Judith Baumel

Happy Birthday Maria Skłodowska (7 November 1867)

October 31st, 2010

It’s not an understatement to say she was the hero of my childhood after  I read a children’s biography and then the biography her daughter wrote.  I decided my life—as another science-focused daughter of school-teachers—should imitate hers.

In Sancellemoz, just before her death

Image in Museum, of M S-C in Sancellemoz, just before her death

And then I forgot about her until a recent visit to the museum run by the Polish Chemical Society. The Maria Skłodowska -Curie Museum is at ulica Freta, 16,  where she was born.  Her life story floods back, seeing one of her dresses by her desk.  She chose this style for her wedding dress because it was heavy and dark and she could also use it for a lab coat.  A woman scientist. A woman scientist whose husband worked for her.  A woman scientist who even had a husband,  and children. The first woman to win a Nobel prize.  The only woman to win two Nobels in two different fields.  The first woman professor  at the Sorbonne.  The first and only woman interred in the Paris Pantheon.  The mother and mother-in-law of Nobel Prize winners.

Marie Curie's Dress and Desk

Marie Curie's Dress and Desk

It is not an understatement to say Skłodowska-Curie had a difficult life.  Her mother died when Maria was eleven.  She worked as a governess to afford her school fees.   Her personal life was filled with erotic complications.    Her husband and collaborator, Pierre, died young.  Crossing the street on a rainy afternoon, he was crushed by a horse-drawn wagon.  After Maria recovered from the loss, she had a brief affair with Pierre’s former student, a younger married man.  The Nobel committee asked her not to attend the ceremony for her second prize after the press published what they said were the adulterous couple’s private letters.  The ensuing scandal included a duel and a sharp rebuttal to the Nobel committee which all working women should keep handy in their briefcase:  “there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”

She nursed her grudges and turned them into accomplishments, even as she suffered from what looks to contemporary biographers as depression.  She was also good at self-mythology, highlighting her professional passions and shaping her narrative as one of hard-won triumph against all odds.  She always called her lab, a pretty decent set-up for its time, her “shed.”  She likely would have appreciated the Walter Pigeon/Greer Garson bio-pic, because its distortions romanticize her marriage.

Greer Garson as Marie Curie

Only now do I assemble details I gleaned at different moments in my life.   In a summer program for high school physics students, studying relativity and quantum mechanics at Cornell,  I learned about the the first great Solvay Conference (Topic:  La théorie du rayonnement et les quanta).   But I didn’t learn that Skłodowska-Curie was there among the founding fathers of modern physics.  Rutherford and Bohr needed her work to figure out the nature of the atom.  Her lover, Paul Langevin, was there with her but he hadn’t yet won his Nobel Prize.  She also attended the famous fifth conference (1927: Electrons et photons).  That’s the one at which Einstein supposedly said, in response to Werner Heisenberg,  “God does not play dice.”

1911 Solvay Class Picture.      Seated (L-R): Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Marie Curie, and Henri Poincaré.     Standing (L-R): Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, and Paul Langevin.

1911 Solvay Class Picture. Seated (L-R): Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Marie Curie, and Henri Poincaré. Standing (L-R): Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, and Paul Langevin.

In childhood, I focused on  her  impressive dedication.  The hours and hours she spent extracting small samples of uranium from tons of pitchblende–and extracting polonium and radium from the remaining slag–were a  martyrdom to the highest purpose.  If I’d been asked, I would have said Madame Curie was French, but I felt she was a citizen of science,  the first and eternal Prime Minister of the nation of women scientists.

It’s clear  to me in this museum on the edge of Old Town that she was also a citizen of Poland-of-the-imagination.  Her heart belonged to the Poland of Mickiewicz and Chopin.  She was nationalistic enough and sentimental enough to name the first element she discovered Polonium.   And she had enough political sharpness to enjoy how the name called attention to a motherland then under control of the Russian empire.

I can’t resist a strange contemporary tidbit.  Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s element is the poison used in the 2007 killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko .  It also killed her daughter, Nobel laureate Irena Joliot-Curie,  after a lab accident.

IMG_7091

In an ABC radio presentation by Robyn Williams,  science writer Marcus Chown announced his Silly Science Awards for 2009.  Marie Curie receives one for Easiest Notebooks to Read at Midnight During a Powercut.  Chown explains:  “You may or may not know that her notebooks are classed as intermediate nuclear waste, and kept in lead lined boxes in Paris [in the Bibliothèque nationale de France].  It seems her fingers were so impregnated with radium and polonium that everything she touched was too.  In fact, if you were to put a photographic plate against one of her notebook pages and develop it, you would see her fingerprints gradually swimming into view.”

Yes.  She loved the warm feel of the elements as they irradiated her hand.  She loved the blue glow of a bedside test tube.  She understood at least some of the power of these elements she isolated.    She inferred from their characteristics that radiation has a medical use.  She developed safety protocols and outfitted vans–little Curies–which she drove to battle sites of World War I.   Do not scoff at a woman who suffered so badly that she lost the tips of her fingers, was nearly blind with cataracts and crippled with spinal problems, yet continued to work barehanded with this source of energy and healing.  I bet you love someone who has consciously chosen this primitive technique to stay the course of cancer because we still don’t have anything better.

After she became famous, she refused requests to return to Poland permanently.  It was still the country she left because, as a young woman, and a Polish speaker, the only way she could gain an advanced education was through the illegal Uniwersytet Latający— the “Flying” or “Floating” University.   Fellow Polish Nobel laureate, novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz  [Quo Vadis], made a personal request and she declined.

This birthplace museum promulgates a biography focused on her love for Poland.  It moves quickly from her orphan-hood in Warsaw to 1925 when she fulfills parental hopes by establishing the Warsaw Radiophysical Laboratory.   It seems a national tendency to understand being Polish as  a biological condition, rather than a nationality.  The mournful connection to soil trumps everything.  We learn that when times got tough, and times were frequently tough, Maria would return to Zakopane and the exhilarating peak of Mt. Rysy.  In 1911, after the Nobel committee scandal, she brought her daughters to a retreat in the Tatra Mountains which, the museum tells us, “were the embodiment of freedom in the country which did not exist on any map.”

Simchat Torah, or Not Dancing in Warsaw

October 29th, 2010

From above, shivering in the women’s balcony of the Nozyk Synagogue, I can see the lamed, clearly, and then I see the bet. The lamed is the last letter of Yisrael, the last word of the Torah. The bet is the first letter of the first word: Bereishit (At the Beginning). I am weeping over Moses dying before he can see his people live in freedom in their own land.

Nozyk Synagogue

Nozyk Synagogue

I am in the last of four hundred synagogues in one of the greatest Jewish cities where the small group of contemporary Jews in Warsaw is led by the American rabbi Michael Schudrich. Charismatic and energetic, Rabbi Schudrich uses the non-governmental title Chief Rabbi of Poland though he is well- connected to–and influential with–the Polish government.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich

Rabbi Michael Schudrich

This synagogue was new at the turn of the twentieth century. It is big, it is beautiful, it shares the affectations of many urban synagogues of post-Enlightenment Europe. It is as elegant as the churches that loomed for centuries over the streets which Jews had only lately been permitted to build in.

I can’t believe that any of the roughly two dozen men I see now ever prayed here before the war. Or ever knew anyone who prayed here before the war.

Where did the they come from? More precisely, where have they been? By the end of communism, there were no  Jewish people in Poland. The Germans did a ruthless job, and the Communists cleaned up the rest, in waves, until 1968 made it definitively impossible to live as a Polish Jew.

My father often said that a Jew can walk into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and know exactly what is going on. He meant that our link through the text of prayer is what makes the Jews a people.

This rag-tag group gives me the feeling that I might as well be praying among international expats in Hong Kong for all that I’m linked, physically, to my ancestors.

But it is impossible to forget that Nazis stabled their horses in this sacred place, impossible to forget the way one third of the city’s population were disposed of. Poland’s current interest in fixing the Jewish problem doesn’t manage to stitch together the actual genealogical rope that was cut, and cut again, and cut yet again.

“Rejoice on Simḥat Torah.” Simḥat Torah flag, Eastern Europe, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Woodcut. (YIVO Moldovan Family Collection)

“Rejoice on Simḥat Torah.” Simḥat Torah flag, Eastern Europe, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Woodcut. (YIVO Moldovan Family Collection)

Simchat Torah is the most festive holiday in the Jewish calendar. Today I want to dance and sing. Joy in Torah has every synagogue emptying its ark of every Torah, and parading these scrolls around the synagogue in celebratory circuits.  Seven times.  Seven Hakafot. The only woman in the synagogue when I arrive is praying the morning silent meditation. She’s young, very beautiful, covered in a tightly wrapped headscarf and exceedingly modest clothes—a hybrid of Bronx Modern Orthodox and Brooklyn Lubavitch.

More women arrive but the atmosphere upstairs is  stiff and quiet. None of us is singing the prayers.   I worry about offending local custom if I raise my voice.  It is  cold.  I’m uncomfortable in the tense silence.   Eventually a woman my age and her daughter, with strong voices and a kavanah I recognize, join us. At Kiddush, I learn she is Helise Lieberman principal of the Lauder Morasha Day School in Warsaw. Today’s Ba’al Tefiliah is her husband, Yale Reisner, Director of the Jewish Genealogy Learning Center.

"Hakafot" a painting by Shoshannah Brombacher

"Hakafot" a painting by Shoshannah Brombacher

The men dance in big circles, and in pairs, and with the children. They set silly hats on each other. They climb on the furniture like monkeys and the children steal the shoes they’ve set aside.  Still, not one woman dances. Not with another, not even swaying to herself.  Our wildest activity is tossing a single modest Milky Way candy on a man reading from the bimah. We use a  stuffed bear in a sporadic game of catch from our balcony to the children in the main well of the sanctuary. When Yale Reisner starts the musaf, he drapes himself in an extra tallit and others drape him in more. Then in a sheet of blue plastic. As he begins the prayer for rain– Mashiv HaRuach u’Morid Hageshem–his daughter pours water from a plastic cup on him.

Every synagogue has its customs.  Some, like mock rain, are new to me. Others,  I haven’t seen in fifty years. A man brings out paper flags on wooden sticks and I remember the little depressing apples stuck on top of the flags of my childhood. How my mother competitively told me she had it worse. Her Brownsville flags were topped with “bokser,” St. Johns Bread, dried carob pods from the holy land.   Contemporary hakafot in New York are marked by adults throwing pounds of candy and children begging for more candy.

Bokser -- Carob Pods

Bokser -- Carob Pods

In the Nozyk Synagogue I hear the old tunes like a big comforting feather bed. The people who taught me  brought them from over here. I wonder if  some of the important  Warsaw Jews prayed here.  Did Abraham Joshua Heschel or S. An-ski or I. L. Peretz ever stare as the Moorish arches of the choir while brooding about his latest draft?

Prominent Jewish writers, Warsaw, 1922. (Left to right) Esther (Esye) Elkin and her husband, director and actor Mendl Elkin; playwright Perets Hirshbeyn; poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg; Khane Kacyzne and her husband, the writer and photographer Alter Kacyzne; and poet Esther Shumiatsher, later married to Hirshbeyn. (YIVO)

Prominent Jewish writers, Warsaw, 1922. (Left to right) Esther (Esye) Elkin and her husband, director and actor Mendl Elkin; playwright Perets Hirshbeyn; poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg; Khane Kacyzne and her husband, the writer and photographer Alter Kacyzne; and poet Esther Shumiatsher, later married to Hirshbeyn. (YIVO)

The familiar songs force a revision of my father’s assertion. We do not have to choose between liturgy and geography. That’s a chicken and egg problem. While I do not have to be on ulica Twarda, 6 to connect to the Jews of the last thousand years, or even to some distant relatives of the past century; when I hear the call  Ana Hashem Hoshi’a Na (Oh Lord, save us) modulate to the joyful and confident Aneinu, Aneinu B’yom Koreinu (Answer us now on the day we call), I am linked to the place where this prayer once was sung, is still sung.

Inside The Nozy Synagogue

Inside The Noszyk Synagogue

In Out of Egypt André Aciman sets out the ironic details of his last Passover seder in Alexandria . His multi-lingual, multi-temperamental family celebrates the biblical exodus on the eve of their expulsion from an Egyptian Jewish paradise.

Outside the synagogue, trailing the last of the seven hakafot, I think of Aciman’s exquisite agony. I am suddenly exchanging song phrases with a particularly open-faced teenage boy:  L’Shana…Ha’Ba’a …b’Yerushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem Rebuilt.  Silver-and-silk-covered scrolls are dancing around the building in a damp cold early October, followed at a decent distance by Warsaw Police and private security guards.  One old babcia has put her morning shopping  on the ground and is clapping us along. We are doing this a few steps from Aleje Jerozolimskie.

Artificial palm tree by Joanna Rajkowska on Jerusalem Avenue, Warsaw,  photo by Janusz Jurzyk

Artificial palm tree by Joanna Rajkowska on Jerusalem Avenue, Warsaw, photo by Janusz Jurzyk

Ironies of place. I want to know: did I. B. Singer, did Uri Zvi Grinberg, did Esther Shumiatsher, did Menachem Begin, ever stand in this courtyard?  Did “Jerusalems Avenue” signify only underneath their conscious thought as “Park Avenue” does mine?  Or did they play slowly with the irony and the legend of the street’s plural naming?  Did the Zionists stand here and decide to make literal the metaphorical wish for a translation to Jerusalem? Did the poets ask “Oh, Lord, save us,”  hereNow? Or did they breath this air, as I do now, wondering what, exactly an answer to the collective demand would sound like?  Did  they imagine, as I hope to, an answer from an attentive deity?

Art and Political Imagination

October 21st, 2010

2010 is Chopin Year and Warsaw’s tourist offices are pushing it hard, highlighting the brand new Chopin Museum and the electronic musical Chopin Benches around the city. The Chopin Museum doesn’t have a lot of Chopin artifacts, the kind of things I want when I go to an artist’s house. I like a slightly worn chaise with a suggestive stain or a strangely diminutive writing desk to instigate elaborate fantasias of the life of the artist.

Ostrogski Palace,

Ostrogski Palace,

Even the magnificent reconstructed rooms of its Ostrogski Palace don’t evoke the boy genius’s Musical Soirée triumphs or his later superstar performances for Paris society. In fact, you’re not going to find authentic Chopin objects in many places—too much was destroyed by love or war. In Poland and in Chopin-land reconstruction is the operative word. When you see his reconstructed birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, or the reconstructed family room at the Krasiński Palace, you will see notes cautioning that they have no objects associated with Chopin.

Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum has quite the collection and, until it closed for renovation recently, you got the old timey feel of a quirky curiosity cabinet, the personal collection of a particular family of princes, carted back and forth across Europe, in wait for a Polish nation. Your best bet for evocative objects is the Chopin Salon in Paris’s Bibliothèque Polonaise, which also houses the Musée Adam Mickiewicz.

In Warsaw you get the obligatory death mask and hand cast, some fine autograph and musical manuscripts, a pocket diary from 1848, trinkets, secondary material such as a scrapbook of death notices compiled in the weeks after. It’s all encased in imposing—and distancing–cabinets, and shrouded with ostentatiously evocative lighting and sound.

Chopin Museum, Warsaw. fot. Marcin Czechowicz

Chopin Museum, Warsaw. fot. Marcin Czechowicz

For this visitor, the main impression is a bewildering monument to techno museumology gone wrong. The goal, they say, is a completely individualized museum experience. So you get a badge to wave in front of the exhibits. The badge has a chip that transmits your language preference and your expertise preference (“for basic, for advanced, for children and for the sand-blind people”) and you animate your very own presentation. Sort of.

On a Thursday night in Warsaw, wave after wave of K-12 school groups pour through. This is the best part of my visit. School groups belong to a beguiling international culture. Energetic, happy to try things out, easily interested, easily bored, the kids swipe, they watch, they try each other’s cards, they shift, in hoards, to the next swiping place. Around the individual plastic listening pods that seem to come from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, kids jostle in scrums, swap places after a few notes, revel in the fun of pushing and shoving. They are impatient in a way opposite to mine: Less than six months old, a number of exhibits are already broken. Par for the techno course. I don’t care because I want stasis and silence and a single note to produce a contemplative moment. Which badge activates that?

Chopin Museum, Żelazowa Wola. fot. Marcin Czechowicz

Chopin Museum, Żelazowa Wola. fot. Marcin Czechowicz

The kids seem impervious to the didactic lessons on history and politics embedded in the bells and whistles. Surely they are well-familiar with the messages on how Poland’s greatest international artist came to be. Surely they have already seen a version of the map that fascinates me. On a screen in the room dedicated to his birth, a series of historical maps of Poland wax and wane making the terrible history of those shifting borders seem as commonplace and inevitable as the tides. Positioning Chopin as a political activist responding to partitions and border wars evades the more noble complexity of his art in and from a political world. It turns away from serious questions of themes and influences and inclinations and it lands right at the sentimental pillar of the Holy Cross Church in which his heart is buried.

Chopin Heart at Holy Cross Church (from the Polish Music Reference Center)

Chopin Heart at Holy Cross Church (from the Polish Music Reference Center)

Are the Polish school children thinking they share the same soil from which Chopin’s miracle grew? The teenagers cluster in soulful groups along the wide curves of the palace’s interior staircase. The pre-adolescents crush into dark corners and behind exhibits. The littlest ones run wherever they can, up and down the halls, in and out of salons, up and down the steep stone entrance staircase. All this healthy habitation within the space reminds me of a parental truism. The best gift for a toddler is the box in which an expensive electronic toy comes. Soon, the batteries will be installed and soon after that, some features will stop working. But at the very first moment, the box is the container and vehicle for the imagination and play.

Panoramic Tower, Warsaw Rising Museum

Panoramic Tower, Warsaw Rising Museum

The Chopin Museum disappoints compared to the museum it is supposed to surpass. It doesn’t come close to the brilliant, exciting, inspiring Warsaw Rising Museum. Maybe that’s because the subject of the museum is entirely different. Not about an individual artist, it describes an event in the history of the city. Its stated aim is to be a museum for “grandparents and grandchildren.” It defines and celebrates a moment of collective political will, one that gathers weight across generations. The brave and tragic rebellion in the summer of 1944 was a testament to the ancestors of those who battled for 63 days, and would become a moral compass for the succeeding generations.

Calendar Sheaf

You learn—you experience– this yourself. The museum plots time against space. Its floor plan is a pilgrimage to each day of the Rising, thoughtfully illustrated. You are invited to pull day-calendar pages from hooks, one for every day between 27 July and 5 October, each with a chronicle of the day’s events. By collecting the sheaves you make sure to tour all the exhibits, you mark your progress, and you create a souvenir that will serve as a text to revisit. The exhibits are rich in genuine artifacts, and in recreated scenes—the printing house, the sewers, the field postal service. The museum includes a library and archive and it presents a selection of impressive original video interviews. I couldn’t tear myself away from Matthias Schenk remembering, interrogating his experience as a German combat engineer in Warsaw.

Interactivity

Interactivity

Best of all, the Warsaw Rising Museum understands the relationship between noise and silence, between action and stillness. When I visited last summer just before the 65th anniversary, children were running around in the usual noisy clusters but also patiently learning and imagining. In the atrium beneath the Liberator B-24 airplane, a veteran was being interviewed for a TV program. Tourists and Varsovians, the young and the old were alternating between conversation and private meditation.

Hall B of Warsaw Rising Museum

Hall B of Warsaw Rising Museum, July 2009

In the museum’s outdoor art park is a mural by Rafała Roskowińskiego that pairs the heroes of the Rising with the heroes of Solidarity. Roskowińskiego applies the signature graphics of the later, more successful, movement to a collage of photos and simple captions. It’s worth visiting after a trip to the Panoramic Tower. Above the city a Plexiglas panel annotates the 360 degree view, noting which few buildings survived the war, which were rebuilt, what is still missing. After you see the continuing effects of destruction, it is good to remember the power of inspiration and creation.

Mural by Rafała Roskowińskiego

Mural by Rafała Roskowińskiego

Old and New Galicia

September 27th, 2010

I leave for Warsaw tomorrow.  And then I’m traveling to Lviv next week (3 October to 11 October).  I’m looking for contacts in the contemporary literary scene in Lviv, Zlolochiv and Przemyśl.  And I’m looking for people who may have been around in the thirties and forties.  Or people who can speak about the literary situation of the early twentieth century.

Zloczow Train Station

Zloczow Train Station

I am finally starting the research for a book about Galicia.  It’s called  Border Exchange:  crossing into a father’s mind and memory.  The project is a hybrid of personal narrative, travelogue, literary history, and translation theory about the experience and memory of the twentieth century in Galicia.  I intend to interrogate  the first generation American immigrant experience; and I will consider the tangled threads of textual meaning in 20th and 21st century literary and historical writing. I hope to look at the relationships, neighborly and cultural between the three dominant groups in that area, and will among other things consider the ways in which the Polish and Ukrainian experiences differ.

I’m focusing on 1) my father’s town, Zolochiv, and the poets who came from and wrote about it;  2) Lviv as a literary and publishing center—then and now; and 3)  Przemyśl, the town where my Ukrainian-American friend Askold  family hid Jews.

I have limited, kindergarten level reading ability in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish, but none at all in Ukrainian, Russian.  Nevertheless, I will be working with translator Alex Dunai and others. I am hoping you–dear reader– might guide me to the right people and the right questions.

Certainty and Chimera

August 19th, 2009

Once upon a time, a traveler might see Kiev as a city of certainties.  Now she sees questions.  The name of the oldest church means “Holy Wisdom.”  Saint Sophia was founded in 1037 when Kiev was grand and sure of itself.  Paris was then a backwater, at best.  King Yaroslav’s daughter Anne wept at her marriage to Henry I of France.  It banished her to an illiterate husband in a place where people ate with their fingers.  Anne was leaving wisdom and certainty.

Daughters Of Yaroslav The Wise, fresco in Saint Sophia

Daughters Of Yaroslav The Wise, fresco in Saint Sophia

Nine centuries after Saint Sophia was founded, architect Vladislav Gorodezhkii’s Art Nouveau cement fantasia, The House with Chimeras, demanded modern ironies.  Today’s question is why do police pull our driver aside en route to Bankova Street and The House with Chimeras?  We are all silent as the papers are passed, examined, reexamined, passed back. It’s not necessarily illegal to be in a minivan a block from the president’s residence, but it’s not necessarily ok either.

House of Chimeras, Bankova Street

House of Chimeras, Bankova Street

Tension between old certainties and contemporary chimeras is what the traveler notes.

In front of Saint Sophia is a statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky striding his horse, pointing his mace toward Russia. To Ukrainians, he is the Ur-nationalist.  To Jews, the Ur-Cossack pogram instigator.  Ruth Ellen Gruber reports that the original monument is supposed to have shown him trampling a Jesuit Priest, A Polish Nobleman, and a Jew.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument

Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument

The Friendship of Nations Monument–two glorious men under a huge titanium arch–is understood by all as a cynical item within a cynical name (though exactly how varies according to the observer). “And now, Abraham,” our guide asks my father, “which figure is Ukraine and which is Russia?”  She is clever, and quickly figures that he likes facts and exams.  My father guesses right, though the imagery is confusing.

Friendship of Nations, Arch and Monument

Friendship of Nations, Arch and Monument

Much more straightforward is Rodyna Mat (The Nation’s Mother).  Andrew Evans in the Bradt guide warns in a sort of aporia not to compare her to The Statute of Liberty.  Rodyna Mat looms over Kiev from within The Great Patriotric War Museum, a vast, empty outdoor complex filled with predictable soviet realist bas reliefs.  Her shield, emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, leaves little room for nuance.

The Nation's Mother at the Great Patriotic War Museum

The Nation's Mother at the Great Patriotic War Museum

Each of our three different tour guides makes a point of talking about the changes in what can be talked about.  In other words, each has a different take on her training in the soviet (or soviet-style) guide system.  Each has a different take on a past culture of silence and a current possibility of openness.  Each has a different explanation for the distance between the public language (Ukrainian) and private language (Russian, in most cases).

The waitress at "Home Cooking Restaurant (Domashnja Kukhnja) spoke Russian

The waitress at "Home Cooking" Restaurant (Domashnja Kukhnja) spoke Russian

Natalie, the old hand, freely talks about the soviet educational system she experienced in the fifties and sixties.  She is proud of her then-unusual Ukrainian language education through high school.  She talks with real emotion about learning the truth of how the city was bombed.  We were told the Nazis did this to our city.  We now know it’s a fact that the bombs were there when the Germans arrived.  Natalie applies a good dose of cynicism to most sentences.  She is eager to note that the Saint Sophia complex was preserved by a perverse soviet system that deconsecrated it and designated it a “cultural monument.”  And that more recently the complex was restored by Polish and Japanese businesses because the Ukrainian oligarchs wouldn’t.  She gestures to the head of Mitsubishi and his family who are touring Saint Sophia just behind us.

Natalie with Betty and Abe at Saint Sophia

Natalie with Betty and Abe at Saint Sophia

Natalie is a teacher.  The kind of teacher who loved school as a child and still loves it.  That’s us too.  Our group of four is relaxed and happy to stand at the Kiev city model.  It looks like every retro model I ever saw on a school trip.  I love it as Natalie points to elevations and primitive buildings on the edge of the Dnieper while explaining the development and then retrenchment of Kiev after the Tartar-Mongol invasion.

Our specialist in Jewish Ukraine, Alexandra, does not stop delivering facts, even as the parked bus becomes hotter and hotter, the facts less and less connected to what our large group cares about.  We are two dozen Jews from around the world determined to acknowledge what happened to our families during the war.  Alexandra is comfortable with the standard script, and is much less self-reflective, less full of resentments than Natalie.  But even Alexandra opines, on questioning, that poet Yevgeny  Yevtushenko was not speaking truth to power, but from power. His poem “Babi Yar,” about the September 1941 massacre of Kievan Jews, was officially sanctioned and thus a public relations broadcast on behalf of a government about to erect the monument to itself.  It needed someone to say “No monument stands over Babi Yar./A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone” (Benjamin Okopnik, trans).  Alexandra tells me to read Anatoly Kuznetsov’s censored Babi Yar: A Document In The Form Of A Novel instead.

Alexandra (right) at Babi Yar's Children's Memorial

Alexandra (center) at Babi Yar's Children's Memorial

Tatiana is mostly interested in the religious situation of the moment.  In her early twenties, pretty, modest, sober thinking, she works to create a good impression of her country.  After she tells us that the Pechersk Lavra monks and their wives have established various cottage industries within the grounds, I ask if I can buy Lavra honey.  She takes me to their gift shop, but along the way warns that they will be gruff.  They need to make commerce with the tourist but they don’t like to.  The small room is packed with pilgrims.  Sitting in front of icons, rosaries, all sorts of envelopes and jars, a woman looks up from her prayer book just long enough to say “nee.”  No honey.  Tatiana doesn’t ask again.  On our way out she tells me this is their way.  Indeed, much of the city is this way.

At Pechersky Lavra, from left, David, Abe, Phil, Helen, Michael, Judy, Tatiana, Betty

At Pechersky Lavra, from left, David, Abe, Phil, Helen, Judy, Tatiana, Betty

These differences among our guides represent more telling contradictions than those between the 350 Euro per night hotel room and the 2 cent beeswax candle at the Caves Monastery.  Than the matter of what to speak (and by speak I mean the rudimentary “dyakuyu” or “spaciba” thank-you).  Than the staggering high heels on the feet of what Barbara calls Hootchie-mamas, and the elegant scarves covering their heads in church.

I can’t figure why only some tourist places have their employees speak English.  The chain “Coffee House” has an outlet across from our Radisson hotel.  There, the counter girls, say “nee” and hand us a Ukrainian menu.   A few blocks away, at the “Coffee House” near the Opera, the waiter is eager to speak English.  He’s studying journalism at university, as well as English, Ukrainian, and Russian, his first language. And he’s got a menu in English.

It is easy to imagine that those who don’t speak English are merely refusing, as one refused to serve in the soviet system.  A few days later I am sure the Kiev language problem is a form of soviet-service-refusal:  As soon as we arrive in Berdychiv, a shtetl town less than 100 miles from Kiev, a mother and son rush up to our bus with table and goods perched on bicycles.  In minutes they are set up to sell us matryoshka dolls and trinkets labeled “made-in-China.”  They nimbly switch the language of negotiations whenever the buyer hesitates, in case she doesn’t understand “dva,” or “two,” or “shtayeem,” or “deux.”

It’s easy to imagine reasons for the competing certainties of Babi Yar where multiple monuments mark the history of murder there. The Menorah Memorial at the one remaining fragment of the ancient ravine. The hideous Children’s Memorial within the park of beer gardens and playgrounds. The Soviet monument, muscular but more symbolic than most of its ilk. The simple cross remembering the Ukrainian nationalists. The other simple cross to the Orthodox priests.

Menorah Memorial at Babi Yar

Menorah Memorial at Babi Yar

Babi Yar is not unique. Throughout the city, the confusion between kitsch and art seems a matter of false moral equivalencies, and not an expression of the tensions between high and low art.  Kitsch is everywhere present and everywhere confounding.  Think about the city’s many awful—and popular–monuments to actors, and to the characters actors played on stage and in film.  Think about the Mercedes town-cars with large plastic conjoined rings & teddy bears on top, shuttling newlyweds to their various photo ops. About Kseniya Simonova’s tear jerking “Sand Animation” on Ukraine’s Got Talent.

Actor Nikolai Yakovchenko

Actor Nikolai Yakovchenko

There is no more perfect place for Damien Hirst’s retrospective Requiem than Kiev.  No better place to contemplate the relation between art and commerce and popularity.  No better place to see a twenty foot photo of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and their collector/friend Ukrainian Jew Viktor Pinchuk.  The PinchukArtCentre building is beautiful. Its SkyArtCafé is a comfortable and comfortably ironic Austin-Powers-shag-pad kind of retreat.  The hip young couples strolling the four floors of the crowded museum are fun to watch.  And seeing the more than 100 works there, from A Thousand Years, (1990. steel, glass, flies, maggots, MDF, Insect-O-Cutor, cow’s head, sugar, water) to Away from the Flock (1994. Glass, steel, lamb and formaldehyde solution) to Floating Skull (2006. oil on canvas) to Nothingness (2008. glass, steel, MDF, aluminium and drug packaging) is the best context for questions of authenticity, mechanical reproduction, culture.  A kitsch-free zone, this is one place in Kiev that makes sense.

Damien Hirst Requiem

Damien Hirst Requiem