Hidden to the world

We stopped the car under the trees, just after the sign indicating the church. Large trees. A grid. Stones.
To the left, a house, from which a young man steps forward.
— You want to visit the church, maybe. I can open it for you.
He walks with a slight stoop, his face is flushed from the heat. He shakes our hands. A young man in faded blue T-shirt, flowery shorts and blue plastic slippers.
— I’m the priest, even if I don’t look like one.

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The village below is deserted, not a face in the windows, not a shadow, not a voice, not a dog to bark and jump in front of our car. A cat which flees at my approach. Braids of garlic and onions hanging from the porches, empty milk jugs. Death announcements tacked to a pole. And, like a sudden omen, two tractors crossing each other’s way at full speed in front of me before disappearing elsewhere.

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We walk behind the priest. We have to climb the stairs, enter a gate opening in the dry stone wall, leave behind the pines and linden trees which bend their branches as if covering up what must be kept hidden. This is how the church of Borač has been hidden to the world for centuries, concealed by the cliff emerging behind it, itself a rock among the other rocks.

Is he sure? Yes, he says, he is sure, there was a town up there, a huge city, and this church was the cathedral. It was a prosperous city, a powerful city, as the frescoes of the church witness – archangels in armor, saints with serious faces, Constantine and Helen showing the true cross, an elder of the Apocalypse and Noah’s Arks face to face, Christ Pantocrator and Christ Immanuel on either side of the door separating the tiny narthex from the tiny shrine, and at the end, the iconostasis with naive paintings.

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But where was the city?
— Up there, you see, all these rocks — the city was there.

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Are there any ruins up there? He hesitates.
Yes, the ruins, everything is ruined, you cannot see anything more. Yes, he went up there once, when he arrived here.

He shows us the pile of rocks, the cliffs that draw the contours of an enchanted fortress against the sky, the landslide that closes the path to the dead city, and I think of all those cities buried under water – the city of Ys under the sea off the coast of Brittany, Kitezh under the waters of Lake Svetloyar, these cities, where only the pure souls can hear the bells ringing. Borač, in central Serbia, a city swallowed up in the air, seized by the rock at the end of the 14th century, in the tumult of the advance of the Ottoman army, while the surounding area was abandoned by its fleeing population.
Does our young priest, lost in his desert, believe in it?
— The city was up there, see.

We are going to leave.
When sitting back in the car, a last look around us, and there, behind us, emerges another city hidden by the tall grass. There is not a single stone in this cemetery which would not date back to past centuries, not a tomb that would wait for the inhabitants of the village below, not a cross that would not turn to the cliff.

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Cachés aux yeux du monde

Nous avions arrêté la voiture sous les arbres, juste après le panneau qui indiquait l’église. De grands arbres. Une grille. Des pierres.
Une maisonnette à gauche d’où s’avance un jeune homme.
— You want to visit the church, maybe. I can open it for you.
Il marche un peu voûté, le visage rougi par la chaleur. Il nous serre la main, un jeune homme en T-shirt bleu délavé, caleçon fleuri et savates de plastique bleues.
— I’m the priest, even if I don’t look like one.

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Le village en contrebas est désert, pas un visage aux fenêtres, pas une ombre, pas une voix, pas un chien pour aboyer et se jeter sous vos roues. Un chat qui prend la fuite à mon approche. Des tresses d’ail et d’oignons suspendus aux vérandas, des pots à lait vides. Des annonces de décès punaisées à un poteau. Et comme dans un sortilège soudain, deux tracteurs qui se croisent à toute vitesse devant moi avant de disparaître, ailleurs.

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Nous marchons derrière le prêtre. Il faut monter des marches, franchir un portillon qui s’ouvre dans le mur de pierres sèches, dépasser les pins et les tilleuls qui ploient leurs branches de façon à masquer ce qui doit être caché. Depuis des siècles, l’église de Borač est ainsi occultée aux yeux du monde, dissimulée dans la falaise qui la surplombe, rocher elle-même au milieu des rochers.

Y croit-il ? Oui, nous dit-il, il en est sûr, il y avait une ville là-haut, une ville immense, et cette église en était la cathédrale. C’était une cité prospère, une ville puissante, les fresques de l’église en témoignent — archanges en armures, saints aux visages graves, Constantin et Hélène montrant la vraie croix, vieillard de l’apocalypse et arche de Noé face à face, Christ Pantocrator et Christ Emmanuel de part et d’autre de la porte qui sépare le minuscule narthex du minuscule naos, et au fond l’iconostase aux peintures naïves.

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Mais la ville, où était-elle ?
— Up there, you see, all these rocks — the city was there.

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Y a-t-il des ruines là-haut ? Il hésite.
Oui, des ruines, tout n’est plus que ruines, on ne voit plus rien. Oui, il y est monté une fois, quand il est arrivé ici.

Il nous montre l’amas de rochers, la falaise qui découpe des remparts féeriques sur le ciel au sommet, l’éboulement qui cache le chemin qui mène à la ville morte et je pense à toutes ces villes englouties sous les eaux — la ville d’Ys sous la mer au large de la Bretagne, Kitej sous les eaux du lac Svetloïar, ces villes dont seules les âmes pures peuvent encore entendre sonner les cloches. Borač en Serbie centrale, une ville engloutie dans les airs, saisie par la roche à la fin du XIVe siècle, en plein tumulte de l’avancée des Ottomans et alors que le territoire environnant était abandonné par sa population en fuite.
Y croit-il, notre jeune prêtre perdu dans son désert ?
— The city was up there, see.

Nous allions repartir.
Au moment de remonter en voiture, un dernier coup d’œil autour de nous et là, derrière nous, une autre cité cachée par les hautes herbes. Pas une tombe dans ce cimetière qui ne remonte aux siècles passés, pas une tombe qui accueille ceux du village d’en bas, pas une croix qui ne se tourne vers la falaise.

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August twenty-fourth is the anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. This occasion, which has always been celebrated with huge pomp by the young country, was not forgotten by the Donetsk breakaway government either.

On Lenin Square they put on public display the remains of the captured Ukrainian military technology. And on the memorial celebration held at the feet of the Lenin statue, they paraded the captured soldiers of the Ukrainian army past, as well as a number of other prisoners in civilian clothes – possibly hostages and local citizens arrested by the Donetsk militia, according to Rustem Adagamov, who published the photos.

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In machoistic Russian culture it is considered particularly humiliating that the captured soldiers were also accompanied by female militias. However, as the following video shows, the spectacular military escort could not prevent the spectators from throwing objects at the prisoners, or even slapping them in the face.

The ideological and choreographic model of the parade was obviously the one organized on 17 July 1944 in Moscow, the very first Soviet victory parade, in which the soldiers of the German army captured at Stalingrad were driven in rows of twenty along the main streets of the city. With the difference, that there, as witnesses recall it, aside from the slogans “Death to Hitler” and “Death to fascism”, there was very little aggression towards the prisoners. A selection of the archive photos of the 1944 parade was published last night without any further commentary by Ilya Varlamov.

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The parade, organized almost exactly seventy years ago, was concluded with a convoy of sprinkler trucks following the route of the parade, and symbolically cleansing the Russian land “от гитлеровской нечисти”, of Hitler’s filth. As the video shows, the Donetsk organizers did not forget about this final symbolic act either.


V/24. Ihre werte atress [Adresse] habe ich von Herrn Jenö Singer erhalten, und bitte meiner auch gedenken mit Gruß: Franz Horváth. / Meine atresse [Adresse] ist. Budapest II. Bez[irk], Csónak gasse N° 13. 24 May 1900. I received your precious address from Mr. Jenő Singer, and I also ask you to remember mine. With greetings: Ferenc Horváth. / My address is: Budapest II., Csónak street 13.

An [den] Wohlgeboren[en] Herrn Anastagi Piero. Rue Vacchereccia 7. Florence, Italien.To the respected Mr. Anastagi Piero. Vacchereccia street 7. Florence, Italy

This postcard, written in a somewhat bad German mixed with French, was sent from one of the most beautiful places in the world to another, from under the Castle of Buda – only a few meters from the sharp bend, where in 1937 Wilhelm Miklas and Miklós Horthy turned to go up to the Castle – to under the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence, just two streets from the Ponte Vecchio and the Biblioteca Nazionale, from whose windows a view, which seriously impedes any research, opens over the Arno.

In the foreground of the postcard, sent in the final months of the previous century (or in the first months of the new one?), you can still see the majestic Castle Bazaar, which, after having been destroyed in the war, is just being reconstructed in our days. And in the background, the romantic little streets of Budapest’s Montmartre, the Tabán, which will disappear without a trace during the demolitions of the 1930s. This enchanting world is reconstructed on such sites as Tabán Photo Gallery, Tabán Anno, Falanszter, the interactive map of old Tabán, the anniversary compilation of Cink.hu, and of course in the writings of the excellent city historian Noémi Saly and the large Tabán exhibition that she recently organized.

Next to this postcard, I also find another multi-culti letter in the flea market of Berlin. The envelope, with the letterhead of a French company, addressed in German, was sent in 1943 using Greek stamps to Berlin, with the swastika postage stamp of the German occupying authorities, but with a military censorship label in Italian. This, however, I leave for the delight of other specialists.


Traveling south from Poland, and crossing the Slovak border at Muszynka, the landscape changes in one blow, as if nature herself wanted it that the border would run on the ridge of the Carpathians, and so she painted the two sides in different colors, like on political maps. The ragged contours and hazy blue shades of the Polish mountains are replaced by softly curving mountainsides and strong, saturated colors, the silver of the large unbroken grain fields, the yellow of the canola fields dotted with red poppies, the green of the hayfields. Instead of the cloudy Polish sky, the contrast of the harsh white clouds and the bright blue sky. We’re home.

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Landscape without people

Typical Galician Polish landscape in the summer of 1936.

These frames are from the Yiddish-language film Jidl mit’n fidl (“A little Jew with a violin”, 1936, English title “A Castle in the Sky,” which can be seen here), made as a Polish-American cooproduction. The protagonists appearing in them are Molly Picon, Simcha Fostel, Leon Liebgold, and Max Bozyk. The film was directed by Joseph Green.

Jidl mit’n fidl: A Heimisher Sherl. Alicia Svigals.

The vegetation is exactly the same eighty years later, in August 2014, in the same place, the Belżec extermination camp, Galicia.

Tarnów tales 1. The Al Capone of Tarnów

This photograph, on which a Hasid from Tarnów proudly struts on his sidecar motorcycle, marks the end of an era for several reasons. First, the date of 1938, the last year of peace, after which nothing will ever be the same as it was. Second, the motorbike, and the clumsy hand that wrote the Latin letters, a hand which was used to another form of writing, from right to left, indicate that the traditional world, the closed world of the shtetls and Hasidic communities in any case, were already on the way to breaking up. And Marek Tomaszewski, the author of Tarnów. Żydowskie krajobrazy (Tarnów: Jewish landscapes, 2012) has also included this photo in the last chapter of the book, which says farewell to this vanished world.

In 2011 the Tarnów postcard and photo collector Marek Tomaszewski had already published a stunning book from the material of his collections: Tarnów: wędrówka w przeszłość z kartą pocztową (Tarnów: a journey into the past on the back of a postcard), from which we will quote later. However, he still had enough material left to compile a separate photo album on the Jews of Tarnów. The city, with its twenty-five thousand strong Jewish population, or 40% of the population, was the fourth largest Jewish town in Galicia, after Lemberg/Lwów, Krakow and Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk). No wonder then, that after the disappearance of the owners of these albums, one could still collect so many photos, from which the two hundred and fifty pictures illustrating the album were selected. The four photos accompanying the foreword, Tomaszewski mentions, were for example purchased on the German e-bay just a few days before the book’s release.

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The photos are really impressive. Although their photographers are mostly unknown, many of them are worthy counterparts of Menachem Kipnis’, Alter Kacyzne’s or Roman Vishniac’s famous series. This also indicates how many more pictures may still be hiding depicting this world, which only twenty years ago was widely considered to have passed almost without a trace. And the book’s great merit is that, apart from the images, it also helps to revive this world with long texts. The Tarnów Jews that survived the destruction started to record and collect their remembrances in Israel since the late 1940s, and in 1954 they published them in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish; the latter under the title Tarnów. Egzystencja i zagłada żydowskiego miasta (Tarnów: Life and destruction of a Jewish town). These excerpts from the book come from this collection.

Corner of Wesklarska and Żydowska streets, looking towards the Pilzńenska Gate. Photo by K. Fusiarski, 1930s

The excerpts begin with the vivid description of the everyday Jewish life, the typical figures of the squares and streets; the coachmen, the barber, the restaurants, the porters. They present the festivities of the religious Hasids, the misery of the slums, the struggle of the workers for a better life. They report on how the twentieth century settled over the city, the destructive Russian occupation of 1914-1915, the bourgeois life between the two world wars. And then about 1 September 1939, the first day of the war, the German occupation, the establishment of the ghetto, the deportations. About escape, with Polish help. About survival.

Jewish man in Tarnów during the German occupation

It is such a rarity to have such rich visual material and together with detailed account of a Jewish town, that I consider it worthwhile to quote from it a number of stories over a few consecutive posts. The shtetl evoked in this way will help to form an image of the many other shtetls, from which no similar memories have survived. We start in medias res, and, leaving the description of the city’s everyday life to the next post, we first present the Al Capone of Tarnów, Idele Muc, on the basis of a report from Mordechai David Brandstetter, the great Tarnów master of Hebrew literature, as mediated by Jozef Hajman. The figure of Idele Muc shows that the sort of king of the Jewish underworld, like the Odessite Benya Krik, were not created or embellished merely by the fantasy of Isaac Babel, but they really existed, and formed a separate type, and they might have been present in many more cities, than only those from which we have a reports.

Jewish shops in the elegant Wałowa street. Many of the persons on the picture must have been Idele Muc’s clients

“Nowadays when I read about the safety of property and life in New York and Chicago, and when I hear talk about Al Capone, the king of the Chicago underground, I can remember, when I was still a boy, hearing the old folk talk about the Al Capone of Tarnów, who was, to put it mildly, the leader of Tarnów’s thieves seventy years ago. He was generally known by the nickname Idele Ganef [thief] or Idele Muc.

As a youth, Idele Muc had already been a pickpocket and thanks to his acuity became the leader of an organized gang of thieves. As he got old, he no longer actively practised this profession but taught it to young people. Thanks to his connections in the police force, when a member of his group was caught, Idele Muc could, in the majority of cases, just like the present day Al Capone, arrange for the release of the arrested man within a very short time.

In the event of a theft, the injured party would go to see Idele Muc. Initially, he would feign great surprise at being approached about such matters, but after a short exchange of words the injured party would pay him a sum of money and the stolen item would be covertly and quickly returned to its owner.

Idele Muc introduced a system which is now also used by Al Capone – in which, by paying an appropriate fee as protection money, the richer Jews were safe for some time from being robbed and burgled. Idele Muc, being a “man of honor”, usually fulfilled his obligations. But if he thought that the amount of the payment was too small in relation to the property under his protection, or if the “insured” delayed the “insurance payment”, another theft would quickly persuade the injured party that he should contact Idele Muc promptly.

He could have easily run a detective agency which would have become very popular with the residents. Thanks to a well-organized and efficient network of spies and thieves at his disposal, he knew the exact quantity and nature of the goods received and who had received them, how the recipient’s home was run, the layout of the rooms in the apartment, etc. And, above all, whether the amount of the “insurance fee” was fair to him.

Brandstaetter [i.e. the writer Mordecai David Brandstaetter] got married while he was still very young (he wasn’t more than 17 at the time) to the daughter of a very respected and wealthy local tanner, Abraham David; he then became an employee of his father-in-law. Abraham David was ʻprotected’ by Idele Muc. Despite that fact, one night two tanned sheepskins were stolen from a locked shed in his well-fenced yard. He had no choice but to call for Idele Muc and have a discussion with him.

Because Abraham David was a wealthy and respected manufacturer of tanned skins, Idele Muc accepted the invitation and visited Abraham David in person. The latter gave him a warm welcome, invited him to sit at the table where, apart from the host’s wife, Mrs. Goldele, Brandstaetter sat with his wife. The tanner complained to his guest about the theft that had taken place the previous night. Idele Muc was very sympathetic: “There’s no way of dealing with those thieves. Their insolence is beyond belief,” he said. The tanner asked him, in his capacity as an experienced and wise man, for advice, hinting that he was prepared to pay for the return of the stolen goods, which, incidentally, did not belong to him, but to a client of his. Idele Muc, in turn, complained about the present hard times and stated the amount of money that would be needed to “compensate” the thieves for the returned goods. Idele Muc also added that if any members of the household heard suspicious noises caused by some object falling down during the night, they should not be alarmed or curious about who was causing the commotion, because the consequences could be unpleasant for any inquisitive person.

As a sign that the negotiations were over, the host ordered that good vodka and sweet cake be served to the mutual agreement and satisfaction of all. Clinking glasses, Idele Muc drank the health of the host, the hostess, and, out of politeness, also that of his young son-in-law – the future gem of Hebrew literature. During the conversation, Brandstaetter asked the guest how it was possible to commit a theft when the fence was so high and protected with wire, and how one could cope with the solid lock on the shed. Idele Muc was very angered by the young man’s naive question and, as he was slightly under the influence of vodka, he turned to his host and said: “It’s insolent of the young man to ask questions like that. I’ve been a thief for several dozen years and, believe me, it’s hard and exhausting work! And this inquisitive young man here wants me to offhandedly tell him how these things are done…” The host reassured his guest by putting the unfortunate question down to his son-in-law’s young age. Having drunk one more glass, Idele Muc, feeling reassured, left the tanner’s hospitable home.

Later that night the sound of an object falling to the floor could be heard in the hall in David’s house. The next day David recognized the skins that had been stolen a few days before, which were returned in the same condition as they were before.”

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The Forteczna street in the Jewish neighborhood, 1930s