It is more than 6 months now since my last trip to Europe and while I quickly recorded impressions of Palestine and Israel, I have been slack in getting around to the rest of the journey.
Not knowing Eastern Europe well, just quick visits to Budapest and Prague, the surprise was Kraków, the old capital of Poland – a wonderful university town with a Market Square and Old City boasting buildings from medieval times through to Italian renaissance and then French provincial architecture.
My travel companion, Gill, has a gift for finding just the right accomodation and this time she excelled. My grand apartment was on Market Square with the best of Krakow laid out under the window.
Krakow is a university town with a core population of 800,000 plus 200,000 students. The university is among the world’s top 500 and the Med School teaches in English. The fact that all university education is free is enshrined in the Constitution. There are 120 merit based places for non Polish students and 1000 apply.
With tourists outnumbering citizens 11:1 (11 million tourists a year) there is obviously something worth seeing. Surprisingly in mid-summer the city did not feel overwhelmed by tourists nor even that its quaint restored centre and castle were merely tourism’s stage settings. I don’t know how Krakow manages the feeling of normalcy, given the constant stream of “dressed” heritage horse and carriages driven by young women, and the open sided tourist cars and their touts waiting around many corners.
The Square (200 metres square) was first set out in 1257. In it are the Cloth Hall, a trading hall since the mid 14th century; the tower of the original Town Hall; St Mary’s basilica where every hour a bugler comes to a tower window and plays. The 15th century wooden altar piece took 12 years to make. There is an underground museum , the National History Museum and many outdoor cafes. This is a lively place, a honeypot for tourists and locals and apart from the main attractions it is worth a walk taking in the facades, rooflines and other architectural features.
This has always been the centre of life (and executions) in Krakow and it was here in 1794 that Kosciuszko inspired the revolt against foreign rule. Here too, Hitler changed the name to his own during the Occupation. The favourite cafe of the occupying Nazis was on the Square
The atmospheric Old City with its many historic buildings and cobbled streets stretches out 1500m x800m around the Square and it itself is ringed by the Planty, the circular park established in the 19th century to replace the demolished city walls.
There are many pleasures in Krakow besides the city itself. Is there anything more delicious than pierogi – the dumplings stuffed with many flavours? Yes of course there is but they are pretty tasty when served homemade at a little restaurant!
Then there is finding a concert in the 1597 Church of Saints Peter and Paul with Bach, Mozart, Chopin etc.performed by members of the Krakow Symphony Orchestra.
Wawel Castle is such a busy epicentre of the tourist throng, that only a cursory visit could be comfortably paid. The castle is on the cave riddled limestone formation of Wawel Hill. Legend has it the hill was once the home of the Wawel Dragon. Many knights were killed in contest with the dragon trying to win the princess’ hand as a reward but a cobbler tricked the dragon into eating a sulphur filled sheep which blew up inside him. Krak, the cobbler, married the princess and built his castle on the hill. The dragon’s cave in the hill, once a tavern is now a tourist attraction.
The castle was used as a fortified castle before the first Polish ruler (962-992). 36 Polish rulers were crowned there until the 17th century. All lived in the castle and all added some architectural detail. The Austrians used it as a hospital. In the 20th century it was Nazi HQ. Even a short visit shows the muddle of styles from medieval though romanesque, renaissance, gothic and baroque.
The Jewish Quarter
In the Middle Ages, the Jews left western Europe to escape the Crusaders. They walked to Krakow in 1495 and it became the centre of Jewish life. We were told that 50% of all Jewish people have Polish ancestry. Now there are only 1000 Jewish people living here.
Before WW2 there were 68,000 Jews living in Krakow; 10% survived. After the war, in 1968 Jewish people were kicked out of Poland – many Poles thought Jewish people were promoting communism.
Kazimierz was the Jewish quarter of Krakow for 500 years until the coming of the Nazis. Near here is the factory of Schindler whose bravery in rescuing many is recorded in print and film. There are many old abandoned synagogues
Under the communists it fell into further disrepair; was rediscovered in the 1990s and is now in the process of gentrification.
On the other side of the river between Kazimierz and the limestones hills lies Podgorze. The Nazis established a prison district here and in March 1941, the Jewish population was herded into this area which became known as the Krakow Ghetto. There were 3,500 rooms for a population of 18,000. The majority of residents were murdered.
Below are sculptures on the bridge crossing the Wisla river between Kazimierz and Podgorze.
In Podgorze there is a moving memorial, a flat concrete expense with 33 illuminated chairs (1.4 m high) in the square and 37 smaller chairs (1.2 m high) standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops.
We travelled by bus on a day trip.
I don’t want write about Auschwitz. It is beyond words. The cattle train deliveries of Jewish and other peoples and the scale of the killings, is incomprehensible. The only thing that balances out a fraction of the overbearing horror is the production line tourism necessitated by so many visitors. You are marched briskly wearing headsets through a number of residential Blocks and many specific sites, aware that hot on your heels another group is coming. And then another. Relentless.
One million one hundred thousand people died in Auschwitz. Photos say it better than I ever could. Glass fronted exhibits of hills of hair shaved from prisoners were too much for me to photograph.
For me though, the gently guided tour of Sachanhausen, a prototype camp just outside Berlin had a greater impact with a slower investigation as details of camp life were spelt out and sites specifically explained.
Here is what I wrote of Sachenhausen:
Suffice to say, at Sachsenhausen I was flattened and tearful. Among the prisoners, there was a “hierarchy”: at the top, criminals (rapists, murderers), then Communists (red triangles), then homosexuals (pink triangles), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple triangles), and Jews (yellow triangles). This was the HQ of all the camps where many of the worst Commandants were trained for the 2000 other camps across 18 countries. Here industries included making bricks for Speer’s version of the new Germania, sorting glasses and teeth from other camps and testing army boots by excrusciatingly running all day until you dropped to test every possible circumstance. Women were prostituted and if pregnant, their babies killed. Medical experimentation occurred. Over 200,00 enemies of the Reich were imprisoned here from 1936; in 1941, 10,000 Soviet prisioners were brought here to be killed and the Soviets kept it operating for the first 10 years of their occupation when 12,000 people died here. At the end of the war in the death marches when prisoners were taken into the countryside by the failing regime, 35,000 were taken from Sachsenhausen and only 6000 survived. In one of those sad ironies, the adjoining training camps used by the Third Reich are now the Berlin police training camps.
Perhaps it is just that the scale of horrors of Auschwitz is incomprehensible.