Above is the Wisla River in Plock (pwutsk), Poland, the town where my grandmother Mollie was born. At the bottom of the blog is a map of Poland.


My Adventure in Torun

Wednesday, May 24 - Friday, May 27, 2011 * the 36th - 38th day of the Omer

Right after breakfast we were driven to Torun in a passenger van. It is a 2-3 hour drive northwest from Warsaw along the Wisla River. We were entering the region that used to be called Great Poland (Wielkopoland), the part with the most cities and trade contacts with the west. Germans were a sizable portion of its minority population. We sped through the outer margins of Plock, which is the closest I will get on this trip to the archives containing my Grandma Mollie’s birth certificate.

Torun was built on the east side of the Wisla (now it has spread to both sides and is connected by a 2 lane bridge) in 1231 by the Teutonic Knights. They built a huge wall out of red bricks and put their castle in it. Only a remnant of their castle remains – they were such an irritating lot that even after they surrendered in battle to 15th century Polish and Lithuanian kings, the victors destroyed most of it. Sound familiar? Anyway, there are still many massive, somber-looking Gothic (14th - 15th century) buildings and more delicate-looking flowery Renaissance ones, too.

Copernicus, who lived and developed his blasphemous science here, is the official town hero. There are lots of statues of him, his house is a museum, the university is named after him, etc. But perhaps the picture in the town square indicates that another man may be more popular? On a mid-week afternoon, the place was full of tourists, students, and families drawn to the glorious looking buildings. We bought some famous Torun gingerbread, which I did not love because it is dry and spongy. The town was unscathed by the German army during World War II. Our tour guide had bad words only for the Soviet army, which regarded the region as part of Germany and shot and raped their way through the area. Note: the difference between a German and a Pole when they’ve lived in the same place for hundreds of years is that Germans are Lutheran, Poles are Catholics, and the Germans speak more German than Polish but its likely are also bilingual. Many left after the war, fearing reprisals, but not all, and our tour guide has various German relatives in Torun. He also told me not to expect that anyone in the town would know of Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer. We will see!

The Polish Foreign Ministry made ambitious plans for us in Torun: my lecture would be on Polish TV, we’d give a press conference, meet with the mayor, go to the town archives. We stayed in an awesome, 4-star hotel built into the medieval city wall that looked out on one of the bridges over the River Wisla.

After our Old Town tour, we were driven to the other side of the river to the Higher School of Hebrew Philology in Torun. We met Rivka Gemeinder Halperin, Ph.D., who is in charge of the Hebrew program and, from all the evidence of the students’ Hebrew chattering and their individual testimonies, is also a superb teacher. Born and raised in Israel, given Polish fluency by her mother, educated in and on the faculty of U.S. universities, she was recruited to the school in Torun three years ago, thinking that she was going to Turin.

The brainchild behind the school and its Rector is Father Maksymin, a Franciscan monk who lives in the adjoining monastery. Before I got to Torun, I’d imagined this Father as a Torun version of the elderly John Paul II. So I was astonished when I was introduced to this beautiful 45 year old angel. He has curly blonde-grey hair that puffs up around his face like a cloud, deep-set blue eyes with the intensity displayed by a 7 year old boy, he is tall and lithe, and in his floor-length, flowing brown robe he whisks around the place like a gazelle. Need I say that he is charismatic and has a wildly enthusiastic flock, including yours truly? He seems passionate about Hebrew learning, and though he did not say it, he is determined to be a counter-influence to Radio Maryja, an awful right-wing Catholic cultural force that also is headquartered in Torun. As a young monk, he dreamed of studying in Jerusalem and convinced his elders that he had to go there to complete his doctorate in Bible. When they brought him home after three years, he established this school so as to bring a bit of modern Israel back to Torun, and a wealthy parishioner built a spanking-new three story school building. Every room is outfitted like a language lab, there’s a school cafeteria, guest rooms (a little cross above the doorway), and a real curriculum in Hebrew literature and Jewish cultural studies. The school is an expression of his interfaith mission.

My lecture was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. At 7:25, the school’s auditorium suddenly filled up with a few hundred Poles aged 20 - 80. Father Maksymin swished around greeting people and checking with the TV crew while his helpers handed out flags (these were from the beatification ceremony for John Paul II), and when the festivities began, they waved the flags rhythmically while singing some songs to the accompaniment of a little klezmer. I recognized one of the psalms because they sang it in Hebrew as well as Polish! Then my part of the program began. Everyone who needed was given headphones to hear Anna’s simultaneous translation of my talk, “Religious and Social Challenges Faced by the Jewish Community in Torun: Rabbi Kalischer’s Perspective.”

It may sound rather dry to you unimaginative ones out there, but the audience was very attentive. It was a 30 minute talk that put Kalischer from boyhood to old man (1795-1874) into a human context. My thesis was that Torun was a congenial and religious-tradition-respecting place, so it produced this rabbi who gave the world an optimistic, activist, and tradition-affirming philosophy. Mixed into that was information about Kalischer’s locally-born wife who birthed 14 children (they loved that) and the cultural impact of the arrival of the railroad. When I was done, they all clapped and then Father Maksymin explained to them the “take-away” messages from my talk. They stood up, waved their flags and sang a bit more in Polish and Hebrew, and filed out.

The next day, Rebecca and I, along with Anna and the school chancellor, were escorted to the Mayor’s office conference room. It was a bizarre meeting. Five city officials solemnly explained to us (through Anna’s translation) their plans to transform Torun into a site for Jewish cultural tourism by developing all evidence of Jewish settlement and Kalischer’s residence in the city: buffing up the Jewish cemetery (which was intact until some city workers in 1975 carted away the tombstones to who-knows-where), a plaque on the Kalischer home, and a monument. We were shown blueprints and sketches and all of our attempts to ask questions and speak were stifled by these officials (so why were we there?) until about 25 minutes into the meeting. I threw a wrench in their plans by saying that the sketch of Kalischer did not look like the image that was already circulating in the rest of the world (making it sound, I hoped, that millions gaze fondly at it daily). They said it was based on the photograph supplied by the archivist and besides, it was a done deal. Anna’s able diplomacy budged them a bit from saying it didn’t matter and they’d go ahead with their plans, to a position where they insisted we should go right away to talk to the archivist who’d supplied the image. Anna told us afterwards that one man suggested that the sketch had been modeled after a previous mayor of Torun.

After another struggle to allow them to let me speak, I told them about the January 2012 conference in Jerusalem devoted to Kalischer, and we talked for a bit about how they could maximize the opportunity to spread the word about Torun. Did they realize how lucky they were to have these fortuitous string of events? I’m not sure, but they gave Rebecca and me each a bag of gifts: a coffee-table sized book with colorful photographs of Torun, a little tin house with chocolate-covered dry and spongy gingerbread, and a couple of key chains embossed with the Torun coat of arms.

We were taken to the cemetery, which is now just a pretty park with few plaques, a tree named in honor of Kalischer, part of the original gate, and a photo of the building used for preparing the bodies for burial.

Then we went to the Torun Archives. The first thing we saw was the photo of Kalischer that I’m familiar with, and so clearly the problem is that the artist did not do such a good rendition. He came by during our time at the archives (no doubt dispatched there by someone official, because he said he’d modify the face to look more like the photo). The curator, Mrs. Anna Bieniaszewska, had been the student of the Torun professor, Zenon Hubert Nowak, who’d years ago sent me materials from the archives for my book. She was so excited to have us there and the two us babbled together with Anna’s help. We saw her exhibit on Torun Jews (1820-1943), which was excellent and interspersed with material on Jewish religious and economic life. When I told her about the Jerusalem conference and said she should submit a paper, she started tearing up a bit and saying she couldn’t present before all those professors. Anna gave her a pep talk, and before long, she was beaming and saying “Shana tova!” and “Yerushalayim!” I’m on the conference organizing committee, so I’m going to do all I can to make this happen and have them treat her right.

After eating at the school, Rebecca and Anna returned to Warsaw so Rebecca could go home, and I became a normal person and stayed in the spare guest room.

Rivka and the school’s manager drove me to the train station and helped me purchase all the remaining train tickets I’d need for the rest of my trip. While we were standing on the platform and Rivka worried about getting my heavy suitcase up over the gap onto the train and getting a good seat on the crowded train, Father Maksymin called her and said he would be coming to see me off. I thought, “An answer to all our prayers – he will even get me a spot next to a window!” Sure enough, a few minutes later he came gliding through the station crowd like the divine messenger on the Torun coat of arms, and I swear people parted before him and smiled. I thanked him, he thanked me, and we all shook hands and promised to keep in touch. Then he levitated my suitcase into the first-class car. I found a good seat and watched the Polish countryside roll past my window all the way to Lodz.

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