Galician Jewish and Hutsul family. Early 20th-c. photos by city photographer Edward Janusz on the wall of the café established in his former studio on the main square, Rzeszów, Galicia
• in Maramureș-Bukovina
• in Mallorca
• in the Crimea
• to Odessa and back
• in Odessa
• in Lemberg/Lwów
Bełżec, the emblematic place of destruction. The camp, first set up for Polish forced laborers to strengthen the Nazi-Soviet border established in 1939, then became the extermination camp for the Galician Jews, the Eastern Auschwitz. The territory, not so large, is encircled with iron letters, the place names in alphabetical order, for whose inhabitants this was the last landscape they saw from Galicia. An encyclopedia of destruction. I walk along them, I read them, I know almost all of them. But I am reminded by them of what was left. Bolechów, the beautiful carvings of the Hasidic cemetery, and the Rusyn farmer, Zenon, who is “rich enough to keep it in order at his own cost”. Brody, the Jewish high school and the Brody synagogue in Odessa, the springboard of the Haskalah, the enlightenment in Russia. Buczacz, the house where the Nobel laureate Agnon was born, the Ukrainian librarian who proudly shows me the Agnon collection of the local library, the black tombstones marching along the dusty white road, including the tomb of the Freud family, and the Polish lawyer who took me up there, and whose parents had not dared to teach him his own mother tongue. An encyclopedia of memory. A network of sites which can be rambled again, their stories heard, their history learned. A world, which can be made alive again. This is what we try to do with these tours and this blog.
a brief summary for Tamás Sajó
I expected a study tour, and I walked into a deep sleep. Because we looked at what there is no longer, looking through what is already there, and this led to draped and layered visual experiences. We had to blink. What does it mean, to see? I did not really pay attention to the postmodern/postcapitalistic – obviously well-to-do – Poland, I mean, what I perceived of it was not disturbing, I could see through it into the past, even into the most remote past. We had to look, or almost stumble, into the invisible, following the instructions of our guide.
For me, the dream trip started at the fortress of Árva/Orava, under heavy clouds, which we could almost feel on our bare shoulders. And yes, this perceptibility was the key to this special journey. In fact, knowledge is just dead letter, but if sometime, somewhere a spark lights up in it – a kind of a sensus, synesthesia –, then it wakes up, and this is how the special phenomenon of the twilight, which makes visible the invisible, will come to life. This is more than just an experience. It excites you more, it stimulates you to further digging and dream work.
History is inside the present. Usually it is not that visible, it is covered by the familiar billboards, the sound barriers, the housing estates. In representative buildings and monuments it does not appear even upon special request, and you cannot easily call it forth from photos, either. Now I do not speak about “cultural memory”, and the learning of historical facts, but about another kind of cognition, to which this journey brought us. In such occasions, a “communicating vessel” opens up in you, and tiny springs of history will arise in you. For example, when such city squares, as those of Sandomierz or Zamość, unfold before you, then a dizzying moment may come when you will be greeted by the idea of the Renaissance “ideal town”. (By the way, we have already no idea about the ideas.) Or when the rough pairing of clods of tufa and curved iron bars tells you in the desert, what a terrible negative miracle is the destruction in a concentration camp, and asks you what it feels to be a slag heap.
They reached every place – I repeat this obsessively after Kazimierz. In Tarnów this dream idea, this vision of the kind of a probably very calculated deluge became quite clear. This is what the little angels sitting on the top of the City Hotel of Tarnów trumpet to the world, while cute brats play footbal around the ruins of the synagogue. The preserved one, I have to insert the adjective, because this is already a keyword, perhaps in Poland, it is.
There are other kind of beings beyond the humans, elves, angels, demons, real, ugly devils. The guardians of the synagogues of Lańcut and Bártfa/Bardejov must belong to a class of the angels. As much evil is trapped in the tufa soil, so much lightness is freed by the colors and melodies of the old Hasidic piety. A balance oscillated during this journey, in one pan there was the tufa (I cannot escape it), and in the other, the beetrot soup in the gilt-edged bowl, the deer-mermaid and the relaxing little cows…
In the first photo I took, the castle of Árva/Orava looms, and I was amused when, already at home, I read the black pun of King Matthias: “Arva fuisti, arva eris et in Arva morieris” (you were árva [stupid], you are árva, and in Árva you will die), he thundered supposedly against the archbishop of Kalocsa, when having him locked up. My last photo shows, interestingly, a stone angel in Kassa/Košice, turning its back to us.
Each time we entered a church or a synagogue, I told myself: stop! You are just a tourist grazing her eyes, and must know that other people were present here fearing and worshiping God. The difference is unfathomable.
Back home, my first trip led to the public cemetery of Kőbánya, in the industrial outskirts of Budapest. My husband is buried there. The grave is an unbearable site: the arva beata (the site of the blessed) is not what you dig in a public cemetery, planting pansies on it. We have now been to so many cemeteries, in beautiful places, in wonderful places. I do not know how this transformation is done, I do not attribute it to time. It must have another secret, perhaps the original peace of these Hasidic cemeteries, and the reign of the vegetation. The fear of God? I do not know. The moss, the fern, the clover in the cemetery of Lesko competes with the stones, and this fills the wooded hillside with a special tension in the bosom of peace.
Returning to the beginning – as we had a round trip –: the little naive cemetery statue is pondering, scratching his head in front of the elaborate cross, it can withstand the acid rain for long, in Galicia all is resplendent in green.
“When we lived as refugees in Hungary, I met a Hungarian-born young Hasid, who studied for a few years in Poland at the famous Rabbi Rokach in Belz. We met in very different circumstances, first when I twice crossed the border, and then a few years later, in 1944, when the Germans invaded Hungary. At that time my acquaintance already had no house, because the greatest part of his family had been deported to Auschwitz, and he was hiding in Budapest as a Polish refugee, this is how he survived the war. (…) He did not lose his naive confidence in the spiritual hierarchy, he believed that spiritual forces control the world, and that this is also well known “on the other side”. When I told him, as an objection, that “on the other side” they also have – for now at least – something to say, he smiled with a discreet irony, slightly embarrassed, and I read a forgiving knowledge on his face.” (Eches and remembrances)
Dom Stanisława Vincenza w Bystrecu pod Czarnohorą (druga od prawej Irena Vincenz) – 1939 rok – foto T. Wilczyński // Stanislaw Vincenz in Bystrec under Mount Czarnahora (the second from right is Irena Vincenz) – 1939 – photo by T. Wilczynski
I am looking at photos of cemeteries, my eyes are scanning the trees of a dense stone forest. Bent backs of people, stones huddling together from fear in the shade. Its mysterious message is a living memory, as the moss patches take shape on the tombstones, but the eternal life of the stone is also an imprint of eternal death. I am arrangling them like the pieces of a puzzle: I join one from the Sephardic synagogue of Lesko to another from Bártfa/Bardejov. A stork, reeds, fringes and knots. A hand, fingers, a candle holder, Torah sounds, a murmur. I spread the Hasidic hilltop cemetery of Lesko on the screen. I add another one: the portraits from the cemetery of Czernowitz, where I was for the first time ten years ago. Then the cemetery in Kozma Street, Budapest, where we were looking for the grave of Zsuzsa Beney. Finally, a gravedigger showed it to us, we had lost our way among so many parcels covered with ivy and vines. Zsuzsa died in Leányfalu in a summer storm. Vincenz survived the war in the neighboring Verőce, along the Danube. He arrived in 1939 from Galicia to this “idyllic, quiet, secret landscape”, escaping across Mount Czarnahora, and he never returned home. He wrote surprisingly kind and warm descriptions about the Danube, he considered it a “state-founding” river, a peculiar natural accessory to civilization. He appreciated the landscape of the Danube bend, but he also called it an awesome military foothold, the background of Eastern European genocides. How much a beautiful landscape can kill, I add. And killing cannot be just erased later, in vain they blow, they burn things down, they build industry, factories, labor colonies, they convert synagogues into cinemas and mikves into paint shops. The stronger the effort to erase it, the more visible the past remains.
When the cemeteries come together in my head, I stand at the Danube again. In Tahitótfalu, we went to the tombs with the children last fall, on a September day. We found a small wooden gate, some wire, we did not have to particularly force it. In Lesko, a yellow-mustached smoking Pole let us in, who angrily scolded the tourist coming behind us, probably he did not want to pay in advance for the sight. Now I string the memories together, Galicia, Bukovina, Hasids and the gravel sediment of the Danube, the brown, muddy water and the lush aspen trees … graves, stones, the moss-green inertia of bending and submerging human figures, playful, cheerful, gentle lions (lovely, naive decorations), the reserved, tense and grim calmness of the cemetery. This is the nothing, the naive tale of what there was and what there is not: the disappearing of the nobody. It is strange, when a cemetery has such a clean aesthetic, and no reality. But in such cases reality usually bites more roughly and harder.
The Ukrainian Harmonia Quartet (here with only three members) plays Mozart’s Turkish March.
When I heard “Galicia”, I imagined a dark, poor, backward countryside.
When now I hear “Galicia”, I see bright green pastures, forests, cultivated lands, beautiful gardens – in places without fences! –, mountains and valleys, rushing mountain rivers and enchanting cities. With the main square in the middle, which is also a marketplace, small fabulous Renaissance palaces around, some narrow alleys, a Catholic church, a synagogue, Catholic cemetery, Hasid cemetery – all is clean, well-kept, idyllic.
And behind the idyll, there is also the darkest hell. In Bełżec, in Lublin, the Lemko ghost village, everywhere in Galicia I felt with Mihály Vörösmarty, that “man is painful to the earth… the human race is sowing the dragon’s teeth… there is no hope, no hope.”
If I nevertheless want to hold on to something, I can recall some just people – the Slovak uncle in Bártfa/Bardejov, who proudly says that “I’m the only Lutheran Jew in the world”, and he does not just preserve the keys of the synagogues entrusted to him, but he also tries to resurrect the disappeared world. The Polish man who accompanies the 86-year old uncle coming home every year from New York, helps him, supports him, and writes his story instead of him, how he was deported as a young boy, and how he survived together with only a few other boys in Theresienstadt. And Bartosz, the young Polish man, who guided us in the alternative theater of Lublin, and told us about the fantastic work, with which they attempt the impossible – to resurrect a city which was canceled from the face of the earth and its inhabitants, and to reconcile the people.
Green and black
Poland is beautiful
Galicia, recalled as an old, battered opaque black-and-white photo, is a colorful and living landscape in Central Europe.
This trip, which touched so many historical sites which recalled destruction and horrors, to me, as a historian, nevertheless spoke about life and the encounter with good people. This beautiful land, which in these few days only partly showed us its gray and muddy countrysides, was dominated by the sunlight, the harsh colors of blue, green and yellow. The magnificent castles, old towns and fortresses, which, due to the Turkish invasion, are almost completely missing in Hungary, followed each other in a beautiful harmony.
Southern Poland is fascinating. The beautiful Polish girls, the superb cuisine, the excellent beer refresh the body and the mind, and offer perfect relaxation. We have experienced all the signs of the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship: the eyes light up, the smiles are sincerely kind, when they hear the name of Hungary. Memories of Budapest and Balaton pop up, and they repeat with cheerful energy: “Hungarian and Polish, two friends, kerek sepen egy pohar sert [a glass of beer, please!]”
The kindness and the smile becomes more reserved, and in some places missing, only to the East, along the Ukrainian border. I do not know whether this has always been so and would always remain so, or if it is only caused by the dark storm clouds gathering beyond the border now, in the summer of 2014. In any case, these clouds are a reminder, which is considered not the past, but a dangerous present in this region. In Przemyśl there is even a building recalling this.
Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev visiting the Molotov fortification system. Przemyśl, 1939-40
The encounters are joyful, unforgettable. We can see Wojtek again for a few seconds, who works even on the feast of the Assumption, leading a group in Zamość.
Bartosz, the guide of the Teatr NN in Lublin, who does us what Timothy Snyder calls the basic task of the historian: to make human again those who were degraded into numbers by the Nazis.
Henryk Żytomierski, the disappeared little boy in Lublin. He is still remembered, and they regularly send letters to him.
The painter Mirosław, the double of Robin Williams, restorer, guide and multifunctional all-rounder of the synagogue of Lańcut impresses us with his Hebrew and beautiful Polish speech, makes us stay longer in the wonderful synagogue.
Uncle Cyril, the polyhistor of the synagogue of Bártfa/Bardejov tells us in his ornate Slovak and erratic, but still very friendly Hungarian a lot of simple, and incredibly adventurous stories. He, the “Lutheran Jew”, who was once “more famous than the American President”, is a living example of how much can be done and preserved even by one single person, because a great love of things and persons diminishes and makes any effort easier.
I repeat, Galicia in many ways lives in the public imagination as the region of destruction, greyness and poverty. However, I think that this might be right only for the misguided twentieth century. After all, it is not possible, that when the Jews in Bobowa started to bury their dead in the cemetery on the hilltop, they would have been reminded of death and destruction by the wonderful sight unfolding in front of them – much more, of life.
Anna & József
Lublin, view of the castle from the Gródzka Gate, with the Jewish quarter in the foreground. Photo by Jan Bułhak (1876–1950) from the 1920-30s (for the article of Teatr NN on Bułhak, see here)
Andy Statman & David Grisman: Shomer Yisrael. From the album Songs of Our Fathers (1995)
A garland of Renaissance main squares from Kraków to Nowy Sącz, with the traces of another world in between them. Along the way, one term comes to mind again and again, which was coined by the French historiography in the 1980s, and which then gave birth to a whole trend (but this is absolutely not important now): lieux de mémoire, the sites of memory. Not as if this would not fit to our earlier trips, or to the greatest part of río Wang in general, but the former Galicia seems to be one of the main concentrations of the sites of memory, where 20th-century history is in a specially sharp contrast to the beautiful landscape. The ghost signs in Kraków, the Jewish cemeteries of Bobowa and Lesko (with tombstones in the path, some of them barely sticks out of the mud). The repetitive chain of place names, like a prayer, running around the monument of Bełżec, starting and ending with the properly chosen biblical verse, which is at the same time general, and, knowing the history of this place, very specific: “Earth, do not cover my blood…” (Job 16:18). The emptiness of the parking lot in Lublin (with the lantern at its entrance) and the NN theater-museum established at the Gródzka Gate – the term nomen nescio will never mean the same again.
A densely thicket of trees, not far from the road, somewhere in the Low Beskids, only one or two kilometers from the village. In the surrounding fields and in the houses across the stream, life quietly goes on. Moving closer, a building emerges from the trees: a church, a bell tower, less than a dozen tombstones – that’s all that’s left of the Lemko village of Królik Wołoski, emptied by the soldiers of the Polish People’s Army in 1947, during Operation Vistula. Today the situation is perhaps somewhat more encouraging: the former inhabitants or their descendants apparently try to preserve the memory of Lemkivshchyna: music groups, their own radio broadcasts, and several great websites reflect the survival of the Lemko traditions. The former villages partly became pilgrimage places, and the church of Królik Wołoski received a new door and some new windows only last year. An information board nailed on a tree tells about the history of the former village – all are signs that someone cares about the place.
Królik Wołoski in a video made last spring, still without a church door. The information board, however, when compared to this video of November 2011 (?), seems to incessantly change places. A beautiful spherical panoramic image on the interior of the now closed church can be seen here.
On the non-existing…
In my own blog (in Hungarian):
Galícia, a hiány
Lublin, Bełżec, Lesko (and of course the Lemko ghost village) both separately and together, not only recalled the past and reminded us, forced us to remember it, but also made present and palpable the non-existing, the missing, the absence. It was not the past in itself, which was essential, but our relationship to it, or more precisely: that we were forced to have a relationship to it. The plural first person includes also today’s Polish environment, which is important, I mean, that they also want to remember and to feel the absence. (Let us have no illusions, this is probably only a small part of society there, too).
The NN Theater in Lublin: the empathy of the sympathetic young man in his thirties, free from all pathos, as he tells us how they discovered a world also for themselves, about which they did not know anything, and which from that moment on became a part of their real life. It became filled with houses, objects, and most importantly with people. With people who were reduced to ashes – and now they are living. Mystery.
Bełżec: I agree with Zsolt, you had to roam about it alone. I managed to do it, because while the group was listening to the explanation of Tamás, I set out alone on the corridor leading always deeper between the towering walls. The sight of the stones and clods burnt gray and porous, with the metal pieces burnt into them in some places, as well as the pressure of the rising walls, in itself has an impression on the visitor, but there was something else: my footsteps rang. The void, the loneliness. (When I came back, there were already more people on the corridor, and nothing was heard.) The pebbles of the remembering mourning on a few stones, and the first plants here and there among the clods – life.
The Hasidic cemetery of Lesko: some incredible beauty and solace – and, strangely, a sense of security: the harmony of the landscape, of the past, of remembrance. In the center, me, who experience all this.
Here is the portrait of our great-grandfather Avraham Moshe Schwarz, born in 1864, and died in 1944 in Haifa. He had a liquor store in Przemyśl. The photo was taken by his son David, who was a professional photographer.
Our trip in the wake of the Galician shtetls was a great experience. Still there swirl in my head the images of the revamped, harmonious little towns, the landscapes surrounded by pine forests and cared-for meadows, the amazing Renaissance synagogues, the cemeteries! And to all this, the unique, broad knowledge, with which you spoiled us, Tamás! Thank you.
I have seen with happiness the creations of the fellow travelers. They wrote beautiful things, took good photos. Of course, this was not fun, or it was not only fun. And one more thing, the reason why I have written nothing and have published no photos. I received this trip as a personal gift, as work, a job to accomplish. Something I should continue, look for, or see once more, read about. I feel like a chosen person, who was entrusted a germ to grow something out of it. I just peeped instead of meditating. I peeked, I looked, but I saw very little to grasp or to guess something from the quintessence of all the things I have seen. I was overrun by moods and absences. It was kind of timeless, and inhumane, in the sense that I have hardly seen the living people, the local people. Only that horrible and perhaps dead, perhaps living history. I miss all that is there in your head and in your eyes, and what you handed over with an amazing force and yet ease. A gift and a task. You were right. It was much more than what fits into five days, and much less than I could write something high-flown about. A great, pretentious absence. With honest and benevolent envy and admiration, best:
“I say what is on my mind”
(Weekly column, Radio Q, 21 August 2014)
Column title deleted. I do not say what is on my mind. I say what there is not. The absence. And I cannot determine to whom the absence belongs.
I was on a tour in Galicia, in the wake of Jewish memories.
A magnificent tour, a unique organization, Tamás himself is the embodiment of zeal and care, and an unfathomable pile of knowledge, the group is great, with some friends and good acquaintances in it, everyone is sympathetic. Bonus: some wonderful Polish Renaissance towns, about which I have never heard, and some others, about which I have only heard, Krakow and Lublin, and a dozen unknown ones.
Now a fresh report should follow, as it is fitting to an easy-flowing summer radio program. But it won’t follow. It can’t follow. (Sorry, boss!)
I should explain that above mentioned “there is not”. This was successfully done only by Péter Nádas, and, in an inverse manner, by Imre Kertész, who set up a very peculiar “there is” against the “there is not”, the destruction.
So the above mentioned tourist phrase, “in the wake of Jewish memories”, is not true. In Poland there are no Jews. Not even one. The last survivors left in 1968. The memories belong to the deceased and to them. They come on pilgrimage to the land of the Hasids from far away lands. To some surviving synagogues, ruins or merely to the place where they once stood. Which they save and preserve and restore, if possible, but usually it is not. Because they are not. There is a museum in Lublin, with documents, lists of names, photos, a poignant exhibition … no, rather black rooms, just because an alternative theater came to know in which building they were operating. Films and photos about a neighborhood, people, traffic, shops, which we could see from the windows of this little theater, if only there were not a huge parking lot there. But now there is a huge parking lot, indeed. The people who once lived there, and now who do not, make up a pile, together with the inhabitants of other Jewish neighborhoods, in nearby Bełżec, in the Eastern Auschwitz, where industrial-scale destruction was tested on a million human beings. The machine was not yet flawless, for the lack of crematoria, a hill was built up with heavy additional works from the ground-up bones, a hill, which was then formed with concrete and black tufa and a couple of place names by the preservers of the “there is not” for the posterity.
No adjectives can exist here, unlike in the few cemeteries which survived by the whim of history. They are beautiful preys of natural decay, but they are still there. A few 15th-century tombstones, strange inscriptions defended by the moss, later also carved images, to know who was a rabbi, a scholar, a man of books, a woman. They are standing, leaning, sometimes already lying down, above an astonishing valley, on the top of their savior, a hill, where the enemy had no time and wish to go up to destroy them. Because otherwise, of course, the cemeteries are also not there.
Galicia is a beautiful landscape, with beautiful cities, well-tended villages, and a terrible history. The Monarchy, the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, the Slovaks, the Ukrainians, and the Jews, who are not there any more.
We travel in a comfortable tourist bus, without a passport. If we had it with us, we could go over to the other half of Galicia, where it is peace which there is not, just in order to say another absence.
When we asked Dorka whether we were in Poland already, she said that it was unbelievable how the borders have vanished! Once you had to go through various stages of bureaucracy and anxiety to cross a border.
Looking out of the bus window, the scenery remains the same.
Our families during the 19th and 20th c. whether from Czernowitz or Saľa changed countries while staying in the same place. In Israel, we cannot drive to our neighbouring country and be abroad.
In Israel, there is a very common practice of travelling to concentration camps in Poland, as a part of the high school curriculum. Both of us firmly reject this warped ʻraison d’être’ that is drummed into our kids’ brain at school. Travelling in such homogenous groups makes them self-righteous and blind.
Some very close family members of ours were murdered in Auschwitz. We are curious to learn about what lives they led and less how they perished.
Galicia’s Jews suggest to the Israeli mind, the most inferior ʻOstjuden’ typecast, everything that Zionism tried to educate us against. Against the prevalent image of the Diaspora Ashkenazi Jew, money-grabbing, foreign looking – an anti-Semitic typecast that we adopted.
From Marek Tomaszewski’s Tarnów photo collection
We were very surprised to see charming renaissance small towns, with a long history of Jews who contributed a lot to local culture and prosperity. What wonderful buildings and synagogues! These relics that remain evoked in us a deep and palpable connection to our Jewish heritage.
Headstone in the Lesko Jewish cemetery: “here lies Ester daughter of Mordechai” (my future gravestone)
The Bardejov Bikur Cholim Synagogue, has left us aghast. So authentic and alive, as if someone has just switched on the light and you experience 1941. The cheder in particular, with its books, lanterns and a map of Palestine, touched us deeply.
For our first group trip, we were a little intimidated by the idea of a bus load of Hungarians. However, the people in the bus were very friendly – we had some very interesting conversations. Tamás’ commentary complemented the sites and gave them a multi-dimensional significance. Tamás’ artistic orchestration, phenomenal knowledge, storytelling talent, untiring energies and humour – made the trip unforgettable.
Thank you all!
Eti & Shlomo