Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Jew-ish City (July 4)

Despite the best efforts by the mattress, I managed to get nearly 8 hours of sleep last night.

I was packed, paid, and out the door by 7:10. Bought another poppyseed sweet roll for breakfast and found my bus to Krakow. When we reached Nowy Targ, the bus filled up and I had to keep my suitcase in the aisle. Arriving in Krakow station was a bit confusing, as arriving in a Polish city always is, not made any easier by the extensive construction going on both around as well as within the rail and bus terminals. They are building a large new mall right opposite the stations, and in the meantime, the whole situation is confusing.

Nonetheless, I made my way to my hotel, and what a hotel it's turned out to be. The Wielepole Guest House is by far the nicest hotel I've stayed at anywhere on my trip. Not only do I have the BBC on the tv, but I have AIR CONDITIONING. I nearly fainted. The only negative: the typical sheer Polish curtains designed only to mask your body from viewers, but still allow full sunlight to enter.

The first thing I did, after getting my 3-day bus pass (which I do whenever I can in Polish cities since it frees me up from having to buy bus ticket after ticket) is head down to Kazimierz, the former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow (pronounced "ka-zee-MEE-ezh" by the way). I got a copy of the program for the festival and bought a ticket for Shlomo Bar and Habrira Hativit's concert Friday night. All concerts are 45 zloty, which is a steal, but they don't take credit cards, so I need to go back to my hotel before dinner and get some more cash. As Poland becomes more integrated into capitalism, credit cards will no doubt become more ubiquitous, and you can use them already in many places here, but many small cafes and shops don't like them, so I use much more cash here than anywhere else I've travelled.

I visited the REMA synagogue as well as the Old Synagogue. The latter is now the museum for the Jewish experience in Krakow. They have a nice exhibit right now on famous Jewish Krakovians. I picked up a guidebook on Jewish sights in Kazimierz, and saw some of them today. I went to the new cemetery, but they want you to wear a kippah and I stupidly left mine in my hotel (and I hate the cheap, generic ones they give you, which never stay put). I ended up going to a "Jewish"-style cafe on the main square for a snack. I saw down in the courtyard in the shade and ordered a Cola Light (i.e., Diet Coke) and one of the two women to my right asked if I was as American. Yes, I said, why do you ask. Because only Americans order Cola Light to go with a meal. They were drinking half liters of beer.

I asked where they were from and they said Holland. This is the third straight year they've come to the festival, and they gave me some helpful advice. I had been disappointed to learn that the drumming workshop with Shlomo Bar required you to bring your own instrument, but they said it was still worthwhile to listen (and only 12 zloty). The cooking workshop that I had thought of attending is in Polish, and last year all she taught them was how to make hummus (something that only requires a can opener, a blender, a can of chickpeas, some tehina, some garlic, and some lemon juice -- my father and I disagree how much of the latter).

They were going to a workshop in the afternoon and two concerts tonight. I think I'll just go to one concert tonight: the Andy Statman Trio (though there's also a free concert in the square earlier I might attend too). After the snack (a nice ice cream sundae with fresh fruit and whipped cream), I went to the Galicia Jewish Musuem. They have some interesting exhibits just up on Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. From reading Nechama Tec's study of Polish rescuers I was not surprised to see how many (all but one that I saw) had had close personal contacts with Jews before the war. Most rescuers tended to be non-conformists, who saw beyond the cultural barriers.

The other exhibit was a series of recent photographs of Jewish sites in Galicia. It really confirmed my own impressions of the wide variation in ways Jewish sites are preserved or ignored. One photo, of an exhibit on Jewish communities in Galicia, showed that pre-war Przemysl -- where nothing was identified -- had over 12,000 Jews. It's important to remember, though, that the situation in Poland is quite dynamic. The excellent memorial at Belzec was only opened two years ago. In Warsaw, I was struck by the way Jewish contributions to Warsaw history prior to WWI, were virtually absent from the city museum. Even then, the only Yiddish-language materials were those that were bilingual with Polish. Nothing on the rich Yiddish and Hebrew literary culture in Warsaw in the period before or after WWI. Yet I also saw in this museum that the City of Warsaw is one of the sponsors for the planned new museum on the history and culture of Polish Jews, which will hopefully go a long way to rectifying this absence. (At the same time, I would be happier if the official museum of Warsaw's history also included Jews and Jewish culture in its treatment of the pre-WWI past).

After the museum, I headed over to the Kupa Synagogue for a lecture by Jan Tomasz Gross (author of Neighbors -- an account of a Polish massacre of Jews carried out in 1941 in Jedwabne) on the 60th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. I had figured it would be a pretty small group, but was shocked to find numerous camera crews and a packed hall. I found a seat way in the back and watched as Gross entered, surrounded by a phalanx of flash photographers. I was seated behind Polish TV, and saw representatives from various Polish media and Polish radio. Then he started talking in Polish. Oh God, I thought, the whole lecture is going to be in Polish. What should I do? Then I saw some people wearing headphones and I thought, maybe they have simultaneous translation. I made my way to the front a picked up a headset, and was thus able to listen to his lecture.

60 years ago todays, rioters in Kielce attacked a building housing some 100 Holocaust survivors. Gross set out the context of the time, in which many Catholic bishops firmly believed that Jews used Christian blood to make matzot. The pogrom began because a drunken man accused the Jews of having kidnapped his missing son (who had gone to a neighboring village to visit a friend who had a cherry orchard). As rumors spread, the police made it much worse by sending 9-12 police officers to the community building, even though they knew that this would cause a mob to form. Later investigation showed that the police chief allowed as many men who volunteered to go, to go. The crisis really started when soldiers arrived and then began to drag Jews out of the building and shoot them. Those who weren't shot by the soldiers or the police were then stoned or stabbed by the mob.

Individuals also sought out Jews known to be staying in private homes, and in one instance, dragged a presumably Jewish passenger out of a train that happened to be passing through Kielce at the time of the pogrom. Gross described in detail one set of murders that was particularly well documented (one of the victims escaped and gave testimony immediately afterwards) where four people who were essentially strangers to each other, agreed quite quickly to kill some Jews. They needed a way of transporting their intended victims to the forest and so did a quick negotiation with a passing peasant with a truck. Gross wanted to emphasize the ordinariness that people viewed the decision to kill Jews.

Gross ended by looking at the various explanations that have been proposed for why the Kielce pogrom took place. Against the accusation that it was motivated by anti-Communism (that the Jews were seen as representatives of Communism), Gross notes that the communist party took virtually no notice of the pogrom and never saw it as a threat to itself. Against the accusation that the Soviets instigated the pogrom in order to smear the Poles, Gross noted that documents show that the Soviets refrained from stopping it out of fear of being seen as supporting the Jews (as well as because the local communist officials were anti-Semitic).

In the end, Gross concluded that this pogrom, as well as the ones that took place in Krakow and other Polish cities after the war, were not primarily motivated by Christian anti-Jewish beliefs or by anti-Communism, but rather by simple greed. Jews may have made up 10% of the Polish population, but they were between 30-50% of city dwellers. They were the primary commercial class in Poland. Many young, poor Poles had benefitted from the Germans rounding up and extermination of the Jews, since it created economic opportunities (not to mention, many individual Poles were personally enriched -- though, I think, much less than the Germans themselves). When Jewish survivors returned to Poland after the war, many Poles who had benefitted by their absence feared their return, and some may have feared that the Jews would seek to recover lost property). The massacres of Jews after the war, therefore, was designed to prevent any return to the economic situation that had existed in Poland ante bellum.

After he finished there was a short kaddish service.

Well, I'm almost out of time, so I will sign off for today.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Hope Shlomo Bar and Habrira Hativit's concert was good. They are a real hoot. I recall the time I saw them at "The Cellar" in Jerusalem, a prototypical "smoke filled room" in Jerusalem. They've been through the Bay Area a whole bunch of times as well.