Our day began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. 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 business. 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.
The Jews were central in the advancement of this area; again, 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 in Poland it was different. By the 20th century, most Jews here spoke Polish. They 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, “the other”. By 1939 in Poland, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles had a very grave relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews, who represented 10% of the population nationally. However, because so many Jews lived in the heart of big cities, the population of Jews in these city centers, perhaps 30% – 60% their presence is felt more by the non-Jewish residents.
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 viewed as destructive.
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 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. Shalmi pointed out the various parts of the synagogue that we were becoming familiar with, explained the difference between the menorahand the hanukkiyya, and 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. When asked why so many synagogues were still standing, Shalmi said that except for Kristallnacht, no official decree to destroy synagogues and cemeteries was ever given. They were destroyed but this was because local authorities chose to take this action. The yellow star and the Judenrat [Jewish Council in the ghettos] were universal, but not the destruction of synagogues.
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. Shalmi shared several stories about individuals buried in this cemetery.
Back on the street we saw a new addition to the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz, a bench with a statue of Jan Karski. In 1942 Karski had obtained eyewitness information as to what was happening to the Jews in the East. He had disguised himself and was smuggled into a transit camp. He took this information to London to Churchill and to the United States, meeting with President FDR. Neither leader seemed to take the information seriously, either they were disbelieving or didn’t appreciate the immensity of what was happening, he later said. They were fighting a war and that was the paramount concern; the Nazis would later be punished for their treatment of the Jews he was told. Shalmi had interviewed Jan Karski for Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary and said he lived with the frustration of being unable to make these people realize the gravity of the situation, for the rest of his life.
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.
On our way to lunch, we stopped briefly to get a sense of the Jewish ‘goose’ market where Jews would do their shopping for the Sabbath and which is now both a fruit and vegetable market as well as a flea 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 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. 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 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.
We drove past the 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 had seen an exhibit at the Memorial to the Ghetto at the Apteka Pharmacy. It was pictures of Plaszow then and now. As we stood at the execution site, we saw families picnicking, children riding bikes and playing fetch with their dog. Shalmi said he loved it. “It’s not respectful, but life goes on.”
We then walked to the villa of Amon Goeth who had been the commandant of Plaszow. In 2011 we had walked to the villa and a man came out and invited us in. He was trying to sell the villa and hoped we might be potential buyers. He gave us a tour of the entire house. Several times we have passed by the villa again, it was still for sale but no one seemed to be there. So we decided to walk there. As we came upon it, we were somewhat astonished. Obviously someone has bought the villa and is renovating it. The famous balcony [which can be seen in Schindler’s List with Goeth randomly shooting Jews in the camp] is now gone and it looks like the house will be totally renovated. Life goes on.
On the way back to the hotel, Paulina pointed out Wawel Castle and told us the legend of the Krakow dragon. We had a little time to rest up and prepare to walk to dinner in the Jewish Quarter.