Jewish Krakow

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Jewish Krakow

“As the Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”  Iris Chang

 Krakow was my first stop in Poland. I was there for a week.  It was a picturesque city with unseasonably hot sunny weather and friendly people. My hotel overlooked the stunning Vistula River and Wawei Castle. It was not the grey and gloomy city of the black and white World War Two or Communist photos.

Maciej Zabierowska from the Auschwitz Jewish  Center was our very knowledgeable, interesting guide in the Jewish quarter Kazimierz. We walked around the streets, decorated with colorful street art and set with trendy cafes, cool bars, art galleries, and boutiques.

Maciej’s stories of the history and the peeling, old, facades of the buildings, allowed me not to forget the terrible horrors which took place right there, not that long ago.

We start at the Old Synagogue which was badly looted during World War ll and is now a museum.

The museum shows the history and culture of the Jews of Krakow.

Dating from 1553, the Remuh Synagogue is Kraków’s smallest but most active synagogue, with Shabbat services once again taking place here each Friday.

The synagogue was established by the family of famous 16th century Polish Rabbi Moses Isserles – better known as ‘the Rema,’ The old Jewish Cemetery is next to it.

Kazimierz has many  Jewish-themed tourist restaurants. Its “Jewish” cafes present a nostalgic, literary image of prewar Jewish life — some with taste and sensitivity, others in a disturbing way.

I didn’t eat in them but it looked like they were going for old world shtetl chic. Some of the names of the restaurants are in Hebrew style letters.

I checked a few menus and there were things like Rabbi’s salad and Yiddish fish. There were Klezmer bands playing music (like Volare?)  it had a Jewish Disneyland feeling but without the  Jews.

There are many Lucky Jews. The Lucky Jew comes from Polish folk art. In many places, not a trace is left of the Jewish community that once lived there. That blank space is filled today with images of Jews––figurines, pictures, magnets, postcards, and more. The lucky Jews are negative stereotypical caricatures of the Jewish people.  They seem to reflect the preconception that Poles are antisemitic.  According to the Poles, it is an amulet or good luck charm, like a happy fat Buddha. Little Lucky Jews stand at cash registers holding bags of money or a coin for good luck.

There are also paintings and caricatures of them. It is based on centuries of living side by side and stereotypes. Their story is complicated and due to some protesting, there are less of them now. 

We stop in at the Pharmacy Museum.

It is five floors of all kinds of things used as pharmaceuticals but we are here to see the exhibit about Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who operated a pharmacy in the Kraków Ghetto during WWII.

He was the only Roman Catholic pharmacist in the area to decline the German’s offer to relocate outside the ghetto.

He helped with medication, often free, hair dyes for changing identities, tranquilizers for children during Nazi raids, smuggling food and messages etc. His story is on display here.

We continue on through the ghetto.

The Galicia Jewish Museum is home to the permanent photographic exhibitions, Traces of Memory: A contemporary look at the Jewish past in Poland, and An Unfinished Memory. The goals of the Museum are to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions typically associated with the Jewish past in Poland.

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.

  This incident was made famous by Stephen Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List’.

Located on the site of Schindler’s Enamel Factory is the Historical Museum of Krakow which tells the story of Kraków and its inhabitants during the Second World War.

Visitors can explore artifacts,  photographs, eyewitness accounts, films and multimedia exhibitions, which show the history of life and tragedy during this time.

Gosia Fus,  our guide here and in the old city is visibly moved as she guides us through the exhibit. (memorial)

The Plaszow Concentration Camp was not far from the Schindler Factory and four kilometers from the Market Square.

Amon Goth the brutal camp commandant lived on the hill overlooking the camp. The Schindler workers walked back and forth every day. It is a mass cemetery of unmarked graves and pits filled with corpses.

it looks like a wide expanse of grass and stone. The camp was built on top of two cemeteries and the tombstones were used as pavers in the roads. It went from a forced labor cam to a mass execution site of the Jews from the emptying Krakow Ghetto.

There are no headsets, tour guides or multimedia displays and I walk the grounds to try to feel the past beneath my feet. 

We go to our first Shabbat at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. It is run by a New Yorker, Jonathan Orenstein. Rabbi Amichai Lev Lurie who is traveling with us leads a beautiful, thoughtful service which puts everyone in a spiritual mood.  I am sitting next to a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden during the war. There is a school group from Israel, converted Jews who found out a grandparent or relative was Jewish, and some Polish Jews. The staff, volunteers, and community were warm and welcoming. We had a typical  Sabbath Dinner. The doors are open to all. Make it a point to stop in if you are there on a Friday night.  

I have to thank our guides in Kraków  Maciej and Gosia for their kindness, empathy, and knowledge. I did not know what kind of people i would find in Poland after all that history and the right-wing media publicity. I have traveled enough to know that there are always a few people in a country who will change your life for the better. You have to travel to open up a worldview that is almost impossible to comprehend without meeting the people in a country different from yours. Both Maciej and Gosia are those kinds of people.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Street Art In Krakow, Poland

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Street Art In Krakow, Poland

“Creativity takes courage.” Henri Matisse

 The first thing I did in Poland was a private street art tour. I was told to meet the guide at Ghetto Heroes Square.The Ghetto Heroes Square is in the center of the old Krakow Ghetto.This square was called the Umschlagplatz by the Nazis. it was the place where the Jews had to assemble before being transported to the Belzec death camp, Auschwitz- Birkenau or the Plasnow Forced Labor Camp just outside the city. Iron and and bronze empty chairs commemorate this place. It is a holiday and the square is eerily empty.  It is a deeply moving memorial.

 I meet up with Joanna Switala who explains the memorial. She knows a lot about the area and the artists. 

Street art in Poland and other ex Soviet countries derives from the spirit of protest. In the last several years, there is trend to improve the quality of public spaces with commissioned  street art murals. Street art is the uncensored, unofficial, egalitarian voice of the people.

In the districts of Podgorze and Kazimierz, public art is both encouraged and controlled, and street artists are often invited to create elaborate works of art that celebrate the city’s history, culture and revitalization.

 The Jewish Cultural Festival invited one of Israel’s most famous street artists, Pil Peled, to create an image to watch over the district. Entitled ‘Judah’, the mural is said to represent both the vulnerability of the Jews and their strength to overcome.

This black and white mural was created by the Israeli group, Broken Fingaz was for the same festival to honor the memory of the Bosak Family, who lived in this area for four hundred years until World War ll .

The woman in the painting is Irene Sendlar. .In 1941, .Irene Sendlar was recruited to head the Underground Council to Aid Jews, which was credited for protecting children by working with orphanages and welfare agencies to change their identities. They also smuggled an estimated eight to ten children out of the ghetto monthly by hiding them in suitcases, packages, and sometimes even coffins. Approximately 2,500 children were saved .

This mural was created by Marcin Wierzchowski, and is visible on the wall of the Galicia Jewish Museum. It represents pre-war Kraków and modern Jerusalem.

101 Murals for Krakow was put together by Krakow street artists who created the mural by bringing together multi-format paintings and connecting them with urban, historical, and architectural contexts of the different districts of the city in Kazimierz and Podgórze.

 City officials are forever trying to erase the playful and political stencils of  street artist Kuba .

 Mythical murals are painted across many of the city’s abandoned buildings by Mikolaj Rejs.

The mural at Joseph Street shows various people that are associated with the district: King Kazimierz the Great and his Jewish lover, Esterka; Prince Joseph II, who became the patron of this area during Austrian times; the architect of the district, Karol Knaus; and Helena Rubinstein, the Jewish queen of cosmetics who lived in Kazimierz before WWII.

 Though i didn’t see it that day, we talked about the internal feuding culture of football graffiti in Poland which might more accurately reflect some of the views here. Patriotic white-and-red colors, swastikas, Celtic crosses, football club emblems, Stars of David hanging from gallows, fans who died in fights with rival supporters and the Fighting Poland symbol are found on walls throughout Poland. 

The city-sponsored  ArtBoom festival invited Bolognese artist Blu to create this giant mural called  Ding Dong Dum.

 Street art as a form of protest remains, even in the publically sanctioned events. When the street artist Pikaso was invited to paint a mural as part of the 2012 ArtBoom festival the authorities refused to allow him to create his original design. Instead, he painted the giant and symbolic mural “For God’s Sake the Censorship is Everywhere.”

The dark history of Poland is always there but maybe the urban culture of street art in a country that didn’t have that freedom before, shows that change is possible.

Thanks Joanna for making my first day, interesting, informative, fun and full of art. I highly recommend her street art tour in Krakow. guideskrakow@gmail.com

Fly safe,

JAZ