The airport in Warsaw is reminiscent of a modestly sized European airport, such as the one in Munich. They say that in the early eighties, when the first delegations came from Israel to Poland (something the communist regime had prohibited till then), the airport was barely a takeoff platform—a few runways, some shed, and a barrack with clerks and a canteen. But an Israeli arrival would be received by an official police guard, so perhaps those were the days…
Landing in Warsaw in 2002, in any event, was no different than landing in another medium European site, as I said. Despite our being something of a crowd, 13 people all told with our cattle and young, we left the terminal in under half an hour, and we immediately met our driver. We had rented a small minibus for the visit, since it was to include many sites that were far from each other. Eventually we were to cover more than a thousand miles.
The airport, of course, is located a little outside Warsaw, but within less than half an hour we found ourselves inside the city itself. The roads were wide, the traffic calm, and people were scarcely to be seen on the sidewalks; our hotel for the night was a modest affair (as were most of our sleeping arrangements in this trip), and I figured we were in a suburb of Warsaw.
As I usually do when abroad, I rushed to read everything that chanced upon my eyes—street names, shop signs, advertisements—in an attempt to take in some useful nouns by the aid of pictures and other hints, and to locate grammatical and lexical patterns from hypothetical contexts. This went on all the while I was in Poland, bearing modest fruit already in the first days. I often asked Grandpa about my reasoning and guesswork, and he enjoyed seeing me learn the Polish pronunciation (which was less difficult for me than the Russian, which I have yet to adopt properly), was surprised by a few good guesses I’d come up with, and was generally pleased with my interest in the matter.
Grandpa still speaks good Polish today, since unlike many Jews who lived in Poland and knew only Yiddish or a smattering of Polish for day-to-day business, Grandpa went to a general Polish school where the language of instruction was Polish, with German being taught as an additional, high literary-cultural language; and indeed he knows German to this day, too. Grandma, in contrast to his advanced urban education, was awarded a more basic education, being a country girl: despite having also gone to a general school (her village being small and not containing enough Jews to institute separate education), had Ukrainian, not Polish, for the local tongue, and the level of teaching was much lower. But apart from that, it seems Grandpa has a better knack for languages, for Grandma doesn’t remember her Ukrainian as well as Grandpa remembers his Polish. That said, in their frequent visits to Poland in recent years she had established a fair command of Polish, based on her memories from the Ukrainian, Grandpa’s Polish and that of the surrounding Poles, a Yiddish sense of improvisation, and her feminine intuition, so I could bug her with questions as well.
Predictably, writing about languages caused me to digress. But you’re used to that happening… Anyway, already in our first evening—we had arrived in the afternoon—and before we reached the hotel, we decided to make a brief foray into the city center before it gets dark. According to plans, we were to leave early the following day to our next stop, Warsaw itself being merely a necessary origin and terminus rather than an integral part of the itinerary. This impromptu excursion was prompted by our quick departure from the airport and the swift traffic from it, which gave us an extra hour. We decided to go to the large Warsaw Ghetto monument, and to the Mila 18 site, the last hiding place of Mordechai Anilevich and his comrades in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Dusk was indeed setting in around us, and the details of the monument were hard to make out properly. It was large, with rectangular metal plaques fixed to a stone wall with inscriptions of the kind to be found in “Yad Vashem”, in Polish, English, and Yiddish, but I no longer remember them exactly. The wall stands in the middle of a large tiled square (over a sq. mile in area) surrounded by lawns and benches. The area contained several other, smaller, memorial plaques, fixed upon low stone tables. Several Warsawians, young couples mostly, walked through it. Several couples were sitting on benches, occasionally attempting an inconspicuous stare of polite interest at us. We looked, of course, very much like tourists, not only since we were a big group inspecting the monument from all its sides, but also because of the photographical appetite of Uncle Yossi and Grandpa.
Part of the monument in the square
Another part of same monument
And another one
Memorial plaque in the flank of the square
This square and most of the streets surrounding it stand where the ghetto used to stand. When the Germans defeated the uprising in the ghetto, they demolished the place completely. Later, when the Poles thought it was a matter of days before the Red Army released them, they held their own uprising against the Germans, but to their dismay the Russian forces stopped some distance from Warsaw, and the Germans let loose their fury against the Poles and Warsaw, most of which they systematically demolished as well. The Poles were convinced (and some of them still think so today) that the Soviets had delayed their progress on purpose, and let them be slaughtered by the Germans, but it seems that the truth is that the Red Army was forced to stop because of problems in their supply lines. My friends Yossi and Jake probably know more of the details than I do.
It’s interesting that after the war, Warsaw was rebuilt and its historical structure was restored, with street names being preserved (even if the opportunity was taken to improve the streets themselves a bit), and with many new buildings in post-war Warsaw being built in deliberately old styles, so that when walking in the city center today one finds it hard to believe the buildings one sees are no older than sixty. The distant suburbs, such as Praga, had not been destroyed, and it is there that authentically old buildings can be found.
From there we went on foot looking for Mila 18. Grandpa remembered the general direction from an earlier visit, but dusk was hindering us from finding our way. We discovered a street named after Ludwig Zamenhoff, the Polish physician who invented the Esperanto language, and I was immediately reminded that in Tel-Aviv the street named after this person is called “Eliezer Zamenhoff”, in a typical Jewish-Pride gesture. Go tell the historical municipal engineer who chose the street name that Zamenhoff himself had never used the name Eliezer, that his will was directed towards another language and not towards the holy tongue…
After some hesitation and the help of locals, we located Anilevich’s bunker. The place is no longer called Mila Street, and I don’t remember if there’s another Mila street in Warsaw or if it no longer exists. Incidentally, in contrast to my Grandfather Shmuel, who lived in Tarnow in the Krak?w district, and had never been to Warsaw until returning to Poland in 1984—fifty years after leaving Poland in 1934—my paternal grandfather was born in Warsaw, and his family had an apartment and a shop in Mila Street. Grandfather Elimelech came to Israel with his family as a seven-year-old boy, in 1924.
We came, then, to the bunker. Nothing definite remains of it apart from a mound, not tall, in a well-cultivated public garden, with a trilingual sign (in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew) that explains what had happened there. Around us it was already completely dark, and none of the lamps in the garden were on, for some reason; we read the inscription on the sign to the light of some matches I found in my pocket and lighted, one after the other.
Plaque on the rock in Mila 18
From there we returned to our vehicle and came to the hotel, where we unloaded our things and went to our rooms, for a quick sleep and an early awakening tomorrow, a brief packing, and a hurried breakfast, after which we sailed onward. After a few days we got used to this routine and everybody arrived on time, except for uncle Yossi, glorious fighter pilot that he is, who always came late (as did his son Guy) to breakfast and to the gathering in the vehicle, oh the shame.
As agreed before the trip started, I was to share rooms with Doron, a relative from Grandma’s side. Doron is eleven years older than me, and apart from family occasions, I had never gotten to know him. During the journey it turned out to be a good coupling: he’s an intelligent person, easygoing and pleasant, and loves Jazz, and so on; and we enjoyed each other’s company very much. It also turned out that we are fit for a couple’s lifestyle: I always read before bed, and the light does not bother his sleep, while his earth-shaking snores never disturbed my own slumber.
Speaking of sleep, I almost forgot our biggest surprise upon coming to Poland: the heat. Leaving the airport we met a wave of heat, almost unpleasant. As our visit went on it became clear that the Polish weather had no European inhibitions of manners, and the heat ranged from unpleasant to unbearable. This disappointed me to no end, for among other things I had been happy to escape from the July heat of Israel to the coolness of the Polish diaspora, and if I can’t have beggar-bending blizzards, let me at least have cool days with a nice wind. Despicably, it turned out that it was even hotter in Poland than it was in Israel when we left! And I, with my one pair of shorts and a lush winter wardrobe, the overcoat dwelt with the scarf and the sweater lied down with the jacket…
And so, bitching over the needless and relentless heat (they never heard of air conditioning in Poland, not even in some of the museums!), which made it hard for both Doron and myself to fall asleep, ended our first day in Poland.
Soon: Polish places that are preposterously problematic to pronounce; A literary synagogue; We meet the monk and the “avrech” [Jewish Yeshiva student]; etc.