Indulging in Tuscany, And How Bee Stings Lead to An Epiphany.

Ah, Toscana!
Ah, Toscana! A selfie with a view.

After touring emotional sites in Eastern Europe -- memorial-hopping, if you will, for murdered family members -- and then celebrating my birthday surrounded by family and friends in Israel, I thought Tuscany would be a good final stop before returning home to New York. In Tuscany I don't know anyone. Here, alone, I can collect my thoughts, hike, write, and, well, if I must indulge in the local pasta and wine, I must.

And it's all been going according to plan, although what trip would be really worthwhile without a hiccup that leads to an epiphany?

Except it's not really a hiccup, it's a sting.

IMG_4950Hiking from the idyllic farm I'm staying at to Bagno Vignoni I get accosted by a bee (or two? At this point it might as well be a dozen). They get caught in my hair, I run down the trail and scream like a madwoman. It's off-season in Tuscany and no hikers are around to witness me bouncing and flipping my hair as though it were on fire. Finally, the bee(s?) get away with just a couple of bites off my scalp, leaving two knobs on my head. I make it to Bagno Vignoni where tagliatelli with white truffles (now in-season!) and white wine make it all better. I have to wonder what my 16-year old vegetarian hippie-wannabe self would've thought of this 30-something year old woman who is terrified of bees in freaking Tuscany.

But before I can beat myself up too much, I return to the farm and learn that a rogue truck full of beehives had an accident and hundreds of bees are on the loose. The farmers working the field were attacked, forced to jump on their stomachs into the tall grass to hide and then run, leaving their tractors behind. "Queste api sono aggressivi!" says one of the farmers, who got several stings on his face. Aggressive indeed!

Pitigliano: a surreal Tuscan town carved into valleys.
Pitigliano: a surreal Tuscan town carved into valleys.

So it's this knowledge of bees in the air that encourages me to explore spots further removed from here at least for the next day or two. And that's how I discover La Piccola Gerusalemme -- Little Jerusalem in Tuscany -- in a beautiful little town called Pitigliano, a town carved into tuffs of valleys.

Driving toward Pitigliano I'm thrown by the surreal scenery. A town carved into a mountain! I'd read about it, but to see it! Arriving at the quaint and quiet center I see a map where La Picolla Gerusalemme is shown. It consists of a cultural museum and an old synagogue.

I slip ahead of a German tour group to see the synagogue. It's beautiful but sad, especially after reading the museum pamphlet that tells the story of the Jews of Pitigliano:

"In 1598 the Synagogue of Pitigliano was built. [...] [T]he Medici family instituted the Ghetto here in 1622. In the 19th Century, about 1/4 of Pitigliano's population was of the Jewish faith and this community became known as "The Little Jerusalem," a nickname given to it by the Jews of the city of Livorno. In the 1861 Unification of Italy, all Jews were emancipated and many from Pitigliano's Ghetto left for the larger cities. In 1938 the Jews in Pitigliano numbered approximately 70 people but due to the racial laws, this number gradually decreased. During World War II, the approximate 30 Jews remaining in Pitigliano were helped and eventually saved by Pitigliano's Catholic families who hid and protected their fellow citizens in the surrounding countryside. In the 1960s the Synagogue gradually collapsed, taking with it hopes for a 'rebirth' of the city's Jewish community."

The old Pitigliano Synagogue, today filled with tourists.
The old Pitigliano Synagogue, today filled with tourists.

The synagogue was restored in 1995 but it's no longer in use, today it's part of the museum. The museum is beautiful and quite thorough, it shows the remains of the old mikvah (ritual bath), a textile dyeing room, a kosher cellar, bakery and butcher. A side room described as the "Jewish community's original place of worship and study" contains objects "used in Jewish tradition" with explanations of what they are. The objects include kippas (skullcaps), mezuzas, torahs, ketubahs. Each one has a description of what the object is and how it was once part of the Jewish culture in Pitigliano.

It feels like visiting the museum of a lost civilization. And really, it is, since almost none of this civilization is left here -- not enough Jews to make a minyan to use the synagogue, anyway. Although a New York Times piece published last year about this town contains an interview with an impressive Jewish woman who was born here, was saved by Catholic farmers during the war while hiding in a cave for three months and then returned to Pitigliano where she told the New York Times she "has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring her hometown’s Jewish history."

Inside the Pitigliano synagogue, a view from the old women's section on top.
Inside the Pitigliano synagogue, a view from what was once women's section on top.

After having visited my grandparents' birthplaces, I can't help thinking that with the exception of Riga, their birth towns might as well have a museum dedicated to that lost civilization, too (and Riga's apparently still working on it with its annual court-approved neo-Nazi march).

Then I realize, it's these little towns I've visited, the ones that purged themselves of Jews that live in tragedy: local citizens wake up among memorials and torn up, lifeless, synagogues. Each day as they walk past ruins they breathe the loss of a culture that once thrived.

And I remember that in Israel, just last week, I celebrated a birthday with great aunts and second cousins, I saw Tel Aviv growing, Jerusalem abuzz; in Brazil, just about three months ago, I saw my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles and cousins, heard old stories, made new memories; in Houston, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with my parents and sister, missing my brother who was in college. In the past three months I've gotten to enjoy the family thriving in both its ancient home and our "new" homes.

Another breathtaking view of Pitigliano.
Another breathtaking view of Pitigliano.

It strikes me, as it has many times in the past few weeks, that my grandparents' stories are far from being just about survival. Survival, especially Holocaust survival, is just a chapter. Their stories are about recreation and their gifts to future generations, me included: inspiration and the guts to thrive.

Poland Surprises. (In a Good Way.)

At border control between Ukraine and Poland our train stops for two hours.

An official opens our bags, another one takes away our passports. Someone else comes back to check our bags for cigarettes and vodka. A woman returns with our passports. We wait. The train moans and puffs. It's 4am. But there's an hour time change. So is it 3am? Who knows. We get moving again. Just when I'm about to fall into a deep, comfortable sleep... we arrive in Krakow.

Krakow, where modern and historical mix.
Krakow, where modern and historical mix.

We stumble into our hotel and when we wake up a couple of hours later the Poland surprises begin. These surprises have names. First in Krakow they are Gosia, Andrzej, Slawek and Jakub. Then in Auschwitz there's Michael. In Tarnobrezg there's Irena. Finally, in Warsaw there's Pawel.

Gosia is our guide in Krakow. She is 30 years old, an educator for the Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja, and specializes in Jewish Krakow. She is not Jewish. After living in a small Polish town and walking by an abandoned Jewish cemetery on her way to school every day while growing up, she began asking questions. When she didn't get answers she decided to earn a degree in Jewish Studies. "It's part of our heritage, our culture," she explains.

Inside the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja in Krakow.
Inside the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja in Krakow.

Jakub, the young director of the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja, has a similar story. He grew up surrounded by fragments of old synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish district.

Gosia and Jakub are part of a movement in Poland that's breaking the silence that's been a part of the country's makeup since World War II. It's not just the Jewish survivors who didn't want to linger on the past, it was Polish survivors, too. Often because of guilt, sometimes for fear of losing property that once belonged to Jews, explains Pawel, our guide in Warsaw. A new generation has decided to not only ask questions but dedicate themselves to vocalizing their stories.

"Papal window" in Krakow's Bishops Palace, where Pope John Paul II addressed the people. The pope made a huge impact in Poland, encouraging freedom from totalitarian government and a positive relationship between Jews and Christians.
Window in Krakow's Bishops Palace, where Pope John Paul II addressed the people, encouraging freedom from totalitarian government and a positive relationship between Jews and Christians.

Our visit to Auschwitz is somber as expected. But we meet Michael, an Austrian who is not Jewish but decided to learn and educate visitors about Jewish life in Auschwitz before the war.

The following day we drive to Tarnobrzeg with Andrzej and Slawek. Neither is Jewish. We find an old synagogue that's been converted into a library. Tarnobrzeg was 67% Jewish before World War II. Today there are no Jews left. Before we take off on our trip Andrzej, 24, gives us a history of the city's Jewish life. Andrzej says he decided to get his undergraduate and graduate degrees on Jewish studies because there's always been a feeling of nostalgia in his home -- his family was also displaced after the war -- and "what's more nostalgic than Jewish history?" he asks.

When Andrzej was 14 or 15 he found a postcard from Georgia at his grandparents' house. He asked his grandmother about the postcard and she told him about a Jewish man his great-grandfather saved during the war. His great-grandparents had lived in Lviv, in front of a synagogue, and his great-grandfather's best friend was Jewish. Before the war he'd left Lviv and took his best friend with him to hide in Bierutow. After the war the friends went their separate ways and Andrzej great-grandfather ended up getting displaced during the Soviet years. His friend, who'd moved to Georgia, had looked for him for years and finally found him. That's why Andrzej discovered the postcard.

Sunset drive from Tarnobrzeg to Krakow.
Sunset drive from Tarnobrzeg to Krakow.

Slawek, who comes to Tarnobrzeg with us, too, decided to get his degree in Jewish studies when he was in his 40s. His mother's father hid a Jewish family in his basement during World War II.  Slawek never got a chance to ask his grandparents about their experience, but he knows they were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Growing up Slawek had his own experiences with neighbors who were Jewish and  remembers going to Shabbat dinners without realizing what they were. His friends came over for Christmas dinner. Years later Slawek moved to Krakow and wandered through Jewish cemeteries. Memories arose and he decided he wanted to learn more. He remembers many of his Jewish friends who'd moved away in 1968 during a time of intense anti-semitism in Poland. He's still in touch with an old buddy who moved to Israel.

Slawek and Andrzej helping us read Hebrew on old headstones.
Slawek and Andrzej helping us read Hebrew on old headstones.

In Tarnobrzeg,  Andrzej and Slawek take us to see an abandoned Jewish cemetery. They put on kippas before we go in and crouch in front of fragments of gravestone. Andrzej and Slawek read the Hebrew names.

"Oy gevalt," says Slawek when we realize the small holy construction, the Ohel, where a tzadik is buried, is locked.

Suddenly we hear an small old lady rushing toward us, "Mam klucz!" she says.

She has the key.

"Mam klucz!" ("I have the key!")

Irena tells us she lives in front of the cemetery and had been expecting us. Her husband had been the cemetery's key keeper but when he died she'd been charged with the honor. She'd heard some Jews were coming by and was thrilled by the visit. Neither Irena nor her husband were ever paid for their service and she takes the responsibility very seriously. We wonder how long she'd been looking out her window waiting for us.

We arrive in Warsaw early the following day and Pawel walks us through some of the city. Pawel isn't Jewish but teaches us how to imagine the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, tells us about Jewish heroes who survived, and those who didn't.

He grew up in a time when nothing was talked about, he tells us. He's passionate about this emerging Poland, a Poland that talks about its heritage -- all of it. He shows us how Warsaw, a city that had been left in crumbles after the war, is creating thoughtful monuments and reminders throughout the city to remind citizens and visitors of what the city once was and of those who once lived here.

In Poland our surprises make us hopeful. We decide to stay here longer.

One of the many thoughtful memorials in Warsaw, remembering the Jews who once lived in this building.
One of the many thoughtful memorials in Warsaw, remembering the Jews who once lived in this building.