Monday, May 16, 2011 * the 27th day of the Omer
After traveling from Bialystok to the Warsaw train station Sunday night, I took a taxi to Hotel Felix, a Best Western that I’d be at for five nights. I unloaded my suitcase and keeled over from exhaustion.
On Monday morning, intent on taking a tram, I received instructions from the hotel reception clerk to walk to the main street, turn right and buy a ticket. “They sell them everywhere,” he said, and he told me I’d find a store on the corner that sold them. I didn’t believe him and made him write for me in Polish what I was seeking so I could, if need be, show it to someone. After a few poor guesses, I eventually found a tiny building labeled “billety” (tickets) and successfully bought a few. I boarded the tram like a know-it-all and rode into the city. Museums are closed on Mondays, so my plan was to spend the day walking through the Old City and New City guided by a map and a free booklet that is far superior to any tourist guidebook. Entitled Warsaw in Your Pocket, it has basic tourist info plus walking tours similar to the ones featured in the 1970s Jerusalem guide called Footloose in Jerusalem. The Warsaw guidebook tells you crucial information as well as concise narratives that include both intelligent and smart-ass remarks about the sites as well as quirky tips such as directions to a fountain topped by a statue of a bear with its bun in the air. I found it very charming, though I wonder whether it is meant simply to be cute, or is it a slap at Russia?
Old Town is actually a new town, and New Town – which is also old but not as old as Old Town – is new, too. After the Poles surrendered and limped out of the city at the end of the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis then continued to bomb the structures. So all the charming old buildings had been built from the ground up beginning in the 1950s and was designed and decorated to match earlier photos. Other cities in Poland that were not destroyed “contributed” their old bricks and building materials for the effort, thereby sacrificing their own historic treasures for the sake of beautifying the nation's capital.
It seemed to me on my walk that about a tenth of all the buildings are churches, and I walked into all of them. In the entry way there is invariably an explanatory plaque or poster that tells of the church's role in Catholic and/or Warsaw history. There were not one, but two churches on my walk whose nuns and priests provided medical care, food, and shelter for 1000+ people who were waiting out the fighting in their basements. All were killed when the Nazis dropped bombs on the churches. One of these churches informed the visitors that the basement was sealed over with the bodies still there, and we should all pray for their souls.
So today there is a symbiotic relationship between the Church and Polish nationalism. Jews like to describe themselves as victims, but we are amateurs compared to the Poles! They celebrate their national suffering and compare it to the torments endured by Jesus, while our religious leaders generally died at ripe old ages. The claim to fame of the gorgeous St. Martin’s Church in the photograph is that it served as a meeting place for theological and political dissent during the Solidarity era. I don’t know about now. Today the Church in Poland is overwhelmingly right wing politically and associated with nationalistic conservative elements. The most extreme reactionaries are also associated with the church. In front of the Presidential Palace on a street with a long name consisting of 25 consonants and two vowels, I saw demonstrators associated with
the Catholic church waving placards and shout slogans about freeing Poland from the grip of Russia, the EU, the UN, and godless secularism. Graffiti expressed this, too, along with other obscure sentiments. I offer a pierogi dinner to anyone who can figure out the reference to Ruth in graffiti on the right.
My Warsaw colleagues, all academics and non-religious types, are weary of, annoyed with, or fearful of these attitudes. Also, they are conscious of the missing Jewish sites in the city. Who was there to advocate for the rebuilding of Jewish Warsaw? City planners named a New Town street after Edwarda Fandaminskiego, one of the fighters of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, but it is actually just the name of a concrete walking path in between buildings that front on other streets.
After a day walking through the city on my own, it was nice to meet other conference participants for dinner at a restaurant in New Town. We are quite an international bunch, hailing from the U.S., Canada, England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Poland. For about two hours we ate and talked all at the same time, and finally it was time to go so we could be fresh the next morning when we would face the daunting task of speaking one at a time for hours in a row. The three of us who are staying at Hotel Felix took a taxi back because of the lateness of the hour. The hotel is in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw with a reputation for being somewhat sleazy, poor, and ugly. Alas, I think this is true. There are good things about Praga, though. They are building in it a huge new soccer stadium that is the size of Rhode Island, and that is sure to increase the safety of the streets. Also one of Praga's main drags is named after the first U.S. president. I puffed up in pride as we drove down Jerzego Waszyngtona Street.