We arrived in Krakow after a pretty much sleepless night on the train, and the weather was nasty—very cool and raining hard. Once again, we overpaid a cabdriver (though not by nearly as much) to get to our hotel at 7 am, where our room was, as expected, not ready. (Check-in wasn’t until 3 pm.) But the young man at the reception desk was so friendly and helpful that it immediately changed my outlook. I highly recommend the Metropolitan Boutique Hotel in Krakow—a small and friendly hotel with an incredibly professional, efficient, and friendly staff. Although the location on a small side street at first seemed odd, we soon realized how ideal that location was—about ten minutes from the main square in Krakow and even closer to the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz.
After breakfast at the hotel, we decided to venture out and see the city. We took umbrellas, but fortunately we never had to open them; the skies never turned blue, but the rain was gone. We walked to the market in the main square of Krakow where we had planned to go on two group walking tours that day, one of the Old Town, the other of the Jewish quarter. When we got to the main square, vendors were just starting to open their stands, and the square itself was fairly empty. The square is magnificent in size—reportedly, the largest public square in Europe. There are cafes and shops surrounding the square as well as a number of churches and government buildings. We wandered around a bit, and there was almost a Fanueil Hall feel to the place—a large indoor market lined with souvenir stands. Unfortunately, the weather really was not great, but we did take a few photographs.
After some deliberation, we decided to go on a tour of the Jewish Quarter in the morning and Old Town in the afternoon with SeeKrakow. Our tour guide was a middle-aged Polish man who spoke English well, and the group of about sixteen people was quite diverse in background. We were the only people from an English speaking country. There were people from Spain, France, Belgium, and Switzerland. They all understood English; it was embarrassing. We were the only people in the group who could not speak a second language. Most of the others could speak three. The American educational system is an utter failure in preparing our children for the global world we live in.
Anyway, we marched off with our leader (whose name escapes me, perhaps for good reason), and after a few stops, I realized that he was not a good fit for me. Maybe it was the contrast to Andrea and Helena, our guides in Prague; maybe it was the nature of being on a group rather than private tour. The tour leader was knowledgeable and pleasant, but I felt that he had a personal agenda to promote instead of providing an in-depth and historical view of the Jewish Quarter. Over and over his message seemed to be that Poland had always been tolerant and accepting of its Jewish citizens and that the Polish people were also victims of the Holocaust. What he said is historically accurate in many ways, but it was the way he delivered his message and his seeming defensiveness that troubled me.
After about the first hour, I started to think that (a) I didn’t want to go on the Old Town afternoon tour with this guide, and (b) I didn’t want to continue on the Jewish Quarter tour with this guide. When we realized that his tour would not give us a chance to enter into any of the synagogues we passed (which he did describe, but at times showed us only the back or side of the building), we made a decision to leave the tour and explained to the guide that we wanted to spend more time in the Quarter rather than continue with the group.
Unfortunately, I had made one serious error in planning our itinerary—I had failed to check a Jewish calendar beforehand, and I had not realized that our one day in Krakow would be the holiday of Shavuot. That meant that many of the synagogues, at least those still operating as synagogues, would not be open to the public for tours that day. (It was also the Catholic holiday Pentecost, meaning that many stores and offices were also closed that day.) If I could have changed one thing on our trip itinerary, I would have added at least another day to our stay in Krakow—not only because of the conflict with Shavuot, but also because we just did not have enough time to do the city justice.
But when you are traveling, you do what you can do. So over lunch, we realized that we did not have time to see many of the sites in Krakow outside the Jewish Quarter—the Wawel Castle and the churches and other buildings we’d only glimpsed in Old Town. We also realized that our sleepless night was catching up with us. So we spent the afternoon wandering through the Jewish Quarter, soaking up what we could, and visiting the places we could enter. I hope that someday we can return to Krakow and see the city in more depth.
Unlike the Jewish Quarter in Prague, which as I wrote was substantially torn down in the late 19th century, most of the structures from the original Jewish Quarter in Krakow are still standing—the winding cobblestones streets and old worn buildings have been there for hundreds of years. As our guide said, Krakow’s Jewish quarter is much more “authentic” than that in Prague because it reflects the way the ghetto looked when it was a ghetto. It also reflects more of the wear and tear of time, neglect, and the war. Here are some photos of the square where the Jewish market once operated; it still operates as a market—a flea market when we were there, although, of course, there are no Jewish vendors or customers today.
We saw six still-existing buildings in the Krakow Jewish Quarter that were once operating synagogues. As with the synagogues in Prague, the only reason they are still standing is that the Nazis found the spaces useful for storage. The oldest of the existing synagogue buildings, appropriately referred to as the Old Synagogue, was built at the beginning of the 15th century. Its interior was destroyed by the Nazis, and it was then used for storage during their occupation of Poland. Today the building is operated as a museum, displaying Jewish ritual objects and a historical exhibition of Krakow before and during the Nazi occupation.
The second oldest synagogue still standing is the Remu’h Synagogue. It is still an active congregation, so we were not able to enter it during our visit, nor we could enter the Old Jewish cemetery that is located adjacent to the synagogue building. All I could get was the one photograph through the gate. The Remu’h synagogue was built in the mid-16th century, and its interior also was substantially destroyed by the Nazis and then used for storage.
Both the Old and the Remu’h synagogues are located on what was the main square in the Jewish quarter where today there are numerous restaurants, many providing “Jewish” dishes on their menus (but not kosher) and klezmer music at night. It’s a very pretty square, but the faux Jewishness is clearly intended to manipulate Jewish tourists like us, coming to see a world that no longer exists.
The High Synagogue was the third synagogue built in Krakow, sometime after the Remu’h but also in the 16th century. It was called the High Synagogue because the prayer hall was located upstairs. We were able to climb those stairs and visit the former prayer hall because today it is a museum. The exhibit there was very moving. Several families of former Krakow Jews provided photographs to the museum of their families, depicting what their lives were like in the 1920s and 1930s before the Nazis arrived. I was surprised to see very modern-looking families, engaged in activities like skiing and boating, as opposed to the images I had had in my head of ultra-Orthodox men with payes and long black coats. As in Prague, by the early 20th century Jews in Krakow were full citizens, no longer required to live in a ghetto. Many were quite successful merchants, and their families lived very comfortable and modern lives.
Of course, it doesn’t matter whether they were Hasidim or assimilated, but I have to admit it made it easier for me to identify with these people, knowing their lives were not unlike mine. Reading the stories of what happened to these families was heartbreaking. Even though someone survived in these families and was thus able to preserve the photographs and the stories, each of these families lost many members during the Holocaust.
The only other synagogue building we could enter was that of the former Kupa Synagogue. It was built in the 17th century, and like the other synagogues, was severely damaged by the Nazis. We were able to enter the building and see the prayer hall, where people seemed to be setting up for some event. We are not sure exactly how this synagogue is used today since it was open for visitors on the holiday.
We also stopped to see the outside of the Isaac Synagogue, also built in the 17th century and now the headquarters for Chabad in Krakow, and the newest of the synagogues, the Tempel Synagogue, a Reform synagogue built in the mid-19th century. Neither was open to visitors.
But next to the Tempel Synagogue is the JCC of Krakow, which was open and where we spoke with a woman at the reception desk. She told us that they have 500 members, although only 120 are “registered” Jews. The JCC provides educational and cultural programming, Shabbat dinners, and holiday celebrations, and aims to revive a Jewish community in Krakow. It was uplifting to be in this new building and see some signs of hope for the very small Jewish community that exists today in Krakow.
We ended our walk through the Jewish Quarter on that somewhat high note. We later returned for dinner at the Klezmer Huis, where we ate “Jewish-style” food and listened to Klezmer music (sung by three young people who I assume are not Jewish, but who were excellent).
But although that was fun (if somewhat corny), it did not really cover up the reality. Before World War II, there were about 65,000 Jews in Krakow, and they made up about 25% of the city’s population. Today, as I said, there are 120 Jews living in Krakow. Walking those streets and seeing the old houses once occupied by Jewish families, entering those once flourishing synagogues that are now just museums, seeing those photographs of the families who were destroyed, I could not help but feel thousands of ghosts following us around. What would Krakow be like today if the descendants of those 65,000 people were alive? My day in Krakow left me angry and very sad.
The second day of our visit to Poland we learned more about what happened to those people. More on that in my next post.