Poland sketches #9 Jewish Quarter

Excerpt of my text in Diários de Viagem 2 (Travelling journals 2) freely translated from the original Portuguese:

“The visit to the New Jewish Cemetery, deep in the heart of the Kazimierz district had, ironically, wiped away the specter of death. A peaceful chaos of tombstones blended with nature. For many minutes, we were alone in the dead quiet alleyways, until the arrival of a small horde of Israeli orthodox jews, teenagers, clumsy, euphoric with their trip down history lane.”

cemetery, Krakow, Poland

They were actually looking for the tombstone I had chosen as a foreground to my sketch. As a gentile, I feared a theological clash, so I wandered away as the horde of teens, lead by an older rabbi, bombarded the sights and several tombstones with flashes from digital cameras and smartphones. Once upon their objective, it was prayer and picture galore! Not since visiting Jim Morrison’s grave had I seen such a devotion and touristic enthusiasm for a tombstone. Later I found the grave belonged to a certain Rabbi Akiva Kornitzer, born in the Netherlands in the 19th century, who was Chief Rabbi of Krakow at some point.

synagogue, Krakow, Poland, Remuh

Kazimierz, which contained the Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi occupation, is peppered with quite ancient synagogues. Remuh Synagogue is perhaps one of the least interesting ones, but it’s one of two which are still active in Krakow. The thing I appreciated most was the devotion to the written word that Judaism exudes, in that even a tiny synagogue like Remuh has a proportional library of books available to its community.

Poland sketches #8 Auschwitz

Excerpt of my text in Diários de Viagem 2 (Travelling journals 2) freely translated from the original Portuguese:

“Wandering around Krakow, one can easily feel the presence of the Jewish history and culture. But its gloomiest landmark is actually outside of the former capital, in a small town of Oświęcim, infamously known by its german name Auschwitz, and its extension, Camp 2 – Birkenau. The reasons to visit the old concentration camps are probably manyfold, as are, undoubtedly the reasons for not visiting them. But it’s only after visiting them that the reason becomes apparent. It’s a leap of faith to comprehend the human experience on Earth.”

train, Auschwitz, Oświęcim,  concentration camp

The 2-hour train ride to Oświęcim felt, for a few minutes, part of the experience of visiting the concentration camps. The train fills up as much as possible with people in Krakow’s Central Station and one wonders if all those people are going to visit the camps! It’s only after two stops, after almost everyone leaves at Krakow’s Business Park that the illusion is broken. After that a second illusion steps in: that of the increasingly desolate winter landscape of southern Poland. One can almost feel that the gloominess of the history has spread throughout these fields.

The train is a 15-minute walk away from the camps, good for relaxing in preparation to the things to come. What one finds in visiting the camps is an immense conflict of words and feelings. Words like efficiency, death, system and chaos, could be used in the same sentences to describe the things that surround us. The order of things gets messy in one’s mind, while facing the industrialization of death. The mathematics of carnage. The science of killing.

Auschwitz, Oświęcim,  concentration camp

A smell of charcoal runs through the air during the hike back to the station. It’s the reason the camps were built in this region. It is rich in fossil fuel and labor is needed to extract and process it. The very same labor that inhabited and was murdered here.

Poland sketches #7 Music in Krakow

Excerpt of my text in Diários de Viagem 2 (Travelling journals 2) freely translated from the original Portuguese:

street singer, street musician, opera, music, Krakow, singer, Poland

“I like to focus in people, in their facial features – a legacy from Hugo Pratt, who used to study the features of the different peoples in his stories. The opera-singing lady in a street corner in front of the Church of St. Andrew in the Old Town of Kraków abused her features in a lofty exaggeration.

Sofia, fado, fadista, Poland, Krakow, Piękny Pies, music, Talking Dog, nightlife

Whereas Sofia, a portuguese girl we stumbled upon rehearsing for a mini fado show a few minutes later, expressed herself subtely with proud postures and slight movements, traits of a proper fado singer.”

Sofia, fado, fadista, Poland, Krakow, Piękny Pies, music, Talking Dog, nightlife

Poland sketches #6 Food in Krakow

Excerpt of my text in Diários de Viagem 2 (Travelling journals 2) freely translated from the original Portuguese:

Polakowsky, Krakow, Poland, food, milk bar, bar mleczny

“In Poland, food is cheap and delicious! Partly due to the many Soviet-era Bar Mleczny (milk bars), a kind of social canteen for workers that used to be subsidized by the state, serving cheap and nourishing meals in a grey, depressing atmosphere, mostly with one-seat tables. Polakowski is an ultra-decorated modern interpretation of these characteristically Polish establishments. The dishese, simple, but heavy on the cream, dairy and cabbage, featuring chunky kielbasas, pungent bigos, rough golanka or pasty pierogi, are ideal for workers, students, pensioners, or weary travellers.

zapiekanka, Krakow, Poland, food, snacks, hole-in-the-wall, street food

After a few beers and wódkas, late in the evening, the simple, ubiquitous zapiekankas become intelligentsia-worthy delicacies, equivalent to Sweden’s falafels or the Portuguese bifanas.”

Krakow, Poland, food, street food, hamburger, snacks, hole-in-the-wall

Poland sketches #5 Sights of Krakow

Krakow, Poland, Wawel, cathedral, Katedra Wawelska

Kraków is definitively more touristy than Warszawa. The medieval town’s survival during WWII made it possible for the city to skip the soviet-style modernist renovation and helped preserve the atmosphere of a historical European city, with all the layers of the preceding epochs in plain view. The historical center is peaceful, if a tad busy with mostly Russian and other European tourists going about. It was at a time, the capital city of Poland, until Sigismund III Vasa, part of a Swedish dynasty of kings moved the capital to Warszawa, to be closer to all the territories that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled over.

Krakow, Poland, hot chocolate, chocolate, Wedel

Kraków’s historic center (the Old Town, Kazimierz and Wawel) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since ’78 and was one of the first of its kind. The cultural DNA of the city feels very different from that of Warszawa, partly because while Warszawa was closer to Russia, Sweden and Germany, and prey to their invading armies, Kraków was closer to the Habsburg Empire’s ambitions.