Monday, May 21, 2012

Pwutsk in Polish, Plotsk in Yiddish

Marilyn Monroe in Plotsk
It was always my intention to visit the town in Poland where my grandmother Mollie and her sister, my great aunt Sadie, were born.  Last year I simply drove through the outskirts of Plotsk, but this year I made it happen.  While in L.A. I made reservations at Starzynskie Hotel and Spa, and imagine my surprise when I arrived and it was lovely and luxurious inside!   My room was a suite, with a sitting room decorated with a painting of Polish movie star Marilyn Monroe, and a bedroom and bathroom.  The ceilings were about 12 feet high, and the entire wall was lined with high windows through which the expansive vista of the beautiful and curving River Wisla, the sun setting just off to one end.  The hotel even had a Spa, which means a hot tub, sauna, exercise room, showers and rooms for the masseuse – none of which I utilized, though I walked through and gazed at it all.  You’d think, by this description, that I live in utter poverty and have never been housed in Poland in elegant digs and didn’t actually investigate the hotel online beforehand, all of which are untrue, but I’m used to traveling/living rather humbly and cheaply and I’m always surprised when I don’t do that.  It felt really terrific to be in such nice surroundings!  “Duh,” my internal Adina says, “that’s why people stay in first class hotels.”  

Wisla River, boat, and granary
Who needs the great indoors when there’s a river outside, right?  I donned a sweater and took the stairs winding down Tumskie Hill, which is the bluff upon which the Hotel Starzynskie, other hotels, the medieval Benedictine cathedral and remains of the 14th century castle are enthroned. The hillside was covered with moist grass, flowers, occasional swarms of irritating gnats, teenaged girls dressed to seduce and teenaged boys smoking and clutching bottles of beer.
looking up at drinking teenagers

I tried to imagine Mollie and Sadie here 100 years ago chattering in Yiddish, but I could only picture them as teenagers in grandma dresses and grandma faces, so I turned my attention to the river shores and  continued my descent down the bluff to the bank.  It was still light, so I walked around a bit and then climbed back up Tumskie Hill, stepping over the teenagers and swatting my way through the flies.

Up on top, I walked through the cluster of beautiful red bricked medieval buildings surrounded by lushly blooming chestnut trees.    
another Wisla vista
Castle and Benedictine cathedral and abbey
What a great idea it was to come to Plotsk!

Turns out that not far away from the castle and Benedictine cathedral, the Jews set up shop in Plotsk in 1237.  Alas, had we only invested our community funds into solid stone fortresses and synagogues higher than the trees, they’d remember us better today!  Medieval Jews arrived in Plotsk because alongside the river it was a great spot for trade, and the Polish nobles and certainly, too, the Benedictine monks (though perhaps they would not admit it) invited in the Jewish merchants who supplied them with the goods and gossip from Paris, honey and furs from the forests, and grains from the peasants.  But Jewish homes in this wet and seasonally varied region simply did not leave traces, and gravestones, too, eventually eroded into blank rocky extrusions or sink into the moist ground.  We know of Jewish life in these regions because of official documents and Jewish writings, and these don’t make much of an impression when there are no visible, external remains.  Jews may appear in the popular legends of the majority population, such as the tales of Esther the Jewess–beloved by King Casimir–or various Jewish rogues, but the real contribution of Jews to the region’s civilization will simply be forgotten unless there are living, vocal Jews present who assert their place in public memory.

Michael at the cemetery gate

I saw the more recent Jewish part of the city the next day when I was treated to a personal tour by Plotsk resident Michael Levi, whom I’d met last year when I attended Reform synagogue Beit Warszawa in Warsaw.  He showed me the 19th-20th century main drag called Jerusalem Street (Ulica Jerozilimskie), which led right into the town square. Was it the Poles or the Jews themselves who identified the Jews as Middle Eastern people?  On Jerusalem Street today are the buildings that used to be Jewish shops and residences, a synagogue (now an empty hulk, on its way to transformation when the money appears), religious and less religious Jewish schools now standing empty or used for other purposes, and a plaque on what used to be the community rabbi’s home smack in the middle of things. 
fragile balcony sukka
He showed me a distinctive element of Plotsk Jewish residences: walled in balconies with retractable roofs (that part we just imagined) that were used for sukkot during the cold fall seasons.

Jody on Jerusalem Street
My grandma Mollie must have lived around here.  Her grandfather father, Naftali, was born in Plotsk and town records note his surname as Klejn, meaning little one – I guess, like me, his body was efficiently constructed.
 He didn’t like that name, apparently, because an official notice on his 1874 death certificate indicated that the family name should be designated Srebo, meaning silver; either he worked in silver or simply wanted a grander sounding name.  His son Nuta (Nathan, in Hebrew) Srebo was a furrier.  That means that he would buy pelts, sew them into outfits, and sell them in the town.  Nuta left Plotsk in 1910, joining his brother in Brooklyn, and the next year Nuta’s wife Rachel and their six children sailed from Antwerp to join him, and when they arrived they changed their name to Silver. Mollie, 16, was the oldest, and Sadie, just 8, was the fourth.  They lived in New York, where Mollie did piece work sewing fur collars onto coats and jackets.  She married a Rumanian Jew named Harry (Aharon, in Hebrew) Cohen and together they had three children.  She named one of them after her mother’s deceased father Meyer.  That was my dad, nicknamed Mike, who later changed his surname to Myers.

My grandma’s grandparents died in Plotsk, but there’s no way to see their graves.  The Nazis invaded Plotsk in September 1939 and in January herded the approximately 10,000 Jews into a ghetto within the town.  The Nazis did all sorts of heinous acts that cowed the population into submission, like rounding up random Jews and Poles and shooting them in the town square, an event memorialized in a monument in the town center.
Memorial built after the war in town center

A few thousand of the Poles were sent to concentration camps.  The Nazis used the Plotsk Jewish cemeteries for bombing practice.  The fragments were found and stored, though some of them have been plastered within a wall in one cemetery by the leaders of the 300 survivors who returned to Plotsk after the war.  It is rather sad to see, covered with graffiti, and Michael said it is a teen hangout.  

Plotsk cemetery wall
The Jews who died during the Nazi era, of course, never had gravestones.  Trapped in the ghetto along with many more Jews from surrounding towns, they were deported or shot nearby between February 20 and March 1, 1941.  It is somehow tempting, isn’t it, to reduce the history of the Jews of Plotsk to only this awful period and ignore the 800 other years of Jewish residence?   It is my own ignorance and the absence of any other mention of Jews in the city’s history-telling that makes this so easy.

Estera Restaurant from the inside
Although Michael is not descended from Plotsk Jews, he is very proud of the town’s past and wants to rebuild Jewish life there.  The post-war Jewish residents of Plotsk tried but could not succeed, and some time between 1948 and 1960 they sold the communal Jewish property to the city.  A few years ago, the city sold the synagogue back for just one Polish zloty.  There are several dozen people in the town with Jewish roots who form an entirely unofficial and private fellowship of sorts.  Michael has managed to gather them together for Friday night Shabbat services and meals on occasion, but such assemblies cannot regularly occur unless there is a community organizer. “We need a rabbi!” he insisted. This is true, and I have heard this many times in Poland. They need someone with a rabbinical degree, charismatic, a good organizer, with the psychotherapeutic training to help move Poland’s closeted and ambivalent and partial Jews to move toward serious commitment.  This rabbi should also have a magic wand in one hand that will eliminate the antisemitism embedded in Polish society and the Polish Catholic church, and in the other hand some magic powder to sprinkle over the country’s Jews that will end their quarrelsome ways. After a few hours of walking, we ate in the lovely Estera Restaurant, named after Casimier’s Jewess.

Michael then whisked me away to Plonsk, the birthplace of David Ben Gurion. This small town was kilometers away from Plotsk, but its Jews looked to the larger and older community for leadership.  They were sent there by the Nazis and met the same fate, and the Plonsk cemetery, too, was destroyed by bombs.  By car the town was about 20 minutes away through gorgeous wooded areas and fields of bright green and yellow.

memorial to David Ben Gurion
Plunsk is clearly proud of its connection to the larger world.

street signs in Plonsk town center
In the middle of the square is a street sign pointing to various world destinations, including Kibbutz Ramat Hanegev, Ben Gurion’s hideaway and retirement place in southern Israel.

A delegation from there visits Plonsk every year and, from all indications, is warmly greeted by the natives.
friendship tree from Ramat HaNegev
DBG apartment under this restaurant
Every year they add a new leaf to a commemorative metal tree near a monument. DBG’s childhood digs are very modest–actually, I could only see the outside of where he lived as a child, since it was a basement apartment under a restaurant and it was closed and had no reference to regular opening hours.  In the chilly, wet air I thought wistfully of the desert heat.

I could barely keep my eyes open in Michael’s warm and comfortable car as he drove us back to Plotsk.  I’d drop off from time to time, then open my eyes to the now sunny Polish countryside, the fields dazzling in yellow flowered splendor.  We stopped in order to examine them closely, and we promised to write each other when we learned the identity of the plant.

Now I know: it is Brassica napus Linnaeus, known as rapeseed, rape, oilseed rape, and in this form, canola.  It is a flowering member of the plant family of mustards and cabbages.  The flowers fall off and the seeds can be crushed for what you all know as canola oil.

Michael dropped me off at my hotel and I took a nap in my own private Starzynski palace. 

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