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Wawel Castle in Krakow, from across the Vistula River (Wikipedia image)

Up until a few years ago, my husband had believed general family lore that his bi-lateral genealogical roots were primarily Russian-Jewish.  Two events changed this perspective.  First, the Soviet Union collapsed, and territories formerly engulfed by the communist maw emerged as resurrected countries.  As cities like Minsk and Kiev turned up in new-old countries, it appeared that most of his family harkened from Belarus and the Ukraine, not Russia. As for the rest, he just assumed they were from somewhere in Russia (must have been that innate love of his for potatoes and vodka).

The second discovery was that his paternal name was Polish.  I’m not sure whether this was good or bad news; he’d held this “Russian” image for all these years.  Nor was he certain as to what part of Poland his father’s family had emigrated from over 100 years ago.  I noted that given Poland’s history of being conquered, carved up and appropriated by other nations over the centuries, it really was a moot point what nationality his paternal great-grandparents had claimed at the time they left the old country.  (Besides, I pointed out, Poles loved potatoes and vodka, too, as did almost everybody from that part of the world.)  Bottom line:  we both decided that on this trip we should visit Poland and learn a bit more about the land of his roots.

The map below gives you a fairly good idea of the geopolitical situation Poland was in for about 150 years:  carved up.  With the end of WWII and then the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland regained its (more or less) “traditional” boundaries which encompass most of the colored areas below:

We chose Krakow as our first stop, largely  because our readings of   guides and postings gave the city enthusiastic write-ups.  Since Krakow sustained relatively little damage during WWII, the city was purported to reflect “medieval” Poland.  For two people in search of history, we definitely wanted to see what “old Poland” looked like.  Warsaw had pretty much been leveled by the Germans, as well as post-war become heavily industrialized and rebuilt in the mode moderne, so it was lower in the running.  Besides, Krakow historically if not consistently had had a significant Jewish population; prior to WWII, 64,000 Jews lived in Krakow, comprising one fourth of the city’s population.  Two other drawing points:  Oskar Schindler’s famous factory was in Krakow, and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps an hour away.

Part of the main square in Krakow. It is one of the largest in Europe.

Krakow today is an interesting city, a combination of mostly late 19th – 20th century architecture, an ancient and huge castle complex (Wawel Castle), and the former Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, which showcases a number of now largely unused synagogues.   The city’s population boasts over 700,000, with 1.3 million in the metro area.  The city has one of the oldest, nicest and largest market squares in Europe, some beautiful churches and parks, and clearly is bustling and on the muscle.  However, although our hotel was great and many of the city’s denizens polite, if not friendly, neither one of us found Krakow a particularly inviting city.  Part of the dissonance was clearly built-up expectations versus perceived reality; I was expecting an older, more sedate, historical city, perhaps closer in appearance to Budapest.   Certainly, Krakow is steeped in history, but much of that history, especially for Jews, is not pleasant, so perhaps our perception of Krakow is skewed.  Nevertheless, Krakow clearly is up and coming and has a lot to offer, as well as much history to ponder.

Schindler’s Factory

We began by touring Oskar Schindler’s enamel-ware factory made famous in the 1993 movie, Schindler’s List.  Now a branch of the Krakow Museum of History, much of the original factory has been converted into exhibit space focusing on Krakow under Nazi rule from 1939-1945.  The brutal life before and during this period for Poles of all faiths and backgrounds is preserved and retold; special, temporary exhibits and a fascinating film provides in-depth histories of the lives of and interviews with many individuals – both Jewish and non-Jewish – whose lives were saved because of Oskar Schindler.  We spent over two hours at the museum, fascinated and appalled by what we learned.

A somber exhibit struck both of us:  one dimly lit wall was plastered with what appeared to be arrest rolls, with hundreds of names and addresses listed.  Scattered among the names were several dozen photographs of hangings.  We gathered enough from the Polish words for “partisan” and “anti-Nazi” and others that the arrests and hangings had been of local partisans or other counter-insurgents of the Nazi regime in Krakow.

One of five mentions of “Rolnik” among a list of people to be arrested. Relatives?

The most unsettling aspect of this wall of infamy was seeing five mentions of my husband’s family name inscribed among the arrested.  Unfortunately, this was one of the few exhibits that did not have an English translation.  But seeing “Rolnik” written several times with different addresses shook us up a bit: a generation ago, did five of Michael’s relatives die on the gallows in Krakow?  Were other relatives rounded up and sent to Auschwitz as were most of Krakow’s Jews?  I doubt we’ll ever know.

Our questions and assumptions are based in history. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Krakow became the seat of the “General Government” in the country.   As part of the Nazis’ attempt to make Krakow a model “clean” city, thousands of Jews were deported to labor camps, synagogues plundered and closed;  many Jews were rounded up and murdered for no other reason than who they were.  In 1940, 48,000 of Krakow’s Jews were forced to relocate to surrounding rural areas.  Another 15,000 Jews were relocated in early 1941 from the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz to south of the Vistula River to a newly walled area, the Krakow Ghetto.

One of the guarded entrances to the Krakow Ghetto.  Today, only a few sections of the walls remain.

In May, 1942 more deportations began, sending thousands of Jews to the death camps.  In March, 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Krakow Ghetto, herding almost all the remaining inhabitants into the main square, Pod Zgody (now called Plac Bohaterow Getta).  There the fit were separated and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or other camps for slave labor or extermination.  The unfit, the sick, the old and small children  — approximately 2,000 — were murdered on the spot.

Today the renamed square is a memorial, with large empty chairs signifying the thousands of people who had died here or been deported to the death camps.  It is a sobering sight.

The memorial in Plac Bohaterow Getta for the more than 2,000 Jews murdered here by the Nazis.

Somewhere between 3,000-5,000 Krakow Jews survived the war and the camps; most left the area following liberation.  Today, less than a thousand Jews live in Krakow.  Of the seven synagogues in Kazimierz, only one is still in active use.  Walking through the Jewish Quarter seeing empty synagogues amidst overflowing, laughter-filled cafés and bars was unsettling.

The Reform Synagogue

The “wailing wall” of the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow.  The wall was built from fragments of tombstones deteriorated over time or broken apart by Nazis in WWII.  

A Less Somber Side of Krakow

We also spent quite of bit of time as more mainstream tourists in Krakow:  a snack and drink on the lovely market square, touring St. Mary’s Basilica, gawking at the hordes of school groups and tourists engulfing the square, seeing Wawel Castle.

St. Mary’s, beautiful and ornate, was resplendent and mind-boggling awash with gilt and stained glass.  With all the tributes to Pope John Paul II both within and outside the church (and the overload of JPII memorabilia for sale at every turn), we assumed this had been “his” church when he was bishop of Krakow before ascending the papal throne.  We only discovered the next day, in our tour of the castle complex, that the Wawel Cathedral holds the honor as the bishopric of Krakow – as it has for about one thousand years – although the majority of the present edifice dates to the 14th century C.E.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Main Square, Krakow

The interior of St. Mary’s

Wawel Castle

An aerial view of the immense castle complex

Wawel Castle, sprawling, beautiful, and stately, dominates the western end of the old city of Krakow.  Some of the best views of Wawel Castle are from the opposite banks of the Vistula River, as Krakow’s more recent growth obscures views from many city vantages.  The rocky hilltop has been inhabited for a hundred thousand years, but the beginnings of a major church and residence of regional rulers seem to date from the 9th to 10th centuries.  Around the mid-11th century C.E. Krakow became the capital and royal residence of Poland.  Almost all Polish monarchs have been crowned and buried in the cathedral since.  The castle’s cathedral is also the bishopric seat for Krakow, and  as a young priest, the future pope John Paul II offered his first mass there in 1946.

Cathedral of Wawel Castle complex. The interior courtyards, or rather a series of courtyards, are immense. The palace buildings are to the right and behind the cathedral.

We toured parts of the castle complex, or tried to.  The ticketing process is unnecessarily complex and confusing, and separate tickets must be purchased for the dozen or so areas open to visitors.  Guided tours are only offered in two or three areas of the castle and cathedral; in the rest, you are dependent on a very small (2’x 18”), bi-lingual plaque (Polish and English) in each room to provide any information as to the contents.   As it was, virtually each plaque simply identified the title and artist of some of the pieces of art or period furniture in the room.  Almost nothing was given about the function of the room or history of the period, the section of the castle, etc., except perhaps some vague dates or occasionally the names of the rooms.  We’d purchased an English guide to the castle and cathedral prior to entering the buildings, but it was of little more help:  the route in the guide did not always match the arrow-pointing signs “guiding” the route in the castle.

In our travels, we try not to make comparisons or judge, just accept places and styles as they are, but it was extremely difficult not to get frustrated in this case.  This beautiful castle is a national museum run by the Polish government, and I would have expected a great deal more national pride and information in presentation, particularly in touting what is one of Poland’s most treasured national landmarks.  Since most foreign visitors do not have a great grasp on the country’s rich yet convoluted and sometimes tragic history, the lack of information provided was extremely disappointing.  In fact, wanting to learn is why most people go to museums.  In conclusion, I strongly recommend that serious visitors who want to understand the history and what they are seeing at Wawel, not just “gawk and walk,” arrange to have a private tour guide.  I wish we’d had time or warning.  Poland could take some lessons in museum curatorship from Slovenia.

In all, we were glad we had visited Krakow.  The city has a wealth of history and beauty to offer tourists of every ilk.  I only regret we had only three days.