Friday, April 12, 2013

Day 11 - Krakow

Our day began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz. Shalmi gave us the history of why large numbers of Jews came to Poland in the 16th century when they were invited by the aristocracy. Jews came here and formed communities called shtetls in the rural, mostly unpopulated areas. Jews provided capital for the seeds that needed to be planted, and also had a monopoly on the sale of vodka. According to Shalmi, Poles really like alcohol, so this became very lucrative. Jews became the tools of the nobility, who didn't like them, but needed them. However, this put the Jews in a precarious position with the local serfs, who were Catholic.
The Jews were central in the advancement of this area; they were necessary, not liked, but tolerated. As the middle ages progressed, Jews came to this area in huge numbers. For Jews, Poland was a land of opportunity. Unlike the Jews in Germany and Prague, the Jews here did not assimilate; they acculturated. In Germany the Jews wanted to be German, but , but in Poland it was different.  By the 20th century, most Jews here spoke Polish.  They took on and enjoyed the culture but did not seek to take on the identity as Poles.  This had much to do with the Polish-Jewish relations at the time.  By 1919, this caused problems with Poles who wanted to be identified by their nationality, and did not see Jews as a part of their nation, but instead saw them as outsiders. By 1939 in Poland, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles have a very grave relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews, who represent 10% of the population. Because so many Jews lived in the heart of big cities, the population of Jews in these city centers, their presence is felt more by the non-Jewish residents. Some helped Jews, some killed Jews, but most were bystanders who saw the Nazi actions during the Holocaust as solving a Polish problem.  The Poles would never have done what the Nazis did, because they are deeply Christian, and as we had heard before, it is an integral part of Catholic teachings (The Witness Theory) that says the Jew, persecuted but alive, is a necessary element for Jesus Christ to come again. 
Shalmi also told us that while the Nazis themselves were Christian albeit not church-going, the Nazi ideology was against Christianity because it came out of Judaism, and anything that developed from Judaism was destructive. 
Inside the Stara Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407, Shalmi taught us about the history of Hasidism, a part of Judaism that reflects emotional piety of the people who practice it. Jews here were visible, because of their Hasidism, and kept their religious practices, which also set them apart. They closed their businesses on Saturdays because of the Sabbath, and opened them on Sundays. They wore clothing and earlocks which set them apart in appearance. Their identity was very deeply connected to their religious practices and beliefs.  Like Christianity, but unlike Judaism, Hasidism relied upon the personal relationship to God.  If you felt love for God, he will understand.  In Judaism, they were supposed to fear God, not love Him.  We also heard about some of the practices of Hasidism, such as the method of teaching a young boy to read beginning at the age of three, by putting honey on a letter of  the alphabet and then saying the sound so that the child connects learning and education to something positive and sweet.   We also learned that in Hasidism, women’s hair and voice are considered seductive, so women cut their hair and in public wear wigs, and women singing in public is not allowed,  neither alone nor in a choir.
From here we crossed the square to visit the Remu Synagogue, also known as the New Synagogue because it was built in 1650, which is currently under extensive renovation, although some of the paintings are now completed, such as paintings which depict more modern knowledge, such as the drawing of Rachel’s Tom and the Western Wall.  Outside of this synagogue, we walked through the Jewish cemetery, where Jews were given land to bury their dead.  We had seen one other cemetery located next to the synagogue in Prague (the Pinkhas Synagogue) and Shalmi reminded us that this was unusual.  Jews would never place a cemetery close to the synagogue unless there was no alternative.  However, since Christians told the Jews where they could live and where they could have land, this was the property allotted to them to bury their dead.
We next visited the Tempel Synagogue, a reform Jewish synagogue  which was built in the 1860’s when Krakow was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The synagogue has Moorish designs on the ceiling and is quite ornate, reminiscent of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague.  It was dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph whom the Jews loved as he did them because in an empire with numerous ethnic conflicts, the Jews did not present any problems to his authority.  The Hasidic Jews, however, did not like this synagogue which incorporated elements of Christian churches such as the pews aligned and facing front, the mixed seating, and the fact that the day of prayer was changed to Saturday.  The Hasidic Jews said of the building,  that it was not a synagogue but a temple, for Gentiles.  The word ‘temple’ therefore, used to describe a synagogue, was originally a pejorative word referring to non-traditional Jewish synagogues. 

Our bus drove us across the Vistula river to the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, where the Nazis forced the Jews to move. The Krakow Ghetto was a sleeping ghetto, where the Jews slept at night, and worked outside of during the day. The Jews ran this ghetto, and built the walls surrounding it in such a decorative way, showing their resilience and belief that this ghetto would be a new protected area, where they would be able to ride out the war.
In front of the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz,  Apteka Pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle), we looked out over the open memorial, with chairs, that represent the furniture that the Jews carried over the bridge into these cramped quarters, where 17,000 people crowded into 320 houses. Shalmi told us the inspirational story of Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz whose diary documents ghetto life.

Inside the museum which has been totally transformed since our last visit, there is an exhibition about the Krakow ghetto and the role of Tadeusz Pankiewicz.  Visitors can open drawers, look into cabinets, browse through binders with quotes from his diary, smell substances in the numerous jars of chemicals, and search for information in a multimedia center. 

Here Shalmi explains that Plaszow Camp, located only 5 miles from here, was built by the people from the Krakow Ghetto who believed they would survive the war because they are building a labor camp. They even built a barrack for children there, so they believed that their families would remain intact. However, on March 13, 1943, all Jews from the ghetto were supposed to report to the square at 7:00 a.m. Once there, all children under age 14 were told to line up separately. Their parents were told that they would come to Plaszow the next day. Pankiewicz reports that some saw this as a bad sign and rushed to the pharmacy to purchase one of two drugs.  One of the drugs was Valerium--a drug that put their babies to sleep, so that parents could smuggle their babies into the Plaszow camp inside of suitcases.  Shalmi told us that 12 children are known to have been smuggled into Plaszow in this manner.  The second drug requested by many Jews was Cyanide, for suicide.  At 1:00 p.m., the Nazis ordered those not in the children's line to start marching from the ghetto to Plaszow. They left behind what they were unable to carry. The following day, their children were taken away and shot. Two days later, some parents found out when they were forced to sort the children's clothing, and found the clothing of their own children.

After lunch at McDonald’s, we went to see the memorial to Sarah Schenirer on the site of the former Plaszow labor camp.  Sarah Schenirer was a pioneer of Jewish education for girls.  In 1917, she established the Beis Yaakov ("house of Jacob") school network in Poland.  In 2009 when we had visited Plaszow, the condition of the memorial site was overgrown with weeds, there was trash strewn everywhere and evidence that regular drinking and drug activity was taking place near the site.  The students that year, upset by the condition of the area, chose to forego their tour of Krakow the next day and chose instead, to work for several hours to clean up the area.  We filled over 15 large garbage bags of trash and cleaned the memorial.  Our guide Eva helped us with our cleanup and also wrote letters to the city council about this as did we.  We were, incredibly surprised and pleased, therefore, when we came to the memorial today and found that there has been built a sheltering canopy over the memorial and a pathway to it.  There has been considerable cleanup of the area and brush and weeds cut back.
We next visited briefly the villa of the Plaszow commandant, Amon Goeth, which is still for sale and is in a major state of disrepair, quite visible from the outside. 

On our way back to the hotel we drove past the museum at Oscar Schindler's factory, a recently opened part of the Jewish Museum of Krakow, so that we could see the gate to the factory, which is still the original.   We also passed a part of the original ghetto wall, which was built by Jews, and shows an ornate style and was obviously built with pride. 


  1. I am fascinated about the Hasidic tradition of using honey on a letter to teach a child how to read. Such a wonderful concept -- teaching a child that learning is sweet and something to be savored. Continued safe journeys ...

  2. Reading about your experience has been incredible. I hope that everything that has touched your hearts and minds will be shared with our school community...and the world! Thank you.

  3. Looks like you guys are having an unbelievable time. I look forward to discussing your trip in my classes next week. Enjoy your final days there!

  4. I loved watching the video of Colleen, explaining the area that the 2009 HST took special care of, showing how this area has been continually cared for since. This is a perfect example of how all of us can make a major difference in what may seem to be the smallest of places. They transformed an area that was overgrown and disrespected into one that is now cared for and respected, for this tour and others to visit and learn. I hope everyone who visits leaves with a sense of pride and determination to pay it forward...

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