Monday, July 19, 2010

Operation Embellishment

Today we continue our journey south west out of the Carpathian Mountains and towards our final destination of Prague. Our first stop was the Terezin Concentration Camp. This is not your typical death camp. The neighborhood began as a Czech Military base before the Nazis seized control of the area and turned it into a concentration camp, death camp and propaganda machine. Concentration camp because hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to resettle in certain areas of the village and forced to engage in slave labor for the Nazis. Terezin was a holding station for Jews before they were sent to other camps, most likely Auschwitz to work and be gassed. Although Terezins primary purpose was to establish a ghetto and concentrate Jews for transportation, the Nazis did establish a gas chamber and finally a crematorium to murder Jewish residents. The most disturbed part of Terezins story is how the camp served as a propaganda tool. The Swedish red cross was invited to visit a fabricated version of Terezin in order to distract attention from Nazi death camps at a time when the Nazis were hoping to broker a ceasefire agreement with the Western Allied nations. A most disgusting detail is how after the Swedish report was sent to the American Red Cross, the US used the report, knowing very well it was a lie, to quiet Jews trying to reach out to the US to intervene and bomb the camps.

Second detail, in a Jewish act of defiance a synagogue was built in an old store room and Jews under the penalty of death worshiped behind it's wall, until the Nazis reversed their punishment and allowed Jews to worship in order to film it's use an further their propaganda campaign to show the Jewish religion was tolerated. From Terezin we drove to Prague were we had the whole afternoon and night to ourselves. This is when the trip became less of an "experience" and more of a vacation. We left the hotel more then 30 strong, but as most of these trips go, the clicks scatter and I was soon walking with 6 or 7 people who still looked like lost puppies in an unfamiliar city, with lots of people and shiny souvenirs we slumbered down the street in disarray, it wasn't until their appetites began to wine that the amputation had to be made and me and a girl named Ivy made a graceful departure. I was hoping this would happen and I was just waiting for the right time to ask if we wanted to break off from the group and walk the streets like we did yesterday or was it the day before.

Anyway, we had a wonderful dinner, which was combined approximately 17 bucks total after you drop all the Crowna zeros and covert to dollars. Wilth Ivy navigating the streets I was free to look, observe and question. We talked about everything and anything best of friends would hope to talk about. I learned so much from our conversations, there are so many wheels turning in this world, it is so hard to pay attention to the parts when make up the machine. As the sky darkened senate desert outside a near by monastery. The city looked beautiful below us. We walked, and walked and walked some more, then we snuck into a hotel to use their computer, a little escape back to reality. I closed my eyes. It was midnight now and we beaded back to the hotel. Bats flew in the night skies ans large spiders began to their assent up the churches walls. We climbed the stairs of a cathedral, plopped on the ground with our backs on the big cask iron door and Ivy read to me from her journal. It was remarkable. Such poetry and emotions I cannot begin to describe. Her journal put me in a trance and I understood much of the emotion that conversation often misses. I slept well with the sounds and sights of Bohemia fresh in my brain.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Getting Your Zlotes Worth

Last night was my first opportunity to meet the naive Poles. Sleep deprived and exhausted from yesterday I went outside the hotel in search of a wifi connection. Sitting on the steps of a cafe down the street I was intercepted by several trip participants who extended offers for night activities. I turned down the walk to the castle, a night at the jazz club, but when our trip cameraman asked me to join him and his new friends for a shot in the bar next door, I couldn't refuse. The bar was jumping with excitement. I joined the table and was introduced to two Poles who use to live in Michigan, a gap toothed Frenchman who spent the night trying to kiss the cute Michigander and aAussie in a big heavy turtleneck. We drank honey vodka at 3 zlotes a shot, 75 cents US. Old Polish music and Michael Jackson played on the radio. Ben, the camera man asked the Michiganders to asked these two cute Polish girls sitting in the corner to join our table. I might have forgot their names and accidentally deleted their email addresses from my phone, so for all intensive purposes i will refer to them as the blonde and the redhead. We were the first Americans they met. The redhead, Justinya, I believe that would be the correct spelling based on the possible pronunciation, had just move to Krackow, when I say just moved she hadn't been in the country for more then 3 hours. She was a very warm, kind hearted person and we talked for an hour or two about history and our families between shots of honey vodka. She reminded me of my cousin Lisa. She and her friend were very interested to hear about the purpose of our trip and were eager to announce they have "Jewish blood."

You are all Jewish they asked? I was taken aback by their question. I realized they are so use to people claiming some Jewish ancestor, but any if not all details are fuzzy. Yes, 100% Jewish I said, from my mother and father, to great grandmother and father, I can trace my heritage back to a rabbinic dynasty. I noticed from their expressions that this was incomprehensible. We left the bar in search of Zapikanka, a weird flatbread stouffers like pizza with ketchup sauce. On the way the redhead told me how she rarely wears shoes in her home town. We decided to take off our sneakers and walk barefoot. We both wanted to feel the streets of Krackow. It was wonderful. The food stand was closed and the redhead collapsed with exhaustion. After a long hug we said our goodbyes. The remaining three of us decided we couldn't end the night on an empty stomach so we walked to a 24 hour pirogi place. We downed the polish equivalent of drunk food and I decided it was time for me to finally call it a day, at least for the next 4 hours before the sun rises and we depart for good. The drive to the mountains was peaceful. On the way we made a quick food and relaxation stop. I walked through a beautiful town square with my friend Ivy. Food was not her priority and she convinced me to climb up the large cathedrals tower which overlooks the whole region. It was beautiful. I saw the Carpathians which we would hike later that day. Inside the church I explained to Ivy why the Jews did not build synagogues which rival these cathedrals beauty. Several hours later we were in the mountains. We checked into our brand new hotel spa and went for a short home through the Sudetenland. We were greeted at the hotel by our chefs who prepared a delicious Mediterranean meal and a hotel band playing Polish poka music. I felt like I was on a cruise and finally got some much deserved rest.

The Lion Of Judah Documentary Film


Friday, July 16, 2010

The man who ran the orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto

Yesterday we spent half the day in Warsaw before we drove to Lublin. We visited the old Jewish cemetery which miraculously survived the war. It is huge, has many important tombs there and a beautiful memorial to Korczaka, the man who ran the orphanages in the Warsaw ghetto. He is depicted in Schindler's List.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Majdanek's Bones

Today we visited the Majdanek concentration camp just outside Lublin. The camp was very moving and emotionally disturbing although I thought too much attention is paid to archiving and educating visitors verses focusing on the historical environment and aura of space. I didn't want to see museum displays in the buildings. Those elements distract me from feeling the camp on an emotional and spiritual level. Before entering the crematorium, Tomash our tour guide swept the ground with his feet to unearth these small pieces of bone fragments which can be found in certain places around the concentration camp. That was all I needed to witness. Surprise, the staff bought us tickets to see Matisyahu in Krackow tonight. I'm in utter disbelief :) Happy July 4th and Polish election day. Before entering the crematorium, Tomash our tour guide swept the ground with his feet to unearth these small pieces of bone fragments which can be found in certain places around the concentration camp.

The Jew Who Returned To Lublin

Last night we arrived in Lublin, a very pretty city, a big college town and much larger then I originally thought. We have been visiting an old yeshiva. Before the war 40,000 Jews lived in Lublin. now there are 20-50. We met one of them today. My conversations today were very much geared towards How prevalent is antisemitism in Poland. The rabbis like to talk with horrible generality. The Jewish man who survived the Holocaust said that he is accepted in the community and respected when I asked. The rabbis were not happy that his answer could be viewed as contradictory to their opinion. There is much tension related to this issue, and I am glad I can add to it :)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Riding in a Mercedes to Auschwitz

Riding in a Mercedes bus to Auschwitz. The world has come full circle. Today has been the most emotional day for me so far on the trip. We stopped in the morning to briefly see Schindler's Factory which still operates as a factory but now has a brand new adjacent museum attached to it. After that we began the 1.5 hour drive to Auschwitz Birkenau. The first site we visited was Birkenau. Two very important people, Leo, who spoke at our classes and miraculously survived several camps and his lovely wife, who been traveling with us the whole trip, were with us at Auschwitz I & II. Leo spent the end of the war in Birkenau death camp. No one survived this camp, maybe 1 in 1,000 or 5,000. It is a miracle that he is with us today and a blessing to be in his presence. I spent most of my time in Birkanau in a blur of tears and anger. The sky cried with me. The camp is enormous and we were led through long introspective walks across railway and ruin. I cannot recall a time of more emotion, maybe my Grandmothers funeral, although that was just a time of morning, this was alot more complex. The camp is as horrific as you can imagine, but completely unrealistic to human comprehension. Leo made the experience disturbingly vivid. Grass was mud, toilet pits useless as starving humans don't defecate but once a week or less, the feces pits off in the valley were used to produce manure from human excrement. As in Manjanek, fragments of human bone from the Nazis murderers could be found sprinkled around the ponds. Ponds designated for the disposal of human remains after skeletons from the crematoriums were pulverized with machine labor. Many of the buildings and all the crematoriums were in ruin but left as authentic reminders of how utterly disturbed the world can become when intellect, evil and obedience are aligned with a party of motivated humans. I cried, I burned with rage and pain, then cried some more. It rained. A man from Canada asked our group for help to read the kaddish. I couldn't control my emotions and had no desire to hide my tears. To Aushwitz. What has been done with Aushwitz since the Holocaust is an atrocity in itself which I have no satisfactory explanation. Aushwitz has been transformed and refurbished into nothing more then a Museum. It is shameful and an absolute desecration to the survivors, murdered victims who's remains and anguish reside there and the world at large that wishes to be a living memorial to the atrocities of The Holocaust, an event like no other in all of human history. Every building is scrubbed, painting, refurbished, fabricated with maps and artifacts behind plates of glass. Poland has turned the site into a MET or MOMA of Holocaust education and remembrance. It is impossible to feel any connection to this site on an emotional or spiritual level. Build a museum in Warsaw or across the street, Poland has destroyed solemn ground and put up a parking lot. I am so mad I wanted to tear the place apart, bust open locked doors, shatter the stupid audio devices on the floor. Auschwitz is not a business venture, tourist attraction, educational center or some institution to house a museum collection. Shame on those of you who chose this fate, I hope your descendants turn your grave site into an art exhibition dedicated to sad faced clowns

Monday, July 12, 2010

Krakow's Alive

Krakow My day in Krakow so far has been very pleasant. The city is quite beautiful, much prettier then Soviet rebuilt Warsaw. The day so far has been much more leisurely. The Matisyahu concert last night in the old synagogue was magical. It was amazing to see so many people there interested in Jewish culture. The concert was part of Krackows Jewish Heritage Festival, which gets more and more popular each year. Today we visited the Old Jewish Quarter which has attracted Jewish style restaurants and shops, synagogue and cemetery and the Krackow JCC. The JCC was filled with Polish Jews and non Jew interested in Judaism. We met half a dozen young Poles who are very involved in Jewish life and some which will be going to yeshiva in Israel. We also met a recently married young Jewish couple, the first Jewish wedding in Krakow in years. The JCC was like the Eastern European version of an Israeli Absorption Center for Ethiopian Jews. Iras a wonderful feeling to be there. The picture below is me in front of the old synagogue which Matisyahu performed in last night. The JCC is next door. Today was a wonderful respite from yesterday at Majdanek.