Tag Archives: Poland

Krakow, Kazimierz and Oskar Schindler

The district of Kazimierz in Krakow is named after its royal founder, King Kazimierz the Great, who established the town in 1335 as a prosperous merchant community on an island in the river Vistula.  The Jewish history of Kazimierz began with the expulsion in 1495 of the Jewish community from the western part of Krakow and they moved to Kazimierz which eventually became the main spiritual and cultural centre of Polish Jewry for the next four centuries.  During that time the Jewish community grew to as many as seventy thousand people.

During the Second World War, the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz were expelled and relocated into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, across the river.  Most of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in Nazi death camps.  Today there are only two hundred Jews in Krakow and after the Second World War, Kazimierz, deserted by its pre-war Jewish population, was populated by the poor and the sometimes criminal elements, becoming a backwater area with a reputation for being unsafe.

Our gude, Andrew, began the tour by leaving Ulica Szeroka and driving south towards the river and Podgórze.  He drove along the main roads and as it trundled along the little electric vehicle built up quite a queue of traffic and sitting in the back and feeling self conscious I tried not to make eye contact with the motorists stacking up behind us and who suspected might be getting iritable.  We crossed the river and came first to a slabbed square where sculptures of seventy empty chairs represented seventy-thousand lost lives and then we carried on through an area of modern light industrial units towards our next stop, the Schindler factory.

The roads were in a terrible condition with the thin layer of tarmac regularly ripped off by a combination of harsh weather and heavy traffic to expose the cobbled stones beneath and Andrew had to weave his way through the potholes and cracks.  The road hadn’t been swept for months and we drove past many old buildings that had never been repaired after the war and sixty-five years later are left as empty rotting shells.

After a while we arrived at the factory, which at the time was being converted into a museum but as the project was way behind schedule there was only a temporary exhibition to look around.  When Podgórze became the site of the Jewish Ghetto many Germans set up businesses in the area in an attempt to profit from the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Oskar Schindler was such a man, but in the end he came to save the lives of over eleven hundred Jews that worked in his factory, often at great risk to his own life and at personal expense.

Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ tells the story of how Oskar Schindler (born 28th April 1908), an ethnic German industrialist from the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic, saved many Jews from the misery of having to work at the Nazi forced labour camp at Plaszow by employing them in his ceramics factory instead.  The factory became a sub-camp in the Nazi concentration camp system and the Jewish prisoners lived in barracks which Schindler built for them in the grounds of his factory.  Although Schindler didn’t mistreat his Jewish workers the truth is that he was a war profiteer and he did make money from their slave labour. Initially, he was motivated by the desire for money but later he developed a conscience about the mistreatment and ultimately saved his workers from certain death by relocating them to a new factory in Czechoslovakia spending all of his fortune in the process.

It didn’t take long to look around the temporary exhibition and fairly soon we were back in the golf buggy and bouncing around the streets again.  We passed the last remaining part of the concrete ghetto wall that enclosed four hectares of land and buildings where the Jews were moved to by the Nazis and then crossed back over the river into Kazimierz where Andrew pointed out a succession of ‘Schindler’s list’ scene locations, most of the city’s eight synagogues and various centres of previous Jewish culture and life.

The tour finished back at Ulica Szeroka which is now the heart of the present Jewish community with shops, restaurants, monuments and the Remuh Synagogue, which is currently the only active synagogue in Krakow.  Despite being run down the little square was vibrant and busy especially with tourists and visiting groups of Jewish teenagers carrying out a pilgrimage to the place and all that it represents.

A Life in a Year – 22nd July, Nowa Huta Steelworks in Krakow

The Nowa Huta city tour is designed as an alternative to the castles, cathedrals and palaces of Krakow and first of all Eric, our guide, took us to a restaurant called the Stylowa (meaning Stylish) in a prestigious location on central Rose Avenue that has been there since 1956 and is a local legend locked now in a communist time warp. Once it was the most exclusive restaurant in the town and was a meeting place for the elite of Nowa Huta, the lawyers, professors, artists and the engineers from the nearby steelworks.  Stylowa was as a top class restaurant, tastefully decorated with painted white with golden highlights, numerous mirrors, wonderful crystal chandeliers, solid tables and chairs and splendid marble floor and pillars.  It has had a couple of renovations over the years of course but it still retains the original features (including the waitresses) and it was a fascinating insight into the past.

Over Coffee Eric introduced us to the history of Nowa Huta and talked us through a scrap book of photographs and memories accompanied by a personal interpretation and a fascinating first-hand account based on his family recollections of life under a communist regime.  This was sensible Eric and with his expressive and thoughtful blue eyes contrasting against his pale academic complexion he provided an interesting and coherent narrative based on a combination of facts, moving reminiscences and personal political theories.  We didn’t expect or require Eric to be crazy and I sensed that he was more comfortable with that.  I especially liked his analysis of communist economics that he assessed as being based on making things inefficient as possible – on purpose!

Nowa Huta was built for two hundred thousand Polish steel workers in just ten years between 1949 and 1959, the steelworks were opened on 22nd July 1954 and was designed to rebalance Krakow society in favour of the proletariat to overwhelm the largely conservative and bourgeois city that was a focus of opposition and a problem to the communist government.  The authorities built, what was at the time, the biggest steel works in the World and created a model communist town and society to support it.

The best Polish architects planned the city and Nowa Huta was built to the preferred communist Renaissance model with a rigid geometry and a sunburst pattern where streets radiated in perfect straight lines and through symmetrical angles from a central square, which was the hub of the town.  Communism is an ideology that seeks to establish a classless, stateless social organisation based on common ownership and centralised planning and that principal had helped to give the cities to the citizens and wide open spaces in which to enjoy them. The designers of Nowa Huta had aimed to sweep away the class inequalities so there were no churches and the whole place had a uniform design that was constructed out of their most favourite building material – concrete.

Nowa Huta however turned out to be the bizarre product of thoughtless communist central planning. The land had been confiscated from the Church who had owned vast parts of pre communist Krakow and had farmed this rich land for centuries. The focus of the town was a huge steelworks, yet there was no iron ore or coal for hundreds of miles around so had to be transported in.  It was built on the richest and most valuable farmland in the region and the concrete and tarmac was laid without thought over an important Neolithic settlement whose inestimable value now can only be imagined.

Krakow resented Nowa Huta and to a certain extent still does and there is an uneasy co-existence between the working class suburb and the bourgeois city.  It has a reputation for being lawless and dangerous and now, after the history lesson, it was time to go onto the streets to see for ourselves if this was true and this was to be another surprise.  In contrast to more recent developments the town is comparatively low-rise with wide streets, spacious boulevards, green open parks, flower beds and trees and although badly scarred by industrial pollution the buildings are substantial and the infrastructure of the town is in surprisingly good shape compared with some other suburbs of Krakow that we had seen.  I could certainly understand why people are currently lobbying to have Nowa Huta added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

The sun was shining and it all felt safe and rather pleasant walking through the wide open spaces of the communist showpiece and listening to Eric’s reflective commentary about the way of life of the people that lived here.  I could almost imagine the fifteen metre high statue of Lenin outside the Stylowa restaurant and the chimneys of the steelworks belching smoke and pollution into the atmosphere and, I’m guessing here of course, but I imagine that in the old days there would have been a hammer and sickle on the site of modern day Ronald Regan Avenue!

After the stroll though the town we returned now to the Trabant and Eric took us on a ride through the streets.  The car clattered down the wide boulevard known as the Champs-Élysées and to the gates of the now privatised steel works that employs only 10% of the original forty-thousand workforce.  From here we carried on through the outskirts, past a bizarre piece of public street art, an olive green T34 Soviet combat tank and then to the very first church that was built in Nowa Huta after a long campaign to obtain construction permission.  On the return to Krakow we passed through a modern addition to the town, which was much closer to our original expectations with rows and rows of grim high rise apartments, which with Housing Association landlords now rather than the State, were at least trying to cheer themselves up with a bright coat of exterior paint.

After an excellent morning Eric took us back to the old town and explained that although this was a communist tour we would have to pay a capitalist fee for the excursion in his luxury limousine and we happy with that because this had been a real highlight of the week.

You can read Michael palin’s version of the tour here, http://palinstravels.co.uk/book-4439, it’s not as good as mine!

 

http://www.crazyguides.com/

Every Picture Tells a Story – First Cars

Terror drive in Naxos

A Life in a Year – 20th May, The Nazis and the Final Solution

As part of their ‘Final Solution’ the Nazis planned to remove permanently anyone that they couldn’t get along with as neighbours and on 21st February 1940 they began preparing plans for the notorious concentration and killing camp at Auschwitz in Poland.  On 20th May in the same year the first prisoners started to arrive.

When I visited the place in December 2006 I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and I confess to being a little apprehensive at the beginning of the tour especially when a cold wind seemed to blow across our faces at the very moment we passed through the infamous gates of the camp; or perhaps I just imagined it?  There is a story that no birds fly across the camp but I did see a solitary crow passing by so I presumed that this was indeed just a bit of folklore.  I didn’t see any more however.

It wasn’t quite what we expected to see, instead of the wooden barracks that we had imagined these were three storey brick buildings that looked quite comfortable and this didn’t seem wholly consistent with the truth of the horrors that took place here.  One million, six hundred thousand people killed as part of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ including one million Jews, seventy-five thousand Poles and twenty-five thousand gypsies!  Just imagine that! Actually I think it is impossible to imagine that.  When the camp was at its most ruthless efficient they slaughtered four hundred and fifty-eight thousand Hungarian Jews in just three months.  Just three months!  That is slightly over five thousand people a day!  I knew this of course but what I didn’t know is that the monsters actually sold them train tickets to get here. 

Amongst the exhibits were empty Zyclon B canisters, the gas used to murder the prisoners, seven tonnes of human hair from an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people and part of a grim recycling operation to process it into army uniforms; spectacles, pots and pans, suitcases with return addresses optimistically scrawled on them for identification and most moving of all a display of children’s clothes and possessions.  The owners of these personal belongings all died at the hands of the Nazi’s, a bunch of psychopaths, sadists and thugs all handpicked to administer and run this dreadful place. 

Usually when I am travelling I like the sun to shine and today the sun did shine but this seemed to be somewhat inappropriate, this seemed to me to be a place where the sun should never shine again so that no one ever forgets the enormity of the crime.  We saw the death wall where an unknown number of people were murdered and the prison cells that were positively medieval in their cruelty; the starvation cell, the suffocation cell and the standing in a very confined space with others cell; and there was a display of photographs of the prisoners which in each case showed the dates of admission and of death, on average only three short months. 

Finally we passed through the first gas chamber and crematorium where seven hundred people at a time were gassed to death and this was a horrible place, grey, grim and cold.  All of this took place less than ten years before I was born and my thoughts at this time were how lucky we have been to live a happy life.  I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my father, but these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in the east.

After a short break we went to the adjacent Birkenau that was a much bigger second camp where people lived in wooden barracks and where most of the killing took place.  This was much more like what we were expecting and so much more familiar to the films we have all seen.  This place was stark and ugly and we saw the platform where selection took place, work camp or death, and looming over all of this was the watchtower that kept guard over this entire evil place. 

The journey back was a time for personal reflection and the coach was eerily quiet as I am sure each visitor tried to make sense of what they had seen.  I am not certain I was able to do that but it was a place I wanted to visit and I’m glad that I did. 

A Life in a Year – 28th April, Krakow, Kazimierz and Oskar Schindler

The district of Kazimierz is named after its royal founder, King Kazimierz the Great, who established the town in 1335 as a prosperous merchant community on an island in the river Vistula.  The Jewish history of Kazimierz began with the expulsion in 1495 of the Jewish community from the western part of Krakow and they moved to Kazimierz and it eventually became the main spiritual and cultural centre of Polish Jewry for the next four centuries.  During that time the Jewish community grew to as many as seventy thousand people.

During the Second World War, the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz were expelled and relocated into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, across the river.  Most of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in Nazi death camps.  Today there are only two hundred Jews in Krakow and after the Second World War, Kazimierz, deserted by its pre-war Jewish population, was populated by the poor and the sometimes criminal elements, becoming a backwater area with a reputation for being unsafe.

Andrew began the tour by leaving Ulica Szeroka and driving south towards the river and Podgórze.  He drove along the main roads and as it trundled along the little electric vehicle built up quite a queue of traffic and sitting in the back and feeling self conscious I tried not to make eye contact with the motorists stacking up behind us.  We crossed the river and came first to a slabbed square where sculptures of seventy empty chairs represented seventy-thousand lost lives and then we carried on through an area of modern light industrial units towards our next stop, the Schindler factory.

The roads were in a terrible condition with the thin layer of tarmac regular ripped off to expose the cobbled stones beneath and Andrew had to weave his way through the potholes and cracks.  The road hadn’t been swept for months and we drove past many old buildings that had never been repaired after the war and sixty-five years later are left as empty rotting shells. 

After a while we arrived at the factory, which is being converted into a museum but as the project is way behind schedule there was only a temporary exhibition to look around.  When Podgórze became the site of the Jewish Ghetto many Germans set up businesses in the area in an attempt to profit from the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Oskar Schindler was such a man, but in the end he came to save the lives of over eleven hundred Jews that worked in his factory, often at great risk to his own life and at personal expense.

Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ tells the story of how Oskar Schindler (born 28th April 1908), an ethnic German industrialist from the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic, saved many Jews from the misery of having to work at the Nazi forced labour camp at Plaszow, by employing them in his ceramics factory instead.  The factory became a sub-camp in the Nazi concentration camp system and the Jewish prisoners lived in barracks which Schindler built for them in the grounds of his factory.  Although Schindler didn’t mistreat his Jewish workers the truth is that he was a war profiteer and he did make money from their slave labour. Initially, he was motivated by the desire for money but later he developed a conscience about the mistreatment and ultimately saved his workers from certain death by relocating them to a new factory in Czechoslovakia spending all of his fortune in the process.

It didn’t take long to look around the temporary exhibition and fairly soon we were back in the golf buggy and bouncing around the streets again.  We passed the last remaining part of the concrete ghetto wall that enclosed four hectares of land and buildings where the Jews were moved to by the Nazis and then crossed back over the river into Kazimierz where Andrew pointed out a succession of ‘Schindler’s list’ scene locations, most of the city’s eight synagogues and various centres of previous Jewish culture and life. 

The tour finished back at Ulica Szeroka which is now the heart of the present Jewish community with shops, restaurants, monuments and the Remuh Synagogue, which is currently the only active synagogue in Krakow.  Despite being run down the little square was vibrant and busy especially with tourists and visiting groups of Jewish teenagers carrying out a pilgrimage to the place and all that it represents.

A Life in a Year – 14th March, The Liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto

On the final day of a short break to Krakow we enjoyed our continental breakfast at the Hotel Ester, packed our bags and checked out and planned a morning around the Jewish quarter and the Second-World-War ghetto area in the Podgórze district across the river.  On the previous day we had made arrangements for a city guide in an electric street vehicle to meet us at ten o’clock and just ahead of schedule he arrived at the front of the hotel.  His name was Andrew and he explained that he would show us the principal sights of the area but this being Saturday the synagogues would be closed.

The district of Kazimierz is named after its royal founder, King Kazimierz the Great, who established the town in 1335 as a prosperous merchant community on an island in the river Vistula.  The Jewish history of Kazimierz began with the expulsion in 1495 of the Jewish community from the western part of Krakow and they moved to Kazimierz and it eventually became the main spiritual and cultural centre of Polish Jewry for the next four centuries.  During that time the Jewish community grew to as many as seventy thousand people.

During the Second World War, the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz were expelled and relocated into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, across the river.  The ghetto was liquidated on 14th March 1943 and most of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in Nazi death camps.  Today there are only two hundred Jews in Krakow and after the Second World War, Kazimierz, deserted by its pre-war Jewish population, was populated by the poor and the sometimes criminal elements, becoming a backwater area with a reputation for being unsafe.

Andrew began the tour by leaving Ulica Szeroka and driving south towards the river and Podgórze.  He drove along the main roads and as it trundled along the little electric vehicle built up quite a queue of traffic and sitting in the back and feeling self conscious I tried not to make eye contact with the motorists stacking up behind us.  We crossed the river and came first to a slabbed square where sculptures of seventy empty chairs represented seventy-thousand lost lives and then we carried on through an area of modern light industrial units towards our next stop, the Schindler factory.

The roads were in a terrible condition with the thin layer of tarmac regular ripped off to expose the cobbled stones beneath and Andrew had to weave his way through the potholes and cracks.  The road hadn’t been swept for months and we drove past many old buildings that had never been repaired after the war and sixty-five years later are left as empty rotting shells. 

After a while we arrived at the factory, which is being converted into a museum but as the project is way behind schedule there was only a temporary exhibition to look around.  When Podgórze became the site of the Jewish Ghetto many Germans set up businesses in the area in an attempt to profit from the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Oskar Schindler was such a man, but in the end he came to save the lives of over eleven hundred Jews that worked in his factory, often at great risk to his own life and at personal expense.

Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ tells the story of how Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German industrialist from the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic, saved many Jews from the misery of having to work at the Nazi forced labour camp at Plaszow, by employing them in his ceramics factory instead.  The factory became a sub-camp in the Nazi concentration camp system and the Jewish prisoners lived in barracks which Schindler built for them in the grounds of his factory.  Although Schindler didn’t mistreat his Jewish workers the truth is that he was a war profiteer and he did make money from their slave labour. Initially, he was motivated by the desire for money but later he developed a conscience about the mistreatment and ultimately saved his workers from certain death by relocating them to a new factory in Czechoslovakia spending all of his fortune in the process.

It didn’t take long to look around the temporary exhibition and fairly soon we were back in the golf buggy and bouncing around the streets again.  We passed the last remaining part of the concrete ghetto wall that enclosed four hectares of land and buildings where the Jews were moved to by the Nazis and then crossed back over the river into Kazimierz where Andrew pointed out a succession of ‘Schindler’s list’ scene locations, most of the city’s eight synagogues and various centres of previous Jewish culture and life. 

The tour finished back at Ulica Szeroka which is now the heart of the present Jewish community with shops, restaurants, monuments and the Remuh Synagogue, which is currently the only active synagogue in Krakow.  Despite being run down the little square was vibrant and busy especially with tourists and visiting groups of Jewish teenagers carrying out a pilgrimage to the place and all that it represents.

A Life in a Year – 21st February, The Evil Nazis and a visit to Auschwitz

As part of their ‘Final Solution’ the Nazis planned to remove permanently anyone that they couldn’t get along with as neighbours and on 21st February 1940 they began preparing plans for the notorious concentration and killing camp at Auschwitz in Poland.

When I visited the place in December 2006 I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and I confess to being a little apprehensive at the beginning of the tour especially when a cold wind seemed to blow across our faces at the very moment we passed through the infamous gates of the camp; or perhaps I just imagined it?  There is a story that no birds fly across the camp but I did see a solitary crow passing by so I presumed that this was indeed just a bit of folklore.  I didn’t see any more however.

It wasn’t quite what we expected to see, instead of the wooden barracks that we had imagined these were three storey brick buildings that looked quite comfortable and this didn’t seem wholly consistent with the truth of the horrors that took place here.  One million, six hundred thousand people killed as part of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ including one million Jews, seventy-five thousand Poles and twenty-five thousand gypsies!  Just imagine that! Actually I think it is impossible to imagine that.  When the camp was at its most ruthless efficient they slaughtered four hundred and fifty-eight thousand Hungarian Jews in just three months.  Just three months!  That is slightly over five thousand people a day!  I knew this of course but what I didn’t know is that the monsters actually sold them train tickets to get here. 

Amongst the exhibits were empty Zyclon B canisters, the gas used to murder the prisoners, seven tonnes of human hair from an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people and part of a grim recycling operation to process it into army uniforms; spectacles, pots and pans, suitcases with return addresses optimistically scrawled on them for identification and most moving of all a display of children’s clothes and possessions.  The owners of these personal belongings all died at the hands of the Nazi’s, a bunch of psychopaths, sadists and thugs all handpicked to administer and run this dreadful place. 

Usually when I am travelling I like the sun to shine and today the sun did shine but this seemed to be somewhat inappropriate, this seemed to me to be a place where the sun should never shine again so that no one ever forgets the enormity of the crime.  We saw the death wall where an unknown number of people were murdered and the prison cells that were positively medieval in their cruelty; the starvation cell, the suffocation cell and the standing in a very confined space with others cell; and there was a display of photographs of the prisoners which in each case showed the dates of admission and of death, on average only three short months. 

Finally we passed through the first gas chamber and crematorium where seven hundred people at a time were gassed to death and this was a horrible place, grey, grim and cold.  All of this took place less than ten years before I was born and my thoughts at this time were how lucky we have been to live a happy life.  I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my father, but these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in the east.

After a short break we went to the adjacent Birkenau that was a much bigger second camp where people lived in wooden barracks and where most of the killing took place.  This was much more like what we were expecting and so much more familiar to the films we have all seen.  This place was stark and ugly and we saw the platform where selection took place, work camp or death, and looming over all of this was the watchtower that kept guard over this entire evil place. 

The journey back was a time for personal reflection and the coach was eerily quiet as I am sure each visitor tried to make sense of what they had seen.  I am not certain I was able to do that but it was a place I wanted to visit and I’m glad that I did.