Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reclaiming Poland

Marty and I just returned from our whirwind trip in which we started out in Poland, went to the Baltics and Israel, and then returned to Poland to round out our visit there.

It was a very personal, spiritual reclamation for me, and also a reconciliation that needed to happen in order for me to honour the memory of my family in the place where we had lived for 900 years or more.

Mum and I had always wanted to go to her hometown Lodz together, but alas, she became ill, and it was not to be. So, along with all my personal baggage, this was an homage to my late mum, who kept a detailed and very moving memoir of her childhood years, which were spent in Lodz. I had never been to her part of the world where she spent her childhood whereas my kids know every inch of Toronto and how I lived my life as a kid. So I had a big empty spot that badly needed to be filled.

We visited every one of my mother's homes up until December, 1939, when Mum went to Siberia with her brother. I would say that the second generation of us Lodzers are somewhat fortunate in that most of the city has been preserved just as it always has been. In fact, some of the original restaurants and places of business are still operational. It's almost like I was walking in her world.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel on Piotrkowska Street, which still has an air of its former grandeur -- my mother's aunt who visited from Berlin used to go there to use the toilet since there was no indoor plumbing in my mother's family's apartment in Baluty. The marble interior and the restaurant have been preserved as have many of the brass signs and woodwork. With the exception of my mother, who was born in Lodz (Dad was from Konskie), everyone was wiped out and so I had no connection to any of them other than through my mother's stories and her written memoirs. Now I was able to run my hand along the same marble handrail that was used by her aunt, and see the cinemas that Mum frequented, sample her favourite ice cream, see the bandshell at Park Helenow where the Chor Dana once performed, and even walk around the same lake that she remembered so fondly at the park. Its paddle boats are long gone, and Chor Dana is silent, but what an indescribable feeling to walk where Mum walked as a young girl.

We walked to Plac Wolnoci and headed toward the old Jewish area of Baluty. There's a "new" statue (erected 1960) of Tadeusz Kosciusko to replace the one that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, as described by my mother: She chillingly recalled a Nazi soldier posing for a picture on that very site, laughing, arm around his girl, his jackbooted foot on the dynamited statue's head.

I was able to see and photograph all of my mother's homes from her childhood, including Stary Rynek 1, which overlooks the once-crowded, lively marketplace. Mum was born into an attic apartment overlooking the square.

We saw her old school on Wierzbowa Street, and storefronts that she had described, such as the deli at Stary Rynek 1, which is now a souvenier and folk art store. We bought a keychain for Yona there and kept the receipt as a souvenier.

Despite the graffiti and neglect, it felt really good to come to Lodz and "reclaim" it for my family as the origin of our family's history. Based on my mother's colourful description of the city streets, it seems that Lodz is empty and lonely for a more innocent time. Our visit was appreciated by the local businesses and the hotel. I felt very uplifted as I wandered around the old neighbourhood -- as though the dear departed souls knew that we had not forgotten them.

I soon learned that the state of neglect is something that is a holdover from the Communist era, which can be felt throughout Poland, and particularly in the poorer metropolitan areas such as Lodz. Buildings are dingy and run down (some are abandoned), streetcars are outdated and thunder through the streets with no shock absorbers. They are known to run off the tracks and tip over. If you're driving, get out of the way when you hear them. They are not real clear on right of way at intersections either.

After a good bit of walking, we found what was left of Jakuba Street, which is where my mother was placed by the Jewish komitat when she came back to Lodz. It was the best they could offer. The remnant is a row of tenement cabins behind some more recent buildings. It seems that today they serve as worksheds. That was the worst to see, and to imagine that, after surviving six years in Siberia and the decimation of her entire family, this was her hero's welcome.

The local Jewish community, headed by Hazzan Symcha Keller, was welcoming and warm. The community is housed in the original Jewish community building which dates back to 1840 and can be found at the gmina at 18 Pomorska Street.

Coincidentally we arrived in Lodz on Tisha B'Av -- a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar which commemorates destruction of two temples as well as Krystalnacht. We were invited to have dinner with the community members before nightfall, and then we went to prayers in the gmina synagogue that night. Services were led by Symcha, who chanted a haunting Lodzer melody of Eichah (Lamentations) that he learned from an elderly hasidic cantor who had remained in Lodz, now deceased.

I'm sure some of you know that Symcha and his staff are a great resource for finding Jewish geneological records.

During the course of that day I learned that the city of Lodz would be hosting a group of children from the northern Israeli town of Nahariya who were coming to get some relief from their shell-shocked city. I contacted the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and fed them the story. I posted it here with the blessing of the JTA.

The rest of our stay was spent talking with people and getting a feel for the city and the country. We were hosted by friends -- she is Lodz-born and bred married to a Canadian. They returned to Lodz together this year to take care of her elderly mother who never left the city except for imprisonment in Auschwitz. She has been slowing down, and when her annual trip to Toronto became too difficult for her to manage, the couple decided to pack up and come to Lodz to take care of her. I had the very rare opportunity to spend time with her and get to hear about what life was like from someone who never left.

Overall, it was a good feeling to "come home" to Lodz and get to know and understand the city and its people. It is a complicated place which on one hand has preserved the Jewish ghetto area for its occasional interested groups and meanderers like me.

On the other hand, it boasts the Manufaktura, a huge, world-class shopping mall in the old textile mill area. It was there that "Di Kinder Fun Lodzer Ghetto / Dzieci z lodzkiego getta," a moving musical commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the ghetto by Andrzej Krauze, was recorded. I was also impressed to hear that Lodz Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki is an outspoken advocate on behalf of Jewish causes and a good friend of the Jewish community. Even better -- he is popular with the electorate.

My advice to anyone of Polish origin -- whether Jewish, Roma, Catholic or otherwise -- is to visit Poland if you've never been there. It is full of history -- some of it your own. You will learn a lot about yourself in the process. And to boot -- by western standards it's a very inexpensive holiday that will not break your bank book.

A few tips when reclaiming Lodz:

Eat!! Polish food of the farmers is delicious and familiar! It is a cornucopia of grains, dairy and meat products (and veggies such as cabbage, potatoes, pickles plus fresh seasonal fruits and veggies) perfect for cold weather eating. Rye bread is a must! Younger Jewish Americans will recognize many of the dishes as fairly typical of their grandparents' fare.

For a taste of the aristocracy, have coffee and dessert at the Klub Spadkobiercow upstairs at Piotrkowska 77. It has been a fine dining establishment since the end of the 19th century and its decor has been impeccably preserved. Ask the management about the history of this restaurant, which emerged as part of the industrial age in Lodz. You will not be disappointed. Your Eastern European ancestors probably dined here, perhaps during a business trip while staying across the street at the Grand Hotel.

When you are absolutely tired of paying dirt-cheap prices in the mom and pop shops along the main drag, then you are ready to come to the brand-spanking new Manufaktura to browse the stores, watch the people and feel what it's like to wander around in a expansive indoor shopping mall on the site of the historic textile mills of Lodz. There is also a museum on premises. Don't be surprised at this time of year if you hear live music from a big stage near the children's rides and amusement area where you will notice signs that advertise "Lodz Stok" -- the Polish pronunciation is Woodge-stock...like Woodstock...get it?

If you are Jewish, or suspect that you may have Jewish relatives that no one told you about, then give props to the old Jewish community of Lodz, check out the numerous museums and visit the old cemeteries. You might want to read this article from 2000, in which a university professor comes to Lodz and expresses the overwhelming sentiments along his road to reconciliation. And then you can come by the Jewish gmina at 18 Pomorska Street and join the local community for Shabbat, or just come say hello at the kosher Cafe Tuwim, also located at the 18 Pomorska Street complex.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A little good news from abroad

Dear Friends,

Greetings from our incredible trek through Poland. I don't have much time to write, but I did want to share with you an article that has an air of good news and reconciliation on the part of the Jewish community. I was in Lodz when I heard about a group of kids who were coming from northern Israel for some "r&r" in Poland. I immediately contacted the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York City and suggested that it would make a good story. I hope you find it uplifting as I did. I am optimistic that it is a positive step toward many other such positive stories about Poland from the Jewish community. Incidentally, this story ran throughout the world in Jewish community newspapers. I sent it out to a number of my friends -- Jewish and also Kresy-Siberia -- and got tremendous response. A good thing.

Off to Krakow on Wednesday and love to all,

Besieged by Hezbollah rockets, Israeli kids find shelter in — Poland
By Dinah Spritzer

PRAGUE, Aug. 8 (JTA) — Even a decade ago, almost no one could have predicted that Poland, of all places, would serve as a refuge for Israeli children.

But a country that some Jews still think of as ground zero for European anti-Semitism is among the first in Central and Eastern Europe to sponsor a free getaway for young Israelis who were spending most of their time this summer in bomb shelters as Hezbollah sends rocket salvoes into the Jewish state.

Jerzy Kropiwnicki, mayor of Lodz — once home to the second-largest Jewish population in Europe — decided his city would pay for 15 teens from the northern Israeli city of Nahariya to escape to Lodz.

Starting Sunday, the young Israelis embarked on an 18-day vacation in Poland, to include sightseeing, educational programs and Jewish community visits.

“We want them at least to forget for a little while about what is happening in Israel,” said Jarek Nowak, a member of the Lodz City Council who played a key role in organizing the trip.

In an afterthought that belies the city government’s well-known affinity for Israel, Nowak added, “This is the least we can do. If we can’t solve the situation they are in, at least we can give them a little rest to comfort them.”

He said the Israelis, ages 12-16, were from poor and single-parent, mostly Sephardi families.

Their home city, which chose the children to participate in the visit, has been hit particularly hard by Hezbollah rockets.

Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, who met the children when they arrived at Warsaw airport, said he wasn’t surprised by the Lodz mayor’s initiative.

“He has been involved in Jewish issues for some time, including the annual commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto,” Peleg said.

“Our embassy is providing logistical help for the young peoples’ trip, but the credit goes to the city,” he said. “The mayor’s gesture warmed our hearts.”

In a phone interview, Nowak said the teens so far were infatuated with Poland and the reception they have received.

“They’re so excited. For all of them, it’s their first trip on an airplane, their first trip outside the country,” he said.

The program includes horseback riding, kayaking, painting classes and photo classes; tours of Warsaw, the Warsaw Ghetto monument and Lublin; visits to the Jewish communities of Wroclaw and Lodz; and Shabbat dinners.

“We will offer them some Holocaust education as well, but not until the end of the trip when perhaps they can focus more,” Nowak said.

One of the group’s two Israeli guides, Dima, said they were having the time of their lives, though they were constantly worried abut friends and family back home.
“They can’t believe how green Poland is,” he said. “But what I think they like most are the shops.”

Symcha Keller, cantor of Lodz and chairman of its 300-member Jewish community, said the teens were dining at the community headquarters and that he was honored to help organize the itinerary.

“For the first time, the mayor of a city in Poland, in this case of Lodz, is helping people from Israel,” he said. “It’s very beautiful that we Poles can give something to Israel.”

Lodz is paying for the children’s daily kosher meals. Accommodation at hotels, arranged by the Lodz Jewish community, has been provided free of charge. LOT Airlines paid for most of their flights, while the Polish president’s office took care of the remaining amount.

“Once the Polish media started to cover the visit we started getting calls from hotels, restaurants, businesspeople, asking how they could help,” Nowak said.

The publicity also resulted in the mayors of Wroclaw and Lublin contacting Peleg and suggesting that they too would like to host Israeli children desperate to escape Hezbollah’s wrath.

Nowak likes to think of his city’s reaching out to the Israeli teens as yet another step in its effort to honor the city’s Jewish heritage. On the eve of World War II, Jews made up 34 percent of Lodz’s population.

“When the mayor, a Catholic nationalist, was elected four years ago, the city was known as the most anti-Semitic in Poland. It was covered in anti-Semitic graffiti, which was really about a rivalry between two soccer teams, and the people had some very negative attitudes towards Jews,” he recalls.

Everyone in Jewish circles agrees that Kropiwnicki has changed Lodz’s image. In 2004, he organized a yearlong, 60th anniversary commemoration of the Lodz Ghetto’s liquidation with hundreds of events. The final ceremony included the participation of 10,000 locals.

“Kropiwnicki wants what happened to the Jews to be taught in schools, and believes that as witnesses of the Holocaust we all have an obligation to the victims,” Nowak said.

Last year, the city erected a monument on the spot where nearly all of Lodz’s 223,000 Jews were deported to their deaths by the Nazis. But now, much of Lodz and Poland, where sentiments are pro-Israeli, is occupied with young Israelis who are very much alive, Nowak said.

Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, said he was impressed with Lodz’s example.
“It’s an important sign from the country of Poland, taking in these kids,” he said. “Sitting in a bomb shelter is no way to spend your summer vacation.”

Schudrich hopes the efforts of the Lodz municipal government might change some people’s ideas about Poland.

“There are lots of things that shouldn’t happen in this country and we hear about them,” he said. “We should also take notice of the good.”