We arrived in Krakow at 6 am on an overnight train from Budapest. The station was modern – large, practical, and mall-adjacent. It buzzed at the early hour with commuters rushing, and magazine shops and coffee kiosks waking up to roll out displays and grind coffee beans.
Krakow is where you stay when you visit Auschwitz. It’s easy to arrange a driver and a guide to take you to the camps and not terribly expensive, either. Less than $200 for a private van and escort for our group of 5. Our Airbnb host offered to make these arrangements for us and our traveling companions. Our plan was to explore the Jewish Quarter in the morning, and spend the afternoon visiting the camps.
But first we headed to our old city apartment to drop our bags. Built sometime in the early 1800s, it boasted two flights of stairs, one stone, one wooden and impressive oak doors that I could imagine the Gestapo kicking in. The place had seen grander days.
A curtain barely hid the badly water-stained plaster in one of the bedrooms. But it was clean and spacious with fresh linens, towels and a tea kettle. The four bedrooms were a welcome luxury to all of us after sleeping in cramped stacks, piled 6 to a train car.
It was barely 7am but I looked forward to an undisturbed night of sleep. Blissfully alone.
The rain picked up as we strolled into the main square of the Old City. I thought of my Orthodox Jewish grandparents as we ducked into a restaurant and I ate a traitor’s breakfast of bacon and eggs. There would be no market in the square today. Too wet. We popped into a store to purchase umbrellas, before hiring a tour guide to show us the Jewish Quarter.
I knew it was likely that my grandfather had visited Krakow as a young man and possibly prayed in some of the synagogues there. I sought echoes of a young version of him in the shadows, bundled up and shuffling through damp alleys with his round rimmed spectacles and soul patch of a beard
Not hard to imagine, really. He would have looked a lot like the plentiful young hipsters and students present there now.
“Do you have a wifi password?” Marly, my older daughter asked as we set off on our tour. She wasted no time logging in, establishing contact with her present day kindreds.
We rolled between cemeteries and squares in our rain-proofed golf cart, silent in-between the pre recorded messages, explaining our route. Each bit of trivia was ushered in on a cushion of old time- violin music, lifted straight out of Fiddler on the Roof.
Our earnest young guide was neither Jewish or Polish, but a student from the Ukraine. He took his job seriously and was solicitous in his efforts to fasten the velcro and lift the clear vinyl cart-covers for shelter each time we stopped to take a photo. He would keep us safe and dry, unharmed by either history or the weather.
Our first stop found us in the Ghetto Heroes square, famous for an exhibit of oversized, empty chairs. This was where so many Jews were rounded up and sent to their death. Just the sort of place you’d expect to feel lost souls lingering. But not that day. Crowded, with tourists, but empty of spirits.
The Jews were all gone. Living and dead. Just, gone. How else can I explain the sense of absence, of emptiness? I’ve never experienced that before. So much nothing.
Around the bend, the street signs in the Jewish Quarter advertised humous and falafel. Shops were selling menorahs and seder plates and kitschy carvings. Klezmer music wafted out of cafes. But all of it was slightly off tune. The smells and sounds were a Disney version of the Jewish village that Krakow had once been. Scratch the surface, stop the recording or stray from the script and you found yourself blinking at the costumes, well aware that you were speaking to a 19 year old Ukrainian in a name tag who, despite his best intentions, couldn’t answer any of the tough questions.
The lines outside of Schindler’s factory were too long to even contemplate.
“You aren’t missing much,” the guide assured us, as my daughter quickly captured and captioned the location for her Snapchat story. “It’s been completely refurbished. If you’ve already seen the movie, it’s probably enough.”
Schindlers Factory? Check.
My heart ached, for a glimpse of something else. If not answers, then understanding. Where were all the spirits hiding? Surely there must be an authentic memory somewhere? Some unvarnished residue.
Finally we arrived at the Remuh synagogue and cemetery. The tour guide thought we were crazy when we insisted on getting out and going in, taking up all our time here when we could be getting lunch and a craft beer.
We made our way onto the grounds, pushed and shoved along by a group of Israelis anxious to light candles and move on to the next spot on the heritage tour.
Remuh is the oldest synagogue and cemetery in Krakow. The cemetery was established in the 1500s and closed in 1800 when a new cemetery was established down the street. There are many stories about this cemetery and notable figures who were buried here. But this didn’t stop the cemetery from nearly being eradicated. During the Nazi occupation the walls around the cemetery were razed and tombstones taken away for use as pavers. Many stones, both whole and in fragments, have been returned to the cemetery, but many more have not.
The stones that remain are dusted in lichen. A few are fully blanketed in thick, green, furry moss. I love moss on gravestones. It’s such a beautiful protective layer.
My younger daughter, Ani realized she was standing on one of the broken stones, and quickly stepped off. She was sure she heard something. A funny little old man voice*. Someone who was there, but not there. Watching her.
Hey there little girlie, watch where you’re going! What do you think you’re doing here?
Atop each stone in the Remah cemetery sit piles of more stones, successively smaller, huddled together. The small stones are traditionally left by the living who have called to pay their respects. It has the effect of a conjuring a crowd. The dead are not alone. They are in good company.
Finally, something. Someone.
We stood in the rain with the broken stones and buried bones, listening to the drip, drip, drip of time.
We let some of the wet and gray land on our skin. Let it sink in.
- Spirits in Poland Part 1 Family
- Spirits in Poland Part 2 Krakow
- Spirits in Poland Part 3 Auschwitzland
- Spirits in Poland Part 4 Spirit Sausages
- Spirits in Poland Part 5 The Mourner’s Prayer
*I later discovered the story about Yossele the Miser who was buried in the section of the cemetery where Ani heard the voice. Could this have been him?