Friday, June 30, 2006

The Disadvantages of a Room With a View (June 30)

There are advantages and disadvantages to staying in a room with a view. The advantage is, of course, the view. My room is in a garret on the fourth floor of a building opposite the renaissance town hall (redone in the late 19th century into pseudo-Gothic) and the town square. That means I can take a very short walk and sit out in any of the large open air pubs that line the square.

The disadvantage is that I'm quite close to the open air pubs and the city hall building. I found out last night that last call is around 3 am (that's when the straggling, staggering groups of drunk 20-something men, slowly and noisely made their way home -- apparently, they've decided to show that the Anglo-Saxons don't have a monopoly on public drunkeness).

As for city hall, I have my own personal alarm clock. I succeeded in sleeping til 6 am this morning (mostly because it is overcast and raining), but then at 6 the city hall bells began to ring out the time (accompanied by a distorted tape of a short carillion).

Breakfast in my room arrived an hour later. Tea, a nice-sized roll, butter and blueberry jam, a small bowl of cereal and a large bowl of hot milk. I used some of the milk in the tea and then poured the cereal into the bowl of milk (I suppose the large amount of milk is more for the people who drink coffee).

Last night I had my most expensive meal in Poland. My guide book recommended a restaurant off the main square and I went there. Very red walls, and red tablecloths, and an elderly gentleman in a booth looking like a vampire. Really. At first I thought he was a manekin; he was very grey. He had pale grey skin, grey/black hair, and a grey jacket. He looked like he was in his late 70s. Then he moved slightly and realized he was alive. He had a glass of something in front of him. I never did find out who he was.

I ordered the seasonal strawberry soup and the roast duck with apples, cranberries, and puff pastry. The waiter told me in English that the price was by weight, but I didn't pay attention to the warning. Boneless duck in puff pastry at 28 zloty/ 100 grams -- how much could it cost? After I was served the soup, however, I began to worry.

This was by far the best and most generous strawberry soup I've had so far. A large bowl, with not only soup, but I would guess half a pint of fresh strawberries. Then the duck came. Not boneless, I guess about half a duck. The puff pastry was the dessert, filled with apples. It was all very good, but the meal (with tip -- which was too generous, but I didn't have any bills smaller than 20 on a meal that came to 130 zloty). Total: about $45. Actually, a rather good meal, but more than I intended to spend and left me feeling so bloated I could plotz.

Despite the rain this morning, I decided to go to Tarnow. Thankfully, it stopped even before I made it to the train. I took the local, which stopped at every little hamlet along the way, including the town in which my great-grandfather was born, Sedziszow Malapolska. I figured it would be a dinky little hamlet, but it was pretty substantial. According to the books, somewhere near the town is the Jewish cemetery and synagogue, but in the end, I didn't feel like tramping all over town looking for it.

Tarnow is a rather substantial town. Like Rzeszow, it is in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. In the case of Rzeszow, it's more like the pinkies of the Carpathians: hills gently rise to the south, but that's about it. South of Tarnow, on the other hand, I could make out some subtantial hills, followed by a valley, and taller hills beyond. Like Rzeszow, Tarnow was half Jewish, and the town was geographically divided between its Christian half and its Jewish half. Unlike Rzeszow, however, there has been much more of an effort to preserve and identify Jewish sites.

I happened to meet the man responsible for that: Adam Bartosz. He established the Ethnographic Museum in Tarnow in 1998, making it the first museum in the world dedicated to the study of Roma (Gypsie) history and culture. I had just arrived at the museum and he was taking photographs of the exhibits for a book, I think. He asked me why I came and I explained that I while I teach Jewish history, I was very interested in the Roma and heard that his museum was the only one in the world devoted to the subject. He corrected me and said that there was now a new museum in Brno, Czech Republic, but that his museum was still the first.

He also encouraged me to buy his guide to visiting Jewish sites in Tarnow. In additional to running the Ethnographic Museum, he also runs the Regional Museum, and the Committee of Preservation of Jewish Culture Monuments in Tarnow. He told me that if I wanted to visit the cemetery, I could pick up the key to it at his other museum, but that I would also have to leave a refundable deposit. He also said that if I was interested, there was a new gypsy restaurant in town (though he didn't vouch for their quality).

The displays on gypsie history and culture were fascinating. Like the Jews, the gypsies lived outside the traditional feudal structure, were highly mobile, and specialized in certain occupations. Unlike the Jews, the gypsies had a primarily oral culture and were not based around a particular religion. The museum lays out the enslavement of gypsies in Eastern Europe (ending only in the middle of the 19th century), and then their persecution and massacre under the Nazis (he estimates that between 300 and 500,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis, about half the European population.

They only had it slightly better under the communists who feared their mobility and forced them to settle. Even today there is significant discrimination, and he has charts posted concerning positive/negative views. I was surprised to see the high negative opinions still held of Jews by Poles, since I have not experienced that, but the gypsies were viewed even more negatively. He has photographs of racist anti-gypsie and anti-semitic graffiti, some of which (the anti-Jewish ones) I have seen before. Not often, but particularly in cities where there is a lot of gang graffiti, there are sometimes anti-Jewish remarks (e.g., "Jews to Israel," which I saw from the train in a rural town). In Lodz, which has a lot of gang graffiti, the city organizes an annual event when college students whitewash all the graffiti in town.

The other half of the Ethnographic Museum consisted of folk religious art, but in the back room I found an exhibit in the works on contemporary Jewish life in the Ukraine.

From there I went to the town hall but it was closed for some political symposium. That was really my only disappointment of the day, since they have one of the best collection of art work reflecting samartism in the country. Samartism was a bizarre belief that the Polish nobility was descended from Asian Samartians (this was based on a cartographical error in some renaissance maps). As a result, many adopted the clothing and hair styles of Central Asia as part of this invented heritage. What makes it particularly interesting for me is that I think there may be a connection between Samartian fashions and Hasidic garb. I had always heard that Hasidic clothing -- the kapote, the shtreimel -- were based on the clothing of Polish nobility, but when I was looking at the paintings of the royal families, they always look like Western European nobility, so I thought maybe in these Samartian paintings, I might find more evidence. It will have to wait for another trip, however.

Blocked but undaunted I went to the regional museum, which had a new exhibit called "Times of the Hasidim." The exhibit opened last week during the annual Jewish memorial week, coinciding with the first massacres of Jews by the Nazis in Tarnow. Several articles on the events and exhibitions had been printed in the local newspaper (in Polish, of course), and it looked as if Tarnow Jews and their descendents from Israel had attended.

The exhibit gave a nice primer on the history and beliefs of Hasidism, incorporating part of the museum's permanent collection of Judaica. I later learned that the synagogue display came from the last prayerhouse in Tarnow, which was closed in 1993, with the death of its last member. It's not a big museum, so when I was done, I went to lunch.

I decided to give the gypsy restaurant a try. I was the first one there and at first I couldn't tell if they were open. I didn't speak Polish, so the woman yelled "Shandor," and her son (?) who had gone to the University of Chicago came in and gave me an menu. I had thought about the peirogi but they weren't ready yet, so I ordered the gulasz and the grilled turkey. The gulasz was good and tasty, though a little oily, and the grilled turkey was a little like shishlik and surprisingly spicy. Not uncomfortably so, but I had become used to the more bland and tame Polish cooking.

After lunch I went to the ruins of the old synagogue (built in the early 17th century, burnt by the Nazis on 9 November 1939). Only the brick bimah with its four pillars and canopy remained. Then I went back to the museum to get the key and began to follow the path laid out in the guidebook. They did a really nice job, but I was even more surprised when I reached the cemetery. Unlike the other Jewish cemeteries I was in (many of which were guarded with dogs), this one was protected only by a gang of stray cats. That being said, the cemetery was very well preserved. There's no question of the time and effort being placed into clearing the weeds, uprighting the stones, and marking out the more prominent graves.

Within the cemetery there is a guided path tracing out the most interesting graves. It begins with a monument established for the victims of the Holocaust in 1946, just one year afterwards. It has to be one of the earliest monuments I have seen in Poland. From there the path led to some of the earliest graves in the cemetary, from the early 18th century (though the cemetery is some 150 years older). It was quiet, with the only noise being the chirping birds, the buzzing mosquitos, and the crunch of my shoes on the snails. I hadn't expected either of the latter and so was woefully unprepared without bug spray. As a result, I avoided some of the more distant graves, but got a pretty good sense of the place. While the Warsaw and Lodz graveyards are certainly larger, the Tarnow cemetery was one of the best laid out and explained that I've seen in Poland.

After that it was a leisurly stroll back to the train station. I caught the express train back to Rzeszow but was unpleasantly surprised to find the train full to overflowing. I'm not sure if all the families with small children were on their way to Przemsyl (where I'm going tomorrow) or whether they are continuing on to the Ukraine, but the train was more than full. I stood for half the way in the corridor next to the smokers. I opened the window for air, much to the distress to the grade school teacher who kept making unpleasant faces at me and indicating she wanted to the window closed. I ignored her. Thankfully, I found a spare seat for the last half hour. Just in time as my legs were starting to go numb.

Tonight I think I'm having a light dinner and then will watch the Germany-Argentina game tonight (I think they're playing Argentina). This has to be the most sports I've ever watched in my life.

1 comment:

harold said...

i am very impressed / surprised that you were able to come staggering back to your room at 3 AM and then get back up again at 6 AM and then manage to eat food an hour later.