Today was our last official day of program and it was certainly bittersweet. It seems as though we only met each other in NY and we were in Kraków yesterday and now it is our last 36 hours in Oświęcim before we go our separate ways. I will stay in Kraków one more night and then take a bus to Berlin. I am very excited for this part of my trip as much as I will miss Poland. I will actually see one of my good friends from HAJRTP in Berlin before I head up to Fürstenberg on Tuesday.
We drove about an hour south to the lovely mountain town of Brenna today and had a walk around the river and a stop at one of Poland’s national obsessions? food groups?—ice cream. I had a currant and muesli one and it was pretty good although I would have loved more currants. We then went to the nearby town of Górki Wielkie where the author and co-founder of Żegota, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, lived. She is a complex figure who wrote children’s stories before the war and also for various Catholic and patriotic organizations but was also antisemitic and believed Jews were the “political, ideological, and economic” enemies of Poland but that in the light of what was happening with the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in summer 1942, that Poland and Polish Catholics should be doing all they could to save pople within their country if they were to be a moral and ethical people (Protest was published in August 1942).
We were there to have a fun activity as a group after the last three weeks where we were studying intense material and standing in the sites of destruction as well as seeing myriad ways in which Jews are reclaiming a presence in Poland—there are many Jews who not only stayed after the war but who also returned later. Although there is still a far greater absence that speaks of what was lost, it was important for all of us to see the wonderful work being done by the Jewish communities in small towns and in the larger cities.
Our activity today involved visiting a small historic farm where we learned how to grind wheat and made sourdough crackers (although we also saw bread being made and baked it was not going to be ready for us to try as it needed four hours to cool so it would keep for a few days). We enjoyed our homemade and handmade crackers with honey made on the farm and a traditional spread made of lard and about eighteen herbs and spices from the area. It was wonderfully flavored. My mother use to talk about spreading lard on their bread when they came home from school before going out to do their chores, so this bread with lard was not such a strange thing for me to experience. I am going to have to do some experimenting when I get home to try to recreate that flavor, but perhaps it was only a thing to be experienced here.
Once we returned to Oświęcim, we had a short break before going back to Café Bergson for our final reflection and a special dinner. It was insightful to hear what everyone’s top experiences were and what they would be bringing back to their studies when they returned home and to their programs. Even though I still believe that meeting Monika Goldwasser on our first full day in Kraków two weeks ago was the most impactful experience for me, I did not want to talk about it again here, so I mentioned the trips to Treblinka and to Płaszów, as well as the trip to the Jewish cemetery in Pszczyna where the caretaker, the seventh generation of his family to live there, Sławek Pastuszka, showed us around and gave us an amazing history of the cemetery and his family. He was so passionate and knowledgeable; we were all just completely in awe of him and his work. He has been restoring the grounds for about seventeen years or so (and is young himself), has written books about the cemetery and about symbols on Jewish tombstones, as well as researching and preparing his PhD dissertation. He would be a valued member of any faculty that would be lucky to have him. The time with him was a highlight for most of us, as evidenced by our reflection tonight.
Tomorrow is a free day to explore and then it is time to end this leg of the journey.
Stay safe, be well, and find something in your life you can be passionate about. As Sławek told us, if you have that, you can accomplish anything.