Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Poland --Heidi Szpek explores remaining mikvahs

Once again, I want to highlight a fascinating article by the scholar Heidi Szpek in the online Jewish Magazine. In this piece Szpek, who has written extensively about the Jewish cemetery in Bialystok and also collaborated with the local Bialystok researcher Tomaz Wisniewski, describes her exploration of surviving mikvah buildings in the Bialystok region, particularly that in the village of Bocki.
On my first visit to Bocki in May of 2005 no sign indicated that this was the mikvah; no plaque upon the mikvah marked this structure as an artifact of Jewish heritage (fig. 2). No one was present to inquire if I might walk through the waist high grass and weeds beside the Nurzec River and visit the mikvah. Electric company workers engaged in repairing a junction box on the bridge with their entourage of youthful onlookers were oblivious to my presence as I made my way toward the mikvah. The mikvah's appearance had changed since the 1986 photo in my guidebook.3 Gone were the wooden shake roof and chimney. The vertical wooden planks and wooden roof that covered the mikvah bath proper were likewise gone. No remnants of wood remained on the ground; no doubt, they had been used for some other purpose. Halfway to the mikvah, I observed that the walls had begun to buckle inwardly in places. Yet 'brick and stone' was not a completely accurate description for the building materials of this mikvah, rather the exterior walls were of variegated fieldstones, expertly joined by mortar. The foundation was of red brick as were the window frames, jambs and the frame of an upper door that once must have exited to a small balcony. The front façade also held three small circular windows again bordered by brick. As I drew near the mikvah, the large wooden plank entrance doors still remained – the right one slightly ajar as if someone had just entered. And so, too, did I enter. The inside was as overgrown as the outside, tall shrubs as well as weeds and grass had reclaimed the interior. The mikvah proper was filled with shrubbery. The river, from which the mikvah once drew its water supply, was now blocked by a copse of shrubbery trees, suggesting that for a long time the proximity of the mikvah and river had remained distant. The wrought iron bands that created multi-squared windows beside and opposite the entrance still remained, the back window looking out to a farm field that very well may have been a farm field in the past (fig. 3). Inside, too, were the fallen remains of the brick window frames, yet in places the interior plaster whitewash still remained intact. Remnants of interior walls suggested a multi-room, two-story structure.
On the ground, too, I discovered the fractured pieces of a once simple but delicate soft gray lintel that no doubt graced each window (fig. 4). It lay where it had fallen when the window frames gave way, in pieces like a puzzle that could easily be connected. But they would not be connected. For though they lay undisturbed the elements would slowly break down this composite substance, returning it to the earth from where it had once come. How soon, too, would the remaining walls give way of their own accord, or perhaps by the farmer whose electric wire line extended past the back side of the mikvah towards the river, or to construction needs of the tall brick building nearby? Twenty years had passed since the guidebook's photo and great changes were evident.
          Read full article HERE

Szpek includes photographs that clearly show the way that the building has become more degraded and overgrown in the years since she first saw it.
Outside of the mikvah, the grasses and stinging nettles grew so tall as to make circumventing the mikvah nearly impossible. Yet someone now brought greetings. Cows from the nearby farm grazed on the grasses about the mikvah, literally drawing near to my greeting of "Dzie Dobry". From the mikvah's window facing the river, a tiny white and burnished- red barn cat peered out. The red of its fur nearly blended with the window's red brick frame.

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