Poland, as a country, kept coming into existence and vanishing into history multiple times in the last 1000 years. Established by migration of the Slavic people in the end of the last millennium, Poland witnessed rise of fall of multiple empires. In 1795, Poland lost its entity to Russia and Prussia (today’s Germany). If anything good came out of the 1st world war, it was the re-birth of Poland, when the acquiring partners lost the war and had to give up their claim on their annexed territories. But the Polish freedom lasted only 21 years. In 1939, Germany and Russia invaded Poland again. As our walking tour guide love to say – Poland was divided like a Pizza on a plate.
This was the beginning of the second world war. Krakow fell into the Nazi camp and survived bombing. Warsaw, the current capital wasn’t that lucky and hence hardly anything of the olden time survives there (so we were told). Few fellow travelers who were just coming from Warsaw validated my decision to do Krakow instead of Warsaw. Krakow has paid a huge price for preservation, it is one of those cities which has the atrocities of Nazis etched on its forehead. The venue of the first and one of the biggest concentration camps Auschwitz is only about 50 km away.
Krakow, today, is a lovely, bustling city and exudes a very happy & warm vibe. The vibe hits you the moment you get out of the bus station and head towards the old town. Why Bus station? Because I took a 16 hours bus ride from Mannheim in Germany to Krakow. That’s what happens when you plan just a day before the travel and are always on a budget. But as people who have traveled with me know, by God’s grace I sleep very well on any moving vehicle, so the trip was not really all that bad.
Checking into a little hostel, I got out to explore the town immediately. As I walked through the cobbled pathways, a big picture of Ganeshji welcomed me. (Thanks to the omnipresent Indian restaurant now-a-days). Just around the next corner, was another Indian restaurant. What caught my eye was the Polish lady in Saree, but that wasn’t the surprising part, what fascinated me the most was the movie being played – Ram Lakhan , a movie from late 80s. Truly Bollywood has arrived!
Old town Krakow, is like many other European old towns, however, the similarity with Prague is striking – large central square, tall Gothic Church with hourly chimes, cobbled streets, ice creams, cheese, breads and the colorful milieu of people dancing, eating singing (Summer time Europe!) – only here there were some people protesting as well. I approached on of them to ask what this was for. He explained to me how the government of the country was corrupt and how they hoped to overhaul the political system.
In the middle of the main square, which used to be a big market place in the times of the kings, stands a statue of famous Polish Poet named Adam Mickiewicz. (top right image) He spent majority of his life outside “occupied Poland” (by Prussians and Russians) but through his poetry he kept the fire of achieving liberation burning in the hearts of the Polish people through the 18th and 19th century.
Krakow Is sprinkled with beautiful castles, churches, city gates and squares like most European cities and exploring this tiny townlet is a quite an enjoyable experience. I prefer doing a walking tour to start my exploration, usually helps me plan and prioritize things of interest in the limited time I have, while getting informed about the stories of the past. I did the same here and would totally recommend the tour. The guide fills you in with trivia of the church, the statues, the polish Pope and the various known personalities who called Krakow their home. Worry not, I am not going to get into the historical details here. But there’s one building I want to speak about, not the most beautiful building around but one that stands a testimony to how much people care about protecting their culture and language – the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre!
The year was 1893 and Krakow was under German rule. The Germans not only imposed their rules but also their language and their customs on Krakow. All popular art, all official work happened in German, Polish was confined to homes. Then came a proposal to build a water purification plant to provide drinking water to the town. The citizens had to contribute for the same. In parallel, there was another proposal to build a theatre to showcase Polish language and music. And what did the citizens choose? They decided in favour of a theatre spurred by the desire to preserve their culture and language. Sounds illogical? Well, the result is for everyone to see. Polish survives, and thrives!
Post the walking tour, I headed to the newer, chic-er side of Poland. – Kazimierz. Once upon a time this was a thriving jewish neighbourhood. At its peak, over 200,000 jews lived here. Today, only about 200 Jewish families still call Krakow home. (This information is from the walking tour guide, I haven’t cross verified). Even today some synagogues, Israeli cafes and kosher shops mark their presence here. For some history lessons on Kazimierz, read this.
This area is also well known for its Plac Nowy (food market) and its Zapiekanki stands. Zapiekanki is a Polish open sandwich. You got to try this one when in Krakow – filling, tasty and good looking. After a stomach full of Zapiekanki, I walked further ahead from Kazimierz to the other side of Vistula river. Here is where the Nazis had ghetto-ed the Polish Jews. I was hoping to find some dilapidated buildings with metal fences. However, none exist anymore. The only reminiscent of those horrific days is Hero Square, a monument commemorating the Jewish ghetto
As evening fell, I headed back to my hostel crossing the Vistula river, walking through old town and market square. It was a full moon night and the moon was at its brightest best. Like a radiant crystal ball it shone in the sky, overlooking the pretty Krakow city. A beauty to behold !
Day 2 in Krakow: Auschwitz trip
50km outside of Krakow lies Auschwitz. As most of the readers would know, this was one of the largest concentration camps of the Nazis. Early next day, I set out to explore this gory past. Though buildings and structures of the camp stand intact till date, if not for the pictures inside, one could have never guessed that a gruesome bloodbath occurred behind its brick walls. But as you walk through the rooms, first you come pictures of unsuspecting kids and their slightly concerned parents heading to concentration camps staring back at you. Then you come to the torture rooms, gallows and execution areas, before proceeding to other rooms to witness loads and loads of human hair, shoes, suitcases (with names still on them) and even crutches. All these belonged to someone whose fate none of us would ever envy, and all this was taken away from every prisoner who was brought to the camp. We were told, human hair was quite a money generating commodity for the Nazis. It was also used to make fabric.
The day I was visiting Auschwitz, my co-visitors were a young bunch of students from Israel. Before the tour began, the guys were in high spirits. They took pictures with the flag of Israel outside at the entrance of the camp, as if making a point, that they survive and successfully so, battling all odds. However as the tour proceeded, a kind of gloom took over the group.Their energy levels dropped, a sob here and a tear there gave way to kids who were rattled and broken by what they saw. Some were hysterical and wouldn’t stop crying. I spoke to one of their tour organizers, she mentioned that most of these kids had stories of someone close who was lost forever in one such concentration camp. Apparently it’s customary for students in Israel to do a “holocaust tour” in their high school years. The lady explained to me the rationale of these tours – “They can never be allowed to forget this history. We have forgiven, but we can’t forget. Never again!“. My eyes fell on a poster inside the room. It said “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it”. Israel has understood this mantra well.
Emotionally drained, I walked out of the camp exit. It was already post noon. It was time to return, a 16 hour bus journey back to work awaited me!
ॐ शान्ति |