i’m in a bar in Krakow tonight (the “new york”-ish schmancy place; I always find that one), and this threesome of brits behind me start talking about this african bailey’s irish cream equivalent called amarula, which i drank in tanzania. so here i am in poland, feeling like manhattan, listening to britsÂ talk about african liquor with which i’m familiar.
Archive for July, 2005
A Jew Among Jews Revisited: Eastern Europe 2005
Never being one to shy from intellectual exploration and and possessing the unselfconscious ego to situate my own experiences at the center of my adventures in awareness, in college I majored in sociology and wrote an honors thesis on the experience of being non-Jewish in a Jewish majority.Â Postering the campus with flyers seeking interviewees from the student body, I quickly became known as the non-Jew writing that thesis (no defensiveness included in the italics).Â Capital N, capital J.Â By the time I finished, I was emotionally exhausted from examining my differences from my group of best friends, yet nonetheless followed my cohort of Tri-State Jews (5 women reared in Westchester, Great Neck, Riverdale, NY and Bergen County, NJ, in yeshivas and Camp Ramah) to Manhattan post-college.Â I wanted out of Boston (for the first time in my life), and New York seemed close yet different enough for me to spread my wings without sacrificing quick access to my large, boisterous, generous family.Â One of the beauties of being reared in college by a group of highly educated Jews is my extraordinary degree of comfort and knowledge of Judaism.Â While I know the â€œrules and regulationsâ€? pretty well â€“ some friends used to proudly boast better than the average American Jew â€“ where I really excel is the cultural ease with which I interact with Jews.Â Moving from Brandeis to New York, the latter no slouch in its own vibrant Jewish community, I transformed my Brandeis experience to my real world experience, now with more porous boundaries to be infiltrated by other groups of friends.Â As new Jews enter my life, I always pounce on them with a sort of intimate affection that seems to make them uncomfortable while I relax in their familiarity.Â They never know what to make of this blue-eyed freckled Irish redhead from Boston acting as if weâ€™re long lost relatives.Â How sheâ€™d learn the secret handshake?, they wonder.I recently attended an academic conference in Budapest, Hungary.Â Adding some time for travel to my first trip to Eastern Europe, I almost went to Prague, per many peopleâ€™s urgings.Â But as I leafed through my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, I came across Poland.Â And Krakow.Â And Auschwitz.Â A train ride from Budapest.Â I didnâ€™t know much about Prague, but I knew a lot about Auschwitz.Â My best friend was force fed so much about the Holocaust in yeshiva growing up that it is her policy to avoid any available reference to it if she can help it.Â Itâ€™s scarcely a head in the sand type of strategy, thereâ€™s little new for her to learn.Â Sheâ€™s not unusual in our crew, and thus I knew I could go to Auschwitz on behalf of all these girls who may never have the emotional stamina nor desire to do so.Â I informally planned my vacation as a Jewish heritage tour, dedicated to my girls and larger Brandeis universe.Â Excitedly, as odd as that sounds and feels, I set off.Â Oswiecism (sp??) Poland, the town of Auschwitz and Birkenau, is a 90 minute bus ride from Krakow.Â One my second day in Krakow, I ventured out in 55 degree rainy weather to make the trip.Â For about $8, a three and a half hour English-language tour takes you through Auschwitz for two hours, and Birkenau for an hour, shuttling the group the two miles between on a bus.Â With the weather and the summer tourist season in full swing, the two camps were cold and muddy outside, and hot, crowded, sweaty and stifling inside the buildings.Â Somehow fitting.Â Auschwitz, for those not familiar with the intimate details, was a former Polish army barracks, and at ignorant first glance it is a pleasant, orderly layout of sturdy, tidy brick buildings that I wondered were similar to anything my U.S. Army veteran father might have lived in during his service.Â Its design, despite the Nazisâ€™ fastidious approach to genocide, feels at complete odds with the atrocities that occurred within.Â The tour is thorough, and mine was delivered at an efficient, stoic clip by a Polish guide.Â Having found warmth lacking in most of my abbreviated exchanges with service personnel in Eastern Europe thus far, her style didnâ€™t strike me as unusual, but her employment as a tour guide at Auschwitz struck me as one of the more bizarre occupations in the universe.Â (Over the course of the three hours, I saw the softness in her eyes, and the sad way she had a detailed answer to every additional question, and I perceived a nationalistic commitment to educating visitors fueling her work.)Â Â Translated English is always an entertaining, curious, abbreviated form of speaking, and this was no different.Â The information is synthesized in a form easiest for the translator to dispel, so the nuances of how fascism grows and ethnic cleansing follows are boiled down into â€œFirst the Nazis killed the Poles.Â Then they killed the Jews.Â These were their trading partners for the remains of the exterminated.Â These are the countries who knew and did nothing.Â Â This is when and where it happened.Â Any questions?Â Thank you for coming.â€?Â Details are inserted as necessary, and artifacts and photos adorn the original and recreated camp grounds. The brutal, unbelievable reality of the Holocaust unfolds in a numbing monotone amidst garish Western European and North American crowds in brightly colored $3 ponchos and video cameras shuffling from room of human hair to execution wall to prison cell to gas chamber, signs in Polish, English and Hebrew supplementing the voices of the guides drowning one another out in the poor acoustics of the army barracks cum death camps.Â I spent some cognitive time debating the distaste of museum crowds at Auschwitz with the obvious need to never ignore what had occurred.Â I hung in for awhile, my intellectual curiosity and sheer lack of ability to relate to starvation chambers overriding the growing horror and awareness of what I was walking through.Â Then we came to the exhibit of artifacts retained from the exterminated populations.Â In one room was two tons of Jewish womenâ€™s human hair, sold to a German company for textile purposes.Â One long hallway was lined from waist to ceiling with shoes of the murdered.Â Combs and brushes were in another room.Â And slowly, it started to wear me down.Â An exhibit of suitcases from Jewish families offered up all the names Iâ€™ve come to know since the days of Brandeis â€“ Neumann, Rosenfeld, Weinberg.Â Another room of pots and pans devastated me from the hope implied in lugging your pots and pans with you to your anticipated â€œbetter lifeâ€?, as the guide explained.Â (Itâ€™s one thing to pack combs, pomade, your eyeglasses, and shoes.Â Pots and pans donâ€™t sit so easily in a valise or suit pocket.)Â I recognized the prayer shawls as the guide was expla
ining their meaning to the group.Â Â And finally, pictures of the numbers tattooed on prisoners, and walls of photographs of prisoners (almost none Jews, btw.Â By the time they started transporting them in large numbers to the camps, the practice of photographing was dropped as too expensive, and, I believe, a waste of time/effort for Jewish prisoners.)Â I began to cry, with difficulty quietly, thinking of the grandfather of one of my best friends from college who survived Auschwitz.Â I never knew what that meant, the kind of maze he got through, with so many ways to die built in at every turn.Â Itâ€™s my understanding this grandfather is not an easy relative to bear, but in this moment and forever I forgive him all the grief of his grandson, though itâ€™s certainly not my place to bestow any such tidings.Â But having laid out for me how exactly so many died, the multiple creative ways the Nazis went about determining how to kill Jews, Poles, Gypsies, gays with the greatest of pain and suffering, and knowing that one of my favorite people in the world is exactly that because his grandfather eluded this web is truly overwhelming.Â Â I am in some version of love with this friend at the moment, so grateful and overwhelmed am I that he is with me today.Â The 30 minutes spent waiting for the shuttle bus, boarding the bus, riding the bus, disembarking at Birkenau, breaks the spell of Auschwitzâ€™s horrors, and I found myself reluctant to continue the tour.Â Why am I doing this?Â I wondered to myself.Â I think I get it.Â Thus, while the guide books claim Birkenau, with its eerie, sheer size, is more traumatizing for many visitors than Auschwitz, I found myself somewhat numb by the time we were trekking across the former â€œJewish platformsâ€? next to the railroad tracks to the two decimated gas chambers at the end.Â In my MBA way I have a tendency to interpret everything in language more suitable to corporate boardrooms.Â And more than the lack of ability to process any more information by the time we reached Birkenau, was my interpretation of the relationship between the two camps.Â Birkenau is often referred to in the tour and in photos as Auschwitz II, as it was built several years after Auschwitz (I) was in operation in order to carry out the Nazisâ€™ plan to exterminate the worldâ€™s Jewish population.Â As a former manager of new business development, what I saw in Auschwitz was a training ground for the Nazis to perfect their arts of death, torture, and sadism, and Birkenau as their effect to bring economies of scale to their operations.Â Auschwitz was where they worked out the kinks in their systems, established their trading partners/business relationships, and prepared for the launch of their system in a wholesale fashion. Although Birkenau was sickening in its finishing touches of inhumanity (scant wooden cabins, atrocious, humiliating â€œbathroomâ€? facilities, etc.), Auschwitz was more profoundly disturbing to me as the Naziâ€™s testing ground to make sure they got genocide right.Â Fucking sick.Â I had made a mental note to go back and see the exhibit of Czech Jews when the official tour was over (in tribute to my friendâ€™s grandfather), but when it finally ended, I found myself running for the bus.Â So anxious to get away, I fell asleep immediately on board, and didnâ€™t wake until we were just outside the train station in Krakow.Iâ€™m alone on this trip, and while e-mail access was easy in Poland, I had a terrible time navigating international phone calls.Â In bits and pieces over the next few days, I began to send out spurts of this experience to friends via email.Â While I loved Krakow and would love to explore more of Poland and Eastern Europe in the future, I couldnâ€™t quite recover from the enormity of the history lesson that day.Â Attempts to visit the Jewish quarter in Krakow the next day were foiled when I couldnâ€™t bear how every exhibit summarized its Jewish history with â€œand then it ended because our population was decimated in the Holocaust.Â Â Thank you for visiting.Â Please donate.â€?Â Every exhibit, the same ending.Â It was too much, too depressing, too awful, and instead I wandered among art galleries and avoiding the flourishing antique business in this country where 6,000,000 of its population was exterminated 60 years ago.Â I didnâ€™t need to view anymore pomade cans, nor purchase any, what with their suspicious availability. When I was at Brandeis, I dated actively and frequently ran up against rejection from Jews uncomfortable with dating non-Jews.Â While I filled out surveys on my knowledge of Yiddish for doctoral thesis research at Brandeis and knew not to mix milk and meat in certain dining halls, Iâ€™ve never been to Israel, and have only been to synagogue once.Â Whenever more than one of us is in a majority of Jews, my few non-Jewish Brandeis friends and I always acknowledge it.Â (â€œHey, four Gâ€™s,â€? a friend remarked last fall at a Jewish wedding when the two couples we comprised waiting in the hotel lobby were all Gentiles. Wondertwins Power â€“ Activate!)Â Finally reaching maturity and comfort levels to be okay with this enduring oscillation in and out of this world, Iâ€™ve repositioned what often felt like a marginal role to more of an ambassador of sorts.Â I adore that I am so intimately familiar with this small, private universe (since Brandeis, Iâ€™ve been in an Orthodox Jewish wedding (in addition to attending five others so far), and stayed with Lubovitchers when traveling through South Africa.) and I rely heavily on it as a safe haven for aspects of my identity I feel are not in sync with my own ethnic history.Â Â My secondary education was steeped in American history, particularly the Revolutionary War period, given our centrality in the event, and while I learned about the Holocaust and World War II, I canâ€™t even recall what I learned.Â I remember reading Elie Wieselâ€™s Night and John Herseyâ€™s Hiroshima in an accelerated freshman English class, but generally, lessons of WWII, the Holocaust, genocide, mass atrocities against humanity, somehow faded in comparison to my sophomore year American History teacher hoofing it around our town in the wee morning hours to try to photograph historic squares and greens without any cars in them, so we might think we were transported back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.Â I have a hard time absorbing information without a frame of reference, and thus internalizing the specific ethnic devastation of WWII was virtually lost on me without actually knowing more than a few Jews, liberal divorcees like my mother, her colleagues.Â Coming to Brandeis and befriending/infiltrating t
he worlds of Camp Ramah and USY came with all sorts of information, but at 18, 19, even the wise old age of 21, itâ€™s rarely couched in large historic, global terms.Â I remember my friend Denise telling me she was a Zionist, and I still think of her as one to this day, but I remember not really knowing what she meant about the affiliation with Israel, and Iâ€™d probably benefit from her reviewing her position with me now.Â And my best friend Leah (as in Princess), a bible scholar in early adolescence, and one of the smartest people Iâ€™ve ever met (I think her brain may literally be a sponge, though sheâ€™s too smart for Trivial Pursuit), has been my key informant on all subjects Judaica.Â Â Iâ€™ll never forget the two of us in a bar at Logan Airport our senior year en route to St. Louis, likely thrilled to be drinking at the airport now that we were 21, but what we were talking about was the history of Israel (she was teaching it to me).Â Iâ€™ve watched my peers recite prayers before taking a bite of food, Iâ€™ve had brunch to the tunes of Orthodox prayers on Saturday mornings, and I was a bridesmaid in an Orthodox Jewish wedding, but marrying the historical significance of Judaism, the Diaspora, Israel, so on and so forth, when Iâ€™ve been in a synagogue once, never to Israel, havenâ€™t had a long-term romantic relationship with a Jewish man, the day to day reality of moving in a Jewish universe and the global significance of the Holocaust and why my guy friends wouldnâ€™t date me were never married before.Until now. Ironically, it took a break up over cultural differences with a South Asian for me to really begin to understand the Jewish preference of dating only Jews prevalent in my Brandeis world.Â I recognize its merits, and at this point am wary of dating Jews for fear this topic will ultimately arise.Â Spending the last two weeks in Eastern Europe â€“ headquartered in Budapest, Hungary, with the largest European Jewish population and second-largest synagogue in the world and traveling to Poland with its former Nazi back office existence and virtually nil Jewish population today and visiting Auschwitz, the proposed center of European Jew extermination â€“ has been a revisit to all that mires me to this brilliant and insular world of which I firmly consider myself a part.Â I hung out with an Israeli for a few days in Budapest, and it was days before he realized I wasnâ€™t actually Jewish with my explanations of visits to Auschwitz and Jewish history, etc.Â Especially, I see more than ever the enduring if subtle pain and more explicit sense of responsibility, pride and commitment of my friends to continue to raise strong, healthy, proud Jewish families in a world that should only be described with the same adjectives.Â Studying cultural and ethnic sociology in my graduate program, I formally learn that Jews are a true American success story in terms of minority achievement, and I am able to put theory behind my first-hand experiences.Â But this trip to Auschwitz, with its acknowledgement of the survival of my friendâ€™s grandfather, itâ€™s confirmation of the sanity of my best friend to resist traipsing through death camps that at least her grandmother avoided by fleeing Krakow, and itâ€™s unsettling of me in less than three hours such that I spent the rest of my trip shopping and drinking and have sat for the last three hours inside my Budapest hotel room writing this as the Non-Jew (Capital N, Capital J) with the American Jewish community as my reference group all over againâ€¦
I am wrapping up my first day in Krakow – like it so much more than Budapest so far. Friendlier, cheaper, cleaner, just feels generally more accessible, pleasant, intriguing. I don’t know what it was about Budapest. I had a nice day there yesterday, but generally I just wasn’t into it. The people were so not nice, and it just felt like a large, superficially ugly, overly costly city. I liked the Buda side a lot more, greener, calmer, etc., and I’m looking forward to some flea markets and thermal baths on sunday before I go, but generally I won’t rave about it.I am going to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau tomorrow, and trying to decide what to do w/my thurs. Though the salt mines are apparently not to be missed, I am kind of intrigued w/making this a religious tour, and seeing the Pope’s birthplace, and the Black Madonna. We’ll see if I can accomplish it all. They have a really cute Old Town center w/some bars, etc., where I’ll head in tonight to hopefully meet some others. Getting a bit tired of being so quiet!!
Had a really funny thing happen yesterday, found this adorable cafe in this old section of Budapest and ordered a cheese plate. 3 types of yummy cheeses (a blue, swiss, and one I couldn’t id), and 3 equal size pats of butter. Which given their yellow tone and the way they’d been sliced, I assumed were cheese, until I bit into one. Literally a mouthful of butter. Disgusting!!! I kept laughing at myself for the rest of the afternoon.
Here is the wanderlust-ful Red we all know and love. Apparently shoring up for 24 hours in the international standards of comfort at the Budapest Marriott will do that to you.
After a reasonable presentation to a lackluster audience on Saturday morning, I ditched the conference and transferred and upgraded my existence from the allegedly-**** Hotel Astoria in Pestâ’s city center to the unquestionably indulgent aforementioned global hotel chain, along the Pest border of the Danube River. All rooms come with balconies. And plush pillows, duvets, Western showers (i.e., the attachable shower head is not so languorously held in the wall claw that the force of the spray sends it toppling and dousing the bathroom), and Western premiums ($25 Sunday brunches).
After an hour and a half curled up in a nearby historic coffeehouse with a coffee, pastry and The Best of Everything (classic novel re: New York City twenty-something career girls in the 1950s – I highly recommend), I wandered back to the conference and convened with two new and fast friends, a pleasant, stylish if mildly harpy Canadian PhD from Northwestern and friendly, emotional, loose-interpreter-of-monogamy Israeli PhD from Cornell. We set out for the sight-seeing highlight of the trip thus far, the Socialist State Park.
After taking a streetcar (e.g., Boston’s Green Line) one stop, the gal and I being fined $10 a piece for not having a ticket (we couldn’t find a machine to buy them and were hoping to beat the self-serve ticket-validating honor system on board), walking between several stations amid rejections by numerous store vendors, we found an open ticket window to buy a ticket for the bus to the outskirts of town and this state park. 90 minutes later (of which only 15 were on board anything), our city bus terminated at a large, depressing station reeking of the glory days of Communist rule. The layout of rows of bus stops easily evoked lines of people waiting listlessly for the daily trudge in and out of the city center to work, and the surrounding cement apartment blocks only added to the joie de vivre of the station, embraced from behind by abandoned rail lines. We boarded a yellow express bus and rode another 15 minutes to the delightfully, fabulously (unintentionally??) camp Socialist State Park.
Set to the side of a two-lane highway in a mix of fields and several people’s backyards, this is a large open circle layout of all the former Socialist statues that adorned Budapest during the heady days of Communism. Essentially put out to pasture, the statues of Lenin and two we assumed to be Marx and Engels (though that might be the wishful thinking of the budding intelligentsia) welcoming guests inside the brick arches â€“ are a variety of soldiers and peasants and busts of famous Socialist Hungarians soldered in various forms of glory: handshakes, charges to battle, mid-stride, arms raised high in the air – there’s no short of ebullience emanating from these shrines.
The overall effect (perhaps forthcoming someday in the collection of patriotic monuments on the Washington Mall once our democracy is overthrown by some salty stepped-upon-too-long country) is absurd and homoerotic. Too many athletically-carved men in too many poses of jubilance, with barely a woman to be found. It’s all bizarre and exceptionally entertaining. Provocative, surely, but decidedly not in the way the denizens of Socialism ever imagined, though I suspect from the tongue-in-cheek and sardonic tone of the gift shop, exactly how the creators of the park sought to inspire.
It takes about 30 minutes to wander through and mock the sheer failure of Communism, and we soon were en route back to Buda and the upscale, stalwart old-school Hotel Gellert, home of the best known thermal baths in Budapest and where we hoped we might have a drink before dinner. The Phd from Northwestern introduced us to some great dry champagne, Hungaria. I was just thrilled to find someone who loved drinking champagne as much as I do.
We then went around the corner (a 5 minute walk that was the subject of a losing bet on my behalf when the Israeli bet us there was a fourth bridge over the Danube that we insisted was not there. It was – turns out there are nine bridges in all over the riverI learned today when I finally read my guidebook closely. We owed him two drinks instead of the four total he would have owed us.) to Cafe del Rio – one of those mammoth outdoor nightclubs reminiscent of Tanzania or cheesy, outer-borough waterfronts nearby to major cities (e.g., Waterworks in Marina Bay). We had an ok dinner, another bottle of Hungaria, and retired to literal mattresses (rubber) on platforms in open-front cabanas set apart from the soon-to-be-packed dance floor. It’ss just like that episode in Sex and the City, Northwestern PhD I simultaneously exclaimed.
Over a third bottle of Hungaria we talked about our studies, our families, fashion, etc., and tried to avoid watching an adolescent Hungarian couple hook up on the mattress next to us. They took a break when every so often their respective friend came over and updated them/checked in, and immediately resumed their pantomimed intercourse as soon as possible. Good times, good times. Give them a break, they probably both live at home and this is the only time they have to hook up, the Israeli said sympathetically, enjoying his free show.
Finally, we hit the dance floor. Still in my navy track suit and sneakers with my Manhattan portage messenger bag across my chest, I felt not unlike an old NJ-Korean friend heading into the city’s clubs in his storied high school years. Especially once I tossed our bags in a pile around which we could dance so as to keep an eye on them without having to carry them.
Greetings from Budapest!
Conference going very well so far. Have been networking (and crashing parties), and unintentionally had dinner w/the 2 keynotes from yesterday (which I picked up almost immediately, thank goodness, as I skipped their presentations). Met another grad student from Cornell who is nice and my age, an Israeli guy who seems to be into my honorary Jewish heritage tour through Eastern Europe! All in all it’s good.
Budapest has some beautiful parts. Dinner last night was on a ship anchored in the Danube, and the view of the castles etc. in Buda on the other side of the river are amazing. Some squares and coffeehouses and old buildings are stunning, but the city is also SUPER dirty in some parts (tons of graffiti) and lots of abandoned storefronts. And not in sketchy areas, this just appears to be part and parcel of the city. So, despite all the hype, thus far I’m not too impressed. Mostly Western prices too. As I’ve already said, you get a real sense of the history, and it must once have been a grand city, but it’s present is obviously not keeping pace w/its past.
And I am NOT a fan of the food – creams and weird fish and eggs and meat combos. I suspect there’s really fresh veggies somewhere that I’m trying to track down. I think I’m over the European city a little bit, even if this is interesting in an East v. West sort of way.
I am well, if a bit bored. So not excited to be here for some reason. Seen one euro city, seen them all.
whole thing is fine, good for getting practice at the acad thing, and also perspec on whether this is the right thing for me (assuming creative best seller does not occur w/in 4-5 yr PHD time frame).
Looking forward to checking into Marriott tomorrow and figuring out getting to Poland and going to Turkish baths and generally being done w/responsibility for a week.