Day 16/17: The Border – Part 1

by Zack on August 19, 2010

In retrospect, an overnight train from one Eastern European country to another with a transfer at 2 am was probably a bad idea. But we’ve had some good ideas on this trip, so we just figured: take the good with the bad.

We entered Chelm downtown station just after noon. We were being prudent. It was 8 hours before the 8pm train to Kowel – where we would connect to a 2 am train to our destination, Lviv. Plenty of time; we were planning ahead.

Unfortunately the downtown station (Miastro) did not sell international tickets to Ukraine. We would have to go to the main station (Glowny).

This wasn’t a problem, per se, but it necessitated a 2 km walk. Se we decided to head back to the hotel to edit and write then show up at the main station 2 hours before the train left.

Which we did. Where we were met by a kind, but firm, woman who insisted that the computer was down and she was unable to process tickets. This conversation, of course, took place without the aid of the English language.

After a good 15 minutes of back and forth using my Polish dictionary (another story altogether) she convinced us that it was safe to board the train and purchase a ticket to Kowel from the ticket-taker.

This presented two problems that were immediately obvious to us:

The first is that we only had about $40 in Polsih Zloty between us. The woman, again insistent, thought it would be enough. We weren’t so sure. So I hunkered down on the train platform with the bags, while Mike sprinted to find an ATM. Remember: this is Chelm, on the Poland-Ukraine border, not downtown Santa Monica.  But Mike returned in due time with enough money to surely cover us.

The second problem is that Kowel was not our final destination. Lviv was. Now, buying traditionally though a station agent, this is no problem. Two tickets; one to Kowel another to Lviv. This type of transaction can definitely not be conducted on board.

So we would need to take advantage of the 15 minute layover from the time we arrive in Kowel until the next train departs to Lviv. In Ukraine. Speaking no Ukrainian.

And oh yeah, we’d have to pay in Ukrainian Hryvnia. That meant we’d have to find either an excahnge or a cash machine. In Kowel. In Ukraine. Speaking no Ukrainian. At 2 am. In 15 minutes.

Would this be the night when the good run out of taking the good with the bad …. ?


Day 16: Chelm – Wise Men

by Zack on August 19, 2010

The town of Chelm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, “Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!” The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.

Chelm is a town of almost 70,000 in the east of Poland, less than 30 Kilometers from the Ukraine border.  It has a a storied role in Jewish folklore as a town of simpletons – as the joke above should illustrate.

Jewish authors as Fiddler on the Roof’s Sholom Aleichem popularized the humor of the town through there writings. This humor – which offered absurd solutions to very easy problems like rolling a stone down a hill – earned the inhabitants the nickname “The Wise Jewish Men of Chelm.”

While the city once had a thriving Jewish life, today that life has been all but wiped off the map by World War II and its legacy. We spent about 20 hours in Chelm, filming the old Synagogue, the old cemetery and some scenes from life today.

The trip may seem an odd excursion - indeed someone in Krakow asked why we were even going – but it was a town Joseph passed through with the group on their way to Warsaw in September of 1920. And therefore, was worth visiting. It also, I should note, plays a significant role in the screenplay version of this story.

Tonight we set off for Ukraine. What will await us? Stay tuned!

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As Mike so astutely mentioned the other day we were particularly impressedby the Galician Jewish Museum located in Krakow’s historic Jewish district of Kazimierz.

So much so that we returned on Tuesday to record an interview the the museums Educational Director Jakub Nowakowski. We learned a lot about the museum, which approaches Jewish history in Krakow and Galicia from a very unique perspective.  That perspective takes into account the full Jewish history of the region, the impact World War II had on it and the legacy of the war on the region.

We also visited the head of a local Jewish book store which has witnessed Kazimierz transformation from rough neighborhood of undesirables to a hip, trendy arts district. This change is due largely, but not solely, to the increased amount of tourists that came to the area after the filming of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winner Schindler’s List.

Finally, our interview-filled day was capped by a local genealogist, who provided useful insight into the role a genealogist plays, as well as some of the challenges that come from piecing together history from a variety of incomplete sources. This is, obviously, something we are experiencing first hand. But it’s encouraging to know that even the professionals have speedbumps.

Tonight it’s on to Chelm, a small town not far from the Ukrainian border with an interesting Jewish history itself.

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There’s little to be said of the site of such inhuman deeds – at least by me – that hasn’t been said before. But I’m going to record my thoughts here, anyway, because the followers of this journey deserve some reaction.

If there is or ever was an incarnate of hell on earth it was Auschwitz.

And simply visiting it’s location will surely not make the evil that occurred there any more real in one’s mind.

No. What I learned today is that for Auschwitz or any other site of atrocity to make any impact on one’s conciousness one must work for it. After all it’s easy to look at the ruinous pit that was a crematorium and simply mimic the display of emotions that one should feel. “This is horrible.” “I am sullen.” “Pure hatred.”

It’s much harder to actually feel those emotions.

It takes work. And it’s not fun work. It’s difficult and, like an actor attempting to cry on cue, it hurts in places that most people don’t choose to explore. And why should they explore it?

The depths of man’s depravity can often lead down trails of which there is no return. Isn’t that what Conrad was talking about. Or at least Coppola. “Inside every man lies a heart of darkness.” And what do we risk if we expose ourselves to that darkness?

That’s why we have movies. Schindler’s List does the work for us. Liam Neeson is the good guy, Ralph Fiennes is the bad guy. Cut and dry. Fiennes is the face of pure evil. And he’s bat shit nuts. Which, if you ask me, is a convenient excuse for evil that has so often marked the cultures narrative of the Holocaust and Naziism.

“These weren’t humen like you or me,” the narrative goes. “They were different; crazier; depraved; something must have malfunctioned mentally to allow these atrocities”.

But there was nothing crazy or malfunctioning in the minds of the men who so idiosyncratically designed meticulous mass extinction. They thought of every detail.

And worst of all, they knew what they did was wrong. When victory was dissipating and defeat was imminent, the Nazis didn’t lean on the strength of their convictions. They didn’t stand tall to the world and proclaim the Jews were a foreign body; a diseased body; inferior usurpers who had no claim to Germany and Poland.

No. What did they do? The dynamited the crematoriums, burned the evidence, and took refuge in nihilistic suicide.

This is a decidedly non-crazy thing to do. Look at any child who has done wrong. Does the child vehemently deny the wrongness of the action, or does he vehemently deny the action itself?

It is only the misguidedly righteous who cling to such absurd convictions. And only the mistakenly righteous who run from them.

What often gets lost in the popular cultural narrative of World War II and it’s legacy is the pure encompassing wrongness of the actions carried out by individuals who knew them to be wrong.

But Auschwitz, Terezin and all the Spielberg movies in the world can’t show you this. You have to show it to yourself, in your own head.

I did this. I dug into the depths of my own mind, put myself not in the shoes of the tormented, but in the place of the tormentors.

And it was terrifying.


Today instead of feeling inspired by the emotional impact of Auschwitz and go full steam ahead with the project, I felt almost completely drained and somewhat hopeless. A bit of pessimism sunk into my heart and I thought am I really doing anything that will help anyone?

It is one of the eeriest places you will ever see and the quiet, soft breeze only makes it more haunting. It is unlike other historical sites you may visit, like the Roman Ruins or the Parthenon or even the Great Wall, because Auschwitz’s remnants aren’t from so long ago. It was only 65 years ago when all these buildings were in use.

One strange feeling I got from being there was a dislike for Germany on a whole. I am a very liberal and open-minded person and grew up in Cambridge, MA, one of the most liberal cities in America, but it was something about knowing that a large part of a nation did such sinister acts. They were so meticulous and ruthless that is hard to let those thoughts not shape an opinion about an entire country. I now slightly understand why some Jews, like my mother, have no interest in visiting Germany ever. When I told her I was visiting Berlin, she said that she never had any interest in going there. At that time I didn’t understand what the big deal was and now I do.

It is the thought that people can discriminate against a group easier than individuals, because there are no faces to put to those thoughts of yours. I come away knowing that most of Germany had nothing to do with it. I also understand better more how prejudices are formed.


Day 13: Krakow – Turning Point

by Mike on August 16, 2010

Yesterday it hit me, exactly what Joseph had saved my family from. We went to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland .

There they had quotes from survivors and faces of peoples during the pogroms during WII and they ripped my heart right out of my body. These people, now adults had quotes on the walls of what they remembered as kids happening to them and their families. One example was a woman who remembered hiding under some planks of wood underneath a home for months, only able to move at night to find some water.

Joseph didn’t just save my family from the horrors of the Polish/Soviet War, he saved them from being one of those horrified faces in the pictures I saw yesterday. Reading books, seeing movies and talking to people about horrific events gives you about half the emotional reaction than what you get when you see the pictures of what happened right where you are standing.

This was our first stop in Poland and really the beginning of the biggest part of our journey, our trek across true Eastern Europe. It was a turning point for me on a road filled with gratitude towards my ancestors and reflection on how I can use all this new knowledge to better my life and the lives of people around me.

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Day 12: Poland – Sweaty

by Zack on August 15, 2010

In 1902, the first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier in Buffalo, New York. After graduating from Cornell University, Carrier, a native of Angola, New York, found a job at the Buffalo Forge Company. While there, Carrier began experimentation with air conditioning as a way to solve an application problem for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York, and the first “air conditioner,” designed and built in Buffalo by Carrier, began working on 17 July 1902.

108 years later, this technology has yet to make it to Poland.

Haha, I kid, I kid. Kind of.

We spent about 8 hours on trains yesterday traveling from Prague to Krakow. The first hint of trouble arrived when we were told that we were on the right train, but the wrong part of the train. The car we were in would disconnect at some random town and head to Slovakia. This was disconcerting, to say the least. Then, immediately after our education, the hallways filled with about 45 Czech High Schoolers. This made our attempt at escape and relocation more difficult than necessary.

After finally making it to the new car, we were met with 90 degree heat, closed windows and no airconditioning. We arrived at our transfer point, Katowice, 5 minutes late and missed our connecting train. Our attempts to arrange new transportation were stymied by our lack of Polish language skills and the general disfunction of this railway stop.

But we made it to Krakow. Our hostel was sparse, and as humid and sweaty as the train. So we headed out for a bite to eat. A hip little Italian joint (everything is Italian food here) seemed inviting and at least had ceiling fans.

These did not help. So much as our travel was and our sleeping promised to be, we had a sweaty meal.

But all is well in Krakow, and Sunday was a productive day that is not yet over. So stay-tuned for some serious Jew on Jew education as Mike and I get to the meat of the journey in Galicia.


Day 11: Prague – Josefov

by Zack on August 15, 2010

We ran into a little train issue and spent an extra day in Prague as a result. So we got a little creative. We had already filmed some B-Roll of the Jewish quarter – called Josefov after a Czech ruler who opened Prague a bit to the Jews – but decided to return and try to snap some audio from a free tour of the city.

We were happy with the results, as the smart and energetic Sara gave us a tour of the important historical Jewish sites around Prague. These sites include six synagogues, including the Alt-Neu (Old-New) Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue, as well as the old Jewish Town Hall and the visually stunning Old Jewish Cemetery.

Prague was an amazing city, and while it wasn’t part of Joseph’s journey, was a learning experience for both Mike and I.


Poland Past and Present

by Zack on August 13, 2010

One major theme of our trip (and eventual screenplay and documentary) is the past in the present. Nowhere, it seems, does the past rear its head so much as in Poland*. And as we get ready to enter this curious nation with a storied history, we have to be prepared ti encounter both Poland’s past and present.

On Monday we will visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The location of such a storied site of evil within Poland’s borders presents an unfortunate situation that still rears its head today. Writing at the Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog T.P. relays a recent complaints petitioned by the Britain-based Labor Friends of Poland regarding the continued vagaries in numerous press outlets concerning Poland’s role in the camp. The petition reads:

We remain appalled that the press and other media outlets in this country can still freely publish absurd and potentially defamatory references to ‘Polish concentration camps’. They do so without taking any heed of the concerns in the Polish community in this country about the false picture that these descriptions give of the Polish people’s own heroic struggle against the occupation of their country by Nazi Germany

It is, of course, important to recognize that Poland had a strong exiled government which fought wholeheartedly against the Nazi occupation of World War II. And it’s unfortunate that obfuscation, intentional or not, continues to cloud the role of Poland during this period. As T.I. concludes:

Many may dismiss the complaint as typical Polish prickliness. But that would be unfair. Having seen first their country, and then their own version of history, obliterated by foreign force of arms, it is quite understandable that Poles resent outsiders, whether out of laziness or malice, distorting the real course of events, particularly to the point where, grotesquely, the victims are tarred as perpetrators.

So, take from that what you will. Just thought a timely story could provide a little bit of context about an important site Mike and I will be visiting as we enter Poland this weekend.

*For instance, if you have any interest on Poland in general from our trip, you may want to consider reading Norman Davies’ Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present.


This journey is taking a bit of an emotional toll for me. I’ve been on the road before, for long periods of time, but never with any actual responsibility. I’ve traveled a bit through Europe, and just this June spent the month in Italy traveling and studying. But usually these trips are holiday or vacation and do not require the focus, attention or self-discipline that the rigorous schedule we have set requires.

Being in Europe 9 days has felt like two months.

I’m a generally anxious person, and am constantly fretting over whether what we are finding, shooting, researching is up to the level and expectations of the support we have received from everyone who is reading this. $10,ooo – about what we raised – is a very significant amount of money, and it is unlikely we will get a chance to come back here to reshoot anything. So we get one take. And it counts.

This scares the hell out of me.

Because of the pressure we’re putting on ourselves, Mike and I have resorted to being the bigger person when the other is struggling a bit (which is usually me; I’m moody, erratic, and tend to consider myself a loner, which makes life 24/7 with me difficult). On a bad travel day from Berlin, Mike constantly sang for me to be positive, that it all works out. And it did.

Thursday, in an effort to get the day started on a positive note, we went in for a start-of-the-day high-five. I put a bit too munch oomph into it, went through Mike’s hand and down his face, knocking his sunglasses to the ground and popping one of the lenses out. An inauspicious beginning if ever there was one, we recovered from this disaster by laughing about as hard as humanly possible, in the middle of a busy Prague Street, for 5 minutes.

While the act itself was a failure, it’s the type of incident that makes us closer and puts us in an upbeat mood for the rest of the day.

And the day continued well, with a very supportive and helpful talk with Mike’s former screenwriting professor Pepe Lustig – who has significant experience himself with the field of documentaries. Pepe was generous with his praise for the story and his advice on what we can do to maximize the message that we are trying to send with it. It proved to be just the type of early trip boost that I needed to motivate me for the next stage.

And that next stage is Poland. On Saturday we enter the heart of the Pale of Jewish Sentiment; Joseph’s home country for the first 17 years of his life; the place he hated so much, yet returned to when a higher purpose called. And while I am struggling a bit emotionally, I am inspired by Joseph in a way that is perhaps cliched and corny and over-wrought, but also in a way that opens my eyes to the luxuries I have in my life – love, family, friendship. This trip has so far helped me put those luxuries in perspective and realize that whatever struggles I have, it is nothing compared to that which has come before me in the Kershner family.

I take comfort in that. At this point in my life, to enjoy what I am doing and who I am with is a gift. And I will work to tell this story the best that I can; give it the best effort that I can. I owe it to those in my life and to everyone who has faced down a journey like Joseph’s and defeated it.

Today is August 13, 2010. Today I turn 29 years old.