Day Fourteen – Krakow, Poland

The final day of Holocaust Study Tour 2019! This morning after a leisurely breakfast we had to say goodbye to Shalmi as he headed home to Israel. We gave him our individual thank you letters and said goodbye to this wonderful Holocaust educator who has taught us all so much during the past two weeks.


This morning was another beautiful day – sunny and warm – sweaters and coats were soon unnecessary. Beautiful blue skies, not a cloud in sight. Today was our first full day of just being tourists. We headed out with our local guide, Paulina, to have a morning walking tour of the beautiful city of Kraków , learning the history of Kraków and the Wawel Castle district. Unlike Warsaw and most other Polish cities, Kraków had not been destroyed by the German army in their war to occupy Poland, because the Nazis had decided to make Kraków their headquarters. Most buildings in Kraków, therefore, are the original buildings.

Our first stop was the large church on the market square is St. Mary’s Basilica, which has the largest altar piece from the Middle Ages. Every hour at the top of the hour, the bugler appears at the window of the tower and plays Hejnal Mariacki, [Saint Mary’s Dawn also called the Kraków Anthem]. It is played, four times in succession in each of the four directions from the top window. During the fourth bugle call, the bugler suddenly stops which is part of the legend that the bugler was warning the people of Kraków of an advancing invading army and calling from the four directions but during the last call an arrow from the army pierced his throat and he died.

Paulina also showed us the punishment meted out by the church for parishioners who broke church law such as adulterers. They were shackled by the neck to the side of the church for whatever period the priest elected to impose for the infraction. We could not enter the church today as a group because it was Good Friday and mass was being said.


We walked into the Market Square which is the largest square in Europe, dating from the mid-13th century. In the middle stands the huge Cloth Hall [so named because this is where linen was traded], which serves as the oldest shopping mall in Europe.


We walked to Jagiellonian University, the very prestigious and second oldest university in central Europe, established in 1364. The oldest university is in Prague, founded in 1346. Jagiellonian University is named for the royal dynasty which founded it, during Poland’s golden age. We walked into the courtyard of the main campus where we could take some group photos.

In 2004 UNESCO created a City of Literature programme to recognize cities around the world which promote their local creative scene and conform to UNESCO’s goals of cultural diversity. The cities much have such characteristics as: literature, drama and/or poetry playing an integral party in the life of the city; the city hosting of festivals to promote both local, and foreign literature, promoting literature and publishing, and the existence of libraries and bookstores which promote diverse literature. There are now 28 cities on the list of cities of literature. Kraków is one of those cities, recognized in 2013. [Note: In case you were wondering, the U.S. has two cities of literature: Iowa City, Iowa (2008) and Seattle, Washington (2017)]. In the park we were walking through we saw one example of how Kraków promotes literature: on many of the park benches are names of poets, writers, journalists and a QR code which provides information on the individual.

Paulina next took us to a yellow building which she said was the Archbishop’s Palace. She told us about Karol Woityla, a priest from Wadowice, Poland. As a young man in this small town, he had several Jewish friends, and his family rented their apartment from a Jewish family. These connections would later influence his agenda as pope. He said his first mass in Poland in Kraków in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral on November 3, 1946. In 1963, he took over the cathedral as Archbishop of Kraków, later becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978. Paulina told us he was the first non-Italian pope in 400 years, the first pope from a communist nation, and had been a pope who had concentrated on reconciliation of all religions.   He had been the first pope to visit and pray in a synagogue (in Rome), the first pope to visit Israel, the first pope to visit a mosque, and he also was first to apologize for all sins of the Catholic church against others, in a mass in Assisi. She showed us a window above the main entrance to the building, which she said the people of Kraków called “the pope’s window”. When Pope John Paul II came to Kraków, he would open that window and speak to the people. Paulina told us that the current bishop of Kraków had covered the window with a beautiful mosaic of Pope John Paul II as a tribute, but that the people of Kraków were upset because they felt they had lost their “pope’s window” which itself held deep meaning for them.


Here Paulina also told us that in 1968 the Polish communist government stripped thousands of Polish Jews of their citizenship and then expelled them. She said this had been in response to the Six Day War in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab nations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Poland was a Soviet satellite and the Soviet Union sides with the Arab nations, in particular Egypt and Syria, so the government took these actions against local Jews.

Next to the Archbishop’s Palace was the Church of St. Francis and since a mass was being held in a side chapel, we were able to enter quietly and view the beautiful art nouveau stained glass window that depicted God creating the world.

Wawel Cathedral [more formally known at the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus] looms over the city. Stanislaus is Poland’s patron saint. Built in the mid-14th century, Wawel Cathedral is primarily gothic. Yet each successor king wanted to add to it, using whatever was the current style, so the cathedral is a combination of many architectural styles.

It is the Polish national cathedral and has been the traditional coronation site of Polish kings. As we walked up the hill to the Castle we saw the statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who helped the Americans during the American Revolution, and viewed plaques in the wall of Wawel Castle which were placed in honor of people who helped the restoration of the Castle.

Beginning in the 17th century, Kraków was no longer considered the capital of Poland. Paulina told us that when Poland united with Lithuania (which at that time included what is now Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine), the city of Kraków was no longer the best place for the capital of Poland because logistically, for travel and communication, having the capital further east, in Warsaw, was more efficient, but Kraków remained where royal leaders were coronated and buried. It is said that Warsaw is the brain of Poland, and Krakow the heart. Paulina also said that the official name of Kraków however, is not just ‘Kraków’ but the “former royal capital city of Kraków”, hence the title of this day’s blog post.

We saw the Royal Palace, home of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland during World War II.   The Palace is best known for its magnificent collection of elaborate tapestries that were woven in Brussels, Belgium. Each square meter of these tapestries took one year to weave. During the war it was known that Hitler wanted to acquire these tapestries and bring them back to Germany, so they were smuggled out of Poland and found their way to Canada where they remained until the end of the war when they were returned. Currently the Royal Palace is undergoing major restoration so we were unable to go inside.

From the top of Wawel Hill we walked where we could see the statue of the Kraków dragon and were reminded of the legend of how it came to be the symbol of the city. The dragon finally cooperated and gave us a fire-breathing demonstration.


As we walked down from Wawel Hill, we stopped at the statue of Pope John Paul II which stands outside Wawel Cathedral. Again, because it was Good Friday, or Holy Friday as Poles call it, we could not enter the cathedral. However, Paulina pointed out an odd assortment of massive bones which are chained to the wall above the door. While some claim these to be the bones of Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon) they are believed to be those of a blue whale, woolly mammoth, and rhinoceros. It is believed they have magical properties, and are credited with protecting the city from destruction during centuries of Polish partition and during WWII when Kraków was not damaged, while almost every other major city in Poland was decimated. She said that it is believed that when the bones fall, it will be the end of the world.

As we continued walking down Castle Hill to the town below, we were shown the home where Oskar Schindler had lived while in Kraków.

From the base of Wawel Castle, we walked back towards the Market Square through what is known as Lesser Town. As we walked along a curved street, Paulina told us that the oldest streets were curved but that as of the 1200’s all streets in Kraków were required to be straight. She pointed out two large churches, St. Peter and Paul church from the 18th century and the gothic Church of St. Andrew from the 11th century., We walked along this street, known as the Royal Route, to the Market Square where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch outside in the sunshine and then had time for shopping for souvenirs, before heading back to the hotel to begin to pack, and prepare for our final dinner this evening in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter.


Tomorrow we will head home to New Jersey and California and begin to process all that we have experienced these past two weeks. We have learned much history, made new friends, and learned new stories which are only just starting to be told about life in Europe during the Holocaust.

To our readers of the blog:

  • if you are a parent of a current participant, it is our hope that we helped you know what your son/daughter was experiencing on a daily basis and provided you with context for their learning;
  • If you are a past participant, we hope that you enjoyed reliving some of the experiences you had with us and learning about our new ones;
  • If you are a current participant, know that this blog will be here, archived, to help you remember your two weeks and all of the activities and learning;
  • And to all others who read our blog, we hope that you found our study tour this year informative and interesting.




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