Krakow and the city’s rich Jewish heritage are inseparable. Tragically that heritage no longer really exists in human form. It was all but wiped out by the Holocaust, but many physical traces remain. These can be found in the district of Kazimierz. The district gained notoriety after the award-winning film Schindler’s List came out. Several scenes were filmed in the district by Steven Spielberg, who chose the district for its authenticity. Krakow’s suburbs were also home to Schindler’s enamelware factory. In these places, an entire sub-genre of Krakow’s tourist industry has developed. Visits to notable Jewish sites are now on nearly every city tour’s itinerary.
These sites include eleven different synagogues. As museums, they offer a window into the mystical, eastern exoticism of Judaism which managed to coexist largely in peace with Polish Catholicism for over five hundred years. That was until all force of life was taken from these by the Holocaust. The rituals and traditions of Judaism that were observed in Krakow’s synagogues mean little without people. Today only a single synagogue is still active in the city. That is because only about 200 Jews now live in Krakow. The human destruction of Polish Jewry is frightening to contemplate. In less than six years, millions of people and an entire culture were almost completely obliterated.
Looming Shadow – Auschwitz In The Distance
I was able to visit the lasting traces of Jewish Krakow while in the city. This led me to a looming question: Should I visit the site where many of Krakow’s Jews perished, the most infamous concentration camp of all, Auschwitz? It was hard to avoid thoughts of Auschwitz while staying in Krakow, since the site was only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the city. Tours to the camp were advertised by multiple agencies. There were also twelve trains per day traveling between Krakow and Oswiecim (Polish for Auschwitz) for those who wanted to visit on their own. When I first heard the Polish name for the camp, it somehow made seemed less menacing. The German name had come to symbolize the Holocaust in all its horror.
A million and a half people had perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Birkenau also known as Auschwitz II was an extermination camp). That figure was twice the current population of Krakow. This was industrial genocide on an unfathomable scale. And it was the largest of several such camps that had soaked the soil of Poland with the blood of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and a host of other peoples from every nation of occupied Europe. Polish Jewry had suffered the worst of this cataclysm. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, 70% of all the Jews in the world lived in Poland. By way of comparison, today 40% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 40% in the United States. The percentage left in Poland is miniscule. In 1939 there were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland, now there are 20,000. 68,000 lived in the district of Kazimierz, only 200 still live in Krakow today. The Nazis campaign to eradicate the Jews in Poland had been monstrously successful and Auschwitz was the ultimate example of that.
For All The Wrong Reasons – A Detour Into Darkness
Auschwitz was the darkest day trip imaginable. I was curious, but loathed myself for such curiosity. No one wants to admit it, but many people are fascinated by Auschwitz, that is usually what happens when something that horrific has not personally affected you. There would be a human connection, but not an intimately personal one. Going to Auschwitz because of fascination felt like the wrong thing to do, while not going to Auschwitz also felt like the wrong thing to do. I finally decided not to go. The main reason I made that choice was a previous visit to another concentration camp at Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. It was nowhere near the scope or scale of Auschwitz, but I still carried that nightmare memory with me all the way to Krakow. It caused me to recoil at the thought of ever visiting a concentration camp again.
All concentration camps are awful, but some are more awful than others and each are awful in their own way. The one thing I never forgot from my Sachsenhausen visit was how the Nazis sometimes made prisoners take part in executions of other prisoners, ensuring that everyone shared in the guilt. When it comes to guilt, concentration camps have a way of spreading that feeling around, even to visitors who were far removed from them by time, place or nationality. Sachsenhausen showed me the depths of evil to which human beings can sink. Auschwitz-Birkenau would have multiplied that effect a hundredfold. Instead of visiting there I took the easy way out, going on a free tour of Jewish Krakow. We went through Kazimierz in the late afternoon, viewing old synagogues which were ancient by American standards and seeing a few of the places shown in Schindler’s List. The places were interesting and atmospheric, but I felt like this was more window dressing history than a deep dive into the horrific tragedy that had consumed the area. While many Jewish sites were still standing in Kazimierz, these were inert testimonials of a vanished culture.
Nightmare Vision – That Which No Longer Exists
Where were the people who made these places come alive? They were all dead. It was a sobering thought. Oddly enough, it was not the physical remnants of Jewish Krakow that left me with the greatest impression, but a human aspect that provided the most meaning. While touring Kazimierz I noticed a couple. I assumed they were Orthodox Jews by their dress. I walked past them on one of the cobbled streets. They would stop periodically to look closer at a building, talk quietly then walk on. I had no idea what their conversation entailed.
Watching them walk slowly away, it suddenly struck me that this scene had been repeated here thousands of times, on countless evenings prior to the Holocaust. This couple’s stroll was nothing special. That was until I realized that it rarely ever occurred in Kazimierz anymore. Daily life for Jews in Kazimierz, such as an evening stroll, quietly conversing, enjoying the atmosphere had been all but extinguished. Both lives and life had been lost because of the Holocaust. Those things we think of as so simple and so normal and so human, no longer take place for Jews in Krakow. A terrible tragedy, one among many millions.