22 January 2011

A Krakow Journey

I was reminded today of a blog I wrote following a visit to Krakow just under six years ago. As it is Holocaust Memorial Day today, I thought I would publish it once again as my memorial act. It was originally posted in two parts but I've reproduced all of it in one here. A warning; this is an emotive blog because of what I felt and what the journey meant for me and my family. I am not part of any collective Jewish experience but I fail to see how anyone can remain unmoved and/or untouched by what is to be seen in Krakow.

Before the start of the Second World War, 60000 Jews lived in Krakow, in the district of Kazimierz. This figure represented one quarter of the entire population of that city.

We stayed in Kazimierz. During the day, the streets were quiet. If you stood still you could feel the ghosts walking past. Not just those that belonged to the Jews of which only 2000 survived the war but also those who wore the jackboots crushing the cobblestones and more beneath them. The area has changed little since the war and it was for that reason it became a huge film set when Spielberg made Shindler’s list, although in fact the actual ghetto created by the German's was just across the river in Podgorze. You can easily imagine how these streets were before the war; the hustle and the bustle of every day life, the children playing, the mothers chatting, the traders selling their wares, the workshops noisy and productive but I could also feel a menace that first visited here in 1939 and even if it had stayed only one day, would have been one day too long. Those streets share glimpses of many days gone by, good and bad but overall there is a sense of sadness for all that was lost.

Our journey started at the High Synagogue on Ul Jozefa, so called because it was on the first floor of the building. It was originally built in 1563 but was more or less totally destroyed by the Germans in the early part of the war. Some restoration work has taken place and they hope to do more when funds allow. We paid a total of 21 zloty to enter, a sum equivalent to less than £4. We made a donation also because there was something about the building that made you feel that this was indeed a place worthy of further restoration.

Inside there is a display of photographs of people who had worshipped at the synagogue before WW2, some of whom survived the Holocaust and descendants of those survivors, complete with names and dates. It was a poignant display. I felt like reaching out and touching those pre-war happy, smiling faces, to make contact but in another way I felt like a peeping tom, seeing private moments captured and now displayed because of something that must have been totally unimaginable. Both daughter and son were touched in a similar way.

A little way down the road is Ul Szeroka, which is actually a rectangle rather than a road, now populated by numerous Jewish restaurants none of which sell kosher food! In the centre is a small grassy square that apparently was once a Jewish cemetery. Legend has it that this marks the spot where Sabbath-breakers were swallowed up into the earth. Now it is surrounded by beautiful iron railings and a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. As far as I know I do not have any Jewish ancestry, if I do it is of many generations ago, long buried in family history. We stood at the memorial and my daughter picked up a small stone and placed at the foot of the memorial. You can see it in the photograph to the left. Now she may have done that because there were other stones on the top surfaces of the memorial although she says not and she certainly is tall enough to reach those surfaces if it was that that prompted her. At that moment I felt that her act was an instinctive one or perhaps I see too much or see things that are not really there. Maybe. Maybe not. It was only after she had done that we told her of the Jewish custom of leaving a token of visitation and remembrance.

Just over the road is the Remuh Synagogue. As it was a Saturday we could not enter the synagogue for obvious reasons especially as many Jews were busy with their acts of worship but we could visit the old cemetery there. This survived the war more or less in tact because some time before the arrival of the Nazis, many of the old tombstones had been buried in preparation for some previous danger and there they had lay hidden until well after the war. At the start of the war then it was apparently a forlorn little place and so the importance of the cemetery was not realised and the Nazis kept themselves busy destroying the newer and better kept Jewish cemeteries. One wall is lined with fragments of those old gravestones that were rediscovered and is known locally as the Krakow Wailing Wall. It is a beautiful and peaceful place where we spent some time walking around those very old graves. The ghosts were there again but they were of an older time, a more peaceful time and a more productive time.

Five minutes walk away in Ul. Dajwor is the Galicia Jewish Museum. What a wonderfully moving museum this is. In their own words “The Galicia Jewish Museum exists to celebrate the Jewish culture of Galicia and to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, presenting Jewish history from a new perspective. “. There are in effect two exhibitions at the museum. The first is called “Traces of memory” and is the work of British photographer Chris Schwarz and Professor Jonathon Webber. Together they travelled what was once known as Galicia, the capital of which was Krakow and recorded the Jewish way of life that was destroyed. It is an incredibly moving exhibition both in terms of the photographs and the words that accompany them. Son was profoundly moved and remained in a quiet and reflective mood for the rest of the day.

The second exhibition is called “Polish heroes: Those who rescued Jews" and is a tribute to the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. There are photographs of Polish people who helped and rescued Jews during WW2 and details of the heroic acts they carried out and of those whom they helped and what became of them. The details make for sober reading especially when one considers the huge personal danger they put themselves in.

Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem is displayed at the entrance to the museum and it is a good way to finish this first part of our journey.

First They Came for the Jews

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

The journey continued at the Isaac Synagogue on Ul. Kupa. This must have been a most attractive place to worship before its destruction. It was originally opened in 1644 and was built as you can see in early baroque style. It is large and some restoration has taken place, which enables one to appreciate how fine and beautiful it once was. Inside there was a film playing on a continuous loop from 1936 entitled “The Jewish District of Krakow”. One of those silent gems that made you realise that the buildings of Kazimierz had not really changed at all even though its heart and essence; its people had been torn from it and destroyed.

I will be honest about the Isaac Synagogue. It left me cold. Nothing touched me whilst visiting apart from the film. There were no ghosts not even a shadow. Not even the flickers of the original beauty reached out to me. There were a couple reasons for this, one of which I only became aware of after the visit but then made sense of everything because it explained the sense of deception that had been experienced.

The synagogue was returned to the Jewish Community in 1989 and the Isaac Synagogue Project was born. Part of the aim of the project is to educate the public about issues relating to Jewish history and culture. They sell their history and their culture short. Apart from the film, the exhibits in the building consist of photographs. Unlike the exhibition in the High Synagogue, which was deeply moving, themed and appropriate, this one was a mismatch of photographs and pictures thrown together in no particular order. Most of the photographs were of Warsaw and Jews and Pope John Paul 2 in Warsaw and did not relate to the local area of Krakow. Photographs of different places and different eras were all thrown together. Some of the photographs were torn and tattered (not that matters considering their age but you do wonder why some attempt had not been made to restore or make good) or had not been copied very well. There appeared to have been no thought placed into making the exhibition relevant, thought provoking or interesting. If you wish to educate then surely these things are required?

The second reason discovered after the visit was that the Nazis did not destroy this synagogue although as a visitor you are led to believe by omission, that its fate was determined in the same manner as the synagogues that surround it. Isaac was used as a storage facility for a theatre during the occupation thereby desecrating a place of worship but not destroying it. It was not laid to waste until the 1970’s when a fire more or less destroyed the interior. Like I said there was something about this place and the people who were running it that left me cold. It was completely unrepresentative of the rest of the district and of our visit.

In April 1940 the governor of German occupied Poland, the capital of which was Krakow ordered that the city should become Judenrein; clean of Jews and the ghetto of Podgorze was born across the river from Kazimierz. Our journey took us there on a bitterly cold day. The area of the ghetto was tiny and this can be seen today in that it takes so little time to walk around what was the perimeter of the ghetto. There were a mere 320 buildings that had formerly housed a few thousand occupants. The creation of the ghetto meant that those buildings were expected to house 50000 Jews from all over the surrounding area of Krakow and including the 3000 that were left from the original population of 60000 from Kazimierz.

The Jews were forced to build the wall that was to enclose them. Only small sections such as the one pictured remain. It was beautifully built as you can see. How ironic that those people forced to labour on that project took so much pride in their work.

This area has changed enormously since the end of the war with many modern buildings now having taken the place of those that housed the people of the ghetto, which is why Spielberg didn’t do too much filming there for Schindler’s List despite the fact that this is where Shindler’s factory was located and remains to this day. We didn’t make it to the factory because the walk was just a little too far for those tired young feet of the children.

Our journey finished in Plac Bohaterow Getta – Square of the Heroes of the Ghetto and it was here that the ghosts came and touched our shoulders once again. The square now has a memorial designed by Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak. It was opened on 8 December 2005 and consists of 33 large chairs and 37 smaller chairs placed around the square and on the edges by the tram stop. The chairs are all empty. It is incredibly moving when you think of what it represents.

The Square is a desolate sort of place with a wide, noisy and busy road on one side and a busy tram terminus too. The river is just a mere few steps away and the wind swept across from the river to the square, adding to the air of desolation and what I felt was desperation. The sun was shining brightly as you can see from the photograph but the square was dark.

The square was where the Nazis made the Jews assemble in June and October 1942 for transportation to Belzec. Finally on 13 March 1943 there was one last assembly prior to the liquidation of the ghetto and those who were capable of working were selected for the Plaszow labour camp on the outskirts of Krakow and those that remained; the old, the young, the pregnant, the sick, were transported to Auschwitz. That day marked the opening of Krema 2 at Auschwitz. 1492 people stood on that square in the morning after those selected for Belzec had gone. By the evening they had all passed through the gas chambers and new crematorium and were dead. Only their ashes remained.

It was too painful to linger long in that place. This is where the final flicker of any remaining hope ended for so many people and it was a place where an anger born of frustration came to me that day. Tears are easy come sometimes but that day they were shed hard.

This was the end of our Jewish Journey in Krakow although we did have other journeys in the city that I will write about. It was deeply moving at times, caused reflection and thought on deep levels particularly for son who perhaps had had no reason to think about such things so intensely before. It is a sad journey to make but if you ever get the opportunity I urge you to take it too.

On returning to Kazimierz we searched for something the existence of which had been brought to our attention the day before and we found it. If you look carefully you can see the Yiddish inscriptions.

Bozego Ciala, meaning Corpus Christi, this was the street where our hotel stood.

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