We have spent the last two days exploring the wonderful city of Krakow. Krakow, the ancient royal capital of Poland, is a stunner. Unlike Warsaw, it was the only major city in the country to come through World War II largely undamaged. Hence it draws crowds to see it’s wonderful architecture, the main draws being the Wawel, Krakow’s hilltop castle and the largest main square in Europe, the Rynek Glowny.
However, despite it’s superficial splendour, you don’t have to dig deep to discover a grim past. Like Warsaw, Krakow was home to a large Jewish population, over 68,000 at the start of WW2, over a quarter of it’s population. They had lived there since the 12th century, concentrated mainly in the Kasimierz district. The Krakow Jewish community was virtually exterminated by the Nazis, first herding them into a large ghetto across the river, and then transferring them to the Plaszow labour camp just outside the city, or the Auschwitz death camp, where they were all slaughtered. It is a story of man’s inhumanity against fellow man, and one which should never be forgotten. It is a testament to the people of Krakow, that they have come through this terrible piece of history, and are once more a thriving, energetic and vibrant place to experience, celebrating their wonderful architecture, but also paying homage to their past.
We spent our first day in Krakow doing what most tourists to the city do. We visited the Old Town, wandered around the huge main square, walked up Wawel Hill to the Royal Palace – all in thirty plus degrees heat. By the end of the day, we were on our knees. We had walked and walked, and were almost flaking out from the soaring temperatures. Even after taking a shower, and heading back into the city in the early evening, we were still struggling with the heat.
We opted to take refuge in the cool of the beautiful St. Peter and Paul’s Church, and listen to an hour long classical concert by the Cracow Chamber Orchestra, which was just wonderful – listening to the likes of Bach, Greig, Chopin, Mozart and Vivaldi. A real treat for the ears! The only trouble was, that the pews were unbelievably uncomfortable, thrusting you forward in your seat – undoubtably a ploy to keep the congregation awake during sermons.
As we walked back to the main square, a string of buskers, all playing yet more wonderful classical music on violins, clarinets and even a bassoon, kept us entertained. At night, this city comes alive. Everywhere you look there are people in cafes, restaurants and bars, street vendors, tourists riding in elegant carriages drawn by dapple grey horses – all enjoying the balmy evening air. We stopped at a restaurant on the edge of the square, and enjoyed a modest supper, but were struggling to keep our eyes awake, so headed back to our hotel.
Today, we have experienced the more sombre side of Krakow. We set off early on foot to the other side of the river, to where the ghetto had been. First, we went to visit the Historical Museum of the city of Krakow, situated in Oskar Schindler’s Old Enamel Factory. I’m sure you have all heard the story of Oskar Schindler from Stephen Speilberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’. He was a German, who moved to Krakow at the beginning of the war, who was essentially an entrepreneur, a businessman and an informant. He acquired the Enamel Factory in Krakow, and in truth, as a means of obtaining cheap labour, rather than through any altruistic reasons, employed Jews in his factory. However, as the war went on, he became more empathetic towards his workforce, and when the ghetto in Krakow was destroyed, and all the Jews moved out to the Plaszow work camp, he persuaded the Nazis to allow him to keep his employees in a compound within the factory. Later, when we moved his production out of Krakow, he managed to take his entire Jewish workforce and their families with him (the people who were on his list), and so saved the lives of over as thousand Jews in the process.
The museum itself was both chilling and informative. As you walked through the factory seeing the various exhibits about Krakow in the war, the use of photographs and film from the time really brought the thing to life. At one point, you walk through a mock up of the ghetto, and frankly, it is hard to leave there without tears in your eyes. More affirming is the reception and office of Erik Schindler himself, where you can see the desk where he worked.
It was a sobering visit, but I came away with a much greater understanding of what had gone on here during those awful years. Our next stop was to the Eagle Pharmacy, where another amazing story unfolds. It was here that a pharmacist called Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a non-Jew, ran his business in the Krakow ghetto. He was the only Gentile allowed to live here, since he insisted that he should be allowed to continue to run his business when the ghetto was formed, and that the people should have access to medicines. He was only allowed to stay there on the condition that he employed only Gentiles, and only spoke to the Jewish customers in connection with their health issues. In reality, he was a friend to the Jews, and provided a safe haven for many of the residents of the ghetto, often giving them sanctuary from the Nazis, and offering them escape through his back door. After the war, he was given the medal of ‘The Righteous Among the Nations’, a prestigious humanitarian award. The pharmacy has been left intact, much as when Tadeusz worked there, and visitors are encouraged to rummage in the drawers, and look through the shelves of old medicines and chemicals, which we noted included mercury, lead and arsenic. In the back room were the glass flasks where they made loads of hair dye, used by the Jews in the hope that by looking younger, it would increase their chances of survival.
Many visitors to Krakow go on to visit Auschwitz, which is only 66 kilometres west of the city. For us though, it one place where we have decided not to visit. We have immersed ourselves in the wartime history of this city, and have gained a much greater understanding of what went on here. We will leave it there. For me, I will take from the inspirational stories of Erik Schindler and Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and just pray that lessons learned from history are never forgotten.
After our sobering day, we headed back to the Old Town, walking through the old Jewish Quarter en route. We cheered ourselves up with some frivolous ice-cream eating and beer drinking, me the former, Howard the latter.
We are now heading out to supper in this wonderful city. That is, unless Howard hasn’t filled himself up already on the city’s culinary specialities – dumplings and large doughy pretzels!