Snowbound in Krakow

Despite the rather brutal weather of snow and bitter cold wind, Plac Nowy (Nowy Square), the old marketplace in Kazimierz, Krakow’s former Jewish Quarter, was bustling with activity. Young people were huddled around open windows of the old brick rotunda, which was in the middle of the square, while waiting for their order of zapiekanki (a fast-food favorite also knows as “Polish pizza”).

The rotunda served as a ritual slaughterhouse for poultry until the Nazi occupation. Today butcher shops still occupy the interior. A small flea market was in full swing with merchants braving the cold to sell their wares. I bought a wool scarf from a lady using her calculator to negotiate price. Language did not seem to be a barrier for her to do business.

Good Israeli street food was to be had at Hamsa, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike, which was located in a weathered brick building at the top of the main square in Kazimierz. The words “Hummus and Happiness” which were written on this building next to the name of the restaurant enticed me to go in. What kept me there for a spell was the coziness, a steaming pot of tea, and hummus. A large Hamsa, with a Jewish symbol incorporated into it, hung over the serving counter. (A Hamsa is a palm-shaped amulet used as a sign of protection popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa).  A steady stream of international clientele added to the eclectic environment.

I soon braved the weather again on foot and found the nearby snow-covered Plac Wolnica (Wolnica Square), once the central square of the city of Kazimierz (Kazimierz is now incorporated into the city of Krakow). Children squealed as their parents helped them navigate an ice rink. Music played in the background. Snow was falling. The former Renaissance Town Hall, dating from 1528, now a museum, graced one side of the square. The tower of the Gothic Corpus Christi Church, dating from 1340, loomed above. Elegant 19th century buildings surrounded the rest of the square. Plac Wolnica was a winter wonderland.


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The Krakow Ghetto and Schindler’s Factory

No exploration of old Jewish Krakow would be complete without visiting Podgorze, the working class section of Krakow where the Krakow (Podgorz) Ghetto existed alongside Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, made famous by the acclaimed movie Schindler’s List.

Our walking tour group approached Podgorze from the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz via a foot bridge over the Wisla River. The railings of the lovely, arched bridge were dotted with padlocks from couples who pledged undying love to each other. The bridge was in stark contrast to the dark history which greeted us on the other side.

The former Krakow Ghetto had housed 16,000 Jews in overcrowded tenements for two years. We stopped for reflection in the large open square which is now named Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square). Filled with rows of empty metal chairs, it was a moving memorial to thousands of Jews who passed through this deportation site on their way to concentration camps.

During our walk through some of the streets of the former ghetto, our guide Tomasz pointed out a small remnant of the brick ghetto wall. The relatively-good, exterior condition of the tenement houses and streets here belied the area’s recent history.

Our two-hour walking tour ended at the former administrative building of Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory which has been turned into a Museum.  Schindler was a Nazi industrialist who is credited with saving the lives of 1200 Jews he employed in his factory during WWII. The museum explores Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945.

I returned to the museum the following day in order to give it the time I felt it deserved. After an emotional visit, I felt a breath of fresh air when I saw a poster of Schindler outside the exhibit area. Next to his picture was the famous quote from the end of the movie Schindler’s List: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

It was with that positive, departing thought that I walked back to Kazimierz during a light snowfall for an upbeat afternoon of good food and exploration.


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Kazimierz, The Old Jewish Quarter of Krakow

Several evenings I enjoyed working on my blog in a trendy cafe called Cheder (Jewish elementary school) which is tucked away in a corner of Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow. The cafe which exudes a strong community feeling, is an integral part of the annual Krakow *Jewish Culture Festival that has been taking place in Kazimierz since 1988.

The cafe is adjacent to the High Synagogue, a Gothic building turned into a house of worship in 1563, which is now a museum. The synagogue was located in close proximity to a Catholic church. Kazimierz was a Christian and Jewish community living in harmony for centuries.

A brief history of Krakow’s Jews – Before the German invasion of 1939, Krakow was an influential center for 60,000-70,000 Polish Jews who had lived there since the 13th century. Krakow’s old Jewish quarter was a safe haven for Jews from every corner of Europe until the 20th century and a major center of the **diaspora. Jewish life was systematically destroyed in Krakow during World War II.

One evening on my way to the Chedar cafe I passed the Jewish Community Center (JCC) near the main square of Kazimierz. A sign draped over the garden entrance said “Come in and say hi.” So I did. A Hebrew class was going on inside. The friendly young receptionist said that the center also offers Arabic and Yiddish language classes.

Bulletin boards in the lobby were filled with news articles in various languages about the JCC in Kazimierz which was created in 2008, and the intercultural activities they sponsor. The adjacent recently restored Tempel Synagogue, is a place of worship today and regularly hosts cultural events.

The Jewish restaurants in the main square of Kazimierz are teaming with activity in the dead of winter, the annual Jewish Cultural Festival attracts 30,000-40,000 people from all over the world, and the Jewish Community Center is bustling with activity. All of this suggests that there is a revival of all things Jewish in Krakow. When I mentioned this to my (Christian) ***Servas Host Ewa, she said with a twinkle in her eye,“It’s now very fashionable to be Jewish.”






** Jewish diaspora as per Wikipedia: “…the dispersion of Israelites, Judahites and later Jews out of their ancestral homeland (the Land of Israel) and their subsequent settlement in other parts of the globe.”

*** Servas is a non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers

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Krakow, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Krakow, Poland’s former Royal capitol lies in southern Poland on the banks of the Vistula River. The Old Town with its medieval streets and squares invited exploration by foot, despite the fact they were intermittently covered with snow and ice, and sharp, cold winds occasionally cut through my five layers of clothing. A periodic ride on a trolley brought me into contact with the charming people of Krakow, always ready to assist me when they saw me stumbling at a ticket machine while trying to figure out what Polish coins to drop in for a 20 minute journey.

The hostel where I am staying is a large, but cozy, inviting place midway between the two medieval parts of town I have been exploring in depth – the Old Town and Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. I spent my first day of exploration with two young men from India who were staying at my hostel. Together we charged forward, bundled up to withstand a day outdoors in subzero (centigrade) weather. We started our day with a three-hour free walking tour of Old Town and ended our day dining on pierogi (traditional Polish dumplings) while listening to live klezmer (Jewish jazz) music in a heated outdoor restaurant in Kazimirez.

Free walking tours are the norm in Poland’s major cities, where well educated multi-lingual Polish people offer walking tours for tips. I experienced similar offers on my recent travels in other parts of Europe. We met our guide Kuba at the 14th century Florian Gate which is next to the 16th century Barbicon, a circular bastion added for protection in front of the gate. Krakow’s medieval city walls which were mainly demolished in 1807, have been replaced with a lovely green belt of public parks called Planty, albeit at the moment they are covered in winter white.

As our group followed our guide down cobbled medieval streets, the rhythmic clomp of horses from horse drawn carriages reminded us to keep to the side so they could pass. The tourists in these carriages, blankets draped across their laps, always looked warmer than I felt.

The first sight of Rynek Glowy (Market Square), the largest medieval town square in Europe, took my breath away. In the middle of the square was the impressive Cloth Hall, a neo-Gothic structure which has served as a thriving marketplace since the Middle Ages. The impressive Town Hall Tower and St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th century Gothic church with twin spires, share the glory with the Cloth Hall. The square was teaming with activity. Children were playing with the pigeons, bundled up people were scurrying, a musician was playing for a few coins, and small tour groups were huddled around their guides.

As our group was departing from the square, bells were tolling from one of St. Mary’s towers. From a window just below the spire of the higher of the two towers a trumpet melody followed. The air was crisp; the sky was blue. All attention of passer’s by was directed to that spire. It was as if time stood still for a moment. It was magical.

Our last and most historic stop on our walking tour was the Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Hill, reached via a scenic part of the Royal Road which radiates from the Market Square. Starting in the 11th century the rulers of Poland resided here. Poland’s monarchs were crowned and buried in the adjacent Wawel Cathedral for centuries. During the early 16th century the splendid Renaissance palace/castle which still stands today was built by the reigning king.


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London to Krakow, Poland

Piccadilly Circus, London

My journey from Boston to Poland was punctuated with a stop in London for a couple of days to get over jet before landing in the totally foreign territory (to me) of Poland. London feels like home now having spent a good amount of time there last winter plus sharing a common language. Poland not so – having never been there and not knowing one word of Polish.

Victoria Palace Theatre where Hamilton is playing in London

The highlight of my stay in London was snaring a much-sought-after ticket to the London production of the multiple Tony award winner musical “Hamilton”, which was performed in a newly refurbished theatre near Piccadilly Circus. I sat next to a friendly couple from Oxford, a couple of hours away, who had bought their tickets one year before.

This *“..hip-hop version of America’s Founding Fathers” kept me on the edge of my seat trying to follow every word while recalling the details of early American history. The complicated rhythms and lyrics the actors espoused reminded me of the difficulty Shakespearean actors must have.

The rapped words “Alexandre Hamilton” reverberated in my mind until I landed on Polish soil via Ryan Air several days later. All my senses took over when I was greeted with the Polish language which encompassed me.  My London adventure was suddenly history (quite literally!).


*New York Times article