We spent this morning touring Krakow. This seems to be a prosperous city, full of busy people. It was not damaged much by the war, and the city buildings are in various states of preservation: some old and dilapidated, some renovated nicely in the old style, some modern and strikingly different. According to our guide Dariusz, the ownership of many of the buildings cannot be proven. Ones now owned by the state may have once had Jewish owners murdered in the holocaust with living relatives who might come forward to claim them; thus, when ownership is at all questionable, one’s investment in a building may be lost.
We spent a few hours wandering through the former Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. We saw at least five synagogues, none perfectly maintained or restored but most of them active in one way or another, especially as host sites for large groups of Israelis or other foreign visitors. These synagogues are also used as community centers for concerts/lectures and as venues for the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which has taken place in Krakow for the past 25 years (since the fall of communism). Adjacent to one of these synagogues was a graveyard. In answer to our question about how it survived the war, Dariusz told us that the Jews had covered the graves with earth, after knocking over the tombstones, to make the area look like a field so the Nazis wouldn’t realize that something was there that they could desecrate. Today, about half of the graveyard is back to normal, with upright tombstones, pathways, and shade trees. During our walk, we also stopped by the Krakow Jewish Community Center, which is actively providing community programs. It was dedicated to Britain’s Prince Charles, who committed himself to raising funds to get the center underway.
Back on the bus, we drove across the river to the area designated as the Jewish ghetto by the Nazis during the war. Today, it looks like a part of the city, but with one striking feature: there is a huge plaza with large, black, straight-back chairs placed at regular intervals on the surface. The chairs are empty, symbolizing the emptiness of Krakow after the Jews were removed. At one corner of the square is a pharmacy remaining from the pre-war period. The owner, a gentile, remained in his pharmacy throughout the war and was instrumental in saving many Jewish lives by providing people with medicines, or papers, or a means of escaping from the ghetto.
Next, we drove to the factory of Oscar Schindler, where the administration building has been turned into a museum of life in Krakow during the war. The Jews were living in deplorable conditions during the war, but the Poles of the city were better off. Several display cases contained artifacts of their lives. There were also reconstructions of ghetto apartments, of normal apartments, and of a below-ground hiding place for the Jews. Life went on as normal for some of the inhabitants of Krakow, but it was horrible for others. Dariusz led us through the exhibits, fortunately, or we might have been there for days because there was so much information to absorb. The museum is very well done and was full of tourists like us.
Back at our hotel, Denise and I dumped our stuff and took off for a city walk, our destination being the market square, which is an important feature of Krakow. This is another huge plaza, bordered by multi-story buildings and lined with outdoor bars and cafes on all sides. We found a place for pizza and enjoyed sitting outside on the sunny afternoon watching all the passersby on the square. A long building, the “Cloth Hall” took up one side of the square, and we went there looking for local crafts. We were not disappointed.
For dinner this evening, we went back to the Krakow JCC for a Sabbath meal with dozens of other people. We sat across from an Israeli couple and their daughter who have resettled in Krakow and love it here, although they miss Israel as well. The daughter speaks English very well, plus Hebrew and Polish, and she’s learning French in school. Amazing. We found it heartening that this family confirms Dariusz’s statement that life for Jews in Poland is getting better.
Our destination this morning was Wawel Castle. This edifice tells the history of Poland in stone. The walls, the buildings, the cathedral were all built at different times in different materials, and all tell the viewer many facts about Poland’s history if you know what you’re looking at. Dariusz was a fountain of information, with a phenomenal memory for dates and facts. Both interior and exterior views of the castle showed impressive, massive spaces: the height of the walls and buildings, the size of the castle courtyard, and even the public rooms which we visited. These were some of the features of the interior: carved limestone doorways, each unique; Belgian tapestries on both secular and Biblical subjects; massive furniture, money boxes, and thrones; huge oriental carpets. Dariusz took us through all the public rooms explaining everything we saw.
For the afternoon, we drove a short distance to Wieliczka, the location of a very old and famous salt mine. We met our guide, a young woman with imperfect English, at the entrance and engaged in our first task, which was to walk down 54 flights of steps to the first level of the mine. We then followed her through underground passages, up and down several more flights of steps, stopping every so often in rooms or cavernous spaces to look at the salt sculpture and wooden supports which were the two main features of the mine. One gigantic space in particular was impressive: it looked like a timber-frame building, but its purpose was to stabilize the roof and walls of the cavern. This mine was built in the 13th century originally and had been producing salt continuously until 2007. It hosts about 1.2 million visitors annually. We traveled at least 2 miles underground, and at the end we rode back up to the surface in a tightly-packed elevator. With restaurants, gift shops, and toilets readily available, I think we were somewhat better off than the miners who used to work there.
Jewish Community Center in Krakow
Restored Synagogue in Krakow
Interior of Beautifully Restored Synagogue in Krakow
Pharmacy that Remained Open During the War
Plaque Marking Schindler’s Factory
Main Plaza in Krakow – Cloth Hall on the Left
View from Wawel Castle in Krakow
Us in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle in Krakow
Inside the Salt Mine at Wieliczka