Sunday, June 25, 2006

Unusual Encounters (June 25)

Yesterday was a day of very unusual encounters. I caught the bus to Tykocin, which was quite slow (1 hour to go 40 kilometers). It dropped me off in a mostly deserted small town square. I asked a woman where the synagogue was and she pointed in a direction. As I was walking, I passed a house where there was a wooden star of david in the window, have boarded over. Then I turned the corner and saw the large synagogue in its own square.

The Great Tykocin synagogue was built in the 18th century to replace a wooden synagogue that had burned to the ground. It was brick and built in the baroque style. While damaged by the Nazis, the building survived (unlike most of the more famous wooden synagogues in Poland, all of which were burned), and was recently restored. Inside, there was a large elaborate bimah in the middle and a matching baroque aron hakodesh. On the walls, various prayers, mostly versions of the kadesh but also one verson of lecha dodi, were painted in frescos. Many had elaborate decorations of small animals and plants.

In the women's gallery, there was a short history section, focusing on a Tykocin Jew who survived the Holocaust (shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Jews from Tykocin were marched 4 kilometers to the forest and shot), and included some of his family pictures. Then there was a scale model of the what Tykocin looked like at the turn of the century. The other part of the museum was an exhibition of children's pictures on biblical or Jewish themes done by either Russian or Byelorussian school children.

As I left I checked my watch and saw that it was only 11 (i.e., I had 3 hours to kill before the bus back to Bialystok). I decided to look for the Jewish cemetary. I asked the woman at the synagogue where the Jewish cemetary was and she said at the end of the street, so I started walking.

As I was going I noticed someone following me. He was dressed in long pants and a long-sleeve shirt and was carrying a camera case. I wasn't sure who he was, but as I stopped at the end of the street and got out my guide book to find which meadow the cemetary was in, he asked me in English if I was looking for the Jewish cemetary. I said yes, and he pointed to it. His name was John and he was from Houston, Texas. It turns out that one of his grandfathers had been Jewish and was the son of Jews who immigrated from Bialystok. He was visiting Poland tracing his geneology.

We walked around the cemetary, which was mostly meadow with tall grass and weeds, with little lumps of rock sticking barely above ground, some of them with barely readible Hebrew letters. John couldn't read Hebrew, so I did my best to translate the more legible tombstones. John, on the other hand, had brought a book on Jewish sites in the Bialystok area, and had a lot more information on the fate of Tykocin Jews. We decided to pool our resources.

After about an hour of climbing around the cemetary we decided to grab some lunch at one of the two restaurants in town. Located in a basement near the synagogue, it features "Jewish" themed food items. I had the cymes (tzimmes) and the kugel, John had the chicken. The cymes was pretty good; the kugel tasted odd, almost as if it had been on a grill.

Afterwards, we walked towards the cathedral and across the Narew river to get a few of the town. There was some church festival for St. John (not clear if they meant John the Baptist or John the Evangelist), and small choir groups went up on a stage between the church and the river to perform.

We caught the bus back at 2 and he promised to show me in Bialystok where the great synagogue had been located if I would show him where the ghetto memorial was. We walked from the bus stop through one of the few streets in Bialystok that still is predominantly wooden houses, to get an idea of what the city looked like before the war. From there we found the first of the three synagogues to survive the war. I had walked past it twice two days ago looking for it, but there's no sign at all. It now houses the Zamenhof Center for the study of Esperanto (Zamenhof was born in Bialystok).

Around the corner was the memorial to the Great Synagogue in Bialystok. There are several memorial plaques (one of which has historical errors on it), but the main one, a sculpture in metal of the dome of the synagogue, partily melted, is quite moving. In June 1941, shortly after capturing the city, the Nazis put about 1000 Jews into the building and then set it on fire.

I am out of time, so I will have to update this entry later.

Well now that I'm safely (if damply) in Lublin, let me finish this entry.

I should back up a bit and tell you a bit more about John. He's in his late 30s to early 40s, and is an aeronautical engineer working for a company that contracts with NASA. He's quite soft spoken and is often mistaken, he says, for German in his appearance (though most of his family comes from Norway). He was taking lots of black and white photos and recording address in a notebook for his geneology research.

From the ruins of the great synagogue we headed out to find traces from the ghetto. We were trying to find a particular building when two passersby volunteered to help us. They helpfully put us on the right direction. A few minutes later we reached the plaque. It was dedicated to a resistance fighter in the Bialystok ghetto who through acid in the faces of some German soldiers. He escaped capture but the Nazis threatened to kill 1,000 Bialystok Jews unless he turned himself in, which he ultimately did, and he was hanged at this spot. This was not an ideal threat, by the way; on several occasions in other ghettoes, the Nazis did massacre thousands of Jews when resistance fighters would no turn themselves in.

As I was translating the plaque from the Hebrew, a homeless drunk wandered over and started asking us for money. When I used my stock line -- "Ja nie mowie po polsku" (I don't speak Polish) -- he mumbled in German "kein [he probably meant to say klein] Gelt." I shoed him away.

I have seen beggars in every major city I've visited on this trip, including Paris, Vienna, Budapest, etc., even a rather persistent woman in the Czech town where I had to wait 2 hours for my train connection, but in no place have I encountered such belligerent beggars as in Bialystok. And yet, in no place have I met so many helpful strangers. It really is a strange mix.

From there we found one of the other remaining synagogues in the city (now an art gallery), and from there we made our way to the ghetto cemetary. John's guidebook gave more information about the monument. The obelisk, which records the burial of 125 fighters and martyrs from the ghetto uprising, was put up by returning survivors after the war. They also buried the 3,500 victims who were killed by the Nazis in the ghetto, and put a cemetary wall up around their graves.

In either the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Communist government, as part of an anti-semitic purge following Israel's victory in the Six Day War, blew up the obelisk and destroyed the cemetary. Following the success of Solidarity in the 1980s and the end of communism, the obelisk and the cemetary plaque were restored in the 199s.

As we were leaving the cemetary (which is mostly a public park), I pointed out to John an old wooden building that almost certainly stood in the original ghetto. I told him that when I had been there two days before, the people in the building had acted suspiciously when I photographed. He stood several yards a way from me and took the picture while I slowly walked towards the street. I thought everything had gone well, but a man in the park (who looked unemployed and acted as if he was slightly drunk) started yelling at John.

John began to move one way while I continued to walk towards the street, with the belligerent man in between us. I don't remember this but John told me afterwards that I said to the man "we don't speak Polish," at which point he began to come towards me. I continued to make my way out of the park while he continued to shout at me in Polish. As he got close to me, I made the mistake of saying "I don't understand," but since I don't know how to say that in Polish, I said it in Russian by mistake. That set him off into yelling "Ruski!" at me.

By now he was trying to block my path, and when I evaded him he grabbed my arm. I yanked it free and continued to move towards the street, now yelling at him in English. He grabbed my hand and yelled "Nie! Nie! Nie! (no no no) in an ever louder voice (while continuing to move out of the park). This was not a particularly large park by the way (really just one square block of flat land with some trees and benches populated mostly by women in their 50s and 60s, except for the one group of drinking men from which he had emerged). My plan at that point was to draw attention to myself by raising my voice, thereby dissuading him from using any additional force. It seems to have worked, since his friends called him back, allowing John and I to make our escape.

We don't really know why the man was so belligerent. My initial thought when I saw them eye me suspiciously two days before, was that they feared I was a long-lost landowner returning to claim property. Some people we had dinner with last night (I'll come to them in a moment) also thought the same. It was also possible that the man wanted money from us for photographing his house. John was going to meet with a Polish tourguide today and promised to ask him/her if s/he had any ideas.

Well, with that excitement past, we had one last sight to visit: the old Jewish cemetary in Bialystok. John had not taken a bus yet, so I explained the odd way to validate your ticket (you literally punch it in a small punch machine at various places in the bus). We made our way to the cemetary and as we entered we saw a group of four people in their late 20s and early 30s. They turned out to be a group of graduate students, half German and half Polish. Two were from Frankfurt on der Oder and all were studying in the social sciences. One, Felix, was working on issues involving the Polish/Byelorussian borderlands, looking at the process of russification among Poles and Byelorussians in Grodno. One of the Polish women was looking at the opposite question of the polonization of Byelorussians in the Bialystok area. We didn't have enough time to really chat since their taxi had arrived, so we all agreed to meet for dinner at a trendy pizza restaurant in the center of town.

That left us some time to wander through the cemetary. Later at dinner, Felix told me that he and the girls were debating the condition of it: he thought that there was some effort shown to tend it (the gate was opened at some times and closed at others), while they saw it as overgrown with toppled tombstones. I came down somewhat in the middle. While it was not as well maintained as, say, the Warsaw or Lodz cemetaries, it was nowhere near as bad as the cemetary in Tykocin, where unless you knew what to look for, you might just think it was an abandoned meadow.

After walking around we headed back to town, and I returned to my hotel to shower and change. As I walk into the lobby, I see some people checking in, one of whom is wearing a shirt that in Hebrew says "bitachon" (security), so I asked the man (in Hebrew) if he really was in security. He turned around surprised to hear anyone speaking to him in Hebrew and answered in a heavy Polish accented Hebrew, that no, it was just a shirt. I would guess he was in his 40s and he had a blond, almost handlebar mustache. I asked him where he learned Hebrew, and he replied Israel, where he had worked three years.

After changing for dinner I returned to the center of town. I had hoped to visit the internet cafe, but I realized I only had one bus ticket left and I needed one more for Monday morning to get to the train station. The problem was that the normal places where you buy bus tickets in Bialystok -- kiosks and small market stores -- were all closed now. I finally found one off the main square that stayed open late, but had to wait in a long line of 18-24 year-olds all buying half liter cans and bottles of beer.

Dinner was ok. I had qualms about ordering pizza in a country where it is often prepared with ketchup, but I had been assured this pizza was good. They didn't use ketchup, but I think they used barbeque sauce instead. We had a long conversation about holocaust memorials in Poland and Israel. Felix had been to the one at Treblinka and we discussed our impressions. He felt it was very much a product of its time (it was built in the 1960s under the communists) and that of course there was no museum to speak of (what's there now was prepared as a children's project).

We talked about the new memorial in Berlin, and he thought it had a similar idea as Treblinka, namely a field of cemetary-like stones.

After talking about ways of teaching the Holocaust, several of them, particularly the Poles, mentioned how the Jewish groups who bring high school students to Poland, create in the students a hatred of all things Polish. Since the Jewish students never meet any actual Poles, and are, in fact, accompanied by body guards, they get the impression that Poland is a place where there was and continues to be omnipresent hatred and violence against Jews. I agreed with them that I thought the way these trips is organized is a mistake, and that I think it is very important to meet living people and not just study the horrors of the past.

Pretty soon it was 10pm. They were off to a concert (some Polish music group), and I had to get back to my hotel to pack up. I caught the penultimate bus and made it back in plenty of time. Thankfully no party in the hotel last night so I no trouble getting to sleep.

1 comment:

Karen Miedrich-Luo said...

I enjoyed your meanderings, your history lessons, and your insights. I chuckled over your description of my friend John and his ever-present camera. He visited me twice when I lived in China and often knew more about the history than I did!