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Chopped Liver and Klezmer- a week in freezing Krakow (or is it Cracow?)

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.

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St Kinga’s Chapel, Salt mine ( wikpedia Image)

 

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.

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A very cultural week

*** Warning! Long blow-by-blow post. Please feel free to skip as necessary!

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The gorgeous Belvedere Palace

As I wrote in my last post, the trip to Vienna was booked before we  knew that were going to Sri Lanka. But in any case of course Vienna and Sri Lanka are going to be very different experiences. We had never been to Austria before, partly because of my bias against the German language, but we decided it was worth a try.

So we packed up and flew off to our lovely air bnb care of one Anton Herzl. We got the airport bus to downtown for a cheap 13 Euro return (being careful not to lose the return part of the ticket!)

The flat was very well located, 5 minutes walk from the U-bahn subway station and a leisurely 20 minutes do the city centre along the Danube canal. We mostly walked down and travelled back by subway when we were exhausted. U-bahn has a flat rate of 2.20 Euro and is easy to negotiate, and all the machines are in English as well as German.

The first day we ventured down town and just wandered around to see what we could see. WE saw the Parliament buildings (which are very impressive, but didn’t take the organized tour) the  City hall or Rathaus building, and the huge Museum quarter. Everywhere there are statues, and highly ornate neo-classical, baroque and a few art deco style buildings. IT’s all rather ovewhelming, and it’s hard not to constantly stop and take pictures. We then walked back through the gardens of the Rathaus and around the area of the Imperial Hofburg Palace.

On our second day we first went to find the ticket office to collect our ticket for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which we would hear the following Sunday in the Mozart Mass at the Imperial Palace Chapel. After this we visited the Albertina Museum for the fantastic Chagall to Malevitch and Monet to Picasso exhibitions. Then we hit the Naschmarkt open food market and partook of our first proper Schnitzel. Actually it was hard to decide where to eat as there were so many lovely looking restaurants, but we finally picked one, and then wandered around a bit (taking more photos of course) There was a nice Asian place where the waiters were all Chinese, so we chatted a bit to them and came back there the next day.

In the evening we attended a meeting of Vienna Couchsurfing at a small bar, and met people from Vienna, Spain, Colombia, Finland and even Syria and Palestine. It was fun but hard to talk to everyone as there were so many people. When we left it was pouring with rain so we took a taxi home, as we were not sure how to negotiate the tram.

The third day was spent entirely at the amazing Imperial Palace the Hofburg, which has several different parts, and it is difficult to see everything if you don’t want to be “castled out”. As rather limited animal fans we passed on the Riding school, but if you are a horsey person you can do that. We saw the Silver collection and the Sissi Apartments, which show a peek into the lives of Franz Josef and his young wife Elizabeth (the Sissi of the movie fame) and it was a very interesting experience and made me want to brush up on my history. Everything was fascinating and beautifully laid out.We then returned to the Naschmarkt for supper to get a bit of Stir fry and practise our Chinese on the waiters.

The next day being Holocaust Day in Israel we identified by visiting both Holocaust Museums in Vienna. We found them rather underwhelming after all the grandeur of the Hapsburg palaces, especially as the museums themselves are not very well laid out or labelled, or even that easy to find. The first one in Judenplatz was particularly uninspiring, and had a temporary exhibition of documents relating to Simon Weisenthal. The second one was better and had a special exhibition on the contribution of Jews to modern music, and this had a very good audio visual commentary accessible by smart phone.In the evening we had tickets to a Mozart concert held in the Sala Terrena, one of the (many) houses occupied by Mozart during his time in Vienna. The concert was lovely but even more impressive were the decorations in the hall itself,which were just gorgeous.

Day 5 was a visit to the incredible Belvedere Palace. It was hard to choose where to go, as there is also the Schonbrun Palace, which we were told is completely different and also amazing, but one can’t see everything,right? Anyway the Belvedere was indeed lovely, and quite easy to get to on foot,by walking through the lovely Stadpark. Fortunately the Stadpark had a food fair going on that day, so we had a great Viennese hot dog on the way as an added bonus. On arrival at the Belvedere, we noticed some workers erecting lots of scaffolding and a small stage, and decorating everything with flowers. There was no seating so it wasn’t a concert. We discovered that the place had been hired by a very rich Indian family for a wedding, to which 1,000 guests had been invited. Apparently this is a “thing” now. There are two palaces, actually the Upper and Lower, and the gardens. Fearing exhaustion we chose only the Upper, where the famous “Kiss” picture by Klimt is housed, and were not disappointed. There are rooms upon rooms of gorgeous artworks and it just goes on and on… Anyway the visit to the Belvedere, with its ornate rooms and galleries was another wonderful day out in Vienna.

Dan wanted to have a glimpse of the Danube proper and not just the Canal, so the next day we walked via the Karmelite market towards the river. The market, in Leopoldstrasse, a Jewish neighbourhood of Vienna, was quite nice but nothing amazing. But on our way to the river we walked through the Prater amusement park which was nothing short of splendid. I am not usually a fan of these things but the big wheel was indeed impressive and the whole place had a sort of yesteryear charm to it which was quite lovely, added to the fact that the sun was shining. We reached the Danube eventually, which was, as I had feared rather disappointing. There were no restaurants or cafes along its banks, as there are along the canal, and frankly nothing at all to do there. SO we decided to head back to the area around the Stefansdom, the iconic church set in the Stefansplatz, and the beating heart of the Innere Stadt. There we went up to the top of the spire in the lift, and enjoyed a view out over the city.

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D on the Danube

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Amusement park at Prater

There were still a few more surprises for us in Vienna. We had tickets for the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing the Mozart Mass in the Imperial Hofburg Chapel. I had not realized this would be a “proper” Mass and not just a concert. This was a rather weird anthropological experience for us good Jews, never having attended Mass before. I was rather worried they would call us up to do whatever it is you do with the host and the wine, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that. The choir was of course outstanding and the accoustics were incredible. The whole experience was very special. Our final musical experience was actually devoid of music. We did a tour of the Opera house, which was very interesting, but didn’t attend a performance, as we couldn’t get tickets, and I didn’t fancy queueing up for 3 hours to stand through something that we didn’t know well, and there were only performances of less well-known operas on, so we decided to pass.

Our last day in Vienna we returned to Stefansplatz a bit( quick glass of white wine and marching band!) and then walked along the canal again to just chill out and try and take in all the sights. We were blessed with gorgeous hot weather, and chanced upon a cafe restaurant, amusingly named Tel Aviv beach, complete with sand, deck chairs, hummus and pita (which we didn’t eat) and a great view of the canal.

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Imperial Box at the Opera House

Thus ended our week and we now have a month to get ready for the next adventure- Sri Lanka! Bring it on…

 

 

The Cheesecake Festival

Had a nice Shavuot- went to dinner at our Rehovot relatives. Fantastic food and really nice atmosphere.We also had friends over for dinner at the weekend.We made too much food but that was ok, now we have a full fridge for the rest of the week.
Last night we went to see “Before the devil knows you’re dead”.Not a particularly pleasant movie, but definitely well-produced and acted. More food for thought than I originally thought, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was outstanding as the evil brother.
Found some great videos on Eflclassroom.2.0 and so I will put a few on here now and again.

A great Day at the museum

Had a really good class today at the museum.The first part was about the use of the written word in Art,(I think it is called Conceptual Art ) and we saw works by people like Barbara Kruger, and we discussed the changes in women’s status since the beginning of the century (Virginia Woolf etc of course!)

Then came the really good bit. We had a talk from a young artist called Ariel Malca who has a new exhibit in the Shrine of the Book.It is a little hard to describe,but uses biblical texts moving over a landscape to convey the idea of the journey made by the Children of Israel on their way to the the land of Israel.That sounds crap but you really have to see what he did.Anyway we ended up talking about the lack of boundaries today between the different disciplines, since he doesn’t have any formal training ,either as an artist or as a techie. It was really cool.

Anyway when I got home I looked up some of the stuff including Barbara Kruger, and found a lot of really great stuff which I ‘d love to use in class. Maybe I will .

The ones that really caught my eye I have saved. Here’s one of them…
Barbara Kruger