Day 10: Jewish Krakow

P1080481We woke up significantly refreshed and rarin’ to go and were out the door by 9:00ish.  Our sights today were set on the Jewish Quarter, called Kazimierz.  It’s only about a 15 minute walk away from Old Town and before too long we found ourselves sitting on the Kazimierz main street, ulica Szeroka, at an outdoor café with proper coffee while we plotted our route

Miraculously, a handful of Kazimierz’s synagogues survived WWII and, with some major restoration work, have either been returned to use as active synagogues for Krakow’s very small Jewish population (about 200) or converted into Jewish history museums.  We visited the Old Synagogue (the oldest surviving Jewish building in Poland), the Tempel Synagogue (the grandest), and went into the Izaak Synagogue (one of Krakow’s biggest).

Inside the Old Synagogue

Inside the Old Synagogue

Inside the Tempel Synagogue

Inside the Tempel Synagogue

Inside the Izaak Synagogue

Inside the Izaak Synagogue

Ghetto Heroes' Square

Ghetto Heroes’ Square

Next on our route was to walk across the Vistula River to the neighborhood of Podgorze, which is the neighborhood that was turned into the Jewish ghetto during the war.  Krakow’s pre-war Jewish population was about 65,000 strong, making up 25% of the overall local population.  After the Nazis arrived they forced about 50,000 Jewish residents to live in the ghetto 275 km away in Lublin, and in early 1941 doomed Krakow’s remaining 15,000 Jews to the ghetto in Podgorze, where they were walled in.  This was a similar pattern that occurred throughout Poland during the war and the fate of almost all Jews was death, either after next being moved to a concentration camp or being worked to death or executed right in the ghettos where they were imprisoned.  Now on part of the site of Krakow’s former ghetto is Ghetto Heroes’ Square, which has a permanent display of empty metal chairs to signify how the Jews were forced to carry all of their belongings (including furniture) across the river when being displaced to this ghetto.  I hope you’ll excuse me when all I can say is that it is very moving, as this is such a heavy subject matter and oftentimes I feel inadequate for words.

Oskar Schindler's desk

Oskar Schindler’s desk

Near Ghetto Heroes’ Square is Schindler’s Factory Museum, site of the actual factory building that was brought to the world’s attention in Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List (19 zl each/$6).  Since there is so much information available about Oskar Schindler and his part during the war (and you’ve likely seen the movie) I won’t go into it here but the museum was very illuminating if you took your time to read all the displays.  Interestingly, most of the museum isn’t about Schindler at all, it’s about the Nazi occupation, but Schindler’s presence is felt and we came away with a slightly different feeling about him than Spielberg had portrayed in the movie.  Maybe a less rosy picture, if you will.

Inside Remu'h Synagogue

Inside Remu’h Synagogue

After that we swung back through Kazimierz to visit the fully active Remu’h Synagogue that had been closed earlier in the day, along with a visit to the adjacent Old Cemetery that was desecrated by the Nazis but restored as best as possible after the war.  The gravestones that had been shattered beyond repair are now used as mosaic pieces in the wall that surrounds the cemetery.

Old Cemetery wall in which you can see shattered gravestones

Old Cemetery wall in which you can see shattered gravestones

By this point our feet were aching and we sorely wanted to rest a bit.  But before we did that we wanted to swing over to the bus station to figure out logistics for getting to Auschwitz-Birkenau the following day and Zakopane the day after.  The bus station was a complete zoo, as it was Sunday afternoon and hoards of people were trying to get somewhere else.  Additionally, it was vastly different from 2005 when it was just a parking lot where you walked around until finding the right bus going where you wanted to.  Now it was two levels of madness, both inside and out, and a bit overwhelming.  We stared at the giant signboard that posted bus itineraries but we were perplexed as to which times were for the big, full-sized bus and which ones indicated a mini-bus.  You see, we felt we needed to get to the bottom of this because not only do they leave from two different places, but we thought you had to buy the mini-bus ticket directly from the driver and not the bus ticket sales window, whereas for the full-sized bus we thought we’d have to line up at the sales window.  All we were trying to do was get the lay of the land so in the morning we could stride right in and boom, boom, boom, we’d be in the right place immediately and not be standing on one level while our bus was pulling away from the station on a different level.

As the ticket window was mobbed with people, we couldn’t ask so we wandered in and out of the station a few times but after a while it was determined that surprise, surprise, our mindless wandering and staring blankly at the sign wasn’t accomplishing anything.  We then opted to get to the TI outside the station for clarification.  This TI stop turned out to be fruitless, as we had difficulty articulating what it was we were looking for and all the kid who worked there would do is point to where the bus station was on the map and repeat, you need to go here.

The beautiful and peaceful Planty surrounding Old Town

The beautiful and peaceful Planty surrounding Old Town

Needing a breather, Jim and I sat down in the Planty, a giant park that surrounds Krakow’s Old Town (and a place that I absolutely adored spending time in, as it was very relaxing with interesting birds).  We replayed what had just happened and decided it was our life’s mission to get to the bottom of it.  So after a few minutes we went to the TI directly in Old Town to see if anyone there held the answer to this enigma.  Fortunately, the cheerful and ever-so-helpful girl staffing this desk knew immediately what we were asking and said that it is a very screwy situation because essentially no one but the person selling tickets at the window can tell you if it’ll be for a big bus or mini bus, that they at the TI or anyone else in the free world have no way of telling via any information online or otherwise.  Well, there you have it.

Satisfied with the answer we headed back to the room, relaxed, and then went for dinner to an Italian place called Mamma Mia outside Old Town.  The food was just ok, Jim had lasagna and a salad and I had a salami and green olive pizza, but it was a pleasant room and noticed they had some nice seating outside, too.

Cloth Hall at night

Cloth Hall at night

After dinner we wanted to settle into Krakow’s beautiful Main Market Square for a couple of drinks and found perfect seats in which to do so.  We had a lot of laughs as we observed the world pass us by on the square with Cloth Hall neatly lit up in the center, especially noting that for a pedestrian zone, the Main Market Square sure gets a lot of traffic.

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