Thursday, January 2, 2014

Of Mice and Men

Letter # 9


We arrive at the palace on a cold, foggy night, after an afternoon of driving along country roads through several small villages. I am with an American friend, David, who has lived in Poland for more than a decade and knows the area well. The plan is to visit old synagogues, then sleep at Kurozweki, a palace whose foundations go back to the fourteenth century and is now a modestly priced hotel. As we drive, we discover a shared dream of buying and renovating one of the dilapidated country manors that still occasionally dot the countryside. On our way back to Krakow the next day, this interest leads us to a deserted-looking, nineteenth century mansion that overlooks a valley—the perfect setting for a Russian novel. David notices a thin thread of smoke rising from the chimney. But I am getting ahead of myself.

People may know of the first village on our tour, Dzialaszyce, from the film Hide and Seek, a must see documentary about an American Jewish man, Menachem Daum, who seeks out the peasant family that hid his father during the war. He coordinates a website that includes memoirs compiled by former residents of the shtetl, which was more than seventy percent Jewish before the war. One story describes a conflict in 1904 between Chassidim and Zionists, when the latter wanted to hold a memorial for the Zionist leader, Theodore Herzl, in the synagogue. Today, this former center of community life is a four walled, roofless shell. High, thick walls separate rows of elongated window spaces—a shtetl version of the Acropolis. When David had last seen it a few years ago, a tree was growing in its interior. A beit midrash, or study house also stood nearby. Now, a locked fence keeps outsiders away and the tree is gone.  So is the beit midrash. David says that the Jewish community in the city of Katowice has control over the site. But without the enormous amount of funding required for renovation, as well as the political will, the ruin seems relegated to remaining a silent witness to centuries of Jewish life and its cataclysmic end.

From there we continue on to another depressed looking village, Pinczow, chartered by the king in 1438; its small post-war cement houses stark evidence of massive wartime destruction.  After years of legal dispute between the municipality and the Katowice Jewish community, the town now has control over its early seventeenth century synagogue and is willing to invest in preservation efforts that began about eight years ago principally through private donations and the World Monuments Fund. A synagogue in the nearby town of Busko Zdroj apparently had been partly restored by the local community several years previously, after which the Jewish community in Katowice had claimed ownership and promptly resold it to a private business for cash. The local museum official who unlocked the door for us and gave us a tour had taken Jewish Studies courses at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and clearly cared about preserving Jewish memory in her community; we communicated in Hebrew. 

Remnants of original floral polychrome designs and Hebrew texts still decorate the walls of this Renaissance era sanctuary. Even more outstanding are deeply etched Hebrew names clearly legible on the walls that date from the years 1673, 1674 and 1681, when the Council of Four Lands met here.  Known in Hebrew as the Va’ad Arba Artzot, this institution enacted administrative, economic, religious, and social legislation for the Jewish community in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, decided how best to allocate collective resources; and employed lobbyists to protect and secure Jewish interests.[1] While the Council’s authority was consensual, rather than backed by force, and was mitigated by religious and local Jewish community leadership, my understanding is that at its height, it represented a degree of Jewish autonomous political organization not realized again until the establishment of the state of Israel more than two hundred and fifty years later.

From there to Chmielnik, another small town that, unlike the others we saw in this area, has totally embraced the Jewish part of its past. Before the war, its population of eight to ten thousand was mostly Jewish. Now half that size and with no Jewish population, the town has invested more than a million dollars to restore its seventeenth century synagogue as a state-of-the-art Jewish museum and cultural center; as we arrived, a class of about thirty high school students was just leaving. The town also received contributions from the European Regional Development Fund ($1.3 million) and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (approximately $300,000.) [2] These resources enabled them to commission works of art including a stunning glass bimah, or raised central platform where the Torah reading takes place, and an impressive Holocaust memorial on the synagogue grounds listing the names of every Jewish family who had lived in the town before the war. Since 2003, Chmielnik has also held a Jewish cultural festival each June. The first time it took place, people were afraid that Jews would return and reclaim the property that since 1945 has belonged to the families of the present residents. When that fear did not materialize, people relaxed and officials now attribute the event to improving attitudes towards Jews.[3]  Five years ago, the town dedicated and reopened its Jewish cemetery, partially restored thanks to a donation from a Jewish Holocaust survivor now living in Israel.


Before I introduce you to Michael
Popiel de Boisgelin, current manager of the Kurozweki palace, let me tell you about his legendary ancestor, Popiel, lord of the castle at Kruszwica. According to a medieval chronicler, mice and rats ate the cruel and corrupt despot alive. They came out of a lake seeking revenge for the uncles he had poisoned and dumped in the water. They were plotting against him, and he struck first. The family has come a long way since then. With the help of his father, who owns the palace, and other relatives, Michael has created a wonderland for children in the palace they have lovingly renovated. The original foundation is as haunted as one would expect a Gothic palace basement to be – replete with dungeons and Lord Popiel himself, his face half eaten. A herd of wild American bison roams on the palace grounds. The boars, however, seem as tame as my cats – ears twitched and tail wagged when I said hello.
With few guests on a slow Wednesday night the week before Christmas, Michael was eager for our company. He remembered David from a past visit and invited us up to his private office, where the stories he told were as intoxicating as the wine he kept pouring. I don’t have much experience conversing with aristocrats, actually any, but at one point I asked him point blank why he seemed so normal. A tall, athletic man in his mid-thirties, with an easy smile and intent eyes, Michael radiates a confident intelligence that would make him a popular politician if he were inclined in that direction.  Instead, he juggles management of his family legacy with work as a lawyer. His open manner, what I dubbed normal, he attributes to the fact that he was born and partly raised in Canada. Immigrants, he said matter-of-factly, are always at the bottom of the heap.

The next day he gave us a private tour, introducing us to his ancestors along the way through the larger than life portraits hanging in the halls and ballroom.  Reproductions substitute for the originals, safely stored in the Kielce Museum. The Popiel family acquired the palace in 1833 as part of a dowry. A century later, his great uncle gave up his inheritance to the palace as the oldest son to be a priest. Marcin, Michael tells us, saved Jews during the war. The library of more than two thousand books, unfortunately, had been lost when Russian soldiers burned it, probably for fuel. But each existing object of value, from the chandeliers to the chapel alter, had its own story in the saga of returning the palace to its former glory after the war and Communist nationalization. Hundreds of people, including some current employees, actually called the palace home over the years, its many rooms divided into apartments. Silver and other valuables safeguarded for decades by family friends and relatives were now on view in the small palace museum, as was a collection of paintings by the Polish artist and writer Josef Czapski. A co-founder of Kultura, a leading √©migr√© journal based in Paris after the war, the painter was also one of the few to survive Stalin’s massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia at Katyn in 1940.

Michael took us out to the courtyard for a final story.  One day an elderly man dressed in a suit and holding a bouquet of flowers came to the palace, looking for Michael’s grandmother, Irena. His wife had died, and he was returning to seek the hand of the woman he had fallen in love with as a young partisan soldier more than a half century before. During the war, living in the nearby forest, he had come to the palace for occasional refuge. We were standing on the spot where he had first laid eyes on her, a woman who literally held down the fort with her two young sons, while her husband was a prisoner of war. Irena had died though, a few years before the man’s visit.

Her grandson sent us on our way with the recommendation of a restaurant in a nearby village that served goose. It turned out that we could only order a whole one. Instead, after a nourishing bean soup for David, and bigos, a cabbage and meat stew for me, we headed to one of the oldest synagogues in Poland, in the village of Szydlow. It stood near the remains of a medieval castle, and the ticket seller told us yet another story of Esterka, the legendary Jewish mistress of King Kazimierz, who in the 14th century had encouraged Jews to settle in Poland. It was said that she had put a curse on the town, which explained why it became a backwater after promising beginnings. 

On our way home, we both wanted to check out the country manor ruin that David remembered from earlier trips.  The only sign of life behind the locked gate was a German shepherd-like dog whose barking told us to keep out as we walked the iron fence perimeter trying to get a better look. David noticed a thin line of smoke coming from the chimney. And then, from across the field, we saw the front door open. What looked to be an old woman stepped down from the columned portico, holding a small bowl.  “Dzien dobre!” we yelled. She responded to our “good day” greeting in kind. “Dzien dobre!” she yelled back. David asked if we might come in and see the inside. No problem. After she filled her bowl with what appeared to be weeds from the frozen winter ground, she unlocked the front gate, the dog stopped barking, and we were in!
We entered a dark, narrow pathway through a web of tree limb scaffolding that held up the roof. This interior forest and sheer will kept the house from falling down on Elizabeta and her now elderly husband, Adam. They had built the labyrinth along with their children in their younger years. On this freezing winter afternoon, Elizabeta ushered us into the living space they had carved out for themselves—a good sized salon; its walls lined with paintings and a large table filled with papers, bowls of apples and walnuts, and half a honey cake, which she immediately offered to us, along with apple cake and tea. A smaller bedroom off this main room was the only one with heat; a narrow kitchen showcased a built-in carved wooden cabinet that Adam built many years ago. Bundled in multiple layers of sweaters, coats and hats, they offered us seats at the table and told us their story.

Adam was originally from Lwow (Lviv in Ukrainian, Lemberg in Yiddish), now in Ukraine. After the war, the Stalinist Soviet Union annexed eastern territory historically part of Poland. In return, the country received land in the West that had belonged to Germany. The subsequent transfer of about a million Polish residents of the east, known as the kresy, or borderlands, included Adam’s family. His mother had refused any compensation, hoping to  reclaim the family estate in Ukraine. When she passed away in the early 1980s, the couple applied for compensation and chose this mansion among the properties offered. Remodeled in 1840 from earlier foundations, its original owner had been exiled to Siberia after participating in the 1863 Polish Uprising against the Russians. Much later, it had been a Gestapo headquarters, a target on the front line between German and Soviet forces, a kolkhoz, or collective farm,  and a school. Adam, a craftsman, trained as an engineer, and his wife Elizabeta, a painter, had arrived there in 1983 and raised a family. With little in the way of income, Adam’s skills had kept the once grand villa standing.

I asked them if they missed the kresy, which today has the nostalgic connotations of a lost homeland for many Poles. Adam responded by describing its land—black as David’s coat. Oil would come out if you squeezed it. Plants wouldn’t be able to stand it if you added fertilizer. Elizabeta said that when she thinks of it, she cries.

We asked her about the realistic oil paintings covering every inch of wall space. Self-taught, she had wanted to go to the fine arts academy, but because her family wasn't working class in Communist Poland, she lacked the correct background to be accepted. The collection included several portraits of elderly Jewish men. They were her specialty. “Everyone,” she said, “wants a Jew.” Adam, too, thought a lot about Jews. Without knowing anything about us, he soon began to recall vivid memories from the war he experienced as a thirteen-year-old boy in Lwow. He started singing a song the Germans sang when they entered the city and described the busty Ukrainian women who offered them bread and cheese. With his father, he had sold goods in the ghetto when it was still open. He was riding tram number ten, passing the ghetto as it was being liquidated. David translated his animated speech. “You had to get into the Jewish police,” he said. “I saw what they did to their own kind.  As soon as they hit, blood flew.” He witnessed Germans throwing people out of windows. Everyone, he said, saw this from the tram. “There was a wooden fence that enclosed the ghetto, and as the tram was going by, the Germans were shooting Jews trying to escape. The bullets passed through the fence and went into the tram, injuring several people.” The corpses gave off so much gas, he added, “You could light a match.” He picked up a nutcracker sitting on top of a bowl of walnuts. He had found the bronze tool in the ghetto after the Jews were gone, it’s engraved initials now no longer legible after decades of use. “I didn’t know its owners,” he said.  “But I think about them every day.”

Kurozweki Palace website:

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