Memory's Landscapes: An Autumn in Eastern Europe
MEMORY'S LANDSCAPES: AN AUTUMN IN EASTERN EUROPE
Every hour on the hour, every day of the year, the "Trumpeter of Krakow" appears in a high tower window of the Mariacki Church in Krakow's central square to blow a mournful call-to-arms known as the heynal. He plays the tune four times, once in each direction of the compass, beckoning the entire city.
Were this ritual just a live performance to mark the hour, it would be merely charming. But, in fact, the playing of the heynal is a rare instance of living history; for at the same moment in every rendition, the heynal is abruptly broken off mid-bar with a wobbly gulp. This melodic amputation has poignant meaning for natives of Krakow: it represents the moment in the year 1241 when, during a Tartar invasion, a trumpeter calling the sleeping city to alarums was shot through the throat with an enemy arrow, his song cut off mid-note. To memorialize his sacrifice and the trauma of that invasion over 700 years ago (and by extension the numerous invasions since), the heynal has been reproduced daily in its truncated form for centuries. It is even, now, played on nation-wide Polish radio every noon -- a national mnemonic of vulnerability.
Whether or not the story of its origin is historically accurate, the gesture of commemoration makes for resonant history. That broken note still causes an involuntary shudder as one strolls, shops, turns a key in a door.
It is a commonplace to say that we Americans have a short memory, a shallow sense of history. But it is in contrast to other cultures that this feels truest. Living in Krakow for four months this autumn, traveling a portion of Eastern Europe, I've felt the ground's memories repeatedly erupting beneath my feet. History cannot be ignored here, here at the epicenter of World War II, in a country repeatedly carved up, wiped off the map, reconstituted, tyrannized. Poland's generalized sorrow and anxiety holds even the tourist in its grip.
But these are feelings, I admit, I fall prey to readily. As a child of the fifties, granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, the traumas of this territory were inscribed in me. It was as if, to use Carolyn ForchÃ©'s apt phrase, I was "haunted by memories which [I] did not have" -- pogroms, poverty, round-ups, gas chambers. In my family, as in many, these matters -- once bequeathed -- were not to be spoken of; it was vital we get on with the American dream and not linger on such a woeful, morbid past.
Taboo intensified the dark aura around our history. I knew that at heart I was a citizen of my Eastern European past even as I was groomed for my American future. When I chose to study Russian in college, I was already quietly preparing for this journey, my need to return to the "site of the crime," to decipher the genealogy of my character.
Now that I've finally come, I know I am carrying the baggage of my longing and expectations, my myths, my fears. But even had I come with no preconceptions, I've arrived in a place in thrall to its history, where the past insists on being met at every turn.
The landscape is spackled with plaques and monuments, turning city streets into the open-air corridors of a museum. In downtown Warsaw, virtually every corner has its story, its hero, its death count -- sculpted fighters rising out of sculpted sewer holes, lists of murdered children. The city's very architecture reveals its story: Warsaw, utterly destroyed during World War II, meticulously recreated its historic center in pre-war form from drawings and photographs -- a tender gesture of loyalty to the past. Thanks to five decades of city grime, "Old Town" once again looks "old," but visitors are constantly reminded that what they're seeing is not historically original but a defiant reproduction. Postcards at every souvenir stand juxtapose 1945 photos of bombed-out buildings and squares with their elegant reincarnations. We are not allowed to let touristic pleasures distract us from the hour of devastation.
Elsewhere, we are invited to reconstruct the invisible ourselves. In cities like Bialystok, where one is hardpressed to find a pre-war building, we are offered instead a shadow cityscape scripted by plaques: site of the Great Synagogue where 3,000 Jews were locked up and burned alive; birthplace of the creator of Esperanto whose aspiration was world peace; site of the first ghetto uprising of the war -- each site cited, a basso continuo droning beneath the cacophony of the now.
Outside of the cities, there are fewer clues to guide us. For American Jews, like me, seeking the towns their families fled, the strongest sensation of return may be the hollow of absence, the recognition that one culture has supplanted another. Signs of shtetl life, such a vibrant cultural fact only sixty years ago, are almost entirely missing in Eastern Europe. An echoing synagogue here and there, a desecrated cemetery, and everything else new. How can one find roots when the stalk has been severed?
In Krakow, on the other hand, one meets a city beautifully intact. The survival of its medieval streets, of course, carries its own history lesson: Krakow, unlike Warsaw and Bialystok, chose to surrender itself to the Nazis without resistance in order to spare the city destruction. Luck saved it later when the Nazis, fleeing the quickly advancing Soviet army, had no time to dynamite it. Consequently, Krakow contains a haunting relic: an extensive, undamaged Jewish quarter -- Kazimierz -- dating from the fifteenth century.
Once home to over 60,000, Kazimierz is one of the few places in Eastern Europe where one can visualize a pre-war Jewish community. The Nazis stabled horses and stored weapons in its synagogues and halls, but left them standing, as did the communists. Though dilapidated, there are still beautiful squares and narrow winding streets here, portals of prayer houses engraved with Hebrew, doorposts still shadowed by the outlines of mezuzahs, two surviving cemeteries, schools, homes. An entire landscape of elegy.
But a landscape coming back to life in an eery way. With the loosening of the communist stranglehold and a curious revival of interest in things Jewish (a bi-annual festival of Jewish culture was established in 1988), cafes and nightly klezmer concerts have cropped up in Kazimierz, giving it stage lights and soundtrack. Deferential politicians and the hip, along with foreign tourists, crowd its restaurants. Kosher vodka, beer, and even kosher water are consumed in huge qualities, as if somehow "purer." When Spielberg chose to film Schindler's List here, the marketing of Jewish history intensified -- one can now tour the sites of the film along with the synagogues and the mikvah.
Much of Kazimierz's boom can be ascribed to the post-communist influx of American and European tourists. Yet with mementoes of Polish Jewish culture having become chic in Krakow, there is a larger nod to history going on. Some see the current simulation of Jewish culture in Polish cities as evidence of guilt, or a genuine sadness at the loss of a culture which was, for centuries, deeply entwined with Polish culture. But it isn't just Jewish culture that's being staged -- Ukrainian and gypsy music are trendy, too. Anything "ethnic," I'm told, is welcomed by many Poles as a relief from the long decades of communist blandness and the post-war fact of the country's ethnic and religious homogeneity.
But what are Poles remembering in their dinner theatre gatherings? (The film version of "Fiddler on the Roof" seems to be their major source of information about Jewish life.) And what are Jewish tourists remembering when they come here? In Kazimierz, the search for history is beset with contradictions.
There are fewer than 200 Jews left in Krakow, most of them elderly. The klezmer musicians in the cafes are young Catholics. When I go to Yom Kippur services at the only synagogue functioning in Krakow this year, the congregation is almost entirely composed of foreign visitors -- a fascinating international hodge-podge -- and services are led not by a Polish rabbi, but by the Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber, come from England for the occasion.
From the first, Kazimierz caused me profound ambivalence. Wandering its streets initially, seeing Hebrew words carved onto buildings now empty or secular, I felt a palpable ache. To steady myself, I stopped at the popular Ariel Cafe with its menu in Yiddish, Polish, and English. Sitting outside, looking at the old market square, I felt genuinely pleased that this place still existed, that I could pay my respects here. A couple of musicians wearing dark suits and yarmulkes began playing appropriately mournful Yiddish tunes. I allowed myself my tears. But when the musicians stopped to smoke and chat, I suddenly noticed their boredom. They are hired actors, I had to remind myself, part of an engineered ambience that I had been more than susceptible to. To prove my point, a bus pulled up with thirty American Jewish tourists on board, and the musicians on cue broke out into the party tune, "Hava Nagilah." The tourists gleefully danced their way into the restaurant, teary-eyed. I bristled.
What does history require of us here? What if the musicians aren't Jewish -- should they be allowed to wear yarmulkes, present themselves as the authentic article in this ghostly, authentic place? And what of the forty Germans tourists come to hear klezmer music on another night at the Ariel? As I sing along, I feel as if I'm on display, a living remnant in the museum Hitler planned to build when it was all over, artifacts of an extinct, exotic people. Where does remembrance draw its battle line here?
Eva Hoffman's warning in a recent essay on Jewish-Polish relations illuminates the challenge: "At this point, the task is not only to remember, but to remember strenuously -- explore, decode, and deepen the terrain of memory. Moreover, what is at stake is not only the past, but the present. . . . In memories, too, begin responsibilities."
The commercialization of memory is most painful when the memories are one's "own" and feel inviolable. Someone else's souvenir kitsch -- such as the carvings of Hasidim and klezmer musicians sold in shops -- feels like an offensive rip-off when it's your own culture being commodified. As well, the memory that's selected for touristic consumption out of the mass of available memories is inevitably a sentimental one. It spotlights only the surface representations of a complicated history. For instance, that Kazimierz was home mostly to poor Hasidim, whose orthodoxy would be at odds with the majority of visitors' values, is not something we're invited to think about. There is a distilled version of Jewish history for sale here, refined as kosher vodka. This is a place where one can easily cling to a vision rather than explore an historical reality. And it is hard, in season, to even find the silence to absorb this place.
My most resonant moments in Eastern Europe have been my loneliest ones. When I travel to my ancestral territory in Ukraine, I meet a landscape, unlike Kazimierz, utterly ungeared to tourism, where it is impossible to buy a catalogue at a museum, hard even to buy a postcard, where my footsteps echo in the long, dim hallways of hotels emptied of business. Arriving in Kiev from Poland, where communist symbols, names, and memorials have been wiped off the landscape, it's a shock, first of all, to see hammers and sickles still adorning buildings. It's even more of a shock to see a statue of Lenin still standing, fresh red flowers at its feet. Maybe the country can't afford to topple and rebuild its public spaces, or maybe such symbols reveal its political ambivalence and explain the ubiquitous police.
What's indisputable, though, is that Ukraine is still emotionally entangled in its past. Even the casual tourist can see it in the countless memorials. The country is struggling to survive economically, yet hothouse flowers adorn its monuments, even tiny roadside shrines to heroes and past atrocities. Outside the cities, in small towns devoid of commerce or distraction, it's as if the monuments are all people have to tend to, to occupy their communal attention.
My people's memories have been excised, of course. When I journey to my grandfather's village, now a town with a rotting concrete center of high rises, it seems it will be impossible to visualize his life there. But eventually, directed to the old Jewish section, I recognize the terrain, ravaged -- the graveyard largely destroyed, goats grazing its grasses, synagogues gone, records gone, a dirt lane leading to nowhere. Along this lane stand small houses built with Jewish tombstones after the war. I glare at them as my footsteps raise ancient dust. It is even harder than in Poland to reconstruct the shape of Jewish life from what's left here. I apply the bits and pieces of reminiscence I've carried with me, images from photos, my imagination. The river still flows beneath the hillside as it has for centuries. Water is raised from the well. I touch the ground my family touched, but no stories come away in my hand.
That Jews are so little remembered here intensifies my sense of loss. Yet other losses resonate and shadow the landscape with mourning, a permanent elegiac fearfulness that, disoriented as I am, I recognize as my own, the place's legacy to a distant grandchild.
In this season of frantic harvest, I visit a number of memorials to the seventeen million Ukrainians who died during the Soviet collectivization of farms between 1932 and 1933 (a colossal catastrophe not much remembered in the West) -- memorials festooned with flowers, nuts and berries, bouquets of autumn leaves. In Kiev's historical museum, an agonizing sculpture of hacked branches entwined with barbed wire, propped up by a fence splashed with red paint, commemorates that famine and World War II. A sign has been added to include the victims of Chernobyl.
There is no shortage of agonies to recall. The very landscape of huge borderless fields bespeaks history's scavenging hand. The land itself has been rendered communist, even the cities with their communal systems of heat and hot water (everyone shall have heat or no one shall, and given the fuel shortages during the eight cold October days I spend in Ukraine, it is no one). The land tells its story on its body -- the past won't soon be forgotten or physically transformed.
Formal gestures of memory can be less honest, though. By chance, I am in Kiev on the 55th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar. During two days in the fall of 1941, the Nazis marched an estimated 150,000 residents of Kiev, three-quarters of them Jews, to a ravine on the edge of the city, site of an old Jewish cemetery. Stripped naked, lined up at the ravine's rim, they were machine-gunned to death and tumbled over the edge -- one of the war's first mass murders of civilians. Two years later, with the Soviet army approaching, Jewish prisoners were forced to exhume and burn the thousand of bodies to hide the atrocity. But the memory held.
It was the Russian poet Yevgenyi Yevtushenko who brought the grim name of Babi Yar to my generation's consciousness with his 1961 poem which lamented and accused: "No monument stands over Babi Yar . . ." Today there are two monuments to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre, and they offer an interesting contrast. The Soviet monument, finally built in 1976, is located in a park over a mile from the actual site of the murders. It is a grandiose, oversized affair, with eleven bronze figures stacked up on a stepped pedestal. Its plaque makes no mention of Jews; rather it proclaims itself a tribute to Soviet citizens who were victims of fascism. The actual site of the murders had already by then been encroached on by a highway and the huge headquarters of Ukrainian national television. There is only a thin strip of land left open at the edge of the ravine and the desecrated remains of the old cemetery. There, in 1991, the Israeli government was permitted to erect a memorial, a simple ten-foot high menorah with a small plaque.
The anniversary of the massacre on the Hebrew calendar had fallen a week before my visit, and a small religious ceremony had taken place at the Jewish monument. This week was the official, government commemoration, and it took place at the Soviet monument, out of sight of the killing grounds. A few hundred people and a few television cameras watched a platform of ambassadors and officials make their polite, redundant speeches, the flammable past at a safe distance. A Russian Jewish rock star -- long censored, now idolized -- who was to perform for free in Kiev's central square that evening, appeared with his entourage, briskly climbed the monument to deliver a bouquet of flowers, and then swept off, all caught on film, while the speeches ground on.
I left for the ravine. Here, handfuls of people silently drifted in and out, some laying flowers, some lighting memorial candles at the edge of the abyss. I walked to the rim, looked into its alarming depths, saw some broken, tumbled tombstones, a creek quietly pushing its way through. The landscape swayed in vertigo.
Why hadn't the Soviets built their monument here where the murders happened, here where the landscape so dramatically sets the stage for an imaginative recreation of the terror? My guide, a Jew who lost friends and family here, tells me the real reason behind the official excuses was that the ravine was being used as a garbage dump and the authorities were embarrassed. What's more, he says, it was later discovered that the garbage was polluting the city's water supply; 1,000 Kievans died as a result of toxic drinking water. There is no monument here to them. The ravine's been cleaned up, all evidence removed. A breeze exhales and gutters the candles.
Ceremonial commemorations like the ones for Babi Yar pose special challenges to history as they so often feel canned, an occasion for platitudes. Solitude at the ravine is much more conducive to reflection, but -- here's the rub -- such places are only evocative given prior knowledge, historical background. You have to have done your homework, or come with someone who knows the territory. Otherwise, you'll just see trees.
But there are no neutral landscapes here. Every place I've gone in Eastern Europe, from city center to primeval forest, holds a wrenching story. Though I have not found here the images of the past I had against-all-odds hoped for, I have been bone-rattled, stung, forced to look my losses square in the face.
I happen to be writing this on All Souls Day. The streets of downtown Krakow are deserted; the population has gone off en masse to the cemeteries with huge sprays of flowers and bagfuls of memorial candles in an extravagant annual ritual of commemoration. By dusk, the cities of the dead will be ablaze with thousands of flames. We will walk in the smoky heat of it, sorting the graves of Solidarity heroes from socialists, painters and actors, grandmothers, infants -- all dutifully recalled. We will follow the crowd to a new memorial in honor of communism's local victims -- a cross clung to by a dozen severed hands, tonight flooded with candlelight.
Every day this autumn, memory has encroached, tugged me down. For weeks I sat at the dining room table I'd transformed into desk in our small apartment, unable to find words adequate for Auschwitz or the vanished landscapes of my family's past. I'd come here to connect myself to this landscape and its horrors, but instead felt more hopelessly separated, silenced by its denials and reinventions, by its magnitude of pain.
As it happened, half-way through our stay in Krakow, we decided to move to another apartment, more central. The day before we left, while drinking a farewell cup of coffee with our landlady, I asked about the history of the apartment house where I'd felt so increasingly disquieted. She told me the memories of its walls: it was built in 1933 by her uncle, an architect, and he had chosen for himself the second-floor apartment where we'd been living. But when the Nazis occupied Krakow, they had seized this neighborhood, one of the then-most elegant in the city, to quarter officers. The entire house had been commandeered and her uncle consigned to the basement as housekeeper. When the Nazis invaded Russia, he finally got his apartment back (impeccably cleaned the night before their abrupt departure) and eventually, after decades of loss of ownership under communism, our landlady had legally reacquired her long-time home.
The dining room is still graced by the ornate table, sideboard, and twelve carved chairs that her uncle had had made for the place in 1933. It was at that same table, where Nazis had dined, that I'd been trying fruitlessly to write. I am not a superstitious type in general, but there's no denying this country is haunted.
The next day, in a strange piece of symmetry, I find a plaque on our new apartment building marking it as the secret headquarters of a wartime resistance group. I decide to take this as a kind of benediction to make my peace with the past I've unearthed, to carry home its thin cry. Here at my makeshift desk, two blocks from Krakow's central square, I can hear the heynal played every hour. Some days, the trumpeter on duty plays it heart-wrenchingly slowly, a hopeless lament. Other days it's played with brisk verve, a robust optimism. Memory can pull us in either direction, dizzy us, set us straight again. With an ear cocked to the past, the city bustles in its busy present. The cobblestones in the sturdy streets resound.
copyright, Deborah Tall
Created by The Authors Guild
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