Warsaw: The Former Jewish District and the Right Bank

   I had the privilege of exploring the expansive former Jewish district of Warsaw with a local *Servas host who had an intimate knowledge of the area, having lived there most of his life. Most of the territory we visited, which had been turned into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and then destroyed during the war, was now rebuilt, much of it with communist era block buildings.

I met Mirek one afternoon at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was a final act of defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto of the Jewish resistance against German-occupied Poland. The monument was located in the former Warsaw Ghetto just outside the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a dramatic postmodern structure of glass and concrete.

After a short trolly ride we arrived in a lively area. Cast iron plates set in the pavement which marked the boundaries of the ghetto seemed to appear out of nowhere. We passed monuments and plaques commemorating events that happened in the vicinity, some of which were gruesome reminders of WWII, others that were simply intriguing. Cartoons painted on a couple of walls depicted Jewish entertainment when the area was in its prime just before WWII. It made me want to experience the vitality of the era.

We paused in front of a communist era building where Mirek raised his family in a small flat. Eventually he managed to buy a larger one in another part of town where he lives today.

Following the evacuation of Warsaw in 1945 Mirek’s family lived in a three room apartment with three other families in Praga, a district of Warsaw just over the river (the right bank) from the Old Town. Praga managed to escape the major destruction inflicted on other parts of Warsaw at the end of WWII because of its location. Many families that had been evacuated from destroyed Warsaw ended up moving into flats in Praga after the war, at least temporarily. Gradually two of the families moved out of the apartment where Mirek was living. He lived there for years.

As we parted, Mirek directed me to a historic food hall in the old Jewish district. The colorful flower market in the 19th century marketplace was bursting with activity. I changed some money at a good rate there.

Praga is a rather bohemian part of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula River and is gradually becoming gentrified. I could feel the energy when I alighted from the new underground subway station at a bustling corner which was at the entrance to a gleaming new mall. A beautiful multi-domed Russian Orthodox Church across the street demonstrated Soviet presence from the past. Pre World War II buildings pock-marked with bullet holes were nearby. Graffiti with a message adorned various old exposed walls. It was an area filled with contrasts, which is what made Praga so interesting.





* Servas is an international non profit peace organization of hosts and travelers http://www.USServas.org

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Warsaw: The Old Town, The Royal Route, and Stalin’s Legacy

My first introduction to enigmatic city of Warsaw, which straddles the banks of the Vistula River, was at dusk while I was walking to my reserved accommodations after alighting from a trolley. I had just arrived by train from Krakow after a comfortable three-hour ride. I suddenly came face-to-face with the looming dark granite monument called Warsaw Rising.

It was in honor of the Polish uprising against occupying German forces in 1944. Beside the monument was an inviting granite bench which, when I pushed a button, played a few bars of one of Chopin’s compositions. For a few moments I lost myself in his heavenly music and forgot about the inhospitable elements of snow, ice and bitter cold which I was dealing with.

Such was my introduction to the neighborhood where I was planning on staying for a week.

My accommodations were located just outside the Barbicon, a semi-circular fortified outpost of the old walled city. I threw my backpack on my bed, put on one more layer of clothing, and took off to explore. The Barbicon was lit with a glow that was magical in the crisp night air. A musician played a guitar in a brick alcove, adding to the atmosphere. The Old Town Market Square which is the center and oldest part of Old Town, was just ahead. Ice skaters were gliding – some gracefully, others not – around an ice rink in the middle of the square. Multi-colored lights fanned out overhead. Colorful merchants’ houses from the 17th and 18th centuries encircled the square.


A brief synopsis of Warsaw’s World War II and reconstruction history –

By the time World War II began in 1939, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million. 380,000 of them were Jews.  Soon after Poland fell a Jewish ghetto was built in a major part of the city. In a retaliatory effort by the Germans following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, they systematically destroyed the city. Soon after the communists came into power in 1945, it was decided to reconstruct the historic Old Town making it look like it did before the war. This resulted in Old Town being selected to be on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.


The meeting place for a *free Old Town walking tour was in Castle Square just outside the Old Town Market Square at Sigismund’s Column. This statue commemorates King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Sandra, our walking tour guide, covered Warsaw’s history in depth as our group of international tourists strolled the back streets of the Old Town. 

Strolling along the Royal Route which connects the Royal Castle with former royal residences, was one of my favorite past-times.  Piano concerts featuring Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s compositions, which I attended several times, were performed in intimate surroundings along the Royal Route. Each performance with internationally acclaimed artists was superb.

Stalin’s commanding Palace of Culture, a symbol of the country’s communist past, dominates Warsaw’s skyline. At the Visitor Information Center there they suggested I visit the nearby historic Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw. The irony of this suggestion, considering Stalin’s policy of atheism, didn’t escape me.



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Servas in Krakow and the Communist Era

Several of the *Servas Hosts I had the pleasure of meeting during my visit in Krakow I would describe as minimalists, in the best sense of the word. They all lived in Poland during the communist era following WWII when the doctrine of socialist realism was in force (1949 to 1956). The idea was to build as much housing as possible in the least amount of time for the least price possible. Concrete block housing containing small flats became the norm in Poland.

One evening while I was dining with Servas Hosts Andrzej and his wife Ewa in their three room flat in a ten-story housing block in Krakow, Andrzej proudly proclaimed that he was a minimalist. They raised two children here. They both said this flat, which they own, suits them perfectly; they wouldn’t want want anything larger. I loved their frankness.

Krystyn, a single Servas Host with whom I stayed two days, lives in a small flat in a similar housing block in Krakow. She has been teaching free-lance English there for years. In the evenings we strolled the major pedestrian street in the Old Town and dined in interesting establishments.

I will never forget the evening she introduced me to a milk bar (“bar meleczny”). A hold-over from the communist era, milk bars are no-frills, self-serve, cafeteria-style dining. They have good food at a great price, my favorite being pierogi, traditional Polish dumplings. People from all walks of Polish life dine in these places along with tourists looking for a genuine Polish experience. The norm is for menus to be posted boldly on a wall in Polish and the food hidden from view in the kitchen. Finding milk bars and learning how to order in Polish became an intriguing part of my current travel adventure from that day on.

It was cozy staying in Krystyn’s small flat. She once lived with her Mother in the planned socialist community in the outskirts of Krakow known as Nowa Huta.

I decided to visit historic Nova Huta, curious about what a planned utopian city built by the communists was like.

Nowa Huta (literally The New Steel Mill) which houses about 200,000 people, was a planned a utopian city, built in the early 1950’s by the communists. The atmosphere around the stone grey block buildings which lined the broad avenues felt very heavy and austere. A couple of restaurants and a few shops broke up the monotony of the main square where Lenin’s giant bronze statue once stood.

Another Servas Host I met named Anna had also lived in Nova Huta at one time. Her elderly Mother whom she cares for still lives there. Anna lives in a small flat with her husband in another part of town. 

Anna teaches business English at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the oldest university in the country, dating from 1364. On day she invited me to speak in one of her classes about how I developed my guesthouse business in America.  Eventually a discussion ensued in English about the hopes and dreams of the students in the area of business. We discussed Poland’s recent entry into the Economic Community (EU) and how their knowledge of English will help them take advantage of the opportunity that is on their doorstep. Their enthusiasm was heartwarming.

The Servas Hosts I met in Krakow were sincere, gracious people.  I found it moving how content they were with their unique, minimal housing situation as described above. Apparently the huge apartment buildings the communists built following WWII are still serving the needs of people today.


* Servas is a non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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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 www.USServas.org

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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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