Friday, May 13, the 24th day of the Omer
What would I do without in-room access to computer? I mapped out the day’s routes with Google map, checked it out with the people at the front desk, and went on my way. I took a taxi to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. What a hodge-podge of tomb stones, no apparent rhyme or reason to the placements, and it was all overgrown with spring vegetation underneath towering trees. Online there is a web link to some sort of map of the stones, but I was not seeking any particular grave so I never used it, and I decided just to walk the breadth and length and read the inscriptions at random. They are very poignant and very Jewish; that is, there were inscriptions like “he was a good man and beloved father who helped the community,” or “she was a modest and good woman.” Here is a photo of one with the inscription: “Here are the bones of the important young woman [unmarried] Miss Sara daughter of the rabbi Mr. Isaac Aryeh the Cohen. She died on the holy Shabbat [so she was righteous] 1860 [I think – hard to see it].” And then it ends with the abbreviated acronym for “May her soul be bound up with the bounds of eternal life.”
It began to rain, neither the overhanging trees nor jackets helped much and I had no umbrella, so I found shelter in a tiny mausoleum housing three graves. Much more pious people than me seek this one out and pour their prayers over the three Hasidic rabbis within. The main attraction is the middle tomb of Shlomo Zalman the author of Hemdat Shlomo, but his grandson and nephew alongside him got their share of little tea candles and notes left by religious Jews who wrote out their prayers on paper and left them on the tombs.
When the rain stopped, I walked about a mile along a busy street (loved this Chinese restaurant that would not be acceptable in p.c. Los Angeles) to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This is museum built in 2004 to teach Polish national pride and values. It gets a huge number of visitors and appears to be required for high school students. Here’s a good description of the Warsaw Uprising from Warsaw in Your Pocket: “while some cities may have been happy to wait out Nazi occupation [since the German army was on retreat from the Russian army], the Warsaw locals were having none of that. The ensuing uprising which took place in 1944 would become both the most glorious and tragic episode in the city’s history. Doomed from the outset, the Warsaw Uprising enraged Hitler, and his retribution proved swift and brutal. Warsaw was to be wiped from the face of the map, ans cronies set about their orders with a zealous fury. While Red Army tanks stood stoically stationed across the river [because Stalin wanted to subdue the Poles, too!], the Nazis set about blasting western Warsaw . . . . By the time ‘liberation’ arrived, over 90% of the city lay in total ruin.” The exhibit is a shrine to the patriotic Poles who died in the battle, many of them young and of the upcoming professional and intellectual leadership.
It was startling to read about the battles that were taking place in the very streets and major intersections in which I had been walking. It certainly hasn’t been my experience in the U.S. to have historic battles so close at hand. Walking from there to another delicious veggie lunch, I passed a mural featuring the more recent despised Soviet occupation of Poland.
Friday night I went Beit Warszawa, a Reform synagogue in the outskirts of the city, where I thought I’d be teaching but I think it will happen next week. A group of Detroit Jews came, and this was the last stop of their Eastern European tour operated by an Israeli agency. Someone clearly didn’t plan well, because their experience at Beit Warszawa was entirely contrary to the rest of the tour's message. The congregation includes Poles who are not Jewish but who like Jewish worship, people who consider themselves partly Jewish and want to engage with Judaism, and people on the path to conversion. It was a service much like a Reform Friday night service in America: a succession of in-unison singing of the Hebrew prayers (alongside a Polish transliteration), a short inspirational feel-good sermon, and times to greet and introduce and wish “Shabbat shalom” to each other. Then we had kiddush and shared a buffet dinner, and some of the braver congregants sat and talked with the Americans. I watched and participated and then heard directly from one tourist who confided in me her confusion, since the she had been seeing only death camps and hearing only that the Poles exterminated Jews and have always hated them and still do, and Israel is the only place where Jews are protected. Until that evening in Beit Warszawa, she had never actually talked to a Polish person.
Of course, reality is more complicated than a simple narrative of all good or all bad. As my companion that evening, Rachel Feldhay Brenner (a prof from U Wisconsin Madison, in Poland for the conference and to do archival research on Polish writers during the inter-war and WWII era) put it, there is no doubt that antisemitism in Poland, as in all Europe, was growing stronger between the two World Wars, and many Poles hated Jews and would have liked them to disappear (much like many Israeli Jews would like Palestinians to conveniently move elsewhere). But they did not imagine or plan the cruel and vast murder that would shortly ensue, or the death factories and mass graves that the Nazis placed in Poland (so as not to sully Deutschland). Rachel, who is fluent in Polish and loves to chat in Polish with anyone anywhere and whose research now deals quite a bit with antisemitism in Polish culture, says that she has learned to differentiate between people who hated Jews and people who did not regard them as human. And of course, 2011 is not the same as 1940, and an accurate picture of life is one that is nuanced and complex.
In between all these heavy conversations, real life occurs. We go up to the buffet table for dessert, I plan to meet a new friend later in the week in Plock, we laugh and look at photos of people’s children and boyfriends, fuss over the delayed taxi, and end the day in sleep.