Monday, June 14, 2010

Pictures on Radom, Cracow, Warsaw and Prague

Pictures are now posted for the balance of our trip.  Go to the right side of this page to locate the links.  For those of you who follow genealogy research in Radom, you can find much of my research on the Radom Shtetlink site, also linked on the right side of the page.

Favorite Travel Tools and Books

Home again! After three weeks on the road we were ready for our trip to come to an end.  It was a complex trip with multiple cities and genealogy research, but it all came off according to plan with the exception of frequent rainy weather.  One of the big reasons for its success was our reliance on a GPS unit both in driving and as pedestrians.  Each trip I make has some new technology to smooth the road.  On my last trip I purchased a net book and a Kindle.  The net book allowed me to post this blog, organize photos and communicate by Google video chat.  The Kindle allowed me to travel light with an extensive library.  On one of our last driving trips my husband swore that next time we were only driving if we had GPS.  That was after we passed our turnoff to Ronda, Spain and ended up in Malaga.

Before our departure I began to research GPS units.  My objective was something reasonably inexpensive with European maps included rather than requiring separate purchase.  That led me to the Garmen 275 which includes European maps and can be used for pedestrian, bike or car travel. 
With my usual belt and suspenders approach we also got a rental car with GPS.  We found it difficult to program and the only instructions were in Polish so we were grateful that we brought our own.

My husband started testing the GPS for bike travel before our departure.  As you can choose the type of vehicle that is shown on the screen we went through Poland on a virtual blue bike.  I am used to using GPS in my Prius so that is my reference point. That unit dings before a turn, while the Garmin does not.  It took awhile to focus in on turning when it got to 100 feet instead of listening for the ding and we missed a few turns before we adjusted.  The GPS also wants to make you circle rather than finding another route.

Overall it did a good job of telling us when to turn, but given the difficult Polish names it was easier to recognize our turn by watching for the street name on the screen.  Occasionally we'd lose the signal, but within a few miles it was back.  Over the course of our trip we learned how to program it with specific locations so we could easily retrieve them.  It can be set to tell you the time to a destination or the estimated time of arrival and was fairly accurate.  Driving in Poland takes longer, but it seemed to allow for that.  We especially liked a feature that told us the speed limit and the speed we were going.  The GPS can be set for miles or kilometers and we found it helpful to think in miles.

While the GPS worked well for driving it was less useful for pedestrian travel.  Part of the challenge was determining which direction to go at the start.  Slower movement made it harder to quickly gauge if we were going in the right direction.  The features and price of the Garmen 275 made it a very good investment for European travel. Now that we've returned my husband has purchased a bike mount for it and put it to use between European trips.

When I travel I always try to read topical literature  that relates to my destination.  I had read quite a bit of non-fiction prior to our trip, but shifted to novels during our travels.  One of the books which we both read was "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Akerman.
 The book is based on the true story of the Warsaw zookeeper and his wife who worked with the Underground and hid 300 Jews within the zoo.  When we found their photos at the Jewish Historical Institute among the "Righteous" we felt as if we knew them.  The book gave an interesting historical perspective on the impact of the war on Warsaw, the scope of the Uprising and an appreciation for the many Poles who saved Jews in Warsaw.  We only wished we had time to visit the zoo while in Warsaw after having read the book.

One of the other books that I read is titled "Not Me" by Michael Lavigne,
a book with an interesting premise.  The main character, Michael Rosenheim, is a standup comic whose father was believed to be a survivor and worked actively to support the Jewish community.  As his father is dying, Michael finds his father's journals from which he learns that his father was an accountant for the Nazis who faked being a survivor. At first I thought an accountant seemed rather innocuous until I realized he was accounting for hair shorn from the murdered and watches and belongings confiscated before their death. His father had served at Madjanek which we visited early in our trip. The story is in large part about how the son comes to terms with his father and his history, but it is also about how his father journeys from Nazi ideology to truly becoming what was originally a masquerade.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Travels to Terezin

Yesterday we met up with our guide Aharon to travel to Terezin. Unlike the other concentration camps we had visited, Terezin was a temporary holding place until victims were shipped to other camps. The camp was about an hour’s drive outside of Prague. Originally a garrison town, it was designed to be difficult to attack which also served the Nazis’ purpose of being difficult to escape from. The city was encircled by walls, then an area that could be flooded as a moat, then more walls. Around the town lived many ethnic Germans insuring that if a prisoner escaped they would have nowhere to go. The people who lived in the town were moved out to open up the town to serve as a camp and many moved back after the war.

The first transport was in November 1941 and transports continued until 1945 with 150,000 Jews going through Terezin. It wasn’t a death camp although 35,000 people died of illness or starvation. Most were sent on to other camps and their deaths.

Terezin is best known for its role in deceiving the Red Cross about what occurred in the camps. The story of the camps broke in April 1944 after the first successful escape from Auschwitz. The escapees were part of the underground so were very knowledgeable about what was occurring. At that point most of the Jews had been murdered so only the Hungarian and Slovak Jews remained. The two escapees published a detailed report that went to a number of sources including the Red Cross and the Vatican. The Red Cross had to respond and so they planned to visit Terezin. The Nazis sought to create a showcase camp that would deceive the Red Cross into thinking that the stories were false. In order to make the camp seem less crowded they sent 13,000 Jews to Auschwitz. They arranged for them to be kept there for six months so they could write letters home indicating all was well. Then on Purim they were gassed. False stores and cafes were created to facilitate the deception. Needless to say it was not the finest hour of the Red Cross as they believed the Nazis’ lies.

Not everyone worked in Terezin and children lived in the camp until their deportation and death. As a result there were efforts to engage the children artistically and much of their artwork remains. Adult artists were required to work for the Nazis, but many also did their own artwork, often subversive in nature and showing the side of the camp the Nazis hoped to hide. There was also an active theater and a number of talented writers and musicians. Theater and musical performances were an important part of the camp and a group of teenage boys published a newspaper until their deportation.

We then headed over to the hidden synagogue, originally located in a private home, now part of the memorial. The original family had to leave Terezin when it was converted to a camp. They returned after the war and discovered a room decorated with Stars of David and Hebrew text. It was not until after the fall of Communism over 20 years ago that the family felt they could reveal the room. In the intervening years it was used for storage.

To enter the synagogue you must first go through a courtyard. During the war a bakery for the Nazis was on the other side of the wall. The design of the synagogue is attributed to Artur Berlinger who it is believed was an artisan at Terezin with access to paints. The walls contain a number of texts, paintings of candles and Stars of David. The texts are particularly telling given the circumstances faced by the Jews. The Eastern wall has the text from the Talmud, “Know before who you stand”. On the other walls are such texts as “We beg you, turn back from Your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen”. The portion from the morning prayers asks that they be removed “from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon”. Other prayers plead with God not to forget them and to rescue them. The selection of prayers which were on the walls was clearly designed as a response to the circumstances in which they found themselves. The hidden synagogue was a deeply touching expression of faith in circumstances which could sorely test it.

As we drove through the countryside Aharon reminded us that the Germans’ murder of the Jews was only the first step in their plan which would have next extended to Poles and other nationalities. The plan for the Czechs was to exterminate a third, use a third for slave labor and Germanize the balance. He noted that the countries that were closer to the earlier activity during the war saw the most Jews escape prior to the war. Over 50% of pre-war Jews in Austria and Germany left as well as 25% of Czechs Jews.

We also discussed the interest in Eastern Europe in Jewish heritage today. I related that when I was at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I was surprised at the number of non-Jews who sought to learn Yiddish, many with an interest in the history or literature. In the United States that would be very uncommon. Aharon noted that in Europe the Jews co-existed for centuries with the local population and often made up a significant percentage of the cities. Their history is also part of the history of the nation in which they lived which contributes to this interest. Frequently grandparents may remember the Jews who lived in their communities and that spurs interest as well. He also commented that many people are discovering that they have Jewish roots and there is a new-found interest in learning more about their history.

Today we shifted gears from Jewish history to Czech art with visits to two excellent museums. The Kampa Museum is located along the river south of the Charles Bridge. It has large collections of paintings by Frantisek Kupka and sculptures of Otto Gutfreund. I had especially enjoyed the work of both artists on our earlier visit to the Veletrzni Palace. Kupka was born in Czechoslovakia, but worked largely in France. He painted largely abstract work and was an amazing colorist. He also saw a relationship between music and painting and sought to express that in his artwork.

Gutfreund is acknowledged as the first cubist sculptor. His earlier more representational work was also quite strong. We recognized many of the same pieces that we had seen at the Veletrzni Palace with the Kampa having many of the earlier studies.

Later in the day we stopped at the Mucha Museum to view the work by Alphonse Mucha, a leading Art Nouveau artist, best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. Our travels to different countries are always a good opportunity to see a cross-section of work by artists in their countries of origin.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gardens and Galleries

We actually don’t spend all of our time exploring the Jewish history of the cities we visit, that just seems to offer more background to write about. On our first full day in Prague we began our day with a walk to the Castle. Aharon had suggested the prior day that we take the funicular in Kinskie Gardens (across from our hotel) to the first stop and get off and wander through the park. As promised we found wonderful views of the city and a lovely park as well. We have noticed that there are quite a few large parks in Prague. They seem to value their greenery as the parks are actively used. Along the way we passed a memorial to the victims of Communism. The sculpture has several male figures, some partially disintegrating as they descend the steps. A metal line is inset into the steps with the numbers of victims shot, exiled, arrested, executed or who died in prison.

Ultimately we came to the Strahov Monastery. From there we walked down the hill to arrive at the castle complex. The castle was founded in the 9th century and has been the home of most Czech rulers since. As we entered the area we discovered a very striking building with interesting sgraffito on its walls. Sgraffito is a decorative technique that we see frequently in Prague. It is a mural technique from the Renaissance that creates a 3D effect. The building was the Schwarzenberg Palace which is part of the National Gallery and has a collection of Baroque work. We continued to the Sternberg Palace across from the Schwarzenberg which contains European art, largely Italian and Dutch. They had an extensive collection of Rubens as well as a Rembrandt, Goya, Titian and El Greco. We especially enjoyed a sculpture garden that was very peaceful and quiet after maneuvering through the throngs of tour groups.

We wandered down from the castle to the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is a pedestrian bridge built in 1400. It has many religious statues on its sides and stalls selling tourist goods in the middle. Unfortunately it also has many tourists. My husband has perfected the technique of waving his hat when we get separated, a technique that we used several times just crossing the bridge. We walked across the bridge to the Old Town Square where the Astronomical Clock is located. The clock dates to 1490 and on the hour a skeleton representing death rings a bell and figures of the apostles move through the windows.

The following day we visited several gardens and museums. We found the Vrtbovska Garden tucked behind a small entry and then wandered over to the Wallenstein Gardens that are part of the Czech Senate. Filled with statues and frescos and an occasional peacock, the most unusual feature is a wall that creates a limestone grotto with artificial stalactites. We found faces and animals within the seemingly random forms.

We then caught the tram to the Veletrzni Palace, part of the National Gallery and with an amazing collection of both Czech and international art. We could have used a few more hours to do it justice. I discovered a fondness for Kupka abstracts, enjoyed the Muchas (which have their own Prague museum as well) and saw a cross section of cubist furniture in addition to paintings. We found several paintings which Kokoschika had done of Prague and the Charles Bridge and several Schiele paintings which he had done while staying in his mother’s hometown in the region. There were also many artists with whom we had not been familiar. In both Hungary and the Czech Republic we were struck by the many talented artists who are not known outside of the boundaries of their country. After the museum closed we met our friend who is also in Prague for dinner. Tomorrow we regroup with our guide Aharon and go to Terezin.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Jewish Quarter of Prague

Our visit to Prague began with a tour of the Jewish quarter. Patty, an artist friend of ours, also happened to be in Prague during the same time period and joined us for the day. Our guide Aharon Hribek met us at our hotel and we headed for the tram. Aharon gave us a much appreciated lesson in using the trams of Prague to navigate the city. As we rode the tram he pointed out some areas to explore. At 25 Kqrmelitska there is an entrance to some beautiful gardens of which few people know. He also suggested that we take the funicular in the nearby park to the second level and walk to the Castle.

We took the tram from our hotel to Cechuv Most, the bridge directly across from the Jewish quarter. There he told us that the original buildings of the Jewish quarter were razed in the early 1900s. The area was very susceptible to flooding which contributed to the spread of disease and the area was rebuilt to eliminate this problem. The predominant style is Art Nouveau and it is quite striking to see an entire street in a similar design.

As we looked back at the bridge from which we had come we noted a giant metronome in constant movement. Aharon told us that once a statue of Stalin stood on that site. When they took it down after the fall of communism, the metronome was created to take its place.

Aharon told us that the synagogues were originally organized by guild. There were 11,000 Jews in the early 1700s so many synagogues were required to meet their needs. Today Czechs have the highest percentage of atheists despite their many churches and synagogues that date to an earlier time. There are about 1700 people who define themselves as Jewish. Of these about 400 are active and 100 are somewhat observant.

He pointed out two buildings from the 1500s that fell outside the ghetto to give us an idea of what the buildings would have looked like. When the area was rebuilt, it was filled in to avoid flooding. The older buildings are at a lower level as a result, the main floor is more than 10 feet lower than current street level. He also pointed out an unusual cubist building of which there are about 15 found only in Prague.

We purchased a ticket to the entire Jewish museum which consists of many synagogues, the cemetery and related buildings. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs of the interiors.

We began our synagogue visit with the Spanish synagogue which dated to 1868. The Ten Commandments on the outside are numbered with Roman numerals rather than Hebrew lettering, an effort perhaps to state to the neighbors that we are not so different from you. Within the synagogue the commandments are in Hebrew text. The style of the synagogue is Moorish, similar to some of those that we saw in Budapest and Cracow. Aharon provided some historical context by telling us that in 1848 the Jews of Prague were emancipated. They no longer had to live in the ghetto. Restrictions on professions, education and owning land fell away under the rule of Joseph II. The grand synagogue grew out of the new-found confidence of the Jewish community in light of these changes.

These changes were part of a larger effort to wrest power from the church. Joseph II felt that too much power resided in the hands of the religious realm. He abolished the Jesuit order which controlled the education system and secularized it, requiring education to occur in German.

The interior of the Spanish synagogue was ornate and modeled in its intricacy after the Alhambra. Windows were in a horseshoe arch. You can get some idea of the type of building from photos of the Doheny and Rumbach synagogues in Budapest, but I found this building to be even more striking.

Within the synagogue was an extensive collection of silver ornaments for the Torah and other religious items. The collection is significant and includes items from throughout the country for an unusual reason. When deportations began to death camps in 1942, much Jewish property was abandoned. Jewish scholars sought to preserve this property by creating a museum in Prague. The original Jewish Museum dated back to 1906 and this effort sought to build on that effort. The Nazis agreed to the idea of the museum, but they of course would administer it and determine its direction. Their concept was quite different than that of the scholars. They sought to create a Museum of an Extinct Race, one which would justify genocide. It is for this reason that the synagogues and cemeteries of Prague survived even as many of the Jewish residents did not. Many of the original employees of the museum were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.

We next visited the Old New Synagogue. One theory on the name is that there was once an Old synagogue so this was known as the New synagogue. When the Old synagogue was torn down to make room for the Spanish Synagogue this was renamed the Old New Synagogue as there were many synagogues in town to distinguish between. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the world that is in use dating back to 1260. On the other side of the street is the High Synagogue which dates to the 1570s. The street between them is the original ghetto street which is more like a sidewalk than what we would consider a street today.

Also across the street from the Old New Synagogue is the Jewish Town Hall which bears an unusual feature. Its tower contains two clocks. One is a conventional clock, but the other is numbered with Hebrew letters and runs backwards as Hebrew is read from right to left.

The Old New Synagogue has a Gothic interior which has been expanded over time. One has to step down into it for two reasons, the streets were raised due to flooding and the Jews were required to build it lower than the lowest church. Windows are very narrow as it is likely that originally there were only shutters rather than glass. Narrow windows protected the contents of the synagogue from weather while still allowing for light. Originally the synagogue was probably only for men as the women were not educated. As literacy in women increased, they added a womens’ section with small openings into the synagogue so they could hear the service. There are many elements that carry numerical significance. Twelve windows signify the twelve tribes and possibly five ribs in the vaulted ceiling signify the five books of Moses. The synagogue itself was built by monks as they were the experienced architects of the day. The original baroque chandeliers originally held candles. Unlike most of the buildings in the area, the synagogue was not made of wood and was somewhat protected from the ravages of fire that affected the area with some frequency.

Our next stop was the Pinchas Synagogue, dedicated to Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz in 1535. It is a late Gothic, early Renaissance building and is now a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Its walls are entirely covered by the names of those who were murdered, first the town in yellow, then the family name in red and finally the first names, dates of birth and dates of deportation in black. The names were originally recorded after the war. Then in 1968 the synagogue was closed for “renovations” and the walls whitewashed, a reflection of the communist regime’s insensitivity towards the Jews. The synagogue was closed for 20 years. After Vaclav Havel came to power in 1989 he made it a priority to re-inscribe the names.

Upstairs we found an exhibition of the children’s art from Terezin where they were taught by a teacher who subsequently died in the deportations. Each artwork told us the date of deportation and death of the child, with only a few survivors. It felt especially poignant seeing the paintings of their memories of life pre-war and their observations of what they had witnessed, especially knowing that many were murdered just a short time later.

Outside of the Pinchas synagogue we found the old Jewish cemetery which was used from 1420 until 1787. The cemetery is unusual in that tombs are built on top of other tombs so that there are 12 layers at its deepest point, but at least 5 or 6 layers in general. While only 12,000 tombstones show there are about 50,000-100,000 people buried there. When they buried someone they laid the body on top and covered it with dirt so that the cemetery was built up in layers. There are tombstones that show from totally different periods of time. We asked Aharon the date on a nearby tombstone and he translated it as 1590. Nearby stood one from 1710. The different architectural styles of the time were reflected in the tombstones as well. The tombstones stood at various angles like crooked teeth.

One of our subsequent stops was at the Ceremonial Hall which was the Burial Society. Some very unusual paintings tell the story of an ill person who subsequently dies and is buried. They show the process of cleaning the body, preparing a shroud and the role of the Burial Society in burying the body. The paintings dated to the 1780s, shortly after the cemetery was closed. Tombstones shown in the cemetery painting can be identified today.

Our next stop was the Klausen Synagogue which originally was the site of three small buildings. The word “Klaus” actually means small building. The buildings were a synagogue, a mikveh and a yeshivah. In 1689 the buildings burned down and were replaced with the Klausen Synagogue which is in the Baroque style. Balconies were added to the synagogue for the women at a later time.

Finally we closed our visit with the Maisel Synagogue which was originally built in 1592 as a Renaissance building. It was attached to other buildings so frequently affected by fire. As a result it was rebuilt many times in different styles so can best be termed eclectic. Aharon noted that there are examples of each style of architecture among the synagogues. This points to a thoughtful effort to preserve synagogues based on their different periods even as many buildings were destroyed in the early 1900s.

We came away from our visit with a much better sense of the history of the Jewish community that once inhabited this area and the story told by the surviving synagogues.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Warsaw Wanderings

We had a whirlwind visit to Warsaw and found ourselves wishing we had more time there. During WWII over 85% of the buildings were destroyed. They were replaced during the era of Communist control which makes for some rather blocky unadorned buildings. Despite that appearance, as we began to explore the city we found many things of interest and could have used at least another day or two.

We dropped off our car in Warsaw and had that evening and the following day to explore. In the evening we wandered over to Prozna Street which is the one street that survived within the borders of the Jewish Ghetto. In response to the Ghetto Uprising, the Nazis burned the ghetto down. Much of Prozna looks abandoned, but large photos of its former inhabitants hang on the buildings making an interesting display. We walked around to the back of the buildings where we could see balconies and a courtyard and envision what the buildings were like in the time of the ghetto. Ironically the name Prozna means “vacant” as it originally joined two vacant lots. Now its name seems oddly appropriate.

Nearby we found the Nozyk Synagogue, the one surviving synagogue in Warsaw after the destruction of WWII. Like many we have seen, it was used as a stable by the Nazis during the war years, but is now an active synagogue.

We continued on our walk through the Jewish area to find a remaining section of the ghetto wall. We later discovered metal plaques embedded in the pavement to highlight the boundaries of the ghetto.

The following day we headed for the Jewish Historical Institute. The Thomackie Street Synagogue, the major synagogue in Warsaw, used to be located across the street until it was dynamited by the Nazis. The building in which the Institute is located was the synagogue library and Institute for Judaic Studies. It is one of the few buildings that survived. There we were able to go through an exhibit on the Warsaw ghetto and uprising. A film is available in English which tells the story of the ghetto. It has extensive footage from that time period. There is also some chilling footage taken by the Nazis of the burning of the ghetto. Pre-war there were 380,000 Jews in Warsaw and they made up 30% of the city. About 100,000 died in the ghetto of starvation and disease. Others were deported to their deaths. The story of life in the ghetto is known to us today because of the efforts of Emmanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum was a historian who prior to the war sought to tell the story of the Jews of Warsaw until the 20th century . By the time the war broke out he was up to the end of the 18th century and had published widely. In 1939 his attention shifted to what was occurring around him. He begain meeting with a group of the underground leadership under the code name of “Oneg Shabbat”. They collected documentary information and conducted research on ghetto life. When they learned of the Nazis’ plans for annihilation of the Jews they smuggling a report to London reporting on the 300,000 Jews who had been deported to their deaths in Treblinka. Thus knowledge of these activities was available to the US and British early in the war. Three milk containers were hidden in Warsaw containing this documentation. Two of these were discovered after the war containing 40,000 pages. One of the milk containers is exhibited in the Jewish Historical Institute today.

In addition to the ghetto exhibition, there was an excellent art exhibit of work done by artists who lived in the ghetto, most of whom died in the camps.

I had heard that the Institute did some genealogy work and inquired as to where. I was directed to the building across from the Institute where I found a small office. There I introduced myself to Yale Reisner and Anna Przybyszewska Drozd who work with the Jewish Genealogy and Family Heritage Center. I provided them with my family names and towns and they reviewed their records to determine what information was available. The materials which they located included a 1901 Homeowners List for Radom which included some family names and addresses. They also pulled out a 1932 and 1941 phone book. The 1941 phone book had just a few Jewish names because they would have been moved to the ghetto by then. It was chilling to see the Gestapo listed in the phone book. They provided me with a link I had not yet discovered for the Radom Municipal Library which has documents which can be downloaded that include information on the Jewish community, yet another source to mine for my research. They also have photographs of some of the Jews of Radom. I obtained a list to post on the Radom Shtetlink site which I created earlier this year. I took the opportunity to share the site with them and was gratified to learn that they had already accessed the site recently.

Yale told me of the AGAD Central Archives of Historical Records also housed in Warsaw. I learned that they have some information on voter lists from Radom and other materials that will have to wait for a future visit.

Yale told me that there had been a lot of activity in Radom in trying to clear title for development of abandoned buildings. Our friend Jakub in Radom had also talked of the difficulty in developing areas because of a lack of clear title due to buildings that previously belonged to Jews who were murdered. Apparently this is an issue throughout Poland. A notice is placed in the paper for three months and if no response is received the government takes control of the building.

We still had a few evening hours in Warsaw and decided to visit the Old Town. The Old Town is a bit of a misnomer as it was destroyed during the war and rebuilt exactly as it had once been. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site because of the faithful reproduction. We wandered the streets and took photos of the many striking and colorful buildings. Many included paintings and sculpture on their fa├žade.

We also did a stop at the Ghetto Heroes Monument which is located in front of what will be the Museum of the History of Polish Jews slated to open in 2012. In this area we also found the monument of the bunker which was the headquarters of the Jewish Resistance Organization. A mound stands at the height of the rubble from the destruction of the ghetto. There is a memorial route with a number of stones engraved with the history of the key participants in the ghetto uprising. This ends near the plaza where the Jews were assembled for deportation where a monument lists out the given names of the Jews.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Photos of Kazimierz Dolny

You will find photos at Kazimierz Dolny at or at the link on the links list titled Kazimierz Dolny photos. More to come as time permits. Just arrived in Warsaw and will have a packed day exploring before we fly to Prague.