Saturday, October 25, 2014

Poland – My Special Synagogue Experience

On my last morning in Warsaw, I wanted to visit the Nożyk Synagogue. I packed my suitcase and ate my breakfast by 8:15am. I set out on foot to find the Nożyk Synagogue which I had seen six days earlier. I passed the Palace of Science and Culture and then Prozna Street (the only standing street from Warsaw Ghetto.) I took a hard left and made my way through an ally of sorts. There it was: the yellow building. I made my way up the stairs hoping the door would open. It did. It was 8:30am.
I passed by this small Jewish Community Center. 
The Ester Rachel Kamińska and Ida Kamińska State Jewish Theater where all performances are in Yiddish! 
I was relieved to see the Nożyk Synagogue through the trees.
The backdoor I entered. No entry through front door is allowed due to security precautions.
The same gruff security guard who refused us entrance the previous Saturday was there. I politely inquired if I could enter. He said I could enter at 9am because services were in progress. I informed him I was Jewish and could I please enter. He asked me “Will you Pray?” I replied, “Yes.”

The guard checked inside my purse and led me through a door. He tells me “women’s section” and points to a staircase. I was not surprised as women are separated from men in an Orthodox Synagogue. I made my way up the stairs and sat to peer over the balcony wall. The Rabbi was concluding the morning service with about twelve men – enough for a minyan. All the men wore a kippah on their heads, most wore tallit over their shoulders (prayer shawl) and some had tzitzit hanging down each leg. After the service ended, they gathered at a table to share a morning meal. I could not understand the Polish of course but the talk sounded friendly and all interacted in an easy manner.
The view from the women’s section.
Women's seating on upper balcony.
I made my way around the top level and found a box of what appeared to be trash. It had books. I looked through them and found a 1946 book published in Palestine. It was plain brown paper and had penciled writing with a name, London, England and Hebrew writing. I also found a 1956 book printed in Israel. I think they are Haggadahs but written in Hebrew so not sure. I wondered if I could have them? I was tempted to just take them but did not feel that was the right thing to do.
The box on the left that I sorted through to find the Jewish books. 
Finally it was 9am. I went back to the security guard to ask permission to enter the main area of the synagogue. He mumbled with an affirmative nod of the head. One of the Polish worshipers said welcome to me in English. I am not sure how he knew to greet me in English.
The entry to the main area of synagogue.
Precious relics of Jewish life found in the synagogue.
Jewish children play here ... what could be better?
I wondered up some back stairs of the synagogue where I could see women entering for work. I approached one to ask about the box of books. She was not too helpful. I persisted and asked the next woman I saw. I was fortunate indeed! She was not only very friendly but also the Rabbi’s assistant!! She walked back with me to the women’s section so I could show her the mysterious box. I explained I was a Jew from Dallas, Texas and showed her the two books I wanted. She pulled out her mobile phone and called the Rabbi. He said “Yes and any books from the box.” I do not know why tears welled up as I thanked the kind woman. Just as tears are streaming down my cheeks as I write of this experience.
The 1946 Jewish Book printed in Palestine that appears to have come from London to Warsaw. It is now part of my 2014 Jewish home in Dallas, Texas.
The first page
Who is Shula Amin? Is she from London, England?
I cannot help but feel heartbroken for the three million Jews who were murdered in Poland during the German occupation in WWII. The fact that this one synagogue survived destruction is a miracle. The Rabbi’s assistant told me there were 500 official members of the synagogue and other nonmembers using it too. This too is a miracle to me. This functioning Jewish community in Warsaw is heroic. It is a testament to the undeniable spirit of Jews in the diaspora. Just like Auschwitz and Birkenau, it is important to visit Nożyk Synagogue where survival and faith are visibly present and alive.

And this is where my first journey to Poland concludes.

Oddly enough after I wrote this account, I read this article about Polish Jewish life in a documentary "The Return" opening this week ... and I understand. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Poland – Guide #3 in Krakow

At 2pm Sunday afternoon, Driver #2 promptly loaded us into the van and drove us from Auschwitz to Krakow where we arrived at 3:30pm. Driver #2 let us know that our guide, Anna, would meet us at 5pm. Since we had no proper meal for the entire day, we quickly made our way to a sidewalk café. I could not resist a second coffee of the day and ordered a café latte. We immediately realized that Krakow was special with the picturesque streets and buildings.
It tasted as wonderful as it looks!
Guide #3 – Anna from Krakow

Shortly before 5pm, we met Guide #3 of the weekend, Anna. Anna was an attractive and friendly young woman who greeted us warmly as she explained she would walk us through Krakow for the next 3.5 hours and then escort us to the train station.

Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral 
We climbed Wawel Hill to Wawel Castle which is adjacent to Wawel Cathedral. Anna explained how Wawel Castle had been modified many times due to fires, conquerors making changes or Polish kings "remodeling." As a result, the architecture reflects many time periods and styles.
The first castle tower we encountered. The Gothic Wawel Castle was built in the 14th century.
Wawel Castle overlooks the Vistula River. We see the castle defensive wall and the lovely grassy banks of the river. 
Approaching the outer castle courtyard …
Wawel Cathedral has been the primary burial site for Polish monarchs since the 14th century thus there are multiple burial chambers as seen in this photo.
Castle gate leading to the arcaded courtyard.
…. And the arcaded courtyard is an example of Renaissance art although the tall upper tier is uniquely Polish. It was raised to allow larger windows for more light in the rooms of this level.
Front of Wawel Cathedral.
The massive bones hanging left of the heavy cathedral door are said to protect Krakow from destruction which may be true given the centuries of partition especially during WWII. Legend says they belong to Smok Wawelski, Wawel's fearsome dragon. They are likely belong to a blue whale or woolly mammoth or rhinoceros.
Walking Krakow

As dusk approached, Anna led us from the castle on the hill into the heart of Krakow.
The narrow streets pull us in as we try to absorb all the interesting details assaulting our eyes and ears.
Krakow is known as the city of churches with 120 Roman Catholic churches. St. Andrew's Church, built between 1079 and 1098, is one of the best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Poland. Notice the defensive windows along bottom as it was also a fortress church.
The Saints Peter and Paul Church is entirely in Baroque style built between 1597 and 1619. The statues of the apostles are in straight line parallel to the street. The builder did this to create an illusion because the church building itself is not parallel.
As part of Jagiellonian University, this door leads to Collegium Juridicum which is a Gothic structure built in the 15th century. This university counts Pope John Paul II as an alumni.
We were excited to shop in this candy store. Wawel chocolates are made in Krakow  - so many varieties!
Krakow’s market square is humongous! At the top of every hour for hundreds of years, the Trumpeter of Krakow sounds the trumpet from the top of St. Mary's Basilica's tallest tower. Anna made sure we heard the 7pm blast.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon in Krakow with Anna. She shared so much of the local history and told us many stories and legends. It was quite the counterbalance to our morning tour of the concentration camps.

However, our day was not quite over. We made our way to the Krakow train station and found our compartment. Unlike the morning train, this one was completely full and our compartment of eight seats was all occupied. We did manage a short nap on our way back to Warsaw. We arrived late at 11:30pm and there was no sign of Driver #1 as promised. Non-pulsed, we simply found our way through the underground tunnel to the hotel.

Sleep came quickly after such a day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Auschwitz & Birkenau

At 4:30am on Sunday from our hotel lobby, we followed an elderly man who did not speak English to his car. He literally drove us across the street to the Warszawa Central train station. While showing us train tickets, he signaled for us to give him our cash payment. I nervously considered what to do. At that same moment, two young Portuguese men smelling of alcohol approached the group and asked the man a question. We heard Auschwitz mentioned. These travelers had also booked a tour to Auschwitz. I quickly made the decision to pay this Polish Driver #1 and he guided us to the 5am train bound for Krakow. He indicated he would meet us at 11pm that night when we returned.

We boarded wagon #21 and found our compartment of eight seats which we had all to ourselves. Thankfully a vendor cart came by offering coffee. In about three hours we arrived at Krakow Glowney train station where Driver #2 awaited us and the Portuguese men. Driver #2 rushed us along to the waiting van to make the 1.5 hour drive to Auschwitz. No time for breakfast and Driver #2 did not seem too concerned about our nutritional needs because once we arrived, we quickly started the 10am movie and 10:30am English tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau which would conclude four hours later.

I have toured Auschwitz and Birkenau and believe all who are able should. I am quite knowledgeable of the facts but seeing this place, the buildings, the setting -- is important to understanding. Honestly, I cannot string together any original sequence of words that have not been better composed by legions of others.
On the wall of an Auschwitz building. I strongly agree. 
It is in the middle with a railroad line - why this location was chosen as death camp for 1.1 million men, women and children. 
German phrase meaning "Work makes (you) free" on the gate to Auschwitz.
Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"

And the answer: "Where was man?”
― William StyronSophie's Choice

As a Jew, I have to emotionally process this experience as well as that of the Warsaw Ghetto. I need to talk with other Jews ...

Guide #3 ... next post ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poland - Guide #2

Saturday morning was with Monika and Saturday afternoon was with ...

Mariusz - Guide #2: Adventure Warsaw Website Where Mariusz Works

Mariusz, our 2nd Guide, was a cheeky character with a quick wit, strong opinions and deep knowledge of Warsaw's communist history. I did not let him bait me however I was tempted to spar with him. His grandfather worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for the Communist Party in Warsaw. Adventure Warsaw offers an "Off the Beaten Path Trip" in an original dark green Polish Van, the Nysa 522.

Off we went at 2:30pm in the afternoon!
Mariusz telling us about the Palace of Science and Culture. A French couple from Marseille was with us too.
There are many such alters with Mary and her lighted halo in courtyards all over Warsaw and most built during WWII as a literal place of worship while the Nazis occupied the city. Reminds me of Mexico which has similar structures everywhere you go.
The Morocco Embassy - notice the statue of Mary placed on upper part of building. 
Rough translation is that 9 Poles were shot by the people of Hitler on August 1, 1944 which is the day the Warsaw Uprising began. I asked about the word "Hitlerowcy" which Mariusz explained as the people of Hitler. I found it interesting that this memorial used the terminology Hitlerowcy versus the Germans or the Nazis. 
This street art has lots of symbolism. The Kotwica, Polish for anchor, symbol with "P" and "W" originally surfaced in 1942 with the Nazi resistance and came to represent "defiance against occupiers" which ultimately included resistance to the Communists as well.
Artist Julita Wojcik's Tezca is an artistic construction of a rainbow with plastic flowers representing LGBT rights. It is placed in Savior Square across from a Catholic Church and is quite controversial. It has been set on fire several times.
A park in Praga which is on the eastern bank of the Vistula River. Praga is a settlement inhabited by artists and such ... 
In Praga. What is it? You hang your rugs on it to beat them clean! 
Our tour included a high calorie dinner in a Polish Milk Bar. In Eastern- Bloc Poland this food was subsidized by the state. Large portions of regional cuisine (beets, wheat, cottage cheese & potato peirogi, potato pancakes, etc.) at bargain prices!  
Milk Bar server - the blue coat is iconic.
Final Stop ...
By 6pm, it was dusk and the French tourists had left early in a cab. We loaded up in the Polish Van with Mariusz. He drove to a dark street in Praga and parked. We exited while he left to get a key - what?!!? We stood there in this slightly scary spot awaiting the next move. Mariusz returned and unlocked a heavy metal door to a courtyard and locked it behind us - what ??!!#@! Two random men appeared to be wandering around the dark enclosed space. Then he unlocked a plain metal door to a sparse dimly lit hallway. Then he unlocked yet another door where we entered a corridor with flickering overhead lights and then ...
We saw this guy!
The final door led to this Communist Era Museum and Apartment. Mariusz started the record player over in the corner. It all felt slightly c r e e p y ... 
Then we embraced the moment (realizing we are not going to be chopped into bits - ha!) and started to appreciate all the glorious artifacts of a time bygone. 
TV Stand doubles as bar turntable. 
The chain went to a cup to get a drink.
Communist Russian Motor Bike!
Finally Vodka! One was thick and sweet and the other more abrupt down the throat. The Perfect Ending to our double tour Saturday in Warsaw! 
A phone booth of course - a budce telefonicznej.  All the Zs and Js missing in English are found in the Polish language.
This is a super fun tour with a few twists and turns, for sure.

Driver #1, Driver #2 and Guide #3 ... next post ...