poland · Uncategorized

Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto Tour

Originally published on 9 May 2012.

There was an hour or so for a break between the Krakow City Tour and the Jewish History Tour, which I spent just walking around and exploring–and getting lost and meeting a cute American who’s studying here to be a doctor who kindly brought me back to the square!–then it was onward to the Jewish Quarter tour! The guide for this tour was a cute, young girl, probably a year or so younger than me. She also noticed I was taking notes, so we struck up a conversation with her about tour guiding!

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So, how did the Jews end up coming to Poland? Well, in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Crusades were going on. Many of the Jews were persecuted and had Pograms (acts of cruelty) done to them, so they needed to move. Poland, at the time, was known to be very tolerant of people and their faith. The word “Polin” in Hebrew means “God dwells here,” and Polania means “You should dwell here.” So they thought they should, and they did. The oldest Jewish Synagogue in Poland was built in the 1400s, and still exists today. Just behind the synagogue is a Catholic church; the Jews dug down when they built their building so that they could build it as tall as necessary, yet still be short enough to be protected by their walls around the synagogue. Very smart. In front of this building is a monument built in honor of those who were executed by Nazis during WWII.

There were hundreds of prayer houses around the old Jewish district (called Kazimeriz) because they were not allowed to do any work on the Sabbath. They needed so many prayer houses so no one had to walk very far (and do too much work by walking) to get to their prayer houses.

Before WWII, there were around 68,000 Jews in Krakow; after WWII, there were around 100. We saw more monuments dedicated to the executed Jews, and all of them had small stones or rocks sitting on top. I’ve seen this before at Arlington Cemetery and other gravesites where Jews are burried, and I’ve wondered why they do this. Our tour guide told us it’s because when the Israelites were wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, some of them died; when they died, the people had to put sand over the bodies and cover them with stones to keep animals from digging them up. So many Jews honor that with the tradition of putting stones on top of gravestones. The first Jewish cemetery in Poland is also there in the Jewish district. A lot of the gravestones were crushed and used as gravel in the Jewish ghetto, which is a pretty irreverent thing to do.

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Moving along. The square that has been preserved was not the actually Jewish Ghetto, but this is where many of the scenes from Schindler’s List were filmed. Spielberg thought the actual site of the Jewish Ghetto was too modern because things have been rebuilt by now. There were very few parts of the ghetto wall left, and there was a monument in the middle of the square now. But when he saw this other square, he said that one looked more true-to-life of the time period of the movie.

Looking around, I noticed many of the hotel names. There was Hotel Eden, Hotel David, and a restaurant called the Olive Tree, which is a kosher restaurant. Also close to the square is a street called Cinema Street. During one of the displacements of the Jews, when they had to move to the ghetto, there was a Jewish man named Leopold Peferberg, also known as Poldek Page. This man was a Jew who was trying to make his way out of the ghetto via the sewage system. He came up too early, though, and he was caught on this street by some Nazis. But he was a very fast-thinking man. There were suitcases (from the Jews who were being moved) sitting haphazardly in this street. He quickly began putting them up against the wall, as if that were his job. When he made eye contact with the Nazis, he gave a Polish salute (two fingers only against the forehead) and greeted them. Well, the Nazis thought he was just a poor Pole who was being helpful, so they let him alone. He is the man who ultimately escaped and told Schindler’s story. That’s why the movie was made.

We stopped for a few minutes at a round building that houses a bunch of fast food stalls. There are windows where you walk up, order your food, and they make it for you right there! So, why is there this odd-shaped building in the middle of the Jewish quarter? Because it used to be the sacrifice slaughter house. Please read the Old Testament of the Bible or the Torah to find out more!

Now we’re getting to the old Jewish Ghetto. When the Germans invaded Poland, they made Krakow the primary seat of the government. This is why Krakow was not completely destroyed like Warsaw was. That was in September of 1939, and one month later, that’s when the Nazis told the Jews they had to move to this particular place they called the ghetto. It was made to house 3000 people, but when all the Jews were moved, there were 17,000 people there. You can imagine how crowded things were, and that the sewage system could not handle that. Five or six families would have to live in one flat all together; no Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto. Brick layers built the walls, Pols were not allowed to help the Jews for fear of being executed, and even Jewish police would beat other Jews or punish them in some way because they thought doing those things would bring them freedom of their own. Of course, that was not the case. Now there is only one section of the ghetto wall left, as a memorial. Our guide pointed out that it looks like a row of gravestones–the implication was purposeful.

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At one time, there was a mass execution. All Jews had to come out of their homes and come to the main square. at least 600 Jews were executed at one time, chosen at random. The square was covered in blood for months. Now, there is a monument in the square. It’s a bunch of statues of chairs, and they face different directions. There’s a lot of symbolism involved, but I couldn’t catch everything she said. Even without getting all of it, it was a very moving monument.

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Our last stop was Schindler’s Factory. Schindler was born in what’s now the Czech Republic. He was known as a shrewd and unfair businessman, and he was even sentenced to death once, but he was let go before his sentence could be carried out. He arrived in Poland in early October of 1939 to take over a factory that made things out of metal. At first he employed mostly Pols, but eventually, he employed mostly Jews because they were cheap labor (only 4-5 zlotys per person to hire a Jew), and they were not to receive any compensation. He said after the War that once you know someone, they become a person, and you begin to care about them. So because he got to know so many Jews, he helped save all the Jewish workers he could, which numbered around 1200, including Poldek Page.

Well, that was the afternoon! I met a very sweet Australian girl who has been teaching English in Oslo, Norway. We became fast friends! She’s a doctoral student in Melbourne, Australia, getting her Ph. D in ESL Instruction–I didn’t even know there was such a thing! She and I walked back to the Krakow city center and got supper together at a fancy-dancy place called Apertif. We got each got a Polish traditional dish and split them–they were so good! She got the pan-fried sheep’s cheese on salad, and I got chicken livers!

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