Category Archives: Eastern Europe travel

From Moscow about Love: identity Talk in the Park

What part of your life would you change for love?

Why would you  change your beliefs and identity?

How do you know if what you changed for is ‘real’?

 I meet M. in NYC’s Bryant Park where as ‘The Coach is IN:  A Talk in the Park:  people present situations and needs.  I  ‘coach’ success strategies to help them resolve conflict, improve communication, and  focus careers.
I think of it as my new conversational journey:  http://communicationessentials.wordpress.com.    
M. and her friend L. huddled over their MAC’s debating ‘to be or not to be coached’at the table next to me.  Insinuating myself into their conversation,  I had myself two new ‘clients’.  (like Peanuts’ Lucy, I charge a nickel so “clients” must be in “air quotes”) http://communicationessentials.wordpress.com
M. and L’s  friendship begun on a bus to Boston  has lasted through time and distance – a fact that speaks volumes about them both.  Interestingly, both had relationship questions but at different ends of the ‘love’ spectrum. http://communicationessentials.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/friends-after-…ch-is-in-vol-5/

M’s in a relationship and she’s scared.  Fear is causing a conflict:  internally.   

This fear has evolved in the last year – it wouldn’t have been relevant before.  A Moscow Jew,  she has been learning and becoming involved with Judaism (it sounded like through Chabad).

http://www.chabad.org/centers/default_cdo/aid/118309/jewish/Bronnaya-Synagogue-Agudas-Chasidei-Chabad.htm

One of Moscow’s synagogues: Choral Synagogue

Friday nights find her in Shabbat Services these days.  Her beliefs, life style and identity have changed.  She now works for a Jewish organization, taking young people to Israel on Birthright/Taglit trips.  www.birthrightisrael.com

The Friday we spoke would be the first Shabbat not spent in a synagogue in a year.  She wondered how she would feel, already missing the sanctuary services offered.

M’s complications:  love and religion.  She’s dating a young man from her synagogue, a man she was friends with for months.  They like each other – a lot.

Her fear is NOT about whether the relationship will last. (she knows it’s a real possibility).

Remember her conflict is internal.  It’s about her changing at her pace. Her boyfriend is more observant, observing dietary laws (kosher) and the Sabbath (Shabbat).  For them to be together she would have to be equally observant.  Now she  attends Shabbat services,  but is she ready for more?  What does she want?  She’s not sure.

Her fear:  being told what or how to do things.  She doesn’t want to change for the wrong (read:  not her) reasons.  This tug-of-war wraps pulls at her mind  and emotions:  she loves shrimp but might  be willing to be Kosher.  He can keep Shabbat, but she may still want to see a Saturday movie with her friends.

Optimistically she questions: Perhaps he’ll change and meet her half way?  She knows the answer.

As her afternoon coach, I can only offer strategies to understand and then

Me with my coaching sign in Bryant Park!

communicate her needs.  Providing a framework to sort through her thoughts and feelings, I leave her to do the hard work.

While M’s story is not unique, I’ve heard  50 shades of it since my conversational journey last fall,  amazement at this movement’s magnitude continues.  

Throughout Eastern Europe, Jews are exploring  long hidden, forgotten, ignored Judaism.   Throughout Russia young people are exploring (all) religion, dealing with the ‘usual’ debate over who is ‘legally’ Jewish.   A generation after the fall of communism  people have the freedom to ‘wake up’ and stretch their beliefs.  Religion, and faith can be explored and expressed.

I’m reminded again how easy it is to take my Judaism, my freedom to believe, for granted.   My fear:  how easy it is to store aspects of my identity until they’re needed or wanted.

M. is strong and determined.  She’ll maintain, grow and develop her identity, discovering  who she is and who she is meant to be.  I hope I can do the same.

One bit of (ironic) news about Eastern European Jewry heard while docenting at  Museum at Eldridge Street:   A., an Israeli-German woman living in Hamburg, shared  all (almost) synagogues in Germany are Orthodox!  Before WWII, Reform Judaism began there.  

New Jewish congregants are moving into Germany from ‘the East’.  The only reform synagogue is the Orienenburger Synagogue, http://www.jg-

The Orienenburger or Neue Synagogue in Berlin is home to a beautiful and welcoming egalitarian service (just be sure to get on a list to get in!). The beautiful facade is all that is left of the synagogue which was destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938. Germany has a GROWING Jewish population, only recently publishing a Jewish newspaper for the first time since WWII!

berlin.org/en/judaism/synagogues/oranienburger-strasse.html   is egalitarian. The  Cantor and Rabbi are women, lead beautiful and welcoming services.    I attended several services here when visiting Berlin,  services which felt like ‘home’.

Advertisements
Gallery

Pictures of Zagreb’s Jewish community

This gallery contains 28 photos.

‘We’re still here’ was a frequent refrain during my October conversational journey with Eastern European Jews.   Conversations unsurfaced pride, wonder, and questions.  Questions continue to blossom as I sift through notes and pictures in the comfort of local coffeehouses.    Zagreb, a last minute substitution  as my time … Continue reading

Safe Havens: Partisan Forests

The safety of forests! Over 20,000 Jewish and 30,000 Russian partisans found forests to offer refuge and lauch resistance during WWII

Traveling from Berlin to Warsaw and beyond, passing acre after acre of Birch tree forests, my imagination morphed  forests into  havens  for hiding partisans.  These 

Furst is a great historical spy novelist providing insight and intrigue into WWII. Try 'The Polish Officer'

visual images leapt from the page (Alan Furst) and the screen (Defiance) through my eyes to outside my train window.  

Eastern European forests offered a safe haven for Jews, Russians, Gypsies, political dissidents and others both fleeing and fighting the Nazi’s.  These forest bound partisan resistance fighters conducted guerilla warfare, sabotage, and, military intelligence.    Imagining the forest as homey and hospitable in the middle of winter is a stretch, yet forests concealed family camps living in dugouts complete with craftsmen and schools.

Belorussia, location of Bielski camp. While most partisans were in Eastern European, others were in France and Belgium

The most famous,  the Bielski brothers camp in Belorussia numbered about 1,200 in 1944 and is the basis for the movie Defiance.

From the movie Defiance: Bielski brothers fleeing into the woods after their parents were killed

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defiance_(2008_film)

Of course it’s more complicated.  Jews sometimes joined larger (more powerful?) Russian partisan groups who were often anti-Semitic.

Russians air-dropped supplies to sympathetic partisans at the end of WWII.  Russian partisans turned  Anti-Soviet and resisted Soviet control from 1944 – 1953.

Faye Schulman, photographer and partisan chronicled her life in the woods in ‘Pictures of Resistance’.  The link: http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/37486/rare-photos-show-hidden-life-of-partisans-who-fought-nazis/

Theo, my Berlin Free Walking Tour guide (http://www.brewersberlintours.com) explained

German organization includes  numbering their trees:  4,100.   We count what’s important.  Money and barrels of oil are counted like partisans must have counted food.

In 2012, danger lurks outside ALL windows.

Birch forest view outside my train window

 Carbon dioxide levels have declared war with our climate – and therefore us. (Or is it the other way around?)  It’s a matter of time before we must all seek oxygen rich hiding places.  A matter of time before we all become partisans.  As modern-day partisans, it behooves us to know  the number of trees on the planet, and how many we need to be safe.

29.6%  of Earth is tree covered.  Once, it was almost 100%.  Between 1990 – 2000, 2% of trees were lost. http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/14/earth-glance/

Mr. Smarty Pants:  96 trees/person to offset our carbon balance http://www.wildflower.org/expert/show.php?id=1634

Each acre of forest provides enough oxygen for 18 people.  As you can imagine, it’s difficult to count the number of trees or even acres of tress on the planet. 

But I’m sure you  also know people far outnumber trees on the planet.  We  can still breathe a sigh of relief, confident we will be suitably oxygenated. But can we hide from the facts?

Environmentalists may seem to be crying ‘wolf’ about global warming.  But most European Jews didn’t believe the  warnings about the Nazi’s either. 

How much longer will forests provide safety?  A haven to hide?  Without  trees, where will our species go for safety?

Resources.  Wars and genocides begin over a scarcity of resources.  (Blood) diamonds, oil, and land have been washed with green(backs) and red. 

2% of forests have been lost in the last 10 years and will never be recovered. What if these trees were your source for oxygen? Would you allow these trees to be clearcut? Burned down for burgers (grazing)?

Wants feed needs feed power and lead to starvation.  Trees are harvested, burned to make way for more lucrative ventures like grazing land.  Land that will lead to starvation.  Of oxygen.  Because what resources REALLY are needed for life?  Water.  Oxygen. 

Without trees where will we hide?  Where will we go to be safe?

Is the human race out to destroy itself?                                                          (BBC quote from Auschwitz  2009)story.   

Organizations providing safety through tree planting:

http://www.arborday.org

http://www.jnf.org/trees

http://www.plant-trees.org

http://wwwspiritoftree.org/trees/trees.html

 
 

                                                          

European perspectives from the Eldridge Street Synagogue

‘I’ve never been in a mosque!’ may not be what you would expect to hear inside a synagogue, even the synagogue-turned-Museum at Eldridge

Synagogue (now also a Museum) at Eldridge Street

Street (www.eldridgestreet.org) in NYC’s Lower East Side.  But last Sunday, my tour (as docent)  was transformed into magical conversation as early 20th century Jewish immigration history blended with 21st century European.

My four Swiss  and Swedish, non-Jewish, guests battled the weather on this blustery cold Sunday for a trip far from the maddening crowds of midtown.  Why?  Why visit this synagogue/museum, and invite discussion ?  Granted, it’s a beautiful, inspiring source of immigrant (Jewish) history, and  (optimistically) a certain destination for traveling American Jews.  Interestingly, I often guide  non-Jewish Europeans interested in  historic and  Jewish sites.

Touring a synagogue, they said, was a welcome treat.  Zürich and Stockholm (as in much of Europe) synagogues are barricaded.   Jewish history, and especially the Holocaust are

Orthodox Zurich SynagogueSynagogan Stockholm

topics of regular dicussion – in the news and studied at school; visiting a synagogue and talking with Jews,  seems  a natural part of this education.

We found ourselves, having that rare conversation: open and honest, intimate, yet anonymous (names seemed unnecessary) between Jew and non, American and Europeans.  A seeming gift as my quickie 20-minute overview expanded into an hour-long discussion of religious and global  sociopolitical issues.

What did they want to share?   Discussing religious – and immigrant issues in Europe today is complicated:  both countries claim large and growing Muslim populations – typically, they said, not discussed.

Yet my ‘guests’ wanted to talk about this issue and more.  They want to visit synagogues, mosques.  Our conversation reminded me how present Jewish history is where Jews are largely absent.

The three Swiss visitors told of  millions of unclaimed (Jewish) dollars quietly ‘absorbed’ by banks, until loudly – and scandalously –

Sign from a kosher restaurant in Zurich

‘found’.

Zürich, with Switzerland’s largest Jewish population ( 18,000, Wikipedia) , has a sizeable, easily identifiable Orthodox population.  With twelve synagogues ( Google) there are Kosher supermarkets while others have  aisles of kosher food.  A fan of (kosher) red horseradish sat in front of me.

Our Swedish conversant had taught in a school with a Jewish ‘half’. Stockholm’s Jews, ‘blend in’.  Few are identifiably Orthodox.  With no ethnic registration in Sweden, the halakh-icly (Jewish mother) Jewish population is estimated (Wikipedia) around 20,000.  Neutral during WWII, a further search found  anti-Semitism a growing problem in Malmo, Sweden’s 3rd largest city (an interesting, yet scary read)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Sweden).

Jewish humor! Cartoon found on the website of Stockholm’s synagogue Adat Jeshuran

I asked if there was a public Menorah at Chanukah/Hanukkah like  in Zagreb (with 1,500 Jews) .  Laughing, they questioned the Ch vs H pronunciation – the guttural Ch rumbled easily from their European throats.  No, there is no visible celebration. The Swiss woman  saw her first  ‘Festival of Lights’ notice here in NYC, ten years ago.

In my post ‘Holiday Lights in Zagreb’ notice the picture of ONE small corner of ONE decorated window acknowledging Chanukah, and, the identity challenge for Jewish and Muslim kids who don’t celebrate Christmas.  The Swedish woman shared  (some) Muslim’s had Christmas trees for their kids – a gesture of belonging.  (Check out the post ‘A promised Krakow story’ about Slawek’s experience.)

Up in the women’s section, the two men and two women naturally sat on either side of the aisle .  Naturally, as one man said, the men and women sat separately (like Orthodox Jews)  in his small town Swiss Church.

Religious similarity?   Do excuses for war cause humans to search for differences?

There was competition for which country was changing more due to immigration:  Sweden:  1 in 8 is an immigrant.  Switzerland:  1 in 7.  As diversity increases, does tolerance?

How do we broaden our tolerance, make it part of Homo sapien DNA?  Can teaching respect drive hate crimes to extinction?

Classroom learning is a good start.  But is there any substitute for open, honest, face-to-face conversation like the five of us shared?  Our conversation was another reminder that people want to talk and learn about issues of religion and identity.

My challenge:  searching for ways to safely carve out time and emotional (listening) space for conversation.

Wishing you a week filled with unexpected and open conversation!

Shoes: One giant step for empathy?

Shoes!  When did shoes become the go-to destination for journeys to nirvana?  When did well-appointed heels turn cads into princes and transform us plain girls to ‘sex-y in the city’?   Or has footwear always been as important to fashion as the saying: ‘Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes’  has been to identity and peace?

Does our penchant for buying shoes, amassing Imelda Marcos or Carrie Bradshaw sized collections speak to our need to understand others?   Do new shoes provide  the potential and ability to walk that mile to understanding?

My footwear reflects my soul and mirrors my identity.  My journeys are on

Shoes fit for very long journeys

foot and I’ve learned the hard way that Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahnik’s derail my  joy into train wrecks.

Footwear can define identity, and, is just as complicated.   I recently told a dear friend, ‘we may wear the same size, but we like and wear very different shoes – literally and figuratively’.

It can be hard to understand someone you love.  Someone  whose footwear appears interchangeable with your own.  Different styles, different

One pre-Xmas night, a group of young men were camped in front of a shoe store on 34th Street in Manhattan. They were spending the night to be first in line to buy the ‘newest’ sneakers. What kind? What did they look like? No-one knew – just that they wanted them.

toes add difficulty relating to the owner of the heart-pumping-blood to those other  toes. As a species focusing on souls, rather than soles, and the miles journeyed, can surely help promote listening, peace and, understanding identity.

Swapping metaphoric  ‘shoes’:  Would any genocide occur if perpetrators imagined themselves, or their mothers, or wives, or children as victims?  Would they say ‘NO’ to crimes of hate?

Empathy, the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, to listen for  identity without bias or judgement.   This must be a key to peace as I wrote about in my recent post ‘Peace Requires Listening’.

Daniel Lubetzky,CEO of Kind Bars and PeaceWorks remarked (one of) the key to Palestinian-Israeli peace is for Israeli’s to listen to Palestinian needs.  I think a shoe swap and long survival hike might help.

I’ve often found empathy, along with blisters, after finding myself on a path with someone I’ve judged (health).  ‘Blisters’ force me to slow down, open my eyes, acknowledge the pain.

It’s painful to listen if we are not sure of our identity, or we are not on firm footing ourselves. In Vilna, Lithuania (‘Dinner in Vilna’), Lilly said she was unhappy before she focused her identity and connected with Judaism.  Some say shoe shopping, especially during a sale, is a religious experience. There are other ways to worship.

Empathy.  Walking that metaphoric mile.  Several years ago, I discovered

Imagine these pills shaped like SHOES: Empathy pills!

the cure.  A pill.    A shoe-shaped empathy pill.   Mid-judgement, mid-hate action, a quick pill pop would change everything with, ‘Here, walk a mile in my shoes.  Have an empathy pill.’

As soon as a pharmaceutical company gets back to me, I’ll take your orders.

In the meantime, how has a pair of shoes helped you understand others, or, shaped or defined your identity?

What leg of your journey has developed your empathy?

Please, share your thoughts and also let me know how you came to read this post!

A (Promised) Krakow Story and PICTURES!

A young man in a yarmulke swept through my field of vision and competed with Anna G.’s story for my attention.  Don’t get me wrong, she was charming, passionate and brilliantly informative.  But a yarmulke?  Outside of a synagogue?  Here in Krakow?  And although we were in the Jewish Cultural Center (JCC built by Prince Charles, mentioned in ‘Krakow’s past blends into the present’ with the promise to write about Stawek), I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this proclamation of Jewishness.    Anna seemed amused by my interest letting me know that about 15 men and one teen wear yarmulkes without anti-Semitism or curiosity.  Nevertheless, I wanted to hear about this young man’s journey and how he came to be hanging out in the JCC on this Thursday afternoon.

Stawek P. gave a friendly but hesitant smile,  letting me know his English

Stawek P

wasn’t very good. Sitting in a large meeting room decorated with a local artist’s paintings  to the right of the reception area wasn’t very private or cozy.  But as he settled into his story words flowed and we spoke for the next 90 minutes.

(Stawek corrected some of the facts in this post for me.  He reported that there was a big chanukja on Szeroka Street and the JCC.  Yes, the spelling for chanukja is correct, though I have misspelled his name – the second letter is closer to an ‘l’, though a letter that we do not have in the English alphabet!  If you ever wondered why my spelling seemed ‘off’, it is because I often used spellings of my ‘host’ country.)

Stawek was born in Plesse (Pszczyna), a town with a large Jewish population before the war, reduced to 200 after, and now numbering 15 – his family.  Following this family’s religious affiliation through the last few generations  is a unique yet familiar story: Hasidic grandparents; secular, not Jewish parents, and now Stawek, a 20 year old Jewish studies student who wears a yarmulke.  Proudly he shared he is 100% Jewish and 100% Polish.   Poland was the land of the Jews, the capital of Jewish culture and the history of both people is tightly interconnected.

Going to synagogue wasn’t important growing up.  Yet all his classmates went to church – not him.  He didn’t celebrate the same holidays.  When his teacher asked about Christmas he had a tree and presents but no tradition.  (Something we can all think about this time of year!) When asked, Stawek is happy to be Jewish, a response I’ve heard elsewhere.  There are 100 (or 200, depending on definition) Jews in Krakow, and he questions whether there will be Jews here in a generation.  A response to ponder considering four congregations reach out to meet the needs of this small community.

Stawek ‘became’ Jewish since moving to Krakow for school although he grew up hearing his grandparents speak Yiddish, which he believes to be a dying language.   It was Malgosia ( Perla), his paternal grandmother with whom he was close who told him about Jewish traditions.  Malgosia died in 2003 and her miraculous story of survival is melded into his own.

Stawek’s great-grandfather Josef Anszel Lednicer in 1930’s , moved with his future wife from Krakow to (Pszcznya) Pless for economic reasons (NOT because he ‘saw’ danger as I previously wrote).     In 1941 Malgosia was born while the family was in hiding.  During the war, Polish friends of his great-grandparents gave them shelter in their house from 1940 to July 1941 .  Shortly after, a Polish neighbor ‘outed’ Malgosia’s parents as Jews.  In July 1941, the family separated as Malgosia’s parents went to the Sosnowiec Ghetto while she stayed with the host family.  Two older children (Nesia and Alter) were placed with other families.

From the Sosnowiec Ghetto, Malgosia’s parents were sent to Auschwitz.  Her Mother was sent to Ravensbrick,  the Father to Bergen-Belson, where he survived the death march.  Both were liberted by American troops.   Both decided to return to Plesse at the same time where they were reunited – meeting randomly in the street!   Collecting their three children from their ‘adopting’ families, Malgosia’s – and Stawek’s –  family was the only full Jewish family in Plesse to survive the war.

A miracle.  Another miraculous story of  body and faith survival.    These are the types of stories I could hear every day and which I was ‘gifted’ many times on my journey.  These survival stories shared by children and grandchildren in synagogues felt even more miraculous.   Like everything, survival is complicated, and in retrospect I wonder how the storyteller is effected and guided by their family’s miracle?   As hidden and ‘forgotten’ Jews follow their hearts and curiosity into a synagogue or JCC, how do these personal and collective stories shape this next generations personal and religious identity?   I don’t have the answer to these questions – yet.  All I know is that stories continue to be told and shared,  a sign of hope and wonder.  And wonder raises questions that beg to be answered.

Some pictures:

This Krakow courtyard is likely to be one of the most memorable images from Holocaust movie history. This courtyard is from the opening scene of 'Schindler's List' and perhaps the reason we know of Krakow.

Marker found on the Schindler Factory which is now a museum about the occupation and worth a trip to Krakow to see

Yes, Krakow has a fairy tale castle and this is the sight that greeted me as I entered the old city on the way to the hostel

Blug, Wadia, and Michael, three amazing students from the Netherlands staying at my hostel. These young guys were full of personality and insight and were great fun to chat with

These chairs are the memorial to the Krakow Ghetto found on the outskirt of Kazimeriz the Jewish Quarter. The chairs represent the furniture the Jews brought that didn't fit into their small apartments as they were ordered into the ghetto. The chairs seem scattered throughout the square and face in different directions pointing towards possible destinations including Auschwitz and Palestine.

Krakow's ghetto wall was shaped like a tombstone (notice the curved top). The man who built the wall knew the fate that was in store for the ghetto residents

The Remah Synagogue is the oldest active (Orthodox) synagogue in Krakow from the 1500's. Orthodox Yeshivah boys come to pray here and at the Rabbi Yom Tov's grave.

The renowned Rabbi Yom Tov's Tombstone in the Remuh Cemetery. Notice the small scrolls on the stone - it's said if you write a wish and place it here it will be 'express-ed' to G-d since this Rabbi was so holy. His tomb is next to Yossele the Miser, the richest man in Krakow who was known to be miserly until his death when all the poor who had received anonymous allowances no longer did. In fact it was Yossele who had annonymously cared for them. And yes, I wrote a wish!

A view of the barracks inside the camp

Suitcases from Auschwitz. I didn't really want to take any pictures at the camp. Some pictures/images are famous: hair, piles of shoes, but it was these suitcases that hit me as reminders of the hope and optimism packed as Jews and others arrived.

These tracks show where the trains stopped in the camp as prisoners were unloaded and separated into groups - to work or to the chambers

The place for trendy nightlife is the former Jewish Quarter: Kazimeriz (Like New York City's former Jewish area, the Lower East Side, and Budapest's former Jewish QuarterThis main square was filled with restaurants, pretzel vendors, and as many locals as tourists

Krakow was untouched during the war. This traditional synagogue is one of seven in the city

I liked the message: all diferent all equal

Sign for July festival that brings thousands (of NY and Israeli Jews) to listen to music

Auschwitz Thoughts: From unimaginable to awe

There are a few ‘must do’s in Krakow:  Auschwitz -Birkenau, Schindler’s Factory, and the Salt Mines, each reminders of the city’s past.  They also show the range of power mankind is capable of.  Although I’m in Budapest now, I had to share a few wide ranging and encompassing thoughts.

UNESCO Heritage site

Salt mine in Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful medieval city, complete with a castle, moat and never-ending winding streets.  Go back even further in time (about 700 years), 15 minutes away, and, about 500 steps beneath the surface to see what man took from the earth and the beauty he left in thanks.   The Salt Mines.  It amazes me people found salt all while uncovering its value.  Not to mention digging deep into the earth to satisfy man’s insatiable hunger for it.  This mine is unique:  as miners dug deeper and deeper in to the earth, they left their own messages through carvings of appreciation and beauty – maybe equivalent to today’s tagging and graffiti.

We reached this cavernous room  500 steps beneath the surface  by initially winding down 36o dizzying wooden steps.    Salt was so precious it became the root of the word salary.  People were (literally) paid in salt.  Our route to this  cathedral was on floors of salt,  encased in walls of salt and past small cathedrals made of, and carved into the salt.  The religious scenes were carved by miners out of love. Which religion?  You wouldn’t know it by my writing but  Krakow and this region of Galicia is strongly rooted in Catholicism.  My lasting impression of  the beauty and grandeur of this UNESCO heritage site is that this is a great symbol and reminder of the beauty mankind is capable of creating.

But mankind is complicated and easily seduced by greed, fear, loneliness and the need to comply with Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest’ in horrific ways nature seems unable to mimic.  Only 40 miles away from the depth of man’s beauty is another reminder of  mankind’s emotions.  This one focused on the cruel and unimaginable crimes mankind can create and impose on its fellow members.

Gate to hell; Auswitch

Work is freedom though there was no freedom from work here

This gate is the symbol of Auschwitz.   Though like most  things in life, can’t be captured by a picture.  Walk through this gate, through the camp barracks, crematorium, unloading platform at Birkenau and to the underground gas chambers and crematorium.  Steady yourself for the bombarding emotions of horror, sadness, loss, outrage, and, disbelief.

While standing on the unloading and selection platform in Birkenau and on the land where in winter women were forced to run naked in wooden clogs through the mud to take cold showers,  I ask myself again:

What creates enough hatred to disarm any semblance of a moral compass?

It’s a cold drizzly day, and certainly this hallowed ground, this cemetery must only have weather as sad as its story.  I’m cold in my layers of Polartec while thinking about my sore feet.  I  know in an hour I’ll be sitting in a warm bus sipping hot tea.   My cousin Sue says she always carries food in vestigial memory of those who got a cup of dirty water for dinner after working for 12 hours.   Hunger  is a feeling we may have when we haven’t eaten for a few hours.  I’m in tears as I walk around, bloated with emotions caused by the Nazi’s hunger for destruction.  Or rather to stave off their own fear.

What else can I feel other than outrage and horror except disbelief?

We are told over and over that though Jews heard about Auschwitz (and the other camps) they didn’t believe it was possible such places could exist.  Understandable – how could any feeling human being believe humankind capable of such acts?   Sadly,  this is part of mankind’s legacy.  Sadly this demonstrates the cunning, artful planning, and, exacting implementation  wasted on horrific deliberate and hateful genocide.

There’s sadness and heartbreak over the lost beauty and potential of the brilliant (more than) one  and a half million Jews who were killed here.  Imagine how different the world might be if those souls had lived.

Yet another emotion fills me as I walk and listen to our guide:  Awe.  I can’t help but be filled with  Awe, respect and pride.   Really.  I know it sounds strange.  Imagine:  That people with numbers tattooed to their forearms (and this was the only camp with tattoos) endured, survived, and went on to thrive. 

Victor Frankel in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ along with others wrote about this enduring ability of man to survive.  Standing in the cold drizzle through stark barracks and looking at the concrete bunks dusted with straw as a mattress and hearing about how bodily fluids drizzled from the top to the bottom third bunk,   I can only repeat what my mother says:  ‘The greatest miracle of all is that there are still Jews in the world.”

Books, movies, talks have shared many stories.  And as Survivors are nearing the end of their lives, even more stories are fortunately being told.   I think each and every one of us can never read or see enough.  They say Auschwitz is a place everyone should visit.  It is. These days a sign at the entrance proclaim children under 14 should NOT visit.  Clearly this sign was absent from 1941 – 1945.  (Several hundred babies were born here and some 27 are still alive – How is that for a miracle!).

When I was in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, entering the active Orthodox Remuh Synagogue, I saw a group of Yeshiva boys leaving, dragging suitcases behind them.  Surprised, I turned to Klaudia.   Before I opened my mouth to ask about them, she let me know they were probably from New York or Israel.

Entering the crematorium in Auschwitz, the sound of men singing the Mourner’s prayer seemed both appropriate and haunting.  Inside the farthest corner of this space stood these same Yeshiva boochers (I know I misspelled that) fervently swaying and praying.  My guide told me this is the only time she has seen men praying there.

Schindler’s Factory, which most of us know from the movie Schindler’s List, is  a ten minute walk from the Jewish Quarter.  It  is  now a state of the art interactive museum about Krakow’s German occupation.  Pictures of the the lucky Jews selected to live and work in the factory welcome visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.    I look carefully at each one, wondering if I’ll see a face reminding me of others I know.

While there is so much to write about – in fact whole books have been written that I know I can’t do justice to any of it right now .  I will mention there is a lot of controversy about Oscar Schindler’s character and motive in helping Jews.  My feeling:  screw motives!  Forget he was a womanizer, gambler, drinker.  After the war, he moved to Argentina (paid for by the Jewish community) with his wife and two of his lovers.

Bottom line:  He saved Jewish lives  and for that he is to be commended and celebrated.

It may seem Krakow’s Jewish history is seeped in the past.  Not at all true!  The Jewish community here is proud of its four synagogues/groups representing its 100 (or 200) Jews.  If you are thinking that is a lot of groups for a few people I agree.  Perhaps this is the quintessential Jewish option considering the ‘joke’ for the need of at least two synagogues:  ‘One to pray in, the other I’ll never step foot in.”

As I wrote about a few days ago, yes there are lots of options:  everyone needs to participate.   Participation may be attending free Friday night dinners at the Jewish Culture Center (JCC) built by Prince Charles.  Anna Gulinska, the JCC’s program manager told me after dinner people go out for drinks  at Mechanoff, one of the trendy bars in the neighborhood.   Those who are observant and can’t carry money during Shabbat pay their bar tabs on Sunday.  Gotta love it!

Anna is a symbol of Judaism’s resurgence in Poland.  To begin with: she isn’t  Jewish. Her interest in  Jewish studies began in high school in Tarnoff.   Before the war, 40 % of the population was Jewish, now represented and remembered by the overgrown cemeteries, ruined synagogues and street names in Hebrew.   Intrigued (which says a lot about her)  she entered a contest for high school students.   She interviewed a Jewish woman, who was rescued from the ghetto by a Polish guard, who fell in love with her.  Yes, another miraculous story.  This guard rescued both her and her 2 sisters.  He later refused any honor from Yad Vashem – he saved for love .

This woman  is now 92 and living in Krakow.  She is glad Anna is interested in Jewish history since her grandchildren are not.  Anna stresses that the strength of the community is in the living ,in the present.   Not the ghosts of the past.  She hopes  people walk away remembering that Jewish culture has been and is an important part of Polish history for thousands of years.  She stressed this history needs to be preserved.  Personally I think it is wonderful she is there to contribute to celebrating this next chapter.

There is one more conversation I want to share, but not today.  Swavick Postuske, a Krakow’ Jewish Studies student was hanging around the JCC.  He stood out for two reasons – he is young and he was wearing a yarmulke!   Although he kept saying his English was bad, we talked for over an hour.   I want to give justice to his stories which are amazing as you can imagine!

Dinner in Vilna

When I realized I would be in Vilna Friday night I decided to make my way back to Chabad House.   Ironically it turned out to be right around the corner from the hosteI I stayed  in.   Jimmy Jumps (www.JimmyJumps.com) has a reputation for being homey and it was a great place to talk and hang out at the end of the day. One afternoon I was chatting with Pete the  host and soul of the hostel about Jewish life in Vilna.  He told me about an old Lithuanian folk song  children used to sing it in the  putting it in the context of ‘Ring around the rosie’ being about the bubonic plague.  I’m going to write out the song and if this was NPR there would be a warning about having your children hear this.

Imkit vaikai pagalivka ir uemuskit ta zyduka

Translated:  Take a little stick kids and whack that little Jew

Scary how easy it is to indoctrinate little kids isn’t it?  Pete’s girlfriend who is Lithuanian assured me that kids no longer sing this and that  it will take another generation to wipe out this mindset.

Wishful thinking.  Back to Chabad.  After  a  very short service, we sat down to dinner.  There were about 30 of us including about 10 kids who board there.  I  don’t know much about Chabad, but  I will say the Rabbi and his wife at the Vilna house are so welcoming and really make an effort to meet the needs of the community.  The whiskey I talked about in the last post being a small part of it.  They also allow men and women to sit together which is how I came to talk with a newly wed couple from Odessa visiting his parents for Sukkot.  Having spent ten years in England his English was good and his stories were better.  During our conversation I learned this song is far from extinct.

Which also means that discrimination is alive and healthy in this tiny Baltic country.

One thing of course is that any Jew with any intelligence got out in the 90’s when the Soviet’s left and Jews were once again encouraged to leave, as the son was happy to share.  As an aside, the irony is  before the Holocaust many Jews survived by moving deep into the Soviet Union as I”ve heard numerous times.  But his parents remained because the Grandmother was ill and then the father started a business.  The rest is history and not a fairytale, especially in this part of the world.  They shared that Lithuanians hate Jews as evidenced by being called ‘Jew’ in a store that afternoon.  Now how would anyone know they were Jews?  Granted the women had on long skirts and hats, but it was so cold they weren’t the only ones.  The mother answered this question by running her finger down the bridge of her nose.  As the son pointed out, there may not have been Jews here for 60 years but they could still remember what a Jew looked like.

Of course I still want to know why and where this hatred and anti-Semitism comes from.  The son’s view:  the Lithuanians were farmers and planted their crops while the Jews were not allowed to own land so became peddlers and craftsmen.  As peddlers they would sell goods to the farmers for a good price but then they were the ones with the ones with the money.  Economics, the haves and have-nots.  This ties back to something I heard in Poland where the Poles were farmers and taught their sons to farm.  The Jews taught their sons to read and write.  (Hmmm…. notice no mention of the daughters….)   When it comes to haves and have-nots people recognized the power of education.

And then I have to wonder if to distinguish discrimination do you have to first acknowledge that it exists.  Although 200,000 Jews were killed here during the Holocaust there are no major visible signs of its occurence.  There was a sign pointing to the Choral synagogue, the only remaining synagogue

Vilna's Choral Synagogue

and I already told you how hard it was to find the Jewish Museum with its one little sign .  An Israeli woman at the hostel attributed this ‘silence’ to Lithuania’s history of bearing the brunt of its bully neighbors Poland, Germany, and Russia over hundreds of years.  So to them the Holocaust and the death of their Jews was not a big deal.  Seems to me then a wounded

 

nation is a closed nation and that makes it even sadder and harder to move past.

I stopped in a museum about Lithuanian cultural history on  Thursday  because I was desperate for a bathroom.  Yes, I paid admission (about $2) to a museum to use the loo (I know some of you while not surprised are laughing).  So while I was there I decided to walk through since I love  cultural artifacts especially the colorful clothing and textiles.  In the whole museum there was one acknowledgement that Jews (and Muslims) had ever lived here.  A tiny picture of the Gaon, a Rabbi from the 1700’s and a tiny Koran.

(A little about the Gaon, this famous Rabbi felt strongly about preserving traditional Orthodox  Judaism and was against Hasidism to put it mildly.  I also learned that in the 1600’s Jews were advised against wearing furs and jewels and urged to dress in subtle clothes and colors leading to black and white.)

Where was I?  Back to Chabad.  There were Friday night services at both Chabad and the Choral Synagogue.  But I was told, Chabad served dinner so was the place to go and  the Rabbi spoke Lithuanian (not just Yiddish).   I certainly felt a nice sense of community.  After dinner the Rabbi’s son got up and spoke.  Then I was asked to say a few words about who I was and why I was there.  Now that I’m writing this I think it was pretty cool they let a woman speak.  The Rabbi of course translated since my Lithuanian was limited to please, thank you, have a nice day and where.  Lilly  was also there since we had met earlier that day and told me that she usually gets to translate.  (I also got a lot more of Lilly’s story recorded so I’ll be sharing that in the future).

After I shared my spiel, others got up to tell stories and jokes.  One man (who later walked me to where I was going after dinner) told the story about his father working on a cooperative farm in Russia.  When being paid, each worker was introduced, for example, the milk maid.  When his father was announced as a farmer, a communist, and… there was a pause.  His father finished with ‘a Jew’.  ‘Yes, but a good man’ was the finish to the introduction.

One thing I shared at dinner was in my conversations with other Jews, and at the Vilna hostel there were five of us around the table one afternoon, none seemed particularly focused on Jews or should I say the Jewish community.  You might say it is not their conversational journey, only mine.  Though I have to repeat what I said in my first post: when I traveled through here 30 years ago I wasn’t focused on Jewish history at the time, it wasn’t the identity I was exploring.  I can’t fault or judge others for their interests and focus.  That would make me guilty and discriminating and I don’t want to go down that rocky road.

My dinner partners shared that Jewish populations are decreasing because of intermarriage and assimilation.  After hearing about slurs and discrimination it’s a wonder that any Jews exist in this part of the world at all.  While I”m gathering stories and snippets and beliefs, the idea of holding on to identity in challenging times is still a big question mark. I can see  it takes strong belief and courage and confidence.  But where does all that come from and how do we mass market that strength of identity?