Schindler’s Factory and Kasimierz
A few days’ break in Poland and a first trip to this part of Eastern Europe. It was March and we were prepared for spring sunshine and ill-prepared for snow, which can arrive quickly and with some determination at this time of year.
We were staying at the Best Western just at the end of the the Old Town. The joy of bed and breakfast is being able to come downstairs to a typical continental breakfast. Good strong coffee, fruit juice, pastries, cold meats and plenty of tasty warm bread. It sets you up for the day and early lunchtime pangs of hunger don’t seem to occur until mid-afternoon.
Our first stop was Kazimierz which is the main Jewish Quarter. Until the early 19th century, it was actually an independent city south of Krakow Old Town. Today it’s an important stop on the tourist trail and probably the centre of the cultural life of the city. The squares are beautiful and the synagogues impressive. However, the main purpose for us was it that it’s on the three kilometer walking route to No. 4, Lipowa Street and Schindler’s factory.
I remember the first time I saw Spielberg’s film. It left an indelible impression on me. There were so many images that burnt their way onto my memory. One of the most striking was the portrayal of Commandant Amon Goth, stood on his balcony, braces down around his legs, arms crooked around a rifle while he aimed and shot at the Jewish workers below. He met his end, and not before time, at the age of 37, strung up from a tree in his own concentration camp at Plaszow.
Coming to Poland and, in particular, coming to Krakow, was a considered journey. We felt it necessary not to avoid engaging this aspect of our all to recent past. We felt we couldn’t come here without trying to meet it in something other than a voyeuristic way.
The Factory itself has been retained but not restored. Instead, it’s arranged in three parts. The museum houses a permanent exhibition of Krakow under Nazi occupation. There is a screening room for students and parties and there are parts of the factory which retain their original furniture and will be instantly recognisable from the Hollywood film. In particular, Oskar Schindler’s office evokes very clear and recent memories.
Plaszow Concentration Camp
From there, it’s a good hike (some five more kilometers) to Plaszow and the site of the old Podgorze concentration camp. If it hadn’t been for the Spielberg film, I’m not sure we would have thought to or made the effort to find it. It’s a long walk out of the city and out into the suburbs. The camp has been erased but the whole area is now an unmarked cemetery for over six thousand Jews who were brought here from Auschwitz following ‘processing’. It’s a barren and quiet place, free of tourists and a place to sit and contemplate the gross and wicked inhumanity that descended on this area only ten years before I was born.
At this time of year, early Spring, snow can arrive at any time in Krakow. It doesn’t slow the town down at all. The ploughs are on call and before long, the pavements and streets are clear and life goes on. The only issue is that, if you’re unlucky, you’ve travelled expecting fair, fine and dry. It can catch you out. No matter. One thing Krakow does well is warm hostelries. You must try the hot beer with cloves and ginger. It’s served in a pint glass ‘dimple mug’ and you’re under strict instruction to leave it five minutes before stirring. I discovered why, Never one to be told, or to listen to advice, I put the spoon in a couple of minutes after sitting down. The whole thing exploded in a frothy mess of yeast and hops.
The second was more successful. As was the third.
Wawel Hill and Royal Castle
To one side of Krakow and within walking distance from the centre lies Wawel Hill and Wawel Royal Castle. It was built in the reign of Casimir the Great, back in the 14th century. For centuries afterwards it was the home to the kings of Poland the the centre of Polish statehood. The state apartments are open to the public as is the art gallery and museum. The treasury houses the Crown Jewels and it’s worth a look, but it’s a half-day excursion and not much more.
Of course, Pope John Paul II was from Poland. He was born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice, some thirty miles outside of Krakow, in 1920. As a young man under Nazi occupation he worked in the local limestone quarry and chemical factory to avoid deportation, although in 1940, at just 20, he survived being hit by a tram and then a lorry, all in the same year. Somebody was obviously looking out for him! By 1946 he had become a priest in Krakow and the rest, as they say, is history.
During his papacy, he visited Poland and Krakow as part of Papal Tours no less than eight times. You can feel the strength of the faith in the town. It’s palpable. The rich and highly ornate churches with their entourage of small, old ladies, always dressed in long black dresses and headscarves are almost symbolic of Eastern European Catholicism. Slipping into the back of a Mass and spending a few moments allowing the chanting, the low sombre responses and the atmosphere sweep over to you is all part of the journey.
In every city you’ll find at least one. You walk round a corner and there it is. Distinct in its black and green it welcomes you – the Irish Bar. In Krakow it’s the Pod Papugami. Unusually, it’s not called O’Riellys or Callaghans or some other rather contrived name from the Old Country. However, inside, it’s the usual mixture of mahogany, framed pictures, football on the TV and pool in the basement. The curved stone walls are comforting and the ‘pub grub’ is more than up to standard. I’ve been to some Irish bars in far-flung places where you feel that the decoration has come straight out of the ‘Set up an Irish Bar’ catalogue. Road signs for Kilkenny, framed copies of the Irish Times, portraits of men in flat caps and raincoats – Sean O’Casey material. Here, however, Pod Papugami reaches a happy medium. The Guinness is excellent (wherever it’s brewed) and the failte is warm.
Auschwitz and Birkenau
A pilgrimage can be defined as a journey of moral or spiritual significance. Leaving religion to one side, it’s hard to imagine why people want to go to Auschwitz. However, one has to go. It was the reason for coming to Poland and for coming to Krakow. What happened at Auschwitz over the five years, from 1940 until 1945, was an immoral act by amoral people. It was this ‘moral significance’ that makes me feel that my visit to Birkenau and Auschwitz was a pilgrimage in memorium to and in recognition of the enormity of the acts undertaken by people who called themselves ‘civilised’. It certainly changes you and sears your mind with images that will stay with you forever.
There are many ways to reach Auschwitz. Mine was via http://www.escape2poland.co.uk/ and comes highly recommended. We booked the tour before leaving home and at ten in the morning, the mini-bus collected us from outside of the hotel. I’m not one for ‘being organised’ on holiday and prefer to make my own way, but I feel that this is one excursion where having a guide is essential. The journey is long enough to absorb the newsreel footage being played on the coach television.
It’s harrowing. So many images that you recognise. From the railway tracks and the entrance gate to the watchtowers, fences and the ‘Arbeit macht Frei‘. With the knowledge shared by an experienced English-speaking guide, you visit the various huts, each one a separate museum, exhibiting its own part of the whole narrative. It’s a slow process to look, read and ponder. The glass cabinets of personal belongings: spectacles, shoes, hair and teeth, can and will affect you. Images that will stay with you for many years. You bring with you so many references from documentaries, films and television programmes, but there is one certain truth – it is not in any way a ‘film set’.
The visit takes in Auschwitz 1 and 2 and then moves across to Birkenau, the gas chambers and the crematoria. It’s emotionally draining and historically so important. Set aside a full day.
Easter Sunday along the Planty
One of the drawbacks of being in a Catholic country for the Easter weekend is that everywhere closes. A few years ago, I spent Christmas in Hanoi. For them, it was jjust another week and just another day. We even spent Christmas morning following a school party around Hanoi Zoo.
In Krakow, however, everything closes for Easter. It’s a ghost town. We went for a walk in the snow across the Planty, one of the largest parks in Krakow. It’s over five acres and surrounds the Old Town. It takes in the Royal Road, the Florian Gate, the Barbican and the river Vistula and is a pleasant way to spend a morning.
If you’ve an hour or so to spare, try J. Nowarolski’s for lunch or even just a coffee and cake. It’s beautifully kept and hearkens back to a more genteel time. (http://www.noworolski.com.pl/en/).
Later on, you might want to visit the Bull. It’s lively and if there’s a match you want to see, there’s no better place to while away the hours drinking Zywiec, the local brew. (https://www.facebook.com/Bull-Pub-156802794368432/). We fell out of there, many glasses later and headed across the main square to Sioux, another interesting experience of ‘cowboy and injun kitsch at its best’ (http://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/Sioux-Classic_19788v)
It’s often interesting heading out away from the tourist traps and seeing the suburbs. It provides an insight into where and how people live. It’s even more interesting if it’s donw while sitting on a typical Polish tram. You can easily spend a couple of hours going to the end of the line and back again. It’s a good way to spend Bank Holiday Monday morning. Out in the suburbs you encounter block and block of Russian-style concrete housing. It’s post-war apartment living at its worst. The tram takes in old and young, the fit and infirm, the affluent and clearly poor. Thankfully, everyone seems to be in possession of a good coat, certainly necessary in this climate. You can’t help but think on the experiences that the elderly sitting opposite must have had over the past seventy or so years. Shortened by age and a diet affected by war and post-war shortages, they look worn and tired. They’ve lived through both Nazi and Soviet occupation right through until Solidarity and the collapse of the communist regimes across Europe. Poland joined the European Community in 2014.
Krakow Square and the Market
The main square in Krakow is better knows as Rynek Główny. It’s the focal point of the town and all roads seem to lead back into it. Whether you wander the cloisters of the Town Hall market, picking up trinkets, beads, wooden toys and other bits and bobs or sit in one of the outdoor cafes, rugs around your knees drinking hot chocolate, it’s a beautiful spot.
The five-acre square dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval town square in Europe. On one side is the Cloth Hall, which houses the market, with its adjacent Town Hall Tower and on the opposite side is the 10th century church of St. Adalbert, Bishop of Prague and murdered on St. George’s Day in 997AD, although that connection was probably of very little significant to either him or the Prussians who stabbed him to death for being pompous in demanding they turned away from paganism. Apparently, the Polish king bought his body for its weight in gold and returned him to his final rest in Gniezo, near Poznan.
Krakow has considerable charm. In the summer, it must be popular and a haven for the cafe-culture. In the winter, it’s certainly cold and, when spring is late, snowy. However, it’s welcoming and very good value. For us, it was an ideal base for a short city visit. The ulterior motive was Auschwitz and Schindler’s factory. Both left marked impressions which have stayed with me with clarity ever since.