Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sometimes a voice...

I slipped across the Ukraine border by beautiful sleeper train on Tuesday night. I shared the cabin with a Ukranian communications student with luminous skin and perfect English, and an older woman come to visit her daughter in Poland. We took turns changing and making our three bunks with heavy quilts, giant down pillows, sheets, towels and soap. My seven inches of headroom, at the top, didn't even seem bothersome. The movement of the train, the opening and closing cabin doors as guard after guard checked and rechecked our passports added a dreamlike quality to the night, as if we were being pulled back to the world after sinking into our respective darknesses. We were woken by the steward at 6am as we swayed into Glowny Station in Krakow, the sun just rising over the brick buildings and the lines of track.

The marzipan city of Krakow, spared from bombing during WWII (unlike Warsaw) has hardly a Soviet era building to be seen in the old city and the former Jewish district of Kazimierz. Painted as brightly as Habana Viejo and littered with cafes, bars, used clothing shops and footbridges across the Vistula River, Krakow's streets are immaculate, as if it's tried to clean every vestige of historical horror from the squared cobbles and granite pathways.

The city held 60,000 Jews in the years before the second world war. Yesterday, I visited the museum of Tadeusz Kantor, a mid century avante-guarde performance artist and painter who opened his own museum, Crikoteka, to showcase his own beautiful work. He has created performances where women covered in a sticky substance throw themselves at the audience, and others where mannequins play the parts of some of the actors. Then I went to the Jewish Galician museum, where a survivor's paintings from within the camps, when she was a child, were on display, as well as a permanent photography exhibit on the effects of the holocaust in the area. The photography wasn't historical, but instead concentrated on contemporary sites where communities had lived, and no longer did; toppled synagogues, unmarked mass execution sites, concentration camps that had been dismantled completely, graveyards without a single standing stone, places of worship that had been turned into high end bars. It made Berdychiv look like a lovingly maintained site.

I hadn't realized that the city held such a community. There's almost no trace of it now. Except when I started looking more closely. One of the descriptions and the photos in the museum showed the hollow in a doorway where a mezuzah -- the piece of parchment with prayers and encased in a decorative case -- had once rested. A little hollow the size of your largest finger, and about as thick. Carved out of the stone or the plaster. They were removed, of course, when the Nazis arrived, but when I continued walking around the city yesterday, all 20km of my day, I began to see them everywhere. Nearly every door or every second door in Kazimierz. Little slanted hollows no one had ever plastered and painted over. Small places where words once lay; a whole language, a whole culture. By the end of the war, there were less than 2000 Jews left from Krakow. Almost none returned to the city. In the end, I don't care that they were Jews, other than the systematic persecution and murder of a particular group. The indigenous on our coast were erased in the same way. It's the silence of the thing, and the silence of walking around as this singular person in the brushed streets and the rose and yellow and leaf green buildings, with their long pedestrian corridors. In the midst of this kind of learning, a familiar voice is gold.

I've really begun to admire the body when it says no. At 7pm last night I came home to the hotel, a little attic space with a skylight for a window and yellow quilts on the two single beds, thinking I would go out again for dinner. I got more and more tired. I began to throw up. I spent the next 24 hours in my room, dozing and watching Moonstruck, reading about Bialystok and Lomza, and feeling the body give way.

The cure was in a voice and in writing, but not writing this. A friend and I had a three hour Skype conversation. He was pattering, as he called it -- some combination of puttering and chattering perhaps -- sewing a bag, making lunch, moving about his apartment fixing things and keeping a steady stream of domestic, reassuring sound and talk going that came in like your favourite radio voice. By some luck of the connection, I could hear him, but he couldn't hear me; I could only type my replies. And so we continued, without my need to actually voice anything or arrange myself for the voyeurism of a video call, moving in and out of high and low subjects, from base humour to brief ascents to high grief, from affection to confession, to everything that a voice has ever offered to you, in the dark, some night on your own. By the end I was stretched prone on the bed on my back, my breathing deep and my head vibrating. Yes. No. Exactly. Ha. Okay, I typed, I will.

Now, I think I can face Auschwitz tomorrow.