May 13, 2005

A Virtual Tour of Bialystok, Poland

I land at the Bialystok airport woozy after four flights and seven time zone changes. A pleasant low–rise city about the size of Madison, Wisconsin, with pale blue skies and small puffy clouds, a good bus system, and lots of renovated buildings on old zigzag streets. The Polish spring is blooming on the land, and everywhere in the city pictures of the great deceased pope are blooming in apartment windows, in storefronts, and in street vendors’ windblown piles. Factory buildings, apartment complexes, business offices, look either a week old or a century old, with nothing in between except Socialist Realist concrete slabs. Both the ancient and the brand-new look as if they’d fall apart if you blew on them too hard.

I’ve got the guidebook, Adam Dylewski’s WHERE THE TAILOR WAS A POET, in my hand – I had known my ancestors were tailors but hadn’t known they were poets. And in my backpack, unnecessarily, are a copy of my book contract and a letter from my publisher to ease my way around. A national cultural board has given me a guide, a young hipster in a narrow black suit who loves America and spends half his time making deals on the mobile phone. Or maybe she’s a svelte, gray–eyed young woman with pale brown hair tied in a pull–downable bun, but I’m married and too jet–lagged to flirt.

We drive briskly around the city’s evidences of Jewishness, all shown in the past tense. In this parking lot of an apartment block is where the Great Synagogue used to be — burned on June 27, 1941, 2,000 local residents burned alive. This area quaintly called the Hay Market was the center of the city’s Jewish life, which before World War II accounted for up to 70% of Bialystok’s population. Here we had long, winding alleys, shabby, smelly huts, and today the despised gray remnants of communist architecture. Here’s another former synagogue – it’s an art gallery now, but somewhere in a desk drawer they have a pamphlet about its history. You can sign a guest book. You can look at a plaque on the wall. No reason to linger – let us visit the nondescript little building that used to be a house of prayer and then after the war was the Social–Cultural Society of the Jews of Poland – abandoned in 1968, burned in 1979, and now a business office of some sort, with historically accurate renovations. And here we have the former home of a wealthy factory–owner’s family – they bought a plane for the Polish armed forces in 1939 – with its private synagogue, which became Gestapo headquarters in 1941, a Star of David over the door the whole time.

A quick drive out to the suburbs to see some cemeteries – couldn’t leave without checking some gravestones. Oh, you want to see some present–day, live Bialystok Jews? We’ll find some for you. There are still a few around… Ah yes, here’s an old fellow who still practices his forefathers’ religion, though there aren’t enough of him left to make the ten–man quorum for his synagogue. And what do you know, here’s a young man too, an intellectual type who has gotten the cultural bug: shaking my hand sweatily, he gives a darting–eyed, preoccupied, saliva–bubbled grin, and as he answers my questions in faltering, mumbled English, he rocks back and forth as if continually praying.

Just one more thing to see before I go. I’ve spent a good deal of time scouring the Internet and interviewing aged relatives to find this, and the search is going to take up a good fifty pages in my book – after all, I’m getting paid for this, I have to show I did the work. On this site there used to be a street – actually three tangled, interwoven streets with six names among them – where my great–grandfather lived, a Talmudic scholar, they say, locally respected although he was so immersed in learning that he refused to be ordained a rabbi. He and his siblings, the pre–emigrant generation, loitered away the money from the little herring factory their father had built, the only prosperity the family had ever known.

So this is it, then: what is it today, a telecommunications company? A pharmaceutical plant? The guide is patient, waits for me to take as long as I need to look at the building façade, but I turn quickly to the car. It’s windy, my hair is all a mess, I thought it was supposed to be getting warm already so I didn’t bring a thick enough jacket, I want to go to the hotel, I want to go to a bar, I want to mingle among young people who are talking about movies and laughing over coffee. I fling open the door of the crappy little Eastern European car and turn my head to the other side of the street, the guide smirking behind me.