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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Best Donuts in Poland

In Poland they are called pączeki, and the very best ones are from A. Blilke in Warsaw--we were fortunate enough to have some on our trip there (thanks to a recommendation out of Rick Steve's guidebook--the bakery is on a main walking street in Warsaw, Nowy Swiat, but we might have walked right by). They are made of an egg-rich but not-too-buttery brioche dough; they are topped with a fondant glaze sprinkled with candied orange rind; and — what makes them extra special — they are filled with a pureed plum jam scented (listen to this) with rose water (sublime). Aroma on aroma, but still surprisingly subtle. Plus, they’re small and, hence, not at all difficult to eat.
The bakery was established in 1869. Charles de Gaulle was once a regular. The Vatican was known to ring up with special orders for Pope John Paul II. Ignacy Paderewski, Poland's first prime minister, played piano there as a young man. Arthur Rubinstein and Marcel Marceau stopped in whenever they came to town. A. Blikle has been the pastry shop and café of choice for the Polish elite, surviving Russian partition, German occupation and Communist rule, the centerpoint of Warsaw's elegant shopping street. The street was destroyed during the siege of Warsaw, but rebuilt in 1946 to it's 19th century charm. And the donuts continue to be fabulous.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Warsaw Ghetto

Before actually going to Warsaw, my strongest imprssions of the Warsaw Ghetto were not from reality, but rather from film. It is Adrien Brody, gaunt, scared, and starving in the then empty streets of the ghetto, desperately seeking something to eat. Shoe leather. Paper. It didn't matter, so long as he could chew it. Such a powerful image. Then, against this backdrop of of unimaginable cruelty, the music that this man so close to starving to death plays evokes a shred of decency in a Nazi officer, who saves his life. Of course, this was not even filmed in the Warsaw Ghetto, but that is what I imagine.
The real experience of being in the Warsaw ghetto is nothing like that. In some places of atrocities I can almost feel the echoes of the people who have died there. I can't quite explain it, because I felt it strongly at Dachau and at Terezin, but not in Auschwitz, where so many many people were murdered. Some places just make me shudder, and I did not get that in Warsaw (again, should have--it turns out, i really don't have a sixth sense. I have something else). The ghetto here is bleak still. There are many buildings, not so nice even today, that have large posters, pictures of people who walked the streets when Warsaw had the most thriving of Jewish communities in all of Europe. It is an interesting way to remember.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Infused Vodka in Poland

Vodka tasting in Poland is fun fun fun. And a really nice break from all the bad news that surrounded the time from WWII up until 1989. Thre great news is that there are dozens of vodkas to try, and they are widely available. The second piece of good news is that you can buy lots of different types in small bottles that are 100-200 cl in size, and $1-2 each. So it will not break the bank to try a dozen in small bottles and decide what you like. My spouse had only one request for this trip--bring home vodka. So we threw ourselves enthusiastically into the task of finding our favorites to bring home to share. Our guide was a big help. On the way into Poland she offered tastes of two of her favorites--cherry vodka and an herb and honey vodka. Both were delicious and very unusual. It was an excellent beginning and by the end we had tried a couple dozen different vodkas, and purchased more than a dozen to bring home. We preferred the fruit infused vodkas to the honey vodkas or the herb infused vodkas. These all have a bit of sweetness to them, but compared to flavored vodkas available in the U.S. they do not have athe chemical flavor those have. We loved the cherry and the lemon best, closely followed by an apple vodka. But I highly recommend stopping into 'alkohole' stores and perusing what they have on their shelves. We found that more than half the clerks spoke enough English to be able to help us make choices, and the vodkas in larger bottles were all under $10 (with the exception of Chopin vodka, which is pricier). Very fun!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Clear (2011)

This is it. This is the movie of the nine nominated for Academy Awards this past year that I think was the best. 'The Help' and 'The Descendants' were right up there as well, but this is the one that I would choose. Which puts me at great odds with the critics, but then again, all the reviews that I read did not see the film through the same lens that I saw it through. Trauma has a ripple effect. It doesn't just ripple through a community, it ripples across generations. Thomas Schell, who is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center had an absent father. His father was witness to extreme trauma in WWII and he never recovered. That made Thomas Schell who he was--he bent over backwards to be a warm and involved father, where his own was distant and broken. Tom's son, Oskar Schell has an autism spectrum illness. He has the extremely bright on technical details, very poor on social skills form, with some of the supersensitivity symptoms--like hyperacusis. He is unable to clearly see that saying exactly what you think can be cruel. His inability to bond with his mother takes on a harshness that is painful to watch. So Oskar needed a father like Tom, and when he was murdered by terrorists, Oskar's rigid perfectionistic mind searched desperately for meaning in that. The movie shows how him methodically pursuing his self-appointed task of matching up a key with a lock, and all the people it forces him to interact with along the way. In the process, he starts to heal, and yes, it is in some ways far to neat and tidy a bundle, but in others it is instructive of how to deal with grief. There isn't just one way, and allowing people their personal path is far better than burying the trauma, or imposing boundaries that don't fit onto someone. So, it turns out that while I can enjoy a sweeping artistic tour-de-fore, like 'The Artist', I would rather have something that makes me think, and this movie made me think, made me try to project this horrible situation and how to cope with it onto my radar.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chicken With Apricot, Tamarind and Chipotle Sauce

1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste 1/2 cup kosher for Passover vegetable oil 3/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped 3 tablespoons apricot preserves 3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons sauce from chipotles in adobo 1 or more chipotle peppers from chipotles in adobo, optional. 1. Season chicken well with salt and pepper. Place a large heavy skillet over high heat and add oil. Add chicken pieces skin side down in a single layer. Reduce heat to medium and slowly brown, turning occasionally, until browned evenly on all sides. 2. Pour 4 cups water over chicken, raise heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Stir in dried apricots, apricot preserves, tamarind, sugar and chipotle sauce, including 1 or more chipotle peppers if desired for more heat. 3. Simmer, adjusting heat as necessary, until sauce has thickened enough to coat chicken, about 30 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Warsaw Rebuilt

Warsaw was leveld during World War II. Whre Krakow did a negotiated surrender and the Nazis left the city unscathed, setting up their command centers in the palaces of kings, Warsaw went down fighting. And they paid a very high price for their resistance. Before the war, Warsaw had 1.2 million citizens--half of them died in the war. In addition, the city was targeted for complete demolition by the Germans and 85-90% of buildings were partially to completely destroyed.
So, what happened in the rebuilding? Does Warsaw look like a city built in the last half of the 20th century? the answer is mostly no, not at all. There has been a noticable effort to replace buildings with something that looks like what was there before the war. Driving in Warsaw past buildings that look like a 19th century structure, our guide would tell us it was built 8 years ago.
The magic of that is undeniable. It wasn't that easy to attain, either. Blueprints were not available for these buildings. Many of them predated structural engineering, and anything that did exist was buried under mountains of rubble. Rebuilding Warsaw relied on old photographs and drawings, many of which came in through solicitations in Poland and abroad.
Warsaw's old town (Stare Miasto) was a walled city that was established in the 13th century. The Germans leveled it with more vehemence than the rest of the city so it was a pile of rubble. Immediately post-war, the rebuilding efforts began. Rubble was sifted and decorative elements that could be recovered were salvaged and reused. The bricks were cleaned up and put back into service. You would not guess that when you wander the narrow cobblestone streets that open up onto a gorgeous open court yard that is every bit as old world as Krakow. We ate dinner at a restaurant off the main square, and the inside was as old feeling as the outside. Thankfully this is not something that Hitler ultimately won out on. UNESCO named Warsaw's Old Town a World Heritage Site--so I am not the only one that thinks they did a good job.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Chopin in Warsaw

Frédéric Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810 of a Polish mother and a French father. He spend the first half of his life in Poland and the second half in France, but Poland definitely considers him a native son. The vast majority of Chopin's works are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces and some songs to Polish texts. His piano works are often technically demanding, with an emphasis on nuance and expressive depth. In 2010, for the 200th Anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth, Warsaw opened a new walking route that takes you to the 15 benches throughout the city that play a Chopin piece when you push a button. By following the route you discover the areas of the capital connected with Fryderyk’s younger days. Each Chopin Bench has a description of the particular spot and information on its historic links to the composer.
Bench locations: 1. Krasiński Square – This square used to house the National Theatre building, where in March 1830 Fryderyk Chopin presented his famous Concerto in F minor. This was also where in October 1830 he played his last farewell concert before leaving the country. 2. Miodowa Street – The entire social life of the capital used to be concentrated here. The local cafes, such as Pod Kopciuszkiem, Dziurka and Honoratka - the venues of meetings for artists and young people - were visited by Chopin almost on a daily basis. 3. Kozia Street – This narrow street used to be an important transport route in Chopin’s times. The U Brzezińskiej cafe was his favourite place to visit. 4. The Music Conservatory – The place which now features a square over the East-West Underpass used to house the Music Conservatory where Fryderyk Chopin studied musical composition. 5. Wessel Palace – This was where on November 2nd 1830 Fryderyk Chopin got on a stagecoach and set out on his trip to fame – to Vienna and further to Paris. 6. Radziwiłł Palace – This was where on February 24th 1818 Fryderyk Chopin, aged 8, gave his first public performance. 7. Saski Palace – The Chopin family moved here in 1810, after Fryderyk’s father had accepted a job at the famous Warsaw Lyceum, which used to occupy part of the palace’s rooms. 8. Saski Garden – This was where the young Chopin entertained while he and his family resided at the Saski Palace (the former seat of the Warsaw Lyceum). 9. The Visitants’ Church– In Chopin’s times Sunday masses for students of the Warsaw Lyceum used to take place here, during which Fryderyk Chopin, aged 15, used to play the organ, performing the function of the Lyceum organist. 10. Kazimierzowski Palace – In 1817 the Warsaw Lyceum, and the newly-established Warsaw University, were located here. The Chopin family came to reside in the right-hand annexe (the Deputy Rector’s Building). 11. Czapski Palace – The Chopin family moved here in 1827 and Fryderyk got a room in a small garret, equipped with a piano. The former residence of the Chopin family, located on the second floor, now features the Chopin Parlour – the museum of souvenirs of the great composer. 12. Holy Cross Church – the place where Chopin’s heart rests (there is nothing to see, gruesome as it sounds). 13. Zamoyski Palace – Chopin’s sister, who gathered the souvenirs of her brother, used to live here. In 1863 an attempt on the life of a Tsar’s governor was made through the palace windows, in retaliation for which all the tenants were removed from their flats and their entire property was destroyed. Among the objects thrown through the windows and burned was Chopin’s piano. 14. Gniński - Ostrogski Palace – The seat of the Fryderyk Chopin Museum, next to which the Chopin Centre is located. 15. The Fryderyk Chopin Monument– The most famous monument of the composer in the world is located in the Łazienkowski Park, opposite the gate in Aleje Ujazdowskie, near Belvedere. Music at particular spots: Krasiński Square – MAZUREK in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4; 39” Miodowa Street - MAZUREK in A minor, Op.68; 34” Kozia Street – “HULANKA” song; 29” Music Conservatory – WALTZ in E-flat major, Op. 18; 39” Wessel Palace – GRAND POLONAISE in E-flat major, Op. 22; 35” Radziwiłł Palace - RONDO in C minor, Op.1; 32” Saski Palace - MAZUREK in B major, Op. 7 No. 1; 36” Saski Garden – NOCTURNE in H major, Op. 9 No. 3; 47” The Visitants’ Church - LARGO in E-flat major (Op. posth.); 46” Kazimierzowski Palace - WALTZ in E minor (Op. posth.); 45” Czapski Palace – WALTZ in D-flat major, Op. 64 No 1; 42” Holy Cross Church – MEMORIAL MARCH from SONATA in B minor, Op.35; 45” Zamoyski Palace – ETUDE in C minor, Op. 10 No. 12; 42” Gniński – Ostrogski Palace – BALLAD in F minor, Op. 52; 42” The Fryderyk Chopin Monument – POLONAISE in A major, Op. 40 No. 1; 39”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

War Horse (2011)

This is ultimately a feel good movie against the back drop of one of the most inhuman and senseless wars engaged in by modern man. It begins on a small family farm in the English county of Devon. We meet young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), his usually drunken but not unkind father, Ted (Peter Mullan), and his hard-working, loving mother, Rose (Emily Wat­son). Ted is a veteran of the Boer Wars, and he returned home with a pronounced limp, a bad drinking problem, and a strong desire not to talk about it. Lyons (David Thewlis), the protypically condescending and unlikable landowner, presses them for past-due rent and they make a series of poor decisions related to a horse they name Joey. Since this is a feel good movie in the old time Hollywood style, Joey turns out to be a horse worth taking a risk for. When WWI breaks out, Joey is sent off into battle and straight away his rider is killed and he falls into German hands, where he remains for the bulk of the war. Despite his thoroughbred appearance, he is a horse who can work, and that saves him, because as we know when Germany is at war, if you cannot work, you are terminated. The rest of the movie is about how Albert and Joey are reunited, and come home from war together. Happy ending.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trying to Imagine Auschwitz

It is always a challenge to give people a visual image of the unimaginable, and at Auschwitz there are quite a few displays of things that were left behind. Items that people took with them when they came to Auschwitz in the hope that life there would be bearable, that were then taken away upon arrival and stored in ever increasing mounds in storage rooms are now on display. The above photo is of the cannisters of gas that were used to kill people--that is the most chilling of all. This huge pile is a reminder of how the Germans took murder to a cost effective level.
My favorite example of a visual impact memorial is the VietNam War Memorial. The names of the 58,000+ Americans who died in that war makes a visceral impact (which just couldn't be done in the same way for the 400,000+ who died in WWII of the 600,000+ who died in the Civil War). Here are about 80,000 pairs of shoes. One of the things that is heartbreaking for me is that people arrived with the most impractical of footwear. This was a muddy miserable place. Steel tipped work boots were what every one should have worn, not strappy little sandals.
Then there are the exhibits of things that must have been taken from people after they died. Eyeglasses that were never used again. It is true that if you entered Auschwitz, you did not walk out. There are exceptions, but they are few. The majority of those who had their suitcases taken away at the entrance, left their glasses without someone to wear them not long after. The image is both sad and wasteful. So many talented people murdered. Such a loss for us all.
Whether it was deception or a desire to have hope, packing a suitcase when your train is ending at a death camp is an image that is impossible to erase from your imagination. This exhibit is the one that hit my youngest son the hardest. All these empty suitcases, packed with prayers for survival, ultimately dissapointing their owners.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Auschwitz In Person

I am pretty sure that no one arrives at Auschwitz in the 21st century expecting it to go well. But the magnitude of the operation is hard to imagine without actually seeing it. So while I would not recommend it as your first concentration camp experience, it could well be your second one, and it could well be your last. No need to go further, because the enormity of the murder of civilians that the Germans did in WWII will be unforgettable. it is estimated that 1.5 million people were either gassed or died of starvation, forced labor, infectious disease, individual executions, and medical experiments. That is a lot of misery in one spot.
Auschwitz was yet another place that existed before the Germans arrived and was used by them for their purposes. Auschwitz had for a long time been a German name for Oświęcim, the town by and around which the camps were located; the name "Auschwitz" was made the official name again by the Germans after they invaded Poland in September 1939. Birkenau, the German translation of Brzezinka (= "birch tree"), referred originally to a small Polish village that was destroyed by the Germans to make way for the camp. Poles who were evicted from here were not left alone or relocated. Most of them were amongst the first to die here.
Auschwitz became too small to contain the numbers of people sent there--despite the fact that the average length of stay was a mere three months. Starvation would end your life if you made it that long. So Birkenau was erected--while there was a lot of burning of buildings at war's end--the Germans knew they were going to be held accountable for what they had done, and they tried seperately to destroy the evidence of it--when you look from the reconstructed wooden buildings to the permanent brick ones that were built early on with the bricks that were salvaged from dismantling the town, you realize just how many people were there.
Compared to the barracks, the crematorium seems almost modest in size. But it adds to the impression that this was an operation designed to work people to death, then dispose of them. It seems so unbearably uncivilized, but it happened in the 20th century, and it was incredibly wide spread, as well as well thought out. Everyone who the Germans loathed were to be eliminated. Simple as that. The xenophobic gene is a powerful one, and we certainly see some strong examples of it in our culture too. We want to keep them out rather than exterminate them, but Aushhwitz should be a caution to us all that we are not far from that brutality.
The conditions in Birkenau were atrocious, much worse than in Auschwitz, and perhaps they came about because there were too many people to house, too few resources to devote to it, and then the added plus that when you dehumanize people it is easier to be cruel to them and finally to murder them. They cease to be people in your eyes. These were the toilets, just shallow holes all lined up. No privacy, no sanitation--it is almost like why bother to make them at all. Why not just use buckets and force people to empty them somewhere else, they are so inadequate. But somehow this image makes it hard for me to imagine going on, if you survived this, how would you rebuild your life? Today, prisoners of war are treated this way. No wonder they are so traumatized.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What Matters

I love this now out of date picture of my spouse and children on the field of competition at Olympia in Greece. They have different hair color, eye color, and height but they got very similar hair from my husband. I turn 53 today, so time to take stock. Obviously, the thing that matters most are the people closest to me. These are five of them. But what comes next? That is the eternal question, and the answer does seem to change over time. On days of anniversary (I do like the French, because while it is the day of my birth, it feels more like an anniversary to me, so calling it 'anniversaire' seems right to me), I reflect. Not being a particularly introspective person, I need to capitalize on the moments that I get to do so, and today is one of them. It has been an active year of change for me. The biggest change is has been moving into a smaller house, one that I hope will be the house that we retire in. We have a ways to go in a couple of areas--I am not nearing retirement age by any means, and the house is nowhere near in good enough shape at this point to be able to assess if it will fit those needs ultimately. Worse still, we have not been able to shed enough of our worldly possessions to be able to comfortably say that our children will not have to sort through mountains of things we should have gotten rid of to find things that are worth keeping. That is the goal of the next 5 years--to pare that down. The other big piece of making a house for the next stage of life--for us, the post children stage--is that you have to reconfigure what you want in a house. What was beyond priceless for raising our four boys definitely did not work for when they were all gone. Hppefully we will get it right. When you buy a house that is very old and who's upkeep has been neglected for many years, you are taking on a number of big tasks, some of which go better than expected, and some of which don't. Every time you unpeel the wall paper or go into a wall, you need to brace yourself for finding something unexpected. We have had some good luck and some bad luck in this arena, and it is a good life lesson. Be flexible. If at first you do not meet with success, that doesn't have to be the end of the story. Change it. That is what matters.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tempel Synagogue, Krakow

This is the synagogue that demonstrates the wealth of the community that Krakow once hosted. The overly ornate interior is really not to my personal taste, but it does speak of a very rich past, and so it is both attractive and sad to be in it today. Poland was well ahead of it's time in terms of inviting in people of different faiths and allowing them to prosper. Kicked out of many other corners of Europe, Jews came to Poland where they had a role to play, and they were made to feel welcome.
In terms of history, it is a Reform Jewish synagogue in Kraków, Poland, in the synsgogue dense Kazimierz Old Jewish Town district. The Moorish Revival building was designed by Ignacy Hercok, and built in 1860-1862. The temple, with its tall central section flanked by lower wings, is designed on the pattern of the Leopoldstädter Tempel, in Vienna, Austria. At the time the synagogue was built, Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The richly finished interior is adorned with dense patterns painted in many colors and copious amounts of gold leaf, but the patterns, with the exception of the exquisite Moorish design on the ceiling, are not (according to Wikipedia) stylistically Moorish. The arch over the Aron Kodesh with its pattern of alternating tall and short houses is more in the style of Polish folk art than anything Islamic.
During WWII, the Kazimierz neighborhood was emptied out, and this building was used to store artillery. Another temple I was in was used as a stable, but storing heavy equipment in a house of worship seems like a way to rapidly deteriorate the condition of the building--but they did not destroy it outright.
The building has a no expense spared look about it, but the stained glass windows are simple, and seem incongruous with the style of the building. Because of the extensive damage to the buiklding and hence the extenisve renovation, I don't know where the design of these come from, but it is my least favorite part of the design (and I love stained glass, with light and color coming into places of prayer. Sadly, while the temple is gorgeous, there are no routine services that take place in this space. Such a a shame.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Schindler's Factory, Krakow

Schindler's factory has been changed from a factory to a museum, dedicated to what the war experience in Poland was like. It reminded me of the Lorraine Hotel and the National Civil Rights Museum--the site of Martin Luther King's assassination was turned into a museum that told the story of the cause he died for. In Schlinder's factory you end up in a room that has been made up to looke like the factory when it was in use, with a desk for Schindler and the list of the Polish Jews he saved.
The thing about Oskar Schindler is that he was much more like the average man than most heroes. He was a member of the Nazi party (the only one to be buried in an honored way in Jerusalem). He came to Krakow because he bought a confiscated factory and got cheap labor for it. He was probably not a terrific businessman. He had failed businesses both before and after the war--his great success was running his war time factory, and it also bankrupted him--just for a different reason. He used the profits from his Krakow factory to bribe Nazi officials to avoid deportation of his factory workers to death camps.
So here is the story. He was appalled by the murder of Jewish workers, some of them his, right in front of him. It was a proverbial turning point in his life. His factory was deemed an essential part of the war effort, and he protected all his workers by stating they had essential skills required for the running of his factory, and they were kept both fed and safe. When the Russians were nearing Warsaw, Schindler arranged for his workers to move to a factory further west so as to keep them alive. He used his personal wealth to protect people who did not have any other tie to him other than that they worked for him. Amazing.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dead Long Enough (2005)

The title comes from a quote in the movie. The basic story is of two brothers, Ben and Harry, from Wales. Ben (Jason Hughes, best known for his role in the Midsomer Murder long standing BBC Crime series) is a successful lawyer and Harry (Michael Deen) is a successful television host. Their issues as siblings seem much more related to their relationships with women than to any sort of jealousy about their career trajectories. " You know what archeology has taught me, Benny Boy? It's never too late. We're all a long time alone in a long box, little brother. We're all dead long enough..." The problem comes to a head when Harry and Ben travel to Ireland, where they have a shared history that they both agree was a happy time. The occasion is that Ben is getting married to a woman that pretty much everyone agrees is a poor choice for him, Harry included. This is to be their last hurrah. But it turns out to be emotionally complicated--Ben has left behind the love of his life there (and as fate--or the script--would have it, they run into her immediately), and Harry is petrified that Ben will find out that she slept with him once she found out Ben was leaving. It all comes out in the end, with some gorgeous scenery as a back drop. The film is very enjoyable and a good example of the romantic comedies that Great Britain produces--if you enjoy that genre, you will likely enjoy this as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Submission by Amy Waldman

This book uses the real life terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent attempt to memorialize those who lost their lives there that day as the subject for her work of fiction. She imagines what would happen if a jury in charge of selecting a ground zero-like memorial were to choose, from among the many anonymous submissions, a design that turns out to have been created by a Muslim-American architect. I really liked the authenticity with which the book depicts the actual events surrounding the attacks in New York, both on the day they happened and in the months and years that followed, and then the tweeking of the truth to make it more controversial, so that as a reader we can examine our own responses. The book not only captures the political furor and media storm that ensue when a Muslim American architect is , but also gives us an intimate, immediate sense of the fallout that these events have on the individuals involved. They include: Mohammad Khan (or “Mo,” as he’s known to family and friends), the architect whose winning design brings him notoriety and condemnation instead of praise; Claire Burwell, a wealthy widow and the families’ representative on the jury, whose early championing of Mo’s design later gives way to nagging doubts; Paul Rubin, the jury’s pragmatic chairman, who’s eager to find a politically viable solution to the whole situation; Sean Gallagher, a protester, whose brother died in the attacks; and Asma Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant whose husband was also a victim. The cast of characters contains almost no one who is entirely likable (Asma is an exception to that rule), but they all have aspects of each of us. The book also harkens back to another memorial and the controversay that swirled around it at the time. In 1981, Maya Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The starkness of her design, as well as her ethnicity as an Asian American, fueled controversy over her victory. Politicians, art critics and veterans excoriated her, and she was forced to defend her work before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. So we haven't come all that far, it turns out. The truth is more painful than fiction.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Jagiellonian University and Copernicus

Poland has a long and illustrious history of supporting education. Krakow's university was established in 1364 by King Casimir III the Great, after hr realized that the nation needed a class of educated people, especially lawyers, who could codify the country's laws and administer the courts and offices. It is the oldest university in Poland, the second oldest university in Central Europe and one of the oldest universities in the world. The university fell upon hard times when the occupation of Kraków by Austria-Hungary during the Partitions of Poland threatened its existence. In 1817, soon after the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw the university was renamed as Jagiellonian University to commemorate Poland's Jagiellonian dynasty, which first revived the Kraków University in the past. Worse still, on November 6, 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland, 184 professors were arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp during an operation codenamed Sonderaktion Krakau. The university, along with the rest of Poland's higher and secondary education, was shut down for the remainder of World War II.
Perhaps the most famous former pupil is Copernicus. In the winter semester of 1491–92 Copernicus, as "Nicolaus Nicolai de Thuronia," matriculated together with his brother Andrew. Copernicus began his studies in the heyday of the Kraków astronomical-mathematical school, acquiring the foundations for his subsequent mathematical achievements. Copernicus' Kraków studies gave him a thorough grounding in the mathematical-astronomical knowledge taught at the university (arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmography, theoretical and computational astronomy), a good knowledge of the philosophical and natural-science writings of Aristotle (De coelo, Metaphysics) and Averroes (which later would play an important role in shaping his theory), stimulated his interest in learning, and made him conversant with humanistic culture. Copernicus' four years at Kraków played an important role in the development of his critical faculties and initiated his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most polular systems of astronomy—Aristotle's theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy's mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles—the surmounting and discarding of which constituted the first step toward the creation of Copernicus' own doctrine of the structure of the universe.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Cameron Crowe has a way with a story that could be too sad or too sappy if not handled properly. He has a bit of a penchant for bringing 'real life' stories to the silver screen('Almost Famous', 'Jerry Macguire'). As a psychiatrist, I am attracted to this--I often hear stories that are unbelievable but true. I think that I would not find this remotely believable if I saw it in a movie or read it in a book. It takes skill to make those stories work. You have to make people see what made that story, as improbably as it is, happen. Here is the story. Ben Mee (Matt Damon) has lost his beloved wife Katherine to cancer. He was a journalist, but with his wife gone, his priorities are now to take care of his fraying family--teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Roise is so worried about her father that she is shunning friends to stay home to make sandwiches for her father, and Dylan is angry, acting out, and recently kicked out of school for bad behavior. So things have been bad and are getting worse. Ben decides that a change is in order, and starts to look for a house that doesn't remind them all of Katherine. The real story happened in England, but in the movie they are in LA--so when they buy a zoo (I don't think I am giving anything away here--it's in the title), it is in a gorgeous foothills setting that anyone could imagine falling in love with. Which adds to the believability issue--the problems of caring for large mammals in confined spaces seems to overwhelming. Ben throws himself into the process--he gets out his tool belt, he opens his checkbook, and he starts asking questions about how to deal with animals. Since I know almost nothing about that (I have had dogs, cats, fish, chickens, and one tarantula--which doesn't really inform me about how to manage tigers and bears), that part was enjoyable. The cast of characters is quirky, but I suspect that is a reflection of what you find in zoo workers. Despite some distracting subplots, this movie deals with death of a spouse and a parent and the aftermath of grief in an enjoyable but realistic manner. Nicely done.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tadeusz Pankiewicz and the Krakow Ghetto

Under the German Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, the Podgórze district was closed off in March 1941 and became what is now known as the Krakow Ghetto. Within the walls of the Kraków Ghetto there were four prewar pharmacies, all of them owned by non-Jews. Pankiewicz was the only proprietor to decline the German offer of relocating to a pharmacy outside of the ghetto, in the Nazi occupied city. He was given permission to continue operating his establishment as the only pharmacy in the Ghetto, and reside on the premises. His staff were given passage permits to enter and exit the ghetto for work. Whatever his motivations were to begin with, we can only guess. The neighborhood was not Jewish beforehand, so why he chose this risky path we do not know (he did write a book himself, but the reason he is best known is from the book on Oskar Schindler, which Spielberg brought to the silver screen). But whatever it was, he made a difference in the lifes of those who did not have a choice about being there. The often-scarce medications and pharmaceutical products supplied to the ghetto's residents, often free of charge, substantially improved their quality of life. In effect, apart from health care considerations, they contributed to survival itself. In his published testimonies, Pankiewicz makes particular mention of hair dyes used by those disguising their identities and tranquilizers given to children required to keep silent during Gestapo raids. The pharmacy became a meeting place for the ghetto's intelligentsia, and a hub of underground activity. Pankiewicz and his staff, Irena Drozdzikowska, Helena Krywaniuk, and Aurelia Danek, risked their lives to undertake numerous clandestine operations: smuggling food and information, and offering shelter on the premises for Jews facing deportation to the camps.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Grief of Others by Leah Hagen Cohen

The novel begins with a woman, Ricky Ryrie, who is in a maternity ward, struggling to come to grips with the death of her baby. He was born anencephalic, which is a uniformly fatal birth defect. The book then proceeds to explore the effect this event has on the rest of the family. The scene keeps shifting from the time of the birth, a year later, and then to events that happened years before, which sheds light on choices that Ricky makes. We find out fairly quickly that Ricky knew she was carrying an anencephalic child, but she chose to keep that from her husband John, and her two other children, Elizabeth (Biscuit) and Paul. The major themes are the effect of loss on each family member, both individually and collectively. The couple have singificant communication issues with each other--she resents being the bread winner, and her daily commute into the city, and he fears her asking him to get a more financially renumerative job--so they dance around each other in silence, gradually pulling apart. RIcky has grossly underestimated the damage that her secret will cause, and she is not grappling with the fall out as a result of her choice. But all that is changing a year afterwards, and while it is rough going, things do get better. There is a parallel story about a young man who's father has recently died, and the effect that a fellow grief traveller can have on a grief situation that is stuck. The novel is great advertsing for family therapy--these people really need to talk to each other!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish Old Town

On a trip through Eastern Europe, this was my third Jewish quarter in less than a week. I was starting to get the idea. Jews did not live mixed into the society as a whole in these cities. They had their own neighborhoods, where it was not unusual at all to have several synagogues on the same block. Kazimierz was founded as a separate town by King Kasimir the Great in 1335 and was named after this king. In 1495 King Jan I Olbracht transferred Krakow Jews to the nearby royal city because of rising anti-semistism, which gave rise to its once bustling Jewish quarter and a major European center of the Diaspora for the next three centuries. With time it turned into virtually separate and self-governed 34-acre Jewish Town, a model of every East European shtetl, within the limits of the gentile city of Kazimierz. As refugees from all over Europe kept coming to find the safe haven here, its population reached 4,500 by 1630.
After the Second World War, Kazimierz, mostly deserted by its pre-war Jewish population, was re-populated, but it was not refurbished. it had been ruined during the war, and few original inhabitants returned, It was repopulated by the poor and the sometimes criminal elements during the Communist era. Many old buildings became empty shells. However, since 1988 a popular annual Jewish Cultural Festival has drawn Krakovians back to the heart of the Oppidum and re-introduced Jewish culture to a generation of Poles who have grown up without Poland’s historic Jewish community. In 1993, Steven Spielberg shot his film Schindler's List largely in Kazimierz (in spite of the fact that very little of the action historically took place there) and this drew international attention to Kazimierz. Since 1993, there have been parallel developments in the restoration of important historic sites in Kazimierz and a booming growth in Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, bookstores and souvenir shops. Not only that, there are also Jews from Israel and America. Kazimierz with Krakow, is having a booming growth in Jewish population recently.
It is said that the key to the understanding of the popularity that Kazimierz enjoys today is its unbelievable and lasting tolerance: two religions existed here for centuries in harmony. It is in Kazimierz that the massive, Gothic churches of St Catherine's and Corpus Christi sprung up alongside synagogues. Kazimierz is a hub of artistic endeavors.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tower Heist (2011)

I admit, I probably wouldn't have given this movie a second thought if it weren't for the fact that I am the parent of four boys. The fact is that I am, and so I have a 20 years history with this sort of film. It was not loved by the reviewers, and I am not here to claim that it is a great film. But I found it very enjoyable--a Rat Pack meets Robin Hood sort of film. The setting it 'The Tower', and that character is elegantly played by Trump Tower. The penthouse is inhabited by Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda--who is no Donald Trump), who is affable, from working class roots, and entirely without a moral compass, as we are soon to find out. The building's general manager Josh (Ben Stiller) keeps all the necessary balls in the air to make the operation smooth, keeping his boss (Judd Hirsh) off his back, and covers for his peeps (Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, and Gabourey Sidibe, to name a few--see where the Rat Pack reference is coming from?). The two other key players are Josh's neighbor, a small time crook (Eddie Murphy--again, one African American makes the Rat Pack) and a soon to be evicted down on his luck stockbroker (Matthew Broderick). Shaw gets busted by the Feds (Tea Leone) for what is alledged to be a ponzi scheme, and Josh feels overwhelming guilty for having invested all the employee's retirement funds with the shyster. What tips him towards revenge is finding out that he took the door man's life savings after he knew he was going down. So the help goes about getting even, and while it is wildly improbable as master criminal schemes go, it is entertainingly pulled off, and Josh manages to take from the rich and give to the poor. Which is almost The End. Minor plot twist to follow. I liked the blockbuster cast, and other than the 'Oceans' series, we don't see much of that any more.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shame on You North Carolina

Oh dear dear dear. Not again. Now now. Just when things seemed to be going so well. The Week reported last month that for the first time, those who support same sex marriage outnumber those who oppose it, and most importantly, those who strongly support it are as numerous as those who strongly oppose it (22% each). The very best news is that those who are under 30 overwhelmingly support it, so there are real glimmers of hope. Too bad that is not the same thing as doing the right thing. It is a simple matter of equal rights. Nothing less. You can thump your Bible all you want, and I will support your right to do so, but that has no place in a country that separates church and state. The Bible also advocates slavery, polygamy, and stoning your children when they disobey you--all of those have gone by the wayside. It is far past time for this one to be let go of too.
Sadly, the fight for equal rights is not behind us. The blue states are the ones where same sex marriage is legal and the maroon states are states are those that have a constitutional ban on it. North Carolina voters (60% of those voting) passed an amendment to their constitution banning same sex marriage, and became the 30th state to do so. They are not the leaders, but they strongly followed. On the other hand, the last time North Carolina amended it's constitution on a marriage issue was to ban inter-racial marriage. You can marry your cousin there, but not someone of the same gender. So that tells us something about the place. It is still a sad reminder of how we are prone to looking back rather than forward these days. As Amy Davidson noted in the New Yorker: "If there is a lesson in the North Carolina vote, it is that complacency on this issue is not a victimless stance." Happily, President Obama agrees, and has come out publically in favor of same sex marriege. Way to go, Mr. President.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Deviled Eggs

One of the things that I love about Passover, and the same applies to Easter, is that there are a lot of hard boiled eggs around. In Judiasm they serve to remind us that it is spring, and a time for renewal. Since Passover is a celebration of freedom from slavery and new beginnings, egss are a fitting part of that. Not to mention it is an ancient religion, and a little emphasis on fertility, while not appropriate in our over-crowded 21st century world, went a long way once upon a time. Here is a variation on deviled eggs: *12 large eggs *2 Tbs. mayonnaise *2 Tbs. ranch dressing *1 tablespoon Dijon mustard *1/4 tsp. garlic powder *Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper *1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh tarragon, chives, parseley, or chervil, plus leaves for garnish an anchovy can be added to the mix, but be careful with the salt in that case Boil the eggs for about 10 minutes. Let cool and peel. Cut in half lengthwise and put all egg yolks in a food processor. If you accidentally break a white while doing this, that can go in the food processor bowl as well (I usally have a failure rate of 1/2 white per dozen eggs). Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse till a paste that is of a consistnecy that can be piped. If too stiff, add more mayonnaise or ranch dressing until it is right. Pipe eggs, filling them generously, and garnish with a leaf of the herb you used.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Seven Minutes in Heaven (2008)

This is a movie whose plot slowly unwinds. It is not a tense unwinding, but rather one where we know the basics to begin with--Galia is a survivor or a suicide bomber explosion on a bus. Her fiance, Oren, is killed and she doesn't remember much of what happened. When Galia visits Itzik (Benjamin Jagendorf), a first responder at the bombing scene at his Gates of Heaven seminary she learns she was unconscious for seven minutes and was considered clinically dead. He shares a mystical tale about souls that rise up to heaven but are incomplete, telling her, "Our creator gives these souls a chance to observe the life they'll live if they choose to return." Although Galia scoffs, Itzik notes that a soul choosing to return might be able to change its destiny at the moment it reunites with the body. With her extensive burns slowly healing , Galia's memories of what happened that day are also slowly coming back. She begins to search in earnest for answers--and what she can remember--when she receives a necklace in the mail. She doesn't realize who the necklace belongs to and she doesn't know where it came from. She meets a kind man on the street, and she initially resists the soothing attentions of this new acquaintance, Boaz (Eldad Fribas). None-the-less, he is patient and the relationship deepens. He reveals some things to her, and her memory slwoly returns, culminating in the film's final chapterm, which puts a poignant spin on all that has come before. Very thoughtful movie that skirts around the edges of a society that lived with terrorism on a daily basis.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

I am not a David Foster Wallace groupie. Maybe I should say that I wasn't before I read this novel. All that I really knew about him I knew from my son (who has a passion for writers and writing) and from Mary Karr's memoir 'Lit', where she has a brief relationship with him after they meet each other in reahab. So I knew nothing about his extraordinary gift. He is arguably the best writer for writings sake that I have ever read. He doesn't necessarily have a good plot, or the substance and structure of a good story. What he does have is an enchanting way of writing. To the point where I found myself not caring that I didn't know where the novel was going because it was remarkable to be on the journey with him. I can't compare him to anyone. It is breath taking to read. So do we miss anything from this being an unfinished novel? Not that I can tell, other than the fact that it doesn't really finish so much as it ends. But then again, maybe it would have been like this if he had lived to finish it. As unfinished works go, it is the Sagrada Familia of unfinished works. Magnificent, so much so that finishing it seems unnecessary. I had to gush a little about the book before I breathed a word about it's content. It is about random people who work for the government. The IRS, no less. And it is positively steeped in beaurocratic jargon. The theme which weaves it all together is boredom. It is lovely, funny and sad, brilliant and dull, a pastiche of contrasts that somehow becomes the great American novel about boredome. One review I read compared what 'The Pale King' does for boredom to what 'Moby Dick' did for whales. An epic novel. It is too bad the Pullizer committee couldn't see it is worth it's weight in gold.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jews in Poland: A Krakow Reflection

Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world before WWII. Poland was the center of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. As the situation in other parts of Europe heated up, Poland became a unique shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and a home to the world's largest Jewish community. The Catholic church wanted everyone either converted to catholicism or gone--either expelled or killed. No exceptions. Aa a result of Poland's long standing religious tolerance, about 1/2 to 3/4 of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century.
Why was Poland so tolerant? On the one hand, there was support at the top for these policies. The king wanted it, so it was so. Kings and landowners were supportive of Jewish communities because they were travelers and traders. they knew that business, and with Poland lying on the cusp between Asia and Europe, there was a lot of money to be made in trade, and Jews had that expertise. The other advantage that Jews had over Catholics was they could lend money--Catholics were religiously excluded from that business, while Jews were not, so they held a niche that was valued. Which is not to say there wasn't persecution. There was. It was medieval times, after all, but Poland afforded Jews a life that they could not find elsewhere in Europe for almost 1000 years. Hitler put an end to that thriving sector of Polish life.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hugo (2011)

It takes gut to make a movie out of a book who's story is told almost entirely in pictures. I know, a silent film won best picture this year, but that was also a gutsy move. This one succeeds spectacularly, and every single character in it plays their role to perfection. So here is the story. It’s 1920s Paris. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy who divides his time between manually winding all the main train stations’ clocks and trying to repair a strange clockwork. These tasks entail him running around and peering out at things from behind clock faces --which does an excellent job of setting up who’s who and what’s what at the station, most notably that Hugo has to stay out of the clutches of the station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who seems to delight in throwing unattended children into a police van bound for the nearest orphanage. Hugo has a strained relationship with toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who has a stall at the station, and he is befriended by his granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz. He teaches her about movies and she teaches him about books. Gradually she teases out Hugo’s backstory: his father (Jude Law) was a museum worker who died in a fire, then his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) brought him to the station to help with his clock-winding job and promptly vanished. His father was trying to repair the clockwork figure before he died, and Hugo thinks (though he knows it’s crazy) that if he can repair the automation it will deliver a message from his dead father. In the end, the kids have adventures, the grown-ups fall in love, there are close shaves and narrow escapes and a movie studio that was made entirely of glass and a movie maker who lost his way. What’s not to like?