Saturday, July 08, 2006

Shabbat in Krakow (July 8)

Last evening's concert by habreera hateeveet was fantastic. They started it early -- around 6 pm -- so they could finish before shabbat started. In attendence was the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Israeli ambassador to Poland. Because I arrived late (one of the drawbacks in changing hotels is that while I am in a nicer neighborhood, it is significantly farther away from Kazimierz), I could only find a seat in the back right corner with a view obstructed by a pillar. In the end, however, it turned out I had one of the better seats in the house. Not because my view improved (I could just make out the head of Shlomo Bar, until one of the many people standing chose the pillar for supportÖ, but because they opened the door right behind me to let in cool air to a building packed to the rafters with people.

The concert was a blast, though it took them a while to warm up. Shlomo kept trying to get them to sing along -- just la, la, las, nothing too complicated -- but many people would not do it at the beginning. In the end, he got everyone on their feet. It was terrific.

On my way out, I grabbed some new brochures from Polish-Jewish organizations. One took severe issue with the March of the Living for concentrating only on five years of death in Poland, while ignoring nine hundred years of life. Many people with whom I have spoken in Poland -- both Jews and non-Jews -- have criticized the March of the Living to me for traveling through Poland in a bubble while ignoring the living people around them. I also have a lot of problem with the politics and theology around the trip, which ties the gas chambers in Poland to the formation of the State of Israel, creating a narrative of death and resurrection. As the brochure notes, there already is a religion that emphasizes death and resurrection and it isn't Judaism.

The other brochure was from Czulent, a Jewish organization in Krakow, describing their various activities and seeking financial support. I'm holding on to both and will try to use them when I put together a course to take students to Eastern Europe next summer.

This morning I managed to sleep until 6:25. After breakfast I headed to the Tempel Synagogue where I heard there were going to be Shabbat services this morning. Although this was a progressive synagogue, it still has a women's gallery. Today it was used by two groups of orthodox Jews -- the first to arrive was an Israeli group made up mostly of Jews of Polish ancestry -- they were later joined by members of a Young Israel synagogue group from Oceanside, New York. When we went in, they had already set up a mechitza in the lower area, even though there was a gallery upstairs (both were used). Altogether, I counted about 51 men in the mens section, and I would guess an equal number of women.

During the services, at least two separate tour groups arrived, watched, and left. This was a little awkward since it is a violation of Jewish rules of the Sabbath to photograph or record, and many in the mixed group ignored the separate seating arrangements for men and women. Not that I'm particularly religious, but I think one should respect the beliefs of the people you are visiting. The second group was particularly intrusive, and one looked like he was carrying a professional video camera with sound equipment. Suddenly we all heard a loud, shattering crash. Everyone turned around to see what had broken. A man with a camera standing nearby the professional had dropped his camera and the lens had shattered and the batteries had popped out. That's about the time that group left.

Afterwards, one of the Young Israel leaders came over to chat with some people behind me who had been sitting right in front of the whole incident. "It was the hand of God," he said. Just at the moment he had intended to take the picture and violate the sabbath, God had struck the camera down (which would also violate the Sabbath, I think, but no one was in a mood to quibble). One of the younger guys joked that soon it would be circulated as a Krakow miracle, and then we would have the real story and the legend.

Afterwards I said goodbye and went back to my hotel to change and get some lunch. I chose a small little back courtyard restaurant off the main square and had some nice wild mushroom soup and peirogies. Three people looked in and asked in English if the food was good. I told them that I really liked the soup (that was the only course that had arrived). They sat down across from me and unburdened themselves.

They were two men and one woman, all in their early sixties from Ireland by way of Birmingham. They were also the worst sort of travelers -- loud, demanding, and unsatisfiable. Their water spoke only a few words of English, and even I don't know the proper way to respond to the question "how much garlic is in the garlic soup? Is it too garlicky?" One of her companions hoped that the onion soup would be the French Onion soup he liked. I told the woman that I really liked the mushroom soup, so she changed her order to that.

When the soup came, however, she announced it was cold and called the water over. "Cold," she said, "this soup is cold." When it became clear that he did not understand, she pointed at the water bottle, and kept repeated "cold, cold." The waiter left and I told her that I think she just ordered a bottle of cold water. She ran to the waiter who was just getting a bottle out of the refrigerator for her, and they managed to find a waitress who spoke a little more English. A few minutes later her soup arrived hot, but her companion was unhappy to find something like an egg at the bottom of his onion soup. "What's that doing in there," she asked, "it just ruins the whole thing." I don't think it ever occured to them that people in Poland might like the soup that way. Thankfully, I left before their main course arrived, so I was spared that.

After lunch I went to tour the Krakow ghetto. Not Kazimierz, but the ghetto established across the river in 1941 by the Nazis. I had seen footage of the forced relocation of the remaining sixteen thousand Jews (over two-thirds had already been deported to other parts of Poland) into this small area of only 321 houses. Two small sections of the ghetto wall survived. The wall was shaped with half domes arcs running the length of the way, designed to resemble tombstones. Many of the ghetto structures survived and, as in Lodz, it remains a rather poor area of town to this day.

While I was walking I ran into the Israeli group. They were in the main ghetto square, which has an unusual memorial in it. Dispersed throughout the square are a series of slightly, larger-than-life chairs. At one end stands a small metal structure, the interior of which vaguely resembled a cattle car. On the outside were the dates 1941 and 1943, the years in which the ghetto stood there. At the other end of the square was the pharmacy. This structure was the only non-Jewish building in the ghetto. The pharmacist refused German entreaties to leave the ghetto and finally won permission to stay and provide free medical aid to the ghetto residents to prevent plague. He and his assistants also hid Jews during the periodic liquidations of part of the ghetto, and smuggled in food and supplies. After the war, the communist authorities seized the building from him but allowed him to work in it. In the sixties, they closed the building and made it into a bar, but in the eighties it was turned into a museum.

From there I took the tram to Plaszow, where the remaining Jews from the Krakow ghetto were marched in 1943, when the entire ghetto was finally liquidated. Two of my grandmother's cousins were sent to camps, one of them to Plaszow. When it was liquidated, he found his brother in Auschwitz and the two of them survived to liberation.

Plaszow was built on top of a Jewish cemetery, and there's supposed to be one tombstone that survived but I could not find it. After wandering about through the unmarked paths, I found a large cross, which was an execution site, and then the main memorial for the camp, put up by the communist authorities in 1964. On one side it consists of 6 abstracted human forms, standing up, but their heads weighed down with suffering and exhaustion. On the other is a brief text in Polish referencing the victims of Hitlerism.

Nearby, however, were two newer monuments. One is a small plaque, put up by the Hungarian Jewish community six years ago referring to Hungarian Jewish women who were transferred to the camp in 1944 before being sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. The other is a newer, but undated memorial, put up by the Jewish community of Krakow. It is a very angry text, with as much anger directed against the generic communist monument as against the Germans. The side you first see is in Polish, with a Hebrew version on the reverse. Here is a translation: "Here on this site, several thousand Jews were brought from Poland and Hungary, and were tortured, murdered and burnt, between 1943 and 1945. We do not know their names. We shall name them with one word: JEWS. The human tongue lacks the words to describe the depth of this atrocity. Its incredible bestiality, ruthlessness, and cruelty. We shall name it with one word: HITLERISM. To commemorate the murdered, whoe last cry of despair is the silence of this Plaszow cemetery -- we pay homage, we, the survivors of this fascist pogrom -- the Jews."

After that I walked back to the main road where I found the house of camp commandant Amnon Goeth still standing, though with only a small degree of renovation. It is currently occupied, though I can't imagine living in the house of someone who used to use prisoners for target practice from the balcony.

In a few minutes I'm going to head off to the final concert of the Jewish Cultural Festival. Tonight is the big deal, where some twenty thousand people show up, so I'm looking forward to seeing it. Then tomorrow I head to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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