Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wroclaw 2014

Upon planning to attend my RC workshop in Poland for the sixth time, I decided to travel to Wroclaw for a few days afterwards. Some of my Polish friends online have recommended on it, as did Anna, a woman whom I met two years ago in Lublin, and remained connected to her online since. Anna said, that she has a brother in Wroclaw, and that if I visit Wroclaw, I should absolutely meet him. And then was Mark Krajevski's novel "Death in Breslau" that I had read some years ago, and left me curious about that city. I like to tour cities where novels that I read had occurred, as I like to read novels that occur in cities that I had toured.
This time, I hoped to accomplish an ambitious plan that I have drawn throughout the past year: to take two of my beloved nephews with me to Warsaw and go Couch Surfing with them. That is, stay with them at the homes of Warsovian hosts, and show them that city that I love so much. These nephews, at the end of their 20s, had expressed their interest in my couchsurfing experiences, one of them has even signed in to the couchsurfing site and hosted some girl in Jerusalem. I thought this might be a cool opportunity to get close to them. One of them said that he needed to think about it and then said no. The other one got enthusiastic about it. I planned to fly with him to Warsaw, spend a few days with him, then to accompany him to his flight home, attend my RC workshop, and finally, spend a few days visiting Wroclaw. That should have ended in twelve days.
In the beginning of the year, Wizzair has started offering low cost flights from Israel to Warsaw. I got thrilled at the idea of flying to Warsaw low cost. It is not that I cannot afford the price of a regular flight. It's just that I like the idea of a flight with no meal, no duty-free sales, no noisy entertainment program on the tiny little displays, just a nice quiet flight for people who only wish to be taken from one airport to another quietly and conveniently. I offered my nephew that we would meet and learn how to order tickets via Wizzair's site. I did not mind paying for his ticket, it is a low cost ticket after all, but I wanted him to be independent. He would need to do the flight back on his own, so I thought he needed to know what is going on. At that point, his enthusiasm started to fade. He started making excuses. So I decided to buy myself a ticket, and not wait for him. If he would pull himself together, that would be great. If not, I will always be able to find some fun things to do in Warsaw on my own. Warsaw is much like Tel-Aviv in that sense, there is always a fun thing to do.
Then the seasonal war in Gaza had begun, and I got an email from Wizzair telling me that my flight is cancelled, and I'm offered a seat in a previous flight. Sixteen days abroad is a bit too much for me, so I called Wizzair's contact center to find what other options I have. It turned out that I have none. They are terminating the route, and generally narrowing their operations in Israel. Either I take their offer, or I cancel my order and they would return me my money. I canceled the order, and they returned some of my money. I no longer had the energy to insist that they'd return all of it. I was so glad that it is only me in this story, rather than me and my nephew, who has not been acting too mature about the whole thing. I booked a regular flight with El-Al that departed from Ben-Gurion airport one day before my workshop. It was not all that much more expensive than that of Wizzair, only 1071 NIS instead of 868 NIS.
I am telling this in order to explain why I only toured Poland for three days after my RC workshop. There was a big plan, there was a major headache, changes and cancellations, until, eventually, I was too worn up to re-think the plan, add more days to the last part, after the workshop, instead of the ones that were taken off the first part. My plan to couchsurf in Wroclaw has not gone very well either. Three couch surfers that I had contacted agreed to host me, but cancelled some time afterwards. The questions I've put on Wroclaw's forum on CS site were answered quite shortly, not passionately and enthusiastically as they did in Warsaw's forum in previous years. So gave that up, and booked vacancies in the Boogie hostel on Ruska St., near the old town square. Looking back, it was for the better: the hostel was way better located than the homes of my would-be-hosts, and was probably better equipped.
Still, I have not been all alone in Wroclaw. The universe has provided me with two escorts: Dorotka and Tomasz. Dorotka is a friend of a friend of my partner, Dafna. Dafna used to work with a woman who is originally from Wroclaw, a doctor. That woman has fallen in love with an Israeli man and started a family with him in Israel. The story of how they met is a good story in itself: he was skiing in the French Alps, he broke his leg, she was doing an internship in France, she was in the hospital staff that treated him, la-di-da. That is how I got to hear about the wonders of Wroclaw from Dafna as well. When I decided to go there, Dafna has gotten me Dorotka's details. Dorotka had picked me up from the central bus station on Saturday afternoon, walked the old city with me, showed me to the caffees and restaurants that she usually goes to with her friends, and on Sunday, she introduced me to some of her friends, and we visited the zoo and the Centenial Hall together. I learned from Dafna that Dorotka has just got divorced, and this was a weekend when her son is with his father. Hence, I could see why she would want company, and it somehow made me feel more comfortable about my relying on her hospitality. I used to be in that same situation after my divorce, and I still remember what it is like.
I got to know Tomasz via a Hebrew web portal, in a forum that focuses on Polish culture. He is nine years older than me, a Pole with a passion for Judaism, Hebrew and Israel. He had learned about us a lot, stayed in Israel for several periods and speaks Hebrew well. Currently, he is organizing and guiding visits to Poland. He wishes to show us Israelis that there is much more to Poland than the casual trail from Warsaw to Cracow, a trail that traverses tombs of righteous Rabbies, abandoned Shtetles, former Ghettos and death camps. I met him on Monday morning, and spent a fun day with him until it was time for me to leave for the airport to catch a flight back to Warsaw. With Tomasz, I got to visit some of the spots that I have not visited with Dorotka. Both of them told me interesting stories that I had not read in the tourism web sites, and had not heard on the guided tours that I took. I have not met Anna's brother eventually, and for that I am sorry.

Wroclaw is a city in south western Poland, within a five hours bus ride from Warsaw. It is located on the banks of the Odra River, aka Oder in German. The river originates in the eastern Sudetes mountains in north east of the Czech Republic, and it goes north east through south western Poland until it reaches the Baltic Sea. Along with the Neisse River that connects to it, it constitutes the post war border between Poland and Germany. The historical records of Wroclaw begin with a medieval town on an island, one of many at the center of the Odra, in a region called Lower Silesia. Wroclaw changed hands several times throughout its 1000 years of recorded history. Initially, it was a Slav town named Vratislava that was alternately ruled by Polish and Czech monarchs. Then, it became part of the Austrian empire of the Habsburg dynasty. For the 200 years that preceded world war two, it was a Prussian and then a German city named Breslau. At the end of WW2, the Soviets deported the entire German population of Breslau, and inhabited it with the Poles that they had deported from the Ukraine and the Baltic countries. They also renamed it to Wroclaw. The novel "The sand mountain" by Joanna Bator tells the story of a Polish family that was deported to the west, and settled in a house where a German family used to live. It is no wonder, that the urban landscapes of old Wroclaw reminded me more of eastern German towns than of Polish towns I've seen. There is something about them that is more severe, more restrained, more Protestant.
The island where Wroclaw started is called Ostrow Tumski. The city's cathedral is built on it. Bridges were built to the other islands, and the old city was built on one big island in the middle of the Odra. The main market square, aka Rynek, is in the heart of the old city. The Rynek is the main touristic attraction of Wroclaw that one finds on the front page of every tourism brochure and every tourism web site. In ancient maps, one sees two concentric water canals that defend the old city wall. But ever since then, the wall fell down, the inner canal was drained and became the ring shaped street around the old city, and all that was left from the outer canal is some segments of it, narrow bodies of green water that reminded me of the Yarkon river near Bavli quarter in Tel-Aviv. The canal that separated Ostrow Tumski from the northern bank of the Odra has also been dried, so it is no longer an island. But when one climbs up the tower of the cathedral, or up the tower of the Maria Magdalena church, one can still see the Odra flows in the remaining canals, and the bridges that connect the remaining islands. When I first wrote this post in Hebrew, I noticed that when I use the name Odra, I refer to the river as a female, grammatically, but when I use the German name Oder, I refer to it as a male.
Another focal point of touristic attractions is east of the old city, where one finds the Centennial Hall, the fountains, the zoo, the Japanese gardens. The Centennial Hall is an impressive building of modernist architecture, and there is an interesting historical story to it. It was built on the twilight of the second German Reich, on 1913, to celebrate one hundred years jubilee of the defeat that Napoleon's armies took from the armies of the rising power, Prussia. As the third German Reich came to power, the building was renamed to "the people's hall", and as the Soviets drove down the third Reich, they kept that name, only translated it to Polish: "Hala ludowa". It was only when the communist regime was replaced by today's democratic Poland that it was decided to return to the original name, in an attempt to forget both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Centennial Hall is currently used for conferences and all sorts of events. Next to it there is a lake, where there is a nice multimedia fountain show. When the weather is nice, one might sit in the cafeteria of the Centennial Hall and watch the fountains. Then, one might want to proceed to the Japanese gardens, or the Szczytnicki Park. The European and the north American travelers might not be all that interested in such botanical gardens and urban parks, but I am an Israeli, who is accustomed to dry landscapes colored yellow brown and red, that are only covered with some green foliage during the short winter, just leave me on a trail within these tall green trees, between these bluish green water canals, on this soil that smells of humidity, and I will need nothing more.
In both of these focal points one would get along fine by foot, but to go from one to the other, one would need to use some transport. Wikivoyage is praising the public transport network in Wroclaw, but I was not able to get around with it, I had to rely on my local friends for that. I could not find a good map of the bus and tram routes, I was not able to interact with the ticket vending machines that are installed on each and every vehicle, and the kiosk near my hostel that was supposed to sell tickets has just run out of them. On the other hand, go figure, perhaps if I was not able to rely on my friends, if I really had to learn how to use the public transport, I would eventually learn how to.

Three days are quite enough time to tour Wroclaw, even two days can be enough if one opts for a tight schedule. But if one can only allocate 24 hours to it, one would better take that day from midday to midday, rather than from morning to evening. One would want to spend the night somewhere near the market square of the old town, because at dusk, lights are lit on the bridges and on the church towers, they are reflected on the waters of the Odra, and it is really nice to go for a walk again and see the same streets that has been walked through at daylight, see how they look at night time. Of course, one also meets a different kind of people at night time.
One other nice thing to do, early in the morning this time, is to track the gnomes. The city of Wroclaw has placed little black metal statues of gnomes across the old town and on the main bridges, each with its unique posture and character. At the tourist information office, one can obtain a map of the old town with the spots where the gnomes were put, and an explanation of what it stands for. When I first read about it on the internet, it struck me at the tackiest kind of tourist trap, something that some copywriter hired by the city has invented in order to produce a buzz among parents who has nothing to do with their children on weekends. But it turned out that this was an authentic tradition. A rather new tradition, but still an authentic one.
And here is what Tomasz told me. In the latest years of communism in Poland, a protest movement called "the orange alternative" appeared in Wroclaw. Every night, protesters came along to paint graffiti and paste posters that ridiculed the regime, and when the police came in the morning to ask who done it, people would answer that the gnomes did that at night. Well, this does not sound as something that one says to a policeman, but it does sound as something one tells his friends that he told the police, after the policeman is leaving. On and on, the gnomes became part of the local urban folklore. The tailor placed a statue of a gnome sewing outside his shop. The shoemaker placed a statue of a miniature gnome fixing a shoe. Outside the local bank, a statue was placed of a gnome pulling money from the ATM.  The improvised private gnomes were replaced by standard industrial gnomes that were probably casted in the same foundry, but still, they are nice, funny and amusing. Early in the morning, when the old town is empty, except for the last few swingers who leave the clubs and the first few citizens who take the dog out, this is a fine time to stride in the old city, tracing the gnomes.

I would also like to recommend the free walking tours that are offered in Wroclaw. Just google "Wroclaw free walking tours", and you get a Facebook page that outlines details of walking tours in English and in German. The tours depart from the market square, they have various themes, and they are mostly led by students of the humanities. In Berlin, I got all lost when I tried to locate such a tour in Pariser Platz, that was packed with tourists and tour guides, but in Wroclaw it was easy to find the guide with the flag, with the few tourists that surrounded him, mostly young adults. I joined two tours: one that traced beer breweries in Wroclaw, and ended in a beer cellar that was located right below my hostel, and the other one that traced the Jewish heritage of Wroclaw.
Like in many European cities, not much was left from Wroclaw's Jewish heritage. Hence, you get to hear more than see in the tour. Meaning, the group gets to some point in the middle of some crowded street, and then the guide stops and tells a story. A good story, usually. The leaders of Wroclaw understood that there is a demand for Jewish heritage, and so they have been renovating several streets to the south west of the old town, and they have called it "The quarter of four denominations", meaning, the quarter when Catholics, Protestants, Pravoslavs and Jews live together in harmony. It reminded me a lot of Florentin quarter in Tel-Aviv, another area of small industry and trade that was gentrified and got a face-lift so that it can be marketed to tourists as "colorful". At the heart of the quarter of four denominations there is a small synagogue called "Under the Stork". It survived the Kristallnacht because it is located inside a dense residential area, so the Germans refrained from burning it. They probably would if the area was inhabited by Poles, but it was mostly inhabited by Germans, as was most of Wroclaw. Nowadays, it is used mostly for cultural events. The small Jewish community, 1000 people according to Wikipedia, only uses it for prayers on Jewish holidays. The synagogue was closed when I got to it on Saturday with Dorotka, and again on Sunday, when I got to it with the Free Walking Tour, but when I got there on the third time on Monday, with Tomasz, it was open, and we got in. I am happy to report that it is designed and decorated tastefully, something one cannot fail to notice when visiting a Jewish site, and that the entrance does not require a body search. Wroclaw's main synagogue has not survived the Kristallnacht. The leaders of Wroclaw have placed a grey marble stone where it used to be, and it tells its story. It is rather tasteful too.
Jews have lived in Wroclaw on and off since medieval times. They were expelled and then returned. They were massacred and then rose up from the ashes. There is evidence for Jewish life in Wroclaw that date back to the 12th century, primarily in Christian records. I'd assume that Wroclaw is not mentioned in Jewish scripts because no outstanding Rabbi ever lived in it. In the 16th century, all Jews were expelled from Wroclaw, which was already called Breslau at the time, and were allowed to return only during the Napoleonic wars. From that time on, the Jewish community grew rapidly, and became one of the biggest and richest communities in Germany. Breslau's great rabbinical seminar, which belonged to one of the liberal streams of Judaism, was well known throughout the world of liberal Judaism. Jews held leadership positions in the economical and academy life of the city and the state. On the general elections to the Reichstag in the early 30's, the Nazi party got an exceptionally high percentage of the votes in Wroclaw. Perhaps this is not a coincidence.
Before WW2, some 30,000 Jews lived in the city. Ironically, some 70,000 Jews lived in it after the war, more than twice. They were all Polish Jews, remnants of the Jewish communities that the Soviets annexed to the Ukraine. But that community vanished too. Recurring waves of Anti-Semitism in the Polish People's Republic urged Jews to emigrate from Wroclaw, and the Anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 emptied it completely. Nowadays, when discovering Jewish roots and exploring them became a fashionable thing in Poland, some Poles take on Jewish identity, while others show interest in the Jewish past in Poland. Both take on preserving the Jewish heritage of Wroclaw.

Tomasz asked me in what ways could Israeli travelers be persuaded to discover Wroclaw, and I was not able to come up with a simple answer. Wroclaw is indeed charming, but as I see it, one has to come up with a good story in order to make Israelis travel to a midsize European city, one that is not within one hour drive from the city where the flight from Israel lands, one where no outstanding Hassidic Rabbi is buried, one where there was no Ghetto during the holocaust, because the Germans have not set up Ghettos in Germans cities. For that last reason, it will not make sense to add Wroclaw as another station in what is known in Israel as "the visit to Poland", that includes Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow, and is already long a stressful as is.
That is, unless Israel's Ministry of Education could be talked into dragging the Israeli teenager from Krakow to Wroclaw in order to tell the story of the failure to revive Jewish life under the PPR, a story that might inflict the message that alright, the holocaust only happened once, and we will never let it happen again, but there are plenty of other ways to make life a hell for Jews in Europe. Even when things initially look hopeful and promising, as we currently hear from Israeli Jews who move to Berlin, a period of depression will eventually come, and we know at whom the fury of the Europeans will be directed.  But then again, of course Israel's Ministry of Education will not go for that story. I'd assume that the people of Wroclaw are too eager to tell it either, although they can blame the Russians for everything that happened at the times of the PPR.
Another thought might be to attach Wroclaw to Prague, which has already been marketed to Israelis as a romantic spot for weekend vacations. Many Israelis have been attaching Prague to Budapest, spending half of the week in one and another half in the other, and then flying home. Since Budapest is rapidly becoming a nasty place for Jews to be in, Wroclaw can be offered as an alternative. Or, it can be a destination for a day trip from Prague, on a bus that leaves the hotel in Prague at morning and returns there at night.
Just a thought.


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