Three Pictures From Trains

The station in Zgorzelec, Poland.

A tunnel somewhere in Germany.



Candlelight and Polish

My second night in Wroclaw, we went to a bar in the old Jewish district to talk. I had hot chocolate because I don't drink, and Krzysiek had hot chocolate because he was driving us home. The chocolate was good and the bar was quiet and we were all very calm even though none of us was the least bit tired.

Most of the conversation was in Polish. Krzys doesn't like telling long stories in English because they take too long to think out, and that was fine with me because I enjoyed just listening to the sound of them, which is very soothing and beautiful.

One night I even began to dream in Polish, not understanding a word, and woke to find that Krzysiek and Martyna were already awake and talking softly in the kitchen, which was right next to the room where I slept.

One day Martyna asked me to imitate what I heard so that she would be able to hear her own language without the barrier of meaning to get in the way of the flow of syllables. When I tried, she and Krzys broke out laughing: "That was not Polish," they said, "It was Russian."


When New is Old (is New Again)

Work on Berlin's New Synagogue began in 1859. The dedication in 1866 was a major event: Otto von Bismark, the Chancellor of Germany, was in attendance.

The New Synagogue was one of many in a city which at the time had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, but it was new sort of synagogue in a few very important ways. Most synagogues were hidden in courtyards or alleyways. The New Synagogue was on a major street, just a short walk away from Unter Den Linden, which was (and is) to Berlin as the Champs Elysee was (and is) to Paris.

The New Synagogue was a clear statement that Jews, who had been in Germany for more than a thousand years already, were there to stay. This was not only a challenge to the various limitations on Jewish life which had existed throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, it was a challenge to the traditional Jewish view that life in Europe was life in exile.

The New Synagogue was part of the Reform movement. It had a choir, a sermon, and a seminary-educated rabbi, which all made it more like a German Protestant Church and less like a traditional synagogue. Those who attended saw themselves as fully Jewish, fully German, and thoroughly modern.

Things were never without complication, and walking the tightrope between being a part of society as a whole and maintaining existence as a people was never an easy task, but the 3,000 seats in the synagogue's main hall were filled every Shabbos.

Not even Kristallnacht could change that. The Nazi mob which came to burn the synagogue as it had burned others that night found itself face to face with a policeman who swore to protect the history of his city and nation. The fascists, used to having police egging them on or standing aside, were so surprised by his action that they actually dispersed.

The building survived the Nazis, but it would not survive the war. British bombs destroyed the main hall, and after the war everything but the facade was demolished. Most of it was rubble already. And the Jews who had built it and filled it each week were never coming home.

For years only the front stood, a partial ruin. Not until the Berlin Wall fell was it restored, and it was six years before the building would hold a synagogue once more. But it does now, it's the only Reform synagogue in Berlin, and so the old New Synagogue is new once more.


Daily Bread

I make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch today.

I think the hardest part of making grilled cheese is buttering the bread. For Americans, buttering bread is made simple by the fact that we usually toast in first. This cannot be done when making grilled cheese.

On my last morning in Europe, in his apartment just outside of Belgrade, my host taught me how to butter un-toasted bread properly. The trick is to slice the butter so thinly that it's practically the thinness you'll want already. When you have a thicker slab and try to spread it, the bread tears.

A simple lesson.

I met Nikola at church the week before. He is a branch president, which means he was in charge of caring for the members of the small group in Belgrade. He's young for the calling, just 24 years old. When I showed up at church, a foreigner and stranger, he asked whether I had a place to stay and offered a bed at his place. I was staying with friends, so I didn't need it then, but the morning before I had to go to the airport, realizing I would have to wake up at 3 am the next day to catch the bus to ride the two hours to the capitol if I stayed in Zrenjanin for the night, I called him and asked whether I could still take him up on the offer. He said yes, and told me he could even give me a ride to the airport in the morning.

So my friends put me on a bus at 5pm that night and I met Nikola in Pancevo.

He was making pasta for dinner (His Italian aunt taught him the recipe) and he let me use the computer to call my family on skype. Then we talked for a while-- he's travelled in Africa and the US, and wanted to hear about my trip.

We got up at 6:30 to go to the airport. Nikola had no car, but one of his friends drives a taxi and was willing to do a stranger a favor.

They dropped me off, wished me luck, and I spent the next two hours in the airport waiting for my flight to America and writing down everything I could remember from the past two days.

I left my e-mail address, but forgot to pick up his, and we haven't been in contact since I got home. Occasionally I think of ways I could try and reach him. I'd like to thank him again.

A New Angle on Things