I was winning with this holiday – all of my days so far had been full of sunshine and gorgeous blue skies. Perfect for exploring Europe!
Today was no exception. I ventured once more into Old Town and checked out the Florian Gate and the Barbican, both of which are parts of the old city medieval wall. If it involves a moat and seven towers, it must be interesting!
I spent some time on the grounds of the Collegium Maius, where the clock does crazy things on the odd hour (though not as elaborate as the Astronomical Clock in Prague) and a lot of Copernicus’s tools. It’s easy to poke around a bit, and if there’s time, buying a ticket to go around inside seemed pretty popular. I was running back to Kazimierz to catch the free walking tour of that district.
We met at the High Synagogue in Kazimierz, where I waited on the steps only to have a spider crawl up my neck. Not my finest hour when I shrieked, scared everyone around me, and slapped the hell out of my neck until it was dead. Then, an older woman handed me a wet wipe so I could get the *ahem* guts and legs off my neck. Gross.
From there we ventured to the Isaac Synagogue. The sad thing is how incredibly small the Jewish population is in Kraków now, when, before WWII, it had a big, vibrant Jewish community.
Pre-war population: 60,000 Jews in Krakow, 25% of the city’s population at the time.
Today, only 1,000 Jews live in Kraków, 200 of which identify themselves as Jewish.
This is what our guide told us as we walked through the revitalizing district. Once home to all sorts of unsavory people during the Soviet period, Kazimierz is now full of galleries, museums, and interesting boutique shops. Plac Nowy, the old marketplace and sort of center for Kazimierz, now is home to a clothes and antique market on certain days.
However, the mainstay is the counters serving “Polish pizza” (zapiekanka) – a baguette sliced in half covered with various toppings. The basic and original “Polish pizza” has cheese, ham, and mushrooms with a vigorous ketchup swirl down the length of it. The counters are open late (Polish drunk food, anyone?) and are located in the round building in the center of Plac Nowy called Okraglak. It’s a cheap lunch or a cheap midnight snack – and now there are gourmet toppings as well.
Overall, I felt that Kazimierz was quieter than Old Town with a lot more character. It’s got some rough edges here and there, but the street art was taking over to cover up scars on buildings. Buildings that may not have an owner because no one ever came back to it. The mezuzahs are notches by doors – a trace of a memory.
A visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum is a must-stop in Kazimierz. It has a stark exhibit of the Galician Jews, photographs of ruined synagogues across the region, the memorials to mark the myriad mass shooting sites in woods, fields, and ditches. There are photographs of ruined graveyards and homes. There are pictures of villages devoid of its Jewish inhabitants.
The loss of life and culture is evident here, and it strikes me differently than other Holocaust museums. It is part history and part memory. The book in their bookshop, Rediscovering Traces of Memory: The Jewish Heritage of Polish Galicia by Jonathan Webber and photography by Chris Schwartz, is an extremely detailed look at the permanent collection at the museum along with providing additional commentary on the photographs. The photography is stunning, and it should convict us and make us want this never to happen again.
The hardest thing I have to tell my students is that it still does.