This post comes with a consumer warning- this trip was not our usual happy jaunt to foreign climes, to savour native cultures and escape our everyday life. I thought it might be that, but once the visit to Auschwitz materialized on the itinerary, everything changed.
It all started when (like many other fellow Israelis) we happened upon appealingly cheap flights to Poland. I knew nothing of Gdansk, or Poznan, but I knew that Warsaw was flattened during WWII and rebuilt, but that Krakow remained mostly intact. I like old European cities, so chose Krakow over Warsaw- the shopping mecca of the modern Israeli. I looked up what there was to do in Krakow and basically there were three things: the Medieval Town centre, the Jewish Quarter of Kazimeirz and the Ghetto and a visit to the Salt Mines. But every tourist website I explored offered a day trip to Auschwitz Birkenau. Okay, clearly if you are going to Krakow for a week, that has to be on the itinerary. I know that most Israeli school high kids get taken there but I had never really thought about what a trip to that terrible place would mean to me as an Israeli and a Jew, and as a human being. It just didn’t seem right to be in Krakow and not make that trip. We had visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and the American war Museum in Saigon, and also the DMZ in Korea. It was time to face our own history.
Therefore, this blog will be ( as befits a week before Pessach) different from all (my) other blogs, and the content may be heavy. You have been warned.
The flight ( Ryanairm arriving at a horrible 23.59 )was enhanced by a chat with a Polish journalist called Anton who is now my Facebook friend and will hopefully be visiting us in December. On arrival, fortunately our Ryanair transfer guy was waiting at the airport to take us the 30 minute drive to the Jewish district of Kazimierz, where we stayed at the comfy but slightly worn Kazimierz II hotel.
The staff were still there as promised and we quickly got ensconced in our room. The next morning after a hearty complementary brekky (brazenly UNKOSHER) we set off to explore the centre of old Krakow. We tried to join a free walking tour, but that did not depart, as there were not enough people. So we made our own way through winding cobbled streets to Wawel castle to tour by ourselves. There we chanced upon a different free walking tour company and joined the end of their tour. We didn’t actually enter the castle because the first available tour involved a 2 hour wait. In any case it didn’t look like Versailles. The free guide was good and so I noted that his company (called Walkative) had other tours including one of Jewish Krakow, and the guide said that their tours went in all weather and regardless of the number of participants. We had a lovely cappuchino and chocky cake in the old city and went home for a rest. We had dinner in the Jewish quarter near the hotel at a very excellent restaurant Kuchina Domowa ,that was exceedingly tasty and cheap, like many restaurants in Krakow. We at first went in to the one next door, Sasiedzi, which had been recommended to us by some girls at the hotel, as appearing in the Michelin guide, and which boasted Hebrew over the doorway. But it was more expensive and fancy looking and we were very satisfied with the one we chose. In the evening we went to a meeting of Couchsurfers in a pub called The Legend, which was a bit hard to find. The event was fun and we talked to people from Italy and Spain as well as local Krakovians.
Next day we did some more exploring around the main square downtown, including the famous medieval Cloth Market, and the streets around it including St Mary’s Basilica and the Jagiellonian University building. In the evening we went to a lovely concert of Chopin music in the Chopin Gallery.
Next day we took an organized tour to the Wieliczka Salt mines just outside Krakow. I was a bit apprehensive about this as I had heard there were 800 steps down, but in the event, despite having a problem knee that morning I managed to do it slowly and surely.
The steps were not steep, well lit and with a handrail all the way. The guided tour including bus pickup cost 120 zloti per person and an earpiece so that you could hear the guide (Konrad- “Konrad’s group please join, please follow”) and it was very interesting. The statues carved out of salt with the chandeliers of salt crystals were great, and the pièce de résistance, the huge chapel at the end of the tour was staggering. Apparently locals can hire it for weddings and other events. There are also a bar and restaurant down in the mines.
Next day we took a free walking tour of the Jewish neighbourhood Kazimierz and its synagogues with Walkative. The tour began right by our hotel in front of the Old Synagogue and continued to the other places connected to the Jewish life of that neighbourhood which was completely wiped out in the Holocaust. This was where the trip started getting very weird. I continually felt that vast amounts of money are now being made on the backs of a whole community that has been totally eradicated. Everywhere there are bars and restaurants, profiting from displaying Stars of David and Menorahs, and by selling gefilte fish and chopped liver. Everywhere you see posters for Klezmer music being played by non Jews (cultural appropriation?) The place was thronging with tourists. Poland is cheap, and the beer is plentiful. Of course this is all completely natural but somehow it felt jarring. For example, from the free tourist map I was given:
“Hevre- once a Jewish prayer house, now a hip bar, with peeling original frescos and DJ parties in the basement on weekends. “
“Sababa: this covert cocktail club offers signature drinks served by sharp-dressed barmen in a low key lounge setting with weekends DJ sets”
I don’t know – it just made my skin creep. But more of this dislocated feeling anon.
Back to the tour- we saw the beautiful Old Synagogue, now a museum, which we returned to on our last day, another Synagogue which is now a bookstore, and the Remu Synagogue and cemetery where we had to pay 10 zloti each to visit (despite the fact that there were some Hassidim from Bnei Brak praying inside, next to the jean- clad French teenage tourists). The tour then crossed over the Vistula river to the Ghetto and the horrifying Ghetto Heroes Square. ( 70 empty bronze chairs – One chair for each 1000 people murdered) The tour finished up outside Oscar Schindler’s Factory, where we were offered a paid tour inside what is now a museum. WE opted to queue outside for 45 minutes to visit independently. Our guide pointed out that all the commercialization of Kazimierz district began only after the movie Schindler’s List, which brought the world’s attention to Jewish Krakow. Before this time, he said, the district had become run down and the derelict houses, abandoned by their Jewish owners ,were inhabited by the poorest of Krakow’s residents. Then gradually tourists came and people saw a marketing opportunity in all things Jewish.
The Schindler Factory Museum was interesting but extremely crowded and it was hard to focus on the wealth of information on display there. We made a valiant effort before returning to the hotel to have dinner and steel ourselves for the following day- Auschwitz- Birkenau.
WE had originally planned to visit the camps independently, just taking the museum guides for the tour inside (outside guides are not allowed). However on discovering that the next day would be -6 wind chill effect -20, we decided to forgo getting there under our own steam, and booked a tour bus that would pick us up from the hotel, and take us directly to Auschwitz I , provide a tour guide and then continue on to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was odd as there were no other Jews/Israelis on the bus and it felt a bit bizarre. The whole day was extremely odd. I can only direct you to the wonderful article written by teacher Adam Boxer, which really puts a finger on how I felt for the rest of this trip. What Mr Boxer says is spot on. I sometimes felt that the guide was being overly defensive, for example, by pointing out that the camps were in fact built to exterminate Poles and not only Jews (true, but 90% of the victims were Jews, both Poles and from other countries). Then she said that inmates claimed the “Jews had it easier” because they were exterminated immediately on arrival instead of being tortured by camp life. This may be true, but it’s a funny way of putting it. She also said that in comparison to Auschwitz II , Auschwitz I was like a 5 star hotel ( brick barracks, toilets, beds) Again this is effectively true but just sounds awful. In terms of content, I believe she was 100% accurate. It was really the tone that bothered me. The tour of Auschwitz was about 2 hours but felt like eternity. In our 4 layers of clothing it was impossible to fathom how anyone could have survived there wearing pyjamas and no shoes. As the guide said, you could be punished for wearing another layer underneath your prison pyjamas.
From there the drive to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was about 10 minutes. Again, Mr Boxer’s account is spot on. The camp was horrifying in its barrenness, as the Nazis destroyed most of the camp before the allied forces arrived, leaving only the crematoria. We toured the wooden huts that have been reconstructed there. Then the guide said she would continue on across the vast snow covered field to the crematoria. Those who preferred could return to the bus. D went; I caved in and returned with a few other women to sit on the bus and try to digest what we had seen.
The next day was our last day in Krakow and it was still bitterly cold, so we just popped down to the old city to see the last of the downtown area. We happened upon the strange “Underground Museum” which features a history of Medieval Krakow underneath the main square. Then after an amazingly cheap and tasty curry at Indus, we returned to tour Kazimierz again and enter the synagogues which we had not done on the walking tour. I leave you with some photos of those. Next stop Iceland.