Saturday night, June 4, 2011 * the 47th day of the Omer
“Have fun in Poland,” an acquaintance back home wrote me, “if you can.” A few months ago, that’s exactly what I would have said to someone visiting here. By this time in my trip, I have figured out how to respond to such statements.
Perhaps you have noticed that during my trip to Krakow, I did not go to Auschwitz. It’s not for lack of opportunity: I did not join Rebecca on the 3-hour tour that was included on the Foreign Ministry’s schedule of activities, and now that I’m on my own I could opt for the trips that are advertised everywhere in Krakow. Auschwitz is one of a number of very popular tourist destinations, as the photo of everywhere one looks in Krakow there are advertisements for day trips to the big tourist attractions outside of the city: Auschwitz, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Schindler’s Factory, the Ghetto. This masked man holding one of these tour signs intrigued me. Perhaps he was embarrassed by his sign? Although he tried, he did not manage to escape my camera.
I did make a point of visiting the The Eagle Pharmacy Museum. This is a Krakow city museum that focuses on the fate of the Jews of Krakow through the perspective of the Polish pharmacist and his assistants. Inexplicably, the Nazis allowed them to continue their work in the pharmacy building just inside the ghetto and next to the huge square and railway platform area that served as the point of deportations and executions. The pharmacist, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and his assistants Irena Drozdzikowska, Helena Krywaniuk, and Auerlia Danek (photo from 1942) managed to survive the war and continued to work in their field. He actually wrote a tell-all book during the war that is still available in many languages, but even without that, his role in saving lives and helping others was known and appreciated by survivors and acknowledged repeatedly by the state of Israel and Yad Vashem. The Poles are very proud of him, and the one museum attendant on duty seemed to regard the place as a shrine, as did I.
The owner of the Jordan Bookstore in Kazimierz told me that the first rendition of the Apteka Museum actually retained the original pharmacy’s appearance. You could see shelves that allowed the ghettoized Jews to illegally gather inside and talk to the pharmacy workers and then to slip out the back door into the ghetto, one at a time so as not to arouse suspicion. That earlier version of the museum was transformed due to the financial largesse of film director Roman Polanski. He gave a large donation as an expression of gratitude, even though he never lived in the ghetto. He had been a little boy with parents of means who managed to escape and avoid being locked-up (wait – what year are we talking about?). The current museum now has more photos, documents, and film clips and gives a broader view of pre-war Jewish life in Krakow, the immediate effect of the Nazi conquest, the ghettoization of the Jews, and the deportation and executions. The museum is still the size of a small pharmacy, and most tourists waltzed in and out of there pretty quickly. I am a fan of Righteous Gentiles and had no pressing need to catch the last tram to Auschwitz, so I stayed there for almost two hours, taking baby steps from exhibit to exhibit and listening intently to the English language audio tour. There were three videos to watch, from 5 - 20 minutes each, consisting of copies of actual films taken by amateurs before the war and during the ghettoization. One film was terribly sad and amusing at the same time, showing the religious Jews of Kazimierz shlepping on their backs and on human- and horse-drawn carriages their furniture and worldly goods, through the street and into the ghetto.
The pharmacy was so crucial because even though the ghettoized Jews could not use it to escape to freedom, the pharmacy staff were Poles who could go home every night, and they ferried messages and materials in and out. They supplied the Jews with crucial drugs for free. Dark hair dye was an important item to help make people look younger and be spared deportation or be assigned to the Plaszow labor camp. Tranquilizers, for adults as well as for jumpy children, were also essential, and the pharmacy staff supplied bandages and dressings when people were beaten. Everybody knew that deportation from the square onto the trains meant death, and every deportation action was messy and bloody, since at the same time the Nazis also shot people en masse in and around the square.
In one of the museum rooms there is also a separate exhibit about a well-known Krakow Jewish architect named Zygmunt Grunberg. He was arrested and assigned by the Nazi officer in charge of the city with the task of designing the ghetto and its security system. He was threatened throughout the months-long process about the possible torture and death of his family, who were being held as guarantee for his good work, and he was tortured as well. The Poles regard him as a national hero because he took responsibility for the slip-ups of the people who worked under him, sparing them and receiving their punishments. In the end he was murdered and just his daughter survived. Although I recognized that Polish theme “he died for their sins,” I too think he was a hero, and I was pleased to see a Polish museum actually give a portrait of a specific Jew, his family and professional life, and his unique experience under the Nazis. At the Schindler Factory Museum, which I visited with Rebecca and Anna, the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are a nameless mass. References are made to the differences between Jews with regard to religiosity, class, and occupations, but they are not depicted as fully rounded and distinctive individuals.
Perhaps that is why I was drawn to the Jewish cemeteries in the towns I visited. I liked to linger in the cemeteries and read the tombstones, especially those of the women, so I could get a sense of their lives.
My last full day in Poland, this morning, was Shabbat, and I attended the prayers at the Remuh synagogue. I described this synagogue earlier, the one built at the start of the 1500s by the father of Moses Isserles, author of the Ashkenazic commentary on the Sefardic Shulkhan Arukh law code. On Shabbat, the Chabad congregation that usually hangs out at the Izaak synagogue joins the service at Remuh. The men’s section seemed full, but the women’s section was spacious and had room to walk around. There were wooden pews and tables to lean on, and plenty of Hebrew prayer books and Torah texts with various translations and transliterations. The four children of the young, pregnant Chabad rebbetzin ran around and shouted unnecessarily, as little Israeli kids are prone to do. I befriended an 11th grade young woman visiting with her Orange County Jewish day school (Tarbut ve-Torah) classmates and we played Jewish geography until we found two common acquaintances. So far, her group’s itinerary has included Majdanek, Auschwitz, and a mass grave of children in a forest. I asked her if she had met any Poles, and she responded, “Our driver?”
Connie spoke to her about these places of death and also about what it is like living in Poland. “When I pray here,” Connie told her, “I am always aware that the previous congregants of this synagogue were murdered.” Wow, that had not occurred to me. I wasn’t sure that such thoughts are conducive to spiritual devotion. I preferred to sit there and realize that I was sitting in a 500 year old synagogue. Moses Isserles’ mom, wife, daughters and thousands of other women had been praying in the same room.
In between prayers and contemplation, Connie and I talked, just like women have always done who sat in the back of the synagogue away from God’s direct gaze. We came up with strategies continuing my engagement with contemporary Poland, and I sent a prayer upward and inward for my return next year to this place.