I got up and made it out fine and in time (I only had three beers spaced out over the course of the whole evening – but the common room was a mess. I left it as a tribute to the reputation of the English lads). The only problem was the tour company I booked through never bothered to tell me they weren’t the ones who ACTUALLY conducted the tours. So I’m there but I almost missed it since I didn’t know. No worries, I made it. Of course, I had booked two tours, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, and I forgot which was which, so I was a little surprised when I realized this one was the Schindler’s List/Jewish Quarter tour. But it’s cool… I can roll with the punches. So our tour guide is named Jacek (but he goes by Jack) and he kinda looks like John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski. He’s fun. And he knows his stuff.
We head down the road and he’s got us all laughing as he gives us some great history of Krakow and of the Jewish presence
there in. Seems that Poland, and Krakow specifically, had been welcoming Jews and other religious groups for several hundred years and the Jewish Quarter was and is very different than the Ghetto. It’s an interesting thing, similar in certain aspects to Berlin and Germany, in that Poland is doing its level best to convince themselves and the world that they love the Jews and hated Hitler and everyone should just get along. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t true, and I’m not saying they didn’t invite Jews from all over Europe in to escape religious persecution during the middle ages, but it still seems like a bit of a whitewash. The reason for the Quarter, say, is because the Jews all banded together and didn’t want to live elsewhere (but they had limitations on where they could live and the kind of trade they could perform outside the quarter). Again, I’m not discounting any of the good, but no one is blameless for the bad.
Jacek is telling us about all the different temples in the quarter (and other great stories about the Krakow Dragon when we pit stopped in a very funky little bar) and he mentions the Orthodox temple (still in use) but says we’re not gonna see it on the tour because it costs 5 zloty to go inside. But he encourages us to make it out to have a look. Then, a little later, we’re all sitting and listening to a story about a temple and he asks if we want to see the orthodox temple. I say “yes,” thinking he’s talking about later in the day on our own time. Nope, he means right then, as a group. And I accepted for everyone. Sorry gang, but you know what, it was worth it!
It’s interesting to compare the interior of the temple with the interior of the hundreds of churches and cathedrals I’ve seen over the last few weeks. Honestly, if the Christians were to put that money to use solving world hunger, we’d have no starvation problems. Sure, they’re beautiful, but wow that’s a lot of money! In contrast, the temple is very simple and elegant. And plain. The thing which made it the most interesting, though, was the cemetery out back. The oldest grave there was from 1642 and there were about 300, all perfectly preserved. Now, the question arises, how did they remain during the Nazi occupation? Well… the Nazis decided that the perfect humiliation for the Jews was to turn their synagogue and its cemetery into a garbage dump. The upshot, of course, is that when it was excavated, the filth had actually saved and preserved things. However, there is still a hill which hasn’t been excavated and still holds remains and the gravestones which were broken or could not be saved were used in a memorial project and became
the building blocks of Krakow’s own Wailing Wall.
Something which has been happening, and I think I’ve talked about it already, is that I try and learn at least the word for ‘thank you’ in every language. Well, as we were leaving the temple I realized I remembered ‘thank you’ in Hebrew, so I said it as we left.
We passed one very interesting memorial, which was a square full of slightly oversized chairs, commemorating the furniture which had been thrown out of the windows of the homes of the Jews who had been evacuated and sent off to the camps from the train
platform which was right next to the square. The end of the tour had us at Oskar Schindler’s factory, which is covered and undergoing serious renovation to open next year as a museum dedicated to the resistance and Schindler.
The next tour was a city walk and while it was interesting, there really wasn’t that much to talk about… wait, that’s not exactly true. We did learn something rather interesting. Krakow is the final resting place of a number of people who never went there in life. There were several very famous Poles who were born somewhere else, lived all their lives somewhere else (mostly Paris) and yet, inexplicably, are buried in Krakow. They even tried to get Pope John Paul II (who did, in fact, live and work in Krakow for a number of years) but the Vatican said no. So there one famous son, the guy they actually liked AND had claim to, he’s in Rome. Crazy.
After the tour, I went and found Massolit Books, which I had been told had a nice English Language selection. When I finally found it, it was great! The almost perfect used bookstore! (The only thing which would have made it better would have been a
selection of sandwiches and soft drinks in addition to the coffee and pastries) So I grabbed a book (Stanislaw Lem, whom I’d been meaning to read anyway AND he’s Polish – I like to be a book ahead. So as I get close to finishing one, I pick up another) grabbed an iced coffee and a brownie and had a seat. At the next table over, a guy and a girl were speaking English. I ended up joining the conversation and when the guy left, the girl, whose name is Carolyn, came over and joined me at my table. We ended up talking for a bit, then went for dinner, which included a walk through the square and ended when I dropped her off at the train station so she could get her overnighter to Budapest. That’s the cool thing about backpacking trough foreign countries and doing things off
the beaten path. You meet these really great people who you hope will become friends, you hang out for a couple of hours and then they go one way and you go another. And the next night you’re going to meet someone else and the process will continue.
For my part, I’m hopping a train and a bus to Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania, where, yes, I am like a god!