Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Cost of Forgetfulness (July 1)

Well, all in all, I have to say I've been pretty lucky in terms of losing things. So far, my losses have been limited to 1 and a half pairs of socks, and a small half-used can of talcum powder. This morning, though, I noticed that I had lost my jacket.

Now, I had always intended to leave this jacket behind in Europe; it's old, torn, and ratty. However, I had brought it for one purpose only: to keep me warm in the Carpathian mountains. Which I'm visiting tomorrow. In other words, I had lost the jacket right before the one time I was certain to need it.

At first I thought I left it in the restaurant but on the train this morning I realized I had left it in the internet cafe last night. That meant, I thought, there's little chance of recovering it, since that internet cafe is always full of teenage boys and 20-somethings playing competitive computer games. For those of you wondering why I always seem to find computers in these out of the way towns, that's why.

Ok, so I'm on my way to Przemysl (pronounced p'zhe-mi-shil), a town located 10 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, and as I was looking through my guidebook, I saw there was a big market there on Saturday. Great, I thought, I can pick up a cheap Ukrainian-made wind breaker. The market was a short walk from the train station and it was terrific: sort of like a Polish-Ukrainian version of shuk ha-carmel in Tel-Aviv, or mahane yehuda in Jerusalem. Lots of people selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, suits, etc. Late middle aged and grandmother types clutching packs of cigarettes, whispering "papierosi" (contraband cigarettes) to me.

I narrowed down my choice to two windbreakers, both nylon. One was God-awful but only 35 zloty (about $10.70), the other was inoffensive but 50 zloty ($15.29). In the back of my mind was the possibility that I might recover my original jacket. Nonetheless, I decided to pass over the cheaper one for the more expensive but nicer one. That way, I could bring it back to the states if I liked it and actually wear it here.

From there I set out to find the synagogues of Przemysl. It is surprising how much variation there is among cities in Poland in the way they treat their Jewish past. This breaks down into three basic components: 1) are Jewish sites identified and their significance made known to the public; 2) are Jewish sites preserved and maintained; and 3) do the local museums and tourist information booklets include the Jewish past as part of the local history (in other words, do they see the Jewish past in the city as part of their city's history).

Tarnow, which I visited yesterday, really excels in all these areas. Jewish sites are publicly noted with memorial plaques and with an organized tour route. Efforts have been made to preserve those architectural elements still existing, and to restore those, such as the cemetery, that had fallen into disrepair. Finally, the Jewish story is emphasized in various tourist brochures and in the regional museum.

Przemysl, on the other hand, represents the other extreme. The two former synagogues I found, after much searching, are not in any way identified as such. One, after having been used for car repairs, simply stands vacant and fenced off, with most of its windows broken. The other is the public library. I only found the latter when I saw it marked as a synagogue on one of the maps of the city posted in the central square. That, along with the crumbling Jewish cemetery outside town, is the only evidence available to the tourist that a Jewish community ever existed hear, let alone was destroyed.

I took a bus to an overlook above the town, where I had great view of the river, the town and the hills. I hoped to see the Carpathian mountains, but it was still pretty overcast with intermittant drizzle. I gave up trying to find the cemetery and took the train to Lancut instead.

Lancut is more towards the Tarnow side of the equation. After walking two kilometers from the train station I reached the center of town where I had no trouble finding the synagogue. Built in the 1760s in the square heavy style favored by Polish Jewish communities in the 17th and 18th centuries, this synagogue has been recently restored and is now the local Jewish museum.

Almost unique among Polish synagogues, the interior decorations have almost survived intact. The Germans set fire to the wood in the synagogue, but Count Potocki (whose palace is directly opposite it) had the fire extinguished. As a result, one can see almost all the beautiful frescoes painted on the walls. There is the large square bimah in the middle with its pillars made to look like marble. The walls are covered with a row of frescoed Hebrew prayers, above which are images of the various zodiac signs (in Hebrew), images of Jerusalem, of various symbolic animals, etc. It really is quite beautiful. In the entry hall are fragments of tombstones destroyed by the Nazis and rescued in the museum.

From there I walked across the street and visited the palace. Like the synagogue, the palace also survived virtually intact. As the Russians approached, Count Potocki transferred the most valuable items to safety and then had a sign in Russian put on the front of the palace reading "Polish National Museum." It worked, and within a year, it had become a museum. Built in the 17th century by the Lubomirski family (which owned the towns of Lancut and Rzeszow), it was expanded in the 18th century, particularly after being acquired by the Potockis, another aristocratic Polish family. Lots of beautiful inlaid wooden floors, baroque furnishings, and a rather amusing Pompeii room, with Roman antiquities, designed to look like a Roman ruin.

To see the palace I had to take the Polish tour, which got tiring after a while (mostly we would stop in a hallway full of paintings and I would hear "blah, blah, blah, Potocki, blah, blah, Potocki, blah, blah, blah, Lubomirski-Potocki, etc."). The Orangerie was a pathetic menagerie of cockatiels, turtles, guinea pigs, and one small, gnarled orange bush (with some oranges). By the time we reached the carriage house, with its dozens of horse-drawn carriages, I was ready to bold.

Made it back to Rzeszow and to the internet cafe, where lo and behold, they had kept my jacket. So now I have two. At least I'll be warm tomorrow when I head on, down to Zakopane, a mountain resort in the Carpathian mountains south of Krakow (the mountain region is known as the Tatras).

1 comment:

Steve said...

One thing I am discovering from reading your blogs Jeff is that my impression of Poland being "one large Jewish graveyard" full of nothing but concentration camp remnants, is not as simple as that makes it sound. There may not be much or an organized community left but I am discovering from reading your impressions that there are all sorts of "Jewish ghosts" all over the place. Not really a huge incentive for me to visit but I suppose it has affected the way I think about the place.