Thursday, June 29, 2006

When the Learning Curve Becomes a Loop (June 29)

I mentioned yesterday that there is a steep learning curve when arriving in Polish cities. Well, today I discovered while trying to leave Zamosc that that curve can sometimes become a loop.

There are four basic types of transportation I've been using in Poland. The first are my feet, and I've been doing a lot of walking here. The second are the trains. They can be slow, overcrowded, and sometimes late, but they do have a published schedule available over the internet. The third are public buses, both local and intercity. They also have posted schedules, but only at stations and stops, not on the internet. Local buses have a lot in common with Israeli buses (except the air conditioning): they tend to careen across the road, lurch, come to sharp stops causing elderly passengers to sway dangerously across the aisle. Finally there are the new private intercity bus lines. These are really large vans run by new start-up companies. Sometimes they have the routes and schedules up on signs near their stops.

Now I've always known I was going to have some trouble today. The southeast corner of Poland is the least developed and the most rural. To make matters worse, I needed to travel from a part of Poland that had been ruled by Russia prior to 1918 to one ruled byAustria prior to 1918. What difference does that make? Well, you can still pretty much make out the partion borders by looking at the rail network in Poland. It's thick and developed in the Austrian and German zones, but thin and mostly absent in the Russian zone.

There's only one direct line (it curves like an "s" but one doesn't need to change trains) from Zamosc to Rzeszow, but it only runs during the summer months. That's why I rescheduled my route in Poland so that I would be travelling this part of it this week when that train started to run. Nevertheless, it still takes 4:45 hours to make the trip, so I was looking for something shorter.

I saw at the tourist office that one of the private van lines had a Rzeszow route leaving at 10:10. Great, I thought, I can eat a leisurely breakfast, mail some postcards, and then catch a quick bus that will get me to Rzeszow in half the time. I arrived at the private bus lot with plenty of time and started looking for a bus stand for my bus. No luck. Nor is my bus on the main posted schedule, but then, I thought, it might be too new.

As the minutes ticked by I began to get nervous. I tried asking one of the van drivers but none of them spoke English, German, French, Hebrew, or Spanish (the languages I tried). When the bus was twenty minutes late I began to get very nervous. I tried other waiting passengers, but only one spoke English but she wasn't sure about the schedule. One suggested I take a van to Tomasow Lubelski and that I would have better luck finding a connection there, but I decided that was too risky as I didn't know for sure if there would be anything, so I went back to my fallback option of the train.

I still don't know what happened to my bus. My best theory is that the schedule is for a departure from Tomasow Lub., and that I was expected to make my own way there, but that's just a theory.

The train I was taking today was exactly the same train I took yesterday to Belzec. This gave me an opportunity to see the site one more time from the train. According the pamphlet put out by the museum, there are differences in shading in the cinder stones, marking off the mass graves of the camp. I hadn't seen them yesterday, probably because of a combination of being too upclose, the rain, and the overcast sky. Today I had no problem making them out. I also saw the stack of railway ties near the entrance. The rails were taken from the rail lines near Treblinka (the ones near Belzec are still being used by normal train traffic such as the train I was on). I think they are supposed to abstractly represent the bodies of the dead or the pyres on which they were later burned.

Before arriving in Belzec, the woman in the compartment next to mine tried to tell me something. She had tried to speak to me earlier in Polish but I told her that I didn't speak Polish. She lived in Belzec and wanted to point something out to me as we approached the station. It turned out to be an old wooden church. Wooden prayer houses were typical for this part of Poland, and there used to be large, beautiful wooden synagogues, however, the Nazis burned every one of them. Nonetheless, from this small church, I had a sense of what they must have looked like.

From there, the train headed to the Polish-Ukranian border, passing through mostly wooded hills, separated by small valleys dotted with family farms. Eventually we past south of these hills into a wide hilly expanse of farms that is Galicia, and finally we reached Rzeszow.

Rzeszow is quite different from Zamosc. Zamosc is prettier but Rzeszow has a lot more people and is a lot more lively. I wasn't able to book a hotel room in advance here, but I was able to get a room at my first choice: the Pod Ratuszem (it means "beneath the city hall"). In fact, I have a view of the old city hall building from my fourth-floor walk up room. It's only 120 zloty a night (or $36.70) and includes breakfast in my room (I requested the vegetarian option).

I walked around the town in the late afternoon and found the two synagogues. The old synagogue was built in the late 17th century and burned by the Nazis in 1944. It is not open to the public and is now used as to house the town archives. Right next to it is the new synagogue, built about a hundred years later, also burned by the Nazis, but open to the public. Unfortunately, not as a synagogue. The lower levels are used as an art gallery and the upper level is a coffee house. I went in, but there's no sense of what the building actually was like before the war.

Across from both is a park built on what was originally the old Jewish cemetery, but used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, and later as a deportation point for Rzeszow Jews who were then sent to Belzec for extermination.

My grandfather was born here but I don't feel any sort of connection to the place. No sense of what the Germans would called "Heimat," or homeland. On the other hand, I wasn't expecting any such feelings.

Tomorrow I head for Tarnow, which has more Jewish sights, then to find Sedzisow, which the shtetl my grandfather's family came from. All the woman at the tourist office could say is that few people go there (and that it's only 7 km from town). Then on Saturday I'll head to Przemsyl and Lancut.

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