Writer Norman Ravvin gave his inaugural lecture as Chair of the Institute of Canadian Jewish Studies on January 18. He used the occasion to give his listeners an absorbing account of his recent travels in Poland, and a taste of his novel-in-progress. Here is an excerpt from his talk.
We approached the centre of the settlement called Radzanow on what my grandmother used to call the Mlawer Gasse, a long winding roadway. A stork landed, wings wide. There were cows in the field behind houses, and mist over the escarpment where the Polish army made a hopeless three-day stand against the Germans in the first days of World War II. All this seemed a landscape from another planet Ð a different world entirely from the ferocious getting and spending that had overtaken Warsaw since what Polakowski calls the "change in the system." The circus-like hubbub at the casinos on Jerozolimskie, the absolute elation on the faces of young women as they took off their coats in a casino's foyer. The clown act as every second man played at being James Bond, snapping open his cell phone and trotting this way and that, doing some bit of business above the roar of city traffic.
Compare this with the situation in Radzanow, once called a town, but now demoted to what the authorities call a settlement. A thousand people, an hour or so north of Warsaw, amid farm plots, ancient pine forest, the winding single lane that gives way to one of the three or four long main streets that meet at the centre of things, which was once a market, but is now an oblong patch of grass, trees, and paved pathways pointing toward the church where people are gathering on a Sunday morning, coal smoke in the air, the church bell ringing, it seems, a thousand times.