Sunday, July 01, 2007

Synagogue Hopping

[Klezmer Hois, a restaurant in Kazimierz (formerly the mikvah)]

Well, I had some trepidation last night about getting some sleep. My new room was smack between the two dorm-style rooms and the bed seemed rather saggy. Luckily, it all worked out fine. I went to sleep just after midnight and slept right through the night, only waking up briefly at 6:15, but I made myself go back to sleep, and didn't wake up until 7:30 am.

I had a quick breakfast and headed off to Kazimierz to get the free walking tour of the former Jewish quarter. They emphasized the word "former" since there are almost no Jews currently living in Kazimierz. Even though I got a late start, my hotel is so close to Kazimierz that I was able to walk there in less than 10 minutes.

For about 400 years, Kazimierz housed a defined Jewish quarter, surrounded by a defensive wall and separated from the rest of Krakow by two streams, effectively making it an island. In the 19th century, the streams were filled in and the wall torn down, integrating Kazimierz into the rest of Krakow. At that point, many of the more modern Jews moved out of the quarter, leaving it the home of poor and traditional Jews (making up about 40% of pre-war Krakow's Jewish population). My hotel, by the way, is on the site of a former Jewish prayer house. On my first day, I noticed where the mezuzah on the main gate to the courtyard had been plastered over.

We walked around the quarter, but didn't go into any of the synagogues. I got to talking with an engineer from Montreal named Howard, who is in Poland for the first time, on business. He mentioned that Cantor Ben Zion Miller did his son's bar mitzvah and hoped to hear him at the concert last night. It turned out he left the main square to go to sleep around 10:30; had he stayed 20 more minutes, he would have heard the cantor (he was just starting to sing when I left).

After the tour, Howard said that was going to see the Schindler factory in Podgorze, on the other side of the Wisla River. I tagged along and we talked for a while. His father had survived Auschwitz and had tried to talk him out of not going to visit the site (or Poland, for that matter). Howard told me he had taken the four-hour tour yesterday, which spent about 2 hours in Auschwitz I and an hour in Birkenau (I'm not sure what they did for the other hour). We walked over the bridge that Jewish deportees took when they were sent from Krakow into the ghetto and in trying to find the factory, we came across the remnants of the ghetto wall. As we were reading the sign, a large fruit pit, sort of the size and shape of an avocado pit, came flying over the wall and landed in the street. At first, I thought maybe a squirrel had knocked something out of a tree, but then two more came over and we realized someone on the other side was throwing them at us, so we moved along.

We finally found the factor, which really isn't that much to look at. The gate is original and the guard pointed out that this is where Spielberg filmed part of Schindler's List. The upstairs exhibit, on Schindler and the factory, isn't that exciting, though there are plans to convert the factory space into a museum of contemporary art. After that we headed back to Kazimierz. We were talking about restaurants and I mentioned that the most expensive meal I ever had in Poland was last year in Rzeszow at "The Black Cat." "I've eaten at 'The Black Cat'," Howard told me, "the food is pretty good." "But expensive, " I replied. "Yeah," he said, "I don't know how the Poles can afford it, but it was all filled with Poles." Apparently Pratt and Whitney (his company) have a big factory with 4000 employees in Rzeszow, so he had spent some time there last week.

When we got back to the main square, Howard went his own way and I dropped into the ReM"U synagogue. As I was in the sanctuary, I got into a conversation with an elderly woman, who was there with her daughter and granddaughter. It turned out she was a survivor, born in Wieliczka (where the famous salt mine is), and that she had survived in Warsaw, where she was hidden by a family. She told me that she heard the blast when the Germans blew up the Tlomackie St. Synagogue on May 16, 1943, to celebrate the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

I asked her what happened to her in the Warsaw Rising of 1944, and her daughter urged her to tell me that she had participated in the Rising. Yes, she said, even though she was a small girl, she was asked to carry an order from one set of insurgents to another. I got the impression that's how she survived, since she wasn't in the area when the Germans massacred the entire neighborhood (40,000 people shot). Afterwards, all the Polish civilians were sent to internment camps. In 1946, an uncle took her to Belgium, from where she went to Israel (her daughter and granddaughter live in Princeton). She told me that she has warm feelings for Poles and many Polish friends, but that many people in Israel don't like it when she talks about how Poles suffered during the war, in addition to Jews.

I stopped by a few other synagogues, and grabbed a nice lunch in an outdoor cafe in Kazimierz (grilled chicken with mushrooms and french fries). I also picked up two books: one on Belzec Museum/Memorial and another a book by a Polish Polish Jew, describing his non-Jewish upbringing and how he became more involved in Jewish identity.

Afterwards, I went up to the bus station to find out about the times of buses to Auschwitz, but got knocked into a deep puddle by a group of clueless backpackers. My socks were soaked and muddy, but at least I did find out when I have to be there.

So, back to the hostel to wash my socks and get ready for dinner. I wanted to go to the closing concert of the festival, but that meant I had to be at the theater by 7 to buy any remaining tickets, so I went for an early meal. I had such a nice dinner Friday night at the Klezmer Hois, I decided to go back. I ordered the chicken with honey and ginger sauce, along with the red cabbage. It was good (particularly the cabbage), but not as good as the duck on Friday (I also may have missed the conversation).

Who should I meet as I leave but the Shippers of Palo Alto, the family I met in Budapest while touring the Jewish Quarter. I heard about their adventures in Prague and Czestochowa. Then it was off to the theater.

I think it's just in the nature of these events that I should happen to stand behind a doctor who's active in setting up the new exhibit on pre-war Jewish culture in Krakow, and in front of a professor from Brandeis, who's publishing the second volume of a biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The concert was billed as "Leopold Kozlowski and Friends," and the Shippers warned me that there would be lots of Polish, but I figured as long as there was music it would be fine. Kozlowski is usually billed as the "last Polish Jewish klezmer," as he was trained in Poland prior to the war.

[Leopold Kozlowski]

The tickets cost 100 zloty, but at the last moment, I realized that I only had 90. "Student discount?" I asked. "60 zloty." I was in.

There was a lot of Polish. Kozlowski played the piano, and occasionally told jokes in Polish, while various young singers sang songs, some in Yiddish, but mostly in Polish. One singer, I think her name was Marta Bizon, was absolutely excellent, with a great stage presence and a wonderful voice. Sometimes the juxtaposition of singer and song was pretty big; it's a strange thing to hear "My Yiddishe Mama" sung by a woman who looked like a Polish Morgan Fairchild.

The concert went for just over two hours, which is a long time to sit in a closed room with no air circulation (and only one exit, which meant it was quite an effort to get out). I would say that the audience for this event was 95% Polish.

I got to thinking about the whole fascination with "things Jewish," and the debates I've heard from friends on whether this is "authentic" Jewish culture. I don't think "authentic" is a term that has much meaning in culture. What makes something authentic anyway. Is the klezmer-infused rap I heard last night by New York and Canadian Jews authentic? Is a classic song like "Raisins and Almonds" inauthentic because it's sung by someone who isn't Jewish?

The old Jewish culture of pre-war Poland is gone. There is a new Jewish community forming here, but it is totally cut off from the pre-war culture, and it is creating something new here. The Jews who left Poland either before or after the war are creating new things as well. The culture isn't static, but grows and changes. If Poles miss the Jewish culture that existed prior to the war, their only choice is to create that culture for and by themselves. That doesn't make it inauthentic.

On the other hand, it is a little strange to hear Polish lyrics to "Shalom Aleichem." But not strange in a bad way.

No comments: