Drawn Back Somewhere I’ve Never Been

I’m at the Krakow Airport, after a trip more beautiful and sad and cold than I expected. I’m eating a bagel (they’re all the rage here), staring at an empty tarmac and hoping that my delayed flight will get me to Munich on time to make my connection.

Krakow brings to mind the kind of old Europe that reminds me of my great-grandmother. A large part of my family comes from the eastern part of Galicia (the southern part of Poland). The town we’re from is now in the Ukraine, but at one time it was all the same country. The food here smells like my house did during the holidays. The Jewish history of the city is palpable and tragic and you can feel it wherever you go, even in the souvenir markets. The deep Antisemitism that existed in Poland before the war has, in many cases, been replaced by a kind of nostalgia for the decimated culture. There are lots of “Jewish style” restaurants and Kazimierz (the old Jewish quarter) is now the vibrant, trendy area of town, with tons of pubs and galleries. The markets are filled with carved wooden figurines of Jews in traditional garb, like the ones pictured above. I wasn’t sure how to feel about them.

I felt particularly moved by the old temple and the cemetery at Remu, built in 1553. It was ancient and intrepid and quiet. Even the building itself felt like a survivor.

I went to Shabbat services at the bright and modern Galicia Jewish Museum. I happened to be walking by and heard the music and it sounded great, with a Klezmer type of feel, so I went in. There was a large group of tourists there and it was a lively service. It definitely feels that there’s an effort to keep some Jewish soul of the place alive. I asked someone how many local Jews generally attended and he said about twenty. The entire Jewish population of Krakow now is around 500. Before the war it was 60,000.

I surprised myself by attending services, as I don’t usually go at home. A lot was surprising about the trip. It was meant to be a work trip- promotion for the Polish translation of my memoir- not some rootsy back-to-my-origins pilgrimage. Yet after services, I found myself saying to a guy from Hungary, “Something drew my back here.” I don’t know why I put it that way. It’s not as if I had ever been there before.

My trip to Auschwitz is another story and I need a moment to sit with it before I blog about it. It left me feeling like one of those cartoon characters that got an anvil dropped on its head. I’m still half-flattened. It’s going to take me a minute to rearrange myself and figure out how to put words to my experience.

Now Israel is bombing Gaza and my head is spinning with sadness about all of it, all of it. I’m grateful for my trip. And I can’t wait to get home.

The Polish Oprah and Perfect Potatoes

Here I am getting ready to be interviewed on the Polish talk show Rosmovy W Toku (Talk is in Progress). I had hoped that they’d give me that dramatic eye makeup I’ve come to associate with Slavic femme fatales, but they did a disappointingly tasteful job.

Once I had the earpiece fitted so I could hear my interpreter, I walked out onto the set and was surprised to find that there was a studio audience. The host, Ewa Drzyzga, the “Polish Oprah,” had a warm, casual manner, dressed in jeans and sitting next to me on a couch. The lag that occurs with translation is interesting. It interrupts the usual rhythm of conversation and you’re forced to just sit there and pause as you try to stay poised and maintain eye contact, in front of four cameras and an unreadable audience. I made it through the interview and the producers seemed happy. It went by fast and almost seemed like some kind of David Lynchian dream. I kept the eye makeup for the rest of the day.

In the picture with me is me with my new buddy Teresa Fortis, a Swiss woman who wrote a book called Lockruf Saudia (originally in German, unfortunately not translated into English yet), about her years living in Saudi Arabia and working for Saudi Airlines in the 80s. Along with the segment producer who brought us over, we wound up having a couple of lovely dinners that lasted late into the evening, as if we’d known each other for years. Fast intimacies are one of my favorite things about international travel. Another favorite thing is, I believe, one of life’s great pleasures- a meal eaten alone in a foreign city.

At a café overlooking Market Square in Krakow, I ate (sorry, mom) the best potato pancakes I’ve ever had in my life, while the other patrons drank vodka and talked passionately- about what I have no idea. Because I don’t understand a word of Polish, the language was just music weaving through the air around me

In these moments, I achieve a deep kind of noticing, a sensation of settling into myself. They almost always happen when I’m traveling alone. I wonder if there’s somehow a way to bring experiences like this home. They don’t take long. They just take a genuine detachment from the to-do list. They take a certain internal silence. I have tried meditating a million different ways and never seem to stick to it, never seem to get the peace I’m looking for. Instead, I achieve it over a perfect potato pancake, looking out over the flower market’s wild splashes of color against the grey day, the people hurrying by in dark coats, leaning into the wind.

You Are Here

How’s this for surreal (Dali’s got nothin’ on me)…

Two weeks ago I was trick-or-treating on our tree-lined street in sunny Los Angeles (dressed like a cave family with a pet triceratops):

Today I was freezing my tush off at the haunting, beautiful memorial at Plac Bohhaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) in Krakow, the site where the Jews of the Krakow Ghetto were corralled before deportation to the concentration camps during the Second World War.

Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak created the memorial, comprised of 70 empty bronze chairs, representing the discarded possessions left behind after the liquidation of the ghetto.

I experience these things differently now, as a mother. I stood in the square and kept thinking of the mothers who hid their babies in their backpacks, in their suitcases. The mothers who were separated from their children. The mothers who stayed with their children and died with them. I could go on with the ghastly thoughts that nearly made me lose my borscht, but I won’t. I don’t think I need to- you parents out there are with me, I know you are. I said a prayer for the mothers who stood there before me under circumstances so horrific as to be unimaginable, and for the mothers in the world today still suffering similar atrocities. I went back to the hotel and wrote a letter to T. I do this sometimes, when I have something I really want to tell him that’s not developmentally appropriate. I keep the letters in a folder to give to him when the time seems right.

Tomorrow I’m taping an interview for a talk show called Rozmowy W Toku, talking about the Polish translation of my memoir. How amazing that I get to be here to experience this beautiful city that carries, among many other things, this terrible scar on the face of the world. How remarkable to stand and witness all the healing that’s grown up around it.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from Poland…