Krakow’s Jewish past is becoming a major drawcard for the Polish city. AMY ADAMS reports.
As yet there isn’t much to see at Oskar Schindler’s factory in the Zablocie district of Kraków. It’s only difference from your average disused warehouse is the sign Fabryka Oskara Schindlera – Emalia” and a plaque explaining the significance of the man who saved more than 1000 Polish Jews from the Holocaust by employing them to make pans.
Even those who cajole the security guard into letting them inside (or jump the gate if he’s nowhere to be seen) return nonplussed. It takes a lot of imagination to recreate a Jewish refuge from a few desolate rooms, even for the most dedicated fans of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List.
Soon this will all change. The Emalia (enamel) factory is currently being turned into a museum with an exhibition devoted to Schindler, as well as rotating displays of modern art. The renovation is an example of how the local authorities of Kraków are beginning to not just acknowledge the city’s Jewish history but, where appropriate, celebrate it. Next week is the annual Jewish Culture festival, established in the ’90s and now the largest of its kind in Europe. In a week packed with workshops, lectures and performances you can take classes in Yiddish and Hebrew, Hasidic singing, or Jewish cooking, learn about basic Judaism, or let Klezmer music wash over you.
Much of the festival, inevitably, centres around the Jewish Quarter of Kraków’s Kazimierz district, where daily tours lead visitors though the narrow streets, stopping at synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, tenements and markets. The area, south-east of the city, was established by King Casimir the Great as a separate town in 14th century and in 1495, when Jews were forbidden from settling within Kraków’s city walls they headed here. Gradually a self-sufficient Jewish district emerged, remaining as such even when Kazimierz rejoined Kraków and Jews were permitted to settle anywhere.
It was a safe haven for Jews all over Europe, until Nazi occupation in 1941, when the community was herded into a ghetto across the river. The area was deserted, a ghost town plundered, scarred and left to fall into disrepair and only recently has the situation changed. As relatives of former residents return, Kazimierz is being watered back to life with synagogues restored, shops reopening and a bar scene that more than rivals the city centre. Written off for years, today this second complex of Jewish historic architecture after Josefov in Prague is not just included on maps of Kraków, it’s highlighted.
In the 15th century the district centred on ul Szeroka (where the finale of the festival, an open-air concert takes place) thanks to the presence of the Old Synagogue. Dating back to 1407 it’s the oldest building of its type in Poland and, after being vandalised during World War II, has only recently had a makeover. Now it’s a Jewish History museum, looking at the tradition and culture of Polish Jews.
Further along this road is the Remuh Synagogue, still used for worship. Its neighbouring cemetery is one of the largest in Europe and though demolished by the Nazis, many of its countless ancient tombstones (matzevahs), and decorated sarcophagi survived or have been restored. Plac Novy, the New Jewish Square, lies to the North of ul. Szeroka. Here you’ll find the largest of Kazimierz’s synagogues, Isaac, and the newest, Temple, built in 1862. Ul Józefa is the arty strip, with galleries, antique shops and artisan stores.
Despite a steady flow of tourists into Kazimierz by day – from those tracing their roots to others trailing the film based on the Thomas Keneally book – the true influx occurs at night. On ul Szeroka there are several restaurants specialising in well-prepared Jewish standards, served to the sound of live Klezmer bands. Try Ariel or Klezmer Hois, a 19th century-style restaurant bedecked with rugs, paintings and sturdy, dark wood furniture. What the locals come for, though, are the bars. Quirky, plentiful and often styled to look like your Gran’s attic, the phrase drinking den comes into its own in Kazimierz.
Ptaszyl boasts an in house tree with branches crawling across the ceiling, Singer Cafe is stuffed with the eponymous antique sewing machines and Alchemia is a candle-lit Narnia, with wardrobes as doors and faded photographs as wallpaper.
Fittingly, in timewarps like these, it’s easy to forget bed time and rising at dawn to explore Schindler’s Factory, only to be confronted with an imposing iron gate, it’s even easier to lament the hours of sleep missed. The imposter-deterrent spikes atop the gate are doing their job. Sensing our disappointment, our taxi driver turns ad-hoc guide, and unbidden, takes us on a whirlwind tour of Kraków’s Jewish history.
In March 1941 the SS moved the entire Jewish community from Kazimierz, over the Vistula river to a cluster of buildings that stood around Plac Bohaterów Getta in the Podgórze suburb. Here, as well as Schindler’s former house, you’ll find Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s legendary Pharmacy Under the Eagle which, during World War II, was the Ghetto’s only link to the outside world. The shop, used as a meeting place and information point, is now a museum devoted to the Kraków Jews who suffered at the hands of the Final Solution.
Nearby lies P?aszów concentration camp, where the Jews in Podgórze were forced when the ghetto was liquidated in 1943. Two years later, surviving inmates were forced to leave on a death march to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 60km south-west of the city. Like Kazimierz, the camp was neglected for years after the war, left to become unkempt grasslands. Recently though, Kraków residents have set about reclaiming the land, creating a commemorative park with monuments to its tragic history. Unlike the haunting museum at the O?wi?cim extermination camp (which couldn’t be anything but) there are plans to transform the area into a place of hope. Beside the memorials, campaigners hope to build an animal hospital, a sensory garden for visually impaired children, a climbing wall and mountain bike trails.
On ul Miodowa in Kazimierz lies the entrance to the New Jewish Cemetery. Here, the stones of graves desecrated by the Nazis have been patchworked together, forming a wall of montaged epitaphs that neatly borders the tombstones. Weeds aren’t blanketing the history of Kraków’s Jews anymore, and nowhere will this be more obvious than at next week’s festival. As the tours of P?aszów segue into Klezmer concerts and Kazimierz bar crawls, visitors can run the gauntlet of Jewish history, looking to the past as it makes way for the future.