Sunday, October 6, 2013

Warsaw, Plock, Bydgoszcz and Torun

Letter #4

I spent last weekend in the middle class Warsaw neighborhood of Mokotow, sitting in Starbucks and reading Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland, by Shana Penn.  As the house-guest of Anna Dodziuk, one of the women profiled in the book, I wanted to use this opportunity to do some homework on the years of Solidarity. While Anna was conducting a workshop during the day in her capacity as a group therapist, I caught up on her and her nation’s recent history.

I’ve known Anna casually for several years through the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow that I have attended off and on since 2003. I knew her as an empathic facilitator of a group that meets regularly during the Festival, where people can share their feelings about Jews and Jewishness, a still sensitive topic, but becoming less so, year by year, thanks in no small part to the Krakow Festival, and other increasing numbers of cultural initiatives taking place throughout the country.

What I didn’t know, but learned through reading the book, was that Dodziuk was one of a small group of women who did much to keep the legacy of Solidarity alive from the end of 1981, when it was declared illegal, until the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. The weekly underground newspaper they collectively edited, printed and distributed nationally with the help of thousands nurtured a spirit of popular resistance that made the demise of Communism possible. Also, like most Americans, I knew of Lech Walesa as the Solidarity hero.  But I hadn’t heard of Anna Walentynowicz, another longtime labor organizer in the Gdansk shipyards. She has been compared with Rosa Parks, who had been a Civil Rights activist long before her historic refusal to move to the back of the bus.

Now a well-established writer in addition to her work as a therapist, Anna Dodziuk credits her economy of style in writing to her experience in the underground press. Every word was precious when the writers, editors, printers and distributers could all go to jail for their participation in the enterprise.

Her sharp honing skills come in handy as we wander from stall to stall at Warsaw’s Hala Mirowska open air market, buying food for Shabbat, particularly mushrooms. Their various shapes and colors look dubious to me, but she extols them for the feast she intends them to be. She is also excited that we will be traveling in a few days and the forests along the way will be in their prime for mushroom picking.

Meanwhile, my days in Warsaw go by very fast. I love the city.  Like most Western baby boomers educated in the shadow of the Iron Curtain, I never learned much about Polish history. The immensity of Warsaw’s wartime fate only became clear when I studied Polish at Warsaw University three summers ago.  In August, 1944, a year and four months after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the remaining citizens of Warsaw launched a city-wide revolt against the Nazis. The Soviet Red Army was close and the Germans were losing ground when the Polish Home Army led a popular, desperate attempt to re-establish Polish sovereignty. The fighters never imagined that Stalin would not allow landing space for Allied air support or that the Red Army would sit and watch from the other side of the Vistula River as the Germans, in murderous revenge, methodically killed thousands and then demolished the city, building by building. By the time the Poles surrendered 63 days later, between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians were dead, and the city was 85% destroyed.

Warsaw looked like Hiroshima in 1945.  Today, after just two decades of post-Communist economic development, new monuments to international capital increasingly dwarf the Palace of Culture and Science—Stalin’s postwar gift to the Polish people—that formerly dominated the city’s skyline. The new skyscrapers are the most recent chapter in the reconstruction story that began with the rebuilding of the city’s historic Old Town soon after the war ended. This story also makes me love Warsaw. . . even the Palace. The city is a testament to the human spirit and its potential for regeneration, a great reminder when I’m having a bad day!

Now back to Anna.  I’ve stayed in Warsaw the extra few days to go with her on a road trip. She has appointments with city officials in the cities of Bydgoszcz and Torun to present certificates honoring them for taking action to remember their Jewish communities.  She works with an Israeli older man, Adam Aptowicz, originally from Poland, who on his own initiative began doing this several years ago in the context of the Israel-Poland Friendship Society. As he is now too ill to travel, she is acting as his representative. We head north towards Gdansk early on a Tuesday morning to avoid rush hour, stopping along the way at a fish restaurant along the Vistula for breakfast. We can catch our own in their stocked pond, but instead choose fresh fried from a long menu. Back on the road, with forest on both sides, we pass lots of cars parked at various spots.  It’s tempting to search for mushrooms, but we are on a mission. We do, however, stop in Plock. How can we not, when a large roadside billboard as we enter the city limits announces the opening of a new Jewish museum in the former synagogue?!

Jews settled in Plock more than seven hundred years ago, and before the war were 25% of its population. Their history is now commemorated in the museum located in the brightly renovated sanctuary space filled with state-of-the-art exhibits. A wall display shows photos of all material remains of Jewish life left in the town. Wrapped around the walls in an adjoining room is the story of the community’s tragic end. Most importantly, we are not alone, although it is 10:00 am on a weekday morning. In the center of the room containing an open Torah, a class of primary school students is gathered around a well-lit exhibit case. They are listening intently as the guide explains to them the importance of learning in Jewish life.

When we arrive at the Mayor’s office in Bydgoszcz, a city of 360,000, the official responsible for local monuments introduces Anna as a Solidarity legend; she is also clearly enthusiastic about honoring Jewish memory in her city. Two photographers capture the moment as Anna presents the certificate to the mayor. Under his watch, a memorial plaque set into a boulder and a sign now mark the site close to the city center where an impressive Moorish style synagogue once stood until its demolition by the Nazis early in the war.

Formal commemoration of the Jewish part of the city’s past is a first step towards integrating this history into its present. We subsequently meet Bogdan Kunach, who directs a non-profit organization responsible for raising money for the local university. As of two months ago, he also has authority over another synagogue, currently in the process of renovation. Dating from the seventeenth century and used as a cinema in the Communist era, it is located in Fordon, a rundown neighborhood that before the war had a Jewish majority.  Sold to the city for one zloty by the Foundation for Preserving Jewish Heritage in Poland that formally owned the building, the city turned it over to Kunach’s foundation for free. The city, the region and the European Union are paying for the extensive renovation. Bogdan, meanwhile, is making plans to turn the currently gutted facility into a cultural center that will serve the neglected neighborhood as well as honor its Jewish provenance.  He is actively searching for artists, and I offer some suggestions.

The next day, we visit Torun, where we have an appointment with the city official in charge of its Old Town, a UNESCO world heritage site. On behalf of the mayor, he also receives a certificate, and takes us to see why. Funded by the city, a glass plaque memorializes hundreds of Torun Jews killed by the Nazis, affixed to a building where a century-old synagogue used to be before they destroyed it. He also shows us another prominently displayed plaque on a residential building in the heart of the Old Town that commemorates Zwi Hirsch Kalischer, a nineteenth century rabbi and early Zionist. We then visit the former Jewish cemetery—a large walled-in, block long, empty lot of trees and grass with a sign at the entrance requesting visitors to respect the park-like space by not walking animals there. A stone monument, not unlike the one we saw the day before in Bydgoszcz, lies at the center, and another monument memorializes Kalischer’s grave, although the exact spot of the original tombstone or matzevah is no longer known. The tombstones (matzevot) that once marked his and hundreds of other peoples’ lives lasted through the Nazi occupation, but were removed by the Communist regime in 1975. While that doesn’t seem like such a long time to recover some of them with a concentrated public relations campaign, such a project is not a high priority.

Back in Krakow, I do hear a few weeks later that disappeared matzevot sometimes do come back. I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Webber, an anthropologist who has worked on Jewish heritage in Poland for many years. He recounted the dramatic story of how he restored the Jewish cemetery of his grandfather’s small Galician village with the help of the local community. When he first visited, all that remained was the memory among older people that a particular field, now fallow, had once been the cemetery. Farmers cultivated around it. Sensitive to the fact that the residents needed to be an integral part of the project, he worked closely with local officials, educators, the priest, and contractors over several years. One night, a few weeks before the official opening ceremony, the gate to the handsome new steel post fence was left open. The next morning, the town discovered a pile of stone matzevot on the plot of freshly planted grass that had been dumped there anonymously.  Today, the Brzostek Jewish cemetery is a local landmark that has brought the community’s Jewish history back into its fold.

Of more than a thousand cemeteries in Poland, about eight hundred are still in various stages of neglect—leaving lots of room for new initiatives. Meanwhile, individual matzevot have been catalogued for sixty-four cemeteries by the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries. [View Online]

I’ll end this letter with one last note on cemeteries. Another British Jewish friend, who like Jonathan Webber, has now made his home in Poland. With a local colleague in the Silesian town of Wodzislaw, Barry formed an organization, Yerusha (Heritage) to restore the memory of the local Jewish cemetery. There was no possibility of restoring the actual cemetery, as the Communist authorities after the war had organized the exhuming of all the Jewish bodies and had them reburied in a common pit.  In their place, they buried the remains of Soviet Red Army soldiers who had died in battle nearby. This history came to light when Barry initiated the process to mark where the original cemetery had been.  An old man found him, told him the story that he had been a teenager and been one of those hired to dig up the Jewish bodies. He knew it wasn’t right at the time and it had bothered him all these years. At Barry’s urging he went public. The pit, which had been covered over and turned into a parking lot, is now fenced and marked.  Barry also told me of one particular matzevah found in the local Catholic cemetery. It was simply recycled, now used to mark a well-tended grave. The Jewish epitaph, in Hebrew and Polish, remains perfectly intact, in the back.

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