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Krakow: The Sad History and the Importance of Visiting September 20, 2011

Filed under: Contiki,Europe,Poland,Travel — Kelocity @ 10:55 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Our first full day in Krakow started with a really great walking tour in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of the city.
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This area was once home to many synagogues and a bustling community before the Nazis invaded and forced nearly all of the Jews into the ghetto. This was called the Old Synagogue, but was later occupied by the Germans to store weapons. Now it is a museum dedicated to Krakow’s Jews.
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At the other end of the square from the Old Synagogue is a touching memorial to the Jews who used to live there.
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And next to it is the only functioning Synagogue in Krakow now. Before the war, more than 60,000 Jews lived in the city. And today, less than 200 identify themselves as Jewish. The weight of the Holocaust was starting to hit me standing in that square.
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The square fell into disrepair for decades and nearly all of the facades looked like this:
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But when Steven Speilberg came here to shoot his movie, Schindler’s List, based on Krakow, this square became the ghetto. It wasn’t the ghetto in real life, but it served the purpose for the film. After the movie came out, tourists starting visiting this section of the town more frequently and suddenly people started to rebuild it once again.
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This is where we ate dinner the night before, and right next door, we noticed this sign:
”Probably the best pierogi… Pierogi is a traditional Polish dumplings similar to ravioli but more delicious.”

Oh my gosh, we laughed so hard. It’s an honest sign. Truthful, humble and quite funny. I respect that. hee hee
They’re not 100% sure if it’s the best… but it probably is. Oh man, we laughed for a long time over that.
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Then we hopped back on our bus and headed to our next destination: Wawel Hill, home of the Royal Castle and Cathedral.
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The grounds are really beautiful with all kinds of architectural designs mixed together.
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It over looks the city on one side and the river on the other.
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This castle was designed centuries ago with the harsh winters in mind. It was genius in design back then.
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It was spared during the war because the Nazi’s made it their home. They even built a wing to house their military headquarters.
Sad as it is, the Nazi’s saved a lot of historic buildings in Europe by making them their private dwellings. There are a lot of stories like this one throughout the continent.
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Outside the castle walls is a hodge podge of a church. It’s famous not only for it’s quirky design, but because this was Pope John Paul II’s home church before he became Pope. If there is one thing the Poles love about their Country, it was their Pope. There is evidence everywhere about how proud they were of him.
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Reese, my gnome, visited the Vatican in 2008, and now she (and I) got to see the former Pope’s beginnings here in Poland.
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Though I’m not religious in practice, I find religious history fascinating.
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Next on our tour, we took our bus over to Oskar Schindler’s factory. Schindler’s List was based on how Oskar used his business to save the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during WWII. This was the actual factory that has now been turned into an amazing museum. But most of the scenes from the movie were shot here, on location.
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The front part of the museum has a few props from the movie and a small café, but they did a great job of focusing on the serious history rather than commercialize the film.
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We had a private tour through all of it and starts with the history of the Jews before the war, telling some of their stories and showing actual photos of the happy people who used to live in Krakow.
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Then it taakes you back in time and explains how Poland fell under Nazi rule… then later Soviet rule. Poland ceased to exist for nearly 80 years while it was being occupied by the east and the west.
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Then we learned about the Nazi occupation and how they took control of Krakow. Here’s an image of the Germans in front of the Cathedral we had just visited.
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These exhibits were so well done in such an interactive way that you couldn’t help but be engulfed in it.  This section was about the Nazi regime and how they took over the city. Those columns rotated and it looked like the soldiers were actually marching. The floor has the Nazi symbol in it, and the photos on the wall shows how they transformed the city to feel German (streets were renamed with German words, etc).
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This staircase was decorated in the street signs, and was also the scene where Spielberg shot one of the scenes from the film.
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Here was Oskar’s desk. I think they said the actual desk here was a prop, but the map behind him was original.
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The workers that Schindler saved worked here making pots and pans. I want to watch the movie again, now that the reality is so fresh in my mind.
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Then the museum goes through the horrors of the ghetto and how most of them were then sent to the nearby death camps.
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Out back you can still see where most of the people worked.
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Also in the museum was a collection of first hand accounts from Jews who survived the Holocaust. One of the most famous survivors was Roman Polanski, who lived in the Krakow ghetto.

Translation: “I suddenly realized that we were to be walled in. I got so scared that I eventually burst into Tears” – Roman Polanski, Aged 8
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On the way back into town, we passed the actual site of the Krakow ghetto. There is a powerful memorial in the center now, a bunch of oversized empty chairs and normal sized chairs along the edge. I read a little more about it online:

“The memorial to the Jews of the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow was inaugurated on 8 December 2005.

The winning project by Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak included 33 steel and cast iron chairs (1.4 m high) in the square and 37 smaller chairs (1.2 m high) standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops. The theme of empty chairs has also been used at the Oklahoma City Monument at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building blast site to reflect "absence."…

Ironically, the Krakow monument intrudes to bus and tram stops and are used by locals awaiting transportation, suggesting that anyone can be a victim. The small building in the square was used by Nazi authorities during the occupation and ghetto period. The inscription on top is 1941-1943, the years of the ghetto. The interior of the building has been reworked artistically to resemble the interior of a deportation train car.” – [source]

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Even though we did all of this sightseeing in just four hours, I’m going to continue the rest of the day in another post. This one feels heavy and I think deserves to stand alone. I know that I will never be the same after what I saw in Poland this morning. I will never forget it.

 

 
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