The Journey (Part 7)
Arrival in Cracow in early afternoon allowed us to be tourists in a big city again. First stop was the Rumeh Synagogue, one of those few still offering regular services (but not for Kabbalat Shabbat). The building, like all we visited enjoyed a similar architecture, with high ceilings, raised platform in the middle for the Rabbi, and an Aron (Ark for holding the Torah) in front. Immediately adjacent was the Rumeh Synagogue Cemetery. In fact, should a visitor to the cemetery choose to enter the synagogue, there was a pitcher for water to enable them to wash away the spirits of the dead. Even though this concept never fit in my family, I respect those who want to retain this practice.
The cemetery has been restored using very old gravestones and bodies that have been reburied at this spot. Many are thought to be those of "tzaddicks" (sages). These community cemeteries are indeed very old and different from what we are used to in the U.S. Many visitors place stones on the headstones to signify they have visited. Most gravesites at Rumeh have many, many such reverential acknowledgements from cemetery visitors.
Since the Nazis used most synagogues as stables, the vast majority of the headstones, which were often used as paving stones were destroyed along with the cemeteries. Restorers of the burial areas find these old headstones and use them in building walls or memorials to the vanished communities.
We decided to attend Kabbalah Shabbat (first service of the Sabbath) at the Kupa Synagogue (it's the only in Cracow still offering such services in the old Jewish Quarter.
Our choices were very limited! Services were set to begin at 7:30 PM. Yet at 7:28, we were alone in the shul. Then, exactly on time, came the rush. About 70 worshippers, including at least 20 women who went upstairs to the Mechitza (women's area) rushed in. Three or four were in full Hasidic garb - all black suits, schtreimals (dress hats that are unique to Hasidic) along with elderly congregants. Fortunately for us there were Modern Orthodox from England who were able to help us find our way through the service. The young Hasidic cantor was excellent, and as we davened (recited prayers) through the service, my thoughts were that even though the Germans tried to kill all the Polish Jews, there remained a dedicated group who declared they were still there, and still part of a community.
The English tourists were having dinner at the refurbished JCC, which now serves the Cracow community of 400 families. Most of those attending services stayed for what smelled like a wonderful Shabbat meal.
We didn't stay for two reasons:
We weren't invited!
And we didn't speak Polish or Yiddish!
I assume we might have joined them, but no one approached us to suggest we do so. We had an excellent meal at Arial, which like so many restaurants in the Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) featured Jewish cooking.
Kazimierz has become quite a tourist spot, particularly for Polish people, as well as the large number of Jewish tourists. One juxtaposition that was too much for me was the restaurant at Rubenstein’s, which advertised "Jewish food" but had as its first entry a roast pork loin. I kid you not.
We finished a very full day by walking through the Cracow Rynek, the largest town square in all of Europe. It's dominated by St. Mary's Church, one of the largest such edifices I've ever visited, on the northeast end of the square, the Cloth Market, a chotsky mall in the center of the Square, and more restaurants and bars than one can count. Since it was Friday night, the young people were out in droves. Most were just having a good time, but many were rowdy, as kids should be on a weekend evening. The Rynek was truly a "happening place".
We chose to use Shabbat to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, truly one of the most evil places on Earth. What can one say about the Germans ability to build a factory for death? The concentration camp at Auschwitz housed 40,000 prisoners at a time. The Nazis found so many ways to torture their victims that I won't describe them.
Those interested in man's inhumanity to man can find more reading material on the subject that subject online or at any library or bookstore.
Rest assured, a visit to Auschwitz is mind numbing! Even though we arrived for one of the early morning tours (they are conducted in many languages), our English speaking tour, which lasts four hours, had so many wanting to see the site; they had to divide us into three groups of about 30 each. There were many still waiting to tour when our four hours were concluded.
The real horror came at Birkenau, just about 3 miles away. The vastness of the camp, which held 100,000 at a time, was a model for the German death machine. It is difficult to describe now vast the camp was, or how determined the Nazis were with "The Final Solution". One must try to understand the Germans knew they were losing the war late I944, but instead of using the manpower and limited resources available for the war effort, they chose to exterminate the over 400,000 Jews of Hungary. The living conditions, if one wants to call them that, we're dreadful. Those not victims of the gas chambers, were starved and made to suffer an unbelievable atrocities. Of the more than one and a half million killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complexes, about 1,100,000 were Jews. Poles, Russians, and Gypsies were the majority of the other victims.
A most depressing experience, but as I've heard on many occasions, it is a pilgrimage which is necessary to experience in person. Books, movies and lectures can't describe what one can see at this place of unimaginable hate. Perhaps that's why so many Israel high schoolers visit the camps prior to entering army service. They need to know and understand!
The day was far from over as we returned to Cracow to visit the Schindler Museum. The guide books informed us this was the best recreation of what Jewish life was like in the period leading up to the German invasion. The Museum does an excellent job of showing how the Germans imposed their sick ideas on both the Jewish and non-Jewish
people of Cracow, from first closing the universities, to confiscating radios, eliminating newspapers, and more as little by little they began to control life in the conquered lands.
Our final day was spent visiting the Wawel Castle, the home of Polish kings. It sits high atop the highest place in Cracow. The castle grounds are very large and show Polish kings lived like, well, kings. The gold, silver and precious jewels demonstrate that like royalty elsewhere, Polish kings didn't lack for anything. The enormous church, which dominates the area, is the home to many famous Poles in addition to just kings. Very impressive!
Next, we visited the Jewish Quarter once again to see the New Synagogue, the Cracow Jewish community museum, the Galician Jewish museum, the Isaac Synagogue and the Temple. We managed to see as much as possible in the short time remaining. We had our final meal in Kazimierz where tourists appear to be gathering at any hour.
I'll need a few days to reflect on what we learned, how I feel and my final impressions, which I will share in the next few days.
Traveling with my son was a rare treat. We were able to bond (not that this was ever a problem) and reflect on the fate of so many of our coreligionists. We enjoyed many a good time, as we viewed what had once been the cradle of Jewish stouthearted and communal life.
This was a most worthwhile trip!
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