Sunday, July 8, 2012

July 6, 2012 Krakow, Poland

July 6, 2012               Krakow

We got down to breakfast this morning with the wonderful surprise of Helise joining us for breakfast in the hotel.  She is an amazing woman who just never stops making sure that everyone and everything around her is good.  We do feel like royalty and it is her attention that creates that feeling.

She handed us to our guide for Jewish Krakow.

The Weiss’ joined and we headed for a walk to the Jewish district.  

It took just minutes to fall in love with Krakow, with its narrow walking streets, concentrated center, tens of thousands of students at dozens of universities, cafes everywhere.  This place defines young and hip….just our kind of environment J 

JCC Krakow...

A Jewish restaurant with prices on the menu!

We toured the several remaining synagogues and saw the tomb of Moses Isserles, the renown 16th century rabbi who commented on shulchan aruch and whose tomb attracts thousands of Hasidic Jews each year on lag boomer. 

Dressing modestly for the synagogue

Isserles' tomb

Bookshelves filled with prayerbooks means the synagogue is still in use :)

This wall, in the Isserles synagogue cemetery, was constructed with Jewish tombstones, in a mosaic, as a way to show honor to the dead.   Interesting how the use of Jewish tombstones as construction material is very different when its in the form of art and intended to honor (Krakow) rather than the Nazis who used tombstones in order to erase Jewish memory. (Mizritch and most everywhere else).

Maybe hard to read but it says "Auschwitz and Salt Mine Tours"  Tourism in Krakow..

We were fortunate (thank you again Helise) to tour the Museum of Jewish Galicia with its director.  In the hour or so we were there, we barely saw any of the exhibits, instead spending our time asking the director every question we could about Jewish life in Krakow.

The Jewish Museum

It was during this Q and A that I finally thought I could put my arms around the dynamic of so many non-Jewish Poles taking an interest in Judaism.  In fact, this morning’s guide, also non-Jewish, was a Jewish Studies student at a Krakow university.

As the (young) museum director explained, their grandparents didn’t tell them about Jews because they lived through WWII and didn’t want to get into it.  Their parents didn’t tell them about Jews because they were raised in the Communist era when Jews were not identified. (This is consistent with our experience in Ukraine.  All Ukrainian monuments (post-independence) listed the victims of Nazism as Jews.  All communist-era memorials listed them only as citizens of the Soviet Union).   The generation, now in their 20s and 30s, coming of age in an independent Poland, are angry at both the earlier generations.

As the director explained, Jewish history is part of Krakow, and part of Poland.  In fact, in so many places, Jewish life was a defining feature of everyday living.  This generation feels that they’ve been robbed of that history, that knowledge by parents and grandparents with their own issues about the subject.

As he was talking, I flashed back to the museum guide in Lublin.  It was like a parallel universe.  Each of them..and both of them.. claimed Jewish history as THEIR history.  For one it was Lublin, for the other it was Krakow.  For both, they saw the respect of Judaism and Jewish heritage to be intimately connected to how they saw themselves as Poles.

With this explanation, I went to our guide and offered her my thesis: that interest in Jewish Studies is part of her generation’s construction of modern Polish identity; that Jews represent or at least embody a big missing piece of Polish history, of what it means to be Polish, of how Poland was built.  I got the sense that the people we’ve met this past week consider themselves to be reclaiming their nation, for all that it was, and all that it is.  To them, Jews were a critical part of it AND their place was robbed by the Nazis and forgotten by the Communists.  This generation would reclaim it.

I also have to add that there’s another humanity-based part of it.  That is, the people we have met all share a basic sense of compassion, of civic responsibility, of pluralism, and of self-confidence (and confidence in Poland) that makes the Holocaust such an affront….and their work as non-Jewish Poles a new and good reflection of modern Poland.

There’s a flip side to this, Marci and I are realizing.  We’ve been learning more about the L’viv restaurant (see July 4 entry). SPOILER ALERT.

If you haven’t read July 4, go back…

Don’t keep reading…


OK, it’s on you , now.

We learned that the restaurant owner justified his tactics by claiming Lviv’s Jewish history as his own.  Even when the town’s Jewish leadership protested, he replied that they can’t tell him what to do because the town’s history is HIS history, so Jewish history is as much his as it is to the Jews.  In a weird way, I think this actually confirms the thesis since both are claiming Jewish history as part of their own civic identities, even if they are doing it in very different, and conflicting (in my mind, at least) ways.

The museum, as it turns out, has a FANTASTIC bookstore of English Jewish Studies sources, as well as jewelry and ritual objects.  As we were hurrying on with the tour, Rebecca and I found books while Marci and Shayna bought some gifts. We all agreed that we now need to return….to actually tour the museum.

But, first, lunch!

We walked more through the Jewish section and learned about the WWII ghetto walls, which were built to resemble tombstones so that the Jews inside would understand they were dead, even if they were still alive.

A piece of the WWII ghetto walls.

We went to the square where Jews were selected for camps; one to work and the other to die.

We went to another square now adorned with empty chairs to symbolize what was left in the homes of Jews after their deportation.

Then, we took a (very long) walk (on another scorching day) to the new museum housed in Oscar Schindler’s factory.  I had forgotten that he was based in Krakow.

The walk to the Schindler museum...

On the bridge, couples place locks to represent the strength of their love...and throw away the key in the river.. (wondering who has the job of cutting the locks if the couples split?)

It was eery, of course, to be in his factory building.  The exhibit, just two years old now, was haunting.  While it was so well done, its power and intensity were so much to bear.  Rather than telling the story of Schindler (which we thought it would), it told the story of Krakow before, during, and after Nazi occupation.

In my mind, it was more disturbing that even Yad Vashem.  Shayna lost it about halfway through so I guided her, with her eyes closed, through some of the more disturbing scenes.  Then, Rebecca, who has engaged in Holocaust study and has worked with many survivors, lost it too.

At that point, it was a race to the room that featured the end of WWII.

We did really like one room that recreated Schindler’s office and offered an artistic tribute to those on his list.

Back in the lobby, then, we were approach by a woman who was working for the temporary exhibit on the life and artwork of one of Schindler’s Jews, Josef Bau.

To be honest, she was a bit disrespectful of our personal space.  She was pitching the exhibit, encouraging us to go see it (we were going, anyway) and she was wearing one of the exhibit T-shirts that featured a work of art of Bau.  She started asking us all sorts of questions…and then asked if we were Jewish.

I took a step back, said yes, and what a reaction!  She was giddy.  In fact, she started yelling over to another woman; this time in Hebrew.  I responded to her in Hebrew and I was afraid she was going to have a heart attack she was so excited.

Turns out she is the daughter of Josef Bau.  She is in Krakow with her sister (to whom she was yelling) with the exhibit on their father’s life.

At this point, we asked if she would lead us through the exhibit.  What a powerful and meaningful experience.

For those who remember details of the Schindler’s List movie, her parents were the ones who were married in the concentration camp at the beginning of the film.  Later in the film, her mom, confident that she would survive the war, was the one who gave up her spot on the List to her husband, Josef.   Josef’s daughter then told us details about how the wedding actually happened (Josef was actually dressed as a woman in order to sneak into women’s camp and the rabbi was his soon-to-be mother in law).  They had another, official, wedding (if that’s even an appropriate word) in 1946, before making aliyah.

Josef became an Israeli artist and animator and much of the exhibit was devoted to his contributions to Israeli artistic culture.

Since Marci and I are often traveling on our anniversary, we like to find a piece of art from our travels as a combined anniversary gift.  Truth has revealed itself. 

There were several signed lithographs of Bau’s work available.  We spoke to his daughter who showed us several with themes of love and we picked our favorite.  Happy anniversary!

The four of us with Josef Bau's daughters.  Marci is holding our anniversary art.

It was another scorcher of a day.  Fortunately, a thunderstorm hit while we were in the museum and the temperature dropped some 20 degrees.  We elected to take a golf-cart-cab-tourist-guided-tour back to the hotel for a few hours of down time before Shabbat begins.

As part of the Jewish Culture Festival, the local JCC hosts an erev Shabbat dinner.  This year, it will be held in one of the synagogues.  We arrived about 5 minutes after the official 9 pm start….to find hundreds upon hundreds of people packed into the synagogue.  To give you a visual, there were eight rows of tables (each row seven tables long) with barely enough space in between for people to sit (with chair backs touching). There’s no walking between tables here!

Here's a photo of the interior during our visit earlier in the day..
(sorry, no pictures of the event itself out of respect for the Shabbat atmosphere).

Over 300 people were there.  It was LOUD as Shabbat dinner places can be and it was HOT, more like a sauna.  So, we walked into this LOUD, HOT, HUMID room PACKED for Shabbat and found our assigned seats in the middle of the shul.   

Shayna pointed out the sign at the front of the synagogue advising that this was a religious and prayer space, therefore, No Food!  No Drink!  No Loud Conversations!  That was funny.

(took the picture on Sunday)

We were seated next to Dr. Karen Underhill, now of Chicago, 16 years a resident of Krakow, and a consultant to the Taube Center in Warsaw.  Well, we just hit it off, along with her partner and his sister.  We told tales of our trip and they shared the most incredible story of a roots tour they recently took as well.  Meanwhile, dozens of JCC staff members were passing plates of food down the tables, each person handing them down to the next because no one can walk between tables.  It was quite a communitarian experience. 

We saw Magda, who has been the one organizing our trip from Warsaw.  Helise was waiting outside as we arrived. 

Inside, two rows down from us, we saw Josef Bau’s daughters.  OMG!  They jump up, head over, and we start chatting (er yelling).  Then, we ran into two of the people we’d seen in Warsaw at the beginning of the trip. Helise introduced us another woman who would be our guide the next day.  One table over, we waved to the director of the Jewish museum we’d seen that morning.

I have to say that we were moved, and inspired, to be attending a Shabbat dinner where we were able to chat up so many people we knew….and then we realized we were in Poland, we’d been in this city for all of 2 days, and we already felt as if we were building, if not creating, community.  Lots of business cards flying as a way to exchange emails without having to write.  This is only the second trip (the first was to the Abayudaya in Uganda) that we felt welcomed and drawn into an existing community while we were on a very short travel excursion.

Then, the Shabbat dinner began.  In the front of the synagogue, doing his best to quiet the roar of the room, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, whom we sat across a table of 12 the previous week, was quieting the crowd.  Later, when the girls went outside to get some cool(er) air, the Chief Rabbi chatted them up and offered some sweet words about how great it was to spend two shabbatot in a row with them.

I couldn’t help but contrast the two evenings; one small and intimate at the Warsaw synagogue, the other huge and raucous at the annual event for Krakow (and maybe even Polish) Jewry.

Reality check: we were all saying “Shabbat shalom” to one another that night even though a whole lot of the Poles  (probably most of them) there were not Jewish.  At that moment, the lines between Jews and non-Jews blurred in a celebration of Shabbat.  Pretty cool…  

In a moment of brilliant thinking, the JCC hosts started distributing plastic fans for everyone to wave and keep cool.  They were emblazoned with the JCC logo as well as “Krakow.”  Not only were they cool looking, they were really good at keeping us cool.

Since this was yet another Stadtner-like Shabbat experience and since Debbie Stadtner is the VP of the Osher Marin JCC board herself, we’ve saved one for you!  (and we thank you for the honor you gave us by making the Lviv dinner blog required reading for last week’s Shabbat dinner guests).

What a gift to celebrate shabbat in Poland, with over 300 people, eating, talking, blessing together...

By 11 pm, we were so wiped out.  We walked back from the Jewish section of town, got to the hotel, and fell into bed.

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