Krakow is a city of extreme contrasts. Beauty is everywhere. History permeates the fabric of life. Prosperity is evident. Food is glorious. Underneath it all is the story of pain endured and hope restored.
The most telling recent example of that pain is the indescribable loss of the Jewish community in the city. For centuries, the Krakow Jewish community had flourished in the city. With 20% of the city’s population, or 65,000 people prior to WW II, the community was integral to all that was Krakow. Then, the Germans invaded and the Nazis were in control. Life changed. Everyone suffered in Krakow, but the Jews vanished. We saw the ghetto wall that was constructed to contain the Jews. We saw the square in which brutality was exacted upon the ghetto inhabitants on a daily basis. We saw the massive jail built by the Nazis to hold “subversives.” Thousands were sent to work camps and extermination camps where they died or were murdered. One day in March, 1943, the ghetto was “liquidated.” In the end, less than 1,000 survived. We saw the memorial to the victims, and we saw the “factory” made famous by the book and movie called “Schindler’s List,” where one person, sick of the terror, risked all to save the Jewish work prisoners at his factory. What chilling sights! The horrendous Auschwitz Extermination Camp lies outside Krakow. We did not have time to visit it.
The city survived the war basically unscathed physically, but emotionally devastated. Today, its past is part of its story. The city has grown and prospered. We saw churches as beautiful as anywhere. We saw historic palaces and squares vibrant with life. We saw Israeli tourists flocking to the city as a place of their history and a story of survival and hope. We saw synagogues repaired and an old Jewish area brought back to life.
I think that if cities were jewels in a crown, Krakow would be one of them, and it would be a pearl–produced through long pain, emerged to be beautiful and gaining luster with age. WEG