It took long for me to come from the previous post to this one. But let me pick up the thread from where I stopped.
So in the evening, despite the freezing cold, I braced myself and went towards the Old Synagogue. It was getting dark already at 5 PM as it was the end of October. When I reached there, I was not sure if that was the right place as I saw 3 people. Getting closer, I found one of them was the guide and the other two wanted to take the tour just like me. We waited for some more time and more people arrived albeit late. Then the tour started.
The area – Kazimierz was set up as a separate city by Kassimir in the beginning of the 14th century with its own city gates and walls. The history of Jews in Krakow is quite old. They arrived here and settled between 11th and 13th century as the tolerance for them was higher than in the rest of, especially Western, Europe. Kazimierz became a major Jewish settlement by the end of 14th century. The Jews who arrived here from Prague in 1389, made this first synagogue as a replica of the one in Prague. It had separate parts for women and men, as is the traditional way. This is known as the Old Synagogue now. Part of it was the townhall, part of it was used for trading. Today it is a museum.
Side-note: The rulers of Poland didn’t participate in the crusades for various reasons but the “official” one given to the Pope (Henry II) was that there is no beer in Jerusalem!
The 2nd synagogue was made by another set of Jews who lived near the present University area and were moved here when there was a fire there. They made their own synagogue as they didn’t want to pray with the ones from Prague.
Then there is another one – Remah/Remu Synagogue – Rabbi Moshe Isserles fame. It could have been built by his father Israel ben Josef in honor of his illustrious son or by the Rabbi himself to in memory of his first wife. It is not clearly known. Our guide told us this little story. In the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote a book which contained code of Jewish law. He sent it to Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Krakow for review – who was also in the process of writing such a book. He got disheartened that someone else had written something before him. But then, he concluded that the book was for Sephardi (settlers in North Africa) Jews and he could add his work to it as the guidelines for the Ashkenazi Jews (settlers along Rhine)!
Another synagogue made in 1620. I don’t know what was the reason for this one.
During the tour, we got to get inside one – the Izaak/Isaac Synagogue – which was made in 1644. It was made with the donation from banker to the King Wladyslav IV – Isaac Jakubowicz or Isaac the Rich. There is a legend associated with this synagogue. Isaac Jakubowicz (another spelling Ayzik) was a poor pious Jew. One night he dreamt of a big city and a bridge and was instructed to go to Prague and look for treasure under the Charles Bridge. He got this dream several times. So he decided to go. On reaching there, he found the bridge being guarded by a squad of soldiers. He talked to them about his dream asking for permission to dig. They laughed at him and shooed him away. Some time later, one of the soldiers came to him and told him that he had been dreaming that he would find treasure in the oven at the home of someone named Izaak, the son of Jacob, who lives in Krakow, but he wasn’t stupid to go searching for treasure based on dreams. Izaak immediately returned home and found the treasure in the oven of his own home. In gratitude, he constructed this synagogue. Out of the 7 surviving synagogues in Krakow today, four are still active and this is one of them.
We took a small break at a place called Okraglak with a circular building – a relic of the communist times of Poland – which has kiosks selling Zapiekanki – baguettes with mushrooms, cheese and other toppings. Even today, the prices have been kept very low just like in the communist times.
Fast forward to the 20th century and crossing the river from Kazimierz. One of the darkest periods and a dark place for humanity. It was at Podgorze where the Jewish ghetto was established across the river Vistula. About 20000 people were made to live in a place with a capacity of 3500. The food ration assigned to the victims was 350 calories/day while the perpetrators had 3000 calories/day. We were standing on that cold Halloween night at the Zgody square of the ghetto listening to our guide tell us about the horrific segregating process that began at the end of May 1942. Those considered being able to work were sent to labor camps and the others straightaway to their deaths. Initially the perpetrators pretended that the victims were going to a better place where there would be work and food and the people felt hopeful and fell for that lie – even carrying their suitcases with things they considered important for them! I think that dying itself wouldn’t be as excruciating as the loss of the hope on getting to know what really awaited them at those death camps..We saw an exhibit of 68 chairs in that square as a memorial to the 68000 Jews of Poland who were the victims. Our guide interpreted the empty chairs as the city waiting for those people to come back and take their place. It was quite heart-breaking – a sight that won’t leave the thoughts of the observer who understands the meaning, for a very long time.
From there we moved towards Schindler’s factory – which we know from the famous movie Schindler’s List. Now Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party and spied for the German army. He was captured in Czech but was released when the Germans occupied Czech. Thereafter, he came to Krakow to make money like many others. The Jewish shops and factories were snatched and given over to the Nazi supporters. That’s how Schindler came into the possession of this factory. The Poles and Jews were hired/forced to work in those occupied businesses. The Jews were not paid. But Schindler made the conditions comparatively much better for the Jews working in his factory. And as we know from the movie, he saved the lives of so many of them. Makes one wonder about the machinations of destiny. The story of how this movie came about is also equally arduous. One of the survivors of the holocaust Poldek Pfefferberg worked with Schindler at his factory. He tried to persuade many writers to write the book about this story and ultimately succeeded in 1980, six years after Schindler had passed away, to make the Australian author Thomas Keneally take the project. Thereafter, he persevered to persuade Steven Spielberg – for 11 long years after the book was published – to make a movie about the remarkable story. My thought about it is that he must have felt that it is important that the world also gets to know about not only the horrors of that war about which a plenty is written down, but about those who brought hope and saved lives in their own ways.
This is where I would end my post about this part of the Krakowian history. In the next one, I would write about my last day of stay in Krakow which started quite disappointingly but ended much better. Until then..