Thanking Mendel

The main purpose of our visit to Brno was to accompany my Uncle V. on his pilgrimage to the Augustinian Abbey, where Gregor Mendel conducted his famous experiments with pea plants in the monastery garden. Just typing those words transports me to my 10th grade science class where we learned about basic genetics.

It was not easy for us to find the Abbey, and we stopped several times to ask for directions. People were kind and eager to help, but because of the language barrier, we could not easily understand their directions. Luckily, we encountered a gentleman who spoke some English. He happened to be a gymnastics instructor in Sokol, the same method of training offered at the school where my cousin took gymnastics in Chicago. He was thrilled to know about Sokol in the US, and we all immediately bonded. He hopped in our car with us and got us to the monastery. I can't remember if he accompanied us on our tour and then we returned him to his home, or if he somehow continued on his way. In any case, he was certainly most hospitable!

As I remember it, there wasn't too much to see at the little Mendel Museum, nor were there many other visitors. I think there was just one large but dingy room with some manuscripts and the like. I don't think the gardens were open for touring but outside the entrance to the museum, there was a small flower bed arranged in a salute to Mendel's genetics experiments.

Outside the Mendel Museum, Brno, Summer 1990

Outside the Mendel Museum, Brno, Summer 1990

Today, while the Mendel Museum may still not be a huge draw, it has undergone quite a transformation, and looks like a proper museum with modern exhibits curated in partnership with a university.

It feels right to me to write about this pilgrimage on Thanksgiving Day. The very act of going to see where Mendel did his work was a big expression gratitude and appreciation for his contribution to science. I am also thankful to know about the museum now, a more fully realized tribute and a sign of a revitalized Brno. Finally, it makes me smile to think of our impromptu guide, the Sokol instructor. Such a gift he gave us, not only in guiding us but even more so in his warm and generous nature. Meeting him was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

 

Deprivation

We witnessed deprivation in Eastern Europe. It wasn't as pronounced in Czechoslovakia as it was in Poland, but it was there throughout. Deprivation and its accompanying fear. The fear that comes from a pervasive sense that one's needs won't be met. It was both a memory of deprivation and a current experience of deprivation. And there was despair too. Despair that there would never be an end to this deprivation.

It was the opposite of abundance. Everywhere we went, we saw bare shelves -- no produce in Czechoslovakia (in summer!), no milk in Poland. Restaurants weren't accustomed to serving meals, and stores had so few goods to sell.

An ornate row house in Brno

An ornate row house in Brno

And there was also aesthetic deprivation. The new buildings were all so ugly and cold and devoid of character. I wanted to find a peasant skirt to buy as a souvenir but I didn't come anywhere close to finding one. Everyone in Brno seemed to wear one of two, very basic skirts, varying mostly in length. We admired the older architecture and saw some graffiti, but in general there were so few outward expressions. It felt like creativity and sensory experience were shut down and had been for long enough that they were buried deep.

Graffiti in Brno

Graffiti in Brno

I returned home from the trip mourning for the lost yiddishkeit culture, but from this vantage point, I realize it was not the only lost culture. Everything was on hold, smothered. We outsiders knew that things would soon change, but the people we met did not yet seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


On a more personal note, I am finding that this month I am moving at a slower pace, wanting my writing to have a chance to develop. I have been drawing and journaling offline, needing that space alongside this online medium. I worked last week with fear and danger, spending time exploring what I am afraid of and what makes me feel endangered. I tried to start with the sensation of fear: the tension that rises in my body as an effort to protect myself from what I fear.

In my typical fashion, I quickly began classifying and found that everything seemed to fall pretty neatly into three categories: fear of pain, fear of rejection and hatred, and fear of annihilation. 

And then today, after a little meditation, I lay on my back simply feeling whatever sensations arose, with the intention of discovering what I would write about today. My mind traveled to Eastern Europe, and I immediately felt the fear, the pervasive fear. And so I wondered, which category does this fear fall into? And the word deprivation arose, loud and clear. 

Where does deprivation fall in my three categories? I found that I wasn't so sure. I guess it's most like annihilation: annihilation is kind of an ultimate deprivation. But maybe deprivation is its own category.  It's so basic: our need to be fed, clothed, and sheltered. Our need to engage our senses. I now recognize the fear of deprivation in myself, but wow am I blessed! The very fact deprivation did not enter into my thinking initially is such a clear indication that for the most part I am lucky enough to have my needs met. For that good fortune, and for all the abundance in my life, I am so very grateful.

White,  4.10.07

White, 4.10.07

The Land in my Mind's Eye

Juxtaposition,  11.18.13

Juxtaposition, 11.18.13

In my mind's eye, when I read about the Holocaust, I always see a grey landscape. It is bleak, without color or beauty. The light is dim. Clouds hang low. It is chilly and damp and miserable.

In my mind's eye, when I hear about my great-grandparents' life in Galicia, it too is bleak and unfriendly. Everything is dried up and spare, like late November. No leaves or greenery. Not even any snow to soften things. It is a hardscrabble existence. The land is not giving. It is like a dry, dusty, dirty barnyard. It is the remnants of gardens that offered up a few morsels to eat, some potatoes in the cellar. It is scrawny chickens pecking the dirt. It is cold and inhospitable.

And then, there I was, in Czechoslovakia and Southeastern Poland in early summer. Beautiful and green. Warm and breezy. Fertile planes and rolling hills. A landscape that was immediately familiar to me, friendly even. It reminded me of my beloved Wisconsin. Tall grass harvested for hay. Large colorful fields of poppies. Window boxes overflowing with flowers. Lovely and soft. 

And the towns and cities had stately buildings, charming line-ups of row houses, avenues, and squares. The villages had darling cottages. Things were a little rundown, but it was easy to see the faded beauty. There was nothing ostentatious, just pleasant. Attractive. Appealing.

Sure, the ugly gray communist buildings, unceremoniously and thoughtlessly situated, had an ominous tone, but they weren't there when my great-grandparents were there, and they weren't there when the Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps. They came afterwards. They cast shadows, sometimes dominating the scene, but even they could not compete with the hills and the greenery, with the skies and the fragrances. 

And now, all these years later, I find that I barely remember the beauty of the landscape. I look again at the photos with wonder. I look at images online with disbelief. The bleakness we often encountered in the people we met and in the almost desperate economic situation made me remember only the gray, only the pall and the heaviness. I am startled once again to see the greenery and the picturesque scenes.

One of our first stops was at Austerlitz, site of one of Napoleon's greatest victories. The battle was fought in December, and all the paintings of it show a barren landscape. But there we were in late June, and it was green and flowering. The land acted like it didn't know anything about the blood shed on these very fields many years ago. In summer, the land was productive and verdant. It was filled as always with life-giving grasses, oblivious to the countless lives that had been brutally lost upon it. And I was uneasy about this juxtaposition. I was touched by its ordinariness and its beauty.

Austerlitz was a preview of this same confusion that I would encounter at every stop, a paradox that I continue to wrestle to make space for within my mind's eye.

Non-Linear

After a month where the posts poured out of me, I am finding it hard to get going on this Eastern Europe trip theme. I am immersed in the topic but yet somehow I can't seem to figure out what or how to post.

There are many rational reasons for that: The trip was a long time ago. I didn't write about it at the time, my photos are a jumble, I don't have many souvenirs or other prompts. We didn't speak the languages of the places we visited and rarely had a common language with those we met. Everything was a little vague even as it unfolded. And then, of course, here in the present, I am busy, tired, sick and otherwise occupied by my day-to-day life.

But, I don't think that my lack of direction is about anything rational. My hunch is that the real issue is that revisiting this trip taps into forces far greater than anything I can describe in words or photographs. On this trip, we witnessed so much: the end of the Cold War and the unraveling of Soviet domination; the strange repercussions of command economies gone awry; the tail end of more than 50 years of war and oppression, difficult years that followed centuries of conquests and struggles for independence; the palpable and recent memory of World War II; the ghost of a culture almost completely obliterated; the remains of unspeakable horror, death and destruction. It was astonishing yet almost ordinary, foreign yet so close. We were there exploring our roots, and we found traces of roots that never really belonged where they had grown, but yet can never be wholly uprooted from that ground.

Our trip began in Czechoslovakia where it wasn't so personal, where the oppression was milder, the destruction lighter. I keep thinking that writing about Bruno should be simple...and maybe it will be, but so far I haven't been able to find any ease. I am realizing that I need to take some steps back and find a new approach. I cannot simply rely on telling this story in a linear or chronological fashion, but instead I need to try to capture a little of the swirling thoughts and sensations within. It feels important to go beyond the details of our itinerary or the images in the photographs. It feels essential to pay attention to the silent spaces and the ineffable currents.

And so, I restart this re-telling with a drawing. An image drawn from my mind's eye of Oświęcim, Poland, the town whose name in German is Auschwitz (the camp was on its outskirts).

 

"There are sunlit roads woven within the dark places."   11.14.13

"There are sunlit roads woven within the dark places."  11.14.13

12 Kislev 5774

Out of the Jumble

I'm sorting through my photos, postcards, and other artifacts from my trip, and it's a bigger task than I had thought it would be despite the limited collection. I broke my grandparents' cardinal rule and didn't label my photos. They're all in a jumble, so I'm having to go back to the negatives to attempt to put them in chronological order.  

I thought I'd start out with a photo (not my own) of our transportation... 

 

Opel Omega (ours was blue) -photo:  http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Omega

Opel Omega (ours was blue) -photo: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Omega

and our lodging... 

Image (6)-001.jpg

Somehow we all five fit in there fairly comfortably. We stayed in a pension in Vienna the first two nights, and then drove to this campground outside of Bruno. It was pretty nice with a big bath house and a restaurant nearby where we ate most of our meals. We didn't realize it at the time, but they were some of the best meals we would have during the trip. 

The first evening there we went up to a castle with a broad overlook. Bruno was, at the time, the 3rd largest city in Czechoslovakia, (now it's the 2nd largest in the Czech Republic). Although it was clearly a relatively large city, my memory is that it was very quiet, almost deserted by evening. It seemed that we were some of the only tourists in town, certainly the only Americans.

More from Bruno soon... 

5 Kislev 5774