A few housekeeping items to open, they spell it Kraków. Not Cracow or Krakow, but Kraków. Respect that acute accent. Second, it phonetically pronounce it “krakuf.” This was my initial lesson on my first tour in the elegant and historic Polish city, so best to introduce it early here as well.
Another reality to deal with up front - Kraków is a heavy destination. Now a contemporary city with considerable richness to offer a new visitor like myself, it also has a complicated and gruesome past. This piece will reveal two tones that summed up both the communal side of my time in the city and the disturbed history that demands exploring. I knew this going in.
The second largest city in Poland dates back to the 7th Century and surprisingly well- preserved given it has served as a geographic centerpiece to some of histories most cataclysmic conflicts. The city serves as the academic and artistic hub of the country and you detect signs of what that regularly carries with it across the city landscape. Young students catch up on last night's shenanigans in front of skillfully crafted coffee from hip cafes.
The street art is worthwhile here, which makes it unique from other European centers. The lens through which you see street art, or graffiti, can heavily sway one's perception of the city. Aesthetically, the markings are inescapable in Kraków. However, the canned color here feels purposeful and not squandered. The art is mainly devoid of the lazy tagging that overruns too many neighborhoods in other cities.
One senses the impact of the intersections of non-sectarian and religious groups that have populated the city over time. Kraków’s predominant Roman Catholicism took center stage in 1978 when the Archbishop of Kraków ascended to Vatican City as Pope John Paul II. One can find signage, nameplates and naming's in his honor all across the city.
The backstreets of the city afford a certain cosy and communal feel. I secured a first-hand experience by booking an Airbnb on the outskirts of the Kazmierz neighborhood. This area that served as the traditional Jewish Quarter, and still is home to practicing Polish Jew residents and marvelous synagogues, is the most spirited part of the city - which is saying something.
My loft was on the fourth floor, meaning the fifth floor for all those acquainted with the European floor numbering puzzle. Typical of an authentic European construction that likely pre-dates the last century, the absence of an elevator meant steps and a lot of them. Lucky for me after my stair climber workout, one of the best places for pierogi in the city was right across the road. Almost like I planned it!
Przystanek Pierogarnia is a slight hole-in-the-wall establishment ideally situated on the street corner. The location perfectly frames the striking yellow door that seems to communicate “caution, this meal is about to blow your mind.”
The quantity of pierogi and other traditional polish dishes such as cabbage rolls, beetroot soup and apple pancakes are economical and make selecting akin to solving “which of your fingers are your favorite?” The answer is “all of them.”
This spot became my home away from home rental during my stopover in Kraków. The diner only fits about three single-person stools and one person placing an order at a time. So it was optimal for takeaway to pair with a fantastic Polish lager or sips of flavored vodka back at the loft. A go-to mixed order nets a just right combination of savory (e.g. pork, potato and cheese, sauerkraut and mushrooms, spinach) and sweet (e.g. quark and cinnamon, strawberries, tart cherries) for 12 złoty ($3.15 USD). It is not high art but workman-like cuisine for a country that has learned to endure with what they have at their disposal, and it tastes damn fine.
The city also boasts a vibrant craft beer scene, which always peaks my passion and a flight rarely escapes my hunt. The highlight in the city hailed from the same Kazmierz neighborhood, a spot called Ursa Maior. The space is straightforward as hell and visits at various times over a few days revealed an agreeable lack of the pretentious patrons you prefer to gently slide away from or ask for your brew in a to-go cup. I quite enjoyed settling in for a late afternoon session and devouring a diverse mix of strong ales, lagers and hoppy IPA’s with the guidance of bartenders more than happy to share some background on the brewpub and offerings.
Unfortunately, one of the most diminished cultural footprints that should have a much greater presence is the Jewish community. As most are aware, Kraków was the front line of the barbarities inflicted by Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Sites, museums and tributes to this, the worst of genocide, are necessary and should be addressed square in the face while visiting.
Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany murdered nearly six million European Jews. The figure rises to seventeen million people total when you take into account the final persecution death toll across various groups. The Jewish toll represented two-thirds of the population at the time, an inconceivable number that only seems to astonish more over time.
With so much history and context to absorb, one is best served to take official tours with professionally taught historical tour guides. Topics like World War II and the Holocaust are so layered with matters of detail of paramount importance. Having a guide to shepherd you through those details and locations provides some semblance of background to such inexplicable human tragedy.
I used official tours at two of the regions most frequented sites: Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory and the memorial at Auschwitz/Birkenau. The experiences felt odd in that the normal anticipation that comes with other types of tours is instead replaced with, what I can merely express as, a pending sense of apprehension. It is futile to predict how one will react when facing sensory experiences so intimately linked to mankind’s most horrid act.
The Schindler Factory sits on the southeast border of the Vistula River, in what still feels like an industrial neighborhood. The factory sits just on the other side of the railroad tracks that mark the onset of the Jewish ghetto on the other side.
The museum is extremely popular given the expanded consciousness of the Schindler story thanks to Steven Spielberg, so best to arrange your visit well in advance or risk lack of opportunity while in Kraków. Our group guide was a history student from the local university and displayed an amazing knowledge and passion for the entirety of Kraków’s role in the conflict beyond the factory.
The exhibits expand beyond the Schindler story as well, and provide a first rate interactive experience that leads visitors through a timeline of pre-war Kraków, the impending invasion, occupation and liberation. Much of the focus of each room is to help try to define the incremental steps that could proceed without intervention and ultimately lead to loss of control.
The most compelling and powerful moment took place at the tour’s conclusion, which finished in Oskar Schindler’s office. Here our guide valiantly put her viewpoint on the Polish people’s often conflicted view of the man.
While no one will deny the positive result of his efforts to employ, and thus save, thousands of Polish Jews who worked in his factory instead of being hauled to the concentration camps - many still note that Schindler had a reputation as a shrewd businessman and was a member of the Nazi party pre-war eager to take advantage of the shifting landscape in Kraków.
Our guide told the story of a tour visitor two years ago who reacted with furrowed brow as she got to this portion of the discussion. She would speak up and share a powerful retelling of her grandfather’s survival as a worker at Schindler’s job site. His survival meant he could walk his granddaughter down the aisle at her wedding and she “didn’t give a damn why Schindler did it…just that he did.”
And this, they reminded us, is the ultimate takeaway from the gray area that extends beyond fact or fiction, intention and Hollywood blockbuster lines. The true line from record, recited in the film, delivered by bookkeeper Itzhak Stern that “whoever saves one life saves the world entire” is all that matters. That one individual can make a difference that will reverberate for ages.
The following day I woke early after an evening of not enough sleep. I was day tripping to Auschwitz/Birkenau, and it had weighed heavily on my mind in the preceding twenty-four hours. Know that the site lies a good hour and fifteen minutes outside of Kraków and is best arrived at by bus or car.
I chose, once again, to go with a private group tour and the decision rewarded me. Taking the initial trip out meant a 5:50am meetup in the dreary and misty cold - a weather environment that somehow seemed proper for the moment. Our charter bus rolled out of Kraków’s historic center square at precisely 6am and we began our trip through the Polish countryside.
On the ride, the tour company shows the entire unedited documentary of the Soviet liberation of the concentration camps. The footage was crucial in many convictions at the trials in Nuremberg given the destruction the Nazis oversaw of sites and evidence as they retreated. It is a powerful precursor to arrival at the camp but, even still, cannot sufficiently prepare for what one experiences by setting foot on the ground.
One wants to ensure extreme diligence to be mindful of surroundings while at both camp sites and respectful of when to document images and put the camera aside. I leaned towards the latter on most occasions. It was a powerful experience both for myself, but likewise for those strangers you met just an hour earlier or from other groups walking the site. Aiming a camera just felt like a step too far most times and I chose to make certain I fully captured in the weight of the images with my own eyes.
Auschwitz has a much smaller footprint than Birkenau, but is just as raw. Row after row of well-preserved brick halls that line up were built to resemble an officer's quarters to any observer outside the camp but were anything of the sort inside. Stripped bare to concrete floors, ramshackle wooden bunks without blankets or cushion and ice cold even in the relative mildness of early Spring. The terrors are inescapable throughout as visitors witness collections of trunks, eyeglasses, shoes and human hair.
At times throughout the guided walk, I noticed myself close to the odd sensation of physical sickness in a public setting. None more sharply than when entering the perfectly intact, and sole remaining, gas chamber and crematorium. All the sights and stories make you weak-kneed but this closer of the Auschwitz portion of the tour cannot be defined in phrases. Everything is as it was. Tears flowed openly amongst our group…myself included.
Birkenau sits roughly 2km from the Auschwitz site and we took a much-needed break before loading up and driving the short distance over. The Birkenau site is most instantly recognizable as the concentration camp where train tracks bearing the seized and persecuted rolled into the camp. Here, captives were indifferently bestowed their fate by the flippant wave of a Nazi officer hand either left or right based on his regard of you, his mood that day, or who the hell knows. One direction meant indentured labor and one meant immediate death.
A lone train car bearing a flower in the paddock now rests on the track, and it is a compelling symbol. The site is vast and appears to extend on forever, all enveloped by coarsely constructed barbed wire and electrical knots at each end to power charges through the fencing. The retreating Nazis destroyed much of the site before retreating, so remnants are all that pepper the landscape of many buildings. Still, no bombing or burning can eliminate the traces and evidence of inexplicable criminality.
One primarily walks the grounds freely at Birkenau, spurred to put yourself visually where destroyed structures once stood. You make the walk from the train depot to the original site of the gas chambers - the trail too many were forced to take. You glance down at your feet from time to time during the walk. I wanted to be so careful to not interrupt anything, not kick a stone accidentally or tread on grass. The site is a living and breathing memorial and it calls for respect throughout. I was ready to leave.
The question I sought again and again was: “How?” There is no rational explanation for acts this heinous in nature. It defies understanding but attempts must persist to understand. The ride back on the chartered bus was one of the longest and most complex rides I have ever been on. There was no accompanying video en route back, and no one made a sound the entire trip back to town. The occasional sniffle or sob was the only interruption to the silence.
As we pulled back into our drop-off spot, our tour guide quickly said a few words about the day but encouraged everyone to think about it on their own time without their implied perspective. I thought they handled this well.
Here is my too simplistic take on the matter. It is of paramount importance to confront these images and stories so we learn to identify these trends when they inevitably arise again and assert resistance. It is easy to say “never again,” but harder to stop it once a foundation of fear takes root again. With fewer living survivors to remind us each passing year of the atrocities, the living memorials at Auschwitz, Birkenau, museums and other sites must be maintained and visited. One may cry, one may rage, one will be uncomfortable - but, most importantly, one will remember.
Kraków left its mark in several ways. I’ll always remember.