A visit to Krakow in Poland

This street was used in the filming of Schindler’s List

Crakow~ The Iconic City

The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around.  I went last week with a dear friend for a few days.  It was a leap of faith for me after my last disastrous attempt at a plane journey.  But this time I just relaxed and enjoyed the whole experience.  I thought it would be really cold but actually it was warmer in Krakow than the UK.

There are some times and some places I find, when all your interests seem to converge, and this was one of those times and places for me.  I once read that the thing of interest to a scientist is ‘everything in the universe’.  I’m no scientist but I do like to make sense of the world and I prefer to find out for myself rather than be told what to believe.  So my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory, which is now a museum, was a revelation.  This is what I learned:

“On great fields something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts pirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”. 
So said Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain at Gettysberg and I knew exactly what he meant when I stood on the site of the Jewish ghetto after visiting Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory in Zablocie, Krakow.  It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”.  The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific.  The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.
There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.
In March 1941 all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles.  Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls.  By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.

On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun.  The firsthand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum.  I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children.  They were marched off to be used as forced labour.  Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot.  Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps.  Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely.  The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution.   Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months.   The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported.  In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women.  They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards.  The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army. 
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

On a lighter note, (well a bit lighter!), I am fascinated by the process of education, so a visit to the Jagiellonian University where my hosts worked, Copernicus studied, and Pope John Paul 11, as Karol Wojtyla, both studied and taught, was a rare treat for me!  I discovered that Krakow is still a city of real learning and culture.

Karol Wojtyla, actor, poet, playwright, keen sportsman, philosopher and eventually Pope, was born on May 18th 1920 in a small flat with no bathroom and no running water.  The flat was above a shop owned and rented from Jews in Wadowice, which is 30 miles south west of Krakow.His mother died when he was very young and in 1938 he moved with his father to Krakow to the Jagiellonian University and became immersed in Polish Literature.  On September 1st1939 the first German bombs fell on Krakow as Karol prayed in the Cathedral onWawel Hill.  By the 6thSeptember the German army had occupied Krakow and renamed it GG, General Government.  On 17th Sept the Russians entered Eastern Poland.  On 27thSeptember Warsaw surrendered, the Polish Government took refuge in Romania and the swastika flew over Wawel Castle.  By November all 186 professors from the Jagiellonian University had been deported to a concentration camp.   This was the beginning of the German plan to destroy Polish culture.  Secondary schools, Universities and theatres were closed.  Masses were restricted and the celebration of Polish feast days was banned. When the University closed Karol got a job in a stone quarry and later in the office at the quarry.  He was involved in a subversive theatre group and the underground religious movement between 1941 and 1945.  On 17thJanuary 1945 the Russian army entered Krakow and the Germans retreated.  Karol Wojtyla was training for the priesthood in secret, finally being ordained on 1st November 1946 and going to continue his studies in Rome.  When he returned to Poland in 1948 it was under communist rule and it might have stayed that way if Karol Wojtyla had not become Pope John Paul 11 in 1978.  His power and influence on the world stage gave support to the trade unions in Poland which led to the Solidarity movement participating in the elections of 1989. Combined with the reforms led by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union,and increased pressure from the West, communism collapsed in Europe and the Berlin wall came down.  In 1990 Lech Walesa became President of a democratic Poland.

Lastly,anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate collector of icons ~ of the postcard variety I hasten to add not the priceless originals!  I had thought I would go on a bus trip to Czestochowa to see the Black Madonna, but Our Lady of Czestochowa found me in a chapel in the Royal Cathedral at Wawel Hill.  I was mesmerised by this ancient copy, especially the eyes of the Madonna.  They seemed to look right into my soul.  I was more than happy to miss out on the bus trip and stay and pray here.
 So my short visit provided lots of food for thought.  It reaffirmed my belief in the dignity of the individual; in human rights; and in Christian values.  My gregarious side was thrilled to spend time in the company of our wonderful hosts, Ben, Kasia, Maja and their multi-lingualfriend Adam.  I would love to visit Krakow again one day.

Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly.  They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps.  They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest.  The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.

Jewish cemetery

Karol Wojtyla’s parish church

Proud to stand by the statue of Pope John Paul 11 in his home town of Krakow

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