My grandfather at eighteen, walking in the streets of his childhood city with the ease you only have when walking the streets of the city in which you were born. And then those same streets collapse under him and that young confidence, that ease, just melts away.
What is it like when the city you are born in turns against you? Is it like the holes that suddenly open up in the grounds that surround the Dead Sea? One day the ground is there, and the next day – a kilometer’s diameter of nothingness.
I awake thinking the word “Sinkholes” and Google it to find that “A sinkhole is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.”
On my second day in Krakow, Pawel takes me on a walk and shows me “the good vintage store.” When I go there, early, I look at a 1980s red sweater with blue-and-yellow geometric shapes. Around me, men and women speaking in Ukrainian, while looking through piles of clothes, piles of home goods. I leave the sweater and walk away.
There’s a Iine of men, women, and children standing in front of the JCC, waiting to receive diapers, baby food, sanitary items. A toddler my son's age struggles to get out of the arms of his father, who shushes him gently in Ukrainian.
Is there COVID in Krakow? I walk into a store wearing a face mask. The shop owner asks where I’m from, then adds: “Do you still have COVID in Jerusalem? Here we have a war.”
I keep returning to this building, which used to be a Beit Midrash (a place of religious study). On its front façade, letters carved in stone read “קובע עתים לתורה” (“He who sets aside time for Torah learning). The first floor is deserted but the wind is blowing in the new white Ikea curtains on the second floor.
Late in life, my grandfather signed up to university. There were dreams of being an engineer when he was young. In 1939 his parents managed to send money for his future university studies. The money never arrived. What efforts must have been made to try and send over money they didn't have, internationally, in 1939.
He arrived to Mandatory Palestine on an illegally overpacked boat and was caught by the British who incarcerated him for eight months. When he was released, he didn't have money to buy a stamp to send his parents a letter. His Beit Midrash teacher, Rabbi Neria, would lend him the money for a stamp, for a toothbrush.
In his late eighties, my grandfather used to meticulously review the lists of offered classes at university each semester. Sometimes, I would help with signing him up. If the class was full, I would call and say, my grandfather is 88, 90, 92 years old. Would you please sign him up anyway? And they would agree. He would take the bus to university, trying retroactively to fill the gap in his education. Then, gradually, he stopped. He was worried about leaving my grandmother behind while he was in class.
Google is telling me the Beit Midrash is now a residential building. I pass by it and see that the building's front door is open, a big yellow trash can by the door. I walk in. On the right, there is a large sheet of false wood covering the entrance. There is a small courtyard on the back, with a table and chair. Its the kind of courtyards only locals know about. I think of how pleasant it must be to have tea there.
A municipal sanitation worker walks into the building and looks at me standing in the courtyard. I rush out and he takes the yellow trash can and closes the building's front door behind him.