My First Solo Trip: Day 9
I decided to focus on the Jewish district today, because WWII and the Holocaust was one of the primary reasons that I had wanted to visit Krakow. I walked over to the Oskar Schindler factory in the morning. It was a little tricky to find, more so if you miss the foot tunnel that leads almost directly to it, but with the help of a British couple, who were also a bit lost, I finally got there. Turns out it was free to visit the museum on Mondays so while it was a bit over-crowded, I didn’t have to pay anything to get inside.
I’m not sure that I got as much out of this museum as I would have liked, it was difficult to read certain things because of the crowds and I rushed a bit toward the end because I wanted to make it to the Kazimierz area for the free walking tour of the Jewish area that afternoon. The museum tells the story of WWII in Poland in a linear fashion, so the information does flow fairly well as you move along, but you may experience a few gaps if you are unable to read some of the information posted. I did appreciate learning more about the events leading up to the invasion of Poland and what daily life was like under German occupation. Before visiting, I had no idea how little the Jewish people were fed while living in the ghetto or about the details of the ghetto wall and how the design mimics that of tombstones; one of the many ways that the Nazis waged psychological war against their victims. At any rate, I made it all the way through the museum and headed back towards the Old Synagogue to meet up for the Jewish Krakow walking tour.
Our guide was Gosia (unsure of the spelling, but it almost sounded like Sasha). She was a very engaging tour guide and I learned so much during this tour. I think I enjoyed it even more than the tour of Old Town. The tour begins with the history of the Jewish settlements in Krakow, which explains why there grew to be such a large Jewish population in Poland prior to WWII, and concludes with the events that took place during the second World War. It was interesting to learn that the first King Kazimierz recruited Jewish people because he wanted them to teach Polish peasants the ins and outs of finance and trade. Throughout the tour we stopped at a variety of important Jewish cites, including the market and were permitted to make a quick visit inside Isaak’s Synagogue. We were also shown several locations used in the filming of Schindler’s List.
The part of the tour that impacted me the most was the time spent in Heroes Square, where we learned just how terrible everyday life was inside the ghetto. I was shocked to learn that the Nazis thought grey hair was a sign of old age, regardless of age, and deemed anyone with grey hair unfit to work. Hair dye was one of the most sought after commodities that Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz often supplied to the people living in the walls of the ghetto. I was nearly brought to tears when Gosia told us about the clearing of the ghetto and the way that the Nazi’s murdered the children when it came time for them to clear the ghetto. It was a sobering moment standing in that square amongst each of the empty chairs, which were installed as a memorial to the victims of Krakow's ghetto. There are approximately 70 chairs of varying sizes, smaller chairs represent the lives of the children, and each chair is said to represent the lives of 1,000 victims.
The tour ended back at the Oskar Schindler Factory. Here Gosia pointed out that there is still much debate over Oskar Schindler's motivation for sheltering Jewish prisoners. Some think that he was merely a business man utilizing slave labor and others have speculated that he chose to save his employees as a way of saving his own skin when he realized that the Nazis would lose the war. Whatever his motivations were, no one can dispute the fact that what he did was the right thing. As the placards outside the museum state, "whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."
It was possible to visit the museum as a paid extension of the guided tour. Rather than revisit the museum, I decided to head back to the market area in the Kazimierz area so that I could try out Zapiekanki, which Gosia had informed us was a local favorite. Zapiekanki is like a halved loaf of bread, with an assortment of toppings, and cheese melted on top. There was an older man working the window at the market stall and he didn’t speak any English, but he quickly found a young woman who did. I was able to order a custom Zapiekanki, without cheese. There are a ton of different toppings you can select if you want to customize you’re food, but the young woman assured me that mushrooms, bacon, corn, and chives was a very traditional form of Zapiekanki so I ordered that. The portions are huge and it tasted very good, I’m sure it’s absolutely amazing if you can eat it with cheese. I couldn’t finish the entire thing and felt like a few of the locals were giving me side-eye when I had to throw the last bit of it away. I also recommend that you eat this standing up, because I had the misfortune of wearing some of mine for the rest of the day, of course cheese probably helps to hold it together as well.
It was late afternoon at this point so I went back to my hotel room to rest a bit and post a few photos of what I had seen and learned that day. Then, while it was still daylight, I decided to make sure I could easily find the bus station and double check the bus schedules for the next morning because I planned to take a local bus to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I found and familiarized myself with the bus station very easily and then I wandered back through the old town square and back to my hotel. I enjoyed a hot chocolate and cake at the hotel restaurant once again, before calling it an early night.