Off to Poland
6th August 2005
My first impression of Kraków was rather one of shock, as the entire area around the railway and bus stations had been dug up and it took me a good 15 minutes just to work out how to find my way from one side of the station to the other, to get a taxi to my hotel.
I had chosen the Eden Hotel which is the former home of the founder of the Izaac Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. It turned out to be a very friendly and well situated base camp.
I had looked at the map and thought that the city of Kraków seemed quite neat and cosy, but it was only the few minutes in the taxi that brought it home to me just how compact it is. A ten minutes stroll would take me up into the city centre or to the Royal Castle of Wawel.
The fate of Kraków’s Jews
For my first evening I took a dander about Kazimierz. This was the location that Steven Spielberg used to shoot his scenes for the Ghetto in his film Schindler’s List. On a sunny day and in colour it all looks very different to the stark black and white images on the screen. The famous scene of the luggage being hurled over the balcony is in fact set in quite a pretty courtyard.
For those who have read the book or watched the film, the recent past seems to hang heavily; the imagery always there in the back of the mind. Before the war, tens of thousands of Jews lived here, now they number a few hundred.
The signs of their existence are everywhere in former synagogues and their cemeteries as well as a now thriving restaurant and café industry looking after the needs of the throngs of visitors who come in search of their roots, understanding or perhaps both.
Many of the tiny alleyways and buildings are run down but there is a sensation that a new vitality is being breathed into the quarter. At night the crowds gather, the eating houses fill and music is played.
Having looked at pre-war photographs I doubt that it was as lively as that, but what did strike me was the sensation that whilst we, today, sit and eat and are amused by musicians and singers, we believe that we have a future. Tomorrow will be better. For those of yesteryear their tomorrow was to be snuffed out like a candle, leaving, not a wisp, but rather columns of smoke as their bodies succumbed to the Final Solution.
A few minutes walk though takes you out onto the banks of the Vistula River and from there I could see the arched Pilsudski Bridge which was the route taken by the Jews as they left their homes on being moved into the Podgórze Ghetto.
This tiny area was walled off (The Jews being forced to do the work themselves) and for many the only contact with the outside world was either by working at Oskar Schindler’s factory which is now a museum, or through the Eagle Pharmacy run by a Pole called Tadeusz Pankiewicz, which is already a museum.
Both men at great risk to themselves helped Jews at risk of selection for the camps or assisted in obtaining aid. Pankiewicz allowed his building to be used as a meeting place and provided information as well as materials to make people look fitter and healthier.
Schindler would eventually spend his profits, from his original use of cheap Jewish labour, in saving his workers from the gas chambers.
The Eagle Pharmacy (Apteka pod orlem) is well sign posted and Schindler’s factory is reasonably easily to find; cross the main road from the bridge near the pharmacy and then use the pedestrian tunnel under the railway line. Good maps of the area are available from the Galicia Gallery in Kazimierz.
There are many scenes in the film which stick in the mind. One for me is the view down from the park above the ghetto, where Schindler is riding his horse on the day of the clearance and watching the little girl in red. It would appear that not only did this girl exist but that she survived the war.
Rather strangely, every morning whilst shaving I thought of the moment as Schindler and Amon Goethe the Commandant are doing the same. Just a strange sensation to be actually in the area and doing something so mundane which in the film presaged something so brutal.
The Plaszów Labour Camp
A few days later I would continue a little further out the road and visit the site of the Plaszów Camp (Catch a No 3 or No 9 Tram). Rather ironically you head up Jerusalem Street to reach the camp.
Signs inform you that you are entering the terrain of the camp, which was built on Jewish cemeteries, but there is little but over grown fields and the odd tombstone, alongside small memorials to record the events that transpired here.
Up and behind the terraced slopes of the camp you can see the quarry where many of the inmates had to work to ensure that Hitler had enough building materials for his Thousand Year Reich.
To the right you can see Kraka’s Mound where one of Kraków’s heroes is buried (It was him that killed the dragon of course). To the left on the hillside are two monuments to the victims of the camp.
Leaving the monuments I decided to walk back towards town, but somewhere managed not to turn left enough times. Thankfully after an entertaining hour of walking out along roads towards the countryside and finally realising that I was completely lost I came across a familiar sign. Champion 1.5 km.
It was just like being back home and more to the point opposite the terminus for the 3 and 9 Trams back to my hotel. For those who crave something more British, Tesco is just up the road on the same Tram routes.
Posted : 6 August 2005