Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Echoes of Israel (June 20th)

Since I arrived in Poland last week, I've noticed every now and then things that reminded me of Israel. It's hard to explain. It's not that the scenery is like Israel, or the food, or the people; rather, it's as if I'm hearing faint echoes.

Maybe another analogy would work better. Growing up, I never noticed my father's accent. As far as I was concerned my father didn't have an accent; he just spoke the way he spoke. It wasn't until my senior year in college when there was an Israeli down the hall from me that I began to recognize elements of his accent in the way my father spoke. It's like that here. I'm sensing here things that remind me of Israel.

Sometimes it will just be the way a frumpy middle-aged haus frau, dressed in a cheap-patterned dress, her skin and hair with the faint sheen of humid sweat, stands at the bus stop holding on to her purse that will remind me of similar scenes in Israel. Often its the postwar construction, with the same plain charm-free archictectural designs that are so typical in both Israeli buildings of the 1950s and 60s, and Polish buildings of the same time. Perhaps the archictects studied in similar schools, or perhaps the sparseness of the designs was driven by the same lack of resources.

Last night's dinner was quite good. I went to a cafe recommended by my guidebook, and was a little put off when I found it empty after 7pm (I won't say at night, since the sun doesn't set til after 9pm). I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised by the food.

I ordered the barszcz (borscht in English), which was better than the one I had before in Poznan and came with little meat-filled dumplings. For the main course I had the roast duck with apples and cranberries. You get a choice of sides, so I ordered "grandma's potato dumplings." The duck was good and tasty (though, as always, I find it an overly fatty dish), and the dumplings were similar to Austrian spaetzle. About an inch long and a quarter inch wide.

I decided to skip dessert and head back to the restaurant where I had lunch to get their fresh strawberry tart. It comes on a custard base, accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. The service was much poorer than earlier, in part, I think, because the restaurant was twice as crowded with the same number of waitresses, in part because they also had a jazz band playing inside.

I slept very well last night, waking up at 7:20 (the latest I've slept in weeks). I bought some cherry juice and butter to accompany the breakfast provided by the hostel (they provide bread, jam, margarine, tea and coffee), but was a little disappointed with the tastelessness of Polish butter. Then I headed off to the Jewish Historical Institute and Museum.

As you enter there is a large map of Poland on your right with a computer terminal. As you type in the names of Polish cities or towns, the place lights up on the map, and the computer gives you information on when the earliest record of the Jewish community in that place is, where they died, and what remains within the town today.

The main exhibit is just up the stairs where there is a half-hour film on the 912 days of the Warsaw Ghetto. The film is screened in either Polish, English, Hebrew, or German (you tell the staff person which language you prefer). After I watched it in English, a large group (about 15-20) watched it in Hebrew.

The film is very effective and very emotional. The film makers take a few historical liberties, but only people who teach the holocaust would probably notice (e.g. Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat, is quoted in the film as leaving a suicide note, but no such note survived, and it remains a rumor). The film recounts the conquest of Warsaw by the Germans, and the imposition of more and more restrictions on Warsaw's Jews (who made up about a third of the population of the city), culminating in the creation of the ghetto.

The film then describes the progressive starvation of ghetto inhabitants, leading to more and more deaths. Using archival film, they include extensive footage of naked, skeletonish bodies being loaded onto carts to be buried in the cemetery. Very hard to watch. They also include footage shot by a German propaganda crew shortly before the ghetto's liquidation, along with reading excerpts from Czerniakow's diary concerning how the Germans staged the scenes.

They play a little with special effects, so that as a diary entry is read describing how a mother was cradling a dead child, the still photo of a mother and child is modifed to show the child disappearing. In other cases, the shadow of a child who has died is shown walking through the rubble of the ghetto.

The film becomes most intense when it describes the liquidation of the ghetto beginning on July 22, 1942. Over the next three months, some 300,000 Warsaw Jews were deported to Treblinka, where they were gassed on arrival. Someone reads a diary entry written by a woman describing the panic in the streets as the Germans sought to fill their quota of 5000 a day; people hearing rumors that a particular block was to be seized, grabbing their belongings and fleeing through the streets looking for a place to hide. That was very hard to watch.

After the so-called "big aktion" stopped, there were only 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. 30,000 were "legal" the others were "wild," living in hiding. The film then culminates in the uprising the following April and the consquent destruction of the ghetto.

I decided to buy a dvd of the film to use in class, as it has a lot of material that I hadn't seen before depicting life (and death) within the ghetto.

From there the main exhibit is in some ways redundant of the film. It goes over exactly the same material, only with artifacts and photographs, as opposed to film. All the exhibits are bilingual in Polish and English.

The next floor up is devoted to the work of Polish Jewish artists. There is a small sanctuary with an ark, torah scroll, and decorations rescued from various cities, mostly in Poland, but a fair number from Greece. Then there is a large room of 19th and 20th-century Polish Jewish artists. I recently examined a text on the history of Jewish portraiture to check its historical accuracy, and many of the artists featured in that text were on display in the museum.

On the way out, I stopped to talk to an Israeli man who also was buying a copy of the dvd. He wanted to get his whole family together when he went back to Haifa and have them watch the film together. His father had lived on a small farm near Lublin and had gotten out just before the war began. I also talked with two Chabadniks from Canada. I told them my impressions of Lodz and the one who had been there agreed. He asked if I visited the Jewish community center there, and I told him that I tried but it was closed the day I went. He asked if I remembered the building across the street from it, and I told him yes, that I was struck by this empty, completely decayed, building that at one point had been a rather elegant theater or embassy, but was now completely vacant.

From there I went to the Rynek to visit the Museum of the History of Warsaw. I had heard from two Australians at breakfast that there would be an english-language film on Warsaw at 12:00. The film was good, though somewhat duplicative of the material at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. It covers the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising, though its primary emphasis was on the Warsaw Uprising.

The museum then covers the history of the city from its founding in the medieval period to the present day. Most of the material is in Polish only though some also has english. Jewish Warsaw barely appears in the exhibit. Prior to 1914, only two paintings include Jews. No texts do. Even the breakdown of the population by religion only includes Christians. Finally after 1914, there is an armoire-sized display of Jewish ritual objects, accompanied by a text and photographs that describes (in Polish only) that Jews made up some 29% of the city's population (as I type this the music teacher in the girls school next door is teaching someone how to play "Hava Nagila" on the piano). How Jews went from 0 to 29% is not explained. There are virtually no Yiddish items on display, even the one exception -- a poster in Yiddish calling on Warsaw Jews to support the new Polish state -- is in Polish and Yiddish. No mention of the immense Yiddish-language press, theater or film.

With the outbreak of WWII, the material on Jewish Warsaw is much larger, with several displays on the persecution of Warsaw Jews and the Ghetto uprising. After that its back to Polish Warsaw. Even though the film describes those who died on either side of the wall as all Polish citizens, the museum display, by excluding Jews from its narrative on the development of Polish Warsaw, implies that Jews were not Polish.

After the museum, I grabbed a late lunch at a "milk bar" recommended by my guidebook, which was just north of the newly rebuilt barbican. The way it worked was I ordered my food at the cashier, paid her, and then gave the receipt to the cooks. I had wanted to order krupnik (barley soup) but they were out, so I got mushroom soup instead. I also ordered the peirogi and some mineral water. The soup came first. It needed some salt, but was pretty good (and there was a lot of it). The peirogis came later and I was surprised when they were filled with something purple in a cream sauce. I figured they were beet, but they turned out to be blueberry (or current -- I'm not sure), and the cream sauce turned out to be vanilla.

On the way back to the hostel I bought a ticket for tomorrow night's performance of The Magic Flute at the National Opera. They were almost sold out and my only choices were the 20 Zl and the 50 Zl ticket. Remembering how cramped I was in Budapest, I ordered the 50 Zl ticket (I actually, wanted to get an even more expensive ticket, but it wasn't an option). Even so, this only puts me back some $17 American.

Now its off to do some editing work on a paper and then go to dinner.

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