Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tarnow

My mum's cousin sent me some old letters this week written in 1940 from Lemberg, now Lviv in the Ukraine, where Ala and Mietek had fled from Krakow.  Lemberg was under Russian rule and they stayed  until the Germans came, then fled again.   One of the letters made me laugh given what my grandmother told me of her contracting typhoid and their survival trials in Lemberg - and made me remember my grandmothers incredible cakes.  Ala wrote  to her sister in-law Stella who had managed to escape to Melbourne Australia and continue her violin career.   
My Dear,
Your last letter gave us much happiness. I congratulate you Stell for your exceptional success -- a truly American tempo. No change with us.... I am continuing to take the hospitality course -- I'll soon be a certified Chef. Its too bad you can't taste my excellent tea cakes, cookies, etc. Warm kisses, -- Alla
(Thank you Joanna for the translation) 
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Two hours late, I arrive in Tarnow and  alight to music and the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen, which is alarming given the train experience I just had, and the Auschwitz "welcome" my grandmother told me about.   This idyllic  village had been home to 25,000 Jews before the war, 50% of the population.  It then swelled to 40,000 as Jews from all over Poland sought refuge, including Ala, Mietek and my mother who had fled Lemberg.  Tarnow was "cleansed" of all Jews and  of those taken to camps only 700 survived.

Tarnow had witnessed one of the most horrific liquidations of Jews, and to their credit, the town had tactfully and tastefully created a memorial to the dead and the tragedy with a well marked narrated trail, so that inhabitants of the town would not forget, and those visiting their past could remember and connect.     My goal is to find the Catholic hospital from where my mother was rescued during the final liquidation of the Ghetto.   It had been within the Ghetto walls.


 I find the tourist office. My lonely planet guide book told me to ask for the Jewish Trail map and even gave the Polish name.  The  young man here speaks no English.  He didn’t seem to know about the Jewish trail so I try three or four other ways to explain.  He comes back with a booklet for $9USD with some Jewish sites in Tarnow.     I ask  him if he has a map of Tarnow and could he please draw the former Ghetto for me.   
"Where’s the Hospital, Spital? " I ask.
I leave with a map and an asterix marking where the hospital is.  He thinks it was a catholic hospital, but not sure if it was  there in 1943.


I watch children playing in the fountain in the square, people sitting drinking beer and chattering.  It’s a Sunday afternoon and everyone is eating ice-cream - Why shouldn't they?  Do I expect them to grieve and live in the past?  At least this town outlined in English and Polish where these egregious and horrible events occurred, .
I stumble on the old synagogue or what’s left of it.  People  are walking and pooping their dogs around it.  One other woman with a book is also following the Jewish Trail .  I wonder what her story is, but we’re both in our own worlds as we read about the horrible events that happened here.     
It’s a long walk to find the hospital. I pass through what was supposed to be the edge of the ghetto, cross a main road and see the old Jewish cemetery. It's eerily silent, walled off and home to crumbling, higgledy piggledy headstones.   I take a left down a busy road lined with communist era apartment buildings.  This is probably where most people live and come into the beautiful town to drink and eat ice cream, I think to myself.
 I stop a man in his 70’s and point to my map “Spitalnia? I’m looking for Spitalnia street".  

He has no idea, clearly he walks round here and has no need of street names.  I smell the vodka on his breath.  He waves down another passerby, a younger man in his 40’s. They both banter and argue and finally agree that I’m going in the wrong direction.  As they point and gesture trying to help me,  I realize that I should double back.   I cross the busy double lane road again and  I keep going straight.   Suddenly there’s a  building  three stories high  that has been renovated and re-clad and adjacent to the left is an ugly soviet era building with a blue canopy entrance that looks like it could be a hospital wing.  Have I found the place my mother again escaped tyranny? 
I stick out like a sore thumb. It must be clear that I'm not from around here, as an older man walks toward me; sun lined and wrinkled, maybe 75. Grey hair  is slicked back against his lined forehead.  He’s with a stocky woman in her 50’s. 
I walk toward him and hold out my map.  On it I have 1943 written next to the place the hospital is supposed to be.
“Catholic Spital?”  I ask.

“Tak.”
I point to 1943.  “Catholic Spital 1943?”
“Tak Tak.”.  
“Ghetto Spital?”  
“Tak tak tak!”  He’s getting as excited me.  My heart is beating so fast…why?  It’s taken me all day to get here…what did I think I would find?  What were my expectations?   Did I think someone would remember what happened here?
 “Catholic?” I asked.    I got my first stare.  “Pope John Paul?”  I asked. I couldn't even remember  the name of the current pope - hopefully I had it right.

"Tak tak!"
I point to myself.  “My Mama.  My Babcia here.” I point at the hospital.  “ Nazi’s!”
I have no idea what he’s thinking.   He says something in an upbeat voice and pushes the woman at me.   She’s asking and gesturing me to follow her.  She leads me to the front door of the hospital.  The doors are tall  paneled in old wood and glass.  Did they run out THIS door?  Was it in another wing?  I tried to hear the sound of the ghetto being liquidated, the shouting -  “Nein Nein!”   “Get out!” …women screaming. 

The ghetto inhabitants had been through Aktion's before and by this stage there were only 10,000 left.  Little did they know this was the last Aktion and after this, there would be no more Jews here.  

 
 Directly inside is a large hallway and there is no one around.  The ceilings are tall with rounded arches.  It feels peaceful.  In front of the entrance doors are another set of tall wooden  doors with an icon of Jesus on affixed to them.  The woman is leading me to the chapel it seems.  We open the door and I see before me an altar with Jesus, and frescoes on the ceiling.  Did they hide here while they waited for Zdislaw?  How did he know where they were?  Was Mum crying or was she asleep like in the backpack?  

 
The woman drops quietly to her knees to my left. She kneels and crosses herself.   I reach out for the first pew directly to her right,
 a bare timber freestanding bench. I’m feeling sick again.   I sit and cover my mouth, but cannot hold back the tears. I don’t know why I’m crying.  I sob quietly and whisper “thank you”.   
I feel the woman's presence gently beside me for a minute longer, then she quietly rises, leaves and closes the door.  What must she have been thinking??  Did she have any idea what transpired outside of these doors?  Did she know that this refuge hid two Jews on the run and that one of them was my mother?

I walk outside and sit on a stair and re-read Zdislaw's  description of what transpired here.  It's very matter of fact and  hides the sounds and fear of the  carnage and blood letting I had read about on the plaques.  I can imagine that he would want to forget....Babies thrown  from buildings on the pavement. Blood literally pouring down the streets.......Just another day in the life of a Jew on the run.





3 comments:

  1. I'm sitting reading your blog in Marmalade Cafe (in Yea).....and I am now blubbering too!! It feels like I am there too!! Love Wen xx

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  2. I was reading your blog this morning in the car while waiting to go to see "the doctor". I couldn't put it down, had to then rush with my wonky knees in the rain to make it to my appointment on time. So heart rendering. Thanks you for sharing it KK.

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  3. ps. I love Alla's letter!! (which happens to also be way more grammatically correct than my too many 'too's!!??) The waitress at Marmalade's husband's Grandfather was from Warsaw. That's the second random person this week!! x

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