In Kazimierz (Kraków, Part 2)
October 30, 2015 § 3 Comments
Whenever I told anyone I was going to Poland for my summer holiday, I tended to get two reactions: people who had been told me that I’d made an excellent choice, that Kraków was lovely, etc.; people who hadn’t would give me an odd look and say dubiously, ‘oh, that’s… brave/adventurous/different.’ (I guess the image of it as a grey, joyless Communist hellhole is more persistent than I thought.) But nearly everyone, regardless of whether they’d visited or not, inevitably had the same question: are you going to visit Auschwitz?
My answer was a defiant, resounding no. For three reasons, the chief being that I’m a great big coward. The other two being that a. I’ve heard from everyone I know who has visited that it irrevocably colours the rest of your trip, and I didn’t want this to be the case on my first visit to Poland and b. I was travelling alone. I couldn’t imagine enduring that visit without having someone to talk to about it afterwards. Or a shoulder to cry on.
(Even if I had wanted to go, the numerous tour operators dotted around Kraków advertising trips to Auschwitz and to the Wieliczka Salt Mine as if the two were somehow equivalent chilled me to the bone.)
The compromise was that I would visit the old Jewish neighbourhood, Kazimierz, and Oskar Schindler’s factory across the river in Podgorze, which has recently been turned into a museum. So the morning of my second day in Kraków, I set out.
Kazimierz was once an island surrounded by an arm of the Vistula and, although it was filled in in the nineteenth century, it still feels rather separate from the old city. It’s mid-morning by the time I turn off the main boulevard into Kazimierz and the streets are already suntraps, baking in heat that promises to get worse. There are few other pedestrians apart from tourists; anyone with any sense who isn’t at work is hanging out in one of the scores of cafés.
Kazimierz is beautiful in a humbler way than the fairy-tale Stare Miasto: unmistakably old, battered by time, scorched by sun. Most of the buildings lining the main thoroughfares now contain trendy cafés and shops. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that this was once one of the biggest Jewish neighbourhoods in Poland. You could easily be in Hackney or Brooklyn or – perhaps the most pertinent comparison – the Marais.
My first stop, after an hour or so of aimless flânerie, is the Old Synagogue, which is now a museum, no longer used for worship. The exhibits chart the history of Kazimierz and of Kraków’s Jewish community up until the Second World War. Many of them – prayer books, candlesticks, Torah crowns – have a tragically cobbled-together feel, and the wall texts make no bones about that – they’re what was left after the destruction.
By the time I emerge, it’s later than I thought, so I head straight over the river to Podgorze, past buildings and courtyards that feature, according to my guidebook, in Schindler’s List – I wouldn’t have known otherwise, as I’ve never seen it. (My parents deemed me too young to see it when it came out [I was fourteen; were they being overprotective? Answers on a postcard…], and for some reason or another, I’ve never got round to watching it since.)
Apart from the green banks of the river and the splendid rusty towers of a new museum dedicated to the avant-garde director Tadeusz Kantor, Podgorze looks drab and anonymous; it could be a gradually gentrifying working-class industrial suburb anywhere in Europe. There’s no sign that it once contained the ghetto in which the Nazis imprisoned the Jews of Kazimierz on the way to the labour camp of Plaszów or worse – apart from a square now dedicated to ‘the martyrs of the ghetto’, its vast expanse scattered with sculptures of outsize overturned chairs, symbolic of the plunder and destruction of the Jews’ possessions.
Schindler’s factory is down a couple of back streets and under a railroad bridge. It still looks like, well, a factory (although it now also has a contemporary art museum as a neighbour). I’ll admit to no small amount of trepidation as I go in, flash my ICOM card at the ticket desk, and enter the museum.
I didn’t take any photos inside. There are no signs forbidding it, but I couldn’t bring myself to – neither, it seems, could any of my fellow visitors (this might be the only museum on earth immune to the plague of selfies). What I can say is that it is one of the most compelling and thoughtfully curated museums I have ever visited. It plunges you into the darkness and horror of the Nazi occupation, the ghetto and Plaszów without ever straying toward the cheap and sensationalistic. I am, at many points, really glad I didn’t go to Auschwitz: this is about all I can take.
Wisely, perhaps, the museum saves the few points of light in the darkness for the end – the stories of the citizens of Kraków who risked their lives to protect the Jews. Schindler takes pride of place for obvious reasons, and they’ve recreated his office down to the last detail, but there’s little insight into what made this man, who was no saint in either public or private life and, by all accounts, as venal as they came, put his business and life on the line to rescue more than a thousand Jews. Perhaps no one will ever really know.
By the time I emerge, nearly three hours later, into the sun, I feel battered, numb. I walk back along the river to Kazimierz in a daze. The iced coffee I order in a café beside the Little Father Bernard footbridge suddenly seems obscenely luxurious.
There are still several synagogues to visit. Like the Old Synagogue, most of them are no longer in use. The High Synagogue is now a cultural centre with an excellent bookshop on the ground floor. The Remu’h Synagogue used to be the second largest and second most splendid after the Old, but it is now a sad ruin – supposedly currently under restoration, but the ladders, scaffolding and plastic sheeting look as if they haven’t been touched in a while.
I end up going to a turn around the cemetery instead. It’s quiet and only slightly overgrown, most of the thin upright stones so worn by weather and time they’re illegible. There’s a memorial made of broken stones set into one of the walls. How many more broken stones do they represent?
The last synagogue on my list is the Isaac Synagogue. I am not sure I can face another ruin or empty shell, but I press on. As I round the corner, I notice groups of young Hassidim heading in the same direction, and I realise I’ve been seeing small knots of them all around Kazimierz today. When I ask the man at the front desk for a ticket, he shakes his head.
‘You can’t come in now. There’s a service.’
I glance through the open door into the sanctuary and see a sea of black coats and hats, hear the muted buzz of conversation: the service hasn’t started yet, they must be waiting for the rabbi. Any disappointment I might have felt melts away. It’s still being used! After everything I’ve seen today, this feels like a victory. Small, but no less real.
My last stop is the New Cemetery, which came into use at the turn of the century when the Remu’h cemetery reached capacity, cut off from Kazimierz by railroad tracks. A graveyard might seem an odd place to go for solace on a day like this, but that is exactly what it proves to be. As I wander along under heavy green shadows, eyes skimming the headstones, I notice something unexpected and cheering.
A remarkable number of death dates are post-1945.
The worshippers in the Isaac Synagogue might be recent arrivals to Kraków. The cemetery seems to offer proof that Kraków’s Jewish community was never completely obliterated.
I walk back to Kazimierz and the restaurants ringing the main square are setting up for the evening. I can’t help thinking of the wry but rather accurate joke that all Jewish holidays can be summed up in the following three sentences:
They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.
It doesn’t sound like bad advice right now. I choose a restaurant called the Klezmer Hois, go in and order chłodnik and herring, Lithuanian style. Halfway through the first course a klezmer band starts its set. Many of the melodies are familiar from my childhood, but now a particular quality of the music strikes me as never before: at its most wildly joyous, it still sounds mournful; at its most sorrowful, it still contains the germ of a dance.
I walk back to the Old Town and out of a Kazimierz that is coming back to life – and perhaps never entirely died – past another synagogue recently brought back into use, my head still wrapped in the bitter-sweetness of the music.