Because British Airways made them miss their Lot flight from Vienna to Krakow, my brother and sister-in-law have to purchase two new round-trip tickets--with no "fourteen day advance" benefits.
And their luggage--both suitcases--are lost. This comes as no surprise to my sister-in-law, who has been predicting as much for months. Later, someone tells them British Airways loses 7000 pieces of luggage a year- permanently. No wonder they lost the Revolution.
I would have been beside myself and gone "terminal." My brother and sister-in-law, though not thrilled, take all this in stride. British Airways is stubbornly unhelpful. In contrast, one of the uniformed Lot Airlines representative (in a bizarre amusement-park-red suit, red tights, red shoes), works hard to get them a better fare--better than the $1200 per ticket it would have cost without her assistance, but still not great. It's business class, she tells my brother and sister-in-law.
Business class on Lot Airlines, we learn, is distinguished from economy class by a small white doily on the back of the seat with "Business Class" stenciled on it. That's it. There is no more leg room or butt room. There is a meal, but not kosher. Oh, and there's a short curtain separating Business from economy. My sister-in-law pulls the curtain, separating her seat from ours. Coincidentally, we're sitting in the row in front of her.
"We're in business class," she says.
"Thanks a Lot," I tell her, and we're laughing again.
The flight from Vienna to Krakow is just over an hour. I do a Sudoku puzzle and am reciting"Song of Songs" when our very small aircraft begins lurching up and down. I stop reading, but it's too late. My stomach is queasy. I'm perspiring. "Take deep breaths," my husband advises. I do. Several times. When the plane lands I make it through Customs and passport control, but the nausea is there.
We meet Y, the Polish tour guide who will be taking us all over during the next four days. Y is much younger than I expected. He is tall and fit. He's wearing black baggy slacks and a black t-shirt, and a black visored cap that has Hebrew, Yiddish, and English references to Judaism on the back. Y isn't Jewish, though his wife and son are, and he has taken some steps toward conversion.
Y drives a gray, boxy seven-passenger Volkswagon minivan (he tells us it was formerly a police vehicle). I sit up front and will my nausea to stay at bay. The drive from the airport to the Ester Hotel is twenty minutes or so of lovely countryside. Y keeps a running commentary, pointing out sites of interest along the way, but all I can focus on is the rumbling inside my stomach. When we arrive at the hotel, I sit at a curbside table belonging to the hotel's restaurant and use the Lot bag I took with me. I feel much better, but I stay in the room and lie on my bed while the others take a short walk to the Eden Hotel, where we'll be having Shabbat meals. I worry that my condition will prevent me from touring that day, but the short rest makes me feel better.
The Ester, a boutique hotel in the Kazimier (the Jewish quarter), has a pretty facade--prettier than what you see on the website--with its name in shiny brass letters over the lobby door. Our room, 25, is two flights up and has two views of Szeroka Square. (Szeroka means "wide.") The room is long with three beds whose spreads camouflage the wooden posts of the bed frame. I hit my shin on one of the posts. My husband does the same.
Minutes later we are off with Y to our first destination--Trzebinia, where my father, of blessed memory, lived as a child, as a teen, as a young husband and father to two daughters who were killed in Auschwitz, half sisters whose names and existence have always intrigued me and haunted me. Trzebinia is a 45 minute drive from Krakow, most of it on a two-lane highway that alters its route from time to time to accommodate highway repairs and construction that, according to Y, will never end but will continue to add taxes to the populace. We pass a huge, all red brick house. Y explains that this belongs to a man who owns a brick factory. "The house is an advertisement," Y says. In the distance we see a blue-gray shadow of the Zakopane Mountains where my father used to vacation with his family. The fields on either side of the road are green and lush, and I feel an uneasy appreciation for the scenery in the country where my family was decimated.
We enter Trzebinia and stop at the railway station. The town is small and industrial, without the culture or charm of Krakow, which people are calling the next Prague. From the station we search for the street where my father lived. My brother has with him a plot map of the property, which is curiously assymetrical. We are looking for Ulica Novoskaya ("ulica" means street). We drive past several buildings (one used to be a huge synagogue, Y tells us) and pass what used to be a small "trade" shul. Then we reverse direction and park in a pretty, flower-filled square. From there we walk to Novoskaya and, referring to the plot map, we locate our grandfather's house.
Throughout my adolescence and my adulthood my father talked about the three-story building that was his home. There was a nursery, he would tell us, with trees and flowers. There were shops on the ground floor, residences on the top two. When the late Bobover Rebbe, of blessed memory, came to Trzebinia looking for refuge, he and his entourage lived in this house, and my grandfather built a "beis medrash," a study hall, for him.
For years I have envisioned coming here one day, and now I am standing where my father stood, and his father and mother, standing where he proudly strolled the enameled pram with his daughters, half sisters whose names I always had difficulty remembering, until recently.
The top two floors are still residential. On the ground floor are an optical shop with chic frames displayed in the window, and two hair salons--one for women, one for men. Those Polish words I can translate.
We walk through a short, narrow passage to a backyard that fits the assymetrical shape on the plot map. "The same lines!" Y exclaims. He is as excited as we are, confident that this is my grandfather's house.
I wonder which room was my father's. I picture him behind one of the lace-curtained windows, looking out on the nursery, playing a tune on his beloved violin, singing a melody that he just heard the Bobover Rebbe compose at a Friday night "tish."
We return to the street, and Y points to a plaque on the corner of the building. "This is government property now," he says. "They lease the apartments. That's good for you--better than if they were privately owned."
Over the years my brother has tried to get restitution for this house from the government, but our lawyer told us we didn't have the right documents -- birth and death certificates for our grandfather, who was shot to death in Bochnia. Now, I read, the Polish government is relaxing its criteria and more amenable to making restitution, but I am doubtful. And this government decision has already given rise to (or uncovered?) antisemitic feeling. Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, who controls a conservative Catholic media empire that includes the influential Radio Maryja, criticized President Kaczynski for "considering compensation for people whose property was nationalized by the postwar Communist government. Many of those people are Jews."
“You know what this is about: Poland giving $65 billion” to Jews, Father Rydzyk said on the tape, according to the newsmagazine. “They will come to you and say, ‘Give me your coat! Take off your trousers! Give me your shoes!’ ”
It has started to drizzle, and a blustery wind turns my umbrella inside out. We dash across the street and wait in the shelter of a doorway. I watch as an elderly woman approaches from the backyard of my father's house. She is staring at us, and there is something at once suspicious and menacing in her air and in her plodding footsteps and thickened body, which takes on a looming quality as she comes closer. I have heard stories from others about hostile reactions from Poles who feel threatened by Jews who have come to view their former homes or those of family members. I prepare myself for a confrontation--or a curse. A rant, accompanied by spitting?
In the end she glares at us and passes without saying a word. Across the street people in the women's salon are eyeing us. The rain stops, and we leave.