My wife and I just returned from a week’s trip in Poland, taken for the purpose of my attending a Law and Language conference in Bialystok (see previous post). I have to admit that I had never felt as uneasy before a trip as I did prior to this trip. I could not put my finger on what exactly was disturbing me but told myself that I would take things as they are in the present. That said, I made a conscious decision to travel on my Israeli passport and speak Hebrew. The greatest response to past anti-Semitism and mass killing is to return as a proud Jew. I did not regret that decision and was quite surprised by the reaction. Not only were there no negative reaction or incidents, people expressed interest, with one person, in his 40’s, apologizing for the actions of the Poles in the past, something we did not expect or request.
The Poland I saw in that week, granted a short time, is a complex society. It consists of three distinct generations: pre-war, Soviet and modern Polish. The first is hard to see as that few of that generation is still alive and most of the buildings of that period, at least in Warsaw, were destroyed by the Germans. Yet, it is engrained in my mind from stories and movies. The second was symbolized by the Stalin’s gift to the Poland, the imposing cement Palace of Science and Culture in the city center. No less reminiscent of that era is the stone-faced “charm” of the border guards and train clerks, who do their job in the proper Soviet manner. The current generation is more European and western. On the train from Bialystok to Warsaw, delayed by two hours, we spent a magical 4 hours with five 18-year olds returning from vacation. Aside from the respect they gave us, we were amazed by their knowledge, curiosity, English and goodness. We talked for four hours without effort and did not regret the train delay in the least. If this group is the future of Poland, I am very optimistic. This interlacing of different educations does not lead to easy conclusions about the past, present or future but makes for a fascinating trip.
In terms of the Polish language itself, I left with the impression that in six months I could be functioning quite well in it. It took some three days to figure out the pronunciation/spelling matrix. However, once I understood how to say the words, it was wonderfully (to me, not the Poles) similar to Russian, which I know, and therefore easy to understand. I was amused by the Elmer Fudd letter, specifically Ƚ (an L with a cross in it). I learned that is pronounced wa, reminding me of Elmer Fudd saying, “I am going to shoot that Wabbit.” I mean no offense to the Polish but often use humor to help remember.
The food was generally excellent. There was an abundance of non-mainstream meats, including duck, bison, venison and wild boar. The Polish are justifiably famous for their perogi with various fillings, with our favorite being those filled with blueberries in a sauce of sour cream. I loved the herring, especially in cream and served with onion, a taste acquired from my mother. On the other hand, Poland lacks the fresh vegetables so common in Israel. The one “Israeli salad” we saw (at the hotel breakfast) was so small and minimal that it engendered pity not desire. The service in restaurant was prompt and professional at least until the main dish was served. At that point, for reasons we never understood, the waiter would disappear as if he did not want to disturb us from digesting our food. At least twice we gave up on the dessert as we had become somehow invisible to the server. Admittedly, not eating a dessert is not a tragedy, at least at our age.
I must say a few words about hair. The Middle East is known for dark, often curly, hair for women and the non-hair for men. Many of my students, in their 20’s, already have expanded foreheads. In Poland, the large majority of women were blonds, most of them natural. Curly heads must be considered very exotic. We also noted that they were much more elegantly dressed than in Israel. As for the males, they must either have the right genes or lead peaceful lives as even older men had full heads of hair.
In short, my trip to Poland, regardless of my anxiety beforehand, was extremely memorable and worthwhile. I do not claim to have become an expert on the country but at least I gained some insights on modern Poland and my grandmothers’ Poland. To any Jew considering a visit there, I would recommend it, but doing so neither forgetting the past nor ignoring the present.