Friday, 30 July 2010

Krakow, the Jewish Quarter and Oskar Schindler

On the final morning we enjoyed our continental breakfast at the Ester, packed our bags and checked out and planned a morning around the Jewish quarter and the Second-World-War ghetto area in the Podgórze district across the river. On the previous day we had made arrangements for a city guide in an electric street vehicle to meet us at ten o’clock and just ahead of schedule he arrived at the front of the hotel. His name was Andrew and he explained that he would show us the principal sights of the area but this being Saturday the synagogues would be closed.

The district of Kazimierz is named after its royal founder, King Kazimierz the Great, who established the town in 1335 as a prosperous merchant community on an island in the river Vistula. The Jewish history of Kazimierz began with the expulsion in 1495 of the Jewish community from the western part of Krakow and they moved to Kazimierz and it eventually became the main spiritual and cultural centre of Polish Jewry for the next four centuries. During that time the Jewish community grew to as many as seventy thousand people.

During the Second World War, the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz were expelled and relocated into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, across the river. Most of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in Nazi death camps. Today there are only two hundred Jews in Krakow and after the Second World War, Kazimierz, deserted by its pre-war Jewish population, was populated by the poor and the sometimes criminal elements, becoming a backwater area with a reputation for being unsafe.

Andrew began the tour by leaving Ulica Szeroka and driving south towards the river and Podgórze. He drove along the main roads and as it trundled along the little electric vehicle built up quite a queue of traffic and sitting in the back and feeling self conscious I tried not to make eye contact with the motorists stacking up behind us. We crossed the river and came first to a slabbed square where sculptures of seventy empty chairs represented seventy-thousand lost lives and then we carried on through an area of modern light industrial units towards our next stop, the Schindler factory.

The roads were in a terrible condition with the thin layer of tarmac regular ripped off to expose the cobbled stones beneath and Andrew had to weave his way through the potholes and cracks. The road hadn’t been swept for months and we drove past many old buildings that had never been repaired after the war and sixty-five years later are left as empty rotting shells.

After a while we arrived at the factory, which is being converted into a museum but as the project is way behind schedule there was only a temporary exhibition to look around. When Podgórze became the site of the Jewish Ghetto many Germans set up businesses in the area in an attempt to profit from the Nazi invasion of Poland. Oskar Schindler was such a man, but in the end he came to save the lives of over eleven hundred Jews that worked in his factory, often at great risk to his own life and at personal expense.

Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ tells the story of how Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German industrialist from the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic, saved many Jews from the misery of having to work at the Nazi forced labour camp at Plaszow, by employing them in his ceramics factory instead. The factory became a sub-camp in the Nazi concentration camp system and the Jewish prisoners lived in barracks which Schindler built for them in the grounds of his factory. Although Schindler didn’t mistreat his Jewish workers the truth is that he was a war profiteer and he did make money from their slave labour. Initially, he was motivated by the desire for money but later he developed a conscience about the mistreatment and ultimately saved his workers from certain death by relocating them to a new factory in Czechoslovakia spending all of his fortune in the process.

It didn’t take long to look around the temporary exhibition and fairly soon we were back in the golf buggy and bouncing around the streets again. We passed the last remaining part of the concrete ghetto wall that enclosed four hectares of land and buildings where the Jews were moved to by the Nazis and then crossed back over the river into Kazimierz where Andrew pointed out a succession of ‘Schindler’s list’ scene locations, most of the city’s eight synagogues and various centres of previous Jewish culture and life.

The tour finished back at Ulica Szeroka which is now the heart of the present Jewish community with shops, restaurants, monuments and the Remuh Synagogue, which is currently the only active synagogue in Krakow. Despite being run down the little square was vibrant and busy especially with tourists and visiting groups of Jewish teenagers carrying out a pilgrimage to the place and all that it represents.

There was a couple of hours to go before our taxi back to the airport so we had a drink at a pavement café in the warm sunshine and then walked to a busy flea market where there was lots of interesting junk for sale but nothing we especially wanted to buy. For the last half an hour it seemed appropriate to go one last time to the Crocodile bar where this time we sat outside in the tiny back garden which, after only a couple of days of sunshine, was beginning to show some early signs of Spring.

At one o’clock the taxi arrived as arranged and we took the twenty minute drive back to the airport where we arrived with plenty of time to spare. Rather too much time as it turned out because the John Paul II international airport is probably one of the most uncomfortable and inhospitable airports that I can remember passing through and a two hour wait for the departure didn’t fill us with enthusiasm. Fortunately the incoming flight arrived well ahead of schedule, we were loaded onto the plane in a rush and the pilot, who must have had plans for the evening, took off twenty minutes ahead of time.

We had enjoyed Krakow and we have now added Poland to the growing list of eastern European stamps in our passports which include, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Latvia, oh and Estonia (well, all except Micky of course that is).

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