Poland - Past and Present

June 9

The Tauck tour did not actually start until dinner tonight, so we used our free day (Saturday) to take a tour of the past.  What we mean is this: Wayne's grandparents / great-grandparents came from Bialystok (pronounced Be-ah-we-shtok) and Tykocin (formerly Tiktin, pronounced Ti-ko-chin) respectively. These towns are in northeast Poland, 3 hours from Warsaw. Wendy's great-gandparents came from Jaroslaw, which is 6 hours southwest of Warsaw. We had hoped to be able to visit all three towns, but the constraints of time and distance made this impossible. So we were only able to do Bialystok and Tykocin.

Our guide/driver picked us up at 7am and we headed out of town. Along the way she pointed to various churches, palaces, old walls, etc.  One of the neatest things was seeing many, many stork nests, most with a mama stork feeding her babies.  Apparently, Poland has the biggest number of stork nests in the world.  Who knew?  These are huge birds that migrate to Africa and return to the same nest (and the same mate) year after year. 

Our route, for the most part, was an updated, albeit two-lane highway.  So, our guide spent most of the time passing huge Russian lorries.  Kept us entertained and energized to say the least.  Our guide also filled us in on some of the pre-conceived notions about the Holocaust (at least from a Polish point of view).  For instance, many, many Polish Catholics were murdered in the Holocaust--President Obama's malappropism about the "Polish death camps" still stings in ths part of the world. 

As we were driving we realized that we are the first people from our family to return (so closely) to the actual towns where our ancestor had lived.

When we got to Bialystok we first went to the Palace Cytron, which is now the History Museum. We learned that Bialystok was originally a private city, a not uncommon thing in those days in Poland. The local rich person (in this case one Klement Branicki) owned the town and had a large palace in the center.  The townspeople lived around the palace, often according to their class.

Our guide then told us that Bialystok was the 3rd most destroyed European city in WWII (after Warsaw and Dresden). The building we were in was one of the very few left standing. So the city of 200,000 people has been entirely rebuilt since the war ended. Oddly though, much of the architecture is in the style of the 19th and early 20th centuries, so the buildings look old. The palace Cytron did have many relics (China, shabbat candles, etc.) that had been left behind and buried by Jewish famlies; some were discovered only in the last 10 years.

Wayne's relatives left this area in the early 1900s (when Bialystock was a part of Russia) with many of  the Jews who lived here when the situation started getting out of hand.   But many remained.   We learned about the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in August, 1943. Jews were brought here from other towns and eventually all were killed. We saw several memorials to those who perished--including monuments/plaques commemorating two synagogues. Bialystok is also the home of Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto...intended to be a universal language. It is still taught in several schools there.

Then we drove about 20 kilometers to Tykocin.

There is not much in Tykocin (population 2,000) except the old synagogue built in 1642. Indeed, as we pulled into town there was a tour group headed there. Just as we got there it to started to pour, so we went int a restaurant for lunch.  It was good Polish food, nothing memorable, except for a page on the menu: the "Jewish Cuisine" page which incuded (among other things) kugel and kreplach! Hey...a dumpling in any language is still a dumpling!!!! Today, one of the flavors was mushroom and cabbage.

The rain stopped as we finished eating, so we went to the synagogue. It had been partially destroyed by a fire in the 1700's, but was rebuilt. The ceiling over the bima is painted in Renaissance style artwork which can still be seen today. It was used as a storehouse by the Germans during the war (probably because it was the biggest building in town), and they had to leave quickly as the Russians that's why it was not destroyed. Many of the original wooden shtetl houses from 100+ years ago still stand.

It was very surreal to be walking in places so far removed in time and distance and lifestyle from the people who lived there...our relatives...over 100 years ago. What drove them to leave their homes for the unknown of the U.S.? Was it an easy decision or a hard one? Did they ever regret it? Who stayed behind?

It is sobering to think that if they hadn't left, we probably would not be here to write this today.

To learn more, check out these links:

Other things we learned/ observed:
Poland is the third largest grower of strawberries in the world, and this is the peak of the season. They are truly delicious.

Cigarette smoking still seems to be very popular in Poland. We have seen many people of all ages smoking.

Our hotel, the Bristol Meridian, was one of the few buildings in Warsaw to survive the war. It is a historic hotel for another reason: it was built (in 1905) by Jan Paderewski, the very famous pianist, who was also a president of Poland! turns out that this is also where the Russian soccer team is staying, so there are extra extra security people everywhere. You see, the Poles and Russians have not gotten along well with each other since, oh, the late 18th century. Hopefully there will be no incidents (especially while we are here), and that the match next week will go smoothly.

As you invariably have noticed there were no w&w worthy food write-ups from Saturday.  We will save those for outstanding meals. 

That aside so far, the touring has been interesting and poignant.  Today, we tour Warsaw including  the ghetto area.

All for now and love,

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