Saturday, May 14, the 25th and 26th days of the Omer
Driving on the roads in eastern Poland is a bit of a harrowing experience. There were some patched asphalt streets through some of the villages, and just one short dirt road, but the main highway on the main route through the country is in good shape – certainly it is far better than Pico Boulevard in west Los Angeles! But there is just one lane in each direction, and filling up those lanes are huge trucks carrying goods back and forth for the Belorussians. Lucyna could not bear to go slowly behind those behemoths, and so she’d rev up her Toyota and pass them, and although she is a safe driver and did not take chances, I would see the fleck of a car approaching us from a mile ahead and worry that we would have a head-on collision (I know my sons are nodding their heads at this point). So it was a relief to pull
into the city to our hotel – The Titanic!! Yes, the Bialystok Titanic Hotel is festooned with ship paraphernalia and lovingly painted renditions of that boat in its spanking new pre-disaster glory. Is it any wonder that I slept poorly that night? I sunk into bed at 9:30, woke up at 1:30 and stayed awake until 5 a.m. Good thing I had that book.
Speaking of books. Modern Jewish prose literature first flowered in late 19th century Eastern Europe, and the Yiddish and then later Hebrew short stories and poetry are full of references to Bialystok. It was a major center of Jewish culture and business, and I just hear the name of the city and imagine some tattered Jewish luftmensch (rootless, underemployed, philosophical-type young man) hitching a ride on a horse-drawn carriage into the city where he can schnorr (beg) some bread and pickles and a night’s lodging. I found it quite disconcerting to drive into a clean and up-to-date Bialystok that is empty of Jews.
They were near-totally annihilated, and in the midst of the city is a plaque on a wall marking the site of the huge town synagogue, into which 3,000 Jews were herded and then set aflame.
Lucyna explained that in 1968, when the Polish Communist party began aggressively discriminating against Jews and many left for Israel, the University of Warsaw allowed some of the Jewish faculty to move over to a new branch in Bialystok.
I think the Jew most honored by Bialystok, though, is Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, who lived from 1859 - 1917 and invented the international language Esperanto. The story
is that he watched the local multilingual population quarreling and thought that the key to world peace would be a new language in which no one was comfortably fluent. See how well that worked?
The city has a big statue in his honor, and here on Zamenhof Street (where he lived for a time) there is even a faux Zamenhof-on-the-balcony gazing at the people babbling together below. I found the city buildings very charming. Lucyna and her sweet husband live in a light-filled small apartment next to trees on the side of the city. In the downtown area were lots of multiple-unit structures with inset windows and colored walls. We walked through a lovely park whose structures seem to be in the model of Versailles, containing cool statues and late Saturday afternoon strollers. The gibbous moon came out in the still-light sky (the days are long in this northern latitude, as I was to learn when the sun rose at about 4 a.m.). In the midst of the city is the rynek, the city square – it’s like the Mexican zocalo: a big area set up for people to hang out and eat and listen to performances. I guess our closest equivalent in L.A. would be The Grove? This place had far less commerce, and the restaurant owners were far more generous about access to their toilets. We were too exhausted and chilled for outside eating, so we found a good Italian restaurant and ate well before returning to our unsinkable ship for the night.