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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.