13 – 15 August, 2016
I looked up and down the old, cobble stoned street. Across the way I saw Ariel, a massive kosher restaurant with 6-pointed Stars of David decorating its gates and a huge throng of tourists eating on the patio in the sunshine. Next to me was a stall selling crocheted kippahs, postcards, and bronze mezuzahs. At one end of the street was an Israeli restaurant and a bookstore advertising a concert for klemzer music in the window. At the other end of the street stood a massive brick synagogue.
It was all so . . . Jewish.
It felt like home.
After living in a Muslim country for 7 months, being in Kazimeirz, the Jewish district of Kraków, was a little shocking at first. Mind you, I enjoyed life in Turkey. I loved seeing mosques everywhere, hearing the call to prayer, and noticing the differences in the city during Ramazan. But I grew up Jewish, and Jewish culture and traditions are so important to my identity. So after being in the middle east for so long, then suddenly being in a place where I could see signs of Jewish life and history was kind of weird at first, but also comforting. This is my heritage; these are my roots.
Like many cities in Eastern Europe, Kraków has had a Jewish community since the 1300s. By 1930, there were over 120 registered Jewish houses of worship and study throughout the city, with many of them in Kazimeirz. But during World War II, the city’s Jews were forced to move to the ghetto built by the Nazis across the river, and eventually most of them were killed in nearby death camps. This tragic history is unfortunately typical for cities in Poland, a country that had over 3 million Jews before the war and now has but a few thousand. What is admirable about Kraków is how the city has managed to preserve some of this Jewish history and generate tourism, helped by Steven Speilberg using many locations around the city in Schindler’s List (Schindler’s factory is just across the river from Kazimeirz). More remarkable still, is that Jewish life in Kraków is actually alive and growing. The Jewish Culture Festival has been held every summer since 1988, and is the biggest festival of Jewish art and music in Europe. As well as the historic synagogues that we visited, I noticed a few new, modern synagogues advertising religious services, youth centers, and other outreach programs. This made my heart smile.
We were only in Kraków for a few days, and got really lucky with Couchsurfing. We stayed with Pawel, an easy-going Pole around our age and with positive vibes in his dilapidated old tenement apartment in Kazimeirz. The bathroom may have been a bit scary and the floor in the kitchen sank quite, but the large room we shared was decorated with old art and music posters, and had large windows that opened onto a balcony with an amazing view of the surrounding neighborhood. Although not Jewish, Pawel has a keen interest in Jewish art and culture, and in particular the history of his fascinating neighborhood. He was more than happy to take us around, and pointed out filming locations for Schidnler’s list, his favorite streets, an awesome flea market, and the best places to buy Judaica. We also shared breakfast with us at his favorite vegan cafe, which has an all-you-can-eat breakfast consisting of various salads and nutritious mystery dishes. In recent years, Kazimeirz has been going through gentrification, and many trendy cafes, bars, ice cream joints and nightlife spots can be found there.
But we were not in Kazimeirz for hipster bars, but for the Jewish sites. First we saw Remuh Synagogue, from 1553, the smallest synagogue in Kraków. Incredibly for it’s age, it’s still an active synagogue and holds religious services weekly. It was truly lovely, with frescoes on the walls and ceiling painted and elaborate carved wooded doors on the iron gate to the central bima, the area reserved for reading the torah. While these old synagogues look different then modern ones, they have all the same elements: ark to contain the torah, bima, eternal flame, and so on. The main attraction of Remuh Synagogue though, was it’s cemetery, with dozens of beautiful, old Hebrew gravestones piled with rocks instead of flowers, a Jewish custom. I am always drawn to graveyards, and found it beautiful and serene. I found one grand tombstone that was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, that had many notes stuck in its cracks. One was in English, and I was able to make out “Dear Rabbi”. Many Jews leave prayers on notes in the cracks of the famous Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, but I’d never seen prayers at the graves of dead rabbis before.
After leaving the cemetery, we walked down the street in hopes of visiting the Old Synagogue, the largest in Kraków, but sadly it was closed. Poland is a Catholic country, and on the day we visited it was the Feast of the Blessed Assumption or something like that, and many places were closed throughout the city. We did manage to visit the Kuppa Synagogue, a smaller and less remarkable one than Remuh Synagogue. I don’t know, maybe it was the lateness of the day or the surliness of the ticket attendant but the Kuppa Synagogue felt colder to me, more austere. It did, however, have some marvelous ceiling frescoes depicting important places in Jewish history, such as the old city of Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.
One of my favorite things in Kazimeirz we stumbled upon purely by accident. At around 4 in the afternoon, after a day of sightseeing and in need of a rest and caffeine, on a small, cobble stoned side street, we spied a random Jewish cultural center with a sign for their garden cafe. Intrigued, we followed the signs through the dark building, up several flights of stairs, to a beautiful rooftop garden with wicker chairs and lace tablecloths and a beautiful rooftop view of Kraków. We ordered coffees through an intercom, although the cute waitress thought we said “2 lattes with caramel” instead of “2 coffees with cardamom”. It was a happy accident; the caramel lattes were decadent and delicious. We sat and sipped our coffee, wrote in our journals and admired the view, until the sky turned moody and a light rain began to fall. It was the perfect respite from a day of cultural wanderings, and such a hidden gem that I have been unable to find the name on Google to share with you.
Kraków has many wonderful sights to delight visitors, and Kazimeirz is but a small part of this historic city. While neither of our families are from Kraków, it’s rich Jewish history made it a perfect start to explore our respective histories. But as we traveled farther east, things got far more personal. . .