Part VI: Kazimierz and Cracow
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Part VI of the Journal
With all the activity and my long first day, I was insynch with Polish time. I woke up just before my call, showered, shaved,dressed, loaded my camera, and headed downstairs for breakfast, which was thesame buffet as the day before. I finished eating at about 8:00, just in time tomeet up with my driver. But he wasn’t there. So, I took a seat in the lobby andwaited. Around 8:30, the desk clerk called me over and told me that the guy Iwas waiting for had called to say he couldn’t make it after all. Great, Ithought, now what do I do?
I hadn’t really made up my mind about revisitingAuschwitz or Birkenau although it was in the back of my mind. For the moment, Idecided to visit the various shops in the hotel. After I’d seen all six of them,I wandered over to the ORBIS counter, which was now manned both by the kid I’dmet the day before and by a short, chunky woman with gaps between all her teeth. She was a living caricature, officious and homely and all in gray with a darkgray beret. In her youth, she might have been Rubenesque or stocky and athletic. Now, she was comic. She was also obviously a senior ORBIS staffer.
We talked for a bit about my sightseeing options and Idecided I should take the walking tour of Cracow, which included the castle onWawel Hill, several churches, the old Jewish Quarter, the university, and thecity center. I thought about seeing the Wieliczka salt mines also, but passedwhen I found out I’d have to walk down and then back up 250 meters of stairs. Icouldn’t have made a better choice than the walking tour, which was actually abus/walk tour.
There were only ten or thirteen others on the tour and mygap-toothed caricature was the guide. Our first stop was the Jewish Quarterwhere we visited the Remuh Synagogue, one of the fewleft in Cracow. It couldn’t have held more than eighty or ninety people, butthen there aren’t that many Jews left in the city. Before the war, there hadbeen as many as 70,000. Between 200 and 300 remained. On the synagogue groundswas an ancient and historic cemetery. The tomb of Rabbi Moses Isserles Remuh, ascholar of the sixteenth century, was in a fenced-off plot there.
Theapproach to the Jewish Quarter, which had been largely emptied as the ghetto inthe Podgorze District was force-fed up into 1943, was by way of broad avenues andnarrow twisting streets. On some, cars and buses could not pass in oppositedirections, especially after people parked and double-parked to do their businessin the myriad small shops and offices.
As we came to the Jewish Quarter inKazimierz, we passed some dilapidated buildings that seemed more than just rundown. They seemed to have suffered at the hands of Man. Fallen roofs, firedamage and holes punched through the masonry walls set them very much apart fromtheir well-maintained neighbors. So marked were the differences and sodistinctive was the damage that I took the ravaged structures to be shells leftunrestored after the war. I couldn’t be sure, so I decided I’d ask the tourguide later.
Like I said, the synagogue was small, but it was a must formany tours. When we arrived, we were greeted by several elderly Jewish men whohanded a yarmulkah to everyone but our guide, who didn’t enter. After only a fewminutes, we filed back out past those same old men. They collected theyarmulkahs and solicited donations at the door. Once outside, our guide usheredus into the cemetery, but we weren’t there for long.
No more than fiveminutes passed before she rushed us out, with the old Jews yelling at her and sheat them. It seems she’d violated custom and protocol by admitting us to thegraveyard sans yarmulkahs and it wasn’t appreciated. It was apparent from theEnglish portion of her ensuing diatribe also that my little babushka held ourhosts in very low esteem.
From the synagogue, we moved across a smallsquare to a book shop specializing in Judaica. What I saw was innocuous and notworth buying. Then, back to the bus for a short trip to a major Catholiccathedral and convent nearby. The place was enormous and hundreds of years old. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List, you’ve seen a little of its interior. It wasthe scene of Schindler’s first cinematic blackmarket dealings. Interesting, but,in the scheme of things, just another big church with lots of extraordinary,unique, and historic features. Every village and hamlet in the Christian worldhas one. In trying to get pictures that would do justice to the size of theplace from outside, I almost missed the trip by bus to the next sight to be seen- Wawel Hill.
We walked up to Wawel from Kanonicza Street along a road bywhich coronation and funeral processions once entered the Royal Castle andCathedral. On the left was a wall with “Wawel bricks” which commemorate thosepeople or institutions around the world that helped with the restoration of theRoyal Castle. It was an uphill walk to go through the Heraldic Gate and the VasaGate and out onto the courtyard outside the Royal Cathedral. We caught ourbreath and took in the view from the courtyard before entering the GothicCathedral.
You’d expect a central cathedral in an ancient city like Cracowto be impressive and you’d be right. Wawel Hill was stunning and embodied allthat was most highly prized in Polish history. There’s no way I can describe itto you. The best I can do is to say that it was the center of Polish power,religion, and art for at least nine centuries. There are tombs of rulers andnational heroes within. Treasures from hundreds of years are on displaythroughout. I was amazed not only by the splendor and majesty of Wawel Hill, butby the fact that so much that was so beautiful had escaped both destruction andNazi collectors.
Especially memorable was a climb up through thecathedral’s timber frame supports to the Sigissmund tower. Just imaginesqueezing single file up a narrow staircase that winds its way between timbersmeasuring two feet thick in places. The payoff was a chance to touch the world’slargest bell in the hope of getting good luck. The bell, which was cast in1520, is still used on important church or state occasions.
From Wawel Hillwe walked a little ways through Planty Park past the Papieska TechnologicalAcademy and on to the Jagellonian University, where both Copernicus and Pope JohnPaul II had studied. The main attraction was the Collegium Maius, which is theoldest university and dates from the fifteenth century. Now, it holds theJagellonian University Museum, which can only be seen by priorarrangement.
Market Square was next on the agenda. For centuries theMarket Square was a large trading centre and was covered by stalls which createda sort of a trading village. The most impressive among them was the Clothiers’Hall – a building housing a large set of stalls which was founded as early as thethirteenth century. Souvenirs from Cracow, works of Polish artists, leather andmetal goods, jewelry and handicrafts were on sale in dozens of rustic stalls. But, I bought nothing that day.
There were people everywhere enjoying thegood weather and the ambience of city center. Everybody was on foot, since carsare prohibited because of the damage exhaust fumes had caused to historicbuildings and monuments. We walked past a number of shops and sidewalk cafes. Crossing the square, we passed the Town Hall Tower and went on for a short visitto St. Mary’s Cathedral.
As we walked and looked and listened to ourguide, I took it all in, but my mind was elsewhere. I was on a sleepwalkingtour. Things, like the dilapidated buildings of the Jewish quarter and theuproar at the synagogue, replayed and replayed in my mind. My fellow tourists,one of whom looked exactly like James Taylor, got caught up in the sights andsounds of the city center and chose not to take the return bus trip. But I,having done enough walking for a while, left with the guide and driver.
Onthe way back to the hotel, I asked the guide what had happened to the buildingsnear the synagogue. The reaction was amazing. Instantly furious, she snappedback, “You know those Jews never take care of their property! We’ve been tryingto buy it from them for fifteen years! Ten years ago, they said they’d sell it,but they don’t! They think they suffered so much! We lost 2,600 priests andthey say they lost four million people. But we’re not stupid! Our calculationsshow they couldn’t have lost more than 450,000!” And there she stopped. I thinkbecause she realized she’d spilled the anti-semitic beans.
Quickly, shemoved out of the seat in front of me and took up a position in the bus stairwell,where she launched into an agitated and animated conversation in Polish with thebus driver. She never looked at me or said another word to me again. I sat backand watched the city go by and pondered that telling outburst. I was right, itseemed, the Jewish quarter had not been completely restored after being nearlyrazed during the war, probably by purges.
It was again late afternoon whenI got back to my hotel room. It was too early to stay in my room and I had noidea how to spend a few hours more in the city. But, as I mentioned earlier,just beyond the hotel parking areas were cultivated fields dotted with smallshacks. My curiosity about them was piqued by smoke rising from one shack acouple of hundred meters opposite the front of the hotel. I decided a closerlook was in order and out I went.
I went out on a diagonal across thegrounds and parking lots to find that where the paved access road to the hotelended a well-used dirt road began. One or two hectare plots lay to the right ofthe road. Each had its accommodations at one end. Some were obviously visitedregularly and others not. It was a unique patchwork of garden plots and one ortwo room lodges. Some had verandas and some seemed little more than pottingsheds. A few had fences and there were gardening tools, watering cans, chairs,and crops all around. I wish I hadn’t lost the film, because I got some niceshots from all kinds of angles. I guess I spent over two hours poking around outthere.
Once back at the hotel, I took another hot bath and changed clothes,then sat down to rest a bit before going down for dinner. After a few minutes, Ipicked up my camera and went to reload it. Sheer panic set in – the lens was notseated. Shit!! How long had it been this way? Or had I just done it? I didn’tthink so, but I couldn’t be sure. I was always changing lenses, but that day Ididn’t. But, I’d shot several rolls in Birkenau on this lens. Oh my God! Werethey ruined? Oh, shit, shit, shit!!! Now, I had to go back. And I had to getmore film. Panic, complete and utter panic. I’d have left for Birkenau rightthen if I could have. I was really upset.
It’s a wonder I could eat andsleep. But, I did, and well. I also ate well the next morning, although thecold cut routine was losing its novelty. After breakfast, I bought six morerolls of film and went back to the ORBIS counter. The blonde-headed kid wasback, but my gap-toothed babushka was not. Again, I negotiated a driver/guide atwhat I knew was a reasonable price of $50.00 and I took off.
End of Part VI