It was a flying visit. I didn’t have much time. In Wednesday evening, work Thursday, fly out Friday morning. I wasn’t there to sightsee but it’d be a cold day in hell before I’d visit somewhere and not get to see something.
It’s been years since I was last in Kraków . I was looking forward to seeing how much, if anything, I remembered of the city. I had vague recollections of a large central square edged with expensive cafés. That time, I had taken the train from Warsaw with the sole of aim of visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the salt mines. All three were quite something with the first two taking all of my energy and most of my will to live. There is something quite unsettling about seeing mounds of human hair, piles of unmatched shoes, heaps of suitcases and knowing the fate their owners met. I remember visiting the bookshop wanting to buy camp memoirs written by a man and by a woman, so that I’d get both perspectives. The lady in the shop wouldn’t let me go before I bought a third book – written by one of the SS guards.
Having done the tour of the Auschwitz, I was dazed, upset, and not a little shocked. I went on to Birkenau and as I walked down to the end of the camp, the three books getting heavier and heavier in my backpack, I heard myself complaining and cursing life. No sooner had I vented did I realise that the hundreds and thousands who had trodden this same path before me never had the chance to curse again. I was a sobering thought. This was back in 2004 (I think).
I recall overhearing a young Polish chap explain to a couple of English nurses on the train that Poland didn’t have Jewish problem any more. And so this time, when I visited, I saw that the Jewish community is making a comeback of sorts.
There’s a square (actually a street but it looks like a square) at the heart of it all: ulica Szeroka. Ringed by restaurants and cafés, it’s also home to the Old Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue. Today, it’s a hive of activity with plenty to do in the way of socialising.
Tempted by the Hamsa restaurant that promised both happiness and humus, I couldn’t resist the Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (Once upon a time in Kazimierz), with its row of weathered shopfronts, its dark and its dark interior furnished as if it were someone’s living room. Billed as one of the most unusual restaurants in the world, I couldn’t pass it by. The menu was alien to me and yet familiar, a composite of foods that had featured in novels I’d read but had never eaten. Borsch – a beetroot soup with kolduny (meat filling) or
uszka (mushoom filling). Gefilte fish (minced carp in jelly). Cholent (stew with beans beef, veg, potatoes and groats). There was even Israeli wine on the menu. I ate well.
Wandering around afterwards, I happened across a memorial to the 65,000 Polish Jews from Kraków who didn’t live to see the end of the War. It was cold that day – bitterly cold – and the streets were notably empty. I’d imagine though that in the summer, it would be heaving. How does it resonate with the partying masses enjoying their holidays? A thought.
I paid my respects. I stood a while until a recurring thought popped into my head about the millions of other lives lost in the Holocaust that go largely unmentioned. And then I wandered and I wondered.