Sunday, April 15 we left a rainy and gray Warsaw for Prague. We had never been to the Czech Republic and were looking forward to visiting one of Europe’s top destinations. Arriving at night we would have to wait until Monday morning for our first look.
Connected by friends Gil and Zivah to a rabbinic colleague Ron H. who we met for coffee on Monday. Ron helped us organize our stay, providing helpful advice and background history to this medieval city. We spent the day walking the streets and passageways seeing a city that must have inspired Walt Disney. I definitely saw a church building that must have been the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle!
We also visited the first of five synagogues that comprise the Jewish museum of Prague - the Moorish designed Jerusalem Synagogue, so named for its location on Jerusalem Street. We also went to the Old Town Square where we witnessed the striking of the hour on its famous Clock Tower. For the 14th century this was an amazing technological feat - many moving parts, figurines and sounds. Clearly this does not always impress the 21st century visitor - in response a live trumpet player now adds a heraldic “toot” from the top of the tower, repeating the trumpet flourish four times - from each side of the tower.
We met Ron for dinner at Dinitz - the only kosher restaurant in Prague. Yum!
Tuesday morning we walked across the Charles Bridge - built in the 14th century which led us to the Kafka museum. Tracing the biography of this tortured Jewish writer the museum exhibits also gave us a perspective on Prague Jewish life in the early part of the 20th century.
We met Ron for lunch at Bohemia Bagel owned and operated by an Czech Jew who went to America and then re-imported this Jewish inspired creation back to Europe. Then we were off to tour the other 4 synagogues of the Jewish museum with Ron serving as our guide. The synagogues reflect centuries of art, architecture, and Jewish tradition. The synagoues are closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays and a couple are still in active use as worship sites, though gathering a minyan in any one is a task. Ron told us that this is likely the only city in the world where traditional and liberal Jews manage to share space and services to make praying a more viable experience.
By 6 p.m. we were tired and ready for an evening of leisure, which included dinner at an Indian restaurant and a concert at Smetana Hall, a historic concert hall from whose balcony Hitler stood to review the troops. It gave us pause to learn of this but here we were listening to beautiful music. Another one of those bittersweet moments that has populated our sabbatical experience.
Wednesday morning we went to Terezin aka Thereisenstadt, the “model Jewish community” that Hitler established that would one day fool the International Red Cross into believing that all was well with the Jews during WWII. Terezin was the incubator for art, music, and theatre for those Jews who passed through its confines. The art of the child captives gave rise to the pictures which became part of the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly and the musical play Brundibar with its anti-nazi theme.
Our guide Helena took us to a newly opened exhibit of a hidden synagogue from the time of the war. A small room, within a courtyard that was not discovered until the 1990’s it was used for coal storage. After the end of communism, the room was emptied of its coal contents, and restored. It was just opened to the public on the day of our tour and we felt honored to be one of the first to see it’s lovingly painted walls with Jewish symbols, geometric designs and prayer fragments. Above the hidden synagogue was a series of attic rooms recreated to look as they did when they were inhabited by Jewish inmates of Terezin.
Terezin is an hour’s drive from Prague - a drive that showcased the beauty that is early Spring in the Czech Republic. So much beauty in a place of so much suffering.
We returned to Prague and had our tour driver drop us off near the Charles River, we made reservations for an evening dinner cruise on the river and spent an hour strolling along its banks before boarding. The weather gradually warmed up during the days we were in Prague and after dinner we sat on the upper deck enjoying the views. What we did not realize was that the waterway for the boats includes a locke. Initially we thought we were still cruising along at the start of our river voyage only to discover we were idling in place as the boat gradually floated up and our journey continued. On the way back there was a boat back-up - there must have been half a dozen cruise boats waiting to go back up the locke. It was all downhill or downwater so while we waited our turn the boats cruised right through without having to wait for a change in water height.
Thursday, our last day in Prague and we again went across the Charles Bridge and made the assent - I am sure there were 500 steps up to Prague’s famous Castle. We were rewarded for our climb by a magnificent panoramic view of Prague. We saw the changing of the guard, immense churches with fabulous stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings, and quaint shops in spaces that date from the castle’s founding. Of course there was the requsite medieval torture chamber - I could have skipped that! We then made our way out the back side of the castle gates and saw a lovely greenway that paralleled the castle property. Bruce thought it might have been the moat - it certainly had that look. We walked down a steep path and enjoyed some sunshine and the birds chirping.
We ended our stay in Prague at a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed outdoor seating in the sunshine. I think I will take that feeling of warmth, and the beauty of the flowers and trees as my lasting impression of Prague.
We are midway through Passover and I just realized I had not shared our Polish Passover experience.
I have been baking and matzah ball making with Beit members and Viola Beit Warshava staff member extraordinaire.
I want to thank my sister Debbie, daughter Alana, in-laws Paul and Shirley and Debbie B. our machatonim - Yiddish speak for my daughter’s mother-in-law for delicious recipes and advice. Beit Warshava has enjoyed Sharon’s Passover Brownies, Nadine’s Passover Apple Cake, Debbie’s Matzah Toffee, coconut macaroons, coconut cake, and Passover Nut cookies.
Round one of matzah balls - sinkers! Never happened to me before. But matzah balls round 2 - FLOATERS!
This Shabbat we will enjoy Floaters with a delicious vegetarian soup. Along with several more cakes and cookies.
Rabbi Gil and wife Ziva, on an extended visit to Warsaw, brought some essential ingredients from Israel: Passover baking soda, Passover baking powder, potato starch and chocolate chip cookies. Ziva demonstrated her Passover baking prowess with Passover rolls which we have enjoyed over the past several days.
And now we can make Passover Chocolate Chip Cookies, Passover Yellow Cake, another Apple Cake and of course Brownies.
Gil, Ziva, Bruce and I went on an afternoon outing to the area of the Warsaw Ghetto. A bit of a repeat for us, but new for Gil and Ziva. We ended our walk with a Passover picnic and then walked over to a Cultural Center where Israeli Dancing (Israeli Dancing?!) is held twice a week. It was at the instigation of the Gil and Ziva that we discovered this. It was a lot of fun, we danced for 2 hours with a group of approximately 25 and a wonderfully enthusiastic instructor Monica.
Again we experienced the contrast between the terrible history of the Jews in Poland with an evening folk dancing with Jewish and mostly non-Jewish participants. I still have not come to any conclusions or answers as to why there is this desire by non-Jewish Poles to study Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish history, to seek out klezmer music and to organize and/or attend Jewish cultural festivals. Is it motivated by nostalgia, by curiosity…? What I have learned is that the history and interaction of Jewish and Christian Poles is fascinating, complicated, and much more nuanced than I ever imagined.
We are nearing the end of our sabbatical at one and the same time it has seemed like forever since we slept in our own beds, and understood all the billboards, advertisements, conversation and directions. And on the other hand it feels like we just boarded the plane in LA for Israel. We have a few more adventures in front of us, Sunday evening we are taking off for Prague, home to the Golem, for four days, we have this Shabbat with the lay cantors program and a final Shabbat to share with Beit Warshava. Then on to Israel where we will visit with Micah, collect our baggage, have a few last days of vacation and then return to Tacoma.
I am already feeling the tug of home. Our calendar is beginning to fill up with dinner plans, social and work committments, appointments, etc. When are the Mariners playing in town?
With all good wishes from Poland,
In one of our tour books there is a list of ”What to eat in Warsaw”
Among the offerings are the following: Potato Pancakes, Herring, Beet Borsch, pickles, stuffed cabbage leaves, Kasha, krupnik soup, poppyseed cake, and apple charlotte. So who’s Jewish grandmother wrote that article? Granted there are a number of dishes that go beyond what someones Bubbie would make - things like breaded porkchops, roast pork with prunes, hare pate and zurek - white sausage soup. But, clearly Jewish cuisine has had a deep impact on the cuisine of Poland.
We spent the afternoon on a self-guided tour called “A Walk through Powisle and Jazdow.” Before the war this was an industrial area afterwards it was rebuilt as a series of parks. We walked past the Polish Parliment building - the Sejm, through Ujazdowski Park and Lazienki Park and the Botanical Gardens. Buds are just starting to form on the trees and we saw flats of pansies ready for planting.
We continue to see two ever present features on our walks through Warsaw and through out Poland: Catholic churches and memorials related to World War II. I will upload a series of photos with captions so you can see what we are seeing.
We passed an impressive building that had display banners announcing “Lost Documents” - we weren’t sure what this meant, but as we left the park we realized this was the Museum for Contemporary Art and one of the featured exhibits was Warsaw after the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of Soviet influence on the city. I think that museum is on our agenda for the week of Passover.
We completed our walking tour and chose a restaurant that advertised Asian food and Kebab. Quite a unique combination - and that was not the only thing that made for a unique dining experience - the side dish with each stir fry dinner was a dish of sauerkraut. Only in Poland!
Our evening came to a close with a Spring concert by Shir Aviv - a choral group specializing in Jewish music. The venue was Funky Studio - a coffee bar - they have great desserts! Bruce had a caramel cheesecake - I know this because I nibbled a few bites. Shir Aviv has both Jewish and non-Jewish members who have an affinity to Jewish music. The hour long concert was really enjoyable and drew a crowd of approximately 50-60 people. I was gifted with a wonderful graphic art poster advertising the concert - the plan is to frame it and enjoy it as a reminder of our Warsaw adventure.
Passover is just 2 days away. I am going to make matzah balls - the fluffy variety. Apparently Beit Warshava has always had the gummy rubbery mini-size. As any matzah afficianodo knows - the fluffy kind is the only way to go. I am also making 2 kinds of charoset, the standard Ashkenazi apples and nuts along with a Morrocan variety that has dates and raisins. I am also making the Passover seder desserts. I will never again complain about the difficulty in obtaining Passover ingredients. No potato starch - a staple of Passover baking is just not available. But visitors are coming from Israel and they are bringingit with them - not in time for seder but in time to enjoy during the intermediate days of Pesach and Shabbat.
What I thought was a frivolous idea - having a package of hard to get Passover items mailed in - is actually what a number of people do. I should have taken Alana and Jake up on their offer to send a package. Live and learn - so I am passing on that advice.
The official Orthodox community in Warsaw runs a seder at the Marriott for about 200 people - apparently there is one kitchen that has been set aside as the Kosher kitchen of Poland, Chabad comes in and does a seder in Chestahova, the World Zionist organization has sent a young man in to lead a seder in Gdansk, the Krakov JCC runs a community seder, and there is a community seder in Lublin. We are running a seder here at Beit Warshava for approximately 80 guests.
There are just glimmers of Jewish life, some stronger than others in the major cities around Poland. Pre-war Warsaw was 1/3 Jewish, to imagine what Passover was like at that time and to realize the challenges in putting a seder together now…it is just hard to put into words.
Bruce has a assembled a new haggadah - Hebrew/Polish/Polish transliteration. I think I will keep one in English next to me too!
We are looking forward to seder here at Beit Warshava and wish our family and friends a wonderful Passover (and a happy Easter for everyone else!)
With warm greetings from Poland,
Clearly, we have been busy, I just checked and realized that I had not posted a blog in 9 days.
Here are just a few of the things I have done:
- baked challah (3 times and getting ready for the 4th)
- Visited Lublin/Maidanek/Kasimeircz
- tour of the Praga district of Warsaw
- met my first Polish quilter
- enjoyed a concert as part of the Warsaw Beethoven Festival
- had dinner at the German Embassy
- Began planning Passover for Beit Warshava
- Had dinner and discussion with a group of Jewish studies students from American universities along with our Step by Step class
- went Passover shopping
- spent the day walking through the area of the Warsaw Ghetto
- and I still had time to read 5 books in that time period!
Now for some details!
As I may have mentioned before it has been our pleasure to teach the Introduction to Judaism class here in Warsaw. One of the things I like to do is have classes participate in hands on learning. And we got our hands right into the challah dough. See the picture below. I have also been making challah on most of the Shabbats that we have been at Beit for services.
The challenging part of baking in Warsaw has really not been the language barrier - it has been the metric system! That has been a new language in itself! Along with ovens that use celsius rather than fahrenheit. But the challahs have turned out terrific nonetheless.
Early Wednesday morning March 21 Bruce and I left Warsaw for Lublin. One of our students Piotr from the Shatz/Lay Cantors program is a doctoral student in Lublin. He arranged two appointments for us - one with the caretaker of a Jewish study hall/synagogue established in the late 1800’s and a second with a staff member from the Grodzka Gate museum. The study hall/synagogue is on the second floor of a building that houses small shops on the entry level. As is typical of old style European buildings, we entered through an alley way which opened into a courtyard. We walked up an old worn staircase, remember this building is from the 1880s and entered through the original doorway - heavy with paint and wear. The first room held a variety of tables and chairs along with picture displays from before and after WW II. We had a fascinating discussion with Piotr and Mrs. Luba the caretaker. A rather elderly woman, she is a retired attorney. As a very young child, she and her parents escaped into the Soviet Union and waited out the war there before returning to Poland. She shared with us the choice that faced her and her husband - where would they live? Would they make their lives in Poland or Israel? Her husband- as a non-Jew living in Israel or she as a Jew making a life in Poland. Ultimately, given that she trained as a lawyer in Poland and the difficulty of making a professional life in the early 1960’s in Israel the decision was made to remain in Poland.
She next took us into the study hall/sanctuary - we passed through the kitchen area where we saw a wood burning (maybe coal burning) stove built right into the wall. I half expected to see a samovar bubbling away on top of it!
While no longer active as a syngagogue or study hall, the space is available through prior arrangement for services. A great grandson of a pre-war member of this study hall celebrated his bar mitzvah in the synagogue not long ago.
We left the study hall and made our way over to the “Jewish” restaurant in Lublin. The decor was early Fiddler on the Roof thus a “Jewish” restaurant complete with servers in long skirts, peasant blouses and kerchiefs. Where is central casting? We enjoyed a lunch that any Central/Eastern European grandmother would have been proud of…
Next Bruce and I walked over to the Grodzka Gate/Brama Grodzka museum. This museum sits atop the Gate - Brama that led from the Christian quarter into the Jewish quarter of Lublin. Before the war, nearly half of the citizens of Lublin were Jewish. Devastated during the years of Nazi occupation, the once vibrant Jewish quarter is now an open space turned into a park, with a continually burning lamp as a memorial and reminder of what was once upon a time Lublin.
In 1992 a group of actors looking for theater space found the ruined city gate building. To restore the building they decided to learn more about its history. As their brochure relates, “the gate became the symbol of meeting of cultures, meeting history and traditioin, the centre of innovative educational ideas and of discovering forgotten trails of local past and heritage.
The building now houses a museum which details life in Lublin prior to the war, the events during the war, and testimonies of both Jewish survivors and the Righteous Among the Nations - those non-Jews who saved Jews during the war.
Bruce and I visited 3 more sites in Lublin, the old cemetary from the 18th century - though the gravestones had been removed during the Nazi period. We then went on to the Yeshiva of Lublin, established in the late 1920’s it was to be the premier talmudical academy of Central Europe. A large and imposing facility it housed over 200 of the brightest Jewish minds in its six years of existance. Closed by the Nazis in 1939, the majority of students lost their lives in the death camps. The building was a hospital during the 45 years of Soviet domination of Poland. Now returned to the Jewish community, it has been partially restored.
We debated whether or not to go to our third stop - Maidanek, the Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin. As the historian from the Grodzka Gate museum told us, the Nazis established the camp on the edge of Lublin to terrify and terrorize the Polish citizens.
Ultimately deciding to go,we walked the vast grounds of the camp on our own, stopping to read the signs and entering the buildings at our own pace. As with our previous visit to Aushwitz-Birkenau we saw several Israeli groups on their high school pilgrimage. We had the honor and privilege of joining in with over 200 students from the Amit schools (modern orthodox/religious Zionist schools) in Israel for their memorial service. With dozens of Israeli flags snapping in the cold March breeze, we saw the map of the Jewish world reflected in the faces of these students - faces from Europe, Ethiopia, Morrocco, Yemen, Russia all united as one Jewish people. With adolescent voices cracking they led us in memorial prayers, songs, and poems. As they ascended the steps to the mausoleum, we asked one of the teachers if we could join them, and his response was “b’kavod - with honor.” But truly it was our honor to be with them.
We left Lublin with full hearts and memories of a once vibrant center of Jewish religious life.
My First Polish Quilter
On a much lighter note I met my first Polish quilter - Dorota at an outdoor handcrafts market here in Warsaw. She was so excited to meet an American quilter that she nearly burst into tears. I purchased one of her lovely quilt embellished bags and have been enjoying using it on our travels - nice and roomy and holds so much stuff! She has limited English, but another hand crafter willingly made the language connection between us.
Beethoven Festival and Dinner at the German Embassy
It pays to have friends in high places, Princess Irina Wittgenstein a supporter of Beit Warshava arranged for Bruce and I to have tickets to a concert given by the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the annual Warsaw Beethoven Festival. The music was lovely, Schumann pieces which included a cello solo. We were invited to the intermission reception for Festival board members and guests. After the concert which included 3 encore pieces, Irina took us to dinner at the German Embassy. We met the ambassador’s wife and we also met one of the past German Ambassador’s along with his wife. They now live in Posen where he is a businessman. He invited us for a drink if we should go to Posen. I think Bruce and I will be able to dine out for years on our sabbatical stories and adventures.
Guests at Beit Warshava
Tuesday evening and it must be time for Step by Step - the Introduction to Judaism class. Prior to class we welcomed a group of American Jewish studies students who are on a program at Prague University. We shared a wonderful dinner prepared by Beit Warshava staff and gave them the background of the progressive Jewish community. We also shared what we have been doing in Israel and Poland. They told us about themselves and the schools they attend. The leading question from us to them was “what do you know now about Central Europe that you did not know before?” It was a great discussion starter and we had to break it off to join the Step by Step class.
Again there was wonderful dialogue and interaction as the students of both groups shared their backgrounds and discussed Jewish life in Poland. One of the American students asked “what if anything would you change about Jewish life in Poland?” A Step-by-Step student responded that she wished Jews and people with Jewish roots would ‘come out of the Jewish closet.’ She added that many Polish people of Jewish descent are still very cautious about reconnecting with Judaism and even letting friends and colleagues know about their Jewish backgrounds.
Passover in Poland
As I sit here blogging away Bruce sits across from me putting together the Beit Warshava haggadah for Passover. We have sat and planned with the staff the cleaning schedule, the menu - thanks to family and friends who have shared so many recipes, and begun searching for Passover appropriate ingredients. Which are clearly going to be harder to find than the afikomen - the hidden matzah of the seder. We visited the one kosher store in Warsaw and met the proprietor Mr. Shytz, a real character with a good sense of humor. Each item I asked for he would say, “I have never heard of that” and I would respond in America we have…and he would say “yes, in America there is everything!” Laughing the whole time. I asked if he had Sabra liqueur the chocolate orange liqueur of Israel. He said only at the Tel Aviv airport can one find that. I said I make a Passover cake and soak it in Sabra. He said my husband must be a very happy man! We managed to leave with 3 packages of matzah cake meal - matzah ground up in a way I have never seen before and 2 bottles of kosher for Passover grape juice.
If anyone is planning on coming to Warsaw in the next 5 days please bring a box of potato starch!
Over 100 guests are expected and we are looking forward to a different but nonetheless wonderful seder and Passover experience.
If you have read this far…I am sure you are exhausted! So, I will save my impressions of the Warsaw Ghetto area for my next post.
with greetings from a rainy but warming up Warsaw,