig in the Krakow ghetto just a week or two before he and his family were murdered during the ghetto's final liquidation. It begins:

"It's burning, brothers, it's burning!
Oy, our poor shtetl is burning,
Raging winds are fanning the wild flames
And furiously tearing,
Destroying and scattering everything.

"All around, all is burning,
And you stand and look just so, you
With folded hands....
And you stand and look just so,
While our shtetl burns."

In Warsaw, it was the archives of the Oneg Shabbat, organized by Jewish historians, who sought to document the evil being perpetrated by the Nazis as their resistance. Here, I think, it was the artists who took the lead.

After I left the building, I headed over to the columbarium, where the ashes of 20-30,000 who died in the ghetto were originally stored before the Nazis decided in November 1944 to dump them all in the river to conceal the scope. The first 20,000 who died were buried in the cemetery, but as the death toll rose from starvation and disease, it overwhelmed the cemetery, so the Nazis began to cremate the bodies. Across from it is a new memorial in the morturary where the bodies were washed and prepared for burial.

The next stop was the cemetery and the crematorium. It's getting a little easier, but I still choke up when I see the large ovens. There's just something so horrifying about the whole thing that's very difficult to take.

I didn't have much time left before the bus back to Prague, so I hurried over to the Small Fortress. Those killed in the fortress were buried in a cemetery before its gates, and the memorial there is clearly a work in progress. In the center of the cemetery is a tall wooden cross, bearing a crown of thorns. There are marble plaques at its base, but someone has recently removed all the letters, so it looks as if the memorial is undergoing some ideological renovation.

In the meantime, someone finally figured out that placing a giant wooden cross in the middle of a cemetery whose graves are overwhelmingly those of Jews probably wasn't the smartest idea, and a large star of David has been added at one end of the graveyard.

I managed to catch the 4:30 bus home, but that too had its moments of drama, as it was already mostly full when it arrived in Terezin and two people were turned away. This was an older, pre-air conditioning bus, and, of course, I ended up with a window seat on the sunny side, but thankfully, this was a mercifully short ride. I picked up my train ticket to Dresden for tomorrow and then had dinner at the restaurant in Mala Stranka that I like so much.

Now its time to do one more set of laundry and then start packing.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Shabbat in Prague (July 15)

Today has been a truly delightful day.

I slept in until almost 8 am! The cool, dry air from yesterday evening continues to grace Prague, making a stroll through the city a wonderful experience.

After breakfast I headed to the Altneuschul for Shabbat services. According to the schedule, they were supposed to be held in the High Schul, but for reasons no one knew, they switched them to the Altneu, the oldest synagogue in Europe.

The main schul, built in the early 13th century, is gothic in style, with an extra decorative rib added to the vaulted roof to prevent it from forming a cross. The stone bimah is in the middle, with straightback wooden benches lining the wall and the exterior of the bimah. The aron ha-kodesh is also stone, and the walls are plain, except for abbreviations, such as the one that read "dalet, lamed, mem, aleph, ayin" -- i.e. "da lifneh me atah omed" (know before Whom you are standing).

Almost all the seats were taken when I arrived 25 minutes in (as I said, I slept late), but I found one on the far wall that no one wanted because its view was obstructed by one of the stone central pillars. I would guess that there were about a 100 men in the minyan, with an unknown number of woman (but I would guess substantial), in the women's section next door (there were windows in the 2' thick walls, allowing them to hear what was happening in the men's section). Needless to say, the service was stricly orthodox and all in Hebrew.

Given the limited ventilation (one open door), it got stuffy and warm pretty quick, but the service was over by 11. It was nice and cool as soon as I left (though, it was an unpleasant surprise to walk out into three separate tour groups standing outside discussing the synagogue). I wandered to the main old town square and noticed an exhibition of Mucha. I had wanted to go to the Mucha Museum (I know, doesn't it sound like the name of a lounge-lizard latin band?), and figured this was it.

Actually, it was a private gallery, but it was interesting anyway. The first floor exhibit was on Czech bad-boy photographer Jan Saudek, whose controversial work would probably get him arrested if shown in the United States (it focuses on the human body, including children). Much of his work is disturbing and meant to be so.

Afterwards, I went upstairs to the Mucha exhibit, which is mostly some posters and postcards of this most prolific of Czech art nouveau artistis. (To see an example, go to http://vovo2000.com/who/master6/09.jpg )

In fact, I would say that the most characteristic style of Prague architecture is art nouveau. Oh, there are the occasional baroque or beaux art style building, but in the center of town, it is art nouveau that predominates.

After lunch, I went looking for the House of the Black Madonna, which was a cubist-inspired building in Stare Mesto. Unfortunately, it is closed for the time being since its air conditioning disasterously failed two weeks ago, but it turns out I had already seen much of their collection of cubist furniture, as it was transferred to the National Gallery, which I visited yesterday. Cubism had an enormous impact on Czech artists and architects, and the building has a variety of cubist-elements, including oddly angled windows and pediments.

From there I decided to see if I could find the Frank Gehry designed building offically called "the dancing building," but more colloquially known as "Fred and Ginger." Part of the building is straight and erect (that's Fred), the other part is angled and sinched at the waist (Ginger). It really is an interesting building and it doesn't clash at all with its surroundings.

I decided to head to the Petrin Park to enjoy the nice weather, but they've decided to renovate their funicular during the height of the tourist season. No problem. I'll just walk up the hill. At least that meant there were a lot fewer tourists. At the top of the hill I found the "Mirror Maze" -- mostly designed for children, but also for children of all ages. There's also the Petrin Tower. It seems that the Czechs were so impressed by the Eifel Tower that they built one of their own using disused railroad ties. Hitler hated it so much he ordered it torn down, but no one ever got around to destroying it. I decided to trudge up the 300 steps to see the fantastic view of the whole city from the top (where I discovered, there was a small elevator, but given the way the tower swayed in the wind, I think I was better off schlepping).

From there a nice walk back down, a tram ride to Mala Strana, and a very nice salmon dinner at the grill restaurant I ate at two nights ago. The salmon came with a shrimp cocktail appetizers, in which the little shrimps were drowned in thousand island dressing, but it was still pretty good.

All in all, a very delightful day.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Museum of Communism (July 14)

It is really surprising to me, how much my feelings towards Prague have been affected by the weather.

The last three days have been miserable: very hot, very muggy, with occasional warm, muggy showers. Then, last night, I had a hint of what Prague might be like when things are nicer.

I had a rather good dinner at a restaurant called Grill U Seminaristy (it's on U Luzickeho seminaire 13, just half a block to the north of the Malostranska end of the Charles Bridge. In fact, it was the first memorable meal (in a good way) since my very expensive duck in Rzeszow over a week and a half ago.

I ordered one of the menus: an apertif of Becherovka, an appetizer of lox, a nicely-cooked medium rare steak with green peppercorn and garlic sauce, and an three fruit-flavored ice cream scoops for dessert. All for a grand total of 480 kronen (including tip) or $21.65. Not bad at all.

When I left the restaurant I noticed that it had become noticeably cooler and dryer. Not cool and dry, mind you, but still, cooler and dryer. I decided to amble home through the Staromestka, where I found they're having a summer jazz festival (though the band on the stage sounded much more hard rock to me).

The only damper on the night were the crowds of drunks wandering the streets with large cups of beer or cocktails, but at least they were better than the ones passed out on the benches in Wenceslas Square.

My hotel has central air and thermostats in all the rooms, but I think they're for decorative purposes only. No matter how cold I set mine, it still cuts out in the early morning and this morning when the humidity spike to 88% (according to CNN's weather website), I woke up at 6 am in a tepid sweat.

Since it was supposed to rain for much of today, I decided it was a good day for going to museums. I started with the Museum of the City of Prague. The centerpiece of its collection is a handmade paper model of the city, created in the first half of the 19th century by a minor government official with a lot of time on his hands. There were two other exhibits: one on the history of the Prague Boroughs up until the 19th century, the other on the Jewish ghetto.

The history of the Prague Boroughs was fine and interesting, but it bothered me that the presentation completely ignored the presence of Jews in the city (one etching depicts a progrom in the 18th century, explaining why the ghetto was attacked, but since no mention was made previously of the existence of a ghetto, the casual viewer might wonder, where did this come from).

The fact that they have an entire exhibit devoted to the Prague ghetto doesn't change the fact that, as in Poland, Jewish history is segregated from the general history of the city. There's the story of the Czech city, and oh, in case you're wondering, there were some Jews here too, so here's a separate exhibit on them.

The exhibit on the Jewish ghetto was not so much a history of the ghetto, but rather a collection of artistic depictions of the ghetto and its residents done by artists in the 19th century. There were some very interesting paintings and portraits, particularly for me, the portrait of Rabbi Shlomo Rappoport, but about half of them were of the old Jewish cemetery. They have two of the cycle of paintings done for the Jewish burial society depicting Jewish burial practices in the late 18th century, but of course, none are available as postcards, and no photos are permitted.

After that I headed off to the National Gallery, which turned out to be a rather nice museum. The top floor is 19th-century Czech and German art. Mostly neo-classical and romantic pieces. On the same floor, howver, was a wonderful exhibit on art nouveau designs for buildings and building decorations in Prague.

The next floor down is where things really got interesting. The third floor is devoted to Czech art from 1900 to 1930, along with their collection of 19th and 20th-centuries French art. The Czech pieces included a whole set of pieces by Kupka, allowing one to trace his artistic development, along with several other important Czech cubist painters. Cubism had a huge impact in the Czech lands, and they had an amazing collection of cubist-inspired furniture! There's a cubist building that's an art gallery in Prague, and I hope to visit it tomorrow afternoon.

The French collection is small, but they have a nice selection of pieces by the most important French artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, works which were influential on Czech artists.

The main exhibit on the first floor, to Czech art post 1930, is closed for restoration work right now, but they had an amazing exhibit on the work of Pavel Brazda, a post-war painter suppressed and persecuted by the communist authorities. His work sort of resembles the work of the American artist Robert Crumb.

In the afternoon, I decided to visit a rather different sort of museum: the Museum of Communism. Unlike the Museum of Terror in Budapest, which also sought to document the oppression of people under Soviet domination, this museum is much more accessible. I think that's because it's a private museum, partly run by an expat American bar owner, whereas the museum in Budapest was built by the conservative-led government who hoped that its anti-communist message would aid it in the subsequent elections against its leftist opponents.

The museum is opposite a McDonald's and shares the floor with a casino, and the tone for the museum is set by the numerous posters featuring actual communist-era progaganda posters, with new snarky texts. Also unlike the Hungarian museum, this one is mulit-lingual, with displays in Czech, German, English, Italian, and French.

While the summaries of Marx and Lenin's theories were more than a little tendentious and superficial, they're not meant to be more than stage dressing. The high light of the museum are all the vintage artifacts from the communist period: food, posters, statues, class room displays, etc. But in some ways, the light touch at the beginning gives greater impact to the punch that comes from the documentary film on the suppression of freedoms in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989. You come into the museum mildly amused but you leave genuinely moved.

By dinner time, the heat and the humidity had passed and Prague felt liveable. It was delightful to be on the street, though I could still do without the bands of mostly British stag partiers. I had dinner at the Franz Kafka Cafe (not particulary memorable as far as the food went) and a group of about 8-10 Brits came in, all wearing matching shirts, each one bearing a particular nickname. It was some sort of bachelor party, as one of the shirts had the words "best man" scrawled across it in marker. They kept trying to get the girls at one of the outside tables to sign the shirts. I left before they were past their first half liter of beer each.

My guide book mentioned a walk through a series of passages that cut through many of the buildings on either side of Wenceslas Square. There's an incredible art deco lobby for one cinema that has a life-size statue of a horse hanging upside down, with the rider seated on its stomach.

The most amazing thing about these passage ways, however, is that they were almost entirely free of tourists (after all I was there, so there was at least one tourist). It was a real treat to get to see what Prague is like without all the hordes on every street and corner.

So today, at long lost, I got to experience Prague free from heat, free from humidity, and free from tourist crowds, and found it magical and lovely.

Tomorrow I'm off to synagogue in the morning and then a few more museums in the afternoon.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Karlovy Vary (July 13)

I had a tremendous shock this morning. I woke up and looked at clock and saw that it was a quarter of. I assumed that it was a quarter of seven and that I had managed to sleep about 45 minutes later than usual. I watched the BBC news at the top of the hour, took a shower, got dressed, went downstairs to check my e-mail, when suddenly I noticed that it wasn't 7:45, but in fact, 8:45! Somehow I managed to sleep in nearly two hours later than usual.

I rushed to breakfast thinking it closed at 9, though I quickly realized, it stays open til 10. There was no way I was going to catch the 9 am bus to Karlovy Vary, so I tried for the 10, but they gave me a ticket for the 10:45. The bus was hot, humid, and all I could see where fields of wheat turning brown. I checked my guide book and it said that the public spa in Karlovy Vary is open from 7:30 to 3:00, which meant I wouldn't have much time at it. Well, I would do the best I could.

Arriving in town, the driver said "Centrum," so I made the decision to get off there (I also noticed a large public map posted in the park a block away). This turned out to be the right choice, saving me a 10 minute walk through hot, dull streets. After some confusion figuring out where I was and wanted to go, I set off for the spa.

Karlovy Vary is a very pretty restort town. It is built in a narrow valley with a stream flowing through the middle. On either side is the promenade with 4-story fin-de-siecle buildings, all with nice, fresh paint. The one exception is the communist-era Hotel Thermal, which defies all the bourgeois capitalist excess with its grey, concrete, socialist-realist lines.

Finally I reached the State Spa (Lazne 3). I entered up a short flight of steps into a lobby. Ahead of rose the grand staircase (to the restaurant); to the right and the left were double doors leading to corridors. I went to the information desk on the left and she told me to go down one corridor to room 21.

The corridor vaguely resembled what I imagine a 19th-century sanitarium might have looked like. Tall, 12 foot ceilings, doors bearing ominous cards, such as "Inhalation," in Czech, German, English, and Russian. Finally, I reached #21, which looked no different from the other doors, except for the small sign saying "kassa" (box office). I went in, and asked the woman if she spoke English. Not so much, she mumbled. German? I asked. Yes, German is better she replied.

We went over my options. This was quite different from the spas in Budapest, much more medicinal and controlled. I could have one bath option and one massage option, but not two bath options. My choices were: oxygenated mineral bath (20 minutes), mud bath (10 minutes), or swimming pool (1 hour). I chose the mineral bath and the classic massage.

The woman then led me back through the lobby to the other corridor to find the woman who would arrange the bath. I was wondering whether I should put on my bathing suit, but she said, no, included in price. They led me to another door off the corridor where there was a small room with 12-foot ceilings that had a very large, metal tub, and an inclined bed. Two large spigots filled the tub in two minutes; then she lowered some metal pipes and railings into the tub and it began to fill with bubbles.

She told me to get undressed and into the tub and set the timer. When the timer went off, I was to pull on the cord on the wall, and she would come to arrange the massage. After she left I got. The water was warm, but not hot at all (she came in a minute later and asked if the temperature was all right, and I said yes). The bubbles of oxygen gave the air a strange, pleasant smell. I tried not to think about electrocution in a metal tub filled with pipes or what might happen if someone lit a match in a room full of oxygen bubbles and instead tried to relax. The air coming out of the pipes was a little cold, so I tried not to sit on them. The water was only very slightly oily, quite different from the mineral pools at Ein Gedi.

The 20 minutes passed by in no time at all. The alarm went off so I got out of the tub, grabbed the towel I brought with me to maintain modesty, and pulled the cord. 30 seconds later, the attendent came in, motioned for me to put my towel away, wrapped a sheet around me, grabbed my clothes and told me to follow her. We walked down another corridor, where she put my clothes in a changing room, locked it, and gave me the key. Then she passed me off to the woman who would give me the massage.

We walked through various shower and hot tub rooms until we reached the massage room. She put a sheet on the table and motioned for me to lie down. Then she covered me with the sheet I brought, and then uncovered the section she was going to work on. I've always been reluctant to get massages because I have a low threshold for pain, and I've had neck massages that have been quite uncomfortable, but this was quite relaxing. No pain at all.

She began by working on my feet and calves. I knew she was reaching the end of whatever section she was working on when she did the karate chop maneuver, followed by the open hand slapping maneuver (I have no idea what benefit comes from either move). After 30 minutes she was done and told me to take a shower. I found the open shower room, but there were no knobs to turn. "It's automatic," she told me. I finally go the water to start and it was quite cold, but eventually it warmed up. After that, I found my way back to my clothes, changed, and left.

The whole session took about an hour, so I had nothing to fear about my limited time. The sky was rather overcast and thundery when I came out, but the air was slightly cooler and more pleasant, so I strolled along the promenade and found a cafe where I could sit outside under an umbrella. I had a very nice strawberry sundae, with some very good ice cream (particularly welcome after the very poor ice cream I had had in Poland) and fresh strawberries, accompanied by a nice glass of Becherovka, a distilled liquour flavored with herbs and made in Karlovy Vary. After that, I made my way back to the bus station and bought a ticket back to Prague.

All in all, it was a rather nice outing. Very different from what I was expecting, much more medicine and cure and monitored than the spas in Budapest. Still, I can see why my cousin goes back to these spas every year (though she goes to Mariansky Lazne, not Karlovy Vary).

Time to go get dinner. Tomorrow I'm going to the National Gallery, which I read, has a lot more of the paintings by Kupka that I like so much.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Frantisek Kupka (July 12)

Let me start off by listing the things I like about Prague, the things I don't like, and the things that have surprised me.

First off, I worried whether Prague would live up to the billing that I had heard. It certainly has. It is an amazingly beautiful city. All the old fin-de-siecle, art deco, and secessionst buildings have been restored, and ever their decorative trims glisten with new gold leaf. Where Budapest exuded faded glory struggling to bloom again, Prague has been thoroughly refurbished.

What isn't so nice are all the tourists who financed this reconstruction. The city is by far the most touristed place I've been on my trip, including Paris (though granted I was in Paris at the very end of May and now we're in high season). The same crowds that fill the Louvre fill every major street in Prague. It's hard sometimes to see the ancient preserved city behind the mobs on every corner.

Another thing that comes with that is the predatory tourist pricing. After a month in Poland, Prague prices came as quite a shock, being on a par with Vienna. In Poland, I knew that whether I bought my water in a kiosk in the main rynek or in a convenience store, I was going to pay basically the same price (plus or minus a few groschen). Here, fast food stands on Wenceslas square sell a 0.5 liter of water for 60 kronen (about $2.75), while the convenience store sells a 1.5 liter bottle of the same water for 11 kronen (about $0.50).

Under things that surprised me, I should first off list how many cognates with Polish I've noticed in Czech. It certainly has made understanding signs much easier. Also, the subway system seems to be modeled on Budapest's, down to the same tilted ads on the subway escalator (perpendicular to the railing, not the floor) and the same system of validating tickets along with ticket inspectors.

Last night after dinner, I basically just walked around the city. I wandered through the Old City and Josefov, and then across the Charles Bridge. I went to sleep a little early, but still woke up earlier than I hoped, around 6:30 am, because the hotel turns the AC off for a few hours while the guests are sleeping. The increased humidity woke me up. I stayed in bed watching BBC world and then had a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel.

I decided to start off this morning with Prague Castle. I took the tram up the castle hill, but, as is so typical for me, I got off one stop too soon, fearful I'm might miss my stop. But also typically, this meant I saw things I would otherwise have missed: the Royal Gardens. The path wound gently up past the Ball Court, where the sgraffito on the side, depicting the various elements, sciences, and virtues, was "updated" under the communists to include a hammer and sickle.

I bought the "combined ticket," which allowed me to see "everything." I later decided that some things were definitely worth it and others I could have done without, but then you only realize these things afterwards. The cathedral of St. Vitus was rather nicely restrained in its interior decorations, but I particularly liked the 20th-century stained glass, much of it art nouveau/seccesionist in style.

My ticket allowed me to climb to the top of the south tower and so I did so. Along the way, I found myself giving moral support to one tourist unprepared for the 287 steps. I thought she was going to have a heart attack, the way she panted and collapsed on the bench at the top. The view, however, was quite lovely. I could see the entire city and river. The only drawback from the climb and the descent is it left my legs a little winded, and I found myself taking more frequent rest breaks.

The next stop was the Old Royal Palace, from whose windows the Catholic ambassadors were "defenestrated" (i.e. thrown out) in 1618, starting the Thirty Years War (they survived the fall, by the way). I sat and watched the film on the castle. It was in Czech but it gave me a few moments to rest my legs.

Then I walked across to the Basilica of St. George. This was recently restored to reveal its original Romanesque design, but was not particularly interesting. Next to it is one of the wings of the National Gallery. This part specializes in baroque and mannerist art. Since I had bought the ticket, I felt compelled to enter, despite the fact I don't really care for baroque art. This museum, with its tortured, grotesque crucifixes; its nuns, priests, and saints twisting in ecstasy; and its dark, shadowy portraits did nothing to change my opinion of baroque art. I think the yiddish phrase for it is "goyim naches."

There is one exception for my distaste for this art and that's Caravaggio. A recent article in the Guardian on a new exhibit on Galileo and the Inquisition argued that the counter-reformation essentially killed the Italian renaissance. This is far outside my area of expertise, so I will entirely defer to others on whether this idea holds any water. What I found interesting was the author's argument that Caravaggio represents the last painter who expressed the renaissance interest in the sciences. Using the painting of a boy bitten by a lizard -- http://www.wga.hu/art/c/caravagg/01/042boy.jpg -- the author argued that the boy represents the western (read catholic) world's reaction of shock to the discovery that the natural world can disturb us. As I say, I don't vouch for the historical accuracy of the analysis, but I found it interesting.

After that, I wandered over to the Powder Tower, now transformed into an exhibition on 17th and 18th century military weapons and techniques. Moving quickly on, I joined the mobs in the Golden Lane, a ancient narrow passageway that has been redone into tourist traps for which you have to buy a ticket even to have the opportunity to enter. That being said, the little shops were scenic, but had a Disneyland feel to them.

I hoped to see the changing of the guard at noon, but by 12:05, I realized that the gate in question was at the opposite end of the castle complex, so I decided to get lunch instead. Afterwards, I wanted something completely different, so I went to the Museum Kampa, located on the Vltava River. This was the private collection of a wealthy Prague woman who was interested in 20th century Czech art. The main collection was full of interesting and playful works, and the political art of the 1970s and 80s was far more daring than any contemporaneous works I saw in Hungary or Poland.

But what I really, really, really, really liked was the exhibition of the painting of Frantisek Kupka. The museum described him as a cubist, but he combined elements of cubism (particularly Mondrian) with the colors of expressions artists like Kirchner, and the interest in light of rayonist painters like Larionov. In fact, for the first time in my life, I actually thought about stealing a painting, since they wouldn't let me photograph it, and I knew there wouldn't be a postcard of it for sale (there never is, you know).

While that picture, called "Cosmic Spring," is not on the web, I have found some others that are similar, if you would like to get an idea of what his art is like:

And this one is probably most similar to the one I really liked:
But the one I liked had more reds and oranges, and looked like some one had peeled a bright, sun-filled orange, and left the peels around the middle.

In the late afternoon, I decided to visit the synagogues, but had to race a bit to see them all before they closed (I bought a combined ticket). Most have quite restrained interior decorations, but I couldn't tell if that was because they were built like that or if the Nazis had destroyed them and the restorers chose not to bring them back. The only exception was the more liberal Spanish Synagogue, which closely resembles the Tempel Synagogue in Prague and the main synagogue in Budapest with its use of arabesques and orientalist gilded themes.

I had originally thought I might visit Mariansky Lazne tomorrow (my cousin spends a month there every year), but I just came back from the bus station and its a 3-hour bus ride and the bus doesn't leave until 11:30. The bus to Karlovy Vary, on the other hand, leaves every hour on the hour and only takes 2:12 hours. I think that's where I'm going tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Safe and Sound in Prague (July 11)

Well, after a long, dull, and very hot train ride, I have arrived safe and sound in Prague.

There was a little delay at the border when they couldn't find my Polish arrival stamp (the border guard hadn't bothered to make sure there was ink on the stamp when he marked it). I was able to show my Hungarian exit stamp for that date, and after a brief consultation, they filled out some paperwork and let me leave.

The air had cooled and dried a bit when we went up into the hills towards the border, but as we descended to the rolling plains, the temperature shot up. At one station, I saw the temperature posted as 37 C (about 99 F).

One odd thing about the train: on the way to the border, we passed through two tunnels, during which time the train was completely, pitch black. I felt like I was in one of those murder mysteries where the actor says "I know who did it, wait, let me tell you. I was standing at my window, looking out, when all of a sudden...." Just then the train enters the tunnel and a scream is heard. 5 seconds later, the train emerges and the actor is now dead with a knife in his chest.

The odd thing was on the Czech side, just as we were approaching Prague, we passed through a similar tunnel, only this time, the lights came on. Apparently they only work on Czech side.

There were the typical learning curve issues on arriving in Prague, but without too much difficulty I found out about and bought a three-day tram/metro pass, managed to get to my hotel and check in. Later, I found an ATM that took my card and bought a guide book to Prague.

But the really good news is my hotel. This is the most expensive hotel of my trip (well, tied actually with Dresden) at about $75/night. I had originally intended to book a cheaper one, but when I read the reviews that mentioned pickpockets working the tram that stopped at the hotel, I upgraded. I figured at the time (rightly) that I might need a little bit more luxury after Poland. And luxury is what I got.

First and foremost: CENTRAL AIRCONDITIONING. The thermostat was set on maximum cool (15 C -- 58 F). I showered and did accumulated laundry in a large, capacious sink, that easily accomodated 4 pairs of socks and 2 pieces of underwear. Instead of just the two (or sometimes one) towel, this hotel offered six. They even have a bidet, but I've never got the hang of using those; I'm always trying to get the water temperature right. I also have both Sky TV and the BBC. The bed also feels comfortable. I have a north facing room and it looks like also dark curtains, so I'm hoping to sleep in til maybe 7 am tomorrow (which will be over an hour later than usual for me).

So now I'm going to check my book and find a nice place for dinner.

Monday, July 10, 2006

My Ur-doktor vater (July 10)

Well, this will be my last blog from Poland (at least for this trip) as tomorrow I leave for Prague and the Czech Republic (a 6:44 hour train ride).

After posting last night's entry, I went out and watched the last half of the final of the Mundial. The city put up a large plasma screen tv in the Rynek Glowny and with the speakers you could basically here and watch it a block away (which is about the length of the Rynek). There were many supporters of Italy (including someone waiving an Italian flag), but I think there were probably more French supporters, based on the cheers or groans. The game was 1-1 going into the half and 1-1 at the end of the second half, and at the end of the first overtime. At that point, I decided to walk back to my hotel and watch the finale there while I packed up. The game continued tied through the second overtime, and ended (the way many of the games at this World's Cup have done) with a shoot out.

This morning I came to Wroclaw (formerly known as Breslau). It was very hot when I got off the train (certainly low 30s C -- which means low 90s F), and I searched for the tram/bus line that would run to my hotel. No luck. So I started walking, figuring I would find it eventually. In the end I found out that there are no trams or buses because they have entirely torn up the street leading to the hotel for about a block. It's only a 15-20 minute walk, but in this heat my shirt was soaked and I was dripping on to the counter as I filled out the forms. I took a quick shower and changed, but was sweating before I even left my hotel room.

I made my way to the Rynek. This is another one of those large public squares around which medieval Polish cities were built, though this one still has three blocks of buildings in the middle, so you don't get the full scope of the size of the square the way you do in Krakow. Another thing that has surprised me about Poland is how brightly colored many of the renaissance buildings are. Perhaps because so much of the films I see are in black and white, it's a bit of a shock to see so many yellow, green, red, and gold building surfaces.

I had lunch in a vegetarian restaurant on the Rynek (mushroom crepes with mushroom sauce -- not bad, actually), and then I went in search of the synagogue. Today being Monday, all the museums in town are closed, so there was little else to see (part of the reason for stopping here was to see the synagogue and cemetery, the other reason was to break up what would otherwise be a 10-hour train ride). I walked past it the first time because it is tucked away in a courtyard. This is the only synagogue building to survive the Nazis and it is undergoing extensive external restoration.

I walked inside, and found that none of the interior decorations have survived. There were a series of posters on the side about the history of the Jewish community of Wroclaw, prepared in 2003, but these had been moved out of the way to make room for the festival of asian culture performances that are being held there.

I went looking for the Jewish community offices, which are in the building adjacent to the synagogue. The wooden staircases looked like they are in urgent need of repair (they looked as if they might give way), and when I made it up to the floor in which the office is located, it was locked with no sign of when it's open (except for a phone number).

Now you might be wondering, why don't I just call them, but, in fact, I have a phobia about calling people in non-English languages. It is a little stressful, but manageable, to call people in Hebrew or German, but my Polish is virtually non-existent, and there's no way for me to communicate over the phone. I would much prefer to send e-mail.

From there I made my way to the Jewish cemetery. This in itself was a bit of an undertaking in order to find the right tram. I ended up walking a fair way but eventually I found it. Like other Jewish cemeteries, it was damaged during the war, but since Breslau was part of Germany, it didn't undergo the same violence of conquest that Polish cemeteries experienced. Instead, much of the damage came in 1945, when the cemetery was the scene of significant fighting between the Soviets and the Nazis.

I bought my ticket and a guide book and went in. Thankfully, there are many trees, so much of the cemetery is shaded. I ignored the suggested walking tour and went right to the grave of my ur-doktor vater, Heinrich Graetz. In Germany, the chair of your dissertation committee is known as your doktor vater -- the father of your doctoral degree. Well, my doktor vater is Prof. David Myers, and his doktor vater was Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi, who holds the Salo Baron chair in Jewish history at Columbia, and Prof. Salo Baron studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, whose first professor was Heinrich Graetz, making him my urdoktor vater.

Graetz popularized the study of Jewish history. When he began to write his History of the Jews in 1853, just a few hundred people read Jewish history. When he died in 1891, the number had grown to hundreds of thousands, in great part due to his writings. I wrote my dissertation on the reception of his history, and I wanted to visit his grave here in Breslau (Wroclaw) where he taught.

I had no trouble finding it. The marker had been restored in 1991 based on earlier photos of the grave. I saw a long line of stones that previous visitors had placed, and I put my own up there and then said kaddish. I felt it was the least I could do. Then I walked around and looked at the various types of funereal ornamentation used in the cemetery. In many ways, it reminded me of a much smaller version of the Weisensee cemetery in Berlin.

After about an hour I left and made my way back to the center of town. In a little bit I'm going for dinner in the hotel restaurant. A local guide describes the restaurant (and my hotel) as a quaint unrestored treasure, built in the 19th century. I'm hoping it lives up to the billing. Then a quick trip to the train station to get my ticket for tomorrow. And then, I hope, it will be cool enough to sleep.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

LIfe and Death (July 9)

This blog will be a study in contrasts.

The concluding concert for the 16th annual Jewish cultural festival in Krakow was extremely interesting. I got to the square around 7pm and it was about half full and half partly full. Poland's TV2 had cameras out in force to record everything. The first group I heard was a Russian, I think (they kept yelling "spacebo" to the crowd), followed by an American klezmer group, Chevrisa.

The event was part cultural festival, part concert, and part block party. There were grills set up selling pork kielbasa (which I tried and found to be quite tasty), and lots of people walking around with half-liter glasses of beer. If anything, there was a remarkable dearth of trash cans, but I didn't notice much litter.

By the back I ran into the Dutch women I had met my first day here. We traded stories about concerts and I chatted with two other people at their table: an Austrailian English teacher who had lived in Krakow for three years and a grandmotherly woman from Mannheim, who kept singing Yiddish songs she had learned in one of the workshops. This became my base; after making a circuit of the concert and listening for an hour, I would return and rest at their table and chat.

At one breather, the Dutch women -- Anne and Adrianne -- gave me some of their Zubrovka vodka (flavored with bison grass -- every bottle has a stalk), which I rather like (though the Poles prefer to drink it with apple juice). I told them that felt strange for me to be at this concert, sort of like being at someone else's wedding. They were playing klezmer music, but the audience, who really got into it, reacted differently to it, I thought, than a Jewish audience would have.

Later, I met two other aquaintances of theirs: Jan from Prague and his companion Dinah, the Central European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraph Agency. She was there on behalf of Deutsche Welle, conducting interviews of the audience. We got to talking and she asked if she could do a brief interview of me. I was reluctant, mostly because I felt I was still trying to form my own opinions about the event.

She asked me to state my name and where I was from, and then say why I was at the concert. I told her that I wanted to see 20,000 Polish Christians listening to klezmer music. And now that I had seen 20,000 Polish Christians listening to klezmer music, she asked, what did I think now? I told her what I had said earlier, that it felt strange to me to watch the way people listened and moved to the music. Did I think it was kitsch? she asked. No, I emphatically responded. The restaurants are kitsch, but I think the audience is genuinely interested in the music. Did I think it was exploititive to hold this event in a place where so many Jews had been exterminated? Absolutely not, I responded. In all my travels in Poland, I told her, I have been struck by how dynamic the situation is here right now, how in many places Jewish sites are being identified, preserved, and restored. And no place more so than Krakow, where they are trying to preserve not just a single synagogue, but an entire neighborhood. And that's probably why it hurts more here, because you can feel more how much was lost.

She thanked me and turned off the recorder. Then we all got into a very intense discussion about the concert. She responded to my comment about the audience's reaction by saying that she sees teenage Jewish girls in America doing exactly the same breast shaking and hand moves that I was noticing here. It got me wondering how much my seeing the audience as "other" was really my projecting my knowledge of their "otherness" on to them, therefore seeing what I expected, or perhaps wanted to see. She pointed out that many of the Poles she's interviewed are genuinely interested in Jewish culture.

She's absolutely right about that, by the way. I went to a discussion of the Kielce pogrom and when I came in, a workshop on introduction to Judaism was letting out. Since the talk was by an American rabbi, most of the (large) Polish audience needed headsets for simultaneous translation, and there was a long line to return them. There were not only workshops in Jewish arts, crafts, and music, but also sessions on introduction to Jewish textual study. The festival was a lot more than just "fiddler on the roof."

I've been thinking about her comments about the audience, and while she may certainly be right about the women were reacting, I still think there were differences. My comments now should be taken with the caveat that I haven't been to a klezmer concert in the U.S. in over a decade, so my impressions may well be out of date. I was struck by how many men were doing the same sinuous "belly-dancer" hand gestures as the women. Couples were swing dancing. There wasn't the sort of haimish dancing one sees in synagogues. Years ago I was at a simchas torah party in a hasidic shul in Jerusalem, and it was just a see of black hats and coats, with everyone closely packed in while doing line dances. There was a lot of bumping shoulders and back thumping, and it was difficult to move in the tightly packed crowd.

The orthodox sociologist, Samuel Heilman, described this in his book "Defenders of the Faith," when he went to a Ger (I think) celebration in Jerusalem. The bumping and the pushing, which can so often be read as aggressive, was really a physical statement of tribal solidarity, he wrote. It was much more about intimacy than aggression, about being part of a single extended family. It was that sort of experience that I felt missing at last night's concert.

This morning, I took the slow train to Oswiecim (there are only slow trains). From there, it was a short bus ride to Auschwitz I camp and the museum. I chose not to see it with a guide (though I was offered a place with the Israeli group I had met at shabbat services -- their guide for their entire trip in Poland is a second-generation survivor whose mother was in Auschwitz), but rather move at my own pace.

The entrance began with a 15-minute film shot by Soviet troops in January 1945 when they liberated the camp. I had seen brief excerpts before but not the entire film and of course, it left me in tears. I sat outside for a few minutes to regain my composure and then entered the camp.

It felt very odd watching all the people pose for pictures under the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate. It was even odder and more uncomfortable seeing how many people brought their young children (including toddler age!) into the camp with them. This place should be off limits to anyone under the age of 14; they don't have the emotional maturity to deal with the subject (and, apparently, neither do these parents).

I found myself close to tears through much of the early exhibits of the museum on the extermination process, though seeing the 2 tons of human hair cut from the corpses of Jewish women was very, very difficult. Ditto the mounds of suitcases and the collection of shoes, which rose up like dark, heavy waves on either side of the hall.

There was a very, very long line to see the "Death Block," where prisoners to be executed were held and then killed. Partly because it is very narrow so people can only visit single file, partly because all the tour groups have to go through, partly because of this sick fascination people have with the murder sites, to get a cheap, almost pornographic thrill by visiting them, it is very very crowded. I decided to give it a pass.

I ran into a USY group by the entrance to the exhibit on the extermination of the Jews. I chatted with the guide, who told me they had taken a night bus from Prague to Warsaw (12 hours) and the students had slept on the bus (tried to sleep, one girl piped in). I went into the exhibit and it is very dated. Originally put up in the 1960s and then modified in the late 70s, it is a very bare bones description of the Holocaust. The original exhibit was in Polish and Yiddish(!), but English text was added later. It really pales in comparison to what was done at Belzec.

Then there are a series of "national exhibits" on the extermination of Jews from Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and of the extermination of the Gypsies. Finally, the directed path goes through the small gas chamber, where again I watched in amazement and horror as people posed for pictures.

Then I took the bus to Birkenau. As I arrived, I could see a line of thunderstorms building to the west. I went through the main gate and made my way past the rail lines built by prisoners in 1944 so that Hungarian Jews could be brought directly into the camp for execution. I went through a few of the barracks in the women's camp but it started to thunder and so I hurried on to the ruins of gas/crematoria II and III. I said a brief kaddish at the pool where the ashes were dumped, but I kept seeing lightening strikes disturbingly close, so I wrapped it up quick and made my way to the memorial.

It was another of those abstract monuments the Polish communist government put up into the 1960s. I was so distracted by the immanent storm that I forgot to look at the original text and only read the updated one beneath it mentioning the more accurate number of 1.5 million dead (though it was still probably less, around 1.2-3 million) and describing the majority of victims as Jews. I then quickly made my way back to the entrance.

The storm passed to the north, though the humidity did not decrease, so I went into the wooden quarantine barracks, the few wooden structures to survive. Then I left the camp and went back to the center of town (passing the controversial church built by nuns outside the camp walls), and caught a train back to Krakow. Tomorrow it's on to Wroclaw.