The place all the Poles is talking about, BIALYSTOK!!!!!!!!!!!
Or not really - telling a dude in Warsaw you're making a trip to Bialystok is like, um, telling someone in New Providence, New Jersey you're going to college in Iowa. But hey, No War/Yes Gwar notwithstanding, Iowa never had graffiti like this.
A rough translation:
Nazi + USSR = Social Democratic Party [left-wing Polish party]
[Down with?] Kwasniewski [former president of Poland]
The truth about (breast) implants.
I totally don't get it and, thankfully, neither did Radek, our guide for the day. He knew the low down on all things Bialystok. Check out Mike getting his edumacation.
Radek, a sociologist and tour guide and friend of our hosts, Carolina and Kuba. He had the honest skivvy on this charming little place - those first pics are a bit misleading, to be fair and square. It's even the original stomping grounds of Esperanto founder Ludwig Zamenhof was from. And oh boy, does he have a statue or what!?
Old textile factory, and what says textile more than a statue of Poseidon. That's right, nothing.
And we totally bought it. The cost? A half-smoked carton of Marlboro Reds and a pair of spackle-stained Levis 501s. Mike says housewarming party!
Radek was a killer tour guide - showed us old wooden homes, the skivvy on Bialystok, and pointed out some old mezzuzah holders chilling in goyische doorways. We also took a day trip to Tykocin, which is unfortunate, because little did we know Gonadz was in the neighborhood. The agony of discovery.
What's in Tykocin? Cows and castles and old Jewish stuff - synagogue/museum on one side of the river, church on the other. The museum was closed, so we walked around the countryside.
The castle was an EU repair project - our guidebook said there were sweet ruins to walk around, which the barb-wire fence proved otherwise. And those brothers in Belgium even dispatched a tractor to guard it. All fear the guard tractor. Things are looking up in Poland. Their portions are even American sized. This will prove to be Mike's new myspace photo, I'm sure.
The pancake, not the portrait.
Now, to change gears for a second.
The reason we went to Bialystok, a town most Poland tour guides don't even write up despite it being one of the country's larger cities, was for this. It was apparently the home base for our ancestors. Which ones? We're not entirely sure - it was our grandfather's father, we think. There is a passport in existence of our other great grandfather which has Bialystok listed as the issuing authority. This is entirely plausible - Bialystock was, until the 1940's, over half-Jewish, and one of the most Jewish cities in Poland. Today it obviously isn't, and we should have planned more and gotten more knowledge of the family.
Then you have something like this:
This is from the wall around the town hall. Look closely at that stone there, and you will notice Hebrew writing. That is because Jewish gravestones were exhumed, probably during the anti-Semitic period of the late 60's in Poland, and used for construction projects. The communist goverment whitewashed over the Holocaust, portraying the persecuted as the "victims of fascism" rather than of targetted ethnic cleansing, since diversity and religion didn't mix well with that whole "unified proletariat" philosophy of Soviet-style socialism. This is what's left, probably, of a Jewish cemetary:
That was Stalin's doing, not Hitler's. You can see some stones poking from above the grass - they were likely bulldozed and then planted over with grass.
Anecdotes of things like this do reach the states, and since events like this happened after the Holocaust in Poland, our relatives drop phrases like "DON'T TELL ANYONE YOU'RE JEWISH IT'S BAD THERE!!!"
We were ever Jewish there, though? Polish Jews came over to America, and erased this memory in some banal quest to become AMERICAN. And so, before I left for Europe, whenever I asked older relatives where our ancestors are from, they respond with either "It was bulldozed by a tank, who cares?" or "Grandpa never bothered to tell anyone." Never bothered to tell anyone? That means no one ever bothered to ask, either.
So you get the Holocaust, and the constant reminder of "Never Forget." Never Forget, which is convenient only for the death of Eastern European Jewry. It's OK to forget that Jews lived in Poland for hundreds of years because Poland and the Russian Empire borderlands were comparatively tolerant. It's OK to paint modern Poland as some fictional anti-Semitic hotbed, imagining everyone is like those old lady pensioners giving their meager income to Radio Marija. It's OK to forget where your family came from. It's alright to forget the towns, the stories, the language, and everything else.
And so what happens? The Jews' dumbass ancestors return to the old country, and stock up on bacon-flavored potato chips.
Now I'm not going to go all SuperJEW on you guys, don't worry. I won't be talking through a sheet or programming my TV to turn on on Saturdays. I'm only saying - Jewish life in Poland didn't have to die. We let it die.
So facing literally nothing in Bialystok, save a scattered memorial or two, we did the best we could in Bialystok, and we more than succeeded, because we met people like Jakub and Carolina.
We had great hosts there - funny, incredibly smart, direct, and honest. Carolina had many stories about Bialystok, and Kuba was a force of nature, jumping on Michael, excitingly showing us old pictures of the town, and having us talk with his English language students. Their dog was cute but wouldn't let Mike or I touch it. Mike and I made mac and cheese, and bruschetta, and we drank, ate, and were entirely merry, with some lubrication from quality Polish spirits. Beauty shot, food porn.
There are lovely people in Poland today - sincerely so. Things are on the up there, sure, but salaries aren't necessarily increasing to meet the rising standard of living (as Kuba reminded us), the right wing is gaining ground with a country faced with rapid Westernization, and heat costs are fucking insane even by US standards. But the country has been through worse, and it's only going to get better from here.
I'm in Torun now. Mike is in Gdansk. We've got another week or so here. Should be something great.