Of the three weekend trips that we were to take as a class, I think I was the most excited for our trip to Kraków. Prior to arriving in Kraków, I had heard nothing but praise for its beauty, ceramics and history. Thankfully the city stood up for, if not surpassed, its praise making it one of my favorite cities by far.
We arrived in the Jewish district of Kraków on a rainy Friday morning, with our first stop being the Museum of Galician Jews. The museum was created by a British photojournalist, Chris Schwarz, in 2004 and its main exhibit mainly consists of photographs taken by Schwarz himself. The museum is powerful, as small traces of a Jewish past in Poland are photographed and displayed strategically in an attempt to tell a story of the joy of a culture and society that once was so rich and the now tragic remains.
From the Museum of Galician Jews, we began a walking tour of Jewish Kraków with our guide, Goska. The first stop on the tour was the oldest synagogue in Poland, which was likely established in the beginning of the 15th century. One common feature of synagogues in Poland is their height, or lack thereof. As a rule, synagogues were never allowed to be higher than nearby churches in Poland, to demonstrate politically that the church was greater than the synagogue. To make up for the lack of height, many synagogues are built further into the ground, making it so that you walk down into the synagogue.
After exploring the synagogue on our own for a little bit we then followed our guide into the surrounding neighborhood. The neighborhood (named Kazimierz after the Polish king Kazimierz that allowed the Jews stay in Kraków) was once a center of Jewish life. In fact, the area looked the same as it did in the 1930s-40s up until recently and was where Spielberg filmed parts of Schindler’s List.
However, since the film came out the area has become a “Jewish Disneyland” (as Goska described it to us) of sorts, with people from all over the world flocking to the neighborhood to catch a glimpse of where the film took place. Walking through Kazimierz, we were constantly passing or being passed by large golf carts advertising tours of Jewish Kraków and Schindler’s factory. In addition to these tours, the center of the neighborhood was filled with restaurants that claimed to sell “authentic” Jewish meals, when in reality the restaurants are likely owned and operated by people of non-Jewish descent. As a whole, it makes for a very strange experience.
Continuing the tour, we entered a nearby bar to go to its second floor outdoor seating. Instead of grabbing drinks, this location allowed us to take a glimpse into the Jewish cemetery across the street. The cemetery is surrounded by a tall brick wall, but the bar’s location allows us to catch a glimpse of the enclosed space. Here we learn how the best or more important members of the community are buried closest to the center of the cemetery, where the members that were not thought of as highly were buried close to the cemetery wall.
To better explain this, Goska brought up a story of an old miser that once lived in the area and was buried in the cemetery. During his life, the people of the Jewish community felt that this man, who was quite wealthy, was in the wrong for not donating money to the poor because he had the money to spare. So upon his death, it was decided that this man would be buried near the cemetery wall to demonstrate that he was a miser during his lifetime. However, as the weeks went by following the miser’s death, a group of poor people stopped receiving the anonymous donations that had been supporting them. It did not take the community long to realize that the man that they thought to be a miser, was actually quite generous. Therefore in an attempt to show that the miser was actually a great man, the Great Rabbi was buried next the man, also next to the cemetery wall.
From the bar, we moved on to the Jewish Community Center (JCC), which happens to be the first JCC in Poland. The center was built as a result of an initiative of Prince Charles of Wales to give the Jewish community a meeting place. The building gave off a vibrant, youthful feel and certainly made me feel that the Jewish community refuses to be left in the past. Currently, the JCC has about 500 members.
The final stop of our tour was Wawel Hill, where the Royal Castle and Cathedral are located. Kraków was the capital of Poland until 1596, when Poland’s king (King Sigismund III) decided to move the capital to Warsaw. The reason for this move was that Warsaw was closer to Sweden (where he was also king), making his commute between the two much shorter. I guess you have to do what you have to do when you’re king of two countries.
We ended our tour by walking down the hill and into Kraków’s Old Town, a large town center full of gorgeous architecture. Unlike many cities in Poland, Kraków was lucky enough to be spared from much destruction during WWII and was actually the capital of Nazi-occupied Poland. This city is clearly rich in culture and history, and I feel lucky to have been able to hear even a small portion of it.
Until next time,