Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Rain and Thunder

There's always a steep learning curve when I arrive in a new city, particularly a Polish city. I have to quickly find out where I am, how the buses work, which bus I need to get to my hotel, how to buy and validate the ticket, and which is my stop. Today I did almost all of those right, but I missed my stop by one (again, as in Lublin, stops are not identified by name with signs -- then again, neither are bus stops in Los Angeles).

I arrived at my hotel around 9:30, and my room was not ready yet. Thankfully, they let me store my luggage in it while the maid prepared the room. In the meantime, I mailed some postcards (including a birthday postcard for my mother). I finally realized I should be requesting air mail, so these might actually arrive in time). Then I went to the tourist information office in the main square.

I should add here that Zamosc (where I am now), is a beautiful renaissance town. It was designed by an Italian architect from Padua in the late 16th century, and features a wide piazza, a large imposing town hall (reputedly the most photographed building in Poland), and many fine merchant homes. The only difference with Italy is that there is no large baroque fountain in the middle, nor are there many tourists. In fact, the town is surprisingly empty.

From there I went to the former synagogue. Damaged by the Nazis during the war, the building was turned into a library by the communists. In the last few years, however, the synagogue has been restored and is now a museum. This is part of a wider project throughout Southern Poland of restoring damaged synagogues. While I was admiring the early 17th century ceiling a Polish tour group came through. I could hear the guide pointing out the Aron Hakodesh as the place where the torah scrolls were kept (at least that's what I think she was saying). The synagogue also features a display on the former Jewish community of Zamosc, several of whose members became quite famous (such as I. L. Peretz and Rosa Luxemburg).

Then it was time to get to the train station and catch my train to Belzec. I had a bit of a shock as I approached the station for as I turned the corner I saw two brown bares almost a stone's throw away. Then I saw the moat and realized I had found the town zoo. There was no cafe, so I bought some rolls, cheese, an apple, potato chips, and a large bottle of water, and made a picnic. The train ride was through some of the prettiest countryside I've see in Poland. The further south I got, the more the terrain changed from rolling plains to forested hills separated by small farms. There were green fields separated by fields of yellow mustard or bright red poppies.

As I neared Belzec I could see it was going to storm. I was prepared today and brought my umbrella. It cleared long enough to reach the death camp (located a 10-minute walk from Belzec train station) and then began to pour again. Actually, I was a little afraid as it was thundering and the last thing I needed was to become another dead Jew at Belzec.

As I approached the site at first I thought it was a large quarry or perhaps there had been a fire. Then I saw that what they had done was cover the entire site with volcanic rocks. Before I went to the memorial, I went into the new museum. Both the memorial and the museum were opened just two years ago. The museum is quite good and has clearly been influenced by the Holocaust Museum in D.C. There is some good video testimony, supplemented by findings from the archaeological digs carried out on the site five years ago. They found some of the stone disks given to victims as vouchers for their belongings, as well as star of David armbands, and keys. There were also signs from the camp, a model based on the one survivor's testimony, and information on the perpetrators.

The exhibit ends with a map showing Jewish communities and their liquidation. It appears as a map filled with bright lights, each light representing a community. At first I thought it was broken, as it doesn't light up when for each month communities were liquidated. I then realized that what it does is shows the various lights going out. As it reaches June, August, and September, 1942 (the camp was closed for July for expansion of the killing facilities), suddenly more and more of the map goes dark, as the lights are extinguished. I thought it was both informative, as well as moving.

From there I went to the memorial. Since the Nazis decommisioned the camp in 1943 (it had served its intended purpose of killing the Jews of Poland), they then leveled and razed it to the ground in an effort to hide all traces of the camp. They also did this at Treblinka and Sobibor, which poses a difficult problem for creating a memorial. Unlike Majdanek, here there is no single item or place that can become the locus for historical memory. All you are left with is a green field, which in itself is misleading since that represents the intended Nazi camouflage.

At Treblinka, the Polish government in the 1960s made the decision to cover the field with sections of raised stones, each stone bearing the name of a murdered community. Here they went a little different route. The field has been covered with an inclined hill of black volcanic rock, mostly pumice [the guidebook I bought -- which appears to have been translated into English by use of an imperfect computer program -- describes them as cinders]. It gives the effect of land after a volcanic eruption, where all life has been wiped out. Around this rock, are twisted pieces of metal, giving the impression of a barbed wire. Cutting through the rock is a path way. Around the perimeter of the field are the names of communities murdered in Belzec (about 500,000 people is the current estimate).

As I walked down the pathway, the walls on either side grew higher and higher, cutting off more and more of the sunlight, until it felt like I was walking into a tomb. It was quiet, with the only sounds being my own echoing footsteps and the distant thunder. Finally, when the walls on either side (of roughly shaped concrete, protruding in places) reached 2-3 stories, I reached the memorial. On the side facing the path it is a large white block with the words from Job: "Earth do not hide my blood and do not let my cry be stopped." On the opposite wall are a series of names in alphabetical order. They are the most common first names used by Jews (there was a similar monument at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw).

I made my way up the stairs and began to trace the list of destroyed communities (in chronological order by month, in alphabetical order within each month). When I reached Nowy Targ, from whose ghetto my great-grandmother was taken to this place and killed, I placed a stone by the name. Then I went back to the museum and bought a memorial candle. Since I didn't have any matches, the guard lit it for me and I went back to the memorial and placed it on the ledge beneath her name: Gitel.

I'm out of time right now, so I will update this entry later.


After I put the candle down, I said kaddish for my great-grandmother. There was a small group of Polish tourists there, so I said it quietly, not wanting to feel like I was performing for them. I saw that someone else had put down a candle. A woman who I had chatted with briefly in the museum in German was there and she had put it down. A few minutes later, another group of Polish tourists arrived and they too put down a memorial candle.

I chatted again with the woman. Although we chatted in German, she was, in fact, Polish. She was trained as an historian, and had originally focused her research on 18th-century testaments (I'm not sure whether she meant legal documents in general, wills, or possibly the partitions of Poland -- my German was a little weak here). Now, however, she was working at an institute in Warsaw dealing with original documents of the Holocaust. I pressed her a bit on the nature of her research, and she talked about using documents to trace individuals within them. I got the impression that she is more of an archivist than the sort of historian who writes articles or teaches students.

We talked about my trip, and she asked if I had been to the old cemetery in Lublin. I told her I had only been able to see it from the outside since the gate was locked and I didn't know where the gatekeeper lived. I had the address but didn't know where the street was. It turns out she used to live quite close and recognized the street address from my guide book. She said the old cemetery was amazing and it had the oldest gravestones in Poland. I told her that I hoped to see it next time I was in Poland, when I will make all the proper arrangements.

We were both taking the 15:25 train, so we walked back to the train station. She was staying one stop away in the town of Susiec. On the train, we passed first through beautiful fields and then into the woods and hills nearby where she was staying. I commented to her on the beauty of the countryside and the horror of the history. Yes, she said, but that's the way it is. I asked her if she had been to Israel and she said yes. I asked her if she thought there were similarities between Israel and Poland, and she said she thought there was among the older generation. Maybe, she said, they brought some Poland with them to Israel. The younger generation, on the other hand, was quite different. I agreed and said that I thought many of the "pensioners" I see in Poland remind me, in their appearance and dress, to the same sort of people I saw in Israel.

Back in Zamosc, I visited the cathedral on the edge of the old town. Like the rest of the town, it was designed during the renaissance and is quite beautiful. The town museum, featuring the history of the town, including many of the Armenians who were among the most prominent of the town's founders, was unfortunately closed when I got back. I was hoping to see it this morning, but I'm taking the 10:10 bus today to Rzeszow.

Much of the historic section of Zamosc is under reconstruction right now. Not the houses, which, unlike the population of the town, came through the war mostly unscathed, but the streets are being repaired. They are in the process of replacing all the cobblestone streets in the historic core. That means navigating the area becomes a bit of an obstacle course. I ended up having dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town (located in the priciest hotel). I walked into the dining room and said "ahhh" -- there was air conditioning. I ordered the special strawberry soup with pasta stars and the sliced roast pork with vegetables and strawberry sauce. Strawberries are in season right now, and every day I see people carrying baskets and buckets of fresh strawberries. Lots of restaurants have special strawberry menus for the occasion (though one place in Warsaw served defrosted frozen strawberries to me in what I felt was a blatant bait -and - switch). The whole thing (plus an ok chocolate mousse cake) with tip came to 56 zloty (or about $17.15).

As I was leaving I glanced through the doorway into the hotel proper, where I could see a large tour group was just arriving. The tour leader, a woman in her late 40s, was yelling at them in Israeli-accented English. I asked her in Hebrew where they were from and she said Pittsburgh. She went back to directing the group of 30-40 people, and I heard her say "this is supposed to be the most expensive hotel in town and they don't even have air conditioning?!" At that I felt much better because I had been thinking that I should have stayed here and then at least I would have had air conditioning, but now I know I made the right choice. Luckily, it did cool down enough last night for me to sleep until 5:45 am when the sun woke me up (I had gotten up around 3 as the sky began to lighten but forced myself to go back to sleep).

I chatted with an Israel-American woman about Poland. Like me they had been in Lublin the day before, but they had gone to Majdanek around 2pm, and the woman complained about how hot it had been. I asked her where else in Lublin she had been and she mentioned the yeshiva (which I had seen from the outside). I told her that that part of Lublin very much reminded me of Israel. She looked at me sort of funny, as if she wondered what I could possibly mean, but I told her, you know, like the area around the central bus station in Tel-Aviv. Oh yes, she agreed. The only difference, I said was that you don't see dud shemesh [solar water heaters] on the roofs here. Yes, she laughed.

Meanwhile, there was a large crowd by the elevator waiting for it to come back down. One woman was complaining about the line so I told her she should be grateful there was an elevator. Only the first two hotels I've been to in Poland had elevators, I told her, and in the rest you just have to climb the stairs. With that I went back to my hotel to see if I could find out the weather for today and watch the Italian and German music channels. I watched "A Series of Unfortunate Events" dubbed into Polish for a while but then gave up.

Anyway, it's off to Rzeszow this morning. I'm taking a private bus, so it should only take 2 and a half hours (as opposed to the 5 hours it would take by either train or public bus). I don't have a hotel reservation there so I'm just going to play it by ear and hope for the best.

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