Posted Pavel Pustelnik
Singer's Warsaw - Warsaw is becoming a new Berlin, a place to be – I was told recently. During the summer Singer's Warsaw Festival definitely. For a couple of days the city becomes a hub of Jewish culture and ideas.
The centre of Warsaw is a mosaic of places formed by the history and contrast. The soc-realist concrete structures with the Palace of Culture and Science as their leader neighbour rebuilt buildings destroyed during the war and absolutely invaluable modernist architecture, not appreciated by many but receiving more and more attention recently. In the middle of this dichotomous reality there is the old Umschlag Platz and adhering to it Próżna Street.
I am not going to talk about the history of the city, but those two venues were important for the Singer's Warsaw.
Art in a living room
Próżna means “empty” or “vain” in Polish and is a short street where you can get some nice treatment in Próżna Cafe and experience a bit of Austrian culture in the Austrian Cultural Centre, that during the Festival was used as one of the venues. The street starts close to the metro station and is a bit hidden behind large, after-war buildings. First you see concrete towers but as you walk it becomes a bit darker and the atmosphere changes – bricks, entrances to the houses and empty windows. That is the every day look. During the festival everything changes. The ground floor flats that normally are not occupied serve as galleries where art is exhibited. In one of them there was a photography exhibition displaying the history of Jews from Góra Kalwaria/Ger – their histories were preserved only by couple of pictures showing how active the community was. Entering the houses gives a strange impression. In an obvious way you can feel that you are a trespasser – the ad hoc exhibition barely cover the walls of a house where people used to live. Sometimes it's disturbing when you let you mind wonder about the residents' lives. Apart from photography, humid flats were venues to show off the modern Jewish art – glass, plstic, metal.
As you walk Próżna Street towards Plac Grzybowski (Grzybowski Sqaure) it becomes narrower and narrower. - Where the fuck did you but this shit?! - somebody is shouting. No, it is not a street performance. It is just a worker from the opposite site. The area is getting popular therefore also the developers smelled that selling flats in the area might be a chance to make money. The closer you are the more people you meet. Old manor houses has been redecorated for the Festival. The old Jewish names for shops and restaurants were put again on the facades. People walk the area astonished by its sudden “jewishness”. The Square has been completely redesigned. The city's authorities has invested a lot to transform it from a dull place into a buzzing place for both elder residents and hipsters or youngsters who come here with their skateboards. It is the heart of the Festival. Here the stage was constructed and due to closeness of the Jewish Theatre, which is one of the most important (if not the most important) Jewish places in Warsaw. That was the venue, where the most expected concerts took place: Kayah, Steczkowska, Joshua Nelson or the Klezmatics. The square was always filled with a multi-language crowd and unexpected meetings of people coming from literally everywhere.
On the other side of the river
For the second time, the Festival was not limited just to the centre. The organisers from Shalom Foundation made it infect the other part of the City – Praga. The area has been often in older guides as a district where you will be mugged and your wallet would disappear once you have crossed the bridge on Wisła (Vistula). Although during the night some parts are perhaps not the safest in Warsaw, Praga is flourishing and Shalom has appreciated it. The other part of the city was filled with events such as workshops where you could learn traditional Jewish dances. Led by a celebrity-dancer Michał Piróg attract a lot of attention. Apart from that Praga has been witnessing Jewish cooking by Jasiek Kuroń. This district of Warsaw is however best known from its clubs hidden somewhere between the houses. Clubs to which usually you are brought by somebody as you would not expect a party to take place behind a very very standard looking doors... Do SzaZaZe, Slavic Gonzo, Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauera ring you a bell? All of them were invited to the festival as well.
Warsaw's beach and Tel Aviv's atmosphere
One of the most jarring events of the Festival was “La Playa: Warszawa-Tel Aviv”. Often Israel is seen through the prism of Holocaust and wars, but is not really considered as a party place. Especially by those who visited only Jerusalem and Betlehem for example. Tel Aviv however is as good for a party as Barcelona, so why not to showcase it. The Warsaw's beach might not be the same as in Tel-Aviv, but the klezmer music played on marimba by Alex Jacobowitz was making everybody go crazily happy. Sisterhood between the cities?
All together during the Singer's Warsaw over 200 events ranging from concerts, exhibitions, lectures took place all over the city.
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August 31, 2012 | 7:51 am
Posted Itamar Treves-Tchelet
The express night train from Vienna to Prague was supposed to leave at 23:15. But in the evening of March 11th 1938 at 20:00, thousands of people were pushing each other, squeezing themselves into the train while demanding to depart immediately. Suddenly, the S.A troops showed up with their whips, drunk from victory and eager for revenge. One by one, they went from wagon to wagon, pulling men, women and children back to the platform, leading them to prison (reconstructed version)
This is how George Eric Gedye, a British journalist, described the events in Vienna’s in the evening before the famous “Anschluss”, the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany.
This was also the evening that changed the history of the Austrian railway company. The company, which back then was named BBÖ (today ÖBB), has turned this year 175. For this occasion, the management has decided that it is time to cope with the company’s history. It was considered inevitable, that a crucial and central institution in the Austrian day-to-day life like the national railway will neglect and ignore its role in the most severe crime in the history. That led the company to prepare an exhibition, describing the way Hitler has used the rail company for his purposes.
The initiator of the exhibition was Michael Wimmer, a strategic consultant to the management. A few years back, Wimmer returned from a visit in Paris; there he met the former Nazi-Haunter and former candidate for the presidency of Germany, Beate Klarsfeld. She suggested the idea to tell the company’s story through an exhibition, the same way as it was done before by the German rail company. “I passed the idea on, and it was accepted right away by the CEO Christian Kern”, he says.
The next step, he joined forces with the project manager Trude Kogoj and the PR specialist Milli Segal. The result: an informative exhibition named “Repressed Years” which was inaugurated in June 2012. Recently the exhibition was prolonged till the end of October.
“There were some people that said this step is wrong because it may lead to bad publicity. People claim that the current rail company did not exist in 1938-1945”, Wimmer says. “But the management went through with it by insisting: we owe to the victims, we owe it to ourselves”.
Well educated Nazis
Adolf Hitler understood already from the beginning, that without an efficient and innovative rail system, his plan is meant to fail. That is why he hurried to hold a speech in front of 12,000 admirers at the Nordwestbanhof, a former central train station in Vienna, indicting the important future role of the railway.
Practically, the Austrian train became overnight a part of the German Reich’s rail system, that earned 2,122 locomotives, 36,990 wagons and 5,000 km long tracks. Julius Dorfmüller who was appointed as transportation minister was also in charge of the railway.
The merger between the railway systems took a year and brought a change of general atmosphere in the company. 20% of the workers were fired immediately because they were either Jewish or “unfit”. Instead, some 9,000 Nazi party members were appointed to different positions. Moreover, youngsters who dreamt of becoming loco drivers or technicians could join the railway already at the age of 14 and go through the training free of charge. Women, who wanted to join the crew, had to write a composition about “the women’s role in the war”. All the railway members had to swear loyalty to the Führer.
Due to their centrality in the daily life, the stations became a stage for Nazi propaganda. The workers had to be the example for the “the perfect Nazi”, including the welcoming every passenger with “Hail Hitler”. They were also enforced to read the daily propaganda newspaper for their further education, and it was their job to encourage young passengers to join Nazi youth movements. Those who sold tickets, or were even seen with Jews weren’t eligible for promotion. Furthermore, the station’s halls were used for different exhibitions, like the famous “Eternal Jew” exhibition in the summer of 1938 in Vienna. In order to prevent behavioral problems, the Gestapo was put to supervise the happenings on the platforms.
War tool on tracks
After the occupation of Poland in the fall of 1939, the train began to function as a military unit. The workers were compelled to high devotion and self sacrifice, as the parole dictated: “The wheels must turn for the victory”. As the battles went on, the Nazis required more and more equipment to keep up to the war plan. 1.1 Million People were employees of the railway all over the Reich, working sometimes 56 weekly hours. 200,000 forced workers from Poland and Hungary were enslaved for 1.5 Reichsmark per day. These workers participated in the construction of 7,000 war locomotives, including the Steam Locomotive from series 52, which was lighter, faster and above all – could operate in the soviet winter.
Only the most loyal workers could take part in the military aspect of the railway. Those who were selected joined the “Wehrmacht” in the Russian front and risked their lives, sometimes in the cold of -42 degrees Celsius. Their missions varied between building bridges on the occupied territory and the adaptation between the Soviet track standard (152.4 meters) to the German one (143.5 meters). These workers were trained to use weapons, wore uniforms and served with pride and devotion. Hans Ebenwaldner, a travel manager, wrote to his relatives on January 9th 1942: “I am situated now in the wild and wintery nature in Russia, proud to wear the uniforms of the German soldier and happy to take part at the destruction of the Bolshevism”.
The exhibition reveals also that there were also a few people who tried to oppose the Nazis’ plan. Around 300 railway workers were sentenced to death and 1,400 were sent to labor camps due to underground sabotage activities. These employees belonged mostly to socialistic and communistic circles. These organizations were banned already during the dictatorship in Austria before the war. Their moves were monitored closely by the Gestapo and varied between sabotaging the tracks (putting them out of order for a few hours), putting sand in the engines, damaging the brakes, blocking the oil tubes of the train, confusing documents and schedules and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. After all, the damage they succeeded to make is considered minor.
Train of life
128,000 Jews managed to escape Austria by train. The journey out was involved with high costs and the issuance of documents which were sometimes missing not available. Furthermore, a special supervision was put in order to tax or confiscate every valuable object as gold, securities – and mostly to make sure that those who leave are left poor. One of the most famous escapers was the father of the psycho-analysis, Sigmund Freud, who had to leave behind a third of his fortune in order to leave to London. Three of his sisters were left behind and murdered later on in the holocaust.
The trains took also a big part in the “Kindertransport”, where 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austrian and Czechoslovakia were brought to safety in England or USA. There they were taken to host families. For many children, the moment before the departure was the last time they saw their families alive.
Train of death
With the decision upon the “Final Solution” in Wannsee on Januray 20th 1942, the train took up the mission of transporting Jews, Roma and Sinti and others to their death in the extermination camps in eastern-Europe. The command and the control over the “Sonderzüge” were made in Berlin, as Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of the mission. It was his authority to coordinate between the local German police and the railway. The railway could decide how many wagons were used to take a given amount of people, sometimes 5,000 people on one transport. In order to make the extermination efficiently – special incentives were invented: if the train leaves with more than 400 passengers, then the one that ordered the train would pay the half of the price for “passengers” in the third class. Children under 4 were taken for free. Bringing the empty train back was already included in the price.
The end of the war left the Austrian railway in a desperate condition: the whole management escaped or was arrested. The Nazi workers were fired or sent on forced vacation. It was the simple workers who had to rebuild everything all over. Years after the war, the railway reimbursed owners of property that was confiscated for the usage of the railway. In 2000, the railway paid 14 Million EUR for some reconciliation funds.
The bloody account of the railway system stands on 3 Million people who were sent to their death during the holocaust. Those who survived were left with sights they will never forget. This is how Edith De-Zeub –Kleber described her journey from Vienna to Riga: “The little we packed will be kept for us in the last wagon, so they promised…the journey to the unknown lasted 5 days and the more it went, the colder it got. Till we reached the station in Riga. The youngsters had to go 2 hours by foot to the Ghetto. The elderly, and my mother among them, were supposed to be taken by a truck. She never came. You probably understand that only the expression “Train Station” still gives me nightmares”. (restored version)
August 31, 2012 | 7:41 am
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
Warsaw and Tel Aviv do not have too many features in common. This does not mean however, that you cannot taste a bit of Israel in the Polish capital.
Singer’s Warsaw Festival is one of those occasions when it becomes more trendy to show up at certain places. Those venues are happy to see more guests and try to catch them in many ways. Tel Aviv Deli+Cafe is a place in a bustling Poznańska Street in Warsaw that has been offering catering at the Festival’s events. Tempting as they have been, it would have been better to see them in their natural environment, freshly brought from the kitchen.
- Let’s go to „Beirut”, I haven’t heard anything good about „Tel Aviv” - says my friend with whom I was supposed to have lunch. Hearing is not tasting so we pass the competitive Lebanese restaurant and after couple more steps we are in Israel. Absolutely welcoming staff sends us directly to the lunch buffet as it showcases the place’s offer.
The choice is stunning indeed. You start with a variety of kosher bread and one of colorful houmous automatically lands on your plate to disappear faster than you can imagine. Olives, beans and corn are served in abundance so you can barely fit any of the mint-strawberry pasta salad. Still some place? Than you can proceed to pickles and a nice surprise: under a silver cover there is a hot buffet – aubergines, tomatoes, rice and sage rolls. If this was still not enough, a plate of soup can be an answer. Not to mention a set of fresh salads and mouthwatering sauces.
Walking back to a table with a plate (or what is worse with couple of them…) is a kind of walk of shame. You feel that eating all that will cause you pain but you still want to challenge yourself. Kosher bread, which is not a common thing in Poland is good but not remarkable. However, when dipped in houmus it is simply irresistible. Strawberry pasta is a challenging issue. You hate it or love it, especially if grown in the tradition of eating pasta only in salty versions. For me, could have been spiced up with some herbs, but still interesting. Pickles and olives must have been brought from somewhere more far away than in other high street restaurants. The star of the buffet however was a spicy tomato soup, which must have been touched by sun and carefully chosen spices. Unfortunately the hot buffet could not overtake the impression made by the soup.
Tel Aviv Deli+ Cafe is however not only an all-you-can-eat buffet. They have a wealthy offer of cakes (pretty expensive though) and coffees. In the mornings breakfasts are served and devoured by Warsaw’s army of freelancers coming here with their computers. The place has a little shop-section as well, where one can equip their kosher cupboard.
The only disturbing issue about Tel Aviv Deli Cafe is the music. What is served to the foodies ears should be desperately reconsidered. A mix of Polish pop, alternative and who-knows-what together with Jewish rhythms does not help too much in enjoying delicious pieces of Israel.
If you know Jewish places of Krakow, Tel Aviv Deli+ Cafe might be a shock – no old furnitures and dark colours. No smell of old textiles. The Warsaw’s face of Jewish food is bright, eco (the place is vegetarian) and well-designed without any superfluous decorations. Simplicity is the answer here.
Tel Aviv Deli+ Cafe
ul. Poznańska 11
22 621 11 28
August 17, 2012 | 10:17 am
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
You hear Tokaj and you think: wine. Sweet, deep yellow and many different ways of harvesting the grapes that have completely non-pronounceable names. After all, on the wine etiquettes you do not see synagogues printed.
Tokaj is a bit lost in the Hungarian countryside. We have been hitchhiking through from Poland to Slovakia to get there. Frankly saying it was easier than you can think. Tokaj has not more than 6000 inhabitants nowadays and reaching it may be a bit cumbersome if you want to give up any type of public transportation and do not owe a car.
The atmosphere of the town during a weekday evening is absurdly calm. Afer six o’clock the streets are empty and the only sound you can hear is the church bell that slowly measures time. Nothing happens, no tourists apart from a family that seems equally startled as us by the peacefulness of the place that was supposed to be bustling with wine-fuelled life. A walk through the main street brings us to the biggest surprise of the trip: a large, fully-renovated and dazzlingly white synagogue. The gate is open, but there are no information about the building. The building behind the synagogue looks like a refurbished cultural centre that has been forgotten after the rebuilding. It is nor scary, not normal but definitely deserves a further research in the town where everybody seems to know only three words: “dry”, “sweet” and obviously “wine”.
Tokaj used to be a host for Jews already in the mid 1700s. The synagogue that was serving the community has been destroyed by fire and the Jewish community decided to rebuild it in an impressive way. Although the war has swept away the Jews of Tokaj, the synagogue remained practically untouched. It is not as towering as the church located at the main square of the town but distinguishes itself by its grand concept and whiteness. The interior has not been restored during the renovation. The light inner area has a dreamy atmosphere caused by the vanilla walls and contrasting black window frames and balustrades located at the mezzanine level. Large arches inside emulate the outside structures. An absolutely elegant architectural rhythm lets no extravagancy neither outside nor inside. The building have been conceived in a spirit of natural beauty combined with an impressive thought of creating a grand edifice in a rural area. It might seem that the synagogue is a bit out of place. As if it has been assembled somewhere an by accident brought to Tokaj. The neighboring houses are nor elegant nor particularly renovated.
When we walk back towards the campsite where we stay we spot one more building that did not seem of any interest before. A decayed orthodox church that still serves the believers. The local authorities promoting wine have forgotten that probably offer a very peculiar religious landscape as well.
August 17, 2012 | 9:59 am
Posted by Klaudia Klimek
The artist, Joseph Szajna - a former Auschwitz prisoner, gave rise to the Center for Peace in Auschwitz. After his death the idea is being continued by the former president of Oświęcim ( Auschwitz city), Janusz Marszałek and President of the Polish Union of Seniors- Łagodzki Henryk and Dr. Janusz Młynarski.
However, for such a center to be established there was a need of gaining the favor of the Jewish and Roma enviroment. Right now, Jewish Community, Roma organizations and churches are involved. The action also joined American musician with German roots -Wolfgang Hildebrandt. He believes that music is beyond boundaries that’s why he often engage in charitable actions that support worthy causes. The musician had the honor to present, along with Andrea Bocelli for John Paul II as well as numerous concerts in Australia, America and Europe. At the invitation of the Jewish Community in Krakow, artist appeared in last Friday (08/11/2012) in the Tempel Synagogue in Krakow with his hour concert titled “Sing for Peace”. The audience was small. There were very few people, fortunately, were among them representatives of Jewish organizations - President of the Jewish Community in Krakow Tadeusz Jakubowicz, Klaudia Klimek and Adam Klimek from Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, department Cracow as well as representatives of the Catholic Church. Cosy atmosphere made the evening to be called nice and friendly.
August 17, 2012 | 9:57 am
Posted by Klaudia Klimek
„My primary intention is to give women’s experience a voice, which became blurred amongst the whole of Holocaust literature” – Joy Erlichman Miller. These words are found on the opening page, preceding the introduction and table of contents in Women of the Holocaust, a feminist perspective in the study of Shoah: case KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, by Joanna Stocker-Sobelman. This quote informs the reader right away of the problem recognized by the researcher and the thesis which influences her analysis of genocide on the following pages.
The introduction, in which the author explains her decision to examine the Holocaust from this perspective, seems valid. Globally, feminism has already developed in this field over the past few decades, but this branch of feminism, present for only a few years in Poland, arouses controversy. The author contends that feminism in research regarding the Holocaust is not a passing trend or a short-lived idea, but rather an expression of human need and a gap in Holocaust studies, which has yet to be filled. Given that the world of science is dominated by men, women during the Holocaust, their emotions and ways of dealing with difficult situations, were either omitted or equated with the experiences of men or children. Unfortunately, the very term „feminism” has acquired negative connotations, especially in Poland. It brings to mind women’s extremist thinking, which the author intended to avoid in her work, by explaining in the first few pages the history and achievements of feminism in the study of the Holocaust.
It has long been feared, that studying the Holocaust from varied perspectives or through the individual conditions of the victims would cause the Holocaust to be reduced, in this case, to sexism, or that the uniqueness of the tragedy would be lost, the tragedy of the many relinquished in favor of the tragedy of certain groups or individuals. Can one really agree with these opinions? Do the victims of genocide not deserve to have their suffering recognized individually? In the eighties, feminist researchers noticed this absence in studies and dared to take a stance. Here, it is worth mentioning the „Conference of Women Surviving the Holocaust”, which took place in 1983 at Stern College. During the nineties, a breakthrough in research, as well as in literature, saw more studies and positions focusing on women, which in turn led to the study of women of the Holocaust becoming a part of the study of Jewish Genocide. What arguments support this movement?
If all Jews were doomed to become victims of Genocide, why then would we pay more attention to gender? Feminists claim that since racism was a central part of Hitler’s ideology, then women were more discriminated against than men. Indeed, the assumption was that every Jew were to be annihilated, according to Hitler’s ideology, but early in his military actions, when the conflict first transferred to civilians, it was Jewish women that were forbidden from having children, so that the increase in Jewish population was reduced to a minimum. Therefore, Jewish women were public enemies, the same as the men fighting at the front were. Since early research was dominated by male voices, the unique experiences of women, such as menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, abortion, in the unanimously difficult conditions of the ghetto, were omitted. Thus, the author of this book states, following the voice of more experienced researchers in this field, that knowledge of the Holocaust is not complete. Without the women’s voice we do not have the full picture and what follows, there are questions which we have not had the chance to, or even thought to ask before. After all, women were not objects or passive observers during these common difficulties and daily events, but active participants, who only experienced them differently, due to differing physical and mental predispositions. What’s more, one could assume that during this genocide, being the same for all Jews, there were events which were specific to only one gender and which determined not only the way of life, but the conditions of dying and death itself. Sexually motivated aggression, family, children, relationships, friendship, dealing with the difficult conditions are only a few topics, which were explored in the 19 chapters of Women of the Holocaust, a feminist perspective in the study of Shoah: case KL Auschwitz-Birkenau by Joanna Strocker-Sobelman.
The author of the book based her writing primarily on foreign and Polish sources, citing especially personal statements from former prisoners. Identifying the bibliography is complicated, even though it figures in the table of contents it is not there in reality. The same goes for the index of persons and the ending. Chapters in the book are in chronological order. We get to know the Holocaust and the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp from a woman’s perspective from the moment of her arrival at the camp, in the chapter titled „Transport and arrival at the camp” as well as in „Living conditions in the camp”. There we find out that the female section of the camp was more overpopulated and the sanitary conditions worse than in the men’s section. But as the prisoners recall, it was not the unsanitary conditions, hunger or cold that were the most difficult, but the dehumanizing treatment. It is in analyzing this factor that we can grasp the difference between the experiences of the men and the women. The author, along with Lenore Weitzman and Dalia Ofer, lists four types of differences associated with gender during the Holocaust. The first is the women’s role that she fulfilled before the war began. Greater resourcefulness and adapting quickly to living conditions had an impact on the female prisoners’ reactions to life in the camp. Men, being more demanding than women, found it harder to accept the new living conditions. Another difference is their convictions. Initially, men thought that they would be the main target of the German ideology and were more likely to flee or hide. Women with children stayed in their homes, waiting unwittingly for death. Another differing factor was the work, punishments and obligations assigned to Jews in the camp. The fourth and last factor mentioned in the book was the difference in response to the living conditions in the camp, the ghetto or in hiding. The setting was difficult for any group, but especially for women, who lived before the war with a sensitivity to aesthetics. It was very hard for them to accept the lack of hygiene, dehumanization and loss of femininity. Shaving their heads, nudity or the provided clothing caused the women to be stripped of their feeling of femininity and contributed to a swifter mental breakdown. The author notes that in previous survivors’ memoirs the male researchers put more emphasis on the topic of motherhood, rather than sex in general in the context of women, but indeed the subjects and memories associated with this subject are numerous. As one of the prisoners recalls, taboos and morality did not disappear upon passing the camp gates, therefore lesbian relationships or trading one’s body were recalled as a bad thing in women’s memories and the women involved were cast out from the group. Of course, sex concerned not just the women, men as well, but the experiences associated with them leave a different trace. Jewish women were less at risk of being raped as SS officials were forbidden from doing so, but still soldiers of lower ranks did rape the women, as well as submitting them to sexual molestation, verbal and mental abuse. For example, nudity was not only an element of humiliation, as the SS intended, but in the case of women it touched on three other factors: a sense of dignity and security, publically exposing their bodies, which were the negation of the ability to bear children, and a harbinger of imminent death. Let us not forget, that many of the Jewish women were also religious, which only increased the shock of public, group nudity and being observed by strange men.
The author devotes separate chapters to the issues regarding clothing and hygiene, shaving of hair, menstruation, sterilization experiments, pregnancy, abortion, giving birth, in short: inherent aspects of a woman’s life. In the last chapters, Joanna Strocker-Sobelman focuses on the mental constitution of women and their specific methods of dealing with extremely difficult circumstances. She emphasizes a tendency toward creating groups or communities among the prisoners, which gave them the sense of belonging to a family. The women prisoners took care of each other and formed very strong unions, such as those with mothers, or sisters, often giving up privileges in favor of their comrades. Thanks to mutual empathy and helping each other women coped better than men, who broke down sooner, not being accustomed to conditions that were not what they were used to. The author devotes the last chapter to women and their recollections after liberation from the camp and how they adapted to normal life. Many of them could no longer have babies, they were poorly understood by their husbands or relatives, therefore even this period of returning to regular life was experienced and felt differently by them.
I believe that „Women of the Holocaust” contributes significantly to Polish feminist literature, as well as Holocaust research, because there are still too few books on the market, available in Polish, regarding this subject. However, I am under the impression that the book is a sort of summary of the author’s doctorate thesis. Each chapter is like a portion of knowledge, which the book’s author probably possesses, but for some reason does not offer to the reader in full. That is why this work is more of an invitation to further one’s knowledge in this field and a sketch of the problems worth noting, rather than an exhaustive tome on which one could base future research. Unfortunately, the lack of a bibliography also makes turning to other books difficult in this case. The technical aspect of the book, the print, covers and binding, as well as the price, are acceptable.
August 17, 2012 | 9:46 am
Posted Olja Andrynowska
In the summer of 1967, the Wall separating Israel from Jordan was taken down and the small piece of land in the Musrara neighborhood, known as Jerusalem’s no man’s land, became the venue of a very important meeting: a meeting of the East and the West, of the residents of the Old City with those from the newer parts. Of its own accord, the space organized itself around the market stands selling watermelon – “basta” in Arabic. During the day, the stalls provided shelter from the heat and right after sundown the area filled with people, for whom the refreshing taste of watermelon paired with salty cheese and washed down with thick, black coffee was merely an excuse to exchange thoughts and spend time together.
On a piece of this former no man’s land, music could be heard, people watched action films together, and all this happened beyond the boundaries of rich and poor, religious and secular, resident and tourist, Arab or Jew. As the 80’s came to an end, the stalls were closed, new regulations came into place and suspicion and animosity arose among the community of Jerusalem, the intifada was approaching. Muslala, the NGO operating in the neighborhood, decided to try and revive the nostalgic memories associated with this idyllic watermelon market. The project was coordinated by Matan Israeli. Modern stalls were designed by Israeli artist David Behar Perahia. The set-up was comprised of 10 wooden units, construction began a week before the festival. [nmlr1] Omar Kadah, a plantation owner from north Israel, provided 3.5 tons of watermelons. Musrara lies right near the walls of the Old City, between Damascus Gate and the New Gate, with a view of East Jerusalem, so people passing by began to spontaneously join the project. The Jerusalem mounted police were the first guests to arrive (in the photo with Koko Deri). The opening ceremony took place on July 31st and the festival lasted until August 4th. A small greenhouse was built in a garden, to keep the watermelon seedlings, which were irrigated with water left over from construction. A small, semi-circular stage, which was installed between the stalls, hosted performances by excellent Arab and Israeli musicians, some of them associated with the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music located in Musrara.
The Musrara district rose out of a need for more space, when homes within the borders of the Old City became cramped. Initially, it was a neighborhood for affluent Arab Christians. Their houses often exceeded an area of 200 m² and each was built based on a similar floor plan: a spacious living room in the center and rooms for each member of the family branching out from it. After the war with Jordan in 1948, Musrara became part of the no man’s land, and to everybody’s surprise, so it remained until 1967. The district was exposed to attacks from snipers and this constant threat did not make it an attractive place to live. However, Mizrachim, Jews mainly from the countries of the Maghreb, began to settle in Musrara due to the large deficit of citizens which Israel was suffering from at the time. The houses began to fill up with people again, with the only difference being, that this time whole families lived in one room and siblings would sleep in the same bed. Such was the upbringing of Koko Deri (born in Fes), one of leaders of the Israeli Black Panthers and the only one who still lives in Musrara today.
The Black Panthers were a protest movement from the second generation of Mizrachim, voicing an opposition to the realities of living in the „Second Israel”, characterized by the ethnic conflict between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrachim and the rising tensions between the rich and the poor. The movement’s name was inspired by the African-American Black Panthers, after its founder, Saadi Marciano, met with Angela Davis in 1971. The district bears traces of all the phases it went through: from its illustrious past, through the poverty, daily dangers and a war for independent Israel, up to the attempts to revive its past splendor (though developers tried to bypass regulations protecting the neighborhood’s character and many of the Arab villas were expanded with modern elevations, completely foreign to their primary structure). Even the new residents of Musrara remain proud of the area’s history, and so a walk in the footsteps of the Black Panthers, supported by the efforts of Muslala, was met with acceptance. The 20-stop tour is mapped out by artists invited by Muslala. One of them is a bench created by Palestinian artist Hanna Abu Hussein, which was embedded with small tokens of everyday life, such as stockings or containers of contraceptives. Some elements of the walk are entirely organic, such as Matan Israeli’s „Lemonyptus”, created by combining a eucalyptus with a lemon tree. The lemon tree is a fixture of the local landscape, the eucalyptus remains a newcomer, regardless of its size or the depth of its roots. Most of Muslala’s projects relate to the aesthetics of different elements of the neighborhood, such as streets signs, or markings that lead to bomb shelters, sometimes they are incorporated into them entirely, such as Matan Israeli’s earlier piece „Stairs for Chiara” – a wooden stairway built for his Italian lover, who lived in the Old City, and meant to shorten the distance setting them apart. The stairs were dismantled during the intifada, but were returned later in a more stable version, serving both the Arabic and the Jewish residents of the city.
Presently Musrara is home to several significant institutions, including the Naggar School of Photography, the Ma’ale School of Film, commonly referred to as „Musrara”, or the Museum on the Seam. Part of the neighborhood is the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim. Musrara is populated entirely by Jews, but thanks to its history and location it can still be a place for breaching invisible borders present in Jerusalem at nearly every turn.
August 17, 2012 | 9:41 am
Posted Michał Zajda
Mikołaj Grynberg, Saved from the XX century. After us, no one will tell our story, maybe someone will read it…, Warsaw 2012, p. 350
The crime perpetrated by the Germans against the Jewish people of Poland – was also a crime against an abiding, traditionally integral element of Poland’s entire society. It was the elimination of a group of people, whose contribution to Polish culture probably exceeded their number. For those of us who remember the existence of this group, the Polish society of today is a somewhat different and incomplete society.
(Konstanty Grzybowski, Jews and the Fight for Independence, from Konstanty Grzybowski - Sceptic Thinker, ed. Wiesław Kozub – Ciembroniewicz, Krakow, 2000, p. 167)
Jewish cemeteries devoid of tombstones, with no one left to visit them, became an element of Polish post-war towns, where the tradition of co-existence had left its mark and multiculturalism was an element of history. Despite the years that passed, many of us ask the question, why did this happen? Czesław Miłosz wrote in The Captive Mind that, „man usually has the tendency to consider the order he lives in as natural (...) He does not believe that on a street well known to him, where cats sleep and children play, a rider with a lasso may appear, capturing pedestrians and dragging them off to the butcher’s, where they will be killed immediately and hung on hooks”. The Germans lack of concern, in deciding to turn over the fate of their country to a madman, became a death sentence for millions. Of those Polish Jews who survived, many made telling the story of what they went through their mission. They only need to be heard. Mikołaj Grynberg did just that.
In January 2012, Świat Książki published a collection of interviews conducted by Mikołaj Grynberg, entitled Saved from the XX century. The title is appropriate, the book contains a record of fourteen conversations with Polish Jews who, having survived the trauma of the Holocaust, settled in Israel. It is hard for a historian to determine what these conversations are exactly. As the author himself said, while promoting the book on February 16, 2012, at the Jewish Community Centre of Cracow, it is not a historical work, because he is not a historian. Who is Mikołaj Grynberg? He was educated as a psychologist, is a photographer by passion and an artist who crafts in both words and images. Through his artistic interests he looks for an excuse, as he says, to speak with people and observe the world. He asserts that he is a happy man who has found his place on Earth. He practices a profession, which is his dialogue with the surrounding world. The way he asks questions and reacts to answers given, faithfully conveyed in the book, are reminiscent of the way he speaks about himself during meetings with readers.
I approached Mikołaj Grynberg’s publication with a great deal of distance and uncertainty. I began reading, filled with doubts as to whether someone who is neither a professional historian nor a journalist can handle the task of interviewing survivors of the Holocaust. I received a lesson in humility.
Mikołaj Grynberg is an artisan of conversation, an excellent representative of oral history field, as this form of recording events is now often called. When taking to his interviewees, he does not impose topics or interfere, he only listens intently and stimulates further recollections. Thus, he provides a striking image of life in the XX century – keeping in mind that apart from the subject of occupied Poland, the conversations also concern the periods before and after the war. Most of the memoir pieces have a theme, they touch on and analyze the specific subject at hand. In Saved from the XX century, the author seems to sit down at a table and encourage the other person by just saying “Let’s talk”. He allows the tales to unravel, stories of death, miraculous rescue, almost animal-like fear and the joy of liberation, but – interestingly enough – most of the stories are about love. Could one imagine, that people who had been stripped of all their possessions, their dignity and turned into outlaws, would still seek love? It was all they had left, the only thing that could not be tainted or taken away. The horror of violence and suffering they endured, the grief associated with losing a loved one remained with them.
For the most part, Grynberg did not interfere with his subjects’ statements. The exact record of these conversations is an acutely emotional retelling of those days. There is grief and longing in them, for that which is irrevocably lost, as well as a bitterness and anger toward the evil people who dealt them this fate. One might think that after sixty years, injuries of the soul would not bleed so profusely, but nothing is further from the truth. There are still tears, but also the joys of newborn children. For these people, life itself is a great triumph.
A significant topic, which recurs many times in the conversations published in this book, is the city of Cracow, as an example of the nostalgia associated with emigration. Ryszard Löw, an excellent publicist and literary critic who has lived in Israel since 1952, speaks of Cracow, and things associated with the city, with a dose of mysticism. His thirty-seven year long absence from the city did not leave him alienated, because Ryszard Löw never left Cracow in spirit! “I may have left Poland, but my head is still in Kraków” (p. 276) he tells Grynberg of his emigration. Löw accentuates his „Cracovian Jewishness” many times, a specific otherness. Speaking of his father, he reminisces, „like all Jews in Kraków he spoke Polish fluently” (p. 285). The interview with Löw is a sort of tale about the spiritual dualism of a Polish Jew. “As a citizen I am Israeli, a Jewish patriot by nationality and a Pole culturally. I know a couple of languages, but they are all foreign in comparison to my mother tongue – Polish” (p. 286). Ryszard Löw has a small pouch where he keeps grass from the fields of Grunwald, but he does not teach his children Polish, because „for us that Polish hump ends with me” (p. 288). His image of the country of his youth is not idealized, there is some sorrow, „Sir, I remember Poland from before the war. It was like was a step-mother to its own children. Really, like a step-mother. They way it always was near the end. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, those years. I side with Miłosz here enitrely: it’s a good thing Poland was not reborn in its pre-war state. (...) Poland, that went through purgatory, could never rise to what it is now, if it hadn’t been for the Warsaw uprising” (p. 288).
Mikołaj Grynberg does not shun questions regarding the present, and his interviewees, such as the aforementioned Ryszard Löw, judge Poland honestly. “For the first time, there is a free Poland. Poland was always a country where writing a good book was considered heroic and reading it a political act. (…) For the first time, Poland is free, actually free. What does that give it? Plenty. Would it have been possible without the Warsaw uprising? (...) End of conversation” (p. 294-295).
The theme of Cracow as well as returning to one’s hometown after the Holocaust also appears in Irka Waks’ story, she was raised there and refers to the city as “my Cracow”. She recalls not being able to return to her pre-war apartment, “I went there and just listened to somebody play my piano. When I asked the caretaker, through the door, to let me in, I heard her yell over the telephone, ‘The owners are here. Don’t open the door!’” (p. 247). A similar story, though set in a different time-frame, many years after the war, was told to Mikołaj Grynberg by another Cracovian, Efraim Laaden. “It was my eightieth birthday and I took my daughters to my city, I wanted to show them my home (…) We’re right nearby and there’s a taxi parked near number 7. I walk up to it, but there’s no one inside. I look around and see a guy standing, so I ask him about the driver. Turns out it’s his cab. We ride with him for a bit and talk, so I tell him that I used to live here and so on. He stops and asks if my name is Landersdorfer. I tell him that used to be my name (…) We became friends after that and I always used to call to wish him well before Christmas” (p. 182).
In his conversation with Grynberg, Marcel Goldman also brings up his Cracow roots, being brought up there before the war. “I know I speak like they do in Cracow. I even have a odd story about that. In eighty-one I was here, talking on the phone with someone. In Hebrew of course, and it was a professional call. At some point he says to me, „What street are you from in Cracow?”. He didn’t ask whether I was from Poland or Cracow, only what street (p. 300). The sadness felt after leaving life in Poland, the world of one’s youth, never to return, is quite palpable when reading the book.
But not all of Mikołaj Grynberg’s subjects wanted to speak openly about the past. The selection of statements in the interviews is quite evident. For many, memories of the war are so real that even talking about them would be like reliving the nightmare. Not able to shoulder this load, they avoid the subject. Samuel Willenberg was a prisoner in Treblinka and wrote the account „Revolt in Treblinka”, thanks to which a detailed map of the camp is known to us today. He was unable to talk about the time he was sorting clothing and found his “younger sister’s tiny coat and his older sister’s skirt” (p. 125). His wife has to take over telling the story. Ryszard Löw, mentioned before, ignores a question about the war, meaningfully staring the author straight in the eye. Mietek Raubvogel, from Lwów, at one point says that he doesn’t speak about it. “I don’t, and that’s that. No use trying, I won’t tell you anyway” (p. 189).
It is a known fact, that Wanda Półtawska, a prisoner of KL Ravensbrück, had to pour her memories onto paper to cleanse herself of them. Because surviving a nightmare is one thing, but living with the awareness of it is another. After reading Mikołaj Grynberg’s Saved from the XX century… one might ponder at length which is more difficult.
Undoubtedly, the value of the conversations held and published by Mikołaj Grynberg is their authenticity, therefore Saved from the XX century. After us, no one will tell our story, maybe someone will read it… should be regarded as a collection of unique accounts concerning our most recent history. One can definitely not be indifferent to it.