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Koren Shadmi

Paranoia and Polka in Poland

Jerry Stahl

By day four of my Holocaust bus tour the constant barrage of historical carnage is starting to get to me.

Koren Shadmi

This is part three of a six-part series. Read the other installments here.

By day four, I'm googling Polish bus rash. No such malady. Which means I'm either Patient Zero, or my nether chafe is the function of excessive tour grouping. Whatever the case, I try to put the discomfort out of my mind. After all, we're at a lovely polka and pierogi dinner outside the city and I've just discovered a hitherto—to me—unknown subculture: perma-tourists. As an outlier, I've made friends with two permas: a septuagenarian gay couple from San Diego, one of whom, a sardonic ex-Cadillac salesman named Douglas, leans over my plate during the polka performance and tells me I'm a ringer.

The polka band, by the way, is spectacular. Eight hearty sisters of a certain age in matching "folk-wear": embroidered blouses, billowing white skirts, red boots, and squares of cloth atop their heads, lying flat like napkins dropped from on high. The sisters handle everything from clarinet to fiddle. The lady on bass plays like Slim Jim from the old Stray Cats, if Slim Jim lived in the body of your grandmother, and your grandmother ate her grandmother. Like many old women I saw in Poland, the sisters look a bit like Mike Pence. (Strangely, many younger women are cheekbone doubles for Melania.)

While the entertainment is good, it's hard to kick back and enjoy. Beyond the fear of being yanked out of my seat and made to polka, I'm gripped by some whispering dread. For days, after all, we've been spoon-fed gruesome nuggets of Polish history. Like, say, how in 1648 a quarter of the Jews in rural southern Poland were slaughtered in a peasant revolt. (Back then, one of the few professions open to Hebrews was collecting taxes and rent money for landlords, which no one liked to pay. As you might have guessed, no one killed the landlords.) Or how, in 1942, in a village outside Bialystok, locals set upon their non-Christian neighbors with axes, sticks, and nail-studded clubs. Men had their eyes gouged out, and babies were thrown on the ground and trampled. Germans, looking on, amused, ordered the Jews who could still walk to frog-march into the town square and sing, "We caused the war! We Caused the war!" (I'm guessing it's catchier in Polish.)

All of this, on a moonless night in a polka parlor far outside the city, becomes more than history. It becomes possibility. The rustic décor features an up-to-the-ceiling shellacked tree, on which perch a trio of stuffed pheasants. I resolve, if the gowno hits the fan, to tear off a sharp branch or grab a pointy-toed pheasant and swing it.

I'm not usually paranoid. But I'm not usually in Poland. Douglas spots my twitchy reverie and snaps his fingers. "Anybody in there?" "Ahhh, sorry," I mutter, scraping my brain to remember what we were talking about. Oh, right. "How," I ask him, "did you know I was a ringer, Douglas?"

"Because you try and sit by yourself." Douglas helps himself to the rest of my pierogi and continues. "That's a no-no." He and his partner, Tito, a sly, silver-haired retiree from Newport Beach, are professional tour groupers, fresh off a 13-day tour of Ireland. After our Eastern European jaunt they're heading directly to a 21-day Alaskan cruise. They're both fans of how affordable tours like this are. Among regulars, naturally, there's much chatter about the relative merits of the current tour versus epic tours past. "Tour guides make it or break it," Tito tells me. "Margaret's too laissez faire. Too many choices. It's like, are we meeting at the Chopin fountain in 20 minutes or Goethe's pajamas in half an hour? When we had free time in Poland, I couldn't find the bus!"

"I told you, carry your phone!" Douglas chides him.

At this Douglas and Tito go into a private confab, so I strike up a conversation with Pam, the lovely ex-librarian across from me at the restaurant. Half shouting above a clarinet solo, she tells me about her daughter's meth problems. "The stuff's all over Nebraska," she says. When I ask how she is now, Pam pulls out her wallet and hands me a yearbook photo of a dimpled high school girl with a sweet smile and a faux-hawk. "Now she's great," she tells me, staring at her daughter's photo with baffled wonder. "She decided she didn't like college and went to school to be a morgue attendant. Like I always told her, it's all about finding something you love to do."

Pam's traveling with her best friend, Trudy, a retired third grade teacher from the same middle school in Omaha. Like many groupers, she's cursed—or blessed—with a spouse who doesn't like travel. "So he stays home and us girls sashay off."

Just then Pam gets snatched up in a Polish conga line and, clearly thinking the same thing I am— Please, God, don't make me polka!—Douglas gives me a nod and we duck out a side door to the deck before one of us gets swept up onto the dance floor. Outside, the air smells strongly of diesel, and Douglas makes a show of wrinkling his nose. "You OK?" I ask. "I'm fine. I just don't like this reek, and I don't love paying 68 bucks for Polish tacos."

"That's what 'perogi' means in Polish," Tito chimes in, "taco."

In the Krakow ghetto the next day, we're handed off to a local guide, Tessa, a worldly older lady with the classy seen-it-all-panache of a Polish Bea Arthur. She shepherds us into the Remuh Temple, one of two functioning synagogues left in the city. To get in, you have to pay 50 zloty to a grumpy middle-aged guy eating his lunch—tuna sandwich on white and a Coke—who takes the coins without looking up and slides over a cardboard box full of baby-blue yarmulkes.

I wonder idly what the dead holy man in the grave to my right would make of Marvin, a porky bald insurance man from our group who's tying his shoe on the late rabbi's tombstone.

The synagogue dates from the 1500s and still has the original door, an impressive wooden slab that Tessa makes sure we all stop to admire. "Sturdy," Bob and Betty, a married couple from New Jersey, announce dutifully. After we have a peek around the inside at the bema and pews, we follow her back out to the adjoining cemetery.

"Now then," Tessa begins, as we stand around the leafy graveyard, full of famous rabbis going back to the 16th century, "let me tell you about this marvelous cemetery." As she talks, I wonder idly what the dead holy man in the grave to my right would make of Marvin, a porky bald insurance man from our group who's tying his shoe on the late rabbi's tombstone. "The Germans blew up every synagogue in Krakow. So why didn't they blow up this one?" She lowers her voice, as if the Gestapo were crouched on the other side of the wall. "Because the rabbi told them the earth beneath it was cursed. So instead of exploding it, the Nazis stole everything and stored equipment in there. But they didn't completely spare the graveyard. In fact, they paved the road out of Krakow with broken tombstones. After the war, they found the gravestones as they could and put them back in the cemetery."

Worshippers—if that's the right word—leave messages on scraps of paper for Moses Isserles, a beloved 16th-century Rabbi whom some believe can solve their problems. "Does he take email?" cracks Timmy, our in-bus joker, who favored a Marlins cap over a yarmulke inside the temple.

Tessa continues. "Now you'll notice scattered atop the graves are pebbles and rocks. Christians put flowers on graves," she explains, without so much as a metaphor alert. "Jews put rocks. Why? Because, when Moses led his people out of Egypt, people died. They would bury them in the desert and put stones on them. There's a saying in Hebrew, 'Putting down stones, we always remember.'"

A beautiful story. And as she finishes, it dawns on me that there's a particular genius to the way this tour is set up. The memorials and ghettos are like painful-but-sadly-beautiful urban hors d'oeuvres. A way to ease into the ugly and hellish destinations to come.

Next on the menu is Auschwitz.

Illustration by Koren Shadmi