Trying to Make Sense of It All


Trying to make sense
of it all is impossible, certainly in this medium.  Hopefully this
trip helped me understand, and to a certain extent raised, certain
questions:  trying to figure out how I feel about Germany, Poland,
and Europe as a whole in light of the Holocaust and the Jews’ sad
history there; and attempting to understand how in the world the
Holocaust could have happened.  

This is more an essay than a post, so
I’ve written about various aspects of these questions and linked to
them rather than making one GINORMOUS post that will take you forever
to read.




Et Cetera

The Whole Post

Good Bye Europe


In case you haven’t
noticed, this trip has become something of an exploration of certain
themes, which has resulted in several somber posts over the last week
or so.  Themes like contemporary Jewish life and culture,
retracing my family history, learning about the culture that was lost,
genocide, fascism, human depravity.

But there are other themes I haven’t mentioned.  

One is the great time I had being
with my family for the last half of my trip.  My dad is such a joy
to be around and we are so close – it was great to see Rome with him
and Sara and Marie, and celebrating the holidays with them over there
was particularly nice. 


It was also great to be with Sara; as
you know we traveled together for a week after Dad and Marie went back
to the U.S.  We had some great experiences together and a lot of
laughs.  Laughing till your sides hurt is always fun. 
Because we don’t live in the same city, we never ran out of things to
talk about.  Sometimes we would spontaneously say the same thing
at the same time which was funny and disconcerting at the same time.

I really enjoyed watching Sara’s mind
work, in part because I know what her experiences have been, such as
backpacking for over a year through Central and South America, and of
course because she’s my younger sister and I’ve known her my whole
life.  Little things like watching her eagerly devour the Italian
phrasebook and copy many words into her own little notebook, or seeing
her pronounce perfectly the Polish word for “excuse me,” which is
“Pszepraszam” (pron. pshe-PRASH-am).  Or when we were at the Roman
Forum and she told me to be sure and check out the perfectly preserved
marble floor in the former hall where the Roman Senate met 2,000 years

And of course, much of the trip has
been about just being a tourist, seeing the sights, and all that good
stuff.  My main comment here is that no one reading this should go
to Europe without including a trip to Krakow.  That is one great
city.  I’ve gushed enough about it to make all of you sick, so I
won’t go on and on again.  But I have to mention my trip this
morning to the Collegium Maius, the oldest building of Jagellonian
University, the second-oldest college in Central Europe.  It’s so
old that Copernicus went there!  They had some of his astronomical
instruments, some great old globes and astrolabes, and in general it
was just cool to be in such a venerated old institution.  It looks
just like you would imagine a very old university to look – dark wood
beams, old scientific instruments, very very old books in centuries-old
bookcases with lead glass windows, etc.  Knowledge and learning
seemed to seep from the walls.  Don’t miss it.

The High Holy Days in Europe


The meditative
character of this trip was definitely enhanced by the fact that we were
traveling during the High Holidays, so I thought I would tell you about
our experiences observing them in Europe.

We observed the Rosh Hashanah services at the Main Synagogue in
Rome.  It was a pretty interesting experience.  The Synagogue
is certainly the most beautiful one I have ever seen.  I’m not
sure what style it is, but it was very ornate while still avoiding
looking like a church.  We had to go through security, of
course.  When we got there we thought, wow, this congregation is
really quite small, a shell of its former self.  But by the end of
the service, it was so crowded that no one could sit down; 8 or 9
people were squeezed into our pew, which had only 6 seats. 
Everyone chattered away through the service, even through the
sermon.  There must have been at least 2000 people there
total.  When we left, the courtyard was filled with well-dressed
Roman Jews.  

The best part was our conversation with Enzo Nahum.  He was
originally from Venice and told us about the experience of the Roman
Jews in the war and about the synagogue.  It was built in 1904 and
survived the war intact.  The story of how he survived the war was
pretty interesting, but I just don’t have the heart to get into
it.  We were impressed with his knowledge of history and details
about Italian Jewry, but one thing he said that sticks in my head
was:  “The Jews can’t count on anyone but other Jews to protect

Yom Kippur was an entirely different story, because we were in
Krakow.  Sara, Sara’s great friend Heidi, Heidi’s boyfriend Teria,
and I went over to the 500-year-old Remuh Synagogue, the only active
synagogue in Krakow.  The service was led by one Rabbi Gluck, who
comes in every year from Brooklyn, New York.  Ironically,
bringing him in gave the service an old world feel, because he sang
with a heavy Yiddish accent.  (E.g., “Boiruch Atoi
Adoinoy”).  His prot

The Sum of Books Unwritten


NOTE:  I wrote this on Thursday Sept. 30th, but couldn’t post it until now.

Yesterday (Wed. 9/29) Sara and I drove into Slovakia to go to a hot
springs.  (It turned out to be an annoying “Aqua Park” and not a
hot springs, but that’s another story.)  On the way back, we
stopped in a little town very near the border with Poland.  We got
out of the car and wandered around for a bit.  About a block off
the main square, we passed a pretty white building about three stories
high, with columns around the front door and other modest
decoration.  A bit bigger than the others and certainly more
ornate.  I thought, hmm, could this be the old synagogue? 
Looking up, I noticed two tablets inset into the front of the building
towards the top.  Sure enough, a local woman passing by confirmed
that this was the “synogoga zydowski.”  It’s a shoe store

Before I left for this trip, I told a
colleague that I would be visiting Poland and going to the town where
my grandfather was born.  “That sounds emotional,” he
replied.  Yes, I said, but I thought that seeing Auschwitz and
other Holocaust-related sites would be much more emotional.  It
turns out that the two are inextricably intertwined.  Visiting
Mogielnica was very saddening, because the only traces of my extended
family, and my people, were two huts in the middle of a forest where
the cemetery used to be and an old birth register at City Hall.

It was the same in this town and all across Europe.

It is not just the horribly brutal
and, later on, mechanized way that the Jews were killed.  It’s not
just the hurt and betrayal of the participation of local Poles (not all
of them, of course).  It’s the loss of a people and a culture,
hundreds of years’ worth.  Lives unlived.  Holidays not
celebrated. Gefilte fish not prepared.  Jokes not told.  What
would have happened if the Holocaust had not occurred?  Might a
steady stream of Jews still be going back and forth between New York
and Europe and feeding the once-vibrant Yiddish culture there? 
For that matter, might Yiddish still be widely spoken?  “The sum of books
unwritten,” as someone once said.  That’s the saddest part of all
to me:  lives unlived; a culture nearly erased.

Bye Poland


I’m about to leave this place and I’m sad — but this time not because of the past, but because I’ll miss the present!  This place is great and its past is its past. 

I will post concluding thoughts from America, as promised. 


Ghosts and Despair


I just got back from
the “New” Cemetery in the Kazimierz district of Krakow.  (New
meaning newer than the “old” cemetery.)  It was huge, and
completely filled with Jewish tombstones.  Some were old, a few
were new.  Some were in good shape, others were weathered or
knocked over.  Some were glued together.  Some had been moved
during the war and now are part of a mosaic-like “memory wall.”  

It’s sad many times over:  these
stones represent loved ones lost; they represent a community that was
erased; and perhaps worst of all is my feeling that for many of the
stones, no one will ever know who this person was or anything about
them, because the families of those people – the ones who would have
remembered who they were – are lost too.  

Of all the places dealing with the
Jewish people and/or our attempted eradication that I’ve seen so far,
this one made me the saddest.  I don’t know if it’s an
accumulation of all the things I’ve seen, or the uniqueness of this

It hurts to say this, because I believe in focusing on Jewish life and culture,
as opposed to the Holocaust, pogroms, or a sense of victimization – but
being here is starting to feel like walking through one big graveyard, full of ghosts and

UPDATE:  I realize, of course, that to say that is misguided,
myopic and generally unfair to the Jews and Poles living here today as
well as Jewish and Polish history here.  It’s just how I felt at
that moment.

Sara talks about Poland and Jewish History


I just wrote all my thoughts about Notte Bianca in Rome and those lame
Italians, but meanwhile, my head is swimming with thoughts about
Judaism, my Jewish grandparents who were both born in Poland, the
atrocities of the concentration camps and the Jewish ghettos and mass
murders in small town all over Poland, and the Jews still living here
today, the American or Israeli Jewish tourists who’s ancestors were
from Poland just like mine, and the number of small towns in Poland
once filled with Jews and now without a single trace, like my
grandfather’s town: Mogenlica.

is a Jewish tourist destination. It’s weird. We’ve made comparisons to
Native Americans in some ways, but that doesn’t always hold up, of
course. Still, though, here in Krakow, they sell little wooden Jewish
figures. They are about 6 inches tall, black, and they are bearded
Jewish men wearing the tallis and kippah.  I like to joke about
getting one and bringing it home to put on my mantle. And if I did,
that wouldn’t be so bad, but really it’s just not my style.  But
when you do think about the native Americans, well, first let me tell
you my favorite line from one of those Addams Family
movies.   Christina Ricci plays Wednesday and she’s at summer
camp and she’s supposed to do a nice little Thanksgiving play and
instead of being the sweet and cute silent little Indian girl, she says
on stage some line like, “I was once part of a flourishing culturally
rich society but my people were slaughtered and now those of us who are
left sell beads on the side of the highway….” 

if you really want to get further into Sara history, and cycles of
cultural ignorance, I’ll tell you another sad memory of mine. I was
into beading for awhile and one stitch is called “peyote stitch.” I was
just getting into it and was excited about it. Well at the Madison,
Wisconsin airport, there was a little store with Native American goods.
There was a peyote stitch beaded necklace just like the kind I had been
working on. So, like a beginning photographer to a professional, or a
newbie beader to the master, I asked about it. “What do you call that
stitch? Peyote stitch? I’m making something like that”….The woman was
disgusted, it was clear, and really, I don’t blame her. I forgive
myself because I was only 18 or 19, but that’s a little dense. It was
innocent enough. I understood the plight of the native Americans. But
still, I had taken a fragment of that woman’s culture and played with
it without even realizing it. I’m sure there are parallels here. 
In a flea market, we saw a menorah, a silver pointer you use to read
from the Torah, and some silver Havdalah spice boxes. That just fits
right into the Jewish tourism here.

are Jewish museums, there are Jewish synagogues, and people go to
Auschwitz. I saw a girl at Auschwitz stand in front of the entrance
building at Birkenau and her friend snapped a photo. One where the
girl’s face was in the front and the building in the back. To us, that
is simply bizarre. Not only the picture, of course. Jack and  I
took tons of those in Krakow yesterday. I’m standing there and cool old
buildings are in the background.  But to do it at Birkenau?

listen.  I’m going to close this up for now, but there is a lot to
think about.  I’ve always thought of the Holocaust and old
synagogues and Jewish history in Poland as this vague, distant, foggy
area far away.  It’s clear now. I’ve gotten to the bottom of it.
And it’s not doting on the past and it’s not victimizing myself and
Jews, it’s just exploring the history, seeing the history, and seeing
the present. Things are different now. Jews aren’t in Poland (not
many). They’re in Israel, the U.S., and all over. I have some serious
problems with Israel, that’s another long story. But now, I have a much
clearer understanding of my grandparents’ life, and their story. 
I have clearer pictures of the unspeakable suffering of the Jewish in
the camps, but I’ve learned a lot more about how bad it was in the
ghettos, like the ghetto in Warsaw.  And I’ve met Jews living here
now. And Jack and I found the old Jewish cemetery in Mogielnica, my
grandfather’s town, and it’s an overgrown forest. A young forest.
Probably 60 years old. And then we did find some sort of memorial,
probably put in recently marking where a rabbi was buried. That’s the
only trace of any of those Jewish people in the whole town. Oh wait!
Except that we went to the town’s city hall and a lady there pulled out
the book where all the births were recorded. She had a different book
for the Jews. In that book, in Russian, all the births were recorded
from 1889-1915. So we’re going to call with a Polish friend (now that
we have our grandfather’s birth year and name correctly) and see if
he’s written there. Anyhow, the point is that things are immensely
clearer now. Like in Spanish you say, why’d you go to Poland? To
“conocerlo.” To know it.  There are still a million thoughts and
confusions and questions, but I feel like I know it, I know the past
and the present. I recommend coming to Poland.
And really, the people have mostly been so so nice.

P.S. My grandfather came to the U.S., to Kansas City, in 1921 at age 17. My grandmother came around then also, at age 11.

Notte Bianca Pt. 3 — Sara Speaks


Towards the end of the Rome trip, my dad was asking us what the best moment was on the trip so far. Without a second of hesitation I told everyone it was that moment on the top of the Spanish steps. I said I want to learn to make films just so I can recreate it. It was surreal, and really kind of beautiful, but at the same time really scary. We had been down there earlier and felt the beginnings of a horrible crush. When I was in school, I was in a crush at a football game. That was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, I was on the outskirts of it and only experienced a moment of terrifying lack of movement, where I was wholly out of control and could only keep my arms to my side, not move them at all while the crowed moved me forward and back. At that game, a girl was left in a coma and I believe she died later. It was a pretty famous event, and it was the only football game I ever went to, just coincidentally. What happened was the University had decided the students weren’t going to be allowed to rush the field like they used to after every single winning game. So they blocked off the field, but the entire student section rushed to the field, and that tragedy unfolded. There were security men at each blocked off section at the bottom, and the one in front of me and my crowd of people saw what was happening and just let the crowd tear down the little barricade. The other security people didn’t figure that out, which is always what I think of when I think of that girl.

Anyways, back to Rome.

Such tension! That was why it was so incredible. And like I was saying, I think it’s because we had been down there and we were the only ones around us who understood that the people were probably creating a crowd crush. But to see this woman balanced on this man’s head, and such a mass of people, and people clearing a space in front of the ambulance, and the ambulance siren whaling — intense.

The only issue, though, is that could have been a police van instead of an ambulance. I thought it looked like a dark grey van, and later I saw white ambulances. Plus, the dark grey police vans were all over, and written on them was something about “mobile police station.”  So anyhow, the sight we saw could have been a police van.

And now back to Piazza Venezia. The friendly Italians I picked out to talk to were an easy guess. Two of the three guys had long hair, and the other one had a beard. The girl wore Birkenstocks and baggy clothes. But, much more importantly, one of the guys wore a “Rage against the machine” t-shirt, a telltale anti-Bush these-kids-are-on-the-same- page as me sign.  So, to add to Jack’s post, I have to say that the girl of this group of four told me some more at the end. The group protesting were futher left than any of the other Italian protest groups. They demanded they be able to march en masse from the piazza venezia to another area, where a sit-in was already going on while we all talked.  Anyhow, this group sort of said, and always says, well it’s our streets and even if we don’t get a permit, we want to march.  Finally, the police let them march in groups. That was what we were watching. One of the many smaller groups of these protestors marching.  I think it’s a shame they weren’t allowed to march, but then again: it’s notte Bianca. It’s like a group in Kansas City demanding they march right through the middle of Westport (which is now closed off and open containers are allowed within the Westport neighborhood)  at night when people are partying.  My point is that it was a show from the protestors, as well. But back to being flabbergasted: the amount of riot police and the 11 or so police vans who completely totally surrounded the piazza, were immense compared to these 30 protestors. But at the same time, the atmosphere was so calm. I didn’t want to stand in front of the riot police, but standing next to them talking to the Italians, I wasn’t worried at all. And I even walked in front of one of the lines of police (not the ones playing the marching game with the protestors, this is far away from them) and took a picture.

And another note on those nice Italian lefties.  I walked up to the rage against the machine t shirt guy and asked about the mass show of force. All four of their faces lit up, eyes wide, big smile, and the r.a.t.m. t shirt guy held out his hand to shake and sort of congratulate me and he said, “we were all just sitting here wondering if the tourists see this and think that it’s weird.”  It wasn’t that he was surprised we were left-leaning Americans, it was that I had walked up to them in the middle of their conversation about tourists like myself, and in so doing, answered the question they were discussing. It was one of those nice moments, for sure.  And I say that about the left-leaning Americans because 2 years ago I had a conversation with a Dutch guy in a bar in Amsterdam, who was just astounded that I thought the way I thought, that I even existed. I shared all of his views about my government. Hello! There are many sides to the story in our country! The Italian kids seemed to know this already. And wait: r.a.t.m. is an American group.

But still: have no fear: the Italians CAN’T STAND AMERICANS. No doubt about it. I’m glad to be gone from Rome, I really am. I was sick of their bitchy attitude. Sure, we met quite a few nice ones, but god forbid you want to ask a question in a store, or buy a glass of American champagne (Coke). The bottom line is, Italians can’t stand us and I was sick of them, Romans I should say, though, since I never left Rome. Oh! I should tell about the taxi driver who tried to rob me. Later..   I will tell you that I got to see my friend Heidi who is Norwegian and she confirmed this note about Italians. She said they don’t like Germans nor Americans. She said they were jerks to her until she spoke, and they would actually say, “oh, you’re okay. I thought you were American!” (Or German)  And now that we’re in Poland, well, Germans are much much more disliked than Americans. That’s a nice change. We’re not the bad guys here.

Notte Bianca Pt. 2


Later that night, we
went out with Dad and Marie.  The four of us walked to the Spanish
where there were throngs of people.  Cirque du Soleil had
set up a stage ON the steps and was about to start when we got
there!  Unfortunately, about 30,000 people had arrived before us
and there was no way we could see the show.  In fact, when it
started, we were caught in a scary crush as people began moving en
masse towards the stage. 

So we went up via the back way to the top of the
steps to see if we could watch.  Sara and I waited until someone
left, and then we had a spot along the balcony looking out towards the
stage from behind.  We had a mostly obscured view of the show.

But then a different drama began to unfold.

As I said before, at least 30,000 people were crowded into this piazza
to watch Cirque du Soleil.  From the top of the steps, we could see all
the way down a popular shopping street that goes from the piazza
to Via Del Corso — probably half a mile.  The entire length of the street
was full of people.  Just the view of all those people was

The act onstage was a stable of
C.d.S.:  two people using incredible strength, balance, and
coordination to put themselves in seemingly gravity-defying
poses.  The performers were in the middle of one of their most
striking and most beautiful poses:  the man standing with his back
to the audience, bent slightly forward — and the woman upside down,
five feet in the air, perfectly vertical, with only the back of her
neck and shoulders touching the back of his neck and shoulders. 

While the performers were getting
into this position, a process that takes about 5 minutes of careful
coordinated movement, an ambulance began to make its way from Via Del
Corso up to the Piazza.  Its siren was really loud, drowning out
the amplified music of the show.  We had a straight-on view of this long sea of people
parting as the ambulance came up the street, all while the performers did this
complicated move.  The ambulance got all the way up into the Plaza
and then stopped. 

Unfortunately, at that point we had to leave, but it looked like the ambulance was going to stay there for a while.

By the way, the performers finished
that move without a hitch.  I don’t think they were phased in the least.

Notte Bianca Pt. 1


I should have posted this a week ago, but I’m just now getting around to writing about it.

Every year in Rome (at least, for the last 2 years), the city puts
together an event called “Notte Bianca,” or “White Night.”  The French started it with Paris in 2002.  It’s
pretty simple:  they close the city center to all traffic except
taxis, all the stores stay open until 3:00 am, and all the museums are
open until 6:00 am.  There are also dozens upon dozens of concerts
and events going on all over the city.   

We just happened to be in town for the 2004 edition, which was last Saturday night.

By 6:00 pm there was clearly
something in the air.  Even though it was Saturday, the streets
were not clearing out at all and the stores were staying open.  It
was like a solar eclipse… something strange going on.  By 8:30 the
sidewalks were choked with pedestrians.  Because our hotel was on
the edge of the city center, all the foot traffic was going one
way:  towards downtown.  Sara and I decided to walk around a
bit while Dad and Marie rested, so we jumped into the river of humanity
and started to walk.

Soon we wandered into Piazza Venezia,
a historic square right in the middle of Rome.  You might call it
the political heart of Rome, or one of the political centers at
least.  This is because it contains this gi-normous marble
monument called the “Altare Della Patria,”
or “Altar of the
Fatherland.”  As you might guess from the name, this 19th Century
tribute to King Vittorio Emmanuele II who unified Italy, is considered
by most Romans to be a jingoistic, nationalistic eyesore.  Amidst
all the monuments all around the city, which are dwarfed by this
monstrosity, it’s totally out of place, and to top it all off they had
to destroy several ancient and medieval sites to build it.  And as
if it weren’t rah-rah enough, while we were in town there was also a
huge Italian flag across the monument that had half fallen down. 
The flag was apparently displayed in response to an occupation of the
Altare in March 2003 perpetrated by Greenpeace activists in which they
hung a banner showing Berlusconi with a U.S. soldier’s helmet on. 

Cattycornered from this is the
Palazzo Venezia.  From a balcony of this palace,