Poland the Beautiful

“So why on earth would you ever come here?” said to me a bien-pensant sixtyish, sixties-ish rabbi from San Francisco at an interfaith event at the JCC here in Krakow last month. I think she was wearing a kipa.

(Anyone who read my first post here will know that I am a Dominican monk born in the United States who has made a life in Poland.)

Why on earth would I live here? Why? I could forgive the questioner, who’d spent the day at nearby Auschwitz. I answered with a shrug as much Slavic as Jewish. Why would I come here? Nu? Why?

Because it’s beautiful. Poland the Beautiful. Yes, beautiful: like it or not.

Sorry, Jewish folks, dear American and Israeli and American-Israeli Jewish people, but to my surprise and maybe yours I must say: Poland is beautiful.

I never planned to come here; no, never. It’s far too weird. Far too foreign and haunted by ghosts. I’m no Pole: I’m Scottish-American, if anything. And yet here I sit, in Krakow, soul of Galicia. I’ve been here for years. In some way, this land is mine.

Am I the only one who hears the klezmer clarinet every time the smoggy fog of November, stinking of the trash old people still incinerate for themselves in little furnaces in their fusty apartments in the middle of town, sits down with a thump on this old city? Probably not. I can’t be alone. This city is smoky and gray. It’s Baroque and Gothic and Stalinist all at once. It’s Cracow and it’s Krakau and Kroke and Kraków. It’s a home where I feel at home.

I live in a Dominican monastery (more properly, a priory) right in the heart of this old city where Spielberg filmed “Schindler’s List”. A ten-minute walk from the front door of our eleventh-century Catholic basilica foaming with the statues of saints and I’m at the muddy grave of Moses ben Israel Isserles, the Rema, who wrote a gloss of the Shulkhan Arukh. Yes, his neighbors are gone, sprinkled as ashes over the city (Spielberg has the cooling cinders falling on a lady’s fur collar while she’s out walking the dog) – but Reb Moshe and his matseva are still here, and twentieth century be damned.

Boi Kala say the gates of the old synagogues, still open and functioning in Cracow. Boi Kala say the Jews still in them. Boi Kala­ sings Lior Ben-Hur, the Iraqi Greek Israeli from America who croons through my earbuds as I squint through the mist and walk past those shuls. Cracow. It’s still here. 2015, 1515, who cares? It’s a good weird.

Tonight I sat in the adoration chapel and listened to the noise of the street. Adoration: a most Catholic custom in which a consecrated disk of bread that we believe is Christ is put up on the altar in a big gold stand. You sing a bit when the bread is first exposed, “To the Begetter and the Begotten, praise and joy….”

You pray and sing again at the end.

But for thirty minutes or an hour in between, you sit in total silence – you and the little white disc. That’s what we do on a Friday night when the sun goes down.

It’s a good time to think things over.

And I thought: “So why would you ever come here?” I never wanted to “inhabit the landscape of the Holocaust,” as a friend puts it. But I found here my faith and I found strength on the banks of the Vistula, where there is beauty along with the blood.

Beauty is a sign of the presence of God. That’s an intuition in the prayers for Shabbat as much as it is in the rich liturgy of the Church, which at its best is dramatic without being theatrical. It’s hard to get beauty out of the cracks of a city no matter how much it’s been through. And there is beauty here; there is hope at the heart of horror, as Richard John Neuhaus liked to say.

Nature abhors a vacuum and it’s a rule of God’s universe that no place is abandoned forever.

Or so, here in Cracow, it seems to me. Beauty is here, and it comes and goes as it pleases.

“Boi v’shalom ateret bala.” Enter in peace, enter in gladness, enter in joy.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.