Friday, July 13, 2012

July 11, 2012 Bialystok, Poland

July 11, 2012                         Bialystok, Poland

My Zadie (grandfather) was Max Levy, the son of Morris and Lena Levy who were born in Bialystok.  I’m thinking a lot about my Zadie today as I visit and learn about the town of his ancestors, even as he never saw it himself.

I had a standing bet with Zadie on football games.  He picked the game and the team.  I bet against whatever team he liked.  I usually won.  We bet 5 cents, or, as he would say “a nickel.”

By the time I got to college, the bet increased to a dime. He was a huge fan of the Patriots (he lived in Connecticut) and the Jets (as a former New Yorker).  Alas, the Jets won a game.   So, to hassle him a bit, I wrote him a check for his winnings.

He got me back, refusing to cash the check (he actually framed it and placed it on his dresser), and my checking account never balanced after that day!  (When he died, my bubbie (grandmother) gave me the check which I keep among my treasured possessions.)

Zadie was a typical New Yorker, loud, outspoken..and everything different than I was used to as a suburban L.A. middle class kid.  He skipped Hebrew school as a kid to play craps with his friends.  At work in the midst of the Great Depression, he was fired for union organizing.  And when it was time for the first of his 3 daughters (my mom) to finish high school, he sold his life insurance policy to get her to college (in a time when few women attended the university).

Zadie’s dad, Morris Levy, was born in Bialystok in the 1880s, leaving for the US in 1900.  That made him, along with a whole lot of others, a Bialystoker,  (Read Rebecca Kobrin’s excellent book on Bialystokers).

Thanks to cousin Ann Levy, I have the most information on this branch of the family, back, remarkably, to 1815.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bialystok counted 60,000 Jews in a total population of 100,000.  It was a major center of Jewish life in Poland, supporting a variety of different Jewish organizations.  While there are many many small shtetls in Poland (and what was Poland), there were just a few large centers and Bialystok was one of them.

After Treblinka, we drove another few hours, arriving in Bialystok in time for a late dinner.  Our initial impressions were very very good.  

Far from being an old, small, village whose life had passed it by, Bialystok was vibrant and exciting.  A HUGE town square boasted all sorts of restaurants (including another in the chain of chocolate restaurants we visited in Krakow.  Marci and the girls are happy).

The chocolate restaurant menu.

Shakes this time...

The girls in Bialystok (happy since its after dinner now!)

Shayna near the main square

A flash storm hit, followed by this rainbow

The Main Square

More of the square

We found a restaurant that doubled as a giant beer tavern, complete with sport televisions all over.  (playing a replay of Poland’s men’s volleyball teams victory over the USA at a tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Jakub explains that volleyball is a big deal in Poland…and they are a very good team). 

We love the hotel, booked to capacity with a tour group from Australia (the only other tourists we saw on our visit).  For that reason, Marci and I were bumped up to a suite.  Yeah.  Jakub got bumped down the street to a Best Western hotel but returned the next day.
Our living room...

The bedroom...

At night, I reviewed the family history information to prepare for tomorrow.

But, first, learn something new about your spouse and life partner...
I never knew Marci didn't know how to iron...
With Shayna struggling to flatten her knitted friendship bracelets, I'm all over it...

Breakfast buffet (since so many are asking for food photos!)

Our guide, Lucy, arrived in the morning and offered us a VERY DIFFERENT perspective on Polish Jewish life than we had heard before.

After telling us that Bialystok was 60% Jewish before the war, she told us that now Bialystok boasts a population of 300,000 (triple its pre-war level).  Then she told us there were 5 Jews left.  She was one of them.

Put another way, our visit nearly doubled the Jewish population of Bialystok.

We also realized that Lucy was the first native-born highly-identified Polish Jew we had met on the entire trip.  (All the identified Jews were former Americans.  All the Poles were Christian).

Lucy immediately decried the level of anti-Semitism in Bialystok, and continued that theme throughout the day.  She organizes a Jewish culture week, fives years now.  Around the time of the festivities, she finds swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti around town.

Lucy is a one-woman Jewish heritage-preserving machine.  She is remarkable…getting on the phone with the mayor on a moment’s notice if anything isn’t right along Jewish lines.  (During our visit, she noticed that vandals had damaged the wall to the Jewish cemetery.  She all but ordered us to snap some pictures, send them to her, because she needed to let the mayor know immediately.)

She showed us where an earlier mayor gave permission to build on a former Jewish cemetery.  Through her own efforts, she was able to get a large piece of land not developed for that project turned into a park with a star of david and a memorial to let folks know what it is.

Here's the cemetery, now a park..

Most of all, she has a wonderful soul, a sense of purpose and mission, and is now heading up an effort to restore a former Jewish building into a museum.

We started the day by heading to the archives, where Lucy, Shayna, and I sat looking through birth registers from the Jewish community from the 1840s to 1900.  It was remarkable to flip through the pages, written in either Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, or Russian, depending on the year.  Lucy took care of all the communications and translations.  After two hours, we still couldn’t find anyone in the family, prompting Lucy to offer to come back after our departure and look some more.  “You need to spend a great deal of time with the records,” she explained, offering to continue our genealogical research.

Shayna and Lucy in the archives

The photo Shayna took just before she got busted by the authorities for taking pictures..

OK, so this was the photo that got her busted.  I appreciate it, Shayna.  Thanks!

After the archives, we took a walking tour of the old Jewish Bialystok.

The municipality set up fire hoses for the kids to cool off (even though the heat wave is now over. Yeah. It's in the 70s instead of the 90s).

First, she brought us to the site of a synagogue building.  Shortly after the Nazi occupation, the community’s Jews were told that they should all go and pray together.  With some 2,000 Jews praying, the Nazis sealed the building and burnt it to the ground, killing everyone inside.

She showed us mass graves, cemeteries, memorials; animating each one with a story of why it came to be, how the memorial got built (usually because of her), and what anti-Semitism had occurred there (followed by her frustration that the perpetrator had not yet been caught).

A photo of the Great Synagogue before its destruction.

A memorial with a recreated piece of the Great Synagogue cupola

An older synagogue, now world headquarters for the Esperanto language group.

We found a park...for a little step back in time for the girls

Lucy recommended lunch on the town square, complete with a Bialye, which we now realize was named because it was invented in Bialystok. 

All of us with Lucy at lunch.

I have no idea where we got this but it still looks good.

After lunch, we went to a men’s clothing store that sported an orange button-down dress shirt in its window display.  This is Shayna’s favorite color and one of the colors of her sukkot bat mitzvah celebration.  She wanted me to get it to wear at the bat mitzvah.  How cool is that…to actually wear a shirt from Bialystok to the bat mitzvah that was the inspiration for the trip.  It’s also a nice link through the generations. Sold! (along with a matching tie that I wasn’t sure about but every girl and woman there told me it was a whole lot better than the one I liked.  I suppose someone who still uses “gurranimals” has nothing to say).

Jakub, me, my new orange shirt, and my new friend the shirt seller

So those of you who have traveled to China know that Chinese food at home is not really Chinese food.  Here in Bialystok, at least they are honest about it.

Stop the blog:  Ice Cream Break

OK, back to it...

In the afternoon, we hopped in the van and continued our tour.  We toured a huge palace that reminded us of Versailles, home to the Polish leader who first gave Jews permission to settle.

Then, we toured the home of what was a very wealthy Jewish family.  It is now a museum and, as Lucy points out,  NOT decorated as a Jewish home would have in that era.  

Dinner, anyone?


Model of Bialystok

As Lucy continued to give voice to continued anti-Jewish attitudes, I climbed back in the van, checked my email, and rec’d from Sarah Fenner a link to a news article that said that during our time in Krakow, Jewish patrons at a restaurant were subjected to an anti-Semitic verbal and physical attack.  We were getting it now, in stereo.

This painting was for sale in the square. It depends a stereotypical Jewish man counting his gold coins.  We view it as anti-Semitic.  Everyone in Poland who knows about these tells us that Poles buy these images for good luck, i.e. they want to be rich just like the Jews.  They claim there is no ill will or bad intent.  They also sell little dolls with the Jewish man holding a coin.  I bought one to use as an example of anti-Semitism in my seminar at SFSU.

Here's another one...

Along with the anti-Semitism, there was also this anti-anti-Semitism..

Next, we headed to the Jewish cemetery outside of town.  We had a mixed reaction there.  We were all happy (if that’s the right word) to see a Jewish cemetery filled with people who died of whatever killed them, rather than by the Nazis.  In that sense, it was a typical experience.  Yet, most every tombstone had been pushed down (Lucy is now organizing equipment to come in and right them).  We also went around picking up a whole lot of empty beer cans, as the locale has become, for whatever reason, a popular place to come and drink.

As we said goodbye to Lucy, she went to each of the girls, hugged them, told each how they were special, and gave each a charge for their lives.  It was something special.  To Rebecca, Lucy said that she had a kind soul so she needed to reach out to others.  To Shayna, Lucy said that she was always smiling and that she should carry that with her.  She talked about our return visit…and when she heard of my issue with not having enough shirts…said she would stop at the Mayor’s office to get us all lots of promotional items emblazoned with “Bialystok.”  (Sure enough, at 9 am the next morning, she was sitting in our hotel lobby with Bialystok T shirts, pens, coffee mugs, and necklace holders).  Thank you, Lucy!

Thank you, Lucy!

We retreated to the hotel in the late afternoon for a little rest.  Marci called down to find out that the hotel offers massages in its spa for $33.  How cool is that?  So, Marci went in at 6:30 and I at 7:30. 

During the 6:30 hour, Shayna and I went to the synagogue building from 1890 (when my family lived there) to do some taping for the bat mitzvah movie.  We also took some extra time for Shayna to reflect more generally on her experiences.  We need to do more of that…if we can find the moments (that we just don’t want to get to sleep!).

Another rather weird, if not bizarre experience: they were playing classical music in the background during my massage.  About halfway through, I could have sworn that the music was the melody line to “Hatikvah.”  No way…  So, I started humming it (to myself). Yes, it was…  The melody line repeated and sure enough, I was having a massage in Bialystok listening the national anthem of the State of Israel.

While I was listening to Hatikvah, Marci and the girls went in the jacuzzi.

Just as we were preparing for dinner, a massive lightning and thunder storm hit town.  It was predicted in the forecast and it was spectacular.  Avoiding all the things one is supposed to during an electrical storm, we grabbed a quick bite to eat while I was able to catch a little lightning on camera.

We all decided that we like Bialystok and that it was different and better than we imagined.

We packed up to prepare for what everyone tells us will be the most challenging travel of our trip: Belarus.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a great travelogue done in 1939 (it's originally in Yiddish, and this link is to an English translation). The Great Synagogue is at 3:16, and you can watch children eating bialies at 8:00.