Sunday, June 25, 2017

Last Day

Our last full day in Poland is always a light one.  I let the students sleep in, so our departure this morning wasn’t until 10 am.  We walked over to Kazimierz and explored some of the efforts to create a post-war, post-communist Jewish identity for this district.  We checked out the famous courtyard used by Spielberg and so many other filmmakers to evoke a “Jewish feel” for the neighborhood.  We also stopped by the Kupa Synagogue, which has a restored roof and some wall art.

After that we headed over to the Galicia Jewish Museum.  Lila, who we met at the JCC, was behind the counter and she let us in for free as most of the museum was closing in 10 minutes to prepare it for an event this afternoon.  Actually, we had close to 20 minutes to look over their core exhibition of photographs Traces of Memory, looking at the history of Jewish Galicia.  Our final stop in Kazimierz was the High Synagogue, where we looked at a short exhibition of photographs from Krakow Jewish families.  I would have also liked to visit the Remuh and Isaac Synagogues, but we had to be at Wawel Castle by no later than 12:20, which didn’t give us a lot of time.

The castle has stunning views of the river and even a legend of a dragon (Smok).  In 1972, they built a statue of one at the base of the castle, and every few minutes it breathes fire out its mouth. 

The tour of the State Apartments was nice; I miss seeing Lady with an Ermine, but the Da Vinci painting was moved last month to the National Gallery a bit aways.  Afterwards, we sat in the café on the castle grounds and had a late lunch.

After that the students were free until our farewell dinner.  I went off to the Stare Miasto to do some last souvenir shopping, then off to the train station to buy a newspaper.  They were out of The International New York Times so I got the weekly Guardian instead.  After that, I stopped at a café for one last kremowka and cappuccino.

It’s been a warm day (84 earlier, 73 now) and a little humid.  It’s been threatening rain all evening and we now have a 50% chance in the next hour.  I showered and changed and met the students for one last time here in Poland.

We walked the 15 minutes to Kogel Mogel.  They had a table for us indoors as they thought it might rain.  I have to say that I like this place better than Szara Kazimierz, which is where we’ve eaten the last few times.  I think they had a wider selection of entrees and first courses. 

I started off with the goose liver pate with roasted cherries and pumpernickel sand.  It was excellent; some of the best pate I’ve ever had and on a par with the duck liver pate crème brulee I had in Berlin.

For my main course, I went with the goose leg.  Kogel Mogel won an award for best goose in 2012, which is a good sign they know how to cook it well.  The skin was crispy but the meat wasn’t overcooked and dry, the way it can be.  It was covered in a roasted plum sauce.

About half the students ordered the dry-aged beef tenderloin, mostly cooked medium to medium well.  Many of them were only cooked medium rare (which would have been perfect for me)

I thought about getting the profiteroles for dessert, but they weren’t filled with ice cream, but egg nog (advocat).  I knew the szarlotka would be too heavy, so I ordered the home made vanilla and cherry ice cream on hazelnut sand (the really like “sand” in this restaurant.  It was just what I needed.

This was the Szarlotka:

I suggested that after such a heavy meal we walk back.  The temperature had cooled off and I thought it would be nice to visit the rynek square one last time.  There was a busker singing a popular Polish song, with all these Poles arm and arm singing along at full volume.  All the buildings were lit up and the restaurants and cafés full of people, with the horse carts for tourists clopping by every few minutes.

 Back at the hotel I said my goodbyes to about half the students who are either staying in Europe or on other flights.  Now I’m about 50% packed and need to finish up.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


Today was the last hard day of the trip.  We left early at 8 am for the drive to Birkenau, because the camp is enormous and I needed at least three hours in it.  I warned the students that Birkenau was far larger than Auschwitz, but you could put Auschwitz I in a small corner of Birkenau and you might not even notice it.  Auschwitz I held about 11,000 prisoners; Birkenau (Auschwitz II) held about 100,000 slave laborers at any given time. It was the largest slave labor camp in Europe.

After walking through the main gate, we went to the ramp and I had the students read an excerpt from Yaffa Eliach’s book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.  This was a story told by Jack Garfein about how at age 13, he and his mother arrived in Birkenau and stood on the ramp awaiting the selection.  His mother shoved him away from her into the men’s column. The man behind him lies to Dr. Mengele, telling him that Jack was 16 and an apprentice mosaic artist.  When Mengele sends both of them to life, Jack, not understanding what just happens, turns around to apologize for the lies, but is kicked by a kapo. 

He soon learned how the man behind him, who he described as a gentle Talmud scholar, had saved his life.  For weeks, he searched for the man to thank him, but one day he realizes that he’ll never find as he was the Prophet Elijah, sent by his mother’s prayers to save her only child. 

From there we walked the path of those selected for death; it takes about 5-10 minutes to walk from the ramp to gas chamber and Crematorium II.   Historians estimate that around 500,000 people were murdered in this one gas chamber.  With Soviet forces approaching, the SS evacuated some 60,000 prisoners on January 17 and 18, 1945.  Prisoners were forced to march in heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures (all while wearing only pajamas and wooden clogs) between 30 and 35 miles to the nearest rail station.  About a quarter of the prisoners collapsed or were murdered on these death marches.  On the 20th, they blew up the crematoria in an effort to conceal what happened in the camp. Soviet forces liberated the remaining 7,000 prisoners scattered among the camps on January 27th.

After walking all around the physical space, we sat nearby in the shade and read excerpts of Filip Müller’s interview in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah.  Müller was Czechoslovakian Jew who was forced to become a Sonderkommando [a prisoner who carried bodies from the gas chamber] in 1942.  He was one of only a handful of Sonderkommando to survive, as he managed to live through five liquidations, including the revolt of the Sonderkommando that took place in Crematorium IV on 7 October 1944.  In the chaos of the evacuation of the camp, the SS forgot to shoot the Sonderkommando, and Müller was death marched to Mauthausen.  A week or two after they arrived there, the SS asked all Sonderkommando from Auschwitz-Birkenau to step forward and identify themselves (in order to kill them).  None did.  He was liberated by American forces on 5 May 1945.

Müller describes in graphic detail how the killing operation worked.  While I think everyone understands that being murdered in a gas chamber was bad, other than historians, very few people realize how horrible and painful it was.  As soon as the victims were inside, the doors were sealed, the lights turned off, and the particles of Zyklon B dropped in from the ceiling.  Zyklon B was a solid, gravel-like compound which then sublimated into a gas in the warm, damp gas chambers.  As the gas began to rise from the ground up (it was heavier than air), terrible panic would break out in the gas chamber as people fought in the pitch-black darkness.  Since so many attempted to break through the door (which was impossible), their bodies were piled up against it, and would fall out in an avalanche when the Sonderkommando opened it 30 minutes later.

Our second reading from Müller involved the murder of the first Czech family transport in March 1944.  The Sonderkommando warned the transport that they were about to be gassed and offered to rise up in revolt with them.  The issue here was that this transport was in relatively good physical shape (only 25% had died after six months) and couldn’t be tricked into the gas chambers.  In fact, though, the violence used against the Czechs was extraordinary and physical revolt was simply impossible.  The most they could do was to refuse the order to undress.  Instead, they sang the Czech national anthem and Hatikvah. 

Müller, watching all this in the undressing room, decided to commit suicide by walking into the gas chamber with them, which he did. Standing there, a group of women approached him and urged to leave and bear witness to their suffering. Although he didn’t say it in the interview, in his autobiography, Müller says one of the women shoved him into an SS guard, who recognized Müller has a Sonderkommando and then threw him out of the gas chamber screaming “we decide when you die!”

I have the students read all these excerpts because, well first, because I need to save my voice, and second, because I start to break down and cry if I read them myself.  The students’ faces were ashen and shell shocked as we walked to the so-called Sauna, where prisoners selected for slave labor were inducted into the camp.

After walking through the undressing room, the hair cutting room, the showers (which were either boiling or freezing), and the room where they received their prisoner uniforms, there is a photography exhibition of family photos of Jews from one Polish town (Bȩdzin).  Looking at the various pictures, some students found images of children that matched their nieces and nephews.

It’s a rather long walk back to the front of the camp to the quarantine barracks.  The area around the gas chambers is wooded and swampy.  The woods existed back then as a sort of camouflage, and the ponds were where some of the ashes of those murdered were dumped.  We went into some of the open wooden barracks to see the conditions of the prisoners. 

By now we had been in Birkenau for over two and a half hours.  Our last stop was the women’s barracks, Camp Bia.  This is the earliest part of Birkenau, and many of these barracks were built from brick and concrete.  The later parts of the camp, BII(a-e), were built from wood, and all that remains of almost all of them is the brick heating channel in each barrack (if prisoners could find or steal some wood, they could burn it in winter to warm the barracks). 

Most of the barracks are closed for restoration or preservation.  We entered a few.  Block 16a, where 600 Polish children deported to Birkenau from Warsaw or Zamosc, were kept here.  Some of the prisoners had painted images for the children on the walls of the barracks, so these horrible, dark places were slightly less terrible.

Most of the other barracks contained up to 1000 Jewish or Roma women, forced to sleep 6 to a single bunk of a three-tiered bunk bed (18 per bed).  I told them how Kitty Felix, brought to Birkenau with her mother when she was only 16, survived the camp, and how her mother was able to survive as well, working on the hospital block.

After spending over three hours in the camp, we headed across the street to the parking lot, where I bought the students lunch at the bus stop café (café is too generous a term for it).  We rested for about an hour, and then we headed to our last stop of the day, the Labyrinth art installation by Marian Kołodziej at the Franciscan monastery in Harmȩze. 

This is the third time I’ve taken students here and we had Renata, the same wonderful guide we had two years ago. Kołodziej’s art powerfully conveys the horrors of the camp and addresses the experiences of prisoners (he was on the first transport to Auschwitz in 1940) through religious imagery.  Through his art, he calls on us not only to witness his and the other prisoners’ suffering, but to make better choices in our lives.

I knew better than to try to talk about this on the long drive back on the bus.  It’s just not conducive to having a discussion.  Because of road construction, the last two days we were forced to take a detour through a small town.  I noticed the first day a large mural labeled “White Power” on the wall of a garage, and the students had seen a sign saying “Anty-Jew” with a Jewish Star in a circle with a line through it.  I had my camera ready and I managed to photograph some of it, but not all.

Back in Krakow, we gathered in the breakfast room and talked about the day for about 45 minutes.  Students were reluctant to speak, but that’s not unusual.  Most said a few words, but there was also plenty of silence.  I think it’s important to give them an opportunity to think about and process what we’ve seen.

That really ended the substantive part of the class.  Today is our last full day in Poland and it will be very light:  some synagogues in Kazimierz this morning, Wawel Castle at 12:30, and a farewell dinner tonight.

I took all the students who wanted out to dinner last night at a somewhat kitschy Polish restaurant in the Stare Miasto.  I had the top sirloin, but it was cooked medium to medium well, and I wasn’t all that happy with it. Another student had ordered it and hers was medium rare. Since she preferred medium well, we switched about two thirds of the way through and both of us were happy.   
Six of the students ran out to join a pub crawl and the rest of us went looking for a place for dessert. 

There was a big festival in Krakow yesterday; something to do with the summer solstice.  We saw a lot of women with flowers in their hair so I asked a woman of a certain age waiting at the tram stop with us if she spoke English.  She was from Belgium.  I asked if she knew why the women had flowers and she said that it was just a Polish custom.  I knew that wasn’t right, but I wasn’t going to argue with her about it.  We talked about Belgium for a little bit.  She and her friend were from Ostend.  I told her my favorite chocolate was Neuhaus, but she preferred Côte d'Or.

I asked what she was doing in Krakow and her voiced dropped to nearly a whisper as she told me that her father had been in the Belgian resistance during the war, and that he and his friends had been sent to Auschwitz.  They had been at the camp earlier that day. She then added in a whisper that ISIS was becoming just as bad as the Nazis.

When we got of the tram I could see a stage set up on a small side street, and there was a concert, so I grabbed the students and walked over to see what it was.  This street houses the French, American, and German consulates, and they sponsored a street fair for the holiday.  Here I finally learned why so many of the women were wearing flower wreaths.  In the old days, a maiden would toss her wreath into the river and whichever boy recovered it would win a date with her.  At the German booth, they were giving away CDs of music composed in Leipzig (mostly Bach) so I picked one up.

On the stage of main rynek there was a huge crowd watching a Polish woman sing hard rock songs.  On the way back after dinner, the crowd was even louder, listening to Polish rap.  Like salmons swimming upstream, we made our way through the throngs heading to the main square and found a place for tiramisu and ice cream.
When we left, we discovered the concert had ended and seemingly everyone was now walking our way.  After we got back to the hotel we found out why.  I was just starting to type up this post when I heard loud explosions.  My first thought was terrorism, but when I saw the reflections of light on the building opposite, I went to the window near the elevator facing the river and saw a massive fireworks display based around the river and Wawel Castle. The explosions were remarkably loud and seemed to shake the building.  As I was only on the second floor above ground, I couldn’t see the lowest explosions, but what I could see was pretty spectacular.  

It lasted a good 15-20 minutes.  It was a nice way to end the day.

Friday, June 23, 2017


Of all the places we visit in this course, the one that all the students have heard of in advance is Auschwitz.  It sort of exists as an amorphous concept in their imagination.  In literary theory, we would talk about their “horizon of expectations.”  That is, what images do they have of the place before they actually read about it or visit it?

For many of the students, there’s a profound disconnect between their expectations of a place and its reality.  Auschwitz I (aka the Stammlager or base camp) was created out of a Polish military base.  The barracks are two stories, made of brick, have normal windows, floors, and stairs.  As we walk the halls, we don’t feel the ever-present fear, smell the stench of excrement, hear the beatings and prisoners dying, see the emaciated prisoners, or taste their hunger.  The rooms are clean, sterile, and out of the elements.  We come expecting hell, but other than the double rows of electrified barbed wire, we see very little of it.

Some of it can come from the historical displays in the various barracks; the mug shot photos of prisoners, the two tons of women’s hair on display (out of seven tons recovered at liberation), the collection of shoes, the models of the gas chambers and crematoria.  Yet, the sterile surroundings war with our expectations.

For that, we will need to go to Birkenau tomorrow morning.  Today, however, we stayed only in Auschwitz.

I had timed tour tickets for 1:30 pm, but I wanted to visit two “pavilions” not on the main tour:  the Jewish and Roma Exhibits.  We got there around 10 am and I negotiated with the guard to let us in.  The entry procedure has changed somewhat from last time.  Now, you must go through metal detectors and only through a single turnstile.  The guard wasn’t going to let us in, but the staff prevailed upon her.

When the Polish communist government prepared the camp museum, the various special exhibits were all based on nationality.  Since Jews were not a nation (the government was strongly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel), a special pavilion for Jews only opened in 1967.  Shortly after the Six Day War, the government closed it and it remained closed for over a decade.  I saw it when I came here in 2006 and it was truly awful.

Since then it’s been revised and is very good.  It’s goal is not to provide a detailed history of the entire holocaust, but rather hit certain major themes. The first room, really a corridor, is faith.  They simply have the song, Ani Ma’amim (I believe) playing on a loop.  That enters on to a large room dedicated to showing Jewish life in Europe in all its diversity before the war, with a montage of film clips and photos from Jewish communities across the length and breadth of Europe.

From there we are introduced to Nazi ideology, with a series of powerful and devastating quotes from Nazi leaders laying out their anti-Semitism and its critical role in Nazi ideology.  That naturally transitions into a summary of the various ways the Nazis killed the Jews of Europe:  ghettoization, death camps, concentration and labor camps, mass shootings, and death marches.  The next room focuses on the Jewish responses to the Holocaust, mixing writings from the boys of the Theresienstadt Group Home #1, with interviews with various survivors, and letters of those who were murdered.

There is a very powerful room focusing on children, which consists only of reproductions of children’s drawings on the walls around the room.   
Finally, we come to a room with a giant book of the four million known names of Jewish holocaust victims.  As I did last time, I found my great grandmother’s name (though she is listed as “Gusta Steinlauf” rather than “Gussie” or “Gittlel,” which is how I’ve heard her named).

The next pavilion we went to is the Roma exhibition.  This needs to do a lot of “memory work.”  Very few people know anything about the Porrajmos (literally, “the devouring”), and few nations in Europe commemorate the persecution of the Roma.  This exhibit is a careful, chronological overview of the persecution and murder of the Roma and Sinti of Europe, very different in approach from the Jewish pavilion.

It was almost 12:00 when we finished, so we headed to the cafeteria to eat a small lunch before our main tour.  This is also somewhat shorter than the tour we did in the past, as it skipped the barracks showing the everyday life of prisoners in the camp.   

We finished our tour of Auschwitz I in just under one and a half hours.  After a short break, they went on to Birkenau, but we will go there tomorrow.

Back in town, I got the very good news that the hotel is refunding the very large amount the university had overpaid, and better yet, the returned it to me in cash.  That meant I could buy the students dinner (and lunch tomorrow and dinner tomorrow night).  I had already scoped out where the food trucks were, but the students decided they prefer a sit-down place, so we went to Mama off Plac Nowy.  I had the red dumplings, filled with duck and red currants.

Afterwards, I promised the students ice cream and they wanted to try what they called “roll up ice cream” but the Poles call “Thai ice cream.”  The liquid to be frozen along with any mix ins is poured on an anti-griddle and flash frozen.  The mix ins are chopped in and they the whole thing is scraped into a dish. I got peach and I didn’t care for it.  The only flavor in it came from the peach and it didn’t have the mouthfeel of ice cream.  Rather it tasted like unsweetened low fat ice milk.  I’m not sorry I tried it but I won’t have it again.

I left off two adventures before dinner.  The first was when I tripped and fell on the sidewalk.  My glasses went flying and my jeans were slightly ripped, but the good news is that my knee came through fine.  No blood.  I was a little shaken, so I went across the street and sat in a café and drank a cappuccino to steady myself.

The other adventure was far more pleasant.  On our way, we walked by the Krakow JCC, which was having a party.   
This was the culmination of the 2017 Ride for the Living.  At 8 am, the cyclists left Auschwitz and biked the 55 miles back to Krakow.  We happened to walk up just as they arrived.  I ran into Yakub, who filled me in on the story.   We chatted with a few of the riders, and the students got some beer with the JCC event logo on it, and we headed off for dinner.   
 I asked how they were going to chill it, but they said that they would drink it warm later.  >

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sorting Stuff Out

Today was a much better today.  Let me pick up where I left off last night.  The discussion at the JCC went as well as could be expected.  I’ve noticed on the trips that I’ve led that American students tend to be shy talking to strangers.  They don’t know what to ask or how to ask it.  I did have some brave students who posed questions, but most sat silently.  Still, we had a good discussion.

One interesting question was on stereotypes of Americans, which they mostly avoided answering (open, friendly, and naïve).  When their answer transitioned to Israelis they became much more animated.  Israelis tend to be rude and direct.  There were some funny imitations of Israeli accented statements.  “You are Jewish?  Why you do not make Aliyah?”  Hebrew doesn’t have a subjunctive, so whereas in English or Polish you might say “could I have a water please?” becomes in Hebrew “give me a water” (the “please” is optional). They also complained that Israelis seem to be impervious to nuance.

Afterwards, I walked the students down to Szeroka St to see what they JCC folks called “Jewrassic Park” or Krakow’s Jewish Disneyland, with the faux Jewish storefronts and Jewish-themed restaurants.  Then they all went their separate ways, and I headed off to the train station to buy today’s paper and figure out what’s happening to the trams.

I photographed the new tram maps and saw what had happened.  All the stops around the train station are closed (a new one, I later discovered, was opened under the train station).  This meant that all the lines I normally take are discontinued.  This started just last Saturday, which is why I had no idea it was going to happen.

I grabbed dinner off the square and then headed back to the hotel. There I was starting to write up last night’s entry when I heard a geshrei that could only have come from a student.  I walked down the hall to where the noise was coming from and I could hear them talking and laughing.  I was debating whether to knock when the door opened, and a student saw me and screamed (though not as loudly).  This caused the rest of them to keel over in hysterics. 

It seems that several of the students are freaked out by the artwork on display in the hotel.  Admittedly, it is a little creepy and the overall effect can be unnerving.  Still, they were working themselves into hysterics. 

This morning, some were still upset about the art.  I found a creepy doll on one of the sideboards and put it on their table.  I suppose I was feeling a bit passive/aggressive.

Our itinerary today was a little bit heavier than yesterday, in that we visited the Schindler Factory in the morning. Like the Museum of the Warsaw ‘Rising, this place can be very crowded, but it is far easier to navigate.  Everyone moved through at his or her own pace and by 11:30 we all were done.  Despite being called the Schindler Factory, Schindler doesn’t feature very prominently within it.  It’s primarily dedicated to the history of Krakow under the Nazis (though they have recreated Schindler’s office).  Schindler was, of course, a war profiteer, who came to Krakow to make money off Polish labor.  He eventually became a rescuer, but his behavior before that raises lots of questions.

We at lunch at “milk bar” style restaurant just off the ghetto square.  80 years old (though only in this location for a decade or so), the food is cheap and edible.  For 15 zloty I had ok schnitzel with mushy cabbage and a bottle of mineral water.  At $4, I paid nearly twice as much as some of the students. 

Nearby is the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, which is a small but nicely organized museum dedicated to the Polish pharmacist who refused to abandon the ghetto, and who used his pharmacy to aid those imprisoned in the ghetto.  After the war, the Polish communists turned his pharmacy into a bar (you can see it in the background when he’s being interviewed), but it does a good job of conveying what the ghetto was like.

When they saw the two remaining fragments of the Krakow ghetto wall (shaped like tombstones in a bitter Nazi joke).  At the second, we saw a sign on the gate saying “warning!” and we could smell fresh paint, but some students sat on the bench only to discover that it had just been painted too.

Our final stop was the site of the former Płaszow slave labor camp.  Built on top of the Jewish cemetery, almost all the original tombstones were destroyed, though I found one had recently been restored.  Sara Schenirer died in 1935, and had founded the Beis Ya’akov school for girls, which revolutionized Jewish education for Orthodox girls.

A short walk further was the camp commandant Amon Göth’s house.  When he ran Płaszow, he sometimes used the prisoners for target practice from the porch in the back overlooking the camp.  For years, every time we’ve come there’s been a for sale sign.  I read a few months ago that it had finally been sold and it’s now being remodeled.

It was a rather hot day, so I decided to skip heading up to the memorials and we returned to the hotel.  There I learned that 1) my request to our charter bus company to delay our departure for Auschwitz until 8:30 has been accepted; and 2) that the hotel now agrees that I’ve more than paid for my rooms.  I asked if they would refund the excess to me in cash (per the suggestion of Accounts Payable) and they told me that they would get back to me about that.  They also agree to print out my tickets to our tour at Auschwitz tomorrow. 

With these major worries finally resolved, I headed up to the train station to figure out how the new system works.  I had everything worked out, but the tram I was to transfer to didn’t show.  Nor did the next one.  I was getting ready to abandon my attempt, when I saw one show up on the board.  When it came it was jam packed.  I’m not sure how long it had been delayed, but it was filled with at least three trams worth of people.  It’s not pleasant to be jammed up with people, not all of whom have recently (in the last three days) showered.

With my newspaper, I decided to treat myself to a dessert and coffee in the air conditioned mall.  The dessert was a sernik szarlotka – a cheesecake with apple pie topping.  I wanted to get a café au lait, but what I ended up ordering in my broken Polish was a regular coffee with a small side of milk.  Thankfully, I had also asked for sugar and used all three cubes.

I checked out different restaurant options for our farewell dinner and chose Kogel Mogel.  In the past, we’ve eaten at Szara Kazimierz, but I’ve gotten a little bit tired of that place and I think its options are a little limited, so I’ve decided to try here.  Hopefully, we won’t be disappointed.

As I was walking through the old city, I heard some drumming.  I saw there was a stage set up by the town hall tower.  It turns out that on the first Thursday every year (for many hundreds of years), Krakow has a procession by the Lajkonik.  This involves the myth of how the Tatars were defeated by some rafters and they staged a mock invasion of the city using the Tatars clothing.  Lots of great drumming and pageantry.  The Lajkonik comes in dressed as a Tatar and riding a hobbyhorse.  He blesses people by tapping them with his mace.  It culminates in a street battle, which ends when the children pelt them with nerf balls.

 Just for old times, I went back to Szara Kazimierz for dinner and ordered the duck with roast apples and grilled veggies.  It was well cooked.   
 Afterwards, I wandered through the neighborhood and found the food trucks, where I might take some of the students tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Monkey Wrenches

Sometimes things go surprisingly or unusually well, and sometimes life throws a monkey wrench into your plans.

The day started with the good news: I finally heard back from the JCC in Krakow; they arranged for some members and volunteers to meet with us this evening at 6 pm.  Our bus picked us up and took us to Krakow with no problems whatsoever.  It only took us four and a half hours (with a half hour break), rather than the six to seven hours if we had gone by train.

The first monkey wrench happened when we checked in.  The staffer at the front desk said the university had only put down 20% deposit, when I was certain that not only had they paid the full amount, but had, in fact, overpaid.  Since the university only paid after I had left, I didn’t have any documentation.  The university sent me the materials today and I forwarded them on to the hotel this evening.

Ok, so that’s pretty minor.  The next thing was getting metro passes for Krakow.  Normally, I buy them at the train station, but we came by charter bus.  I found a machine and tried to buy the cards, but it wouldn’t take my credit card, and my 200 zloty bill was too big.  I went to the bakery and broke it to four 50s, but then it wouldn’t taken my last coin to complete the amount.  I told the students we were walking until I could find a better machine.

I eventually found a machine, but it ate one of my metro passes, giving me only 8 instead of 9 discount passes.  Frustrating, but hey, it happens.  Off to the rynek glowny, the sukennice, and St. Mary’s church.  We hear the trumpeter, and head up to the vodka tasting place, only now, they charge for tasting the vodka (unlike two and four and six years ago, when it was complimentary as a way of boosting sales).

After exploring the Florianska Gate, we head to a dessert and coffee café for some refreshment.  The girls school, whose wifi we could in the past pirate is now an gym specializing in pole dancing.  After a long, long delay our desserts come, and, thank God, they’re actually good.   

I’m starting to relax, I pay the bill, and am planning to walk to the main train station when one of the students asks if we aren’t going to the JCC.

OH MY GOD!  Well, it’s not too bad, we have 25 minutes to get there. I’ll skip buying my newspaper and we’ll just get the tram to Kazimierz.  As I leave, one of the students asks about my backpack, which I had left under my chair.  I rush back and start to leave, only now they point out I’ve left the pouch open. Not running on all cylinders today.

We head to the street and it’s fenced off.  We walk under the tunnel to the train station side and it’s fenced off too.  The entire street around the central train station is torn up and under construction.  No trams stop here anymore.

Now I’m in trouble.  I have no idea where I can catch a tram to Kazimierz.  It’s 5:45 pm and our meeting is in 15 minutes.  I take off walking, trying to find a tram, leaving the slower students racing to keep up.  Eventually, I find a tram, but were across the street and the crosswalk is way down the block.  I was two steps into the street when I realized I was about to crushed between a tram and a car, and ran back to the sidewalk.  Eventually, we got the right tram and made it to the JCC only five minutes late.

I thought the discussion went well.  Yakub began by talking about the history of the JCC and the work it does within the community.  Lila talked about what led her to volunteer at the Center, despite her not being Jewish, while Olga talked about discovering her Jewish roots. 

I think I’ll continue this in tomorrow’s post; I’m getting tired.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Hardest Day of the Trip

In many ways, this was the hardest day of the trip for me, not logistically, but emotionally.  Logistically, everything went far smoother than last time.  We reached Belzec from Lublin in a little less than 2 and a half hours.

I knew there was no food for purchase anywhere near the camp, nor is eating permitted in the memorial site, so I warned the students that they would need to pack a meal.  There are no chairs, benches or tables, so we sat on a small, raised curb in the parking lot where they put flags during ceremonies.  Behind us, we could see the entry to the camp, written in iron letters that are intentionally rusting, leaving stains down the concrete that resemble blood.

We began by touring the information center.  The area of the center is quite small, but I did warn the students that they may find the room of reflection somewhat disturbing.  The museum is really quite small, but packs an incredible punch for such a small space.  Where there are pages to turn, they are bound to a heavy, dark metal plate that makes a scraping noise as you turn it.  I pointed out some of the officers from the camp that the text highlights, like Oberhauser and Höfle. 

The director Claude Lanzmann tracked Oberhauser down in the late ‘70s, after he had been released after he had only served 4.5 years for participating in the murder of half a million Jews.  Sure enough, they had that clip playing around the corner.  Höfle was the officer who met with Czerniakow in July 1942 to organize the murder of the Jews of Warsaw. After Czerniakow failed to receive any assurances from him about the fate of the orphans, he committed suicide rather than participate in the deportations to Treblinka.

Around the corner was a diagram of the camp and excerpts from Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah.  It’s always surprising to me how many people were murdered in such a small space.  I explained to the students how this was scheduled murder:  the Nazis had to make sure that not too many victims were sent to the camp at the same time, so as to not overwhelm the ability of the Sonderkommando to burn their bodies. 

After a model of the gas chambers, labeled in German, “Bath and Inhallation” and with a Jewish star over the door there is a single sentence, repeated in Polish, Hebrew, and English, on a metal slab stretching from floor to ceiling.  It’s a quote said by a child inside the gas chamber to her mother and was heard by Rudolf Reder, a member of the Sonderkommando and the only survivor of Belzec who lived to give testimony.

The first time I saw this in 2006, I turned pale and fled.  The next time I did my best to avoid looking at it.  Even two years ago, I tried to avoid reading it.  As we were talking afterwards, one of the students mentioned it and I started crying.  It profoundly affects me every time.

The museum includes artifacts they found when they prepared the site to construct the memorial.  These include stone tokens given to the victims to recover their clothing after their “showers” and some of the Star of David armbands that had been on their clothing in the ghetto. 

At the end is a map, showing the systematic murder of the Jews of southern Poland.  Month by month, Jewish communities light up in blue as they are murdered.  Like stars in a dying galaxy, they flare up and then go out. 

Beyond that is the “roof of reflection.”  To get to it, one must pull open a tall, heavy, metal door at the end of a concrete corridor.  Beyond that is a large, dimly lit, cool concrete room.  Beyond a small Polish plaque in stone, the room is completely empty. The sound of the metal door slamming shut on the empty concrete room often unnerves students.  The space is meant to be disturbing, and the empty echoes on the plain concrete floor meant to convey, emptiness, fear, and hopelessness.

After talking for a while outside, we began to tour the memorial itself.  The surface of the memorial is covered in a mix of slag, ash, and impoverished soil, with burnt metal sticking out here and there.  Every now and then, a tiny green shoot peeks through, but they are not allowed to grow and are periodically removed.  Cutting through this field of dark and blasted stones is a path tracing the way the victims walked to the gas chamber.  The floor of this path is paved with cobble stones taken from numerous Jewish ghettos.  The walls of undulating rough grey concrete rise up on either side, higher and higher as one approaches the heart of the memorial, until one is entirely cut off.

At the end is a large stone wall, carved in Hebrew, English, and Polish with a text from the Book of Job. Opposite is a list of common names of people sent to this place to be murdered.  I found my great grandmother’s name and read the Yizkor prayer for those murdered in the Holocaust, first in Hebrew and then in English.

To continue the tour, we climbed the stairs and found the alphabetical list of cities and towns from whence Jews were deported here to be murdered.  Their grave is the vast field of stones and their tombstones are these city names.  I found the marker for the ghetto my great grandmother was imprisoned in and deported from. 

We found a sliver of shade and talked about the memorial and its design.  After that I bought a new book on the camp and we got on the bus and headed away.

Since our drive takes us through Zamosc, I thought it would be nice to stop there for a breath of air.  The town was commission in the 16th century by Count Jan Zamoyski, who wanted to build a town to develop trade in the region. He brought over an architect from Padua, who designed the town around a classic Renaissance square (though the large town hall was added over half a century later).

From there we went to the Sephardi synagogue.  When I first came to Zamosc in 2006, this was still the community library.  Now, it’s small exhibition space.   

Eli Zolkos, who sold us our tickets, turns out to be a leader of the Jewish Defense League in Poland.  His website is full of praise for Rabbi Meir Kahane, ימח שמו. Kahane was a racist son of a bitch.  I saw him once in Jerusalem in 1984 or ’85; he was the only person I ever met who could make Hebrew sound like German. Not happy to see this organization being revived and very unhappy to see it here in Poland.

I gave the students an hour to explore the city or have some food or buy souvenirs.  I sat in the main square and ordered a sundae.  This was a lovely, refreshing dish of two scoops of forest fruit ice cream along with a scoop of vanilla, strawberry sauce, whipped cream, and fresh fruit.  It definitely hit the spot.

After some difficulty, I managed to round up all the students and get them on the bus back to Lublin. 

For dinner, I went to a “Jewish style” restaurant in Lublin’s historic rynek.  I had walked by it many times before but never eaten there.  I was tempted by the duck, but it was half of one and that was just too much, so I got a steak instead, but started with the cabbage soup garnished with raisins and almonds.

I had a very nice conversation with a lovely couple who come to Lublin almost every year.  The wife got a Fulbright in 1984 to teach here in Lublin and recounted stories of the really bad old days.  Her husband has been installing an art installation in a neighborhood.  I asked him about some art I had seen hanging in a tree in Zamosc and the husband said he knew the artist, but couldn’t remember his name.  He’s going to get back to me when he does.

As I was finishing dinner, I could see flashes of lightening, so I called for the bill and paid. Just then it started to rain, so I took cover in the restaurant.  Within a minute, there was a torrential downpour.  Everyone sitting outside rushed in.  I found a chair in the lobby, about three meters from the door, and two meters beyond that to the rain, but the wind was so strong, I could feel the water that far away. 

I found wifi and logged on to the internet.  After telling me the chance of rain today was 0%, it said that the rain would stop by 9:15 (in 35 minutes).  Pretty soon, though, the rain was dying down, and by 8:55, it was safe to leave.

The sky was dramatically red, and I could hear music when I reached the pedestrian mall in the city center.  I walked over and saw that they had lit up the fountains and small children were splashing through them and dance music played loudly.

The sky still looked suspicious so I headed back to my hotel where I ordered a diet coke and the “Beza,” basically a meringue, but this one was flavored by halvah.  I’ve seen a lot of that here, which really surprised me.  
 So now it’s time for bed.  I’ll pack in the morning.