Krakow, Schindler’s Town (2017)

Krakow, Schindler’s Town (2017)

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Krakow, the imperial capital of Poland for five centuries from 1038 to 1611, has often been compared to Prague, Vienna and Budapest on account of its baroque splendour, but for me, the most endearing images of this city are those of Kazimierz, its bustling, bohemian and eclectic Jewish quarter. Kazimierz seems to have put its traumatic past behind it to emerge as the most happening suburb of present-day Krakow. Its atmospheric cafes are packed with tourists and local people, its art galleries, a magnet for the cognoscenti from the world over. Kazimierz is deliberately contrarian, decidedly edgy and delightfully bohemian.

In the 14th century, however, Krakow and Kazimierz were two separate royal cities on the northern bank of the Vistula, each with its own distinct identity, city square, parks and public spaces. While Krakow was ravaged by a series of invaders as varied as the Mongols, the Swedes, the Russians, the Prussians, the Austrians, the French and others and had to be rebuilt repeatedly, neighbouring Kazimierz, named for its founder King Casimir III, was largely ignored and thus retains its understated legacy intact. At the turn of the last century, population growth and urban expansion resulted in the merging of the two towns, leaving us with the sprawling Krakow of today, a city of stark contrasts—one part with its embellished and somewhat overwhelming Gothic, baroque and rococo architecture and the other, functional, unpretentious and quotidian.

The history of Jewish Kazimierz begins in 1495 when King Jan Olbracht, instigated by local burghers smarting because of competition from savvy Jewish businessmen, banned Jews from Krakow and resettled them in Kazimierz, away from Krakow’s bejewelled centre. Undeterred, the Jews went on to build Europe’s finest synagogues, set up markets and soon turned the district into a thriving centre of commerce. Jews from all over Europe began to gravitate towards this magnet of religion and commerce.

In 1901, Krakow’s streets began to clatter with the wheels of electric trams and its homes had the luxury of piped water, long before more illustrious European towns could dream of such conveniences. My first day is spent wandering around the district on foot. I get a sense of having walked into a sepia portrait. Weather-worn grey buildings and seemingly dodgy neighbourhoods belie the cultural treasures that are housed in the numerous art galleries and museums. Obscure courtyards have been turned into elegant cafes serving Jewish-Polish delicacies, and there are shops selling war memorabilia and exquisite old maps. Carefree and unpretentious Kazimierz is everything that ornate Krakow is not.

Second World WarIn 1939, when the Second World War erupted, Krakow had a prosperous Jewish population numbering 70,000. On March 3, 1941, the Nazis moved all of Krakow’s Jewish inhabitants south of the river into a ghetto called Podgorze, just opposite Kazimierz on the other bank. It was a convenient location since it was close to the Plaszow concentration camp where they would eventually be dispatched by the railway which also had a station nearby. The Krakow ghetto was a warren of streets with over 300 buildings. The area was sealed off with a wall and four gates manned by German soldiers. Fragments of the original wall can still be seen, although the gates have since been demolished and the area gentrified. In fact, our cab driver informs me that the house of Amon Goeth, the infamous Nazi commandant of Plaszow, was up for sale recently and was snapped up by a realtor. It is now being converted into an apartment complex. The residents of today’s Kazimierz clearly want to move on.

Krakow had more than 80 synagogues and over 40 churches in its heyday, many of them in Kazimierz. Now there are only a handful of synagogues left, the rest having been demolished or destroyed by the Nazis. The Remuh Synagogue, built in the 16th century, is one of the two active synagogues in Kazimierz today. Its leafy courtyard is studded with stones bearing prayer chits. There are hardly any worshippers other than a couple of rabbis in traditional attire, touching their heads to the wall and praying. The compound is strewn with Jewish tombs, each bearing the painful memory of a beloved left behind. An adjacent Wailing Wall is built entirely of tombstones. Not far from the synagogue is the Empty Chairs Memorial: a haunting tram square called Plac Bohaterow Getta with 70 empty bronze chairs strewn across it to mark the many Jews who were taken away from there.

Of course, anyone who comes to Kazimierz makes a beeline for Schindler’s factory, now an informative holocaust museum. During the Second World War, Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German from Sudetanland (now the Czech Republic), had set up an enamel utensil factory in Kazimierz, originally to profit from cheap Jewish labour from the ghetto. His factory, some sort of a sub-camp in the Nazi concentration camp system, turned out to be a haven for the Jews working there as they were spared the mistreatment meted out to their counterparts in other labour camps. Eventually, Schindler became their saviour, helping over 1,000 Jews escape death chambers and concentration camps. Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List is based on the life of Oskar Schindler adapted from the book Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The museum is a collection of personal and household belongings of the Jews who worked in the factory, priceless photographs and other memorabilia of the period. Vignettes of Jewish life and the privations they had to undergo have all been touchingly portrayed. There is a reconstruction of Schindler’s office.

Of course, there is much more to Krakow than Kazimierz. Emilia, my hostess, marches me towards Wawel, a striking royal complex of palaces, churches, and so on, with a delightful melange of architecture from different time periods in history. The white walls are from the Romanesque era dating from the 11th century; the brickwork Gothic from the 14th century; the golden dome from the Renaissance period in the 16th century; and the copper in the baroque style from the 17th century. Despite the hotchpotch, the edifice presents a certain harmony that is pleasing to the eye. The Wawel Royal Castle is the most important historical monument in Poland and its origins can be traced to King Casimir III.

The castle is the symbol of the Polish imperial state and has now been converted into a museum housing priceless objects, including a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculptures, textiles, a stunning collection of tapestry, goldwork and Meissen porcelain. Incidentally, it also has Europe’s biggest collection of Ottoman tents. But the piece de resistance of the museum is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with the ermine”, on loan from the Czartoryski Museum (also in Krakow) and displayed in Wawel.

The Main Market Square of Krakow, which dates back to the 13th century, is one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. It is surrounded by many baroque and Gothic churches and town houses. The perimeter is laid out with street cafes serving traditional delicacies.

A medieval Cloth Hall now selling souvenirs such as crystalware and Polish toys is the centrepiece of the market square. It is here that traders of yore used to meet and haggle and barter. Exotic spices, silk, leather and wax were traded for salt from the famous Wieliczka salt mine. An underground museum using very modern technology brings alive scenes from the past. But the exhibits themselves have been excavated in situ. The nearby St. Mary’s Basilica is a magnet for art lovers as well as the faithful. Its massive wooden altarpiece carved by Wit Stowsz was destroyed during the Mongol invasion but was rebuilt in the Gothic style. It is an impressive edifice even by Europe’s exalted standards in church architecture.

The Market Square is bustling with people, many of them Poles who travel with their families to enjoy a sunny day outdoors. Poland is almost exclusively a Catholic country and prides itself on having given Christendom Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. His statue adorns churches and squares all over the country. Today, non-Catholics comprise less than 3 per cent of the population and Jews number just a few hundreds.

The Polish language has Slavic roots and uses the Cyrillic script. It can be a tongue-twister for the uninitiated. Therefore, I am a bit apprehensive when my hostess wants to take me to a Polish cookery class to initiate me into the delights of Slavic delicacies. A dozen of us assemble in an underground kitchen with gleaming pots and pans and induction cook stoves where we are taken through the intricacies of Polish cooking step by step by a voluble English-speaking chef. In fact, I need not have worried. Most Poles speak English, which they study in school. In fact, Poland has already carved out a niche for itself in the highly competitive software industry thanks to the linguistic skills of its younger generation.

We are taught to make Pierogi, a Polish staple that is similar to momos or modaks but with a variety of stuffings such as potato, cheese, or pork. We also make the Polish version of bliny, a pancake leavened with beer and buttermilk, although the end product turns out to be no match for our own delectable dosa.

The Krakow region is also famous for smoked cheese, which is made in shepherds’ huts in the mountains. Goats are milked by hand, and the milk stored and processed in wooden pails rather than in European Union-ordained automated factories with gleaming stainless steel drums. But this was a hard-won right for Polish shepherds in a continent that favours the machine over the human hand. Krakow’s produce markets have a variety of delicious home-made cheeses. Compared with their European counterparts, Polish cheese, like most locally produced goods, is cheaper since the country has elected to retain the Zloty as its currency for now. Emilia remembers her childhood in communist Poland when she had all she needed, but little that she wanted!

Salt mineThe last stop on my visit to Krakow is the famous salt mine, Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka. It being a gorgeously sunny day, I am not too keen on descending into the dark depths of the mine but am persuaded by Emilia that it will be an experience to savour, literally! For, as we trudge through miles of salty tunnels enclosed by salty roof and walls, I am invited to check it out for myself, with my tongue. Considering the mine attracts millions of visitors every year, I am content to leave the gustatory delights to the more adventurous.

The salt mine was created by nature in the Miocene age when the sea evaporated in this part of the planet. For thousands of years, the mine provided the currency the inhabitants of the region used in trade. In fact, the word salary is derived from the Latin word salarium, or salt, which, according to one theory, was the currency in which soldiers were paid in ancient Rome. Later, salt was replaced with money because it was too bulky, inconvenient and cumbersome to transport.

Until recently, the Wieliczka mine supplied table salt to millions of Polish and European homes, but it suffered from frequent flooding, so the ever-resourceful Poles decided to upgrade the mine into a star tourist attraction using the latest technology. After all, there are few places on earth where you can walk on salt through saline tunnels for 287 kilometres at a depth of 327 m. Every few metres, there is statuary depicting life in the mine, which must have been very hard. There are rail tracks in the mine. Wagons laden with salt used to be drawn by Polish draft horses. There are also many chapels in the mine so that the miners could pray; after all, working in the mine was hazardous and miners were never sure whether they would emerge into the daylight after their work shift. Flooding and fires were common and many a miner disappeared into the bowels of the mine never to return.

The star attraction in the mine is a grand central hall with a piano where these days musical concerts are held. (Musical instruments and other heavy articles are ferried down through metal lifts, while we mortals could use the lifts only on our way back.) The acoustics in the mine are said to be excellent and hence it is a favoured location for concerts. Chandeliers made of salt crystals illuminate the many murals and carvings on the walls, also made of salt. Particularly stunning is the Last Supper carved entirely of salt. As Emilia had promised, it was indeed a very savoury experience!

(Published in Frontline dated Sep 2, 2016)

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