Monday, May 31, 2010

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.

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