The Only Jew for Miles

"'Show some respect,' I told myself. After all, Mary is a Jewish mother."

"'Show some respect,' I told myself. After all, Mary is a Jewish mother."

On a bright but astonishingly cold morning, at the ungodly hour of 10 AM, I was shivering on the train from Krakow to the nearby city of Czestochowa. I had taken a kind of commuter train for students, on which the railway authorities had cut back on luxuries like heat and comfortable seats and toilets. And I, a man well into his thirties, felt out of place among all the kids frowning over their textbooks and text messages. Even the nun across the aisle, bent over her rosary, had more reason to be here. For Czestochowa is known for two things: students, and the Black Madonna, the Miraculous Painting of the Mother of God.

Some say that the painting–graceful portrait of Mary with the infant Jesus–was painted by Saint Luke. Art historians describe it as a Byzantine icon that was completely repainted in the fifteenth century. Either way, the Black Madonna is purported to have cured the blind and the deaf, healed the sick and the lame. Her intercession is said to have helped the Poles against every country on their long list of invaders, most notably when Jasna Gora, the monastery where she resides, repelled a massive Swedish siege in 1655. The power of the Black Madonna even worked against the Communists. In 1920, the Soviets were close to Warsaw, but they threw down their weapons and fled when her face appeared in the sky.

Did I believe any of this? Not a word. I’m a Reform Jew, which can be described as someone who loves God, tradition, and shellfish. But even in reproductions–which I had seen in homes all over Poland–Mary projects an undeniable serenity. And apparently lots of Poles believe in the power of the Miraculous Painting. Over five million people visit the monastery each year, thousands making the pilgrimage on foot. Even if I was a skeptical Jew, I was here to see Poland on its own terms, to try and get beyond the usual Jewish or American stereotypes. There would be no understanding Poland without understanding Polish Catholicism, so I realized that I had to make my own mini-pilgrimage to see the Madonna for myself.

The train pulled into Czestochowa, and I filed out with the nun and the students. I had originally planned to walk up to Jasna Gora, for at least a small taste of an actual pilgrimage, but it was just too cold. After only a few seconds outside, my ears burned with it, and even my eyelashes felt frozen. As my own religious temperament precludes suffering of any kind, I found a cab in front of the station.

In most Polish cities, the older buildings look better than the newer ones. An eighteenth century church appears as if it was put up last year and repainted last month, but the Communist-era structures–the boxy concrete office blocks and the boxy concrete apartment blocks–look patched and peeled, with an invariable patina of soot. This can get depressing.  The architecture constantly reminds you of an imposed ideology, of drabness and despair. Most Polish cities, however, also have some architectural marvel, some astonishingly well-maintained edifice that delights the eyes. In Czestochowa, it was Jasna Gora.

In Polish, jasna gora means “bright mountain.” The monastery is atop a large, sloping hill; and its stolid tower, with its oxidized green dome, is visible from miles away. Below the tower, the cluster of domes and spires brought to mind a compact city of God. But with its massive walls and sharply angled bulwarks, Jasna Gora is really more of a fortress–which probably helped along that miracle against the Swedes.

I paid the driver and he pointed out the entrance for me, through a series of ornate sixteenth-century gates. With sudden excitement–I was going to see the Black Madonna!–I walked quickly upwards. It seemed as if I had picked a good day for my mini-pilgrimage, as there were only a few dozen people going in or out. That is, until I reached the top and saw, among the dense jumble of baroque architecture, hundreds of teenagers. They were all standing around to no purpose, save for trying to look cool and getting in my way. Over their heads I saw a sign for the information center, and I pressed my way through.

It was like any other busy office, with workers on the phone or hustling in and out, papers in hand, except they were all nuns. One came forward.

“Good day,” I said, which was, I would later learn, a faux pas. One in supposed to greet a member of the Polish clergy by saying, niech bedzie pochwalony Jezus Christus, “Let Jesus Christ be blessed,” to which the priest or nun replies, Na wieki wiekow amen, “forever and ever, amen.” It’s just as well I didn’t know this at the time, because I wouldn’t have been comfortable saying it. But it does explain why the nun had a touch of frost in her voice when she said, “I’m listening, sir.”

“I’d like to see the painting,” I said, thinking: I’m speaking to a nun.  Never did that before.

“Of course,” said the nun. “But today there is a youth group from all over Poland, so the Chapel of our Lady will be very crowded. It’s almost noon–if the gentleman can wait until two, there will be fewer people at Mass.”

Mass? Why would I want to go to Mass? Then I realized that from her perspective, no one would want to be at Jasna Gora and not go to Mass. Not for the first time in Poland, I was the only Jew for miles.

I thanked the nun and looked over the map she had given me. There was a museum and a treasury; or, if I liked, I could schlep up to the top of the tower. I was here to see the Black Madonna, so it was the noon Mass for me.

Jasna Gora is a bit of a maze, and it was slow going through the crowds. I threaded my way through the throngs, glimpsing the occasional priest or gray-robed monks. The walls were high and gray. Their blankness looked strange to me– outside of the monastery, any wall would be covered with graffiti.

I came to a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling. The chapel was straight ahead, but I stopped when I saw that a nearby wall was decorated with crutches, perhaps fifty of them. Set among the crutches were pendants shaped like hearts, hands, and legs. Another wall had triangular pendants with eyes on them: strange, disembodied eyes, alone or in pairs. These were all offerings, of course, evidence of individual miracles of the least the desire for one. Part of me found this bizarre, but I had to admit that it also gave me a chill.  Each silver heart, each cane, represented some intense emotion: supplication or belief or perhaps a desperate and final form of hope.

The students were flowing in, and a song began from up in the gallery, an acoustic guitar and a chorus of young voices. And I felt another chill when a man on crutches went by, with the stuttery gait of someone with muscular dystrophy. His friend went before him, gently tapping the shoulders of those who blocked their way.  I trailed them past ornately carved altars of wood and marble that brimmed with gold leaf. The pews were packed, the students coming in droves, hundreds already kneeling in fervent prayer. This was the place: the spiritual heart of a nation.  Everyone gathered here was Polish and Catholic; in the Black Madonna they had a symbol to draw them together and closer to God, a way of combining religion and patriotism. For them, Mary was alive, bearing an infinite capacity for love and tenderness. And yes, she loved the Poles most of all, for their centuries of sacrifice echoed her own. I was a secularized American Jew; I believed in a remote and unknowable God. Still, I closed my eyes and I asked Him to heal the sick man, to let his crutches go up on the wall, and to let me be here to see it. At the very least, it would make a really good story.

But where was the Black Madonna? There was an ornate black gate at the far end of the chamber; through the bars I saw the Chapel of Our Lady. I pushed my way through the crowds.  The chapel had an imposing ebony altar with elaborate silver accents; fresh flowers were everywhere. Men in spotless blue uniforms, with gold braids that ran from an epaulet to a buttonhole, busied themselves with dustpans and whiskbrooms. One of them even had a dustbuster.

Again, where was the Black Madonna? On one side of the gate, a line–or what passed for one in this country–was forming. The pilgrims were kneeling before a door in the gate, crossing themselves, then shuffling toward a low opening to the left of the altar, then, still on their knees, emerging from the other side. Maybe she was back there, behind the altar, and you were supposed to see her on your knees? When in Rome, I thought, and slipped between two young women. When it was my turn, I knelt and trundled forwards.

I noticed very quickly that marble is hard on the knees. Presumably, that was the point–a Christian pilgrimage is supposed to have some echo of Jesus’ agony. But I was a Jew, for God’s sake; what the hell was I doing? I rounded the corner behind the altar. A narrow hallway, a profusion of glittering plaques–one, I saw, from the firemen of Gdansk. But no painting. No painting. The pain was awful and I wanted to get up. No, I told myself. Show some respect.  After all, Mary is a Jewish mother. But I was weak. Hoping that I wasn’t committing blasphemy, I got to my feet and proceeded in a half-crouch, trying not to fall onto the girl in front of me. And I thought of the girl behind me, who had come all this way, and all she could see was my big, American ass.

Oh shit, the next corner. Back to my knees, hands clasped to keep them from flailing. Finally, after thirty seconds that seemed like an hour, I was past the altar gate. I hobbled off to a corner to collect myself.

The blood slowly returned to my legs.  Somehow I had gone half the distance to the exit. I didn’t have the energy to force myself forward again. I looked around for the man on crutches, but there was no finding him in this crowd. When I looked back at the altar four priests had appeared and a bell rang, reverberating majestically, and that song–which had been going for so long that I had ceased to notice it–was replaced by a flourish of trumpets and a drum roll. I felt the collective excitement (yes, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck), and something moved at the center of the altar. A silver screen that raised to reveal–the Black Madonna.

I thought: you schmuck! How could you have missed the screen? Squinting, I tried to discern some detail of the painting, maybe the famous scars from a Hussite’s sword. But at that distance I could only see the vivid blue of her cowl and her face as a dark smudge.

I felt a sudden emptiness around me: everyone, perhaps a thousand people, had knelt. Everyone, that is, except me. And just as I made it to my knees, everyone stood again. I did the same, feeling like an idiot. I was attracting attention, just a few curious stares, but I didn’t want to distract anyone during the service. Better to leave. Now that I knew the drill, I could return early for the next Mass and position myself right by the gate.

I made my way out of the monastery and headed down the hill. The ferocious cold had eased somewhat, and it felt good to walk, as my knees were still smarting from that trip around the altar.  Below the monastery there was a lovely park. Old women in heavy coats–the hallmark of all Slavic countries–walked their dogs or chatted on the benches.

At the bottom of the hill, a wide, tree-lined boulevard began–the Avenue of the Sainted Virgin Mary. While waiting for the light to change, I noticed that the windowless side of the building across the street was covered with graffiti. Reappearing among the usual scribblings–”Tomek was here,” “Krakow Wisla Football Hooligans”–there was a pictogram. It was a stick-figure drawing of a scaffold, like in the hangman game; but dangling in the place of head, there was a six-pointed star.

Now, I had grown almost used to anti-Semitic graffiti, to the point where I could be amused by how often some cretin misspelled a simple Polish phrase like, “Jews to the gas.” And, although I saw this sort of thing fairly often, it wasn’t every day; and I didn’t feel that it reflected the beliefs of 35 million Poles.

But none of these mitigating factors occurred to me when I saw the hanged Mogen Dovid, because the past few weeks had been a strange and infuriating time. For example, a Krakovian architect told me that Daniel Libeskind had won the World Trade Center design competition because of the “Jewish lobby.” And I had seen a book called “the Polish Holocaust,” which contained chapters on the “Judaization of Christianity” and “Jews in the Catholic Church.” And I had also seen a seventeenth-century painting that depicted Jews slitting the throats of Christian babies and collecting the blood for matzah. And in Belzec, where my grandfather’s family had been gassed, I saw a fat little man let his dog piss in the woods, among the mass graves of a hundred thousand Jews.

So when I saw the repeated form of hanged Jewish star in Czestochowa, all I thought was this: “These fucking Poles. They’ll never learn.” And I knew that I wouldn’t be going back to Jasna Gora for the two o’clock Mass. Instead, I wanted to–I had to–do something Jewish.

On the avenue the sidewalks were busy and the shops were full. Poles, going about their business, while my stomach burned with anger. I found a taxi line and got in the first car. The driver was about my age, with ginger hair and a mustache; he listened politely as I asked, in my execrable Polish, if there was a Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa.

“Yes,” he said.

“Good,” I said. I asked him to drive me there, to keep the meter running while I prayed, and then to take me to the train station. He looked taken aback, but to his credit he recovered quickly.

“No problem,” he said. “I think it’s near the steelworks, but I’ll have to ask.”

I fished out my notebook, where I had stashed a copy of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.  Traveling through southern Poland, I had seen so many sites of Jewish death that I had taken to carrying the prayer around with me.

Meanwhile, the driver had turned the car onto the avenue and got in the radio. The dispatcher didn’t know the way, and neither did another driver. Then an older voice came on and said, “Take the Avenue of the Sainted Virgin to the bridge. Make the second right after the heating plant, then go exactly two and one half kilometers straight ahead. The road gets bad there so take it slow. You’ll see some houses at a crossroads and a little store. Stop there and ask directions.”

My driver got off the radio.

“Where is the sir from?” he asked, using the circuitously polite third person.

“New York.”

“And the sir’s family is from Czestochowa?”

“No, from Jaslo, in the Carpathians.”

“So… the sir has a relative buried in the Jewish cemetery?”

“No. I want to go because I think… no people for long time.”

“A-ha,” he said, with a nod. “A long time without visitors, right? Okay, we’ll get you there.”

We came to the crossroads, and he waved over a dumpling-shaped woman with an alarming mustache. I was suddenly tense, expecting — what? That she would send us in the wrong direction? Or point and shriek like Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”

“Straight ahead to the fence,” she said. “Then the sir will have to walk. Make a left and follow the river, oh, for about a kilometer. If you see the bridge you’ve gone too far.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Good luck.”

A minute later we pulled up to the fence. It was heavily wooded to the left, and to the right, a couple of houses that looked like they had never seen better days. Not five miles from Czestochowa, and it felt like I was deep in rural Poland.

“Take your time,” the driver said. “I’ll be here.”

I ducked through a break in the fence. Ahead, across a dry riverbed, was an outbuilding of the steelworks; I turned left and followed the path. Walking quickly, I scanned the woods. There was a high shoulder between the path and the trees–I couldn’t see much through the undergrowth. When I saw the bridge, a simple concrete structure, I turned around again.

Twice I scrambled up into the woods, looking for some indication of the cemetery. I was hoping for a glimpse of a rusted fence or the hint of a disused path, but there was nothing. I was filled with a sense of futility. I had failed to commune with the Black Madonna; I had failed to find the Jewish cemetery; and I had failed to grow the thicker skin that I would need to get through the months I still had left in Poland. I faced the woods and said Kaddish into the air.

Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.