Poland 2007

Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel reports on her trip to Poland in August and September 0f 2007:

The trip was an incredible opportunity to learn firsthand about Jewish history and to participate in the revival of Yiddish culture in Poland. In addition to spending two weeks in Sródborów, I also had the opportunity to visit Krakow, Sródborów, Lublin, Łódź, and Warszawa. I met older Jews from Poland who still live there or visit; young Polish, European, and Polish-Jewish students; local Polish residents involved in preserving and memorializing Jewish culture; and professionals specializing in Polish-Jewish history.

Seminarium języka i kultury jidysz

This summer, I taught Yiddish song at the Seminarium języka i kultury jidysz (Seminar of Yiddish Language and Culture) in Sródborów, Poland. Along with colleague Motl Didner (National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene), I had the great honor of being invited there by Golda Tencer, head of the Fundacja Shalom in Warsaw.

The seminar took place at “Srodborowianka”, a historical Jewish vacation house in the village of Sródborów, near the town of Otwock, 2o km from Warszawa (Warsaw). Students included undergraduate and graduate students, professionals and retired persons mainly from Poland, but also from Germany, Lithuania, and the U.S. The language teachers were Elias Seydowski (France), Peninah Meller (Israel), Małgorzata Koziel (Poland), Dr. Yakov Weitzner (Poland), Dr. Chava Lapin (U.S.), Dr. Paul Glasser (U.S.). Other teachers included dance instructor Leon Blank (Sweden) and song instructor Tova Ben-Zvi (Israel).

I enjoyed teaching Yiddish songs to the students, who quickly developed several favorites, including “Arum dem fayer”, “Di zun vet aruntergeyn”, and “Volt ikh gehat koyekh”. One evening, after a very moving showing of Joanna Podolska’s documentary, “Children of the Lodz Ghetto”, I taught them Hirsh Glik’s partisan anthem “Zog nisht keyn mol”. We spent many evenings singing outside on the patio, dancing, and singing literally “Arum dem fayer”, around the fire late into the night, in the great, wooded yard, under the moon and stars.

The seminar concluded with a festive gathering where certificates were awarded. Guests came from near and far. Students presented dramatic scenes, sang and danced. I joined several teachers in presenting a rollicking Srodborowianka version of my song “Zayt bagrist”, with new lyrics by Motl Didner. We enjoyed a performance by the wonderful singer and pianist, Marina Yakubovich of Israel, and sang and danced late into the night.

Otwock

Otwock (a large town near Sródborów) historically had a large Jewish population. I visited the local Jewish cemetery, the old marketplace and former Jewish sanatoriums. In the town center (as everywhere in Poland), one can buy depictions of Jews, ranging from folksy wooden dolls of klezmorim (Jewish musicians) to stereotypical paintings and dolls of a Jewish man counting money or holding a coin, or with grossly exaggerated facial features.

I attended a very moving memorial ceremony commemorating the liquidation of the Otwock ghetto. I visited the death camp Treblinka, a very sad and horrifying experience. The memorial and the visit to Treblinka were organized by local residents committed to memorializing Jewish culture in Otwock. I got to know several of these residents during my visit. At their invitation, I presented a concert of Yiddish songs from Poland for a packed audience in an Otwock coffeehouse, thanks to the kind efforts of Joanna Gromadzka and her daugher Marianna, Monica Radkiewicz, and Mr. Nosowski.

Performing in Otwock

Warszawa

Tolek, a Polish-Jewish seminar participant who lives today in Wroclaw, kindly provided transportation to Warsaw in his classic car, which was a real adventure. In the Gensher beys-oylem (cemetery), I saw the graves of many famous people including author I. L. Peretz, actress Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, and Warsaw ghetto uprising hero-martyr Michael Klepfisz. I visited the former ghetto and memorial areas, although very little of Warszawa’s pre-war architecture survives. I saw many rebuilt buildings in Central Warsaw, along Nowy Swiat and in the popular area “Plac Zamkowy” (castle square), as well as the landmark Palace of Arts and Sciences, a massive Soviet remnant.

In the “gzhibov” area ( near Grzybowska street), I visited the restored Nowyk synagogue, which was used as a stable during the war. I saw an exhibit on the Warsaw Ghetto at the Jewish Historical Institute, thanks to the assistance of Martyna Rusiniak, a doctoral student specializing in Polish-Jewish women’s history.

The festival Warszawa Singera (the Isaac Bashevis Singer festival of Jewish culture in Warsaw) was a very interesting highlight of my time in Warsaw. The festival took place in the “gzhibov” area, in the Nowyk synagagoue, the Jewish theater and on Prozna street (“pruzhne”). Festival activities included indoor and outdoor performances of klezmer music, dance, Yiddish song (often translated into Polish), art and photography exhibitions and a street fair. The festival featured a busy schedule of activities, with North American, Israeli, Polish and European acts, and I enjoyed several excellent performances.

Łódź

I spent about a day each in Łódź, Lublin, and Krakow – not enough time to see everything but enough to whet my appetite for learning and give me a sense of how much history is here. In Łódź, I saw the Jewish neighborhood of Balut, the cemetery, shuls, and the palaces of Jewish factory magnate Poznanski, as well as a memorial park and the Radegast deportation point. Łódź was a unique industrial city of Jews, Poles, Ukranians, and Germans. It was the second largest and longest lasting ghetto in Poland under the leadership of Chaim Rumkowski, and served as an industrial center. After the war, there was a Yiddish school that Golda Tencer attended, and many of her classmates return each year to Warsaw for a reunion. Tova Ben-Zvi, a song instructor from Israel (originally from Łódź) shared with us some of her repertoire of songs from the Łódź ghetto. She was kind enough to give me a wonderful recording she made entitled “Mit a zemerl in hartsn” featuring some of her unique repertoire, and I have been listening to it quite a bit since my return to New York.

Lublin

I visited Lublin for one day at the invitation of Dr. Marta Kubiszyn, a seminar participant and expert on the history of Jews in Lublin. Lublin is a beautiful, historic city with much old architecture and it had one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. Marta showed me many fascinating sites, including old gates to the ghetto, historic buildings, the “old” cemetery on a hill, the last surviving “suke (sukkah) balcony” and the renovated Lublin yeshiva. We walked through the old Jewish neighborhood and she described the former layout of the streets, synagogues, and shared many historical facts about Lublin.

Krakow

My trip to Krakow included a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau with Yankl, a very knowledgeable guide, who provided a personalized tour for me and colleagues Motl Didner and Danielle Dorter. I saw the vastness of the camps, learned much more about their history and about daily life there. Being there on a cold, rainy day, it was difficult to imagine how people survived years in such an environment, and the physical and psychological toll of it all.

Krakow is the site of the annual Jewish music festival and is also a very popular tourist site. We stayed at the “Klezmer hoyz”, a Jewish inn and restaurant but did not have time to sample the food or music. Kazimierz, the former Jewish area, contains many old synagogues and historical buildings that were not destroyed during the war. We visited several synagogues, a cemetery and and the old central area of the city. There were many “Jewish-style” signs and businesses such as bookstores and cafes.

The most meaningful site for me was the house where Mordkhe Gebirtig (the famous Yiddish folk poet and songwriter) lived. A plaque at the site features an engraved picture of Gebirtig with the inscriptions (in Yiddish) “Blayb gezunt mir Kroke” (Farewell, my Krakow).

Looking back…

Visiting Poland was a fascinating experience for me. It was both educational and emotional. I was awed by the history here and by the chance to meet Polish Jews, both survivors and younger generations, as well as Poles who are working to memorialize and promote Jewish culture and history. I appreciate very much the help and hospitality that I received from the Fundacja Shalom and from people too numerous to mention. I hope that I will have a chance to return someday.

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