Krakow

Breakfast in Kazimierz

Kazimierz is a district in the south of Krakow, pressed between a bend of the river Vistula. Poles and Jews have lived peacefully together in Kazimierz for centuries, until the war, when the Jews were sent across the river to the ghetto.

Standing at the Vistula and gazing across at the other riverbank, my mind drifts for some reason to a moment in Andrei Platonov‘s novel ‘The Foundation Pit’. It’s the early days of the Soviet Union, construction for a giant proletarian house is underway, and the Kulaks, wealthy land-owning peasants and, are being rounded up and put on a river raft: 

“Fa-are we-ell, parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.

“Far-are we-ell!” responded the kulaks sailing off to the sea.

It’s a different tragedy and a different (in Platonov’s case symbolic, imaginary) river, but the same disastrous twentieth century.

On a positive note, there are signs of real Jewish cultural life returning to Kazimierz. Real cultural life, with all its prerequisites of tolerance, safety, past, and future. Yes, Kazimierz is tin menorahs, Zydki figures, and cheap trinkets sold on the curb. But Kazimierz is also a publishing house (publishing Jewish literature in Polish), a bookstore, live music, a kosher Israeli restaurant, a community center and places of prayer.

My hotel is in the attic of an old Mikvah, a ritual bathhouse and I sleep there like a stone. The breakfast room doubles as a place for the publishing house to hold meetings and for klezmer musicians to tune their instruments before they play for the dinner guests. Obscure Jewish celebrities beam down at me from picture frames. The table is already set: herring and onions, plums, cake, boiled eggs, mackerel, cream cheese, jam, toast, and coffee.

As I take my place and begin my ritual of making sandwiches to slip in my coat pockets (I really have no appetite in the morning), a Orthodox man comes in, teetering under the weight of multiple black suitcases and a hat box. He sits down at an empty table across from me, calls the waitress over, and asks her anything is kosher. She shakes her head. He lets out a small sigh, checks his watch, and orders an espresso, two glasses of slivovitz and a bowl of plums, which he drinks and eats with slow luxuriousness. 

St. Mary’s Basilica

Across from the main market square in the Old Town is St. Mary’s Basilica (completed in 1347). Entering it, you feel as though you’ve stepped inside some bodily organ, so rich and red are the walls. Gilded ribbons run up the walls like little veins to a vaulted ceiling, the blue of Polish pottery, and covered with stars.

Every hour, the Hejnał Mariacki is played by a trumpeter up in one of St. Mary’s two towers. It’s a sad, plain kind of bugle call that warbles over the market square and then suddenly dies out— a nod to a 13th century trumpeter shot in the throat mid-song. 

Inside St. Mary’s it’s warm and quiet. People talk in hushed, solemn voices. When they pray, they only move their lips. Every once and awhile, when the door swings open to let someone in or out, it’s possible to hear music from the market square and the hoofbeats of horses. It smells of damp wood, recent rain, and ammonia from the horses lined up nearby. Some of their drivers have fallen asleep on their carriages.

Slivovitz

The man with the plums and the slivovitz gets stuck in rush hour traffic, misses his flight to New York and decides to stay in Kazimierz for another night.

Over slivovitz and coffee, he tells me about his life. He tells me about his grandparents from a tiny village in Hungary who made their own slivovitz; who came to New York without a word of English and without having ever seen a banana (and bit into them, peel and all). He tells me about living next to ‘the Projects’: how he used to fear the people there —who supposedly flip kippahs off— but doesn’t anymore. Nobody from the Projects have ever flipped his kippah off, he says, and what’s more, they are all actually nice. They all take care of one another now, he says: if some criminal is on the loose, Orthodox families will fling open the windows and shout “Get him!” in Yiddish.  And a group of neighbours will gather and trail whoever is causing trouble until the police finally arrive.

We go on talking from afternoon until evening, when the restaurant suddenly fills up for dinner. The old waiter lights a candle on our table and gives a polite little cough to remind us that we are taking one of his spots. My friend takes the hint and asks if I’m hungry. I say, well, a little. He smiles, picks up the menu and proceeds to order around half of it: potato latkes, thin red borscht, matzah ball soup, helzel, cholent, chicken livers, cabbage rolls, charoset — and more slivovitz. 

Shall I bring over two plates, so it’s easier to share, sir? The waiter asks.

I assume it’s not kosher?

No,
 says the waiter.

Then no thanks, it’s all for the lady. 

The waiter’s eyes widen. My eyes widen. I protest, but my friend says he’s feeling generous, he enjoys the company, and besides, if he can’t eat anything while he’s here, he’d at least like to see the food of the old country— the food his grandparents ate in their little Hungarian village. 

I soon learn that my friend is himself the owner of a restaurant and fanatical about food to a degree that I’ve only read about (perhaps in M.F.K Fisher stories.) The restrictions of his religion only serve strengthen this fanaticism by adding an element of mystery to things. His descriptions of fois gras and oysters, things he’s never tried and probably never will, are so beautiful, that they make my very real experiences of fois gras and oysters, seem pale and unreal, as if I ate them in a fog. Or as if I were one of Plato’s cave-dwellers, eating only shadows. 

Every time a new dish arrives, he cuts into it with a fork and knife, listens to the sound it makes (a crunch or a squelch or a hiss),  breathes in its aroma, and nods his approval. He seems impressed by the quality and authenticity of the dishes. The only thing that causes him to shake his head is the garnish on each plate:

Do you have any idea how much this would cost at a kosher supermarket? He asks me.

No, of course not, I say.

Well, according to the FDA, the average head of lettuce touches sixty insects. One insect, one sin, so you do the math! And well, can you imagine how painstaking it is for a poor Rabbi to go through and check a little lettuce for insects? A garnish is just a waste if you ask me. And look, you’re not even eating it!

His phone rings, and he gets up from the table to take a business call in Yiddish. I take this opportunity to ask the waiter for take away boxes, since there’s no chance of fitting everything in my coat pockets. When he returns I thank him for the meal. He thanks me for listening. It is a profoundly strange and beautiful evening. 

Czesław Miłosz

On Wednesday afternoon, I walk to the southernmost part of Kazimierz, where the Skalka Monastery sits on the banks of the Vistula. I want to visit the tomb of Czesław Miłosz, one of my favourite poets (this is my favourite poem of his about Krakow). 

The courtyard of the monastery is empty, save for a woman napping on a bench, and a group of schoolchildren with chins in their hands.  A bored looking ticket attendant collects my three zlotys and gives me a postcard that reads ‘Hello from the Skalka Monastery!’ I don’t need to go looking for Miłosz’ tomb: it’s the first one to the left.

stand next to it for a few minutes trying to think about something meaningful, but as usual when I’m near the dead, my mind can’t seem to span the massive distance between us and prefers to think about my parking ticket, which is set to expire in an hour. 

Somewhere above my head, I hear a drum set, and the squeak of saxophones. Thankful for the interruption, I walk upstairs (past the attendant and the children) to the church, where a dress rehearsal for a  Catholic-rock musical is taking place. A priest in a long white robe plays the saxophone, while another, dressed up like a thug, raps in Polish. Between stanzas a choir sings with gusto. 

I take a seat in a back pew and watch for awhile. The rest of the pews are empty. It’s only me, the sound technician, the director, and a drunk woman who is dancing in the aisle. Outside it begins to rain again, first just a little, then a lot.

The Temple Synagogue

Outside the temple synagogue in Kazimierz, three Orthodox men crowd around a smartphone. A fourth man paces nearby, reading a holy book, and mouthing the words to himself. All four have plastic caps stretched over their hats to protect them from the rain, which has let up for a few minutes but will surely start again. 

A taxi pulls up, and they file in, ducking their heads carefully to avoid hitting their hats on the rim of the car. The fourth trails after them. He doesn’t take his eyes off his book. They drive away, bouncing over the cobblestones.

Plac Nowy

My second hotel room in Krakow faces the Plac Nowy, a market square in Kazimierz. Unable to sleep for some reason, I lie awake the whole night, listening to the sounds of the square, which swells and empties according to its own natural laws.

Around two, students leave the bar underneath the hotel and fill the square. They laugh and shout in young, happy voices. At three it becomes quiet— quieter than the Polish countryside. At four, some drunkards arrive, argue, make up, and sing. Then, around five, silence again, broken up only occasionally by the screech of a bird. 

At six, I move over to the window and watch the sky begin to lighten, and the construction workers drink coffee at the little kiosk. At seven, they are replaced by old men with woolen caps and long faces, who sit on benches and watch the street vendors laying out their wares (menorahs, books, communist pins, old coins).

It must have rained sometime in the night because the pavement is wet and the rooftops shimmer.

The Temple Synagogue
Czesław Miłosz, at around the time he was a Polish diplomat in the U.S.

Warsaw

Stare Miasto

After being almost entirely and intentionally destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Old Town of Warsaw has been reconstructed. To an untrained eye like mine, it cannot be distinguished from the well-maintained old town of say, Prague, which managed to come out of the war comparatively unscathed.

The people of Warsaw are proud of their Old Town: every time they catch me wandering into an outer district they seem confused and point me back in the direction of it. Stare Miasto! Stare Miasto!

This pride is more than understandable. The history of their city (and their country) is a never-ending story of occupation and destruction. So rebuilding an entire part of the city that has disappeared and claiming back the right to one’s own past is a form of resistance and admirable stubbornness. It’s the very same stubbornness that I’ve seen in the faces along the country roads that lead to Warsaw. 

In the old town, next to a small side street where a black carriage horse is sleeping, a hat seller waves me over. He smiles and reveals one long, yellow tooth. He tries to sell me a fur hat. They are beautiful, but I already have one at home in Canada, I tell him. He doesn’t understand English, so he takes my hand and leads me over to his neighbour, a young woman selling magnets. She translates for us. Canadians are some of my best customers, he says. Much better than the Spanish.

The Spanish generally don’t have a great need for fur hats, no?  He considers this for a moment, shrugs, and pulls out his identification card. He points to his birth year: 1935. Then he pulls a calculator out of his pocket and punches in his age: 87. Wow, I say. He passes me the calculator and I punch in my age. Wow, he says. Then he takes his age, and minuses my age from it. We both marvel at the number. We stand, grinning at each other and not saying a word. Then we shake hands and part ways.

Muranów

Muranów was once home to the Jewish ghetto. 460,000 people lived there. 390,000 of them were murdered. 460,000 minus 390,000 leaves 70,000. Nowadays in Muranów there are some Soviet-era apartment blocks, unassuming parks, and small restaurants. I takes me a good half an hour to find the synagogue (the only remaining pre-war synagogue in Warsaw) but I finally find it tucked in between a parking lot and some new glass buildings.  Nobody is around, and the synagogue is locked. The only person that I’m able to find is the old owner of the kosher grocery store. He wakes up when the door jingles open and greets me in Hebrew, Polish, and English. He reminds me that it’s Rosh Hashanah. Then he nods off again. His eyes are tiny and distant behind a pair of the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen.

Krochmalna Street

“We reached Krochmalna Street and the stench I recalled from my childhood struck me first— a blend of burned oil, rotten fruit, and chimney smoke. Everything was the same— the cobblestone pavement, the steep gutter, the balconies hung with wash. We passed a factory with wire-latticed windows and a blind wall with a wooden gate I never saw open in all my youth. Every house here was bound up with memories. No. 5 contained a yeshiva in which I had studied for a term. There was a ritual bath in the courtyard, where matrons came in the evening to immerse themselves. I used to see them emerge clean and flushed. Someone told me that this building had been home of Rabbi Itche Meir Alter. In my time the yeshiva had been a part of the Grodzisk house of prayer. It’s beadle was a drunk. When he had a drop too much, he told tales of saints, dybbuks, half-mad squires and sorcerers. He ate one meal a day and always (except on the Sabbath) stale bread crumbled into borscht…”

(An excerpt from ‘Shosha’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Singer.)

Krochmalna Street has not been rebuilt. How could it? In order for something to be rebuilt its inhabitants need to say: we survived, we remained, we want to fill this place again. But in this case, the people are gone and so is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Krochmalna Street. At one end of the street there’s a tiny, dirty patch of grass (apparently a park) named after the author. At the other end, the only remaining old building stands with boarded-up windows. Between these two ends, modern buildings have popped up beside ones from the fifties and sixties which are starting to turn grey. I find this street unbearably sad and move along.

Hala Mirowska

In the marketplace next to Hala Mirowska, vendors sell plums, raspberries, massive bunches of dill, mushrooms fresh from the forests, dried, fragrant fish and pastries. It’s so crowded that it takes an hour for me to move from one end to the other. Despite this, it’s quiet. Everyone seems to speak softly. (Or perhaps I’m only remembering it like that.) The sun shines in its mild autumn way, and everyone seems to be in a good mood. The vendors are nimble, curt. They do not need to shout or advertise their goods. They have built up reputations for themselves which long line-ups at each stand attest to. Plums which are mouldy or otherwise unacceptable roll about on the ground and are stepped on, releasing a wonderful smell.

An old man steps out of this jostling, whispering mass of people and comes towards me. He is wearing an old black leather jacket and a black beret. His eyes are sharp and full of good humour. He stops before me, bows deeply, says, Welcome to Warsaw, and then continues on his way. It feels as though the city itself has sent me it’s greetings.

Praga

I somehow manage (don’t ask me how) to get some address mixed up and accidentally end up in a cellar where a metal band from Mumbai are playing. The band and the crowd are so likeable that I end up staying for awhile. I’m not at all dressed for the occasion (a beret, hiking shoes, and red lipstick) but everyone is forgiving. Warsaw, you’re incredible, they say between songs. You all have so much energy. We’ve never seen anything like this!

It turns out that they are only the opening act, and that a band from Budapest are the real stars of the evening. They open the evening with a song called “Holocaust.” Let us make sure that it never happens again! They say before they begin. To my untrained (and very sensitive) ears, it sounds like one long, sustained scream, and I have to be honest, it’s one the most articulate things I’ve ever heard on the subject.

I take the tram back to the Soviet-era walk-up that I’m renting in the suburbs. I brush my teeth in the tiny kitchen. My neck is stiff, my face is irritated (by being whipped by some long hair), and my ears are ringing, but I’m happy.

Przy Bażantarni Park

On Sunday, the same day as Rosh Hashanah, Warsaw celebrates the Patron Saint of Warsaw, Saint Wladyslaw from Gielniowo. On top of that, the Warsaw Marathon is happening, and many major streets are closed. Despite this, I somehow manage to get to the Przy Bażantarni Park in the Natolin district, where there is a kind of fair. The air there is filled with the smell of sausages, candy, fried potatoes and Polish music. There is a makeshift dance floor, and it is full with the very old (who know all the words and mouth along) and the very young (who know neither the steps nor the words). As the afternoon goes on, they are joined by mothers, fathers, and even a group of teenaged girls, who giggle nervously.

As with many parts of Warsaw, Natolin is full of hurriedly (and notoriously badly) built grey apartment blocks that loom around and press in on the park, but as with the other districts, they seem to shrink next to the people of Warsaw, who are warm, stylish, and unpretentious. (I like them very much.)

A trumpeter from one of the bands that are playing sees me standing off to the side, tapping my foot along to the music. He asks me if I’d like to dance. I say yes, and we go spinning around the stage to the music of the Warsaw-Lublin Brass Band. He patiently teaches me some of the traditional dances (which are making a comeback among young Polish people) including the so-called “small waltz.” It’s not like the Viennese Waltz, he says. You have to move your feet very quickly and very little. Imagine you’re dancing in a little box.

A waltz perfect for the tiny kitchens of those grey apartments, I think to myself.

The kitchen of my Soviet-era apartment.
Stare Miasto.
Krochmalna Street

 

Wziąchowo Wielkie

If you ask for “a small breakfast” at the hotel in Wziąchowo Wielkie you will find the following waiting downstairs for you on the table:

Fried eggs with fresh dill, sausages, ten slices of bread, a roll, ten cubes of butter, one bowl of strawberry jam, one bowl of cottage cheese, one bowl of mustard, one plate of vegetables, an assortment of cold meats and cheeses, one glass of juice, one jug of milk, one thermos of coffee and one thermos of black tea.

A cat stares from the door of the dining room. Every time you look back, a new one has taken its place. At intervals of five minutes, the Ukrainian cook, dressed in black, comes out of the kitchen wringing her white hands and smiling expectantly. You thank her every time and turn back to the task at hand: making the food disappear as not to hurt her feelings. If only the cats could come a little nearer so that you could slip them a sausage! But they are well trained, it seems. So you resort to slipping things in your coat pocket.

The owner enters. He is sixty or so, tall, handsome, carries himself like a Polish aristocrat. He tells you the history of the place: how it was a manor of some nobility, a spa, a school during the communist times, a ruin, and now his hotel. Have you enjoyed your stay? He asks (in perfect high German). Oh, you live in Bavaria? He has a friend, an old guest of his, some Von-Somebody who also lives in Bavaria and happens to be turning 100 this week. He really ought to visit one of these days…

After you’ve drunk your coffee and eaten what you can, you can take a stroll (only strolling, not walking, is appropriate here) around the large pond.  Only, every time you come to a bridge you find that it has collapsed. The grass is long, the elegant white benches are rotting, and tiny green frogs hop out of the gazebo when you come near. Nonetheless, it is charming here—  straight out of a Chekhov story. The sun shines mildly. The huge linden trees shake their leaves. A cat jumps up on your lap. In the nearby pine woods, people are walking along sandy roads in search of mushrooms. It is a perfect day. The news of Putin calling up hundreds of thousands of more soldiers seems as if it were happening in some other, far away world. But near the back door, the cook and her teenage son have their heads together and are whispering, and it’s clear that it’s happening here, in this one.

 

Warsaw, Poland

On Monday 10th of September we started our two weeks journey within OWHC Scholarship. During this trip we will discover Young and Modern Life in World Heritage Central European Cities. We began it in Warsaw – filled with history, being an example of the transition from tradition to modernity. Most of the city was destroyed during the Second World War and – after being reconstructed – it’s constantly changing. Continue reading “Warsaw, Poland”