Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Going with the Flow

Day 9- Taking it easy.

It rained the whole day. Up until now we had been running full throttle, but the bad weather combined with the exhaustion from the previous day took their toll. I was also discovering the challenges of traveling with sixty-year-olds (not as much stamina as their son half their age) as well as the unique issues of being in a country where you can't speak the language.

Case in point: Washing machines. In Warsaw we had a washing machine with English instructions on it. There was no dryer, though. Instead there were a couple of drying racks. This seemed a little odd but we ran with it. In Cz we were staying in a pretty new apartment building, with one small washing machine for the whole building in the basement. Again, no dryer, just a drying rack. This time, things were a little trickier, though. For one thing, the directions were in Polish. For another, everyone in the building's default mode seemed to be to both unplug and turn off the water flow to the washer after each use.

The last detail is extra fun: European washing machines lock once you turn the wash cycle on.

Have you guessed the problem yet? Yeah. So the first night I spent a couple of hours pressing random buttons until my clothes finally got washed. The second night Mama Yid encouraged me to put Abbot Yid's clothes in for a spin. Even though I had downloaded English instructions off the web, the darned thing still wouldn't work-- and so Abbot Yid went to bed with his clothes "trapped" in the basement overnight. (I'd say he suffered in silence except that would be a huge lie.) By the amazing power of Polish laundry gremlins (or maybe the kindly building super who also helped us work the automatic gate opener), the washer finally turned on in the middle of the night and by the morning his clothes were clean and accessible, albeit very wrinkly. It turns out that in Europe most people don't have dryers, so the clothes tend to be lighter and the spin cycle of the washing machine can be set higher to get more water out (one of the ones we saw went up to 1400 rpm).

After all that misheggos, we were ready to take it easy, especially with it pouring buckets outside. However, just for fun, the powers-that-be decided that this would be a great day for some construction workers to install a giant air conditioner in the apartment next-door, something which they first had to saw through the outside wall to do. Poland, where nothing is easy! Combined with Abbot Yid's residual irritation from the trapped laundry the night before, we were all a little on edge.

We were supposed to spend the afternoon with Pavel and his family looking at castles in the area, but I knew that my parents weren't up for that, particularly in the rain (for reasons never explained, Mama Yid neglected to bring any shoes that weren't open-toed...) It was frustrating that things were taking so long to come together. There were a bunch of things I wanted to do and it seemed like time was running out. Besides the castles I had also really wanted to see the Old Town where the Jewish quarter had been. Instead my parents said they wanted to go to the mall to get groceries to entertain our relatives the next day. I had waited years to come here, had no idea when I'd get a chance to come back and they wanted to go to a mall? I was pretty peeved.

We finally got into the car and Abbot Yid asked for directions. "The mall is past the end of the Avenue," I said. "We're not going there," he said. "We decided Old Town would be more interesting, and it has some markets, too."

Moral for me: spend less time pouting and more time listening!

Despite the bad weather, the outing wasn't bad. Mama Yid wanted to buy jewelry-- something I normally had very little patience for but since she had been such a good sport so far, it seemed only fair. Besides, it happened to be next-door to a family address I had read about for years: Number 12 Aleja street, a huge apartment building that had held more than 20 Jewish businesses, a Yiddish theater, a cinema, and a cafe/tea house run by my mother's relative, Dr. Lolek's father. That had been in the 1920s. Now it had been gutted and converted into a mall. I still felt like I needed to look through, though.

There were five floors including the basement, all full of small to medium-sized shops: clothes, electronics, furniture, etc. The top floor had an English school. The basement had, among other things, a Polish sex shop (pretty tame by US standards, mostly bachelor/bachelorette party stuff). It felt surreal that so much could be packed into such a small space-- but then again, that seemed like a good metaphor for Poland and our trip in general: there was a lot to unpack. I left feeling happy that I had made it to Number 12 but sad that, other than the outside facade, there was nothing left of its history (another metaphor?)

My parents continued on to the covered open-air market and I said I would run around Old Town for 20 minutes and meet them. Old Town was separated from the newer part of the city by the train tracks, and I decided to follow them to start off. Most of the buildings looked depressingly grey, a feature emphasized by the rain. The newer buildings looked run-down, the ones positively decrepit. I ducked into a few courtyards just to see the layout, then ducked out quickly in case anyone thought I was being creepy.
Check out the street name. Peek-a-Jew.

I tried to find the New Synagogue (more Reform-oriented) which was now the city Philharmonic but it was surrounded by scaffolding since it was being renovated. I walked on trying to find the mikvah-- a long, orange rectangular building, mostly closed down with quite a few broken windows. Some plaques near the far end announced that this was the future site of the Jewish Social Club. I smirked. Dina had very bluntly contradicted me when I said there were a few dozen Jews still in the city according to the landsleit organization online. "There's one," she had said. "One one woman, and maybe another guy, but it's hard to tell. He says he found out his heritage late in life, but she says he's lying. When there's two Jews in town they're bound to argue, right?" I had deferred to Dina though I had seen pictures of the opening of the social club online. Now it seemed like maybe the truth was somewhere in between.

Time was running out so I ran back to meet up with my parents. There were other things I had wanted to see: the Old Synagogue (Classic Orthodox), or the Jewish hospital where Lolek worked, or the monument for the labor camp where about fifteen of Mama Yid's cousins had worked during the war. But even if I couldn't seem them with my own eyes, I knew they were there-- or had been there. After the miracle at the cemetery, everything else seemed like a bonus.

Later I met up with Pavel and his family, explaining that my parents were too tired to go castle-hunting with us but that they would meet us later. Even though it was pouring, Pavel and Olga were determined to be excellent hosts and take me where I wanted to go. We arrived at the small town of Olsztyn and walked out towards the small mountain where the ruined castle stood.

Pavel explained that Olsztyn was not built to be grand or fancy like the castles for kings or bishops but something simple designed for defensive purposes, a garrison for soldiers. The ruined keep loomed on top of the hull with the tower standing tall and lonely. Far off on the other side of the plateau, one last square structure held fast against the whipping wind and rain.

We walked up for a bit until it got too steep and muddy and then headed back down. I told him the stories about Jacob Frank, the messianic leader of a quasi-Jewish sect, part Shabbetai Tzvi and part Rasputin. Frank had been allies with several high-ranking Polish bishops and had helped give support to various anti-Jewish persecutions, including denouncing the Talmud and supporting the blood libel. Eventually Frank converted to Catholicism, though this was then followed by his arrest by the church after it was reported that he still engaged in cultist practices. For thirteen years, he was a prisoner in the monastery at Czestochowa. During this time, he continued to conduct his own rituals and was given permission to receive visitors. While it's not known whether the city became a Frankist "hub" per se, there were certainly prominent Frankists who settled in the area.

In the surviving writings of the sect, it includes several mentions of Olsztyn and the caves under the castle. Not only were Frank's wife and son buried there after their deaths, but supposedly one of his followers (though perhaps just a "spirit") lived in the cave and guarded the group's treasury.

While I was disappointed not to be able to see the caves, the bad weather certainly added to the spooky atmosphere!

Driving back, I told Pavel and Olga the story of the cemetery the day before. Pavel was both happy for me, but also a bit upset. "As a Pole, I ashamed that students from Israel must come to Poland to clean up Polish graves. Our leaders often talk about Polish graves in the East that are mistreated by the Russians and how we must protect them, but here we have graves right in our faces and no one does anything." He went on, "I grew up in this city and learned about our history, but the only real contact I had with the Jewish history was a student trip to Auschwitz. I have learned more about the Jewish history of the city from you than I ever did in school."

I said it was a shame that all the focus of the area was centered on the monastery. Not that it wasn't important, but that it wasn't the only thing that happened there.

"Exactly!" he agreed. "You have Jewish history, Catholic history, political and cultural sites, not just Jasna Gora!"

"The irony," I said, "is that if the city would put some money into restoring and promoting some of the other sites it would bring more visitors. Instead all people know about is the Black Madonna."

They came back with me to dinner and we had a great time, discussing history, culture, the smashing of stereotypes and the complicated nature of family. Pavel mentioned that many Poles of his parents' age had been stuck between the failed system of Communism and of trying to chase the American dream of uber-capitalism, sometimes with pretty mixed results. It was a fascinating glimpse of how culture and cultural desires, such as acquisitiveness, is spread globally.

After lots of group pictures, I told Pavel, Olga and Yulia that we truly felt like they were a part of our family and that we looked forward to seeing them again soon.

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