Sunday, July 09, 2006

LIfe and Death (July 9)

This blog will be a study in contrasts.

The concluding concert for the 16th annual Jewish cultural festival in Krakow was extremely interesting. I got to the square around 7pm and it was about half full and half partly full. Poland's TV2 had cameras out in force to record everything. The first group I heard was a Russian, I think (they kept yelling "spacebo" to the crowd), followed by an American klezmer group, Chevrisa.

The event was part cultural festival, part concert, and part block party. There were grills set up selling pork kielbasa (which I tried and found to be quite tasty), and lots of people walking around with half-liter glasses of beer. If anything, there was a remarkable dearth of trash cans, but I didn't notice much litter.

By the back I ran into the Dutch women I had met my first day here. We traded stories about concerts and I chatted with two other people at their table: an Austrailian English teacher who had lived in Krakow for three years and a grandmotherly woman from Mannheim, who kept singing Yiddish songs she had learned in one of the workshops. This became my base; after making a circuit of the concert and listening for an hour, I would return and rest at their table and chat.

At one breather, the Dutch women -- Anne and Adrianne -- gave me some of their Zubrovka vodka (flavored with bison grass -- every bottle has a stalk), which I rather like (though the Poles prefer to drink it with apple juice). I told them that felt strange for me to be at this concert, sort of like being at someone else's wedding. They were playing klezmer music, but the audience, who really got into it, reacted differently to it, I thought, than a Jewish audience would have.

Later, I met two other aquaintances of theirs: Jan from Prague and his companion Dinah, the Central European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraph Agency. She was there on behalf of Deutsche Welle, conducting interviews of the audience. We got to talking and she asked if she could do a brief interview of me. I was reluctant, mostly because I felt I was still trying to form my own opinions about the event.

She asked me to state my name and where I was from, and then say why I was at the concert. I told her that I wanted to see 20,000 Polish Christians listening to klezmer music. And now that I had seen 20,000 Polish Christians listening to klezmer music, she asked, what did I think now? I told her what I had said earlier, that it felt strange to me to watch the way people listened and moved to the music. Did I think it was kitsch? she asked. No, I emphatically responded. The restaurants are kitsch, but I think the audience is genuinely interested in the music. Did I think it was exploititive to hold this event in a place where so many Jews had been exterminated? Absolutely not, I responded. In all my travels in Poland, I told her, I have been struck by how dynamic the situation is here right now, how in many places Jewish sites are being identified, preserved, and restored. And no place more so than Krakow, where they are trying to preserve not just a single synagogue, but an entire neighborhood. And that's probably why it hurts more here, because you can feel more how much was lost.

She thanked me and turned off the recorder. Then we all got into a very intense discussion about the concert. She responded to my comment about the audience's reaction by saying that she sees teenage Jewish girls in America doing exactly the same breast shaking and hand moves that I was noticing here. It got me wondering how much my seeing the audience as "other" was really my projecting my knowledge of their "otherness" on to them, therefore seeing what I expected, or perhaps wanted to see. She pointed out that many of the Poles she's interviewed are genuinely interested in Jewish culture.

She's absolutely right about that, by the way. I went to a discussion of the Kielce pogrom and when I came in, a workshop on introduction to Judaism was letting out. Since the talk was by an American rabbi, most of the (large) Polish audience needed headsets for simultaneous translation, and there was a long line to return them. There were not only workshops in Jewish arts, crafts, and music, but also sessions on introduction to Jewish textual study. The festival was a lot more than just "fiddler on the roof."

I've been thinking about her comments about the audience, and while she may certainly be right about the women were reacting, I still think there were differences. My comments now should be taken with the caveat that I haven't been to a klezmer concert in the U.S. in over a decade, so my impressions may well be out of date. I was struck by how many men were doing the same sinuous "belly-dancer" hand gestures as the women. Couples were swing dancing. There wasn't the sort of haimish dancing one sees in synagogues. Years ago I was at a simchas torah party in a hasidic shul in Jerusalem, and it was just a see of black hats and coats, with everyone closely packed in while doing line dances. There was a lot of bumping shoulders and back thumping, and it was difficult to move in the tightly packed crowd.

The orthodox sociologist, Samuel Heilman, described this in his book "Defenders of the Faith," when he went to a Ger (I think) celebration in Jerusalem. The bumping and the pushing, which can so often be read as aggressive, was really a physical statement of tribal solidarity, he wrote. It was much more about intimacy than aggression, about being part of a single extended family. It was that sort of experience that I felt missing at last night's concert.

This morning, I took the slow train to Oswiecim (there are only slow trains). From there, it was a short bus ride to Auschwitz I camp and the museum. I chose not to see it with a guide (though I was offered a place with the Israeli group I had met at shabbat services -- their guide for their entire trip in Poland is a second-generation survivor whose mother was in Auschwitz), but rather move at my own pace.

The entrance began with a 15-minute film shot by Soviet troops in January 1945 when they liberated the camp. I had seen brief excerpts before but not the entire film and of course, it left me in tears. I sat outside for a few minutes to regain my composure and then entered the camp.

It felt very odd watching all the people pose for pictures under the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate. It was even odder and more uncomfortable seeing how many people brought their young children (including toddler age!) into the camp with them. This place should be off limits to anyone under the age of 14; they don't have the emotional maturity to deal with the subject (and, apparently, neither do these parents).

I found myself close to tears through much of the early exhibits of the museum on the extermination process, though seeing the 2 tons of human hair cut from the corpses of Jewish women was very, very difficult. Ditto the mounds of suitcases and the collection of shoes, which rose up like dark, heavy waves on either side of the hall.

There was a very, very long line to see the "Death Block," where prisoners to be executed were held and then killed. Partly because it is very narrow so people can only visit single file, partly because all the tour groups have to go through, partly because of this sick fascination people have with the murder sites, to get a cheap, almost pornographic thrill by visiting them, it is very very crowded. I decided to give it a pass.

I ran into a USY group by the entrance to the exhibit on the extermination of the Jews. I chatted with the guide, who told me they had taken a night bus from Prague to Warsaw (12 hours) and the students had slept on the bus (tried to sleep, one girl piped in). I went into the exhibit and it is very dated. Originally put up in the 1960s and then modified in the late 70s, it is a very bare bones description of the Holocaust. The original exhibit was in Polish and Yiddish(!), but English text was added later. It really pales in comparison to what was done at Belzec.

Then there are a series of "national exhibits" on the extermination of Jews from Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and of the extermination of the Gypsies. Finally, the directed path goes through the small gas chamber, where again I watched in amazement and horror as people posed for pictures.

Then I took the bus to Birkenau. As I arrived, I could see a line of thunderstorms building to the west. I went through the main gate and made my way past the rail lines built by prisoners in 1944 so that Hungarian Jews could be brought directly into the camp for execution. I went through a few of the barracks in the women's camp but it started to thunder and so I hurried on to the ruins of gas/crematoria II and III. I said a brief kaddish at the pool where the ashes were dumped, but I kept seeing lightening strikes disturbingly close, so I wrapped it up quick and made my way to the memorial.

It was another of those abstract monuments the Polish communist government put up into the 1960s. I was so distracted by the immanent storm that I forgot to look at the original text and only read the updated one beneath it mentioning the more accurate number of 1.5 million dead (though it was still probably less, around 1.2-3 million) and describing the majority of victims as Jews. I then quickly made my way back to the entrance.

The storm passed to the north, though the humidity did not decrease, so I went into the wooden quarantine barracks, the few wooden structures to survive. Then I left the camp and went back to the center of town (passing the controversial church built by nuns outside the camp walls), and caught a train back to Krakow. Tomorrow it's on to Wroclaw.


Steve said...

Did yu see: Nice coverage of the festival

brite said...

I was on the concert as well, maybe we passed each other somewhere in the crowd?
Greetings from Lodz