Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Day of Victorious Research

Czyzewo is where it all started. This was the town where my great-great-grandfather Moishe Scwartz married my great-great-grandmother Paja Rythenberg, the town my great-grandfather Joseph left from to hit the US. Thanks to our terrific guide, we now know that 3 previous generations of Schwartzes (now Stewarts) lived in and around Czyzewo. It was and is a small farming community a couple hundred km NE of Warsaw. There's not much to do there today, meaning it must have been really bad years ago. I'm glad my great-grandfather left, as he must have been bored senseless, not to mention under-employed and discriminated against. Also, there's the matter of me not being here if he hadn't left.

We had just about the best day you can in the field of genealogical research. Our guide took us directly to the relevant locations, frequently bypassing lengthy lines of cranky Poles via a mixture of Government Savvy and heavy flirtation with the armada of middle-aged lady overseers. Immediately he dialed up the original books of handwritten records: marriage records, birth records, and death records. With a tiny bit of oversight, we were permitted to paw through these willy-nilly.

First we found the marriage record for Moishe and Paja (in 1890!). From that document, which listed their parnets -- brand new information for us -- we were able to research backwards, digging up assorted marriage and birth certificates until we got back to approximately 1815, which is around when Napoleon instituted the system anyway. It was a homerun of a day.

Before this, we didn't know anything except that my great-grandfather - Moishe - lived in Czyzewo. Today I know about 15 or so more ancestors, including information about where they lived, the time they lived, and- in some instances - even their occupations. (Lots of "day workers" in there, oddly.)

I must say, there is an incredible level of comfort connected to knowing that your family came from somewhere, that they just didn't show up from nowhere. My great-grandfather came over to New York alone, which has cultivated a lone wolf image in my mind, a feeling of cultural isolation. Anti-Semitism aside, it's evident that the Schwartzes were very much part of the Czyzewo community, that they had a home.

For those Polish-speakers out there, this is the official documentation of my great-grandmother's birth certificate from the Lomza vital records office, from 1865. Wow!
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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Atrocity Tourism

Put our toes in the waters of Atrocity Tourism this morning. We started with the only Jewish synagogue that survived World War II in Warsaw, which was lovingly restored but seemed a bit antiseptic. As one of our hostel-mates observed yesterday, Poland's Jewish sites have the feel of "here's where Jews USED to live."

Then it was to Pawiak Prison, built by the Tsar in 1830-35 (not sure which czar), but best utilized by the Nazis. During World War II, the Germans imprisoned 100,000 Varsovians (people of Warsaw) there, killing an average of 20/day. That was a statistic that helped me wrap my mind around the program. Then they shipped another 30,000 or so out to the death camps. It seemed that Pawiak was not used for Jews, who were all in the Ghetto, and got shipped out separately.

All that's left of the prison are a few cells -- the Germans blew up the rest when they blew up most of Warsaw. But the cells alone were difficult. Then, on to the Ghetto sites.

The current neighborhood around the Ghetto is, well, nice. Quiet apartment blocks, pleasant trees, and few reminders of the horrors of the war. There is a large memorial to the Jewish fighters in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (above) as well as another, less grandiose memorial, and a marker on the spot where German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt to ask forgiveness for the crimes of Germany against Poland.

There's also a big memorial to the train station where 300,000 Jews from the Ghetto were shipped to the death camps, but no train station. Just a nice apartment building. Must be an odd place to live, even if you don't believe in ghosts.

This afternoon was lighter. Checked out the Royal Palace, which is very odd. The Germans flattened it (naturally), so the Communist government of Poland rebuilt the Royal Palace to commemorate a government that it despised! Go figure. We did find the urn of ashes of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish freedom fighter in the American Revolution who came back to Poland to lead an unsuccessful rising in 1791. (Photo of me with Tad, above).

Then no Sunday in Poland is complete without a stop at church. We caught the final portions of late-afternoon mass, then scampered into Sacred Heart Church to observe the site that contains the heart of Frederic Chopin.

Tomorrow, we head out of town with a guide to look into some family history sites.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Warsaw Warriors

We have arrived!

Lufthansa labor actions and massive jet lag have been unable to derail us. We found each other easily. Our bikes are assembled and in largely functional condition. Nobody appears to have digestive problems (yet). The hostel where we're staying celebrated its third birthday yesterday, translating into free brewskis for guests. (No, brewski isn't actually Polish.) And we have yet to get into a major disagreement so far.

Some quick observations on Warsaw: it's a quiet town. Real quiet. Maybe that's because it's a Saturday in late July and everyone's off the beach, but for the nation's capital there isn't a lot of energy. Which, on the plus side, makes for nice and easy bike riding.

Today we checked out the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which commemorates the 180,000 Poles who revolted against German control in 1944. The Poles fought back because they assumed the Soviets - who were amassed on the other side of the Vistula River - would crash in and clean out the Germans. Instead, Stalin waited for the Germans to put down the revolt and kill off all the Polish leaders, as those savvy ultra-nationalists could be trouble later. 180,000 Poles died.

The museum looked very modern, but I don't think it was that effective--I'm still not sure how the Poles lost, other than overwhelming German strength. I also found the museum very Catholic-heavy, with much greater space devoted to important clergy as opposed to, say, the Jewish situation. Then again, someone in the hostel made the point that this is really a museum for the Poles, not the Jews--who have many other memorials--and while I'm not completely swayed by that argument, there's probably some value in that. A lot of value in that if you ask a Pole.
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Thursday, July 24, 2008


Today's the day. The flight to Warsaw leaves at 11:25 p.m., and then it's under way. One way I can tell this is not really a vacation is that I have butterflies, just like before a hearing in court. There are some reasons for that.

First, our research has been productive, but unsettling. Most of what we thought we knew about my grandparents' origins has been called into question.

My grandfather was supposed to be from Czyzewo (now called Czyzew-Osada), but now it seems his family lived mostly in Wollomin and Lodz. So we're going there, too. My grandmother's family was from cosmopolitan Odessa. She always said so. We KNEW it. Now it seems they came from a tiny village 200 kilometers to the east, the Ukrainian equivalent of Nowhere (and it seems that in Ukraine, Nowhere is really far from Anywhere You Want To Be). And the village was founded by Dutch Mennonites.

So things keep changing. This is the least organized trip I have taken since 1970, I drove across the country with Rich Zweig and Bob Aldrich. Actually, that trip was better organized than this one. We're spending the first five days in Warsaw, taking some side trips to places connected to my grandfather's family. Then, 25 days later, we'll fly home from Odessa. In between? Well, you can see the map. That's still roughly what we think we'll be doing. But it keeps changing.

How many concentration camp sites do we need to see? How long do we want to stay in Krakow, or Budapest? And will this aging corpus hold out through all of the cycling? A lot of my butterflies, I think, are anxiety over the physical challenge of the trip.

So, off we go, chasing the roots of the man in the photo, my father and Matt's grandfather, Milton Stewart -- they guy who changed the name from Schwartz to Stewart. As one of his cousins recently remembered him, he was always "a man on a mission." And maybe his most basic mission was to be American in every way, something he achieved by taking on a great deal of public service. He succeeded so well, in fact, that we don't know too much about his (and our) family -- and what we thought we knew turns out to be a bit shaky.

I couldn't resist the group photo on the right, a picture of Milt at an occasion honoring the Office of Advocacy of the Small Business Administration, of which he was the first Chief Counsel. You can see where we get our fashion sense.

May the Schwartz be with you.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bike in a Box

It's real.

My bike--working nickname: "Reggie"--has been officially dismantled--the handlebars, seat and pedals removed--and packed by stereotypical San Francisco hipster bike mechanics into a nondescript cardboard box for which United Airlines is itching to charge me an arm and a leg to transfer from SFO to Frankfurt and, Airline Luggage Handling gods willing, to Warsaw. From there Reggie goes to a local Polish bikeshop, where he will be reconstructed into his normal, sturdy, lumbering self.

I've been riding Reggie for a couple of months now, and our relationship is something short of love, possibly even short of like. He weighs a ton; his gear-shifters are stupidly placed; his cables were not set correctly when I received the bike. He moves in traffic like a drunk friend at a wedding; dopey, embarrassing, and all mine to clean up after.

On the other hand, this week I've been on my road bike to work (working nickname: Bananamobile). I feel like I've been shot out of cannon, like the parachute's been taken off my back. I got my 20-minute commute down to 15, and I know for a fact I can smoke any other bike on the road. Still, everyone says that Reggie's a good workhorse, ideal for dilapidated Eastern European roads and random acts of tourist terrorism. Stay tuned for a full report.

As for having Reggie all boxed up, I've been filled with the excitement - and responsibility - of having a secret weapon waiting to be unleashed. It reminds me of the day of my 22nd birthday party, driving back from the liquor store with my roommate. The car was loaded with a keg, booze, some of the best pizza in the country, and a couple of carefree college seniors six weeks from graduation. We observed that we were a party on wheels, that ANYWHERE we chose to set up shop would be the site of indelible, incredible memories.

That night we hosted,one of the best parties I (vaguely) remember attending, ever. Here's to Eastern Europe dishing up another gem on Friday.
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Monday, July 21, 2008

Research in Many Languages

Last week I went to downtown D.C. to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to try to do some research about the Schwartz family in Poland. So far we know what happened to three of my grandfather's seven siblings during World War II and the Holocaust. That leaves four more.

The archival research facilities at the Museum, and the support provided by the staff, are remarkable. The professional researchers there appreciate how difficult it is to track people through the welter of the 1930s and 1940s, and how many records were destroyed by war. They even provide free photocopying!

But for monolingual people like me, the project is daunting. The relevant records could be in any of four languages. A few are in Polish, from before the war. With many exotic pronunciation rules, Polish words confound me. Schwartz, for example, is most often spelled "Sczwarc" in Polish, but also could be spelled a couple of other ways. Other records are in German; some are in Russian, with that old nemesis, the Cyrillic alphabet. And the recollections of Holocaust survivors are mostly in Hebrew, which makes Cyrillic look easy!

These linguistic challenges create real misunderstanding. In The Lost, author Daniel Mendelsohn (a linguist himself) describes how his search for the story of a lost family was misdirected by his misinterpretation of a Yiddish word used by his grandfather. (There's a lot more in the book, too.)

We have already had a concrete experience of that. Our Ukrainian research associate, the first person to read my grandmother's passport who knew the Cyrillic alphabet, has questioned what town she was actually born in! This could be a long road.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Clarity of the Road

I'm very much looking forward to the mind-cleansing effect of an extended cycling trip. There's nothing like steady exercise and stunning views to wash free the clutter from my head, to lengthen my media-warped attention span, to allow for deep thinking (I can't tell you how many hundreds of novel/work ideas come to me on my bike ride). To let my hands uncramp from typing all day long. To not answer the phone or deal with hundreds of emails a day. Back to basics: physical exertion, sweat, nature, family. The simple, difficult act of cranking pedals over and over again.

As you might discern, it's been a long day of work. This'll be the last inspirational schlock artwork job you'll see, promise.
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Monday, July 14, 2008

On the trail of Leiba & Jenny

From left to right in the photo, are Leiba Gorsky (my great-grandfather), Eva Schwartz (his daughter and my grandmother), and Jenny Gorsky (my great-grandmother. We acquired the photo through my dad's cousin, Ted Gordon, to whom many thanks.

These are the first images of the great-grandparents I've ever seen. Leiba was born in 1871, Jenny in 1872, both in Odessa, Ukraine, our destination on this summer's trip. They came to New York in 1908, and there are some interesting questions about that trip.

First, they didn't sail from the Black Sea, where Odessa is, but from a port on the Baltic. That means that Leiba, Jenny, and their six kids (from 15 to baby) had to cross Central Europe. Now that trip puts into perspective the bike ride that Matt and I will be undertaking!

Second, the family story is that they left because they left because of anti-Jewish feeling after the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 (think Battleship Potemkin, the Eisenstein silent movie, which is set in Odessa during that upheaval). But they didn't leave until 1908, three years later? Maybe it took that long to save up the money? Or to figure out how to get the heck out of Russia?

There's so much we don't know -- Jenny's maiden name, what sibling Leiba and Jenny had and whether any of them left Russia? Talking with another cousin of my father's, Linda Weiss, I learned for the first time that my grandmother (Eva, with the spectacles in the photo) corresponded with people back in Odessa. Linda remembers Eva giving her the postage stamps from Russia! Who were those people?
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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Seeking Silver Linings

It can be hard to stay positive when reading about Eastern Europe's last hundred-odd years. I'm a believer in the power of positive thinking (all hokiness aside), and throughout the research for our trip I've attempted to steer the focus toward the sunlight after the clouds: nascent democracy, EU membership, cultural and economic re-awakening. After all, everybody loves a good comeback story.

Still, it's been a rough stretch. Two World Wars, the Holocaust, and forty years of Communism. Pretty much everything produced in these countries over the past century is dripping with heartache.

This week I was poking around on the website for Yad Vashem, which is Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority - the memorial to all things Holocaust. Among other things, Yad Vashem holds 2.1 million Pages of Testimony for Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I was trying to see if any Schwartzes in Poland or Gorskys from Odessa may have been memorialized by relatives who made it out. (I didn't find anything.)

Along the way, however, I clicked on the description of Odessa's fate during World War II and the Shoah (Holocaust). I'd read it a while ago, but didn't remember the details. Some choice selections:

As soon as the Germans and Romanians took control of Odessa, they designated the city as the capital of the newly-coined Transnistria region, which the Germans turned over to Romania. On October 22 the Romanian military headquarters were blown up, killing 66 officers and soldiers. In retaliation, the leader of Romania, Ion Antonescu, ordered the execution of thousands of communists. He also ordered that one member of every Jewish family in Odessa be taken hostage. The next day, 19,000 Jews were taken to the harbor, where they were burnt alive. Another 20,000 Jews were gathered and taken to a nearby village, where they were shot or burnt to death. In addition, many Jews were sent to camps throughout Transnistria.

Between October 25 and November 3, 1941, the remaining Jews in Odessa - some 40,000 - were taken outside the city to the Slobodka Ghetto. They were left outside for 10 days; many old people, women, and children froze to death.
And Odessa made it out relatively well - only 99,000 of the 201,000 Jewish residents were murdered. (Compare that to Lodz in Poland - of 224,000 Jewish residents, and another 204,000 Jews crammed into the Lodz Ghetto, 7,000 survived.)

Lots of sad stories....time for a Mel Brooks pick-me-up:

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Henryk Slawik, The Polish Wallenberg

Due to the good offices of my friend and expert on Matters Polish, Patryk Drescher, I was able to attend a screening at the Polish Embassy last night of a film titled, Henryk Slawik, The Polish Wallenberg. The reference is to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis in 1944-45.

Slawik was equally heroic. A native of Silesia, in southwestern Poland, Slawik was a Socialist newspaper editor. He served in the Polish military in the brief resistance to the Nazi invasion of September 1939, then retreated with his unit to Hungary. Though the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis, they sheltered many Poles. Slawik became a leader of the Poles in exile in Hungary.

For the next five years, Slawik became increasingly active in issuing false identification to Jewish refugees from Poland. He set up an orphanage for Jewish children who escaped from Poland and arranged for the Catholic Church to sponsor it. Indeed, Slawik had help. The Hungarian authorities assisted him, and looked the other way when necessary. Sympathetic Catholic priests issued phony church birth certificates, attesting to the non-Jewish origins of many of the refugees. All told, Slawik and his allies are credited with saving the lives of more than 5,000 Jews.

He paid with his life. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, he did not flee, but rather stayed to try to help those he had been helping all along. After four months living underground, he was captured, tortured, and killed. He never disclosed the names of those who worked with him.

After the movie ended, an embassy official pointed out that Slawik's story is not known because the Communists suppressed it for the decades when they ruled Poland. A street was named after him for three days in 1946, but then the Communists realized that he had been a Socialist, not a Communist. But for the Communists, the official said, we would be calling Wallenberg "the Swedish Slawik"!

Good enough for him to be the Polish Slawik. A hero.
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities: Vote-Off

It's a tie!

You've selected Odessa (Ukraine, not Texas) and Krakow as the two cities you'd most like to visit on our tour. I would chalk this up as a semi-surprising outcome, given Budapest's billing as the "New Prague," had I not circulated this blog with the Ukrainian and Polish groups on JewishGen. Which may have distorted the vote slightly.

Either way, The Stewart Bike Trip shudders in the face of a murky outcome, so we're holding a runoff between Odessa and Krakow. Vote early and often - the options are listed in the right column.

To help you in this critical decision, I've included the funnest facts I could find from each city's Wikipedia article:

First up: Odessa, birthplace of my great-grandmother, Eva Schwartz:
According to one of the stories, when someone suggested Odessos as a name for the new Russian port, Catherine II said that all names in the South of the Empire were already 'masculine,' and didn't want yet another one, so she decided to change it to more 'feminine' Odessa. This anecdote is highly dubious, because there were at least two cities (Eupatoria and Theodosia) whose names sound 'feminine' for a Russian; besides, the Czarina was not a native Russian speaker, and finally, all cities are feminine in Greek (as well as in Latin). Another legend derives the name 'Odessa' from the word-play: in French (which was then the language spoken at the Russian court), 'plenty of water' is assez d'eau; if said backwards, it sounds similar to that of the Greek colony's name (and water-related pun makes perfect sense, because Odessa, though situated next to the huge body of water, has limited fresh water supply). Regardless, a link with the name of the ancient Greek colony persists, so there might be some truth in the oral tradition.
Option 2: Krakow, one of the oldest and largest cities in Poland, and one of the few to emerge relatively unscathed from the wrath of WWII:
Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II.[43] Allegedly Germans planned to destroy it with massive amounts of explosives,[44][45] but according to the most popular of several versions of the story,[46] Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, after being informed by the Polish patriots of the German plan,[45][47] tried to preserve Kraków from destruction by ordering a lightning attack on the city.[48] The credibility of these accounts has been recently questioned by Polish historian Andrzej Chwalba, who in his recent works finds no evidence for any German plan of massive destruction and portrays Konev's strategy as ordinary, only accidentally resulting in reduced damage to Kraków, a fact that was later exaggerated into the myth of "Konev, savior of Kraków" by Soviet propaganda.
Disclaimer: The Stewart Bike Trip is clearly biased in favor of Odessa on this one, as 1. it was it home to a wonderful woman who is in part responsible for our existence and 2. when we arrive in Odessa, it means we won't have to ride our bikes for at least a couple of days. Yet - in stark contrast to the history of both these nations - we value fair and free elections, so please, vote with a clear conscience and in the full spirit of democracy.
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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tour de Farce

A number of my friends have alerted me that the Tour de France has started up again, assuming that due to my interest in cycling and impending cycling trip to Europe I would naturally want to be involved.

I appreciate that it's really hard to cycle that hard and that fast for that long. I appreciate the thrill of the chase, the need for speed, the visual excitement of massive accidents. But, largely because of Lance Armstrong, I just don't care.

Why hate on Lance? Partly it's because I thought his book was terrible (and a really bad intra-office holiday gift, by the way), which portrayed him as a thoughtless, arrogant jerk on all levels. Partly it's because he probably cheated (though likely steroid use hasn't deterred me from buying limited edition Barry Bonds jerseys). The Livestrong yellow bracelet fad rang false to me, creating this sense that people who'd merely spent a buck on a piece of rubber were suddenly tough and altruistic, and had license to advertise it to the world. All together, not enough to disrupt my gentle television habits of Giants baseball and Seinfeld reruns.

Gently segueing away, my friend and former writing-group partner Meredith Norton recently published a terrific new memoir called Lopsided about dealing breast cancer. The book was originally titled F You Lance Armstrong, because when Meredith was diagnosed she received countless copies of Lance's book. Unsurprisingly, rather than being strong and powerful during her cancer treatment, Meredith was unable to go on five-hour weakling bike rides and instead felt, well, as if radioactive material was being put into her bloodstream. Which may be
another reason why I'm not into Lance, and not into the Tour.
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Monday, July 7, 2008

Novel Training Techniques

Rocky warmed up for his big title fight with Appollo Creed by whacking around some sides of beef in Paulie's meat locker. For our mad dash across Eastern Europe, I have to get used to hauling some extra weight around on the bike (other than any extra weight clinging to my own corpus).

The answer? A genuine pauzer-carrier, barely visible on th back of my bike in the photo above, taken last Thursday on the Monocacy Bridge on the C&O Canal trail. OK, some explanation.

The pauzer is "Tramp," a poodle/schnauzer mix. Some people call them "schnoodles," but that does not match Tramp's personality, so we call him a pauzer.

Nancy has rigged up a way to strap Tramp onto the back of the bike, and off I go with 18 pounds of squirming pooch on my rear wheel. More often, actually, Nancy takes the hound on her bike, but this is training time for me. Can't wait for it to end.

As for the less-than-cheerful look on my face? We waited too long for lunch, and I was about out of gas. Another tip for the long-distance cyclist: eat early and often.
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Sunday, July 6, 2008

JOBY sponsors the Stewart Bike Trip

While enduring another hair-pulling Giants loss v. the Cubbies last week, my pal Joel graciously added to the pile of free corporate booty to the Stewart Bike Trip courtesy of his company, JOBY. Throughout the trip, you'll enjoy stable, wiggle-free photos of me and my dad inflicting cycling dominance across Eastern Europe thanks to our brand new Gorillapod.

I've always liked the look of this thing in the store. It's very versatile - it holds your camera on an uneven surface, you can wrap it around poles/tree, bike handlebars, etc. Also, for those of you adjusting to the new California hands-free car calling law, look into Joby's slick new Zivio bluetooth headset coming out soon - extremely cool-looking and, also, high-quality (as Joel puts it, it's for people who realize their first bluetooth headset isn't any good).

Interested in sponsoring a good old fashioned father-son cycling adventure through history? Shoot me an email and let's talk: mjfstewartATgmailDOTcom.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cycling picture of the year

This needs no elaboration, other than the disclaimer that this was NOT photoshopped.

Incredible, scary, ridiculous. We aim to avoid this kind of situation at all costs - though how much can you really do about drunk drivers falling asleep at the wheel? They could have hit another car, a pedestrian, a tree.

As with so much in life, on many levels this comes down to pure luck.
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Friday, July 4, 2008

Isaacs of Poland and Odessa

To prepare for our journey from Warsaw to Odessa, Matt and I are scrambling to read about these very unfamiliar lands. My reading so far has reinforced a point I stumbled across some years back, when some essayist announced that if you want to know what a place was like in the past, read a novel from that time and place. History books won't capture the same sense of the place. Even though I'm a writer of historical narratives, I agree.

For Jewish Poland in the years before the Nazis came, Isaac Bashevis Singer (left) is a wonder. I feel a very slight connection to Singer, since my first literary agent also represented him and still represents his estate -- afer all, what separates Singer and me but the odd Nobel Prize for Literature (1978, if you're wondering)?

I just read one of his lesser-known novels, Shosha, about a writer in Poland between the world wars. Much of it may be autobiographical, as Singer was a young writer in Poland until 1935, when he came to the United States. It is a remarkable book about a young Jewish writer's drift and blundering in that impossible world, and helps to answer the frequent question in my mind about every Jew in Poland in 1935 who had 20 zlotys to rub together -- why didn't they leave? He depicts a world of richness and depth that, though plainly doomed, would be difficult to leave. And the writing! Even in translation (from Yiddish), how about these?

[Opening line of the book]: "I was brought up on three dead languages -- Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish (some consider the last not a language at all) -- and in a culture that developed in Babylon: the Talmud."

[As the crisis nears]: "[D]eath is too important to absorb all at once. Those who commit suicide want to escape death once and for all. But those who aren't such cowards learn to enjoy its taste."

[Epilog, in Israel]: "The newcomers are all out of their minds -- victims of Hitler, bundles of nerves. They always suspect they're being persecuted. First they cursed Hitler, now they curse Ben-Gurion. Their children or perhaps their grandchildren will be normal if the Almighty doesn't send a new catastrophe down upon us. What can you know of what we went through!"

We also were excited to find out about Isaac Babel, (right) an Odessa Jew and Communist revolutionary who wrote "Tales of Odessa." Here was a chance, we figured, to peer into that remarkable, polyglot culture before the Germans and Rumanians literally burned it up. Alas, the pickings were far more slim.

Babel's stories about the worldly Jewish gangsters of Odessa occasionally evoke a powerful scene or sketch a remarkable character, but I did not find they really were stories. There was little narrative or character development -- mostly just snapshots. Others of his stories may be more effective, but these were a disappointment.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Around the World on a Bicycle

To those who insist our cycling journey through Eastern Europe is nuts, I recite in our defense the extraordinary book by Thomas Stevens, Around the World on a Bicycle, published in 1887!

The title is a slight exaggeration. Mr. Stevens -- who rode that wacky contraption with the gigantic front wheel -- did not actually ride all the way around the world. He walked part of it, and skipped part. But I'll give him the title.

Born in Britain, Stevens came to Missouri with his family and worked as a miner and mill worker. Somehow he formed a desire to ride around the world on one of those new-fangled bicycle things and bought one for $110, a hefty sum in those days. He left from San Francisco, traveling east, and crossed the United States in a summer. The following year, having prudently used a ship to get to England, he cycled across England, Europe, and through Turkey, and India. Tired yet?

The farther east he traveled, the greater the novelty of his bicycle. He attracted larger and larger crowds. In Calcutta, Stevens decided to bypass Burma and Southeast Asia, hopping another ship to Hong Kong. He then pedaled to Shanghai. Another ship brought him to Japan, where he rode from Nagasaki to Tokyo, and finally back home.

Stevens has it all over us on some points. First, he went a lot farther. Second, the roads were so bad that he carried and walked his cycle a lot. Indeed, he developed a method of crossing small streams by placing the cycle in the center, bracing his hands on the machine, and vaulting over the water. Third, I think our machines are better designed. Stevens cheerily records a number of occasions on which he took a "header" over the handlebars of his ungainly craft, referred to as a "high wheel" or "penny farthing." Ouch. Also, Stevens carried a pistol at all times, blazing away at passing wildlife. Though he faced some very ticklish threats from the local people in several places in Asia, he never resorted to gunplay. He figured it would only slow down his journey.

We're hoping to do as well as Stevens did in finding gracious hosts, shelter, and adequate food.

And we are, I must admit, hoping to produce a better book after the ride. I have been slogging through Stevens' tome for some time -- while reading other things, as is my pattern -- and am up to p. 156 (Hungary) out of 470. The prose does not sing. He adopts a bantering, matey, generally patronizing tone about the quaint locals and scenes he encounters. The tone, in short, is entirely tedious and undermines even potentially charming scenes.

Still, there are nuggets in the book, such as his ride through the Hungarian countryside with "Igali," with whom he takes turns whistling "Yankee Doodle" and the Hungarian national anthem, occasionally inserting "God Save the Queen" and "Britannia Rules the Waves" in response to Igali's "Marseillaise." Maybe we'll run into Igali's great-great-granddaughter.

The spirit of Stevens still lives. Lining up for a parade this spring -- when you're married to a public official you get a convertible so you can drive her through parades -- a squad of "high wheel" cyclists gathered. I sauntered over and mentioned that I was reading about a guy who rode one of those things around the world. "Oh, yeah," one said, "Thomas Stevens."

Heckuva guy.
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