Smiling Poles


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August 31, 2008
By Posted in busking | 4 Comments »

My father was born in Poland. When he was 17 years old his entire family was murdered. He was the only survivor. At 17 my father left Poland and hasn’t been back since. He is 85 years old.
Every now and then I asked him if he wanted to go visit his childhood home, but his answer was always a resounding ‘no’. Until now.
My father agreed to go back to Poland, for me. So that I could see where we are from. He also said that if we don’t do it now, he might not be physically able to travel in the near future.
So, we went to Poland.

My father grew up in Bialystok – a town which was severely damaged by the Germans during WWII. Most of the houses there were destroyed. For that reason, the town looks very different today. A handful of houses have remained from before the war, and by pure luck, my family’s house is amongst them.

My father didn’t remember the house as a whole, but he remembered the gate, the front door and the balcony. The street has changed much – there is a highway next to the house today. The house has been abandoned for 8 years now, except for a guy renting parking space in the yard. Previously it has been used as a veterinarian’s office and as some sort of school. The city is now going to demolish the house because there are many potential buyers for the land. If we had not come to Poland now, we would have missed on being able to see our house!

We were very lucky that the person renting a parking space in the house happened to arrive just before we were about to leave. We were also lucky that he turned out to be very nice. He let us into the house to see my Dad’s apartement. My Dad remembered the room where he studied for his end of high school examinations. The rest of the house was altered on the interior, but the balcony was the same. I was surprised to learn that our house was so spacious.
My Dad said that a house without the people in it, is not very meaningful.

We held a small ceremony outside our house, to commemorate our family. I lit a candle in memory of my grand parents, two uncles, aunt and my great grand mother – all who lived in our house there. I played the Israeli National Anthem, in order to say “the Germans tried to annihilate us, but they failed – we are here!” Then my father said ‘Kadish’ – the prayer for the dead, and I played ‘Eli Eli’ – a song which is always sung at Holocaust memorials.

We were honored at our little ceremony by the presence of Lucy Lisowska, the organizer of the big ceremony later that day by the memorial to the revolt of the Bialystok Ghetto. At that memorial we joined a large group of people from Israel who are survivors from the Bialystok ghetto. Many brought their children and grand children to Poland, on a roots tour, like we were doing. This was the first time the city of Bialystok was presenting a ceremony in honor and memory of the city’s Jews. Before the war there were 50,000 Jews living in Bialystok. By the war’s end about 300 Bialystok Jews have survived. Today, in a population of 350,000, only a handful are Jewish.
At the ceremony, the mayor of Bialystok and the Israeli ambassador spoke, as well as a gentleman who was 2 years old when the Nazies arrived in Bialystok. The Bialystok police, fire brigade, the Polish army and many others presented huge flower arrangements to the memorial. An unveiling of a new sign, naming the square in honor of the commander of the Ghetto’s uprising’s leader, Mordechai Tenenbaum, was held. The area we were standing on used to be a Jewish cemetery. The Bialystok authorities leveled it in the 1970’s to make a park out of it… As a result, we were all standing on Jewish bodies…

Judging by the few buildings remaining from before the war, Bialystok used to be a beautiful and fun place to live in – there were cinemas, a beautiful palace and gardens, a thriving commercial district with fancy shops. After the war gray Communist apartement houses were erected on top of the ruins. They all look unified, utilitarian, depressing.
Because WWII documentaries on TV are always in black & white, I grew accustomed to imagining Poland as a gray place. The funny thing was, that because of the Tornado that attacked Poland while we were there, the sky was gray, no sun, and so the city actually did look dark and gray, as if in black & white…
When we left Bialystok and came to Krakow, the sun came out and I felt like Dorothy in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when the film changes from black & white to color.

Krakow is a nice, cosmopolitan city. The third largest Polish population is located there (the largest is Warsaw, followed by Chicago…) and since Krakow was not bombed by the Germans, all it’s beautiful old architecture is still standing in full glory.
We went to check out the busking situation in the market square. There were many buskers, but people were not paying any attention to them. In addition, I noticed that Polish people are not smilers. In NYC when I smile at a stranger on the street, they usually smile right back at me. But in Poland – that didn’t happen. Therefore when I first set up to busk in the streets of Poland, I thought that my fate would probably be similar to that of the local buskers – I thought I would be largely ignored.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong! As soon as I started to play crowds of people gathered around me. And – everybody was smiling! Making the Poles smile felt like my biggest achievement ever :)

busking in Krakow Busking in Krakow

While busking horse drawn carriages went by me. A demonstration of apartment renters against the high rents marched by me, accompanied by police. And every hour on the hour a trumpeter played from the tower of a near-by church, always ending abruptly, on a broken note. This is an old tradition called “Hejnal”. For centuries a trumpeter played a fanfare from the tower every hour. One day, many years ago, as he played, the trumpeter saw in the distance a large army of Tatars galloping towards the city. The trumpeter wanted to warn the city and convey to the people the approach of danger and give them time to prepare their defense. So, he played the Hejnal over and over. The city immediately sprung to defend itself. Suddenly, the sound of the Hejnal ceased abruptly. The trumpet sound had reached the ears of the Tatars as they approached, and they killed the trumpeter with an arrow that went into his throat. But his task was accomplished, and Krakow was saved. Since that day, the Hejnal has been broken off at the same note on which it was broken off by the Tatar arrow, in honor of the trumpeter who gave his life for the city.
The sound of my saw reached up to the trumpeter in the tower. He leaned out of his window and watched me play. I made sure to stop playing every hour when he played. He waved to me, and I waved back. He was the first friend I made in Krakow.

Busking in Krakow Busking in Krakow

When I busked in Warsaw a police car approached me. But instead of reprimanding me, a police officer took my picture with her cell phone for a souvenir :)
A troop of soldiers marched towards me and at first it seemed as if they were coming to get me, but they just marched by me and smiled at me.
A wedding procession marched by me, and of course horse drawn carriages with tourists went by. One tourist threw a coin into my donation’s bag from his passing carriage and he didn’t miss!
Waiters working in a near by Spanish restaurant, dressed in Spanish traditional garb, came to watch me. A guy with a big dog sat down on the ground and listened to me for a very long time. A nun went by as I was playing ‘Ave Maria’ and was clapping her hands for me very enthusiastically.

Busking in Warsaw Busking in Warsaw

After about an hour of playing local buskers with a log of wood, who charge money from tourists for taking a picture with them, told me I have to move. I tried to reason with them, telling them that I am only going to play there today, and I only want to stay one more hour. They wouldn’t budge. The guy just kept repeating “you need to move” over and over. He told me this was their spot for the past 7 years. But they were not there when I got there, so, haven’t they heard of the busker’s rule – whoever gets to the spot first in the day gets to have it? Their problem was that while I was there, nobody was paying any attention to them…

Bruttish local buskers

People in the audience and local vendors came forward to argue with the local buskers on my behalf. They told me to keep playing and ignore the local buskers. There was only one vendor who was on the side of the local buskers. These buskers looked menacing. They did not look like intelligent people… but rather like brutes… so, I decided to fold. As I was packing up my gear the people continued to argue with the local buskers. The police arrived. I left, but the people all continued to argue about me even after I left the scene…

The following day I walked through that spot. An artist selling his artwork there approached me and told me how he enjoyed my performance the previous day. He asked me to play there again, but the local brutish buskers were there. The vendor was disappointed that I wasn’t going to play there again. Well, maybe next time.

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4 Responses to Smiling Poles

  1. Sandy & Don on August 31, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    What a wonderful “newsletter’ and, of course, the music is just lovely,
    Don and Sandy

  2. Howlin' Hobbit on September 1, 2008 at 3:20 am

    “…haven’t they heard of the busker’s rule – whoever gets to the spot first in the day gets to have it?”

    I’m thinking you never have tried to busk in San Francisco. Same exact attitude.

  3. Tami on September 19, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Hello Natalia! What a touching memoir of your visit. My eyes filled with tears as I read your description of the family home and your father’s life there. Do you know if the whole family lived there, or just your father and his parents/siblings?

  4. ewelina on December 2, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Hahaha, this is a very funny and interesting approach to us, Poles:) I’m from Bialystok. It is always exciting to see your own culture and country from the side, in someone’s else eyes:)
    So, do you really think that it’s a big deal to make us smile?? =D

    PS. Our police is the best:D Taking pix of Americans hihi. My uncle, who lives in US for more than 25 years, went to Poland in early 90’s and cops stopped him on a highway for nothing. When they learned he lives in US, there was no way to let him go without giving them a nice chunk of $$$$:) Such a sentimental memory hehe:D

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