Ph.D. Octopus

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“The Minstrel Boy” Unites in Song: Star Trek, Paul Robeson, Great Big Sea, and Beyond

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by David

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”

From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life,  I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.

A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.

If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.

But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version  of “The Minstrel Boy.”

It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.

So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.

One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:

The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of  them modestly disappeared behind their creation. 

While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.

And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song,  but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together.  Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.


Written by David Weinfeld

October 18, 2013 at 15:41

Blame Canada (or maybe just its press)

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By Julian 

If you came across a newspaper headline that reported, “remark reveals underlying narcissism, analysts say” who do you think the story would be about? You could be forgiven for assuming the article might profile, Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed world-class historian, moon bases advocate, and “teacher of the rules of civilization.” On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking that the story profiled the recent college graduate who applied for a finance job at J.P. Morgan by bragging about his ability to bench press double his body weight and do 35 chin-ups? Obviously, the headline could describe any number of things uttered by Donald Trump.

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, however, there’s probably a good chance you correctly guessed that the headline described the psychological condition supposedly afflicting federal Member of Parliament, Justin Trudeau. The son of a famed Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau received a virtual tarring and feathering in the Canadian press this past week because of some comments he made about Quebec separatism. In the offending remarks, he explained that as,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” In short, if Canada ever moved so far to the right that it became unrecognizable, a wintery East Texas on the 49th parallel—well, if that day ever came, Trudeau might be open to the possibility of Quebec forming its own country.  Still, in no uncertain terms, Trudeau rejected separatism. Instead, he argued that Quebecers (who tend to be more socially progressive than the rest of the country) had an important role to play spreading their values across Canada.

Were Trudeau's remarks on Quebec separatism simply a beard for his beard?

The responses to this story in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are instructive. In Quebec, views like Trudeau’s are utterly uncontroversial. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, 49% of Quebecers voted for independence. While support for separatism has declined somewhat since then, 60% of Quebecers still identify primarily or exclusively with Quebec.  And these numbers are significantly higher when you poll only Quebec’s French-speaking majority. Even the current Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has officially recognized that the Quebecois form a unique “nation”—with their own language, culture, and history—within Canada.  The only reason Trudeau’s remarks initially received any attention in Quebec was because they avoided the polemical flourishes against separatists, which helped make his father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, so famous.

If you read the press outside of Quebec, however, you might have thought that had Trudeau called for armed insurrection. In Parliament, Conservative MPs attacked his loyalty. Pundits lashed out at Trudeau’s supposed ignorance, immaturity, and vanity. So did several political scientists: one even went so far as to label his remarks “treasonous.” In Quebec, what looks like a nuanced position in favor of national unity, seems closer to separatist posturing in much of the rest of the country.

Estimated cost to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 7.5 million. The Queen's picture on a bilingual stamp, priceless.

The context for the “Trudeau Affair” is the fact that Canadians have recently elected their first majority Conservative government in almost two decades. After only a few months in office, the Conservatives have moved the country sharply to the right. The government  has reduced restrictions on gun control, passed a crime bill that relies almost exclusively on harsher sentencing, and have strongly hinted at reducing pensions for the elderly. To defend deeply controversial environmental and Internet surveillance policies, conservative ministers have lashed out at their opponents as agents of liberal billionaire George Soros and child pornographers (I’m not kidding). In terms of Canadian identity, the government has made major efforts to strengthen the country’s ties to the British monarchy (which will probably never be something very popular in Quebec).

Fortunately, many Canadians—not just Quebecers—reject the atavistic impulse to return their country to the halcyon days of the British Empire. While the Conservative Party formed a majority government in the last election, it received less than 40% of the votes cast. It also turns out that numerous law-abiding Canucks don’t like having their ministers accuse them of supporting “the pedophiles” when they  oppose unlimited government surveillance.  In fact, the comment sections on the many articles denouncing Trudeau were filled with citizens from across the country sympathetic to his views. These readers empathized with Trudeau’s frustration at divisive right-wing politics and realized that he was in no way endorsing separatism.

While Quebec might be a distinct society, nation-wide dissatisfaction with the Conservative government may yet provide some hope for national unity.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 19, 2012 at 22:22

B-Hop, Booker T, and the Jews

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by David

Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (left), the current light-heavyweight (175 lbs) champion, the oldest man to win a major title, and a future boxing Hall of Famer, recently gave yet another candid interview, complete with new musings on race. We’ve been here before, even on this blog. This interview, however, was a bit different. Here’s a sample:

You’re a very candid person, especially about race. Why are you so forthright? I’ve been around a lot of candid people, but I’ve learned it’s good to be certain things at certain times. Everybody doesn’t know when to be candid and when not to be candid. It’s a strategy, part of the Art of War that I use as a script for anything I do in the ring or out of the ring.

 I’m sure you’ve heard the term $40 million slave. What does that term mean to you?Just because you got a contract for $40, $80, $90, $100, $200 million, no matter what you have or what you think you are, in this country, unfortunately, to most people, not all, you’re still a n–. You just happen to be rich. They’ll open the door for you. They’ll carry your bag. They’ll call you sir and they’ll call you mister. They might even let you date their daughter — because of what you have and what you represent, not because of who you are. I won’t say everyone thinks this way, but I believe in my heart that the percentage is high. I can speak to the $40 million slave situation. But if you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, that’s pocket change. The stakes are higher now.

Is there any part of you that’s worried that people will say, “He sounds like a racist”?No. When I say things, I say it out of what I experienced. I believe that before I try to help another race, why not see if there’s something to be done in my hood? That’s not saying I’m anti-white or anti-Chinese or anti-Puerto Rican. Many of my business partners are Jewish. And boy do they stick together. I want to bring my own people up to understand that let’s learn from the Jewish people’s business minds. Everybody can’t dribble their way out of the hood. Let’s try to book your way out. I only learned what I’ve learned from other cultures. I have some Italian friends. Everybody knows how Italians stick together. Go to South Philly. Go to New York. I’m not talking about the negative, but the wholesome Italian families with unity. The Irish. The other cultures. It’s when you start saying I’m better than that other person, that’s when it becomes something different.

Why do you think so many black athletes are so hesitant to talk about race? Because they are told not to.

Who’s telling them? The system that pays them, the system that dictates how they speak, how they talk. Football players, basketball players, they don’t talk about politics. It’s modernized slavery. They’re not allowed to talk about things that are sensitive and incorrect in the political world.

One person who isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect is Floyd Mayweather. How do you think his image impacts how black athletes are perceived? I have a problem with it.

What do you have a problem with? The perception and the stereotype of how they view and judge us as athletes is a blueprint and a script from what Mayweather shows them all the time. You don’t see Steve Jobs — God rest his soul — talking with a stack of money on the phone. He never showed his wealth because his wealth was who he was, not what he had. 

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you’re calling Floyd Mayweather a modern-day minstrel. No. I’m calling him a guy who’s not conscious of the image he portrays to promote fights and the image he portrays to show who he is. But he happens to be the guy people are looking at in boxing as the man, other than Pacquiao. He has the power like Jim Brown had in his era. He has the power like the great Ray Leonard had. He has the power like Ali had, when he said, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n–.” Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity. I don’t think Mayweather is a bad person, but his message is misleading.

 The part the stuck out to me, of course, was when Hopkins mentioned his Jewish business partners who “stick together.” Antisemitic? Hardly. Novel? Not even close. In his 1899 book, The Future of the American Negro, Booker T. Washington (below right) praised American Jews’ economic success and industry, highlighting their “unity, pride, and love of race.” He advised Blacks to “imitate the Jew,” because  “as the years go on, they will be more and more successful in this country,–a country where they were once despised, and looked upon with scorn and derision.”

Washington was not alone in this view. The Washington Bee, an anti-Booker T. Washington African American newspaper, expressed similar sentiments in an anonymous 1899 piece about the Dreyfus Affair in France, titled “The Persecution of the Jew.” The article, sympathetic to Dreyfus and to Jews suffering from oppression, noted:  “There are no class of citizens more industrious than the Jews. There is not as much discrimination against the Jews as there used to be. The time is fast coming when the Jews will be the financial rulers of the world.” Though tinged with some antisemitic fear, the authors clearly saw the Jews as a  people to emulate, observing, like Washington, that economic success led to a reduction in discrimination.

On the cultural level, Alain Locke (below), the first Black Rhodes Scholar and leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, said similar things. In 1911 speeches to the Negro Historical Societies of Philadelphia and Yonkers, Locke commented that Jews were “perpetuating themselves and garnering respect at home and influence abroad” for their display of “race loyalty and effectiveness.” He noted that the Jewish community in the United States “has contributed to its racial life the world over and stands today as the champion of some of its most significant reform movements.” Locke held Jews up as a model group who were able to maintain their traditions and cultural cohesion while at the same time integrating and contributing to broader American life. Locke’s 1925 manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, specifically referred to Zionism as an inspiration, as did Marcus Garvey‘s Back to Africa movement of the same period.

The point is that Hopkins was simply advancing the same “do it yourself” Black nationalism (or maybe communitarianism) espoused by Washington, Locke, Garvey, Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and more recently, Bill Cosby (on Cosby, see this great piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, there are significant differences between these figures and movement. And of course, Hopkins did not limit his comments to Jews. Among people of all ethnicities, there are some who want to  “stick together.” Saying so should be banal. Hopkins was simply offering a variation of the old argument about separation versus integration, particularism vs universalism, that has presented itself to minority groups, Blacks, Jews, and others, time and time again, in America and elsewhere.

There’s much more to say about Hopkins’ interview, especially the stuff about Mayweather and minstrelsy, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll just say that I like Hopkins. He’s a defensive master and boring inside the ring, though never outside of it. I wish him all the best in his future bouts.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 9, 2011 at 12:16

Museums of Vilnius

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by David

Castle in Vilnius

In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.

The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”

I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.

Basketball Exhibit at Lithuanian Genocide Museum

So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 19, 2011 at 11:21

Vilnius and Vilna: City of Ghosts

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by David

At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.

His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.

That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.

Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.

The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 18, 2011 at 04:50

Lviv and Lwow

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by David

Lviv Opera House

Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially  Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.

The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.

We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.

Me at the Remains of Lwow's Rose Synagogue

Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks  and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.

Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.

Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.

Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 15:56

Entering Ukraine

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by David

I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Ukraine would be less developed than Poland. Still, some experiences early on surprised me.

At 9 am yesterday, our driver, Vitali, picked us up in his van at our Cracow hotel. He didn’t speak much English, but he was friendly fellow. More important, he knew the way to Lviv, Ukraine, and was going to drive us the 600 or so kilometers to get there.

We did our best to communicate with Vitali, my father relying on the bits of Polish he remembered from his childhood (his parents spoke to him in English, but to each other and their friends in Polish, not Yiddish). Turns out Vitali spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, after living in Hungary for six years serving with the Red Army. We stopped at a truck stop for lunch, which had a grill with only female servers and only male customers. I had some kielbasa, the first real kielbasa I had all trip. It was delicious, and didn’t need any condiments.

There is no main highway between Cracow and Lviv. We took small roads, sometimes only with one lane in each direction. Sometimes, the roads had a half-lane/shoulder on each side. If you wanted to pass the car ahead of you, you pulled into the other lane (of potentially oncoming traffic) and any car coming must drive half in their lane and half on the shoulder. This struck me and my dad as pretty scary, but Vitali handled it without difficulty.

Crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine was an amazing experience. When we first pulled up to the border, we saw a huge line of cars and anticipated an enormous wait. I’ve waited upwards of 2 hours at the Canada-US border, so this wasn’t exactly novel to me, but I was still disappointed. We were stopped behind a long line of cars, and ahead of us was a traffic light, turned red, ahead of which was a similarly endless line of cars. Many in our section actually turned their cars off, and Vitali did so as well. My father stepped out to take a look, I stepped out to pee by the side of the road (public urination is a form of reparations). We feared the worst. The Vitali walked off ahead to try to speak to someone. A few minutes later, he came running back, as the light had turned green and others were starting their engines again.

Still the line moved slowly. So Vitali decided to simply veer to one side of line and drive up ahead, passing car after car. Eventually, he encountered a guard. He spoke to him jovially, and handed him our passports. We heard him say something about my father being a professor from Canada. A few minutes later, we were allowed to pass.

It turns out that that guard had been Polish. Apparently you have to go through/customs security on the way out too. We then drove up to a Ukrainian soldier, who Vitali approached with same jovial manner. We gave him our passports, and a few minutes later, he returned them and we moved on. Vitali was clearly a veteran border crosser. Apparently, he simply told them we were from Canada, and didn’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, and off we went. We’ve heard that is easier for Canadians to cross the Poland-Ukraine border than it is for Ukrainians.

Once we entered Ukraine, the difference seemed immediately apparent. Like in Poland, we drove through small roads, with a similarly treacherous way to pass cars ahead of you. But the scenery was rather different. We drove by old women with rakes, wearing handkerchiefs, plowing fields. Groups of horses with no fence to hold them in. And then cows actually walked in the middle of the road, forcing us to stop until they went by.

I thought of India first. I’ve never been, but have heard that this was a frequent occurrence there. But then I thought of Borat

I couldn’t help it. I remember a travelogue we read in my eastern European history class, from the 18th or 19th century, written by a Frenchman visiting Poland, who thought he had travelled back to the medieval era, only to be amazed that Warsaw was an actual city. If my demi-Orientalist prejudices had emerged in Poland, they doubled in the Ukraine. And sure enough, when we got to Lviv, I was a bit surprised to find a modern city. But there it was.

The roads around the downtown square are almost all cobblestone. It creates a very charming effect, but is murder on car suspension, and I suspect, on women or men in high heels. Lviv, like Cracow, had been a Polish city under the Habsburgs, and it had something of the same aura. But it also felt different. It wasn’t just that the cars were more run-down and the buildings more dilapidated.

Ukraine was the birthplace of the pogrom. One of the country’s heroes, Bogdan Chmielnicki, had led the butchering of thousands of Jews in the 1600s. They still have a statue of him (below). There are no statues of Hitler in Germany. My father’s father, born, raised and educated in Poland, a veteran officer in the Polish army, visited Germany after the war. But he would never set foot in Poland. And he would not have dreamed to going to Ukraine. I thought about that. I felt uneasy. I felt bad for feeling this way, but I felt it nonetheless.

Needing a bit of a break, my father and I ate at McDonalds that night. The food was cheaper, a bit over 8 American dollars, for a Big Mac, Quarterpounder with Cheese, a large fry, a Coke-Light, and a bottle of water (no gas). It tasted good, like I remembered it. But I knew that the next day would be radically different than the one before. More on that in the next post.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 11:10