Krakow: Remembering the Dead and Celebrating the Living

“Dear Visitors, You are entering the site of the former concentration camp Plaszów”

“It must be up here somewhere,” I said, struggling through undergrowth that clung to my knees and shins. “The satellite photos showed a path running off to the left…”

I could hear Tomoko crashing through the trees somewhere behind me, her progress punctuated by the occasional pause, followed by the click of the camera’s shutter.

We had just passed a cemetery where the dull clink of the gravedigger’s spade reverberated between the trees. And we skirted the jagged walls of the Liban quarry, with its rusting machinery and a stagnant pond. It was there that the real-life events of the film Schindler’s List played out, and where so many Jews were worked to death during the Nazi occupation of World War Two.

The Liban quarry, where Jews were worked to death during the Nazi occupation

And then the undergrowth cleared, and we emerged next to a sign that read simply: “Dear Visitors, You are entering the site of the former concentration camp “Plaszów”. Please respect the grievous history of the site.

I wanted to pay my respects at this place, to try to understand what happened there by walking over that same troubled ground. But it was sunny and birds were singing in the trees, and it was difficult to imagine such horrific events in this setting.

There’s very little to see at Plaszów today

There’s very little to see at Plaszów today, just a large undeveloped stretch of land where you’d expect to find shops or factories. The Nazi’s razed it to the ground before evacuating the area in 1944 to conceal their crimes from the approaching Red Army troops.

We did eventually locate the towering stone Memorial of Torn Out Hearts, with it’s split granite facade. And near the edge of the field, I felt somehow disturbed by a sinister-looking stone building, which I later learned had housed SS officers. It was used as solitary confinement for prisoners, and its cellar served as a torture chamber.

The Memorial of Torn Out Hearts

The remains of Hujarowa Hill still bear traces of the pit — 50m in circumference and 5m deep — where the bodies of their victims were stacked in alternating head to toe layers. The Nazis reopened these pits as the Soviet Army approached. According to eyewitnesses, the burning of bodies took two months, and some 17 truckloads of human ashes were spread all over the site of the former camp.

But you won’t find any traces of this in Plaszów today, save an undefinable air of sadness that seems to cling to the place. I saw many people walking or cycling through this green space, but I never saw anyone smile, or shout, or play.

The mass grave where the Nazis stacked and later burned the bodies of their victims

You will need to tour the nearby remains of Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory to learn what happened to the people here. And then you must take a trip to Auschwitz, not far outside of town. It’s important that we visit these places, both to remember the past and to remember those who suffered.

But these horrific events should not completely overshadow your experience of Krakow. The act of remembering those who died should also celebrate their lives and accomplishments, and that is exactly the feeling I had in present-day Krakow.

The district of Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish life in the city for 500 years. Today it’s Krakow’s coolest quarter. When we visited, a Jewish cultural festival was in full swing, filling the many cafes, bars and galleries with music. It’s the summer’s biggest event.

The district of Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish life in Krakow

Kazimierz isn’t just a monument to the past; a gloomy neighbourhood of sepia photos and reconstructed synagogues. It is a celebration of living Jewish culture. How fitting to hold it here, where the Nazi’s had tried to systematically destroy it during World War Two.

Kazimierz celebrates living Jewish culture

The district has a pre-War feeling, but the crowd is young and vibrant. We wandered the neighbourhood, examining the peeling facades of historic buildings, synagogues and cemeteries and ducking into obscure courtyards where there was often a cafe, antique shop or garden to admire.

Later that evening, we found an outdoor table at a Jewish restaurant on a pleasant square, where we dined on gefilte fish, beetroot soup, and chicken liver stuffed goose necks, washed down with a delicate red Israeli wine.

There was always a queue in front of Good Lood…

A long walk through the district ensured that I had enough room for ice cream on this lovely July night, and the queue in front of Good Lood ensured that we were hungry again by the time we’d wrapped our hands around heavy cones that supported a massive scoop of the city’s best home made ice cream. As a connoisseur of this particular dessert, I have to say it’s some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

The Father Bernatek Footbridge spans the Vistula

A short walk over the pedestrian Father Bernatek Footbridge took us to the opposite side of the river: the district of Podgórze, where the Nazi’s had established the Krakow Ghetto, and where today we had a rented flat. It is a sad district in many ways, haunted by the ghosts of the past. But it is also a defiant one.

We reflected on that past as we walked along the Vistula on this peaceful summer evening, and on how this city has risen from the ashes. Krakow is a place that manages to memorialize the past while keeping one eye firmly on the future.

Walking along the Vistula on a peaceful July night
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2016
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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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