Tuesday, May 31, 2016

From Warsaw to Galicia, to the Past and to the Afterlife

Kazimierz Dolny market
We left Warsaw on our comfy motor coach
rooster bread
driven by our Polish driver named Derek.  Ninety-one miles southeast and almost three hours of napping later, we woke up in the charming hilly town of Kazimierz Dolny.  Because it was raining, we found shelter under the roof that covered the well in the middle of the town square.   In the past, market day had been moved from Saturday to Tuesday out of respect for the local Jews who would not buy and sell on their Sabbath.  Despite the absence of Jews, market day is still Tuesday so we found ourselves in the midst of stalls and sellers.  There is a distinctive rooster-shaped bread that some of us purchased.  We visited the synagogue (it is now a little Jewish museum), and a few of us trekked up to the highest point in town to explore the remains of the local castle.  

After a number of wrong turns, we finally arrived at the town of Chodel, the first home of Avital’s maternal great-grandfather Sol.
Church Street in Chodel
He was one of 13 children, 5 of whom emigrated to the U.S. during the 1920s.  Avital explained his history and how she learned about it from relatives.  The rest of the family and the remaining Jews in the town perished in the Holocaust.  Because the synagogue and cemetery had been destroyed partially by the Nazis and then fully destroyed in the post-war era, we didn’t expect to find material remains.  We parked outside the town church.  Both the synagogue and Sol’s home had been on this street, and Sol’s family used to sell freshly baked bread to the townspeople who were going home from the Sunday Mass.  Although the visit to Chodel was Avital’s personal quest, our whole group gained much from joining her on the journey.

people leave pieces of paper
with their prayers and names
Driving further south to the region called Galicia, we nibbled on rooster bread and our snack food until we arrived in Lezajsk (the Yiddish pronunciation is Lizhensk – that may not be any easier to say).  This is a town known for its brewery and for its important Jewish pilgrimage site.  Guess which one we visited?  Our goal was to find the mausoleum housing the remains of one of the founders of Hasidism.  Hasidism  is a kind of Orthodox Judaism in which a charismatic spiritual leader known as a tzadik (Hebrew for “righteous one”) leads his followers in Jewish worship, rituals, and religious singing and dancing.  The tzadik’s devotees believe in his power while he is alive and even after death.  Hasidic Jews from all over the world travel to pray at the grave of Elimelech of Lizhensk.  We visited the tomb, where a man was praying, and then went to the home of the caretakers, who are Hasidic Jews from Israel.  They house and feed the many pilgrims, so they gave us coffee, cookies, and cake to eat while our professors taught us more about the town’s history.

Back on our bus, we travelled to Rzeszow (sheh shef, sort of).  We were so glad when we walked into our hotel and were told that a full dinner was awaiting us!  The food was good and we ate heartily.  Afterwards, a few of our group (and our driver Darik) walked into Rzeszow’s Old Town rynek (square) and had a great time with laughing and sharing stories.  Everybody else washed up and got a good night’s sleep.  
LeeAnn, Avital, Donna, Darik,
Miri, and Donal in Rzeszow

Monday, May 30, 2016

Warsaw Memories

Early in the morning we arrived at the Uprising Museum.  It was opened in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the revolt of Warsaw Poles against the Nazis.  The Uprising was organized as an assertion of independence and opposition to the Nazi regime.  
white eagle swoops down
on the swastika

brave motorcyclists
The Warsaw residents figured that with the Soviet Red Army advancing toward Warsaw (it was already just east of the city on the eastern side of the Vistula River), and the German Army about to retreat from the city, it would be an opportune time to revolt. They hoped that they would be supported by the approaching Soviet forces, as well as the British and American Allies.  The Uprising began on August 1, 1944, but no help came.  Hitler was outraged and ordered his troops to “raze Warsaw to the ground.”  The Uprising Museum teaches about the massive destruction and loss of life, but it also celebrates the heroism of the Poles.  The multi-media exhibits gave us a sense of what it must have been like to be in an urban war zone. 

After leaving the museum, we walked to a nearby office building and took a break for coffee and snacks, and Miri taught us about Jan Karski’s life in depth.  She explained that the Israeli organization and museum in Jerusalem called Yad Vashem focuses on the Holocaust and also honors non-Jewish heroes who selflessly saved Jews.  Jan Karski was awarded by Yad Vashem and by the State of Israel.  

the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery
Kasia explaining
We took a tram to the large Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street.  It was beautiful and lush with an abundance of trees and grass, and but also eerie.  It was startling to see so many tombstones, many of them disturbed and fallen and partially hidden by the greenery.
For many in our group, it was the first Jewish cemetery they had seen, and they learned about the Hebrew inscriptions and the Jewish custom of placing little stones on the tombs as a sign of respect.  We went on a hunt for the gravestone of a CSUN student's great-grandmother.  Even with the data supplied (cemetery sector and 
the 1899 gravestone for
great-grandmother Miriam
row) and a photo of the grave, it seemed that the irregularity of the rows would make it impossible to find.  To our amazement, Olivia succeeded!  We left a little stone on top. 

We took a tram and walked into town for lunch, and then got on a tram that took us across the river to Praga, where the University of Humanities and Social Sciences (SWPS) is located.  The plan was to talk with Polish students enrolled in the Institute for            
talking and listening
English Studies.  Sitting next to each other in the cafeteria, we introduced ourselves and heard their stories.  Meeting these Polish college students was an awesome experience!  We bonded over music, history, and what turned out to be a common sense of humor. 

 Afterwards, some of our group went with the Polish students to a beautiful beach on the banks of the Vistula River where kids our age gather.  At the river’s edge, they sat and talked, watched the sunset, and shared many laughs.  Most of our group went back into the city to do last-minute shopping, pack, and rest up after our busy last day in Warsaw. 


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Paths to Spirituality in Poland

looking upward
We started the day with a short tram ride to a neighborhood cathedral for Sunday Mass.  The church had a beautiful interior, and we intrigued by the display of rosaries hung around two paintings of Mary.  A clanging bell started the prayers, which were entirely in Polish.  Much of the hour-long service consisted of a sermon, hymns sung by the congregants, and communion.  On the side was an area for the kids to play, and so their laughter was juxtaposed by the somber voice of the priest.  
sublime arts
For those who find transcendence through the arts, Sunday also provided an opportunity with a noon time Chopin piano recital in a nearby park. The turn-out was a lot larger and younger than at the church.  Before the concert started, LeeAnn taught us about Chopin’s life.  We were particularly interested in figuring out how, after Chopin’s death in Paris, his sister extracted his heart in order to smuggle it into Poland where it currently resides in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.

looking down
Hopping on a tram, we went to the northern side of town for a quick lunch and a visit to the Nozyk Synagogue, the only Warsaw synagogue to survive World War II (partly because the Germans used it as a horse stable).  It was built in 1902 by a successful merchant named Zalman Nozyk who felt that none of the 400 synagogues then present in the city fit his needs: most were small rooms in houses and businesses and the one big synagogue was affiliated with Progressive Judaism.  Nozyk wanted a free-standing Orthodox synagogue (in such synagogues, men and women sit separately during prayer).    Nozyk hired the architect of the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall to design his synagogue, so the result was quite pretty.  Within a few years he donated his synagogue to the Warsaw Jewish community with the proviso that it keep his name and 
looking inside
always include prayers on his family’s behalf.  We toured the upstairs gallery that is reserved for women attendees (men are on the first floor).  In the large adjoining room there were several new miniature period houses, intricately furnished. Those of us who find a state of grace in dollhouses were fulfilled.

under our feet on the sidewalks
Others with a more scholarly bent were stimulated by Kasia Gucio, an English translator who joined us at the synagogue.   Kasia has attended each of CSUN’s trips to Poland as a guide for the Jewish memorial sites and past culture.   She told us about her work translating Polish documents saved in the Ringelblum Archive.  The historian Emanuel Ringelblum encouraged Warsaw Ghetto Jews to write their stories, poetry, history, etc.  All these were stored in metal milk cans and boxes before the Ghetto was destroyed, and the Jews buried the containers to preserve their lives and culture for future generations.  The last milk can is believed to be buried in the spot where later the Chinese Embassy was built!     

After our tour of the synagogue, our group dispersed for free time and eating.  The biggest fan of Polish food among our group is Shant.  His description of a new kind of Polish street food, shawarma, demonstrates his deep reverence for the food:
awe and wonder
        "Kabob stands are like taco stands in southern California.  These kebab stands are primarily operated by Poles, Turks, or Egyptians.  The latter two groups are Muslims who came to Poland during the post-1989 era (but not under the current Polish government, which is not permitting much immigration).  Each stand has its own personality along with different types of home-made spice mixes and sauces to complement the dishes.  Every time I stopped at one for food, it felt like the first time.  Shawarma is the absolute best of the food at kebab stands.  There is nothing quite like walking down a street while burying your face in a massive lamb shawarma.  Poland is a gorgeous country and exploring it with phenomenal authentic street food is truly a vital part of the whole European experience.   Clearly, Poles love this food.  Judging from the many Polish customers at these kebab stands, we are in a new era of multicultural Poland cuisine."

As you can see, so far our experiences on this trip have given us much food for thought and reflection.  Plus, we are having a great time!
in Old Town Warsaw

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Thousand Years in One Day

Imagine a semester-long course packed into one day. . . . Thank goodness we started out with an ample Hotel Metropol breakfast, complete with all the coffee we could drink!  Promptly at 9 a.m. we met our tour guide Ewa (pronounced eh-va) and shortly after we boarded our air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz bus (wow!).  Driving slowly through the city,
heroic fighters
we got our first daylight view of Warsaw.   Ewa pointed out the significant buildings, old and new, including Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.   By 10 a.m. we were at the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Monument.  


The Monument is in front of the new Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  The museum is right on top of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto jail.  During the years 1940-1943, 450,000 Jews from different parts of Poland were kept there.  They were horribly oppressed, starved, executed, and deported “to the East.”  When they discovered that the destination was  to the Treblinka extermination camps, the Jews who were still in the Ghetto launched a revolt, knowing they would die while fighting Nazi soldiers.   Our Polin Museum guide Anna told us, “The Warsaw Ghetto is where Jews died, but this museum shows how Jews lived.”

There's a unicorn in
our synagogue!
For the next two hours she led us through 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland. The seven museum galleries describe the cultural, economic, and political activities of Jews all over Poland from the medieval era to the present.  There was so much to see and hear and do!  We saw artifacts like coins and swords, title pages of religious books and descriptions of their contents, paintings, and an awesome reconstruction of a painted synagogue. In the 19th century gallery, we reenacted a Jewish wedding ceremony (a hearty “Mazel tov!” to Adam and Ada).  Each of us was assigned to focus on a specific time period and report on an item, and you can see the fruits of our research on a tab in this blog.

By the time we left the museum, we appreciated the bravery of Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Resistance.  He managed to get smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and Belzec extermination camp in order to report the atrocities to the world and implore the Allies to stop the Holocaust.   

We resumed our bus tour and went to Old Town.  In fact, Old Town is actually not so old.  Utterly destroyed in WWII, the residential and business edifices were reconstructed in the 1950s to match the pre-war facades.

A mermaid wielding a
sword and shield, Warsaw's
city symbol
We were amazed, and it finally felt like we were in Europe: an expansive town square surrounded by charming buildings filled with cobble stone streets, a Roma with a parrot, outdoor cafes with umbrellas (yes, serving Polish food!), and accordion-playing panhandlers.

Our appetites gravitated toward new tastes.  The gelato was amazing with flavors like strawberry, chocolate, raspberry, mint, mango, coffee, and caramel – all swirled in a precarious tower above the waffle cone.  It cooled us off on the hot, humid, Polish weather.

Presidential Palace
Back in our bus, we were shown the newly rebuilt but also old-and-elegant looking national buildings: the Presidential Palace, the Sejm (Parliament), the National Opera House, the National Theater, and the National Library with odd colored Pegasi (plural of Pegasus) on its lawn.

Then Ewa took us to the fancy neighborhood which hadn’t been bombed during WWII because Nazi headquarters were there. We saw elegant old buildings that house the embassies for the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Bulgaria, and Romania.   The Chinese Embassy is not there, but in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto (stay tuned tomorrow for the hidden treasure under the Chinese Embassy).

The bus dropped us off near our group dinner meal featuring an authentic traditional Polish menu.   

Polish nobleman presiding
over our group dinner

Friday, May 27, 2016

We've Arrived!

approaching wet Warsaw
It was exciting to arrive in Warsaw (in the pouring rain) after our long, long flight. Some of us managed to catch a few winks, others fidgeted the hours away in the upright seats and cramped rows.  We were all seated next to each other, though, and for the first time the entire group was together.  We bonded over our joint excitement, discomforts, and appreciation for the caring and attentive KLM flight attendants.   How was the food?  “bland”  “amazing” “disgusting” and “we were starving, but it was pretty good anyway.”

Once we checked into Hotel Metropol, we began to experience the strange and exotic aspects of our trip.  Who knew that the electrical power in the room would not work unless our room key card was inserted into a secret slot by the door??   How weird that in order to cross the busy intersection in front of our hotel, we need to go down into the subterranean underworld of streets, shops, and indecipherable Polish signs! 
a grim historical reminder

We didn’t expect that alongside downtown sidewalks you can get history
lessons!  At our street corner we found a monument commemorating the 102 Poles executed there by the Nazis.   This was our first lesson about Polish victimization during World War II.

at least it's a
good landmark
Across the street is the gigantic Palace of Culture building: it has 42 floors, 3,000 rooms, and 40 million bricks.  Poles think it is quite ugly, but they didn’t have a choice because Joseph Stalin bestowed it upon them as a “gift” when Poland was under Communist rule.  Stalin, just like Hitler, would be surprise to learn that there is a functioning synagogue right across the street.  We attended the Sabbath eve service at Ec Chaim (“Tree of Life”) Synagogue.  The congregation in the denomination known as “Progressive Judaism” (called Reform Judaism in the U.S.), a form of Judaism where religious law is regarded as non-obligatory.   Still, all the prayers at Ec Chaim were recited and sung in Hebrew, the language of prayer for Jews all over the world.  In order for people to be able to follow along, the prayer book offers a transliteration and a Polish translation.

choose your language
Rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz (about 30 years old) was full of smiles and greeted everyone in Polish and English.  We were delighted to see his wife with her baby in her arms, announcing community activities.   Before we started, we met the diverse attendees: there was a small group of visiting Argentinian Jews, about two dozen 20-something Jewish youth leaders from Europe (in Poland for a week-long conference), and the local Polish Jews.  The Jewish community today in Poland has come back from a time of tremendous devastation.  Three million (more than 90%) Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and the vast majority of the 250,000 survivors left Poland.  Many of the Polish Jews who dared to remain in land where so many Jews had perished—and Poland after the war was ruled by the anti-religious Communist Party—hid their religious identity or assimilated.  After the fall of Communism and the re-birth of democracy in 1989, some of their grandchildren are find Judaism again.   For the Jewish members of our CSUN group, seeing such celebratory Jewish worship in Poland elicited all sorts of conflicting emotions: happy recognition of the familiar prayers and tunes, sadness at the losses of the past, and heartwarming to see the current devotion to Judaism.   Many of the non-Jewish CSUN students experienced their first glimpse into a synagogue service.

Megan, Avital, Donal, Jody, and Jimmy
After the service, exhausted and hungry, we split up for our first late-night snack in Warsaw.  We went back to the hotel for much-needed rest, so that we would have a fresh start the next day and  begin our exploration.