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.