Friday, April 17, 2015

Day 11 - Krakow

This morning we were so happy to have our regular local guide, Paulina, who had been ill yesterday, join us.  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 and this became a very lucrative enterprise. 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. Shalmi reminded us that Jews were outside of Christian law [ex lex] and therefore received their protection from the king who regarded them as his property.

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 Berlin and Prague, the Jews here did not assimilate; they acculturated. In Germany the Jews wanted to be German, 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 as outsiders. By 1939 in Poland, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles have a very strained 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, their presence wass felt more by the non-Jewish residents.

Our first stop in the Jewish Quarter was the Stara Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407.  Shalmi told us how, when the king wanted Jews to come and manage his properties, Jews could not come alone, but needed to live in communities.  A Jew, for example, cannot pray alone, but ten men, a minion, are needed for prayer.  Jews also required a rabbi, a kosher butcher, etc.  This was all essential for the Jews because of their ‘open account with God’ that Shalmi had spoken of earlier.  As an exiled people, they needed to balance the practical [their existence in the real world amidst Christians] with the spiritual [their need to continue to abide by God’s commandments in order to have God forgive them and return them to their homeland in Jerusalem].  This meant Jews were ambivalent about their two roles.

Inside the synagogue Shalmi pointed out the various parts of the synagogue that we were becoming familiar with, explained the difference between the menorah and the hanukkiyya, taught us that the Sabbath was the most holy day in the Jewish calendar.  The Sabbath represents the difference between the sacred and the secular, those two worlds in which Jews lived, and told us how the havdalah [meaning ‘differentiating’] were used to close the Sabbath.  Shalmi also told us 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 to something positive and sweet and the importance and rationale in the Jewish community behind arranged marriages.
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.  Outside 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 Pinkas 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.  Shalmi shared several stories about individuals buried in this cemete

We next visited the Tempel Synagogue, a reform Jewish synagogue built in the 1860’s which has Moorish designs on the ceiling and is quite ornate, reminiscent of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague.  Hasidic Jews did not like this synagogue which incorporated elements of Christian churches such as the pews aligned and facing front 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.  Inside the synagogue was a klezmer concert and we were able to enjoy the music for a short while.

On our way to lunch, we stopped briefly to get a sense of the Jewish market.

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 in factories outside the ghetto during the day. The Jews ran this ghetto, and in contrast to the Warsaw ghetto which had an uprising, the Krakow Jews were determined to do nothing to provoke the Nazis to do anything worse.  As Shalmi said, the leadership stressed that nothing should be done to affront or confront the Nazis.   The ghetto residents 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. We saw both of the remaining remnants of this wall during our drive to our next stop.

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 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 were 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 chronicles in his diary 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.

We stopped briefly 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.

Our final stop of the day was Plaszow labor camp where Shalmi explained the geographic set up of the camp and its function.  We stood at the site which was the hill of executions where Ukrainian  commando units would carry out the executions.  Shalmi explained the history of the camp over its two years of existence and described how a transport of 10,000 Hungarian women from Auschwitz in May of 1944  who came to Plaszow wearing striped uniforms, with shaved heads and numbers tattooed on their arms, was how the Jews of Plaszow finally learned what had been happening in Auschwitz, not far away. 

We headed back to the hotel where the students were able to participate in a Google Hangout before getting ready for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Krakow, Scandale.

Please go to our YouTube Channel and watch our videos from the past days. Slow wifi on the road caused the delay.


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