Sunday, July 10, 2011

The rebirth of the Old Jewish Quarter : the Krakow Diaries, Part III

Restored synagogue in Kazimierz

Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, has undergone something of a renaissance. It is now filled with cafés, trendy restaurants, shops and art galleries. There are two ways of looking at this: 1) thanks to the Nazis, and to a lesser extent the Communists, there are very few Jews left in Poland, but the Polish government is cynically exploiting its Jewish heritage to attract tourists; 2) despite Nazi attempts to wipe out Poland’s Jewish heritage, the spirit lives on in Kazimierz where synagogues have been restored, a Jewish historical museum established and an international Jewish cultural festival held every July.

The second perspective is certainly the more appealing, especially after a visit to Auschwitz. When we went to the Schindler Museum located in the actual factory where Oskar Schindler employed over 1,000 of Krakow’s Jews, I found myself focusing on individual acts of courage and kindness, starting with Schindler himself--who, flawed human being that he was-- gradually began to see his slave laborers as human beings and became determined to save them from the Nazi killing machine.

The museum’s multi-media, interactive exhibit of the Nazi occupation of Krakow is one of the best historical exhibits I’ve ever seen and a must for any visitor to Krakow. But I felt that I had to escape the cruelty and started to rush through the exhibit looking for some record of human decency to focus on. And yes, there were individual acts of courage on the part of both Krakow’s Jewish and Christian citizens; there was the Polish resistance and an underground theater troupe determined to keep hope alive during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation.

After leaving the museum and immersion in Krakow’s tragic history, we were soon back in beautiful Old Town Krakow, filled with tourists dazzled by the beauty of the newly prosperous city. Another surreal moment, another disconnect.

I had expected Krakow to be one of those “been there, done that” places, but to my surprise we’ve begun thinking of a return trip, perhaps combining it with Prague. There’s so much we didn’t see in our 5 days in Krakow. Krakow is filled with beautiful churches—like Prague, it is a city of steeples and spires—and many small museums. And then there’s hanging out in the cafes of the spectacular old town square,

St.Mary's Cathedral in the Main Market Square,Rynek Glowny
Church of St. Bernard of Siena

We would not return in the summer again. This trip was planned to coincide with Rick’s 70th birthday in June, but next time there will be no such constraint. We’ve decided there will be no more international trips during the summer. Why deal with the crowds, the heat, the additional expense when as retirees we can travel in early Spring and the Fall?

So maybe we’ll try to visit Krakow and Prague some Fall when there’s a music festival we’d like to attend. We went to Prague in 1989 and it would be fascinating to see what the fall of Communism has meant to Prague. It was a good experience for someone like me who once considered herself (very briefly) a communist to actually visit a hard line communist country. It was wonderful to see that repressive regime crumble in the year after our visit.

So that’s our tentative plan—a return visit to Krakow and Prague. At this stage in our lives, we don’t know how much longer we’ll have the stamina for international trips but as long as we can, we intend to get out there and see the world, and that includes some return trips to places us really loved.

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