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.   


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