Krakow: Cathedrals, Cemeteries and Contrasts

The Internet lied.  I checked the weather on-line three times before leaving Phoenix.  The reports were an average high of 55 degrees, low of 45 degrees, but chance of rain.  We brought waterproof windbreakers and umbrella and left the leather coats and gloves at home. Big mistake.  It’s been a sunny but brisk 33 degrees during the day.  When you’ve lived in 110+ temperatures for six months, your mind forgets what cold feels like. Now we know.  So, we did what every American does – we headed to the mall. 


Sharing the same square as the train station is a new 3-story mall.  It’s probably 2 ½ times the size of Chandler Fashion Mall and packed with people mid-day.  Prices are comparable to the States, the food court includes Subway, KFC and McDonald’s, and stores include recognizable names like H&M playing Bruno Mars’ latest.  Everywhere are young, well-dressed, good-looking people, probably because of the university or just that Krakow is becoming prosperous.  Jagiellonian University is a respected university, and college is free for Poles if you pass exams, even medical school.  A university equates to hungry students; the Chipotle equivalent is Kabob restaurants.  Lunch was a huge gyro type sandwich. And I’ve come to a conclusion – Poland is full of beautiful women. 
Yesterday we walked Krakow on our own – we actually didn’t find or learn near as much as with a professional guide, thus nothing really to post yesterday.  Today we found more addresses of Henry, and got to see the huge Veit Stoss Altar in St. Mary’s cathedral.  It’s a majestic 36 feet high and 42 feet wide wood (two sided) triptych carved between 1477 and 1489 (Rick and I decided it’s too cold here for termites.)  It’s the largest altar of its kind in Europe.  It’s so striking I think of it as a wooden Pieta. Pictures will never do it justice – but I’ll try.   
In the afternoon  we joined a walking tour of the Jewish portion of Krakow.  There’s a local business of several competing companies here called ‘free walking tours.’  You just join in and tip the tour guide at the end. Though Schindler’s List was filmed here, I sense the general consensus is that while good, it was changed a bit for Hollywood (for instance the scene where Schindler chooses names is total fiction – someone else made the list and some people paid to get on the list.) Schindler’s Factory houses a creative museum on Krakow Jews during WWII but not much info on Schindler – didn’t even take a picture.  The film Poles like more is The Pianist by Roman Polanski. Though it takes place in Warsaw, they say it is a more true depiction since Roman Polanski was interred in the Krakow ghetto at age 8.   

In 1939 68,000 Jews lived in Krakow, or 25% of the population.  Only 3,000 survived.  After the war communists didn’t like any religion including Jews, so in 1968 after the Arab-Israeli war the communists gave Jews one-way tickets to the US, Israel (and one other country I forget.)  The Jewish section is very small, and except in a few places pretty run down, but the many pilgrimages here from Israel are helping fund a revival of sorts.  The headstones in the cemetery are authentic – but only because the Jews knew to bury them, so the Nazis didn’t use these particular ones to pave roads with.  The crushed ones found form a wall mosaic. The main synagogue is also completely restored – the Nazis used it is as a barn for their horses.  And like Paris, on one bridge over the Wistuła River lovers carve their names on locks, lock them to the bridge and throw the key in the river. I’ve seen brides and grooms almost every day out for photos. 

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Tags: Poland, Polish History