Kraków, Poland for spiritual renewal
Krakow has been called the second Rome for its vast amount of churches – places of worship, prayer and spiritual elevation. People in Poland would go to Krakow during hard times for spiritual renewal, consolation and strength. That is why I am here as well. First I saw where my father lived in Bedzin as a child and viewed the station where he would have boarded the train that took him to the first of eight Nazi forced labor camps where he “lived” and spent the next day viewing the grounds at Auschwitz. I am exhausted on many levels; emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically yet I feel the hidden, almost intangible but present spirituality in the air here.
Transformative trips tend to be psychologically and physically challenging and push me way out of my comfort zone. I’m immersed in an authentic experience in a dramatically different environment with people of a different culture. This is life; allowing encounters. I find solitude healing and purifying. Every exposure I make is a discovery of my subjects and myself.
The town of Kazimierz near Krakow was founded in 1335 by Kazimierz the Great. It became a leading centre of Jewish culture. I love the narrow streets, the low buildings. I feel as if I’m bearing witness to centuries of peaceful co-existence of two nations, Jewish and Poles. I sense a sacredness simply viewing the coherent architecture all around. I also love the sound of the Polish language and accent.
I choose to stay in Kazimierez because it was an active centre of Judaic culture and learning. Tens of thousands of Jewish people from the late middle ages until the Holocaust, called it home. There was a specific interest in welcoming Jews with an environment where they weren’t a minority but instead settlers. I think of it almost like Ellis Island. Visiting the synagogues, the Jewish cemetery and bookstore feels comfortable and familiar and Krakow is filled with cafes, bars, restaurants and dogs.
The Nazis annihilated this Jewish, unique world but many of the monuments are being restored. The Jewish renewal in Poland is everywhere with cutting edge projects being done at The Galicia Jewish Museum.
I can close my eyes and feel the magic of when poets and writers in Krakow were treated like movie stars. There was a great artistic freedom that prevailed in Krakow. I feel the landscape of Jewish history being revealed here.
The main square in Krakow is Rynek Glowny but what I resonated with was the stalls at Plac Nowy in Kazimierz where there is a daily market from 5:30 am to early afternoon. I found it to be the spiritual center of Krakow sub-culture. There is not a great splendor like the Old Town and in fact, you’ll see chipped green market stalls and pigeons flapping about. What I love is the history. Plac Nowy began as far back as 1808 and for 200 years served as a market place with its central landmark, the Okraglak (rotunda) which was added in 1900. The locals line up outside the dozens of hole-in-the-wall fast food hatches that operate from the rotunda. This is where you can find the best zapiekanka – a halved baguette topped with mushrooms and cheese, vegetables and meat, in all of Poland.
I visited the Old Synagogue built in the 15th century, the oldest in all of Poland where I saw a bimah, an elevated platform with an iron balustrade used for readings from the Torah. The Nazis destroyed the interior of the synagogue, turning into a storage room and executed thirty Polish hostages in 1943. Restoration began in the 1950’s and it is now a museum of Jewish history, culture and tradition. I’ve read that the synagogues in Kazimierez were all used as storehouses, and not burnt down like the rest in Poland.
The Remu’h Synagogue is dedicated to the rabbi and philosopher Remu’h, who was reputed to be a miracle worker and is buried just outside the walls of the synagogue. Pious Jews make the pilgrim to visit his grave. Again, under Nazi occupation, both the synagogue and cemetery were destroyed but restored in the 1950’s and 60’s.
I ate at Ariel, the restaurant Steven Spielberg favored while he filmed Schindler’s List here. The exterior looked like a house from a fairy tale.
To go from the Jewish quarter to Podgorze, which became the Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, is the Father Bernatek Footbridge. The bridge has become a “love lock” bridge where couples place a padlock on the bridge to show their everlasting love. Maybe the ones that aren’t so sure use the combination locks.