Krakow 2007: Poland Diary

by Bob Blacksberg
Photos: Bob Blacksberg,

My wife, Terry Novick, and I wrote a series of messages as we traveled [in summer 2007] to the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival and the dedication of the Museum of Polish Jewish History in Warsaw on June 26. Their range is extreme, but I hope you enjoy.

Tuesday 6/26, 1 p.m.: Amazing Event

Photo: Bob BlacksbergWe just witnessed an amazing thing—in the pouring rain speech after speech from officials of the Polish government, a representative from the German government (we think the Prime Minister) and the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, all talking about the importance of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Most of the speeches were in Polish & we didn't have the translation device. But you could catch enough. Friends we were with said the German representative said several times that the German government & German people take full responsibility for the Shoah. It was pouring buckets and windy until the German guy was talking; by the time the Rabbi spoke it started to clear up and by the time they put in cement for the foundation the sun was out! The President of Poland and 3 former presidents/prime ministers were there. All on a beautiful green tree-lined square that was once the Warsaw Ghetto. Terry & Bob

Tuesday, 6/26/2007, 2:35 p.m.: A Remarkable Experience

Photo: Bob BlacksbergTerry and I are sitting outside Warsaw's City Hall contemplating a truly remarkable morning. We had the privilege of witnessing the groundbreaking for the Museum of Polish Jewish history. As a moment in history, it was very hard to beat. In a park on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, the President of Poland, Mayor of Warsaw, 3 former prime ministers of Poland, a former president of Germany, Marek Edelman—survivor of the Ghetto, and a few hundred others gathered to celebrate the start of construction of a Museum that should sustain a connection to 1000 years of Jewish and Polish history.

That it took 62 years to go from extermination to celebration was, in the words of Rabbi Lau of Tel Aviv, "too long but not too late."

It was impossible not to be deeply moved. Three million Polish Jews were slaughtered. In 1968, nearly all of the remnant 30,000 were expelled.

To hear and see today the Polish Government's support for this museum shows a potential for reconnection that is thrilling.

By now I am on the train, returning to Krakow and a celebration of Jewish life in a city filled with ghosts. Bob

Thursday, 6/28 5 p.m.

Theo Bikel and Alberto Mizrahi. Photo: Bob BlacksbergIt's about 5 o'clock now and we just got back from Auschvitz. We left at 7:30 am and walked from about 10: 20 until almost 4. I think we walked at least 3 miles - all around Birkenau which is huge. I made it but I'm not sure I will walk again. Our guide was recommended by some people we know; they said he was at Auschvitz 1944–1945 when he was 14–15, he is strange, but you will never have an experience like that again. That is true. There's too much to write on this little screen so it will have to wait. But I don't think we will ever forget this day (especially if I can't ever walk again). On a better note we heard one of the most memorable concerts ever last night—Theodore Bikel & a cantor named Alberto Mizrachi—also not to be forgotten. More later. Terry

Friday, 6/29 8 a.m.: From the basement of hell

This message is gruesome, bearing witness to what that word can hardy describe. Fair warning to close it now.

We reach the bottom of many flights of (metaphorical) steps, standing beside the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau….

Yesterday we devoted to the journey to Auschvitz, about an hour from Krakow. When asked by a young Canadian journalist why—I said I had to go. I could not come to Krakow without trying to comprehend what would / could have happened to me had Max and Rachel Blacksberg not travelled from 150 miles to the east to New York in 1920 or Celia Horwitz from Lithuania in 1907. The walls of photos are filled with faces who look as much my cousins as those I know.

We were guided by Bernard Offen, a survivor whose 78 years of life can not be seen in a much younger face. He made real the abstraction of this place.

One starts with the much smaller Auschvitz. Its barracks, built to house soldiers, though sparse, come to look like summer camp. Many house museums of various aspects of the extermination. Most are familiar enough from Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

The cans of Zyklon B begin the feeling of a steeper descent. It is no metaphor that insecticide, concentrated in the highly engineered killing machine, completed the metamorphosis of humans into bugs.

How much soul does a mosquito possess? That line, borrowed from a new book about thought by Douglas Hofstadter, may help understand how the Germans could plan and execute the manufacture of death. The punishment block and its adjacent wall of death begin to make the presence of evil palpable.

That truth arrives after a 2 km drive to Auschvitz II or Birkenau. No army barracks here. Some converted horse stalls, perhaps once comfortable for 52 horses, but 1,000 people? Mostly prisoner built barracks.

But they were already the minority, selected as fit for labor, escaping, often only for a while, the gas chambers that greeted their fathers, mothers, sisters, children directly as they exited the train.

The size of Birkenau does not show in photographs. At 425 acres, it is a flat space perhaps a mile in one direction and 3000 feet in the other. In the middle, the foundations and chimneys of destroyed barracks stretch to the horizon, it seems.

Must the museum keepers use pesticides to keep nature from retaking this place?

So you come to stand next to the ruins of the engine of death. Human insects require more than bug spray. They require chambers neatly engineered, an elevator to lift the product, rooms to recycle the valuable hair and fillings, ovens to convert the remains to ash—far more than enough to fertilize the swamps, too much for the river.

Each of our soldiers sent to interrogate or guard at Guantanamo should come here first. Paul Wolfowitz, would you have been selected as fit? Dick Cheyney, would you be SS or product? Have you been here to think about it? W, do you comprehend this at all?

As we started a very long walk back to the gate and life, a cold rain tried, with fair success, to soak us. God continues to add commentary to this journey.

Now it is Friday morning, back in a very living Krakow, here to help rekindle Jewish life. It remains our task to restore humanity to the slaughtered insects, to sanctify their names.

That's why we must be here.

Tonight is Shabbes. It should be sweet for their memory and for us.


Sunday 7/1 10 a.m.: And so we soar

Crowd at the concert, later at night. Photo: Bob Blacksberg.Little more than an hour by car, about 54 hours in our lives, and 62 years in the history of the Jewish people from the place and experience of the abyss, we stand aside the stage of music, joy and celebration in Krakow, before a crowd estimated at 25,000 [though likely between 10 and 15 thousand].

Lorin, Jeff, Michael, Theo. Photo: Bob BlacksbergA six and a half hour concert finally ends, after Theodore Bikel calls for silence, leads in singing "the Partisaners Song"—the hymn of the Resistance—and last of all the crowd, hands waving in the air in the shared joy, sings with 30 or more musicians an infectious Hasidic disco hit.

To write that words can not capture the spirit of this experience is trite and intensely true. Pictures and videos fail too. We needs all our senses, and all the experience of the week to feel the full intensity of this moment.

The concert recapitulates a week of wonderful performances, allowing us to see those we missed. After the first hour the mandatory 10 minute downpour only pauses a concert then ahead of schedule.

Veretski Pass. Photo: Bob BlacksbergThe front of the crowd becomes a crush and Terry and I begin to weary of standing and wonder how we can experience the end, knowing the intensity has a long way to grow. Wandering by side street to the rear of the crowd, the answer stands in our Philadelphia friend, Michael Steiman, leader of the Friends of the Festival.

Suddenly, as if magically, we are in an apartment overlooking the square with a terrific view of the stage and crowd.

Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars, playing for the first time together at the festival as the last act, raised the intensity with a set played fast and faster.

As that ended, Michael Steiman led us to the stage area where we could join our friends, the performers. Nearly every performer at the festival joined the finale, where the fervor only grew. Smiles everywhere. Even later we joined the after party, finally reaching our room at 3.30.

Dan Blacksberg, Alex Kontorovich, Mark Rubin. Photo: Bob BlacksbergSo I have saved the proud parent story for the end. Front and near center, Dan's trombone playing left us in awe, and Dan beaming. He stood and played as a peer among the best Klezmer performers in the world. We could not be prouder.


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