My cousin’s book: The Scribe of Siena

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I set out to learn about my family’s past, but I also found my living relatives. My cousins are an engaging and accomplished group of people. I would want to know them even if we weren’t related.

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The Scribe of Sienna by Melodie Winawer

My cousin Melodie Winawer is one of them. She lives in Brooklyn with her spouse and three kids. She is a both a medical doctor and professor, and she just published her first historical novel called The Scribe of Siena. Reviewers compare it  to Outlander, one of my guilty pleasures. A work of historical fiction, the novel involves time travel, and a romance between a strong 21st century woman and a 14th century Italian man. Melodie also uses her medical background to accurately depict illness and healing.

I just got my copy and can’t wait to read it!

Sholem Asch: A Yiddish Playwright Ahead of His Time

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Kutno’s native son Sholem Asch is in the news a hundred years after writing a play that deals with issues that remain controversial today. His work also shatters a lot of assumptions about Jewish life in Poland in the early 20th century–Written in Yiddish, it features a brothel, a Torah scroll, and love between two women. Asch’s play God of Vengeance was written in Yiddish in 1907 and first produced in Berlin in 1910. I found an electronic version of the 1918 English translation (you can follow the hotlink above). In the play, Yekel, who lives with his family above the brothel he owns, tries to improve his family’s status by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying his daughter Rifkele to a Yeshiva student. Instead, the young daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes and in a pivotal scene, they kiss. The play highlights the tension between piety, reflected in the Holy Scroll that is supposed to bring respectability to the family and the economic and sensual attraction of the brothel downstairs, as well as observations about women’s empowerment and oppression.

The play has been getting attention recently because of Paula Vogel’s Broadway play Indecent, a play about a Yiddish play that was ahead of its time (as the NPR report about Indecent is titled). Vogel’s play centers around the 1923 staging of God of Vengeance in New York’s Apollo Theater (also on Broadway), notable because the whole cast, the producer, and one of the theatre owners were arrested and eventually convicted of indecency. The play had been controversial where it had been staged throughout Europe, but it also received critical acclaim.

The popularity of Indecent has led to renewed interest in Asch and his play, which was recently produced at LaMaMa Experimental Theater in the East Village (In God of Vengeance, a Nice Jewish Family Lives Above a Brothel).

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From left, Eleanor Reissa, Shayna Schmidt and Shane Baker as Orthodox Jewish parents and their marriageable young daughter in Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” at La MaMa. Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times

 

 

More Jewish Heritage Work in Kutno

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This is part II about heritage work in Kutno. The first is Jewish History of Kutno.

While in Kutno, I visited the Society of Friends of Kutno (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Ziemi Kutnowski). The organization has been active since the early 1970s, and has put out an annual periodical about local history and customs for about 20 years. Most issues of the publication contain an article about Jews. In 2016, these articles were compiled in a book along with other historical materials about Kutno’s Jews, including Holocaust witness reports and photographs, and a list of people who lived in the Kutno ghetto.

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Outline of the History of Kutno Area Jews, published by the Friends of Kutno

The chairwoman of the Friends of Kutno Bożena Gajewska is an energetic and upbeat woman. She accepted the position because of her interest in local history and her desire to promote that history among local residents. She isn’t paid for this; she volunteers for the organization after getting off work. The Friends of Kutno have their office in a historic wooden villa that was recently renovated by the city. Most of their funding comes from grants. Over the years, they have placed historical markers where the synagogue, Jewish cemetery, and ghetto used to be. Other recent projects related to Jewish culture include field trips for local residents to the Polin Museum in Warsaw, to a production of a Sholem Asch play at the Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw, and to the Chełmno Extermination Camp, where Kutno Jews were transported when the ghetto was liquidated. Kutno was selected as a site where the Museum on Wheels (a traveling branch of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews) would visit; this happened in August 2016.

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Marker reads, “In this place the 18th century synagogue stood. It was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, evidence of the hatred of one human to another, and to his works.”

Pani Bożena says she’s noticed that orientations toward Jews have improved since the Polin Museum has opened. Thanks to the Museum, you can talk about Jews, whereas before, the word “Jew” had negative connotations, and was even used as an insult. This made people unsure what to call practitioners of the Jewish faith. Polin has helped to rehabilitate the term. While this may seem like a manifestation of the particularly fraught relationship between Poles and Jews, Mark Oppenheimer just published an opinion piece in the New York Times (Sunday, April 23, 2017, “Reclaiming ‘Jew’”) in which he notes that it’s the same in the US. “Jew” is almost never used as a noun; rather, the adjective “Jewish” is used, as in “Jewish people” or “I’m Jewish” (never “I’m a Jew”). Oppenheimer quotes the comedian Louis C. K. who called “Jew” a funny word “because ‘Jew’ is the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people and a slur for the same group.”

The Polin Museum has also contributed to a surge of activity related to Jewish history and culture throughout Poland. This has led some townspeople to complain to the Friends of Kutno, “Why is everything always about Jews?” Bożena says she reminds these people that the Friends are interested in all aspects of regional history, and Jews were a part of that history. They address plenty of other topics, as well. For example, they recently published the biography of a native son who was an ultra nationalist during the period when the majority of Kutno residents were Jews (I can’t remember his name but maybe someone reading this can remind me).

Pani Bożena drove me to see some historical sites around town. The Jewish cemetery is on a hill overlooking a neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings. The hillside is covered with tall grass and wildflowers, and crisscrossed by dirt tracks where people walk their dogs, kids play, and people hang out. Many leave their trash behind. The Friends of Kutno recently put up signs around the cemetery that say “Here is the resting place of Kutno Jews, who settled in the city from the beginning of the 16th century. The cemetery located on this hill was established in 1793. Jews were buried here until March 1943. Please maintain its solemnity.” Below this historical information is the reminder, “Keep in mind as you go into this vast expanse that this is a cemetery; people are buried here, you walk on their graves, even though there are no longer tombstones…” Further, the sign states the cemetery is a registered monument and thus legally protected, and any vandalism is subject to a sentence of imprisonment. Nevertheless, within just a few months, four out of six such signs were vandalized. The metal poles were snapped at ground level. Bożena condemned the destruction, but also minimized it as the work of thoughtless hooligans (as opposed to a deliberately antisemitic act). In September, the poles were replaced and the signs stand once again.

We passed people with dogs as we walked to the top of the hill to an older monument. It contains the same historical information as the new metal signs in Polish and Hebrew (but not the reminders about proper behavior and legal issues), and is shaped like two adjoining tombstones. Heading back down the hill, past some children playing, we saw the bases of some grave markers peaking out of the grass. Many tombstones were recovered and are stored at the Kutno Museum.

Bożena dreams of building a fence around the cemetery so there will be a more substantial barrier against further vandalism. They have received all the necessary approvals, but are in need of funding.

From the cemetery, we went on to the site of the ghetto, which is outside the center of town on the grounds of a former sugar factory. The factory was used by various industries after the war, but now is closed. The buildings, some dating from the late 19th century, stand behind a high fence and a guard patrols the site. Historic markers tell the story of the ghetto. A granite plaque reads:

Here on the terrain of the former Konstancja Sugar Factory

Germans established a ghetto for the Jewish population of Kutno and the surrounding area.

After its liquidation in 1942, the surviving Jews perished in the camp at Chelmno.

Honoring their memory, the People of Kutno.

Kutno, April 1993

A more recent sign contains a bit more historical information in both Polish and English (if you want to read it, click on the photo below to enlarge it).

Bożena told me that over 8000 people lived in the ghetto from 1940-1942. Those who got there first occupied all the most obvious places, so later arrivals had to build shacks from scrap wood, or find ways of populating balconies and any other inhabitable space throughout the large factory hall. In 1942, they were all transported to the camp at Chełmno by train (the tracks are right across the street from the factory) and by truck.

Thinking about the people I met in Kutno (and elsewhere), one thing I am trying to sort out is why Christian Poles get involved in Jewish heritage projects. Not surprisingly, the reasons are varied. One is interested in historical artifacts; he has no political agenda. Another of my companions tried to place this history into a more pro-Polish framework. He explained that the Nazis forced Christian townspeople to do horrible things as part of a strategy to damage relations between Poles and Jews. “All people really want is to live in peace (Chcą w spokoju żyć)”, he continued, “Poland is in the heart of Europe, a pretty terrain that has historically been attacked from all sides.” Others feel personally drawn to Jewish culture. One of my acquaintances in Kutno believes she has Jewish heritage. She seems to understand my quest for my own family history. “It’s important to know where you’re from,” she told me. She hasn’t found anything as concrete as my family photograph (the one I use at the top of the blog) to confirm her feeling that she has Jewish roots. All she can point to are allusions in family stories she remembers from childhood, and sometimes people have told her she looks Jewish. But anyone she could have asked has passed away.

But what’s clear from my visits to Kutno is that fragments of Jewish history remain, and some have been marked as such thanks to the efforts of a small group of residents who think it is important to include the stories of Kutno’s Jews in the history of their town.

Healing Collective Trauma: Jewish Heritage Work in Poland

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Healing Collective Trauma: Jewish Heritage Work in Poland is the title of the paper I presented at the Society for Psychological Anthropology Meeting in New Orleans on March 12. Here is the abstract I submitted:

The legacy of the Holocaust weighs heavily on Polish communities that were witness to unspeakable events. The paper examines how collective and personal trauma and recovery are intertwined, particularly in relation to Jewish heritage work in Poland. It emphasizes the affective engagement of heritage workers, most of whom are Catholic Poles, working on local projects intended to bring the history and culture of the community’s absent Jews back into the public sphere. Person-centered ethnography helps to reveal how participants talk about the work they do in relation to notions of self and society, and associated personal and social meanings. It further reveals their particular narratives about past and present relationships between Catholics and Jews in Poland, which they often pose as a challenge to the silences of the socialist era and the present-day reemergence of xenophobic nationalism. As members of the post-memory generation—they grew up with stories about former Jewish residents and the destruction of their communities, but they did not actually experience these events themselves—heritage workers are able to work towards reconciliation in ways that older generations could not. They have coming-of-age stories associated with the moment historical events became real to them, and their emotional distress about the past became the force that compelled them to do something about it in the present. Their personal narratives suggest motivation stems from the convergence of attachment to their native place, a sense of responsibility to those who are no longer present, and a desire to realize a more inclusive community that accepts past and present diversity within the Polish polity.

The paper starts with the story of Piotr Pojasek, who grew up in an old farmhouse near Wronki. From childhood, he knew that the curb on his street had been made out of Jewish tombstones during the Nazi occupation, but it was only as an adult that he really realized how wrong that was. And once he became engaged emotionally and morally, he knew he had to do something about it. It took many years, but in 2014, the lapidarium of the tombstones was completed. Applying the categories of memory as defined by Aleida Assmann, I use this case to explore how individual memories can shape social memory, and in turn national and cultural (collective) memory. The point is that individual connections to the past, as Piotr had through the uneasy presence of the tombstones outside his front door and the stories his father told him, are what compelled action. By collecting and sharing historical evidence and the stories of witnesses, social memory about the impact of the Holocaust grew, and developed a resonance for others. Eventually, a large coalition of local, national, and even international sponsors succeeded in building a public monument that revives and perpetuates collective memory of the Jews who lived there, of the inhuman circumstances of their death, and of the Polish citizens who recognize this as an important part of the history of their community.

Commonly, scholarship on collective memory focuses on public symbols and commemorative spaces, and has little to say about the transmission of meaning on the individual level. In my work, I am trying to show the relevance of individual memory workers and their personal engagement with the past as well as their local community. They are the ones who can bring things together, forging personal, affective links that make others care about far distant people and events.

Erik Ross, a priest, blogs about Poznan’s Jewish history and heritage

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I came across some extraordinary posts about the fragments of Jewish life in Poznan, written by Erik Ross, a priest of the Dominican order, whose blog appears in the Times of Israel.

His posts are heart-wrenching and entertaining, full of photos, personal reflections, and difficult facts.

In Walk down Jew Street, he describes the frescoes in the Church of the Holy Blood of the Lord Jesus (Kościół Najświętszej Krwi Pana Jezusa). The church is on what is now called “Jewish Street” but inside, the recently renovated paintings depict the story of the desecration of the host by three Jews. Most striking to me, Ross points out the many places around town where this story is renewed–in the weekly opportunities to get miraculous water from the well below the church (where according to legend the Jews tried to wash off the blood that ran from the stolen hosts where they had stabbed them); in the fresh gold leaf on the Latin words recounting the story in the Corpus Christi Church, as well as three newly painted doll-sized figures of Jews around a well under a fragment of alter (marking the site where the stolen hosts were discarded in what was originally a swamp, reclaimed by a priest who brought them to another church, but then miraculously flew back to the swamp leading to the decision to build the church there).

But you should read his post, which goes into much more detail.

Ross has also written Fake Lake, about the beautiful Lake Rusałka that was built with Jewish slave labor and reinforced with Jewish tombstones, and Swim-a-gogue about the pool that until recently filled the main sanctuary of the synagogue (I’ve written about it too, in Swimming in the Synagogue).

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Lake Rusałka, where the CityTrail runs are held in Poznań. Built with the forced labor of Jews during World War II, many of whom died in the process.

 

 

Jewish history of Kutno

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When I first visited Kutno in 2013, I only stopped for a few minutes on the way from Poznan to Warsaw. I had found a record of my great grandmother on JewishGen, and the original document from the 1860s was in the Kutno archive. I got there too late to see the record (the archive was about to close), but I spoke briefly with one of the archivists, and asked her if any traces of Kutno’s Jewish culture can be found today. She said she didn’t know of anything, except perhaps some fragments of tombstones in the municipal museum.

I returned to that museum in early 2015, and the director showed me their small display of Jewish artifacts.

Finally last summer, I met some people who have spent years documenting the history of Kutno’s Jews. It turns out a lot is going on. There is a biannual festival in honor of Sholem Asch, a highly regarded Yiddish writer who was from Kutno. There are also commemorative markers at a number of sites around town. And a book was just published—a collection of articles about the Jews of Kutno (Karol Koszada, Elżbieta Świątkowska, Bożena Gajewska, Zaryz Historii Żydów Ziemi Kutnowski, 2016, Kutno: Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Ziemi Kutnowskiej).

I’ve been to the archive a few times now, often enough to break through the reserve of the archivists a couple of times. One told me that school groups sometimes come to visit. “This is a good thing,” she told me “because youths need to know that heritage is not always as straightforward as some people make it out to be. Things change.” She also said that youth don’t necessarily value the past, but seeing the records in the archive helps them to connect with history.

At the Kutno public library, I met Andrzej Olewnik, a librarian with a deep interest in town history. He seemed delighted to meet someone who shared his interest; his whole face smiled as we talked. Pan Andrzej is also a collector, and finds documents associated with Kutno in auctions. He showed me old postcards and photos, including a photo taken in the Kutno ghetto during the Nazi occupation. He also showed me one of Sholem Asch’s business cards, given to him by Asch’s great grandson. He keeps these treasures in protective plastic covers, but slid them out so I could examine them more closely.

The library has a collection of books about Kutno history. One features historic passport photos from the Kutno museum collection, many of which belonged to Jewish residents of the region. It turns out that the museum has other items related to Jewish culture they keep in storage. Some tombstones were found in a sidewalk and brought to the museum. The museum has them in storage, but took photographs of the inscriptions, which are in Yiddish and Hebrew. They are looking for someone to transcribe and translate them.

Another book Andrzej showed me was the Kutno Yizkor book. Yizkor books were compiled after World War II; in them, Jews who survived the Holocaust collected all the information they could about the Jewish population of their hometowns, including historic documents, demographic data, and personal accounts. This one was written in Hebrew—only some Yizkor books have been translated into English. Other books are by or about Sholem Asch, including precious Polish language translations of some of Asch’s plays.

Andrzej showed me digital photos of the prewar synagogue. It was right in the center of the street. Traffic would go around it on both sides. It had columns on one side, and the main entrance on the other. A map from the 1820s shows there was a long narrow green area in front of the building. Across the street from the synagogue there used to be the Jewish school, and behind that the ritual bathes. Andrzej had photos that were taken from the air showing synagogue’s destruction. First the roof was removed in 1940. Later, explosives were embedded in the pillars and the building was blown up.

Grażyna Baranowska, another librarian, organizes the Sholem Asch Festival which takes place every other year. It started as a literature contest, in which contestants competed for prizes for their original writing or their reading of literary texts. Then, it expanded into a culture festival. Next, an academic conference on the life and work of Sholem Asch was added. For the past two festivals, the great-grandson of Asch, David Mazower, has come from England. The next conference is in September 2017 and the festival is in October or November 2017. I’m trying to work out a way to attend this year.

Piwko-Winawer Reunion

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In the mid-20th century, my grandmother’s relatives in New York established the Pifko-Winawer family circle. At the time, family circles were common among Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They met on a regular basis (usually monthly) and provided emotional and financial support to members.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Piwko. The US relatives spelled their last name with an “f” instead of a “w,” perhaps to retain the proper pronunciation (in Polish, the “w” was pronounced “f”). Some relatives who settled in Switzerland spell the name “Piwko” while others use “Pifko.” One in Israel spells it “Pivko.” The name Winawer came from the husbands of two Piwko sisters—Liba married Jacob Winawar and Sarah married Saul Winawer. Aunt Pat says Jacob and Saul were cousins. I’m still looking for historical records that show exactly how they were related.

At the heart of this family circle was Philip Pifko, the youngest of my grandmother’s brothers. He had a bakery in Brooklyn where all the relatives (that is, the male ones) worked when they first came over from Poland. Philip started the bakery with another brother, Abram whom everyone called Jan in Poland and John in the US. They both came over between 1905 and 1907, but they kept in touch with the family in the home country, and Philip returned periodically for a visit. This is what I’ve been told by family members. I have also found ship manifests showing he arrived to the US in 1907 and he was a passenger to Europe in 1931. Philip stands on the right in the photo on the banner of this blog. Almost certainly, the photo was taken shortly after World War I, and it was definitely taken in Poland–evidence of another trip to Poland.

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Pifko-Winawer Dinner-on left: Murray and Hannah Winawer, ? and Sadie Shapiro, ?, ? , Pauline and Fred Rosen. On right: Nathan and Sally Winawer, Sol and Numture Winawer, ? Jacobs, Philip and Goldie Pifko, ?, Max Winawer. Cousin Joan showed me this photo and identified everyone.

My cousin Joan (granddaughter of Liba and Saul) was a child at the time, but she recalls two topics of conversation at family circle gatherings: First, issues related to the family burial plot in New Montefiore Cemetery; and second, conversations about how to get the family out of Poland (this would have been in the 1940s). She also remembers my grandmother, uncle George, and mother when they first arrived in the US. They went to the family circle meetings for a while, but then they stopped.

Philip died tragically in a car accident in 1947. He was returning with his wife and some other relatives from a wedding in Massachusetts. The roads were icy and the car slid off the road, killing Philip. The other passengers survived. Without Philip to hold everyone together, the family circle weakened. Meetings became less frequent. Disputes arose over the division of Philip’s inheritance. He had done well during his lifetime but never had any children of his own.

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Article about Philip Pifko’s death.

The split in the family was already clear here. Only Philip’s sister Sarah is mentioned in the obituary, not my grandmother Halina or the other living sisters Rachel (who lived in Israel) and Hanna (whom we called Nunia, and who went by the name Maria).

On Sunday, January 8, of this year the Pifko-Winawer circle reconvened at Melodie’s house in Brooklyn. Melodie is the great granddaughter of Liba and Jacob Winawer. Here we are, descendants of five of the Piwko siblings:

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Pifko-Winawer Reunion 2017

Descendants of Liba: Melodie (daughter of Herbert and granddaughter of Max), her wife Susanna, and children Chiara and Leo

Descendants of Abram/John: Bob (son of Abby, grandson of Ewa)

Descendants of Sarah: Hinda (daughter of Nathan) and her son Erik

Descendants of Rachel: Eldad (son of Abrash), his wife Marsha, their children Daniella, Yoni, and Shelly, and Yoni’s wife Charity

Descendants of Halina: Krysia (daughter of George) and her husband Steve; Chris (son of Maria), his husband Shih Han and children Bessie and Charlie; and me (Marysia)

Also: Miriam and her husband Shiah. Miriam’s great grandparents were the brother and sister of my great grandparents.

Because I wasn’t host, I had more time to talk with my cousins than I did at the last reunion. But so many came, I still couldn’t talk with everyone.

Hinda is named after our great grandmother. She remembers my mother and grandmother. She called Babcia a beautiful woman, and described Mama as elegant. She also remembered Mama’s scars. Hinda visited Babcia on a trip to Puerto Rico in the late 1960s. Babcia was in the hospital with a broken hip. Hinda expected her to be feeble, but found her as vibrant as ever.

Bob gave me tablecloths and napkins hand embroidered by his great grandmother Bertha (Abram/John’s wife). She made them for all her female descendants in the early 1960s. Bob found them when he cleaned out his mother’s apartment and wanted them to stay in the family. So he gave them to me.

Eldad and Marsha just moved from a house on Long Island to an apartment in Brooklyn, and they love it. They have an incredible view from their 8th floor picture window, and they’re just a short walk from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Botanical Garden.

Daniella lives in Australia, but spends her summers (our winters) in New York. She and her husband are both professors. They have been living in a friend’s apartment in Manhattan. We barely got a chance to chat at the reunion, but fortunately Daniella and I had a great time together in San Diego last month. We were both there for the Jewish Studies Association Meeting.

Yoni told me about his education start-up that developed a computer program that helps to personalize instruction to students’ learning styles and challenges. The program has been introduced in a number of public school systems around the country. His wife Charity shared her incredible story. She is an opera singer, but pulmonary hypertension led to such a deterioration of her lungs she had to have replacement surgery—twice. She is doing well now, and even singing again. She has written about it in a memoir, The Encore, due to be published in October.

Melodie, who is a medical doctor and a professor, is also about to publish a book. Hers is a historical novel, The Scribe of Siena, due out in May.

Shiah and Miriam are artists. He used to do woodwork but now does fused glass. She has done pottery.

It’s reassuring to know that we are doing okay. Despite the trauma and disruption of the past that brought us from Poland to the US, we’ve found our way. We’re doctors and teachers, ministers and counselors, entrepreneurs and artists. Counting spouses, at least two of us are MDs and four of us have PhDs. At least four of us have written books. And this is just counting the relatives that were at the reunion.

Podgórze: Below the hill and through the ghetto

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When Krysia and I visited Poland a few years ago, we walked to her friend Wanda’s apartment in Podgórze, a district across the Vistula River from Krakow’s Old City. Historically, Podgórze was an industrial part of town, and also the site of the Jewish Ghetto during World War II. Until recently, this was not a particularly desirable place to live. I went there for the first time in 1986 when my Polish teacher invited me for dinner. She lived with her doctor husband and baby daughter on Limanowski Street in a ground floor apartment that was a converted storefront. The building was grey and crumbling, and the tram rumbled by loudly and frequently. They couldn’t wait to move somewhere better. In 1992, I met a high school student whose classmates joked he was “from the country” because he lived in Podgórze. Even though you could see Wawel Castle on the opposite shore of the river, Podgórze was considered a remote corner of the city.

I really discovered Podgórze in 2005 when I was back in Kraków for 5 months during my first sabbatical leave. I made a point of exploring all the city’s parks and playgrounds as a way of entertaining my two-year-old son; long afternoon walks were often the only way I could get him to nap. Podgórze charmed me. The buildings along the tramline on Limanowski Street were still grey and crumbling, but there was also a lovely triangular plaza and a beautiful church with a hillside rising up behind it. Maybe that’s the source of the name—Podgórze means “below the hill.” Climbing up the curving street from the plaza, large houses with fenced gardens replaced the apartment buildings, and then a massive park appeared on the right. And yet, despite these explorations, I still didn’t know that I had been moving in and out of the borders of the former ghetto, where the Nazis had forced Jews to live (and die).

Wanda, a long-time resident of Podgórze, pointed out traces of that difficult era as we walked to her apartment. It was the first time I actually connected the contemporary streets of Podgórze with the places associated with the Holocaust. Just over the bridge, we entered Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta), the site where Jews were assembled before being transported to work, the ghetto, or the camps. It wasn’t until December 2005 that a monument commemorating these historical events was installed. The monument is comprised of 33 large chairs arranged in rows throughout the plaza and 37 smaller chairs scattered around the edges of the square and at the nearby tram stop. These serve as a symbol of the people whose material possessions were taken from them as they were selected for the ghetto and elsewhere. The idea was “to tell the story of the place through the configuration of the urban space itself, so that the memory of the absent ones would be manifested through the presence of everyday objects which compose the urban furniture” (Bordas 2006). The chairs make an impression, especially the big ones. They look like they should be functional but they’re not–another way they symbolize the way ordinary life became abnormal.

Chair monument in Ghetto Heroes Square

Ghetto Heroes Square

Wanda led us to a nearby street where a fragment of the ghetto wall still stands. Its characteristic scalloped top makes it resemble side-by-side tombstones. Flowers rested at the foot of a historical marker, an offering made during a commemorative event in March. Wanda also pointed out where a gate of the ghetto used to cross the street near her apartment. For 23 years, Wanda lived on that street. But then the prewar owners—Jews—regained ownership of the property and doubled the rent. Faced with the option of paying 2000 zloties per month or move, Wanda decided it would be better to invest that kind of money in a place she could own herself. That way, she doesn’t have to worry about being displaced again.

Like many Poles, Wanda feels personally affronted by former owners reasserting their claim over property. These feelings are complicated.

It seems only right that descendants of victims of the Holocaust be compensated. Regaining ownership of a building can only to the slightest degree address what those families lost.

And yet, losing their home to the prewar owner seems particularly unfair to the generation that endured years of communism, and never was able to accumulate much wealth in their own lives. Since the end of communism, prices have risen, unemployment has become common, and wages remain modest. Often it’s the poorest residents who live in former homes of Jews because the government took over their management and made them into low-cost housing for those in greatest need. This affordable housing was a small oasis of security in unsettled times. Many such residents today are elderly; others are unemployed; some have problems with their health or with substance abuse. They don’t have many options.

Wanda was one of the lucky ones with the wherewithal and the financial means to buy her own place. But still she carries the resentment with her that she sometimes translates into resentment of Jews more generally. Who was looking out for her rights when the apartment was returned to the prewar owners? What did some rich foreigner need with her building? Why should they get even wealthier at her expense?

In fact, prewar owners are reclaiming properties all over Poland, and even though they are not all Jewish, the greatest resentment is directed toward those who are.

In Podgórze, you can see both the effort to acknowledge sites of Jewish heritage, and also signs of continued antisemitism.

Wanda loves her neighborhood and doesn’t want to live anywhere else (even though she has to spend part of each year in the US to earn enough money to pay her mortgage). The apartment she lives in now is new construction on top of a historic townhouse; an additional floor was added to an existing building. As we climbed the three flights of stairs, she explained that when she bought the place, all that was there were the bare walls. This is standard practice in Poland. The buyer has to select, purchase, and install all the flooring, fixtures, wall coverings cabinets, and appliances. The apartment is long and narrow, with a wall of windows and a sleeping loft. Wanda said she bought it at the peak of the market; today she could find something for half that price. But that would mean moving again.

As we ate a generous spread of Polish dishes, including stuffed cabbage (gołąbki) and two kinds of pickles, Wanda said that Podgórze has become one of the most popular neighborhoods in Krakow. The new heritage sites and museums—including the Ghetto Heroes Square, the Schindler Factory Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art—have brought with them tourists and the amenities that tourists expect. People are moving out of the center of the city because it has become too crowded, cars are restricted on most streets, there are few stores with everyday necessities, and the prices are too high. Podgórze is desirable because it has good public transportation, is within walking distance of the city center, and because of the park, the trees, and the hill that I find so appealing.

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The new pedestrian bridge across the Vistula River to Podgórze.

Neo-Nazis in the Mainstream?

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As a follow-up to Josh Rothman’s article about the KKK in the 1920s, this came out in the New York Times yesterday:

 

Apparently, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement is seeking more mainstream appeal by dropping the swastika as its official symbol and replacing it with a more obscure pre-Roman symbol the Nazis also used. This sounds eerily like the broad appeal the KKK gained in the 1920s when it highlighted traditional (white-only) values through civic events like parades and picnics.

According to the Times article, what unites the disparate organizations now called the “Alt-right” is an assertion of European identity, and the fundamental divisions between races. Groups may be divided on “the vexing ‘J.Q.’ — the ‘Jewish Question,'” but Nazi salutes are nevertheless common at gatherings such as the one in Washington last month.

These movements have been on the fringe, but are now finding more pathways into the public sphere. So what comes next?

 

When Bigotry Paraded in the Streets

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Screenshot of Josh Rothman’s article When Bigotry Paraded through the Streets, The Atlantic website

In “When Bigotry Paraded in the Streets,”Josh Rothman (a friend and colleague at University of Alabama) describes the surge of membership in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.

Rothman writes:

“Most Americans today likely think of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization whose heyday came in the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, and of its members as lower-class white Southern men—ones who concealed their identities while waving the Confederate flag at pro-segregation rallies, burning crosses on the lawns of their enemies, or brutalizing their innocent victims. Others are perhaps familiar with the Klan of the 1860s and 1870s, which was a white and distinctively Southern terrorist organization composed of men who tortured and murdered people under cover of darkness in an effort to undermine the political and economic freedoms accorded to formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction.

“But the Klan was easily at its most popular in the United States during the 1920s, when its reach was nationwide, its members disproportionately middle class, and many of its very visible public activities geared toward festivities, pageants, and social gatherings. In some ways, it was this superficially innocuous Klan that was the most insidious of them all. Packaging its noxious ideology as traditional small-town values and wholesome fun, the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment, and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability.”

He’s a historian, so he doesn’t make direct parallels with contemporary politics. But it’s scary to think that these same processes are at work today. Maybe it isn’t the Klan itself that is becoming mainstream again, but middle class respectability and traditional values are being aligned with Klan-like sentiments–fear of immigrants, minorities, feminists, and Jews.

The article leaves me with a lot to think about and a feeling of dread.