There are a few ‘must do’s in Krakow: Auschwitz -Birkenau, Schindler’s Factory, and the Salt Mines, each reminders of the city’s past. They also show the range of power mankind is capable of. Although I’m in Budapest now, I had to share a few wide ranging and encompassing thoughts.
Salt mine in Krakow
Krakow is a beautiful medieval city, complete with a castle, moat and never-ending winding streets. Go back even further in time (about 700 years), 15 minutes away, and, about 500 steps beneath the surface to see what man took from the earth and the beauty he left in thanks. The Salt Mines. It amazes me people found salt all while uncovering its value. Not to mention digging deep into the earth to satisfy man’s insatiable hunger for it. This mine is unique: as miners dug deeper and deeper in to the earth, they left their own messages through carvings of appreciation and beauty – maybe equivalent to today’s tagging and graffiti.
We reached this cavernous room 500 steps beneath the surface by initially winding down 36o dizzying wooden steps. Salt was so precious it became the root of the word salary. People were (literally) paid in salt. Our route to this cathedral was on floors of salt, encased in walls of salt and past small cathedrals made of, and carved into the salt. The religious scenes were carved by miners out of love. Which religion? You wouldn’t know it by my writing but Krakow and this region of Galicia is strongly rooted in Catholicism. My lasting impression of the beauty and grandeur of this UNESCO heritage site is that this is a great symbol and reminder of the beauty mankind is capable of creating.
But mankind is complicated and easily seduced by greed, fear, loneliness and the need to comply with Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest’ in horrific ways nature seems unable to mimic. Only 40 miles away from the depth of man’s beauty is another reminder of mankind’s emotions. This one focused on the cruel and unimaginable crimes mankind can create and impose on its fellow members.
Work is freedom though there was no freedom from work here
This gate is the symbol of Auschwitz. Though like most things in life, can’t be captured by a picture. Walk through this gate, through the camp barracks, crematorium, unloading platform at Birkenau and to the underground gas chambers and crematorium. Steady yourself for the bombarding emotions of horror, sadness, loss, outrage, and, disbelief.
While standing on the unloading and selection platform in Birkenau and on the land where in winter women were forced to run naked in wooden clogs through the mud to take cold showers, I ask myself again:
What creates enough hatred to disarm any semblance of a moral compass?
It’s a cold drizzly day, and certainly this hallowed ground, this cemetery must only have weather as sad as its story. I’m cold in my layers of Polartec while thinking about my sore feet. I know in an hour I’ll be sitting in a warm bus sipping hot tea. My cousin Sue says she always carries food in vestigial memory of those who got a cup of dirty water for dinner after working for 12 hours. Hunger is a feeling we may have when we haven’t eaten for a few hours. I’m in tears as I walk around, bloated with emotions caused by the Nazi’s hunger for destruction. Or rather to stave off their own fear.
What else can I feel other than outrage and horror except disbelief?
We are told over and over that though Jews heard about Auschwitz (and the other camps) they didn’t believe it was possible such places could exist. Understandable – how could any feeling human being believe humankind capable of such acts? Sadly, this is part of mankind’s legacy. Sadly this demonstrates the cunning, artful planning, and, exacting implementation wasted on horrific deliberate and hateful genocide.
There’s sadness and heartbreak over the lost beauty and potential of the brilliant (more than) one and a half million Jews who were killed here. Imagine how different the world might be if those souls had lived.
Yet another emotion fills me as I walk and listen to our guide: Awe. I can’t help but be filled with Awe, respect and pride. Really. I know it sounds strange. Imagine: That people with numbers tattooed to their forearms (and this was the only camp with tattoos) endured, survived, and went on to thrive.
Victor Frankel in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ along with others wrote about this enduring ability of man to survive. Standing in the cold drizzle through stark barracks and looking at the concrete bunks dusted with straw as a mattress and hearing about how bodily fluids drizzled from the top to the bottom third bunk, I can only repeat what my mother says: ‘The greatest miracle of all is that there are still Jews in the world.”
Books, movies, talks have shared many stories. And as Survivors are nearing the end of their lives, even more stories are fortunately being told. I think each and every one of us can never read or see enough. They say Auschwitz is a place everyone should visit. It is. These days a sign at the entrance proclaim children under 14 should NOT visit. Clearly this sign was absent from 1941 – 1945. (Several hundred babies were born here and some 27 are still alive – How is that for a miracle!).
When I was in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, entering the active Orthodox Remuh Synagogue, I saw a group of Yeshiva boys leaving, dragging suitcases behind them. Surprised, I turned to Klaudia. Before I opened my mouth to ask about them, she let me know they were probably from New York or Israel.
Entering the crematorium in Auschwitz, the sound of men singing the Mourner’s prayer seemed both appropriate and haunting. Inside the farthest corner of this space stood these same Yeshiva boochers (I know I misspelled that) fervently swaying and praying. My guide told me this is the only time she has seen men praying there.
Schindler’s Factory, which most of us know from the movie Schindler’s List, is a ten minute walk from the Jewish Quarter. It is now a state of the art interactive museum about Krakow’s German occupation. Pictures of the the lucky Jews selected to live and work in the factory welcome visitors at the beginning of the exhibit. I look carefully at each one, wondering if I’ll see a face reminding me of others I know.
While there is so much to write about – in fact whole books have been written that I know I can’t do justice to any of it right now . I will mention there is a lot of controversy about Oscar Schindler’s character and motive in helping Jews. My feeling: screw motives! Forget he was a womanizer, gambler, drinker. After the war, he moved to Argentina (paid for by the Jewish community) with his wife and two of his lovers.
Bottom line: He saved Jewish lives and for that he is to be commended and celebrated.
It may seem Krakow’s Jewish history is seeped in the past. Not at all true! The Jewish community here is proud of its four synagogues/groups representing its 100 (or 200) Jews. If you are thinking that is a lot of groups for a few people I agree. Perhaps this is the quintessential Jewish option considering the ‘joke’ for the need of at least two synagogues: ‘One to pray in, the other I’ll never step foot in.”
As I wrote about a few days ago, yes there are lots of options: everyone needs to participate. Participation may be attending free Friday night dinners at the Jewish Culture Center (JCC) built by Prince Charles. Anna Gulinska, the JCC’s program manager told me after dinner people go out for drinks at Mechanoff, one of the trendy bars in the neighborhood. Those who are observant and can’t carry money during Shabbat pay their bar tabs on Sunday. Gotta love it!
Anna is a symbol of Judaism’s resurgence in Poland. To begin with: she isn’t Jewish. Her interest in Jewish studies began in high school in Tarnoff. Before the war, 40 % of the population was Jewish, now represented and remembered by the overgrown cemeteries, ruined synagogues and street names in Hebrew. Intrigued (which says a lot about her) she entered a contest for high school students. She interviewed a Jewish woman, who was rescued from the ghetto by a Polish guard, who fell in love with her. Yes, another miraculous story. This guard rescued both her and her 2 sisters. He later refused any honor from Yad Vashem – he saved for love .
This woman is now 92 and living in Krakow. She is glad Anna is interested in Jewish history since her grandchildren are not. Anna stresses that the strength of the community is in the living ,in the present. Not the ghosts of the past. She hopes people walk away remembering that Jewish culture has been and is an important part of Polish history for thousands of years. She stressed this history needs to be preserved. Personally I think it is wonderful she is there to contribute to celebrating this next chapter.
There is one more conversation I want to share, but not today. Swavick Postuske, a Krakow’ Jewish Studies student was hanging around the JCC. He stood out for two reasons – he is young and he was wearing a yarmulke! Although he kept saying his English was bad, we talked for over an hour. I want to give justice to his stories which are amazing as you can imagine!