Part VI: Kazimierz and Cracow

With all the activity and my long first day, I was in sync with Polish time. I woke up just before my call, showered, shaved, dressed, loaded my camera, and headed downstairs for breakfast, which was the same buffet as the day before. I finished eating at about 8:00, just in time to meet up with my driver. But he wasn’t there. So, I took a seat in the lobby and waited. Around 8:30, the desk clerk called me over and told me that the guy I was waiting for had called to say he couldn’t make it after all. Great, I thought, now what do I do?

I hadn’t really made up my mind about revisiting Auschwitz or Birkenau although it was in the back of my mind. For the moment, I decided 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’d met 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 dark gray beret. In her youth, she might have been Reubenesque 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 I decided I should take the walking tour of Cracow, which included the castle on Wawel Hill, several churches, the old Jewish Quarter, the university, and the city center. I thought about seeing the Wieliczka salt mines also, but passed when I found out I’d have to walk down and then back up 250 meters of stairs. I couldn’t have made a better choice than the walking tour, which was actually a bus/walk tour.

There were only ten or thirteen others on the tour and my gap-toothed caricature was the guide. Our first stop was the Jewish Quarter where we visited the Remuh Synagogue, one of the few left in Cracow.Image53

It couldn’t have held more than eighty or ninety people, but then there aren’t that many Jews left in the city. Before the war, there had been as many as 70,000. Between 200 and 300 remained. On the synagogue grounds was an ancient and historic cemetery. The tomb of Rabbi Moses Isserles Remuh, a scholar of the sixteenth century, was in a fenced-off plot there.

The approach to the Jewish Quarter, which had been largely emptied as the ghetto in the Podgorze District was force-fed up into 1943, was by way of broad avenues and narrow twisting streets. On some, cars and buses could not pass in opposite directions, especially after people parked and double-parked to do their business in the myriad small shops and offices.

As we came to the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, we passed some dilapidated buildings that seemed more than just rundown. They seemed to have suffered at the hands of Man. Fallen roofs, fire damage and holes punched through the masonry walls set them very much apart from their well-maintained neighbors. So marked were the differences and so distinctive was the damage that I took the ravaged structures to be shells left unrestored after the war. I couldn’t be sure, so I decided I’d ask the tour guide later.

Like I said, the synagogue was small, but it was a must for many tours. When we arrived, we were greeted by several elderly Jewish men who handed a yarmulka to everyone but our guide, who didn’t enter. After only a few minutes, we filed back out past those same old men. They collected the yarmulkas and solicited donations at the door. Once outside, our guide ushered us into the cemetery, but we weren’t there for long.

No more than five minutes passed before she rushed us out, with the old Jews yelling at her and her at them. It seems she’d violated custom and protocol by admitting us to the graveyard sans yarmulkas and it wasn’t appreciated. It was apparent from the English portion of her ensuing diatribe also that my little babushka held our hosts in very low esteem.

From the synagogue, we moved across a small square to a book shop specializing in Judaic. What I saw was innocuous and noteworthy buying. Then, back to the bus for a short trip to a major Catholic cathedral 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 was the scene of Schindler’s first cinematic black-market 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 world has one. In trying to get pictures that would do justice to the size of the place 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 by which coronation and funeral processions once entered the Royal Castle and cathedral. On the left was a wall with “Wawel bricks” which commemorate those people or institutions around the world that helped with the restoration of the royal Castle. It was an uphill walk to go through the Heraldic Gate and the Vasa gate and out onto the courtyard outside the Royal Cathedral. We caught our breath and took in the view from the courtyard before entering the gothic cathedral.

You’d expect a central cathedral in an ancient city like Cracow to be impressive and you’d be right. Wawel Hill was stunning and embodied all that was most highly prized in Polish history. There’s no way I can describe it to 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 and national heroes within. Treasures from hundreds of years are on display throughout. I was amazed not only by the splendor and majesty of Wawel Hill, but by the fact that so much that was so beautiful had escaped both destruction and Nazi collectors.

Especially memorable was a climb up through the cathedral’s timber frame supports to the Sigissmund tower. Just imagine squeezing single file up a narrow staircase that winds its way between timbers measuring two feet thick in places. The payoff was a chance to touch the world’s largest 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 Hill we walked a little ways through Planty Park past the Papieska Technological Academy and on to the Jagellonian University, where both Copernicus and Pope John Paul II had studied. The main attraction was the Collegium Maius, which is the oldest university and dates from the fifteenth century. Now, it holds the Jagellonian University Museum, which can only be seen by prior arrangement.

Market Square was next on the agenda. For centuries the market Square was a large trading center and was covered by stalls which created a 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 the thirteenth century. Souvenirs from Cracow, works of Polish artists, leather and metal goods, jewelry and handicrafts were on sale in dozens of rustic stalls. But, I bought nothing that day.

There were people everywhere enjoying the good weather and the ambience of city center. Everybody was on foot, since cars are prohibited because of the damage exhaust fumes had caused to historic buildings 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 visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral.

As we walked and looked and listened to our guide, I took it all in, but my mind was elsewhere. I was on a sleepwalking tour. Things, like the dilapidated buildings of the Jewish quarter and the uproar 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 and sounds 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.

On the way back to the hotel, I asked the guide what had happened to the buildings near the synagogue. The reaction was amazing. Instantly furious, she snapped back, “You know those Jews never take care of their property! We’ve been trying to 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 and they say they lost four million people. But we’re not stupid! Our calculations show they couldn’t have lost more than 450,000!” And there she stopped. I think because she realized she’d spilled the anti-semitic beans.

Quickly, she moved 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 the bus driver. She never looked at me or said another word to me again. I sat back and watched the city go by and pondered that telling outburst. I was right, it seemed, the Jewish quarter had not been completely restored after being nearly razed during the war, probably by purges.

It was again late afternoon when I got back to my hotel room. It was too early to stay in my room and I had no idea 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 small shacks. My curiosity about them was piqued by smoke rising from one shack a couple of hundred meters opposite the front of the hotel. I decided a closer look was in order and out I went.

I went out on a diagonal across the grounds and parking lots to find that where the paved access road to the hotel ended a well-used dirt road began. One or two hectare plots lay to the right of the road. Each had its accommodations at one end. Some were obviously visited regularly and others not. It was a unique patchwork of garden plots and one or two room lodges. Some had verandas and some seemed little more than potting sheds. 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 nice shots from all kinds of angles. I guess I spent more than two hours poking around out there.

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, I picked up my camera and went to reload it. Sheer panic set in – the lens was not seated. Shit! How long had it been this way? Or had I just done it? I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t be sure. I was always changing lenses, but that day I didn’t. But, I’d shot several rolls in Birkenau on this lens. Oh my God! Were they ruined? Oh, shit, shit, shit!!! Now, I had to go back. And I had to get more film. Panic, complete and utter panic. I’d have left for Birkenau right then if I could have. I was really upset.

It’s a wonder I could eat and sleep. But, I did, and well. I also ate well the next morning, although the cold cut routine was losing its novelty. After breakfast, I bought six more rolls of film and went back to the ORBIS counter. The blonde-headed kid was back, but my gap-toothed babushka was not. Again, I negotiated a driver/guide at what I knew was a reasonable price of $50.00 and I took off.