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

Things That I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

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Things That  I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” Roman Payne

Perched on Wawel Hill in Krakow, Wawel Castle is one of the most important structures in Poland. It was the residence of Polish kings for centuries before being converted into a museum and extensive art gallery in 1930.

The ornately decorated cathedral (no photos please)  and the royal staterooms are good to include in your visit.

The castle represents nearly every European architectural style, including Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque and consists of a number of structures situated around the Italianish main courtyard.

As in other countries, it is good to be the king.

In Wawel Castle, there is an exhibition of one painting. It is an original painting by Leonardo da Vinci “Lady with an Ermine.” Only five other cities in the world can boast a painting by da Vinci, so don’t miss it. The painting was bought in 1800 by Adam Czartoryski, a Polish prince. It was moved to Paris in 1836 and returned to the Czartoryski Museum in 1876. Hidden from the Nazis in 1939, the painting was found and formed part of Hitler’s Berlin collection before ending up in Waiwei as the property of Krakow’s Nazi commandant, Hans Frank. With Soviet troops getting close, the painting was rushed back to Germany. American soldiers finally confiscated it and returned it home to Kraków in 1946. The painting has since become one of the city’s most loved treasures.

Krąków’s Jagiellonian University was established by King Casimir III the Great in 1364 and is the oldest university in Poland and second oldest in Central Europe.

Krakow is an old town of young people. The twenty-eight Krakow institutions of higher education have over 200,000 students attending them. The population of Krakow is 760,000 thousand. 

St. Mary’s Trumpet Call can be heard playing hourly from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica – a major symbol of Kraków. The melody always stops short, which symbolizes the legend of a trumpeter who, in 1240, wanted to warn the locals of an approaching enemy, but was killed by an arrow.

Krakow is a city of churches, which is especially visible in its historical center.

In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the city willingly gave themselves into the hands of the Saints, who would protect them and help them with all life problems.

Krakow is one of those European cities that takes pride in having a cold cut produced and branded there -like Parma. Kielbasa Krakowska  or Kielbasa Lisiecka are the products whose taste has been synonymous with Polish sausage.

Another specialty of Krakow is the famous bagel (obwarzanek krakowski). The ring-shaped braid of bread covered with poppy seeds is sold on every corner in the city.

It was baked in Krakow since the Middle Ages and popularized by the Jewish community who emigrated throughout the world. 

MOCAK is a very interesting and thought-provoking contemporary art museum.(art makes you free)

The museum has a wide range of contemporary art and sculpture, all well presented and explained in a spacious modern building.

There were some excellent pieces challenging nationalism, globalization and war.

There are both Polish and International contemporary artists represented.

Many European cities have an Old Town, but Kraków definitely has one of the best.

The medieval architecture is especially fascinating and it’s big enough that you can spend all day walking around it.

Kraków’s Market Square is the largest medieval commercial square in Europe (each of its sides is 200 m long).

It is forbidden to feed pigeons in Krakow. The locals hate them. (a few hungry pigeons)

There is a lot of weird sculpture in Poland. The big head in Rynek Square is one of them. It is a good meeting point because every tourist can find it. The head is Eros, the God of Love. Why the blindfold? Because love is blind?

The Vistula River, Poland’s longest, runs through Kraków just outside of the Old Town and Jewish District. There are more locals than tourists enjoying it.

The riverfront is long and wide and goes along both sides. It’s lined with a sidewalk, grass, parks, and a few boat restaurants.

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During World War ll, the Nazis occupied beautiful Krakow. Hans Frank looked over the terror from his office on Wawei Hill which is why Krakow was not destroyed.

Krakow is one of the most charming cities. it is hard to believe there was so much death and darkness in such a peaceful place with all those churches. 

I would like to thank Jo Fisher and Aryeh Maidenbaum of Jewish Heritage Travel for putting together such an interesting, well thought out trip through Poland. I have learned so much of the history and complexities of Poland and appreciated the thoughtful intelligent guides and of course, the great hotels.  Hope to travel with you again, some day.

Fly safe,

JAZ