Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Two Views of Tykocin

My father’s cousin, Morris Biales, was raised in the town of Tykocin (“Tiktin,” in Yiddish).  He emigrated at age 13, became a vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and died in 1997 at age 100.  He lived longer into my adulthood that anyone else in that generation of my father’s family.

Tykocin, about 105 miles northeast of Warsaw and 45 miles from the Russian border, was the town where almost everyone in my father’s extended family lived and left around 1900.  In the Pale of Settlement, it was part of the lands that were contested by the Russians, the Prussians, and the Austrians.

In a 1994 oral history, Morris Biales described the relationship between Jews and Gentiles:  “In Tiktin, we lived in peace with the goyim.”  He recounted his memory of the annual Kol Nidre service.  Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Tiktin’s Jews would mow the cemetery, carry the clippings into the synagogue, and spread the sweet-smelling grass on the dirt floor.  Then everyone – including the non-Jewish town officials – would stand side-by-side and listen to the beautiful chanting of the chazzan.

Tykocin is visited today by thousands of young Jews from the U.S., Israel, and South Africa who go on the “March of the Living” and other programs designed to nurture a love of Israel.  Tykocin’s great synagogue, a beautiful baroque structure built in 1642, remains much as it was:  prayers are painted on the walls because not everyone had a prayerbook. 

It is a destination today, however, for a different reason.  In September 1939, the German Army invaded Poland and captured the land around Tykocin; a few weeks later they passed it into Soviet hands.  In June 1941, the Germans invaded again and encouraged the non-Jewish residents of the town to loot the Jews’ property and give it to the Germans. 

On August 25, 1941, the Germans ordered the Jews to gather at the market square for resettlement in a nearby ghetto.  Instead 3,000 men, women, and children were taken to a forest, forced to dig their own mass graves, and then executed by SS firing squads.  The Tykocin massacre was the first of many that the Germans were to repeat in other area towns.

The March of the Living visit to Tykocin is preceded by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The narrative of these teen trips is that Poland was a killing ground and Israel, where they go after Poland, is the land where the Jewish people was reborn out of the ashes.

This is not my narrative, and it is the reason I have been involved with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  The Forum has had some success in arranging opportunities for Jewish and Polish teenagers to engage in dialogue about their shared history, but it’s not a high priority for those bringing groups to Poland, because it is not in their narrative. 

The Forum’s Schools for Dialogue program that I described in a previous blog at least can help Poland’s teenagers – and their parents and friends and relatives and fellow townspeople – grow in understanding.  Learning in depth about the role of Jews in their communities will help them become educated and compassionate citizens of the world. 

Why should we care?

Poland’s economy is growing:  it was the only member of the European Union to avoid the recent recession.  Poland’s college and high school students are part of a global workforce that will be encountering others and shaping their communities wherever they settle.  Poland is a democracy and an important strategic partner of the United States and Western governments.  Poland is a loyal supporter and partner of Israel. 

Based on the narrative of my family, I believe that it is possible for Jewish and Polish people to stand together and listen to beautiful music.   It happened in Tykocin.  It has been happening for 20 years in Krakow at the Jewish Cultural Festival.  With the help of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, it can happen throughout Poland.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow on Sunflowers

Those who have been to sun-washed Tuscany, close your eyes.  You see the sunflowers, the fields of lavender, the grape arbor where you had lunch.  You wandered around Florence, drinking in the art and savoring the gelato and were so grateful to return at the end of the day to your air-conditioned room.

I know that when I say we are spending one weekend a month in Florence while we are living here in Italy, that’s what you’re thinking.

Change your mind’s eye instead to Chicago in January.

Imagine that your train gets into the station and there is chaos.  One hundred smokers are lined up waiting for taxis that do not appear.  All the city buses have gathered at the station with their LED signs blinking “Fuori Servizio” (out of service).  All flights are canceled.

The wind is whipping in your face.  The snow is falling at a rate of more than one inch an hour.  It started as rain mixed with snow; then everything froze. You have no choice but to tramp carefully through the slush and ice for the two miles to your hotel with your luggage.  Between stopping to wipe your nose, clean your glasses, and re-up the balance on your cellphone, it takes you 75 minutes.

There is not a plow to be seen, nor a shovel.  People are cleaning their windshields with index cards.  Restaurant owners are fighting the snow with cookie sheets.  The cobblestone streets are filled with 4” of slush.  Abandoned cars, motorcycles, and tourist buses on all the bridges have paralyzed traffic.  The road to Sienna is closed.  Later you learn that in beautiful sunwashed Tuscany, people spent 20 hours in their cars waiting to be rescued.

So when “Biggest snow since 1985 blasts Florence, Italy,” mio marito and I felt fortunate that our hotel was in walking distance, that our room was warm, and that we had dry clothes.  Unfortunately, congregants who lived out of town couldn’t get in, and congregants who lived in town couldn’t get around.  Most of the museums and even the churches closed.  The restaurants were open.  After all, this is Italy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Jewish? Now what?

The opportunities I had to meet with young Polish Jews were highlights of my recent trip to Poland with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.

On our first full day of meetings, we met with Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny, Country Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  (Karina is married to Andrzej, who directs the Forum; they met after both were involved with their respective organizations.)

The “Joint,” as it is known, is the primary funder of many of the Jewish communal activities in Poland, as it is in the FSU and many other areas.  In addition to supporting traditional programs – primarily social services and kosher kitchens that provide meals for elderly and needy Jews – it also helps the growing community of young Poles who are discovering and/or want to learn about their Jewish backgrounds. 

Karina herself is an example.  She grew up knowing she was Jewish; her grandparents had met in camps and returned to the German area of Poland.  During the Communist era – from the end of World War II until 1989 – Judaism became an underground religion like others.  In college in the 1990s she joined a Jewish student organization, and that was the beginning of her public identification. 

How many other Jews are there in Poland? 

No one knows for sure.  Michael Shudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, with whom we also met, notes that 350,000 were left in Poland at the end of the Second World War, and 5,000 are now registered with the community. 

On its website, the Joint estimates 12,000.  Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny told us that an organization of “hidden children” now numbers 1,000+.  In addition, Sochnut, the Jewish Agency, sponsors an annual trip to Israel for Polish youth between the ages 18-26.  For 7-8 years, two trips each year have taken 60 young people who have had to prove a connection to Judaism.

The phenomenon of “hidden children” was fascinating to our group.  Deathbed confessions by people now in their 60s and 70s are common.  There are many versions of very similar stories. 
  • An elderly person – more often a woman, because girls were easier to hide and “pass” – was adopted by a non-Jewish family, and raised as a Catholic but told at some point she was born Jewish.
  • Even with that knowledge, the person either continued to practice Catholicism because it was their religion or – in the face of Communist anti-Semitism – hid their roots from their spouses and children.
In addition to the descendants of hidden children are Poles whose ancestors survived because they themselves hid or disguised or denied their Jewish roots.

Yale Reisner, a researcher at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, also spoke to us of this phenomenon.  On the average of once a week someone calls or comes to the Institute with a similar story.  “My mother has only a few months to live, and last week she told me that her parents were Jews.”  They want to know what to do next.

Some Poles make the discovery themselves and then confront their relatives; this was the case of a young journalist who found his family’s unique name and town on the popular Jewish genealogical website, while he was browsing the Internet late one night.

(This is not only a Polish phenomenon.  Last week, we spent five days in Brussels as guests of the International Jewish Center, Belgium’s only English-speaking Liberal Jewish community and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  At the Jewish Museum of Belgium, we learned about the constantly increasing number of Belgians who learn late in life that their parent was one of the enfants caches.)

We met that young Polish journalist who found his family on the Web not because of his past, however, but because of the choice he has made about his future:  to live a Jewish life in Krakow.  Much of that active life is focused around the Centrum Spoleczności Żydowskiej w Krakowie, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.  Dedicated in 2008 by Prince Charles, the Centre is directed by incredibly energetic New Yorker Jonathan Ornstein, who also has become a permanent resident.

A few blocks away, at the Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja – the Jewish Museum of Galicia – our guide was an educational specialist from Nashville, a young Jewish woman whose father I know, coincidentally.  She too plans to stay in Poland.

We met many, many other Jews like these, from Poland and other countries, who are building active communities in Warsaw, Krakow, and Lodz.  Poland’s annual Limmud – an annual adult education program that has been spreading throughout Europe from country to country for 30 years – attracted 640 eager learners to Warsaw in November.

An American expatriate I met in Brussels commented, “When you live in the U.S., you tend to think of everything in Europe in terms of past history.  When you live in Europe, you realize that history is part of your life every day.”

And this is the message of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  Our history as Jews, and/or as Poles, is very much a part of today.  How we respond has the power to shape tomorrow. 

* * *

As I write, Garrison Keillor is telling me that today is the 151st anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor and advocate of the use of the international language Esperanto.  He died in Warsaw on April 14, 1917.  I photographed his grave when we were in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Venetian Giorno del Ringraziamento

Several months ago, when we knew we would be in Milan for Thanksgiving, we invited friends from London to visit us for the holiday.  They countered with a suggestion that the four of us meet in Venice.  Why not?

So we made our plans to stay at a hotel near Piazza San Marco that was included in their package.  I didn’t expect to find turkey and all the sides, but I did discover a restaurant named Osteria La Zucca – “The Pumpkin” – where I thought Thanksgiving dinner would be an interesting experience.

A few weeks ago, I began to read in the paper about flooding in the Veneto – the Italian region where Venice is located – and that’s when I learned about alta acqua, “high water.”

I should have learned more.  While it was a pleasure to be in Venice when relatively few other tourists were there, the high waters did impact us.  When I asked at the hotel desk on the first afternoon if alta acqua was coming soon, he said that if we returned to the hotel by 10:30 p.m., we’d be fine.  About 10, we walked to Piazza San Marco and found it filling up like a formerly empty swimming pool.

The next morning, when we assumed the waters would have receded, we instead found our way blocked in several directions by standing sewer water that was as much as 8” deep in places, depending on the pitch of the sidewalk.

What we also didn’t know was that the time of alta acqua changes daily. Our friends were leaving on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, around 2 p.m.  We took a long walk in the morning and stopped on the sunny shore for a snack. 

On the way back to our hotel so our friends could pick up their luggage, we had to walk on the gangplanks that the city sets up for people to make their way over the water.  When the gangplanks came to an end, however, our path was blocked by deep water.  I led everyone back and tried another route:  also blocked.

Finally our friend, claiming she had been raised in a boarding school where conditions were far worse, gave me her shoes and long coat (it was quite cold), and waded through water up to her knees; about 10 minutes later she returned with the luggage in hand.

At that moment, two other Englishwomen on their way out of town offered our friends their waders.  If you don’t want to buy boots, Venetians will sell you bright blue plastic bags with soles.  Thus our friends could reach the quay where their water taxi would take them to the airport.

We continued our sightseeing and had dinner without confronting any more acqua alta that day.  On Friday morning, the concierge assured us that if we left our hotel by 10 a.m. we would be fine.  When the siren went off about 9:20 a.m., however, we headed immediately to the train station.  My caution was not in vain:  water around the hotel was already about 2” deep, and it was raining.  We had a long wait at the train station (no benches) but we felt like lucky refugees when we finally got on the warm dry train and headed west toward the snow-capped Dolomites on our way back to Milan.

The meal
We knew that La Zucca emphasized local fresh vegetables, and we were not disappointed.  The highlights were two primi piatti:  tagliatelle with gorgonzola and pistachios, and divine roasted artichoke hearts; and the contorni:  leeks baked with a crispy parmesan crust, an eggplant and pepper flan; and the dolce:  pear mousse with chocolate sauce.  Though we were in the first seating, the lamb chops were gone, so I ate my first guinea fowl and decided I prefer roasted turkey, and not just for Thanksgiving.