Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Torun, a Year Later, a Bit Tattered and Torn

Jody and Anna, happy to have met
 Last year at this time, I had an astonishing trip to Torun, the city in which Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer (the subject of my doctoral dissertation and first book) lived from 1823 until he died in 1874.  At the Higher School of Hebrew Philology in Torun I delivered a lecture on Kalischer to the townspeople.  Father Maksymin Tandek, a Franciscan monk who was the initiator and Rector of the school and an advocate for tolerance and appreciation of Poland’s Jewish heritage, impressed me with his charisma and energy.  I met Anna Bieniaszewska, curator of an exhibition on Torun Jews for the town archives (documents dating back to the 15th century, at least), and months ago I planned that on this trip I would go back to Torun and visit with her.  Lucyna agreed to come and serve as my translator.

fields in May
We met at the Central Warsaw train station in the morning, and the two hour train ride took us through Warsaw and its western environs.  The vista is filled with urban buildings and streets and signs, but as these structures become fewer and farther between, the incredible flatness of the land  becomes striking.  The next district to the west is Kojawsko-Pomorskie, and it has been farmed for at least 500 years. The land through   which the railway runs is vividly green but mostly shorn of trees, except for those that appear, really, to have been planted deliberately – in rows, or placed strategically next to houses and barns.  This region’s low flatness reminds me of the Netherlands, and although its neatness cannot compare to the impeccably tailored countryside of the Dutch, the sky here is just as huge. I even spied several wind machines.  During this spring season the crops are not visible except for some extraordinary plant I have not yet identified that is a vivid yellow. On the way back to Warsaw, when I took a bus, the road traversed the area closer to the River Wisla (both Warsaw and Torun were built alongside the river), and the terrain included slight rises and falls as well as lots of forest.  

At the end of our three-hour train ride we were met at the Torun railway station by Anna B.  She is as warm and funny and smart as ever.  For the next two hours she talked pretty much non-stop, and Lucyna would barely start translating during a pause before Anna would begin anew with another tale. The whole tale was told quite out of order and interrupted with editorial comments like “they are a little crazy” and “it’s because of the antisemites” and  “he is an angel,” oftentimes recited sequentially without pause.  That much Polish I could understand.  

a little bit disgusting
When we first arrived, we went to the Torun Archives, where we were treated to a private viewing of some very old documents: one from 1569 that licensed someone to trade, and one from the 1400s that was a complaint delivered to the town council against a trader who tried to pass off squirrel fur as sable – the little bit of squirrel fur is attached, as evidence.

  The documents were beautifully calligraphed on vellum, and the bottom of the parchment was folded over and punctured with two holes, through which was threaded a braided, colored tassel that ended with a round disk of brownish wax that was imprinted by the official seal.  

Jody, Zevi, Anna
Lucyna also charmed by Zevi
We left my duffle bag there and walked around the extraordinary Old Town to see the new plaque and bronzed image on the Kalischer family building, then we went to see the plaque on the building that used to house the synagogue.  All the while we were regaled with the woes of Father M and his devoted flock, the intrigues and evil mischief of Radio Maryja - the right wing ultra nationalist homophobic antisemitic media entity directed by the priest Tadeusz Rydzyk -and the disinterested stance of the town council.  We were joined by Anna’s kind husband Adam, who also works in the archives, and together we walked through the 900 year old town.
spanking new Higher School of Hebrew Philology

It was primarily Father M who prevailed upon the town civic leaders to make the statue and plaque on the Kalischer house, buff up the cemetery, and make the public ceremony on September 21 to dedicate it all. Anna was Father M’s history expert, and the faculty from the Higher School of Hebrew Philology assisted.  The school and the city produced a 3-language brochure (Polish, Hebrew, and English) which featured explanations of the Jewish heritage in Torun along with illustrations of Zevi Hirsch and a photo of the Higher School of Hebrew Philology.

photo of Father M from Torun newspaper

"Catholic Radio in Your Home"
This event was a crowning achievement for the progressives in a town that is the headquarters of the notorious Radio Maryja. 

So when suddenly, shortly before Christmas, the Franciscan Order decreed that Father Maksymin had to leave Torun and go serve in Gdansk, his friends concluded that the decision was influenced by Radio Maryja. How could such a notoriously evil and powerful man permit such a charismatic paragon of virtue like Father M in his own town?

"Go sit out on the window ledge!"
Radio Maryja gives Torun a bad reputation among many Poles; more accurately, the town’s harboring of Rydzyk and his enterprise earns the town’s  reputation as a defender of reactionary Polish Catholicism.  Once Anna was traveling in southern Poland and arrived at a hotel just ahead of another woman, and there was only one room left.  It was a double, and Anna didn’t really want to share it, but the woman seemed nice, and so Anna agreed.  Upon hearing Anna tell the receptionist her address in Torun, the woman said, “Forget it, I’d rather sleep at the train station!”  Anna could hardly blame her, but she told us, “I slept stretched out over both beds.”

Teutonic Knights building, 13th century
Among Father M’s many admirers in Torun is a specific group who adores the priest and believes he is possessed of miraculous healing powers.  They reported that the Franciscans justified his banishment by saying that Father M’s miraculous healing powers were sorely needed by the Catholics of Gdansk.  Yet, when Father M’s followers arranged to bring six busloads of Toruners to Gdansk for a special mass with their former leader, the Franciscans cancelled the event a day in advance. A single busload of determined folks went anyway, and just before they arrived the Franciscans ordered Father M to Poznan.  You decide whether it was chance or divine intervention that brought the two parties together at a gas station along the road to Poznan!  The Toruners videotaped the encounter for all to see.  Since that day until now Father M has been in Poznan under lock and key – or, as they say in the church, “he is praying.”  Rumors have it that he is quite ill and is being denied proper medical care. It is quite sad, and I’m sorry that I won’t be able to see him.

Torun buildings
gorgeous ceiling detail
We walked around Old Town, with Adam as our tour guide, and it is simply beautiful.  All those red stones, finely crafted buildings, high, soaring churches and towers. All that divisiveness and hatred, and the place is so beautiful!!  The tall, soaring buildings of gorgeous red stone – perhaps I am too dazzled and don’t see the competitiveness and false grandeur that it may really represent.  Thank goodness that World Cup fever has penetrated here, bringing a spirit of unity to all!
Copernicus the football fan

They walked me to the bus station and arranged my bus ticket to Plock.  Lucyna strong-armed a college student waiting in line to be my protector on the journey and get me a taxi when we arrived at our destination, and I rode off into the green green countryside. 

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