Monday, May 31, 2010

Archive Day!

Archive day! The day for which I'd spent months preparing. I had already perused some files on our brief visit the prior week, but this was my day to dig in.

We first stopped by the PSA Archives which handles records over 100 years old so I could order some records. I also discovered that they had made a CD for me of the records I had requested earlier, something they had previously told me could not be done in that time frame. Then we drove to the USC, the archive for records of the past 100 years. Here I was to run in and pick up the records which were to be waiting for me. Nothing is ever that simple. I learned that the person with whom I had been working was out until later in the week. As that was not workable in light of our departure date, I pressed to see if she had perhaps left the records she had pulled for someone else to prepare. After some digging they did find them and soon I was out of there with the death records of my great-grandparents and several birth and marriage records. Then it was back to the PSA.

At the PSA I had them pull the records from WWII which listed out various executions, persons sent to concentration camps and those who returned after the war. The records contained only Polish names which was a reminder that the Poles also suffered greatly under the Nazis.

It had occurred to me that while I have obtained a translated version of the Radom Book of Residents through Jewishgen, there were earlier versions that I had not seen. A Book of Residents lists out the residents within a family with notations as to births, deaths and often marriages. It is a very good way to learn about family groupings and related families. I learned that the earliest Book of Residents was from 1840 and that an index by surname was available. Under each surname was listed the given names in the family grouping. From the number provided they were able to pull the books that pertained to the surnames in which I was interested. I soon made a very special discovery, the family of my great-great grandparents with listings of children of whom I had been unaware.

My second discovery of the day was a typed listing from the late 1800s of all of the synagogue members with names recorded in both Polish and Russian. There was my great-grandfather’s name. Earlier I had found a listing of contributions to the synagogue where his name was listed in handwritten Cyrillic Russian, but a typed list in both languages was far easier to decipher. I also noted an unusual record that had names and marks beside each name as if someone were keeping score. I learned that it represented a vote on who would serve on the governing body of the synagogue. Another list of both Polish and Jewish names noted the required contribution of each individual to a new hospital in 1813. As the names were patronymics (no surnames except the father's name with an ending), I had the opportunity to use the cross-reference I had discovered earlier. You may recall that this listed the patronymics of the Jews in 1823 and then the surnames they were required to take in that year. All of these discoveries made for a very successful research trip.

After we departed the Archives, we met up with Jakub, a staff person at a local arts and culture center in Radom. I had connected with Jakub on-line and asked for photos of former Jewish areas in Radom. Jakub presented me with a CD with photos of Jewish locations assembled by students in the area. I hope to add it to the Radom Shtetlink site in addition to some of my research discoveries. He had secured the key to the Jewish cemetery and we drove to where it is located. There we found about 340 tombstones of which only 40 are intact. A small building listed the names of each neighboring region and the number of Jews who had resided in each. With a flourish Jakub pulled back a curtain and there was the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead which I then recited, grateful for the visual aid. The cemetery had been destroyed by the Nazis with many of the stones used for paving streets. Tombstones were located and fragments went on the wall of the cemetery. Complete tombstones stood upright in the cemetery, no longer associated with their original grave, but there to commemorate the former Jewish community and its inhabitants. The cemetery area was quite large which provided some sense of the size of the cemetery in earlier days.

We then drove to where the old synagogue had been located. It is now a plaza with a commemorative sculpture at one end. The base of the sculpture is composed of stones from the old synagogue. The base of the original pillars stand at one end and the footprint of the synagogue is reflected in the plaza.

I had shared with Jakub that I recorded the addresses of family based on the 1930 and 1932 Business directories. We then began a scavenger hunt trying to find each one and photograph it. Some buildings no longer existed or had been replaced with new ones, but some looked as if they could have been the original building. One of the most important family sites was eerily around the corner from where I had been spending my time. The Archives stand at Rynek 1, my great-uncle lived at Rynek 9. I imagined him peering my way as I researched our family. Our visit to Radom was well worth it in terms of research, but also in terms of the personal connections we made with many of the Polish people.

New Friends and Remembering What Was

On our last day in Cracow we began with a visit to the nearby Galicia Jewish Museum. This gem of a museum has a permanent exhibition by the late Chris Schwartz, a photographer, and text by Professor Jonathan Webber. The exhibit is composed of large photographs with explanatory text that cover five topics related to Jewish life. It addresses the ruins that now exist of synagogues, cemeteries and other traces of the Jewish world in Poland. The exhibit then speaks to the culture that once existed and the destruction of that culture by the Holocaust. Finally it then seeks to end on a hopeful note addressing how the past is remembered today. As my paintings frequently address the topic of the remaining traces of the Jewish community, I was very interested in how they addressed the topic and very impressed with the manner in which they did so. The Museum also has temporary exhibitions and an extensive bookstore/gift shop.

Our next stop was the Wielczka Salt Mines, a twenty minute drive from the Kazimierz area of Cracow. The Salt Mines are a UNESCO World Heritage site and were mined from the 13th century through the end of the 20th century. Visitors descend approximately 370 steps initially, but continue their downward trek through various chambers and by sculptures carved of salt. There is actually an underground cathedral with carved statues and rock salt chandeliers. Our guide indicated that a two ton piece of salt was of such value that once you could purchase a village with it. We learned about the history of salt mining and saw examples of salt formations called spaghetti salt and cauliflower salt based on their appearance. Several hours later we came to the surface via elevator and returned to Cracow.

Our evening concluded with a Klezmer concert at the Galicia Jewish Museum. Many of the local restaurants also play Klezmer music and both the museum and a Jewish bookstore next to the High Synagogue on Jozefa are excellent places to purchase the music. Before departing Cracow I made a stop at the Jozefa Street bookstore and purchased several Yiddish and Klezmer CDs.

The following morning we departed for our return to Radom. In route we made several stops at sights along the way. Our first visit was to an abandoned synagogue in Dzialoszyce, thirty minutes north of Cracow. After maneuvering some side roads with the aid of our GPS we found the town square where a celebration appeared to be taking place. Slightly off the town square we saw a large structure that once was a synagogue. Its roof and windows were gone and small trees grew atop it. Some Hebrew lettering was found in the front and some faint blue pigment in the window wells. Inside a group of teens gathered and two men sat on stones visiting. As we explored the ruin we heard the strains of the song Amazing Grace coming from the nearby church adding to a very ethereal mood.

Our second stop was in Szydlowiec just a short distance from Radom. There resides a Jewish cemetery with over 3000 tombstones noted for their carvings. Jews settled here in the 16th or 17th century and made up 80% of the community prior to WWII. Our directions pointed us to a bank and shopping center and we circled the town until we found an area that looked promising. I then got out of the car, flagged down some passing women and asked “cemetarze Zydowski?” as I pointed to a picture of a cemetery. They pointed in the direction of the cemetery and motioned to us how to arrive there. Tombstones pressed up against the front gate which was locked, but we had been told there was an entrance in the back. We also found a side entrance and began tracing a narrow path through the thousands of tombstones. Several of them had traces of colors of blues and iron oxides. As we entered we began to get the first rain of the day. Crows circled overhead and we walked in the dense forest-like cemetery to the sound of their caws.

Our next stop was a brief one at our hotel and then on to the highlight of our trip, dinner with Michalina and her family. They live a few minutes outside of Radom and when we approached the area we called them and they escorted us to their home. Michalina’s father is a policeman and her mother is a primary school teacher. Her younger sister, Ada also joined us. We had brought some thank you gifts for Michalina and her parents and Michalina presented us with some very interesting books on Jews in Poland and the Ringelblum Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, now housed in Warsaw at the Jewish Historical Institute. Michalina’s family lives in a three bedroom home with a beautifully landscaped yard/garden. They spoke of their house being small as I think there is an assumption that homes in the US are always large. It was actually a comfortably sized home and felt very inviting. We stepped out on their patio to take some photos of everyone to commemorate the gathering.

The feast then began. I had advised Michalina that my husband did not eat meat and she and her mother kindly supported that effort with vegetarian variations. We began our meal with a soup with pasta in it followed by a borscht. Mine had meat filled pasta which translates to little ears because of its appearance. We discussed the many varieties of borscht as this didn’t resemble the borscht I remember from my grandmother. Michalina’s mother then brought out several salads for after our dinner and the main meal which for non-vegetarians included meat with boiled potatoes. They told us this is a typical meal for them in Poland.

With wine and the never ending vodka glass we soon relaxed into conversations on many topics. Michalina was kept very busy translating between us and her family. Her sister Ada spoke some English and her mother understood more than she could speak, but offered some contributions in English. We discussed what life was like under Communism with long queues and limited availability of goods as well as the rewriting of history evidenced during that time by difficulty speaking about the Katyn massacre or the impact of the Holocaust specifically on Jews.

We shared travel stories and learned that in northern Poland there is a lake area which from photos resembled Minnesota. There is also skiing in the mountains of Poland. They had traveled to Prague and to Italy and shared their favorite places. Family gatherings are also a source of entertainment. With most of their family living in the area, gatherings can be as many as 80 people.

Our discussion turned to politics in the US and their interest in the political contest during the primary in our last  election between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The evening ended with a “police escort” by our host to our hotel, not a bad idea after those vodka shots. Our visit with our charming Polish friends added a special flavor to our visit forging a much more personal connection.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Jewish Quarter and the Camps

On our first day in Cracow we met up with Bartosz, my fellow student from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute who lives here. He took us around the former Jewish district, much of which surrounds our hotel. We are located on Szeroka Street which is surrounded by three synagogues. Ironically, while there are many synagogues that survived in Cracow, there are only about 200 Jews. Many of the synagogues have been converted to cultural centers that have exhibitions related to Jewish history in Kazimierz. In the quarter where we are staying there are many Jewish themed restaurants and Klezmer bands that play regularly. An hour away is the Auschwitz camp as well. Thus the area often attracts visitors of Jewish heritage.

Jews originally settled in Cracow as early as the 13th century, but in 1495 were expelled from the city. It was at this time that they took up residence in nearby Kazimierz which already had a small Jewish community. The area is named after King Casimir who legend has it loved a Jewish woman named Esterka. The story parallels the Purim story of Esther and is often offered as an explanation for Casimir’s support of the Jewish community.

Our first stop of the day was at the Rema Synagogue, built in the 1500s by Rabbi Isserl in his wife’s memory. It has had many renovations over the centuries. The synagogue takes its name from Rabbi Isserl’s son Rabbi Moses Isserles who was known as the Rema. As is true of many of the synagogues, it was looted by the Nazis and used as a warehouse. The Nazis used Cracow as the capital of Poland and this may have resulted in a reluctance to burn synagogues, especially as they are often in close proximity to other buildings.

The synagogue is quite small, but is used for regular services today. Adjacent to the synagogue is the old Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was severely damaged by the Nazis. In 1959 over 700 tombstones dating back to the 1500s were discovered buried beneath the surface. These tombstones were re-erected, but not necessary near the burial site itself. Fragments of damaged tombstones form a striking mosaic on a wall that surrounds the cemetery.

As we walked through the area we noted a prayer house on Jozefa street with two Stars of David designating its function. This street once had two names, Zydowska (Jew Street) and Catholiska (Catholic Street). Also on Jozefa is the High Synagogue, now an exhibition hall with a photography exhibit. Originally built in 1560, this synagogue was looted by the Nazis and now has no interior furnishings. You can still see the ark and fragments of paintings and text on the walls.

The Popper Synagogue is a few doors down from our hotel on Szeroka. It was originally built as a private prayer hall for the family of Wolf Popper in 1620. Today it is used as a cultural center.

Perhaps the most beautiful synagogue was the Tempel Synagogue from the 1860s for the Reform Jewish community. It is the only synagogue from this time period to have survived the Holocaust in Poland without significant damage. It is similar to those synagogues that we saw in Budapest in its Moorish design and the use of decorative gold paint in its designs.

Other synagogues in the area include the Old Synagogue from the 15th century with a twin nave structure and the Izaak Synagogue from 1638. The Kupa Synagogue was originally built in the 1640s. This synagogue was recently restored and has astrological symbols around the room.

As we explored the area, we ducked into a courtyard that dated back to the first half of the 16th century. Directly behind it stood a monastery, underscoring the fact that the Jewish community and the Catholic community co-existed in Kazimierz.

Plac Nowy, the former market area is located in the middle of Kazimierz. It contains a round building which used to be a kosher butcher and still sells meat although no longer kosher meat. Surrounding it are stalls selling produce.

We then crossed the river to the area of the Ghetto during WWII. The original residents were moved out for the creation of the ghetto and moved back after the liquidation of the ghetto. We walked to a nearby park where we found a section of the ghetto wall. It is scalloped like a series of attached tombstones, somehow a fitting metaphor for what the ghetto represented. Children’s playground equipment sits in front of it in the park, presenting an odd juxtaposition.

We also stopped at Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) which is where Jews were gathered for deportation. In the corner of the square is a small museum which once housed a pharmacy which was a place of aid for the Jews by its Christian owner. There were several powerful films that captured the Jewish community prior to WWII and the movement of the Jews from Kazimierz to the Ghetto. Images of Jews carrying such household furniture such as chairs to the ghetto were quite striking particularly juxtaposed with a memorial of a series of bronzed chairs in the plaza, derived from such imagery.

A brief walk took us to the factory of Oskar Schindler of Shindler’s List fame. We were able to see very little as they are currently renovating the space for exhibitions. We concluded our tour by stopping at the new Jewish cemetery. Bartosz pointed out that many of the tombstones have candles, which is not a Jewish tradition. This arises because the person being buried may well be the last person in the family who identified as Jewish. Younger generations were not familiar with Jewish traditions so adopted the traditions of their Catholic neighbors.

During the course of our day we had many interesting discussions with Bartosz on anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and the impact of the Communist regime on Poland. Bartosz told us that while learning English wasn’t prohibited under Communism, there were no English teachers because people could not travel abroad. It was a very insular society. As a result the generation that came of age during Communist times frequently does not speak English. He noted that after the fall of Communism there were suicides of Russian teachers as the demand for their services dropped precipitously.

He noted that Poland was not affected in the same way as some other Eastern bloc countries because it had been an independent nation previously. Thus for example, it did not have the communal farms that one found elsewhere. We also discussed countries such as Lithuania which he felt had to be viewed in the political context. While anti-Semitism does exist, they are also struggling to forge a national identity. Through my eyes it seems the two get easily intermingled.

We also discussed some of the historical events that affected the Jews of Cracow. In 1968 there was an anti-Semitic campaign by the government from which many Jews had to immigrate. About 20,000 Jews went to Sweden or Denmark, not Israel as they were not religious.

Today we spent the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place that has been thoroughly documented so there is not much new to share about it. In many ways we found Madjanek more affecting as it was fairly deserted when we arrived. No guides and tour groups walked around the premises. That allowed each person to react directly rather than filtering it through a guide. At Auschwitz the belongings of the prisoners were safely behind glass and failed to create the visceral recoil from the smell of leather that we experienced with the thousands of shoes at Madjanek. The sheer volume of people who go through Auschwitz requires the kind of organization which they did quite well. At the same time, it detracts from the personal experience that one has in a less structured and more private environment.

A few facts….
An estimated 1.1 million Jews were in Auschwitz with the next largest group being Poles (140-150,000). The walls of the buildings we first entered had the faces of many of the Polish prisoners who perished. The average life span in Auschwitz was 3 to 6 months. Of those who entered Auschwitz about 10-20% were selected for work. The rest went to the gas chamber directly. Of the total 1.3 million who passed through Auschwitz only 200,000 survived. Prior to the war Jews represented 10% of the Polish population and totaled 3 million. Our guide guessed at most there might be 20,000 today. Of those that survived, many emigrated to Israel due to anti-Semitism after the war.

Auschwitz-Birkenau had a section of the camp they maintained as a showpiece for the Red Cross. Families were kept together in it and not required to work. Eventually they too went to the gas chamber. We saw a small crematorium at Auschwitz that was partially reconstructed. In Birkenau we saw the ruins of the crematorium and gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed to try to hide their tracks.

And a few of the things that moved and disturbed me…a small pink ballet slipper in a display of thousands of children’s shoes, yards of textile woven from human hair, an enormous pile of pots and pans that were brought by the women to prepare for their new life. Despite all that we saw, it is still difficult to grasp the ability of people to inflict genocide and yet it continues.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Driving Through Poland

We arrived in Cracow last evening after a day of driving from Kazimierz Dolny to Sienno and then to Cracow. The drive got extended a bit as we kept hitting detours because of the flooding in Poland. The Polish police have been very helpful in getting us to routes that work and usually speak a little English. One actually input the route into our GPS.

Before we began our journey we explored the town of Kazimierz Dolny which is a little town on the river with cafes, galleries and the remains of a castle. We found the old synagogue tucked behind the main square. The town square is surrounded with Renaissance buildings with a well in the middle. We climbed to the top of the tower for a panoramic view of the city. The flooding appears to have receded, but sandbags line the water.

As we drove along the road we could see water a few feet away seeping into the nearby fields, but after we made it across to the other side the driving was relatively smooth. The country roads are narrow and there are often pedestrians and bicyclists that one must avoid. We passed many older women in babushkas working in gardens. We had a sunny day and the countryside was quite beautiful, very green and rolling hills.

I had wanted to go to Sienno, a small town in route where one set of great-great grandparents lived. I had no addresses or specific things I was in search of, just a sense of the place. While there I photographed buildings that looked like they might have existed in 1851 when my great-great grandparents married in Sienno. No one we encountered spoke any English so we couldn’t inquire about any former synagogue or cemetery.

Then we were on our way to Cracow. We arrived at dusk when we could see the beginning of a full moon. We stopped to take a photo and a Polish man invited us into his back yard for a better view. Amazing what one can communicate with no language. I’ve mastered the word for “thank you” and say it a lot for lack of any others.

We found our way through twisting streets until we came to the former Jewish district of Kazimierz where we are staying at the Hotel Rubinstein, named after Helena Rubinstein who lived in Cracow in the early part of her life. The hotel is right in the middle of Kazimierz on Szeroka Street. There are three old synagogues on the plaza, one virtually next door. The hotel was once a tenement house that dates back to the middle of the 15th century. It underwent many renovations and expansions over the centuries and the final renovation seemed to preserve the history of the building. Today we are off to see the Jewish district with the assistance of one of my fellow students from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute who lives in Cracow.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Traces of Those Who Have Gone Before

Today was a day of discovery on many levels. We had originally planned to explore Kazimierz Dolny and visit Madjanek and Lublin, but the archives had promised documents today and Michalina was available to assist me in the morning. We decided to drive to Radom and see what they had found.

They provided me with a number of identity papers, some with photos, but the most exciting find was the file from 1823 when Jews took last names. Clearly written in one column was the patronymic. In the next was the name they assumed. Among them was Berek Herszkowicz (1774-1839), my great-great-great grandfather who assumed the name Rubinstazjn. I had already conjectured that was his name based on a number of sources. I had found marriage records of his daughters that named their parents as Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn. I then found a patronymic record from 1811, the birth and death of a son to Berek Herszkowicz and Chaia Herszkowicz. As they were the only Berek and Chaia I assumed they must be the same people as the later Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn. What made me fairly sure of this was the fact that Berek died in 1839 and his first grandson was named Herszek Berek in 1942. The typical naming pattern for an Ashkenazic Jew is after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. If my theory was correct this name captured both the grandfather and great-grandfather’s names. Still it was only well-founded conjecture. The discovery of this file confirmed it without a doubt.

As the file was not lengthy I asked if they could copy the entire file so I could share it on the Shtetlink website with other researchers. I also asked for a complete copy of a file that listed contributors to the synagogue from 1892. There I found my great-grandfather’s name. Other finds included a listing of Jews who owned property which identified a family name and family members who lived in a particular home. I was also provided with a number of Russian documents that I will review on my return visit to the archives. I need to review my Russian in order to quickly recognize information with family names.

It was difficult to pull myself away from the wealth of information that was available, but we needed to head out for the next portion of our day in Lublin and Madjanek. First we stopped at a restaurant in route where we had a meal of pierogies. The waitress spoke no English so we attempted the phrase from our phrasebook requesting vegetarian food which narrowed the selection sufficiently. Pointing at what we would like seems to get us through the basic language limitations when it comes to food. It doesn’t allow for the questions I usually ask, but it suffices.

We arrived in Lublin and proceeded on to Madjanek which was a few minutes outside of Lublin. Madjanek has the unique distinction of being the only concentration camp located just outside of a city. It also is the only intact concentration camp as the Germans didn’t have time to destroy the evidence of their deeds before the Russians arrived to liberate the camp. Thus it still has its crematorium and the rooms in which they gassed the prisoners. It is an enormous complex with rows and rows of barracks. We were most struck by a room which had wire cribs filled with shoes of the victims of the Nazis, mens’ shoes, womens’ shoes, children’s shoes in endless piles filled the room. The room reeked of leather causing one to recoil upon entering it. It reminded me of the shoe memorial along the Danube in Budapest. Shoes carry such a sense of the person who wore them, conforming to the unique form of their feet. It was as if the spirits of all of those people were in that room. We could easily see Lublin from the camp and while the city no doubt has expanded, the inmates could also have seen the lights of the city in the distance, a reminder of what was once a normal life. Walking in the space in which these acts of genocide were committed made them very real and yet the enormity of what occurred is still difficult to grasp.

When we left Madjanek we stopped in Lublin where we visited the old town. Lublin had many unusual historic buildings with paintings and designs on them. The old city gates frame the colorful buildings and cafes and galleries fill the streets.

We then returned to Kazimierz Dolny where we stopped at the old Jewish cemetery and memorial just past our hotel. Many of the tombstones were damaged by the Nazis, but the memorial used the fragments and constructed a mosaic wall out of them. In the wall is a large crack through which one could walk. It signifies the break in the Jewish community that once occupied Kazimierz Dolny. Walking through the crack was a bit like walking into a different world. From sunshine, one walked into dark forest. It felt like a sacred and magical place. A number of intact tombstones still stood, all with detailed and unusual designs. Tzedakah (charity) boxes with hands dropping coins in, candles broken to signify the death and books, many books were sculpted on the tombstones. Several of those on the wall still had the residue of painted colors. I have never experienced a memorial that was so moving.

And so ends our day. Tomorrow we explore Kazimierz Dolny and then head for Sienno, the town where my great-great grandparents lived, in route to several days in Krakow.

Visiting the Radom Archives

I have traced my family in Radom back to the 1700s and intended to do some research in the Radom archives. We soon found the USC which is the archive that has records from the last 100 years. We were a bit disconcerted to discover the building locked, but upon inquiring were told to proceed through the alley to the back of the building where we found an entrance. We hesitantly made our way up the stairs following signs to the USC. A line was outside a small office in which no one seemed to speak English. I wrote down the name of the woman I had corresponded with previously and asked for her. They quickly called Emily and we were able to discuss what I needed in English. Records are 22 zlotys each, about $7 and she had found the death records for my great-grandparents and records on the family of the one surviving cousin. I was interested in those as the story was that he had taken his younger brother’s name and birth date after the war as he heard it was easier to gain entrance to the US if you were younger. This became a bit of a problem for him when he was old enough for social security. We made plans for me to return in a few days and she would prepare copies of the records. She had searched for many other records on my behalf unsuccessfully.

Our next stop was the PSA, the archives that hold the records that are older than 100 years. The PSA is located on a small park at Rynek 1. We parked in front of the building and purchased a ticket to park there from the machine up the street.

Here I met Michalina, a 15 year old Polish girl who was assisting me at the archives. I had met Michalina on-line when she was seeking information on the Jewish community of Radom. As I had created the Shtetlink website on Radom, I shared stories with her from my research. When I made plans to go to Radom, I had asked her if she might be able to assist me. Michalina arrived accompanied by her parents who have invited us to have dinner at their home next week. We are very much looking forward to talking with a Polish family from Radom.

Upon entering the building we went down the corridor on the right and deposited our belongings in one of the lockers on the wall. We brought a computer and papers into the research room where we were able to request documents from the archivists. Internet was not available at the archives so research in their on-line catalog needed to be performed prior to going to the archives. Any copies must be purchased, not photographed. Copies of pages cost 3 zlotys (about $1) with double that for a scan of the documents.

Fortunately I had done considerable research prior to arriving at the archives. The on-line catalog is quite extensive, but it is just in Polish so it was a slow and laborious process to search for files related to the Jewish community. First I identified a likely file based on Polish words that typically described Jews. Then I used my translation software to arrive at some understanding of what they included. As I had already located most of the available birth, marriage and death records, I was digging into different types of documents. One in which I was particularly interested appeared to address the surnames that Jews were required to assume in 1823. Prior to that time they had used patronymics, their father’s name with an ending meaning that they were the son or daughter. To have a document that connected the patronymic with the last name was a key to working further back in time.

At the archives I was able to review a book with indexes to identity papers which Jews were required to take out during WWII. These documents often had photographs and indicated birthdates, parents’ names and addresses. They were disturbing to me, knowing that most of their recipients were murdered within a year. I requested several identity papers as well as many of the documents that I had identified on-line. Michalina was very helpful in being able translate between me and the archivists and her assistance made the process move much more smoothly.

After leaving the archives we walked the nearby streets and I took pictures of many of the addresses where family had shops and offices. I had reviewed business directories from the 1930s and recorded addresses prior to our trip. Soon a violent rain storm began, a frequent occurrence on this trip, and we ran to our car to begin our drive to the small town in which we were staying. Kazimierz Dolny is a charming town located on the Vistula River which attracts many weekend visitors. In recent days Poland has been faced with flooding and we weren’t sure if we would be able to get to the town. Our host reassured us that it was accessible through some detours so we decided to venture forth. It is close to Lublin and the concentration camp Madjanek which we hoped to visit the following day. One detour and much rain later we arrived in Kazimierz Dolny.

Goodby Budapest

On our last day in Budapest we went back to the Jewish Museum and the Dohany synagogue and took the tour of the synagogue (see left). We also stopped at the nearby Rumbach synagogue (photo on right) that closed as an operating synagogue in the 1980s. This synagogue was built in 1872 by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner. The sanctuary is octagonal and the fa├žade is Moorish and striped with intricate designs. The synagogue was sold to the state in the 1980s and partially restored until money ran out. It is now back in the hands of the Jewish community, but is basically a shell with no interior furnishings, albeit a beautiful shell. Additional photos can be found on the Budapest album link.

We also had an opportunity to visit the Hungarian Jewish Museum which is housed next to the Dohany synagogue. The museum was in the news in the 1990s when its entire collection was stolen while the building was covered in scaffolding. The thieves climbed the scaffolding, went in through the windows and removed everything. Several months later they found virtually everything in a village in Romania.
In the evening we attended the Budapest Opera House for a performance of the Barber of Seville. The opera hall is the way you imagine opera halls should be with layers and layers of gold balconies with decorative figures. We were in the second row so had a wonderful view of the orchestra as well as the stage and could look behind us and take in the entire expanse of the opera house. At the intermission people gathered on a rooftop balcony with views of the city.

The next morning we arose early to catch a cab to the airport for our flight to Warsaw. We connected with our rental car service and soon were in a small Fiat heading towards Radom. We had brought our own GPS (Garmen 275) and had the one from the rental car as well. We found theirs difficult to program so were happy to have one we had already figured out. With its guidance we found our way to Radom, a city south of Warsaw where my grandfather came from.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Arrow and the Star

Yesterday we went to Castle Hill on the Buda side of Budapest. We retraced our steps from the prior day, down Andrassy to the Chain Bridge and across to the Buda side. We then took the funicular up to the top. There is a metro system as well as many trams in Budapest, but thus far we have walked everywhere, usually logging ten miles a day.

Castle Hill was once the seat of Hungarian royalty and is home to the Royal Palace. My interest in the area was in a small synagogue that dates back to medieval times. The ruins of two 15th century synagogues were discovered in 1960. One remains under an apartment building and has never been fully excavated. This was the Great Synagogue from the mid 1500s until 1686. There is an amusing story that the synagogue was also where a prison was kept for any Jew who committed a crime or failed to pay taxes. The prison also served as a place to store taxes and valuables. In 1521 a criminal who was held in the synagogue escaped with the gold and silver objects that had also been stored in the prison cell.

The small synagogue which has been excavated is a few doors down from the site of the Great Synagogue. It is a small room with images on the wall that date back to the 16th or 17th century. One image is a Star of David, the other an arrow. What is unusual about the Star of David is that in the early 16th century it was not yet viewed as a significant Jewish symbol. Around the star is the Birkat haCohanim which translates as “The Lord bless you and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.” 

Next to Star of David is an upward pointing arrow and a bow. The inscription translates to “The bows of the mighty are broken, and the faltering are girded with strength”. The arrow, an unusual symbol for a synagogue, is believed to represent the constant threat under which the Jewish community lived. The fear of war as represented by the arrow was aligned with the Star of David and a prayer for peace.

After finding the synagogue we explored the Castle Hill streets until the skies opened up in a torrent of rain, a frequent occurrence during our time in Budapest. We ran to the Hungarian National Gallery to explore the artwork and get out of the rain. We were pleasantly surprised by the Hungarian artwork, especially the sculpture. There were many talented artists who received little recognition outside of Hungary.

Today we rounded out our art explorations with a visit to the Kogart Museum which had a show of Marffy Odon, a Hungarian artist. Lunch in its art-filled dining room contributed to a pleasing experience. We then walked down Andrassy Avenue to the City Park which houses a castle, a zoo, several museums and one of the thermal baths within Budapest. After exploring the park we ended our day with a visit to the Fine Art Museum which was a truly amazing place with an extensive collection of Dutch, Italian and Spanish art as well as an Egyptian exhibit. And of course one more torrent of rain to end our day.

Link to Web Album for Budapest

As I have been unable to upload photos to the blog, I have provided a link in the links section to a web album for Budapest. I will be adding to it throughout our time in Budapest.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Of Synagogues and Shoes

Yesterday we decided to venture out to the Jewish quarter of the Pest side of Budapest where three synagogues cluster. There are approximately 20 synagogues in the area, but the three we went to see were the Doheny Street Synagogue, the Rumbach Street Synagogue and the main Orthodox Synagogue on Kazincy.

Of all of our destinations on this trip, Hungary is unique in having a thriving Jewish population ranging from 54,000 to 130,000 (depending on one's definition of “Jew”) with most living in Budapest. Pre-war the population was over 800,000. Germany invaded Hungary in 1944 and it was at that time that the liquidation of the Jews began. Budapest had been saved for last after the provinces were liquidated and the Nazis ran out of time. Thus Budapest is unique in having both surviving synagogues and a significant Jewish community. The population that survived was largely assimilated as the more Orthodox Jews often lived in the provinces.

We knew we were nearing the synagogue when we saw a rounded dome topped with a Star of David. A group of people surrounded a fence taking photographs of a Holocaust Memorial. This didn’t bode well. Was there a long line causing this?

We too paused to take photos of the memorial which was in the form of a broken weeping willow. Each leaf on the tree is inscribed with the name of a Hungarian Jew killed in the Holocaust. The actor Tony Curtis was a key driver behind this memorial as his father emigrated from Hungary.

We walked past the Holocaust Memorial to what is known as the Heroes’ Temple which was built in 1929-31 in memory of the Jews who died fighting for Hungary in WWI. Within its gates is the Martyrs’ Cemetery which became a graveyard during the time of the ghetto. There are twenty-four mass graves that fill the entire garden area. People have erected tombstones in memory of family members who are buried here, but many are unmarked.

As we rounded the Heroes’ Temple we saw the two octagonal towers of the Doheny Street Synagogue, a Moorish style synagogue. Above the doorway is the inscription from Exodus “and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. Twelve of the letters are marked by stars and the numerical sum of the letters signifies the Hebrew year for 1859, the year the synagogue opened.

A sign noted that the synagogue was closed to tourists both that day and the following day. We couldn’t determine why as there was no Jewish holiday listed for those days. We saw several people behind the fence and several entering the building. When I inquired about entering I was told that it was closed. Upon asking about those who were entering, I was told that they were Jewish and going to pray. “I’m Jewish”, I retorted and was granted entrance along with my husband.

The Doheny synagogue seats 3000 people and is the largest active synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. This is the synagogue where Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, celebrated his bar mitzvah and once lived next door, now the home of the Jewish Museum. While galleries were overhead, the women sat on either side on the main floor and the men sat in the middle. The synagogue is considered to be Neolog which is more akin to Reform Judaism, at least the European version. A large pipe organ filled the eastern wall surrounding the torah ark and a choir of both men and women sang the Hebrew prayers and songs. Franz Liszt is reported to have played the famous Doheny organ in 1865.

The ornate aron hakodesh, the torah ark, silently opened and presented a room filled with torahs. On the front was a golden sun with the name of God written upon it. On each side of the synagogue was a pulpit, apparently a vestige of a dispute between two rabbis from the 1920s who refused to share the same pulpit.

At the front of the synagogue stood Jews davening in their prayer shawls while at the back stood Jewish tourists with baseball caps covering their heads. Women stood in the aisle often commenting to their husbands on the proceedings. This was a far cry from the curtained off womens’ section that I witnessed in Vilnius.

The synagogue survived WWII because the Germans used its towers as a base for German Radio. The interior, like many other synagogues, was used as a stable by the Nazis.

After leaving the synagogue we walked to the other two nearby synagogues. We plan to return there when they are open to see the Jewish Museum and take a tour of the synagogues.

Later in the afternoon we walked down Andrassy Avenue, the main artery near our hotel, to the Danube. Along the way we passed the ornate Opera House and stopped in to purchase tickets to a performance of the Barber of Seville our last night in Budapest.
Proceeding to the Danube we arrived at the Chain Bridge, a massive span flanked by two lions at either end. Cottonwood seeds drifted in the air and coated the ground creating a snow-like appearance. We walked along the Danube towards the Parliament building which seemed quite cathedral-like with lofty spires piercing the sky. Our destination was a memorial to the Jews who were murdered by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross during WWII. They had lined Jews up by the Danube after first confiscating their shoes, shot them and pushed their bodies into the river. The memorial sculpture which was created in 2005 has a variety of bronzed shoes along the riverfront, mens’ shoes, womens’ pumps and baby shoes. Many are filled with flowers or memorial candles, creating a poignant memorial to the victims. The plaque spoke only of “people” who were murdered, not Jews. 

On the way back we stopped at a little grocery to pick up food for breakfast. The Hungarian language is not one which offers many reference points so shopping presented some challenges as we tried to decipher packaging. While most of the people in any tourist service speak fluent English, in our experience those in small shops have not.

We found our way to a charming restaurant for dinner called the Bock Bisztro which is affiliated with a winery. An accordion player set the mood and the food was unusual and appealing, definitely a find. The main dishes were all meat, but the tapas options offered a few vegetarian choices.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Arrival in Budapest

Today was our first day in Budapest and the beginning of our trip, a day more devoted to travel recovery and getting our bearings than visiting sites. We arrived at the airport and soon found our luggage, an ATM and a taxi. We got to our hotel in early afternoon and were pleased with its ambience. The hotel is MaMaison Residence Izabella which is located in the VI district on the Pest side of Budapest. It provides a modern apartment with a complete kitchen, wireless Internet, fitness and laundry facilities. Located off of Andrassy and Izabella, it is close to the Kodaly Korond metro stop.

After two sleepless nights we were running on limited energy so decided to explore our immediate surroundings and run some practical errands. Around the corner we found an Italian restaurant Millennium Da Pippo and had a pleasant vegetarian meal. Typical Hungarian food often includes meat, but we are looking forward to checking out a well-reviewed vegan restaurant near our hotel that offers vegan versions of traditional Hungarian cuisine.

We walked down to the West End shops which are connected to the train station. A szupermarket (pronounced “supermarket”) was attached to the complex as well as a wide variety of shops. The West End shops are the largest multi-use shopping area in Europe. We sampled the ice cream at one of the many ice cream vendors. Thus far we’ve discovered excellent ice cream in Budapest, more like gelato in the rich flavors which are offered.

As we wandered the nearby streets we found ourselves thinking of other cities in which we had traveled. The West End shops reminded us of shopping areas we had visited in Shanghai, the streets with open air cafes reminded us of Montparnasse Ave in Paris.

Tomorrow we will begin our explorations of the Jewish district and the synagogues located in Pest.