Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Visit to Lublin, Poland

The flight attendant is speaking Polish to me.  I haven’t a clue what she is asking/telling me, but I smile.  I am on a flight to Warsaw, on route to an interfaith dialogue about Social Responsibility in our traditions.  I've never flown on a Polish airline.  It's small, 6 rows across.  Looking at the bored-looking flight attendants I wonder whether they like Jews or not.  I'm excited to see a new place, but nervous going to a place where my family on my mother's side came from but where she fled due to pogroms in the 1920s and later on the tragedy of WWII which wiped out my uncles and probably cousins.

I decided to go to Poland with an open mind and to experience the people and the place anew, and to try not to look back.

Flying unfamiliar airlines is stressful for me – but the stress was gone after 3 friends of mine joined me at the gate.  They had gone through an ordeal at security (1 Jewish, 1 Muslim, 1 Armenian), with the Jewish friend being interrogated about how she knew these "other" women.  When my friend said that they visit each other in their homes, the young security person insisted "it wasn't allowed", which horrified my friend.  Since when is visiting Muslim and Armenians in East Jerusalem "not allowed".  Why do they even let ignoramuses into these sensitive positions at the airport?  Why aren't they educated in a bit of tact and common sense and ….well, knowledge?

We landed in Warsaw after a smooth 3 1/2 hour flight.  I tried to get in touch with family on Facebook telling them I arrived, but there was no free internet at the airport and some instructions were only in Polish.  Oh well.  My family will have to feel a bit anxious until I get to the hotel in Lublin.  At the airport, we met the Palestinian contingent who had to make their way to Poland via Amman, Jordan instead of from Ben Gurion airport.  We took a mini-bus to Lublin, passing by pristine fields and homes; looking at the forests I wondered how many Polish partisans and Jews hid out there during WWII.  I kept on looking on the side roads for what could have been a shtetl (a small Jewish village pre-WWII).  I saw a couple of what could have been – but the mini-bus went by too fast for me to photograph.  We got to our hotel, which looked like a grand hotel.  Funny that it considers itself a 4 star hotel, because in Israel, this would be on par with landmark hotels like the American Colony or King David.  It was that beautiful, with high ceilings, marble floors, ceiling engravings, chandeliers, all very tastefully decorated.  The furniture in our room smelled of fresh polish.  Everything shined.  I felt like a queen for a weekend.  Even the bathwater felt like special moisturized water, where my skin felt like silk afterwards.

We had a few hours to wander around town before our conference began and I suggested looking for something to eat in what looked like the older part of town.    We see Palestinians eating at a kebab restaurant.  "You come all the way to Poland to eat kebab?" I asked them.  Some people don't like change. We opted for local fare - pierogies – finding a place which served vegetarian options.  Meanwhile, there are gypsy children wandering around – making a beeline for us.  We obviously don't look like natives.  There was one young girl playing very good accordion while her adorable little brother begged for cash.  Then right before me a young man strips quickly  - gets totally naked – and runs down the street, leaving everyone on the street in fits of laughter.  "I can't believe he streaked" I said to the waitress, who had absolutely no idea what I'm telling her.

The road to the old city and inside the old city is full of restaurants and pubs, but it seems like quiet night life.  I was surprised not to see any souvenir shops.  I guess they don't see that many tourists.  Walking together with a few Jewish men in our group who wore kippas on their head, I had this strong urge to just yell out "WE'RE BACK!!!!!" 

Friday night's kabbalat Shabbat was interesting for the non-Jewish participants - which included participants from the UK, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Spain, Denmark, Bulgaria, Italy, and of course, Poland.  We warned everyone that some parts of the Jewish service will be musical with singing and some parts will be boring when we're just reading the text to ourselves (or, rather, to God).  After the service, the Jordanian contingent wanted to know all at once a million things about Judaism – the challah, the Talmud, the source of the prayers, and I had to give them a quick Judaism 101 class in about 5 minutes.  Upstairs at our dining room we began to sing Shalom Aleichem.  I don't know whether the hotel staff was pissed off at our singing or pissed off at Jews singing, but when we were about to make Kiddush, we noticed the volume of the music in the lobby was much louder and we had to compete to make the Kiddush heard.

After dinner, we had a cultural evening at the Theater of No Name – the gateway that stood between the old Christian quarter and the destroyed Jewish quarter.   We Israelis got together with the Palestinians to do three traditional dances together.  Afterwards one of the Jesuit priests invited us to go with him to an old renovated tavern.  We were around 25 people and most of us ordered the home-brewed beer.  "Who's paying" I asked, "the Catholic church?"   The priests laughed.  Who would have ever thought I'd be drinking home-brew with Polish priests.  These are things that would never have happened pre-WWII between Jews and Catholics.  We didn't mingle much, if at all.   Then a lovely Moroccan woman told me that Morocco misses its Jews.  Really?  I laughed to myself, thinking of the very boisterous, dysfunctional, large Moroccan family that has taken over the first floor of our building – do they really want them back?  Not to mention my first neighbor who made my life hell when I first moved to Israel. 

Saturday we took a walking tour to see the well preserved and renovated Yeshiva of Lublin.  Built in the 1920s, it was a hub of Jewish yeshiva life until WWII.  I felt a pit in my stomach as I saw the empty library, which at one time was filled with thousands of ancient books, and an empty renovated synagogue in use once a month when visited by the more visible Jews of Warsaw.  There were photos of what was.  I took photos of the photos, careful not to take photos of the Rebbes because I felt they wouldn't want me to take photos of them on the Sabbath.  Where there was once a vibrant Jewish life, all that is left is photos and caretakers who collect 6 zlotys to enter.  "Didn't we give them enough" asked a fellow Jew who didn't want to pay them the money.  I understood her point.  But in order to preserve the site, they do need the money and I gladly paid. I walked out of the yeshiva looking back at the ghost yeshiva, totally empty now, even of visitors and I felt a deep sadness.

But then people like Vitek Dombrovski who runs Theater of No Name in memory of the lost Jews of Lublin touched me deeply.  Vitek isn't Jewish.  But he entertained us last night singing Yiddish songs.  I can't even sing in Yiddish.  20 years ago he felt it was his mission to restore whatever memories are left of the Jews of Lublin, 1/3 of the population of the city before WWII.  I sat near him today, my eyes brimming with tears.  

"Why are you doing this?"

"Why do you do what you do so passionately.  What are we to you?  Jews no longer exist here.  Isn't it a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'.  Most people don't really care that there aren't any more Jews here.  Why do you?"

He told me he was doing it out of a sense of responsibility. He felt the emptiness and he felt the lack of the city's once-vibrant Jewish community.

Saturday night, he gave us a tour of the museum, the museum looking very New York lofty, very artsy, on the walls there were boxed which contained various photographs of the destroyed Jewish quarter and testimonies from non-Jews who saved Jews, as well as information on every destroyed building in the Jewish quarter.  On a more amusing note, a Muslim woman wondered whether the woman in the old pre-WWII photo was Muslim because of her head covering.  No, that's how married Jews covered their hair back then with scarves tied in front.

At dinner, sitting with people that had something to do with this museum, I hear a lot of talk about Isaac Bashevis Singer.  He seems to be the Mark Twain of Poland.  His works have been translated into Polish and Vitek was going to be guiding a 10 day tour this summer based on the tales of Singer, visiting shtetls and the like.  This is something I would want to do with Hubby or one of my kids.

Sunday we took a bus to Majdanek camp. Seeing this camp was very surreal. One of my cousins was murdered here.  After going through the gates and about to enter the building which housed the gas chambers I burst out crying and saw my Armenian friend in front of me.  I grabbed her arm for support.  I figured, if anyone, she could understand my grief, being that her ancestors were exterminated by the Turks in the early 1900s. I walked past the horrors and wondered if I had seen or if there were ghosts in that building or in the surroundings.  We walked towards the crematoria and I wondered how human beings could act that way towards others, and I vowed never to hate or blame an entire race of people, even if one or two really tick me off.  We stood by the mound of human ash over which there was a memorial built.  I was still numb from what I had seen.   One of the Polish Buddhists printed out sheets of names of victims and gave us a few sheets each.  We stood over the mound reading the names out loud, and imagining their souls with us.  Then the rabbi recited the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Polish priest recited the Catholic prayer and a Muslim from the West Bank said the Muslim prayer for the dead.   At the end I suddenly felt a big sense of relief and peace, as if our prayers had reached the heavens and that the dead appreciated our interfaith presence…..