Sunday, July 15, 2012

July 14, 2012 Grodno, Belarus to Augustow, Poland

July 14, 2012   Grodno, Belarus to Augustow, Poland

Today began as a travel day but ended with a nice genealogical surprise.

But first, blog feedback:

To set the record straight, Marci does, indeed, know how to iron.  She just doesn’t like it and kindly requests that I do the ironing.  She says I iron well.  All good.

We’ll keep the food pictures coming…

Thanks to Robbie Saslow for the reference to the classical piece with the Hatikvah melody.  We're thinking it was Smetana's "The Moldau" from the suite "Ma Vlast" (My Country).

Morris Levy’s granddaughter, my cousin Maxine Vasquez, reports that her earliest memory of her grandfather was watching him humming the melody to Ha’tikvah. Nice.

Thank you to Debbie Stadtner who made a great observation....check out the photos on the Slonim blog.  One photo is an anti-Semitic caricature of a hasidic Jewish man sitting at a table full of money.  Then, I posted a photo of myself...sitting at a table....full of money!  Funny. Ironic.  It also points to a great insight about's not about what's in the image, its about how the images are perceived and understood by others.  I'm hoping you were all somewhat offended by the hasidic picture (hanging in a museum with almost no Jews) and not engaged (negatively) by the site of me sifting through bills worth 1/5 of 1 cent each.  It shows that prejudice is about the "other" and how it is defined by the dominant culture.  Enough sociology...

Back to the blog:

Despite Jakub’s well-informed advice to leave as early as possible to avoid lines at the border crossing, we let the girls sleep as late as breakfast allowed and headed out a little after 10 am.

Finishing breakfast in matching Bialystok T-shirts (Thanks Lucy!)

Jakub received directions to an alternate border crossing station that would get us to Augustow quicker.  Good news.  

Bad news when we arrived at the crossing to find a military gate and a soldier guarding it.

Doesn’t look like this is a civilian border station.  Jakub spoke to the soldier who got on his military phone to see if we could pass.  On the phone, the commanding officer asked if we were from Belarus.  “No. Poland and the United States.”  Those were the magic a bad way.  We were turned around and directed back to the border crossing we took into Belarus.

We arrived at the crossing at noon with hundreds of cars.

 Jakub said the last time at that border, the line went 2 kilometers.  By 2 pm, we passed through the first of the Belarus stations.

By 3:00, we had advanced to the Polish side.  Thanks to the EU status of Jakub and the license plate on the car, we moved quickly and were back in Poland by 3:15 pm.

The girls were great through all the waiting…even as I misplaced (for less than a minute!) Rebecca’s stamped entry/exit slip that we were given as we entered the country.  The Belarusian border agent was quite clear that I needed it!

After a stop for lunch,

Marci's required order of a Greek Salad at every restaurant in eastern Europe

Mandatory family shot after meal at restaurant

we arrived at our hotel in Augustow, in Poland’s lake district.  We picked this locale since it was close to the ancestral home of Mary Surasky, Marci’s great grandmother and the woman after whom Marci was named.  It’s also close to the Lithuanian border where we head tomorrow.

Our friend from L.A. (and Marci’s friend growing up) Lisa Lainer Fagan is on her own family roots tour in Lithuania, spending most of her time in Vilna.  As it turned out, she was spending today in the Polish town of Souvolki, which is the birth city for Mary Surasky.  She emailed a restaurant recommendation for our dinner…having missed her there by a matter of hours.  (Not to worry, we have plans to see Lisa, her husband Brian, and lots of her family tomorrow when we arrive in Vilna.)

At first, we were way thrilled with this hotel. 

On our arrival, they had a man playing an accordion to welcome us!  Then, they had two of their staff people come out with glasses of champagne.  This is service!

Then we noticed about 40 well-dressed folk...whom we figured were not actually there to welcome us to their fair city.

It turned out to be a wedding reception that we are definitely NOT invited to attend. 

The hotel experience is getting worse by the moment...

They thought our van contained the bride and groom.  (No "heyvenu shalom aleichem" for us).  

While we were unloading the van, several hotel employees, not to mention wedding guests, were pressuring us to get out of their way and move our van.  All the while, the hotel was not providing anyone to help us with the luggage. 

After the fourth person got discontented with us, we were safely moved to the check in desk while Jakub moved the van.  All good.  NOT.  

They didn’t like us, or our bags, even in the lobby.  (I guess in Poland the big welcome for the bride and groom takes place at the hotel lobby, not the reception hall. Live and learn.).  In order to get us the hell out of there, they didn’t take our credit card, nor our passports, giving us our key and ordering us out.  I was quite direct, in my best English, that if they wanted us to move faster, they could have easily helped.

I lamented to Jakub who told me he had just given the receptionist the same feedback in Polish.

The two-bedroom family suite was neither.  Air conditioning was non-existent.  (When I called to ask how to turn it on, they said they only air condition the hallways.  Nice touch).  The bathroom is so tiny it doesn’t fit even two people to brush teeth.  For the next 18 hours, there's four of us in that bathroom.  

When we stood at the window to watch the bride and groom arrive, party guests just looked up at us and sneered.  (Maybe because we were cracking jokes, OK loud jokes, with the windows open (can you blame us, no air conditioning!)

Bring us back to Belarus!

We were figuring that we might just crash the reception. (The tray full of unattended champagne glasses was tempting).

Instead, we drove to Sowalki to film Shayna in another family shtetl.  Thanks to Jakub and, we were able to identify a building and an address that was the Jewish hospital in Sowalki at the time of Mary’s birth.  While we don’t know if Mary was born at home or in the hospital, we figured that was the best place for the filming (no synagogue remains).

We pulled into the driveway of the former hospital to find….

that we were in the parking lot of the restaurant recommended by Lisa Lainer Fagan!  We compared the picture on the internet to the restaurant building and they matched.  We were excited but decided to walk around the block to see if there were any other possibilities, especially since one Polish woman told us that the old hospital was, in fact, a few hundred yards farther down the street.

We did find an old abandoned building but couldn’t tell if it was a hospital.  Jakub found two elderly women and stopped to asked them….(they were the third pedestrian Poles he stopped to ask directions on our walk). 

The whole conversation lasted fewer than 10 seconds but it was, in my mind at least, very meaningful.  It went something like this…in my shorthand English translation:

Jakub: Do you know where the old hospital is?
Woman: (thinking and trying to figure out where it could be)
Jakub: It was the Jewish hospital before the war.
Woman: (looked right over at the four of us, eyes wide open, glaring at us, shaking her head “no” back and forth with great rapidity).  Marci reports that the other woman with her looked equally uncomfortable.
They both started walking away quickly.
Then, the first woman said: “We were too young.”


What does their age have to do with the question?  Whether you know the location of the old hospital has to do with how long they’ve lived in this town and/or how well they know the buildings and history.  In fact, the other two people we asked, both younger (and one a dad with a toddler daughter in tow), were more than willing to help, even if they weren’t sure where to direct us.

With her response, she made it a generational question.  It wasn't about what they were doing before the's about directing us to a building.

She seemed to me to be defensive, as if the question was somehow implicating them.  (I'm even more convinced since they, of course, had no idea a question about the Jews was coming).  The fact that their response was so quick and pronounced and dramatic told me that we've hit a nerve....

(Jakub, did I get this right?)

We returned to the original restaurant, went in and asked the owner what the building used to be.  She said: a hospital.  Ding. Ding. Ding.  Pretty cool to be in the room where Marci’s namesake might have been born.

We picked a great day to be in Sowalki.  It's their annual Blues festival, with several giant stages constructed in the main square, bands (mostly from the US and UK) playing all sorts of great music.

Fun for the kids!

Fun for the motion...
We walked around, listened to music, viewed some exhibits, bought one of the worst tasting mini-bagel necklaces you can imagine.

 (Jakub reports that he used to get them as a child and that they have not, as yet, changed the recipe).

As it was dinner time, we decided it most appropriate to return to the hospital-restaurant and eat there.  Lisa was right. It turned out to be one of the best meals we’ve had on our entire trip.  (Robbie, here’s the photos!)

Yep, latkes.

So I thought this was funny...  I think I took it too far...ordering a bottle of "unsparkling water."  The server must have only heard the last two syllables and some bubbly arrived.  "No," I explained, "we wanted the UNsparkling water."  She didn't find it funny.

Mandatory family shot after meal at restaurant.

We took the drive back to Augustow where we all sweat a lot more than we slept...

In the morning (when they permitted us to enter the restaurant/reception hall), we had a quick buffet breakfast before heading to Lithuania.

Mandatory family shot after meal at restaurant or hotel.

Off to Lithuania!

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