Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sanok, Rymanow, and Rzeszow

We started on our motor coach driving to Sanok, Poland, where we attended the fascinating town museum.  We were able to gaze upon 700 beautiful icons from the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church.

Michael the protector
These were original paintings and sculptures of Jesus, angels, and saints.   All the artwork was organized according to the genre or subject of the art.  The reason for the artworks’ inclusion in the museum was because these Uniate worshipers had been expelled from the eastern region of Poland and re-settled in the western region; what they did not manage to bring with them was left behind and the best was displayed here.  The works were unsigned, teaching the importance of humility even for an accomplished artist.  This value impressed and inspired us.  The religious images made us reflect upon our own faith (or lack of) and to feel a kinship with these people from past centuries.

a political statement
The second part of the museum contained modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures.   These were beautiful, evocative, and intriguing.  In particular, the museum houses hundreds of paintings, photographs, and sculptures by the Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński (he lived 1929- 2005). He was very well known for his dystopian surrealism style of painting.  His work expressed the very cruel and tragic times in his life.   It is hard to describe in words the anger, bleakness, and nightmares depicted in his works.  We wondered what he must be like as a person in order to imagine such scenes.
destroyed city

Ada did some research on Beksiński and learned about the personal tragedies that occurred at the end of his life.  In 1998, his beloved wife died of an illness.  Shortly after, his son Tomek (who was a very well-known radio presenter, music journalist and movie reviewer) committed suicide. Beksiński found his son’s body lying on the floor, and he was never able to come to terms with his death, which led him to keep a letter pinned to his desk saying, “For Tomek in case I kick the bucket.”  In 2005, Beksiński was stabbed to death by his caretaker’s son, who was angry because Beksiński would not loan him a small sum of money.

walking together into the past
We took a break for lunch in Sanok, and then went to the Sanok Museum of Folk Architecture – also known as the Ethnographic Park.  This huge outdoor area contains the traditional and original public and private buildings of the different ethnic groups that used to live in this region (now, mostly just the Poles remain in this part of Poland).  Our tour guide took us through the different areas (each one focusing on a different ethnic group) and explained the structures and the inside furnishings and functions of the artifacts.

house in the trees
Seeing how people lived and the structures they lived in was an incredible experience.   We were able to put ourselves in the shoes of those that came before us.  Some of us found them to be quite beautiful and loved how they were set within the greenery and the wildlife.  The clockmaker’s home was packed with dozens of wall clocks and a counter full of small time pieces.  The entire experience allowed us to picture life hundreds of years ago and appreciate the artistry that went into making the buildings.

Rymanow landscape
From Sanok we drove to Rymanow.  This town’s quiet atmosphere was a pleasant contrast to the other busy cities and towns we visited. A short walk from the middle of town brought our group to the hillside Rymanow cemetery.  The cemetery was established in the 1500s, perhaps even before!  Today it features the mausoleum for Menahem Mendel of Rymanow, an important Hasid.  During the Nazi occupation, the local Jews were forced to destroy the tombstones, and even though we saw many graves, most were broken or mostly covered up by plants.  We were guided by a sister and brother who were the younger members of the Polish (non-Jewish) family who lived next door to the cemetery.  After the war, they had retrieved and cleaned off the stones and arranged them all along the hillside as before.  Later, the descendants of the Hasidic rabbi returned and instructed them not to make any further alterations.
looking down the hill at the stones

The focal points of the cemetery are the graves of Menahem Mendel and another rabbi.  Jewish people from all around the globe come to visit the site and pray.  These two gravestones were covered with small pieces of paper brought by visitors; similar to what we had seen in Lizhensk, here, too, people had written their prayerful requests and their names in hopes that the sainted rabbis would intercede with God on their behalf.  Like all the cemeteries we visited, the natural growth and the untouched tombstones create an enveloping atmosphere of peace.   This cemetery represents one way that Jewish culture is being sustained and expanded in modern Poland.

We walked from the Jewish cemetery through a Roman Catholic cemetery along the way to the Rymanow synagogue.  It is undergoing restoration.  We saw photographs of “before,” when the
walking through the interior
Western Wall mural
 building had no ceiling and only partial walls, with vines and grass growing inside.  The descendants of Menahem Mendel have claimed it to be their own, and they are restoring it and have built a mikveh (ritual bath) in it. The towels spread out, drying, across the room indicated that the synagogue’s mikveh had recently been used.  We were amazed by the remaining murals on the walls.  One of them depicts the Western Wall in Jerusalem, another one is a lion with the Hebrew words “strong as a lion” (referring to one’s faith in God), another features a deer. Even now, with the new ceiling and walls, natural light entered through the high windows.  We could see that it would be a place to inspire prayer and meditation.

Over the course of the day, we had walked more than 20,000 steps.  We got into our bus and drove back to Rzeszow.   Some of us went straight to bed, some went out to eat and hang out in town.

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