Monday, July 18, 2011

A long day and some reflection

Day 4: Mirow District. Mama Yid and I left Abbot Yid at home to recuperate and set out for another formerly Jewish district on the West side of town, but this time south of where we had been previously. I managed to get us some bus tickets (yay pantomime and a notepad!) and we got on a bus which took us across town. Our first stop was the last fragment of the Warsaw ghetto wall that's still preserved, which was pretty sobering in its size. I knew it was tall, but until you see its scale and realize this was a cage to keep people inside it's hard to wrap your head around. After that we walked down some side-streets to find the Ghetto Evacuation Monument. This is the spot that commemorates where the Ghetto fighters came out through the sewers (the monument says "canals," which I suppose does sound nicer) onto the Aryan side of the city to escape.

The area was fascinating; it's in a pretty grungy part of town with a lot of dilapidated buildings and abandoned factories. At the same time there's a huge urban renewal project going on and there's a ton of construction happening in the area, with lots of modern skyscrapers, high-rise condos, and corporate parks popping up everywhere. The contrast was a bit bizarre; sort of like if you remade Silicon valley next to Blarney castle. As another example of this contrast between old and new, the monument is directly in front of the entrance to a condominium. The monument is a little surreal, being covered with disembodied hands, but I think I still prefer its (relative) understated-ness to the over-the-top HEROES! theme of the Ghetto Fighters Monument at Zamenhof.

After that we were pretty hungry, so we wandered around until we found, of all things, a Vietnamese restaurant. We were looking for I.B. Singer's childhood home at Krochmalna street, so in his honor, I had grilled goose. It was quite hot, and once we had finished lunch Mama Yid said she actually thought she might be done for the day. I was a little disappointed that we had only managed to get to two out of the four spots on my itinerary for the day, but she had also been a really good sport (even if we hadn't left the house until 11:30). The tricky thing was that the bus route I had planned to get home didn't run near where we were, since I had been thinking we would have made it further west towards the City Center. So we walked back. Luckily it was starting to get somewhat cloudy so the sun wasn't quite as bad. On the way home Mama Yid talked about how proud she was that I seemed so street-smart and self-sufficient here, which she wouldn't have said about me a year ago. The compliment was nice, though it also made me realize how much I've grown in the last few years since still living with them. Walking added up to 5.7 km (3.5 miles).

We finally got back to the house and ate dinner. Abbot Yid was up and about trying to make arrangements for Krakow and London. Mama Yid and I headed out again to go check out New Town. She still hasn't really had a chance to do much shopping so I left her there and went west to see the town battlements. The walls are very cool; the old moat has been filled in with a dirt-and-gravel path so you can walk in the moat as well as along the inner and outer walls. The Poles seem to be incredibly cavalier about the whole thing, though. To them the wall really just seems to be a place to hang out; like a park. I saw merchants selling paintings, surly teenagers playing guitar, couples holding hands on benches-- but while they were sitting on turrets and lounging on castle walls! In some ways, it kind of takes away from the effect of being in a "Castle"-esque environment, because the modern world is so emphatically blending with the old world.

Old and New Town, including the battlements, are interesting because they're almost entirely reconstructions, but reconstructions done as carefully and accurately as possible. It creates a slightly surreal effect where you're walking around thinking, "Wow, this is so old, this thing must have been here for centuries--" and then you remember that actually it's probably only 50 years old or so. It's a bizarre dissonance shift, which is sort of appropriate for the trip in general. It's a well-known cliche, but I'm definitely getting the feeling that Poland is a "land of contrasts"-- some people here are really nice and friendly, while some seem on the surly side. Poland seems to be committed to honoring the horrors that happened on its soil, but at the same time is highly motivated to be a modern country and move forward with its future.

Being here has made me re-think some of my previous assumptions and feelings about Poland's responsibility as guardian (or co-guardian) of Jewish history and memory. I've often been somewhat miffed by the fact that a lot of former Jewish sites which were destroyed during the war haven't been restored (for instance the Tlomackie synagogue which is now a car dealership) except for a token plaque here or there. It feels like there should be more respect and acknowledgment, in a real way so people can understand that the Jews of Poland weren't mythical or make-believe, but real, present, and in a lot of ways, omnipresent in Polish society, and certainly in the larger cities like Warsaw. I want Poland to make sincere efforts to include the Jewish experience within the larger history of their country. At the same time, after coming here, I realize that it would be impossible for every site to be reconstructed. There has been so much suffering here, so much death and misery, that there's no way you could rebuild or memorialize it all; you'd have no city left. Honestly, that's not a realistic-- or fair-- position to take in a real country full of real people, most of whom weren't even alive when the war happened. What I've seen suggests that Poland is trying to find a compromise between honoring its history while not becoming victims to it.

While there may be more things Poland can do to make sure contemporary Poles understand Jews and Jewish history, as far as memorializing the past, I feel like they're doing a pretty good job. I've walked past dozens of museums, plaques and monuments in the few days we've been here and it feels like the Polish people, or at least government, understands the need to pay respect to history, while still working towards the future. I can't fault them for that, especially when most Jewish communities and individuals' involvement and engagement with Poland seems to be fairly minimal. If Jews abroad want Poland to understand Jews better, they might need to step up and actually do something to make it happen.

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