Although much of my time in Poland was dominated by studying the Holocaust, particularly visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz- Birkenau death camps, it would be misleading to suggest that this is all there is to see when visiting Krakow. Beyond the concentration camps, Krakow offers visitors a chance to stroll their immense, yet incredibly quaint medieval square, hang out at brew pubs in the Jewish Quarter, visit the factory where Schindler employed thousands of Jews in an effort to save their lives, and get picked up in a 40 year old Trabant to cruise over to Nowa Huta (New Steel), a communist era “ideal” community built about 10km outside the city center. Add in some surprisingly amazing food, cheap beer, and decent wine, and Poland becomes a delightfully affordable European alternative to its better known, more expensive cousins to the West.
Throughout the course of the week, I had ample opportunity to explore the medieval market square both on my own and with a guide. I have to admit (sorry to my students who are Polish), I did not really have high expectations for Krakow. And then, I stepped into the square. Oh. My. God.
After the Tatars destroyed it, the square was rebuilt in the 13th century. During the medieval ages, it was illegal to sell anything on the street, so any goods- bread, cheese, eggs. shoes, cloth, etc., had to be brought to the square to sell. At the time, it was the biggest square in Europe.
In the middle of the square lies the cloth market, where medieval cloth sellers would come to sell, well, cloth. Although the stalls today are predominantly souvenir stalls, the covered market still has a medieval feel to it. In contrast to that medieval feel, right next to the market lies the gigantic head, which lies sideways and is still controversial among those Poles who want to maintain the old school feel of the square.
Off the square, there are quaint little streets marked by souvenir vendors, ice cream shops, Starbucks (bye bye communism!), local Polish restaurants, and my personal favorite, a little vodka boutique offering tastings of “old Polish drinks”.After convincing some of my fellow tour mates (I asked, they said yes), we invaded the small space to belly up to the bar and try some vodka.
Knowing nothing, and I mean nothing about vodka, we took our cues from the bartender who seem perplexed when we asked, multiple times-“is this vodka?” because some of it tasted so good (i.e. flavored vodka), and who also seemed disturbed when, on the last vodka of our choice I tried to set up a scenario to glean her recommendation by stating “It’s Polish Independence day, Pope John Paul has returned from the dead…”. Apparently, “setting the scene” is an entirely American phenomenon.
Just beyond the main square, on my 5 minute walk back towards our hotel, there was a famers market, folk festival combo taking place. Amazing! Little stalls selling all sorts of delightful souvenirs such as the famous Polish blue pottery, dolls sporting traditional folk costumes, and a variety of leather goods. Towards the back of the market, much to my delight, were more stalls selling Polish foodstuffs such as smoked cheese served with cranberry sauce, bread with lard, kebabs, mushrooms, fried potatoes, periogies, beer, and mulled wine. Yes, please.
At night, the old square and the narrow alley ways stretching out from it come alive with music and drinking, with Poland being a cheap and fun destination for European bachelor and bachelorette parties.
It’ also home to some of the best restaurants where you can get Polish delicacies like periogies, bulogi, and latkes.
Of course, even without visiting Auschwitz, there is a plethora of history throughout Krakow and the surrounding area. Our second day, we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which date back to the 13th century. We took a rickety elevator 443 ft below the surface to explore a series of tunnels which leads to a giant, Game of Thrones like chapel of St. Kinga. Up until this point, the tour was rather underwhelming, but this almost made the trip worth it. Almost.
After the salt mine, we were taken to the site of the former Plaszow labor camp. For those of you familiar with Schindler’s list, this is the concentration camp where Amon Goth, the sadistic and brutal Nazi who shot prisoners at random from his balcony (true, but not from the balcony), ruled over thousands of Nazis before they were eventually deported to Auschwitz as the Nazis implemented the final solution. Today, the site of the camp, which sits along a major highway across the street from Poland’s version of Home Depot, serves as a memorial park, with people jogging and waking dogs through it. There are few if any remnants left of what took place there, but there are a few pictures of the events that took place throughout and a giant memorial erected by the Soviets in the 1960s.
The reason so little remains of the camp is due to the fact that the Germans tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done there. And, although there was no gas chambers, people were burned in mass piles, and thus the place is spot of mass executions. Although walking through this “park” was surreal, it wasn’t until we reached the end and came across Goth’s Villa, which still stands, AND has people living it it, when I was really, well, like “What the fuck?” Seriously, I could not comprehend how people lived alongside this park (as its in a residential area), but someone actually bought AND lives in Goth’s Villa.
As many of us had a similar reaction to the houses that sit just outside, or more accurately, beside Auschwitz, our guide tried to explain to us that after the war people were in dire straights and returned to the land/property which had belonged to their families for generations before the Nazis and SS had taken them for themselves. As much as I could sympathize with this explanation, I don’t think I would be able to deal with living near these mass graveyards knowing what occurred here, but some people I guess didn’t have the luxury to make that choice. Also, our guide explained that it really wasn’t until Spielberg’s movie came out when there was a growing interest in this camp and the fate of “Schindler’s Jews”.
One of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited, and one of the most interesting sites in Poland is Schindler’s Factory Museum. Housed in the old factory where Schindler operated and employed thousands of Jews to save them from extermination by deeming them vital to the Nazi war effort, this museum provides an extensive exhibit on Poland during World War II, tracing the fate of Poland’s Jews from anti-Semitic legislation, to ghettos, to work camps, to Auschwitz.
At the end of the museum, there is a touching memorial to Schindler with the names of all those whose lives he saved. Although we don’t really know what prompted Schindler to decide and save these people, the fact is that he used his power and position of privilege within the Nazi regime towards providing safety, food, and hope to thousands; an example of what being an upstander can mean for people’s lives.
After the memorial to Schindler, the museum takes a weird turn into a communist themed room that symbolizes Poland’s exchange of one brutal dictatorship for another. The Soviet Union’s stronghold over Poland lasted for over fifty years and the remnants of it can still be scene around certain parts in Krakow, particularly Nowa Huta- the communist era steel works neighborhood. The “ideal” communist community, Nowa Huta (New Steelworks) was rapidly built between 1949 and 1959 by forced labor. About 10km outside of central Krakow, we decided to visit the neighborhood via Crazy Mike’s Communist Tours, which drives you around in a communist era car like a Trabant.
The car feels like you took a cardboard box, put it on a skate board, and rammed your feet through the bottom to make it run. Did I mention the frame is made from fiberglass?
Although driving around in this thing was great fun (if not life threatening), and our guide was super informative, the highlight of the tour was visiting a 1970s apartment left over from communist times, where we were treated to vodka and pickles (a great chaser btw), to help inundate us as we watched a communist propaganda film.
Although it is interesting and fun to become nostalgic about the olden days of Soviet rule, it is not lost on me that Poland has suffered for much of the twentieth century with this current generation (those born in the 1990s) the first not to know war or brutal fascism first hand. Walking through the lively streets of Krakow it is hard to imagine that this was Poland’s reality only a few short years ago. A sentiment that would remain with me as I traveled into Slovakia and Hungary.