Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Week in Poland: Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Warsaw

As many of you know, I was in Poland this past week with my program. Though I tried to pare this post down to include the bare minimum number of photographs while still doing the week justice, there are a lot. I'll try to keep the captions succinct. The post is divided down into three sections corresponding to the three places in Poland where we spent the week. Before I begin, I should mention that most of the best things that I saw and did while in Poland were thanks to suggestions from Ricky, who spent two consecutive summers there. 

Krakow is a city more like what I was expecting Prague to be--and what Prague was until about 10 years ago, apparently. It's sort of halfway between now and post-Communism, with lots of Communist remnants (dilapidated buildings, etc.) still visible around the city. But it also surprised me in terms of how much I liked it. It's roughly the same size as Boston population-wise, and felt kind of similar in a way I can't quite describe. Although Kazimierz--the Jewish quarter--kind of put me on edge because it felt like a lot of it was not authentic (ie: restaurants with Hebrew-style fonts, that serve entirely non-Kosher menus), the rest of the city was a fantastic mix of urban grunge and modern developments trying to fit together.

In front of the Wawel Castle. It was built in the 1300s. Although we passed by it on our tour the night before, it was dark and cold then and I wasn't really paying attention to where it was relative to our hotel. So when I left a souvenir shop in the morning and found myself looking directly at the castle, I decided it was a good time to walk around there.

There were a couple of pictures that actually included the entirety of the clocktower, but this one includes the monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko (the horse statue in the background). Since he helped America win the Revolution, and apparently there's a monument to him in Chicago too, I figured I'd use this picture.
Good thing the internet exists; I just looked up what the deal is with this sculpture. Although it's often referred to simply as "The Head," it's title is actually "Eros Bendato" and it's a sculpture by the Polish-German artist Igor Mitoraj. Apparently it was really controversial when it was first placed next to the Town Hall in Krakow's Old Town Square in the early 2000s (in the background you can see the old market building and the top of St. Mary's Cathedral). Now, though, it's mostly a tourist attraction: yes, I picked his nose, and yes, I crawled around inside the head.

Well, I was wandering along on the streets of Old Town/When a legion of soldiers came marching by, uh-huh... But really, I was just exploring some of the side streets near Old Town in the area of Jagiellonian University and all of a sudden there was a pack of at least thirty soldiers (I'm assuming) in full-on winter weather soldier gear. In the back right corner of their pack, there was a blonde woman with curled hair and a fancy cream-colored dress. I have no idea why they were there or where they were going, but I switched directions and followed them for about 10 minutes (and had a stranger take this covert picture of me with them in the background).
St. Mary's Cathedral has the most beautiful interior of any church I've ever seen, and I've been to cathedrals in Rome, Florence, Jerusalem, and other cities. Unfortunately, you can't go to the top of the clock tower in winter, but luckily Ricky tipped me off that it was a place worth visiting, otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I don't think I've ever seen such an ornate church--each side chapel (I'm not sure if they have a special name) is worth looking at from an artistic perspective. On our tour the previous night, we learned that a trumpeter announces each hour, but that his call is cut off in the middle--allegedly because in the middle ages the trumpet player was shot in the throat in the middle of one of the notes.

Although most Jews lived concentrated in the Kazimierz area of Krakow before the War, the Nazis forced them into a new ghetto that they created in Podgorze, on the other side of the river. This square, Plac Bohaterów Getta, is where they were rounded up before being sent to death camps--the chairs are a memorial erected in 2005 meant to represent the lone pieces of luggage and furniture that were left after the liquidation of the ghetto--each chair represents 1000 victims. 
In the back right corner of the picture you see a stage. The stage is next to what was the Apteka Pod Orłem (the Pharmacy Under the Eagle)--the only business owned by a non-Jew that the Nazis allowed to remain open in the Jewish ghetto. Tadeusz Pankiewicz was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations for the work he did providing medications and hair dye (to help the gray-haired looked younger) to Jews in the ghetto. The stage is set up for a musical celebration of the reopening of the pharmacy to visitors, on the 70th anniversary of the ghetto liquidation. Unfortunately, I misread a notice so I showed up hours before the opening and wasn't able to get back for the actual opening.
Only a fragment of the former ghetto walls remains standing. They were designed to look like gravestones. I can imagine that it's strange to live in the apartments behind the ghetto wall today.
This is the detail of the recently-restored ceiling on the Remuh Synagogue, which was originally built in the 1550s. It's named for Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who penned a new accompaniment to the Shulchan Aruch. The Rema (Prominent rabbis are often referred to by the acronyms of their initials) must have had a good sense of humor: he names his commentary of the Shulchan Aruch (literally "the set table") the "mapah" (literally: tablecloth).

Next to the Remuh Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery (where Rabbi Moshe Isserles is buried). Though I did take a picture of his grave, I thought this was a more interested glimpse of the cemetery. After WWII, the cemetery was not in very good shape, to say the least. Lots of people came to help restore the cemetery, and in order to preserve the memory of those whose stones were broken and with missing parts, they put them together to create the walls oft he cemetery.

This is the interior of the Tempel Synagogue, which was a Reform shul built in the style of the Vienna Reform synagogues in the mid-1800s. It's only used as a shul a few times a year. The ceiling was amazingly ornate, but you'll have to wait for the Facebook album to see pictures (or just Google it).

The ceiling detail of the Kupa Synagogue, built in the 17th century. There are "frames" for a number of Biblical cities and scenes, and the chandelier (again: wait for the Facebook album) is comprised of a number of intersecting menorahs, which is really cool. We went to Kabbalat Shabbat services here on Friday night. From the balcony (because women sit in the balcony) I saw a stream of probably 50-60 boys walk in and it became clear very quickly that there were a couple yeshivas in Poland for the week. As soon as I'd convinced myself that I wouldn't know anyone because they were all Naomi's age, who should walk in but Kolya--one of Millie Miller's grandsons, and the brother of my best friend from grade school! I managed to catch him after services before the groups split for dinner, and it was so nice to catch up, even only for a few minutes. Who would have imagined that we'd run into each other in Poland, of all places!
(I should note that this was the second time I'd run into someone I knew, and we'd only been in Poland for three days. Two kids who I'd met at Purim happened to be staying in the same hotel as us in Krakow!)
Our day started with a bus ride from Krakow to Auschwitz and, like I wrote about the ride to Terezin, it was hard not to wonder what was going through the minds of Jewish families packed into cattle cars as they took the exact same route. 

Going to see the camps outside of a Jewish context was a very strange experience. Although many of the other kids on my program are Jewish, and I am on the Jewish Studies "track" of my program, it is by no means a Jewish environment--I hope that that nuance will be clear through what I write here.  
The barracks at Auschwitz have been turned into museum displays and memorials to the more than one million people murdered at Auschwitz (or its satellite camps). There are cases full of glasses, kitchen utensils, and prosthetic limbs collected from those sent to the camps. One room is filled with 2 tons of hair--hair shaved off the heads of prisoners upon their entry to the camps. Seven tons of hair were discovered in total. For me the most jarring was a register with entries of the numbers of people murdered--when I saw "numbers" I mean their tattoo identification numbers, not the quantity of people.
Walking around the barracks, watching the groups of Israeli high schoolers wrapped in Israeli flags singing Vehi She'amda but not being with them was hard (Vehi She'amda is a liturgical passage that appears in the Passover Haggadah, and thanks God for saving the Jewish people from the persecution that has arisen, inevitably, in each generation). Although our tour guide was excellent, the singing, to me, felt more like what I should be doing, and I found myself singing the words quietly to myself.

Looking down onto the train tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of the things that was stressed on this trip--and which I hadn't really thought about before--was that hundreds of thousands of non-Jews were also victims of the Nazi death camps. Ethnic Poles, Roma/Gypsies, homosexuals, individuals with disabilities, political dissidents, Communists...all were targeted by the Nazis. An interesting nuance that we talked about a lot in Krakow (perhaps more on this later) is that in America you can identify as an "American Jew' (or "Jewish American"), while in Poland your Jewish identity precludes your identity as a Pole--if you extend this analogy, then there were about 6 million Poles murdered in WWII, and half of them were Jews.
Here, too, it was hard to watch groups of Israelis walking around but not to be with them. Although we lit memorial candles at a few locations, they were memorial candles, not yahrtzeit candles. And we didn't recite Kaddish (prayer said by mourners) at any point, which felt really strange to me. And while we really did talk a lot about the non-Jewish victims, the Jewish connection for me is still, obviously, the strongest. 

"Anti-Semitism is a sin against God and humanity," says this graffiti (or government sponsored PSA? Not sure) in Oświęcem.  Oświęcem is the town outside of Auschwitz and is a normal town with houses and schools and grocery stores. "Auschwitz" is just a Germanization of the Polish name (the Yiddish name is Oshpitzin). At the Auschwitz Jewish Center, we met a twentysomething Ukrainian guy who is volunteering there for the year. His English was excellent, and I thought he did a fantastic job telling us about the Jewish community in Oświęcem before the war. Only one synagogue remains, and the museum is built around it.At the center we met with a group of Polish high school students from the area--I think our "dialogue" was part of their Holocaust education. I was surprised by how little they knew about the Holocaust--naturally, the focus in Polish schools is on Polish victims, but they said that Jewish victims receive maybe one or two sentences in textbooks. I was especially surprised that their education is not more extensive simply by living in such close proximity to the camps... 

We had a bit of free time to walk around the town, so I went to the castle (and did a photoshoot of the swans you see in this picture). The castle has a very strangle little museum, clearly not visited very frequently. When I walked in, the security guard rang a bell to alert the desk-person (who was upstairs somewhere) that I was there; she proceeded to turn on lights in rooms and display cabinets as I walked through the "exhibits". There was one room that talked about Judaism--not the Jewish community of the town, but about Judaism--which I thought was really interesting. The best part, though, were the period-rooms that were set up to look like how they would have looked in the early 20th century. Oh, and add Poland to the list of countries where nature has called me to her forests...

Warsaw was even more of a shock than Krakow was--it's a completely modern city with loud nightclubs, flashing neon lights, and shiny glass skyscrapers. But the post-Communist urban grunge is still very present in a weird mix with ruins left from WWII bombings, when most of the city was destroyed. 

The view from our hotel room: "Stalin's Gift to Warsaw," ie: the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), completed in 1955. Warsaw actually kind of reminded me of Chicago (okay, except for the traffic circle. We don't have those)--PKiN kind of looks like the Wrigley Building, but there's no fusion between the architectural styles of the buildings. 
Old Town! Yes, there was snow. The entire time we were there.

Grandma and Gideon, this one's for you: Chopin's last piano! Upon Ricky's suggestion, I went to the Frederyk Chopin Museum! For free! I actually went because Ricky said it was a really great, interactive museum, which is true.

Another of Ricky's suggestions (catching a theme here?): the main library of Warsaw University. Unfortunately, the roof garden (!) was closed because of the weather, but it was worth it to go just to see the building. Each of the panels you see has a passage about books written in a different language, though the two in the foreground are panels with math and music. The interior was cool, too: kind of a fusion student center/library all rolled into one. 

Etgar Keret's Warsaw house! The narrowest house in the world, according to the New York Times! It's not much to look at from the outside, but unfortunately I don't have the right connections to get me inside... Still, it was cool to see. (Etgar Keret, by the way, is an Israeli author who writes really absurd stories). 
The Nozyk Synagogue is the only Warsaw synagogue to survive the War.--because the Nazis used it as a horse stable. Here we met one of the rabbis, an American, and had an interesting conversation about what pre-war Jewry in Warsaw looked like, and what it looks like now. One of the most interesting things was that non-religious, young female Jews were most likely to survive--it was easiest for them to a) know non-Jewish families to take them in, b) speak Polish (not Yiddish) well enough to be able to fit in, and c) be physically unidentifiable as Jews (that whole circumcision thing...). But that makes it really hard to estimate the number of Jews in Poland today--because there are still a lot of people who don't know about their Jewish roots, or who have yet to tell their children. In the synagogue's charter, the sponsoring family stipulated that the synagogue should forever remain an Orthodox one (Reform was, at the time, sweeping through modern Europe) and that someone from the congregation should always say Kaddish for them, since they had no children. 
One of the few places in Warsaw where buildings on both sides of the street survived the War (mostly) intact. The building on the left is covered in photographs of Jewish families who lived in Warsaw before the War. Our guide, I should mention, was fantastic. Helise Lieberman, from the Taube Foundation took us around Jewish Warsaw, and was not only a great guide but sparked really interesting and thought-provoking conversations. One of her ideas was to turn one of the destroyed, dilapidated  on-its-last-legs buildings into a Tenement Museum-style exhibit, whereby you would learn about a couple specific families' lives. [By the way, Helise came to Warsaw about 20 years ago as the founding director of the Lauder School, Poland's first Jewish day school in decades.]  

A few years ago, this memorial was installed at the border of the "large" and "small" Jewish ghettos in Warsaw, at the exact location where the bridge between the two used to exist. About 400,000 people lived in the ghetto, which was, ironically, smack dab in the middle of the city.
A close-up of the exterior of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will be opening next month (our timing was not so good on this one). Although it will include an exhibition room about the experience of Polish Jews during the Holocaust (and the museum shares a plaza with the memorial to the Ghetto Uprising), it is distinctly not a Holocaust museum--it's supposed to talk about the entire 1000-year history of Jews in Poland. It's a really cool building; if you look closely (or zoom in) you can see that פולין (Poland, in Hebrew) is spelled out on the glass panels. 

The old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw is in awful condition. Although some grave stones have clearly been maintained, with their engravings made clearer with paint, most are in terrible disrepair: broken, falling over, crumbling, uprooted by trees. I managed to see the gravestones of Ludwig Zamenhof (creator of Esperanto) and Adam Cerniaków, who was appointed head of the Judenrat by the Nazis and who committed suicide when he was unable to negotiate the escape of Korczak's orphans (see below).

Memorial to Janusz Korczak at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. Korczak operated an orphanage for Jewish children that moved to the ghetto when the Jews were forced to move there; though he was offered by Nazis to escape a number of times, on each occasion he refused in order to stay with "his" children. Together with nearly 200 orphans, he was marched to the Umschlagplatz, from where they were deported to the Treblinka death camp.  

The kotwica was the symbol of the Home Army, which largely orchestrated the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 (as distinct from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943). Now, though, the symbol is mostly a symbol of Polish patriotism and is graffitied all over. (While I"m talking about the Warsaw Uprising, I guess I should mention that we went to the Uprising Museum. Like the Chopin Museum, it was also really interactive; but, like the Schindler Factory Museum, there was way too much there to be able to focus on anything in particular). 
The graffiti/street art in both Krakow and Warsaw was much better than anything I've seen in Prague so far. This is in Warsaw, but I think Krakow's was even better (I just had to be selective with my pictures!)

Eating a huge zapiekanka, an open-faced pizza/baguette kind of thing. 

Our train ride back was 10 hours. Our "cabin" if you can even call it that, was probably about 3.5 feet across, and had a triple-decker bunk-bed in it. The bunks were so close together that I couldn't even sit up properly!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Velký Dřevíč: a Weekend in a Czech-Polish Border Village

This post should probably be split up into two--even though it's all about my weekend going with my roommate Vanessa to our Czech roommate Zuzana's village Velký Dřevíč in Eastern Bohemia near the Polish border, there's a lot of content. But that also means lots of pictures! So if you get bored scrolling through, just click on the pictures and you can look at them like an album.

I'll give a brief outline here in case you don't have time to read all the captions. We left Friday afternoon; on Sunday morning we had a "cooking lesson" (fried cheese and garlic soup!) with Zuzana's mom before heading out to Poland, and then a funky Tibetan tea shop in the evening! The next day, we took a nice long walk around the village and came back in time to do a short interview about the Communism-->democracy transition with Zuzana's dad before heading back to Prague. 

When classes ended on Friday, I realized I had nothing to bring with as a gift for Zuzana's family, and I didn't know where any flower shops were (or if that's even a thing here). So, after seeing Gideon's beautiful challahs on Facebook, I realized that I had just enough time to whip up a batch. As Gideon said, it was a "good week for challah-eating friends of the family" (Mom and Grandma also made beautiful challahs).

The train! (Well, not ours, but the one next to us). The ride was about 2.5 hours, and at the end we transferred to a local commuter rail that was kind of like the Dinky in function, but not at all like the Dinky in reality because it was beautiful and new and had electronic displays and more than one car.

We passed a lot of really old, abandoned rail cars along the way. Imagine taking the train in the freezing cold in a car like that!
After a much needed sleep-in on Saturday morning, we were greeted by this beautiful scene as we walked down to the kitchen. Mom, the kitchen was orange! And it worked really well with the lighting.

The beautiful lighting in the kitchen was complemented by this incredible breakfast spread. Fruit, tea, juice, cereal, cheeses, whipped honey (the most delicious food ever), yogurts, jam, koláč fruit cake/pastry deliciousness (and apparently really popular in Texas). On the bread-plate in the center of the table is one of my challahs, cut up--funny enough, it's actually very similar to the Czech Christmas bread (minus the raisins) that's on the bread platter on the right side of the photo. It was also nice to have a reminder of Shabbat, even though I wasn't in a Shabbat-y environment.

The lighting was so pretty!

I mentioned to Zuzana a few weeks ago that I really wanted to learn how to make Czech food. As soon as we finished eating breakfast, her mom, Jana, took out what must have been 5 pounds of different kinds of cheese to teach us how to make smažený sýr, the fried cheese that's so popular here. (This picture has about a third of the total amount we made). 

This is the enormous pile of cheese right before we stuck them in the deep fryer (from the South to the Czech Republic... I must have a thing for places that like deep-fried food!). Step 1: cover the cheese in flour. Step 2: Coat in an  egg-milk mixture. Step 3: Coat in bread crumbs. Step 4: One more coat of egg-milk. Step 5: One more coat of bread crumbs. Step 5: OIL!

Halfway done with frying. It's kind of like glorified mozzarella stick, but with fancy cheese. They were so rich though, I could only eat a bite of each. We also learned how to make garlic soup, which I'm going to make all the time at home both because it's so simple and because it's so delicious!

Welcome to Poland! I was so full I could hardly walk, but there's no way I was going to pass up the chance to cross the border, only 15 minutes from Zuzana's house!
The last word on the bottom row of the sign on the right side of this picture is ridiculous. It hurts my brain just to look at it. (Ricky, how do you pronounce that?) Actually, once I could equate certain letter combinations with their Czech equivalent, I was able to read the Polish signs much better and even guess what some of them meant, which was really cool.
The polish town was Kudowa-Zdrój, and it's known as a spa town. Obviously we didn't go in the spa because a) it was (probably) expensive and b) we didn't have zlotys!

But we did get to drink some of the mineral water (from this pump)! It was warm. And bubbly. And a little salty. Which is a really weird combination. But I never really understood before why the mineral water you buy at stores is bubbly, because I'd never had natural mineral water before.

Oh yeah, there was also a water park. Mostly it was inside, but this section of the slide went outside and I'm not sure why this man wasn't frozen, because it was approximately 25 degrees out.

Piano in the park! Unfortunately, it wasn't real.

On the way back to the village we stopped in the town of Náchod, where Zuzana went to high school. There's a castle in the town (and bears living on the grounds!) but unfortunately it's under repair and the bears are all in hibernation. This building is the New Town Hall, in the main square. We went to a place called Waffle Cafe to warm up for a bit, and I had the best delicious white hot chocolate--I thought it was going to be too sweet, but it was just right, and nice and frothy. Also, the cafe was on Karlovo Náměstí  which is also the name of the square I live near in Prague!

Just something I thought was interesting, because you mostly never see satellite dishes in the States anymore. 

After dinner (food was the theme of the weekend) Zuzana, her father Jaroslav, Vanessa and I drove to the nearby town of Hronov to Čajovna U Bílého Draka (Tea House of the White Dragon); it was wonderful, if not entirely out of place in the Czech Republic. It was a full-on Tibetan/South Asian/Middle Eastern (very Infini-T esque), complete with hookah and barefoot waiters(!). It was a wonderfully relaxing evening, and we ordered 3 or 4 pots of tea.

On Sunday morning we woke up a bit earlier, so we'd have enough time to see the whole village before taking a mid-afternoon train back to Prague. The weather was chilly, the sky was foggy, and it was a bit misty, but in a romantic way I think the village was actual more picturesque like that than it would have been if there was a shining sun in a blue sky. 

I love the hazy trees in the background. 
Rooster! Chickens!

In my mind, this is what a village house looks like, which I suppose is, again, a very romanticized conception. But still. 

More natural water sources to try! This one is supposed to bring you good luck, I think. I am not joking when I say that my first thought, before convincing myself to taste a handful, was: "Oh wow. I would never drink this water on OA. I hope I don't get giardia!" So far, so good.

This is how they indicate that you're leaving a place.

We continued our walk even after we left the village, and it just made me want to go hiking! There were so many kinds of trees, mountains (okay, hills) on all sides, a brook/river below... We didn't go up into the mountains/hills at all, but I did climb up into the trees a bit when nature called. Add that view to the list.
I was only half-joking when I said I wanted to jump in, just to say I'd done it. But the air really was freezing, and I probably would have gotten hypothermia, which is no fun. Not that I know from experience, but I can imagine. 

Heading back to the village. 

Lots of the houses still use wooden stoves!
Smokestack of the factory in the town. In terms of industry and economic pursuits, there's not much else in the village. A school, one-and-a-half pubs/restaurants, a swimming pool, a post office... But even for things like grocery shopping, you have to leave the village. 

I just like reflections a lot. 

Zuzana's father carved this replica of the Easter Island moai figures in their back yard! His father was a woodworker. The other half of the tree used in this carving was used to carve the Buddha statue at the tea house mentioned earlier. 

From left to right: Me (obviously), Vanessa, Zuzana, her sister Pavla, their mother Jana, their father Jaroslav. This is right after Vanessa and I interviewed Jaroslav for one of our classes about the transition between communism and democracy.