Kraków, where my love affair with Poland truly began
Without striking too much of a doomsday note, I’m jaded by the ‘infinite scroll’ that this pandemic has become.
So much so, I don’t even have a clue what the latest lockdown news involves: I’ve given up checking. I’m assuming, however, that it ain’t looking good.
Either way, I’m not going anywhere. At least, nowhere in the near future. The past though, that’s a different story, and this week I found myself climbing into my imaginary DeLorean and travelling in time like Marty McFly.
Where did I end up? Kraków. For me, it’s where my love affair with Poland truly began.
At a guess, it was 1992, and at that stage in life I’d never even heard of the city before. That changed when, in between boarding school thrashings and other adventures, my English class was tasked with the job of reading Schindler’s Ark.
I wasn’t an overly diligent pupil, but I remember being so enthralled by the book that I finished it in a day. It wasn’t just Thomas Keneally’s storytelling that gripped me, but also the world he painted: the shadowy side streets and smoky drinking dens, the surreptitious meetings and general air of intrigue. Kraków, I decided, would one day be visited.
I got that chance about seven years later, as a backpacker. Embarking on a grand European odyssey, my travel strategy hadn’t gone far beyond bowling up in random towns before ensconcing myself in bars that fringed the local red light districts. I was not a man of culture.
Kraków, though, was different.
Arriving to the train station, I made my way to my digs. It was a youth hostel in name alone (I wasn’t being weird, I was still technically a youth). In actuality, it had more in common with a young offenders institute: barred windows, lumpy beds and a strict set of laws that you had no choice but to follow.
Among these, there wasn’t just a midnight curfew, but some demented rule that saw guests expelled at dawn to allow them to clean. Clearly, this did not sit well with my rise-at-noon plans.
Derailed as my timetable was, it pushed me to explore the city by day, and that’s first how I became acquainted with the Kazimierz district.
For decades after the war the former ancient Jewish Quarter had been left to rot, and it was here that the city’s marginalized underclass were sent to live. While it had fractionally improved, that gritty sense of menace made itself known whenever dusk fell: on one occasion, I turned a corner to find a band of gentlemen charging each other with mops and mallets.
Ah, I thought to myself, historical enthusiasts re-enacting a medieval chapter from the city’s rich history. Drawing out my camera, hostilities came to a dramatic pause and all eyes fell on me; only then did I realize I’d crudely interrupted a very real scene from a football gang war.
With insults ringing in my ears, I scurried away, ending up in a restaurant called Ariel dining to Klezmer music under the gaze of a cat. Amid all the wobbly vintage finishes was a framed note from Steven Spielberg, a reminder of the director’s stay upstairs a few years previous.
Filming of Schindler’s List had, in the main, taken place in Kazimierz, and it was with some delight I happened by accident upon the balcony-framed courtyard immortalized in the film – here, in the movie at least, Germans had unceremoniously evicted the resident Jews. Here, too, Mrs Dresner had sought refuge under an outdoor stairwell.
On another day, I went a step further, crossing the river to Podgorze to where the Ghetto had actually been. Tracking down Schindler’s factory (which was then, still, a factory) I bribed a guard and was allowed to peer inside and glimpse the iconic stairwell.
Congratulating myself on my street cunning, I returned to Kazimierz in a triumphant frame of mind. Traversing dark, potholed streets, I found a smattering of bars that offered a beacon of light: Singer, Alchemia and the commie-themed Propaganda.
Thick with smoke, babble, and antique booby traps, I lost myself in the cacophonous atmosphere, gazing helplessly at a barmaid in a tight tiger print top. I’d fallen in love: with her, with Kazimierz, with Kraków and with Poland.
Within a year, I was living in the country. Though based in Warsaw, my work took me to Kraków often, and over the years I saw Kazimierz reborn. I hadn’t been the only one whose curiosity had been stirred by the Schindler phenomenon.
I’m told 1993 had kickstarted it all; it was then that the film had premiered, blasting the city into our collective conscience. Likewise, it was the same year that a Jewish bookshop had opened on Szeroka and a Jewish cultural institute just down the road.
I hadn’t noticed these when I first visited, but by the early zeroes they’d become impossible to ignore. So too the ‘heritage kitsch’ style offered by the bars and cafes that now honeycombed the district. The energy was electric and eclectic in equal measure and felt like an organic celebration of the past and the present.
For some, though, a breaking point had been reached. Bloating further with tourists, the area became a parody of itself, not least thanks to the compulsion of decorating every new venue in a forced shtetl style – and that so many of these speculative money spinners were being run by non-Jewish locals rankled of profiteering.
I’d become cynical, asking myself if “the Spielberg effect” had ultimately proved negative.
Of course it hadn’t. Kazimierz will never return to that raw form that I originally fell for, but why the hell would it want to. Progress comes at a price, and sometimes that means bevelling the edges.
Time has helped, as well. If Kazimierz went through a period in which it felt obliged to mimic its past to slot in with tourist expectations of a timeless Jewish freezeframe, that need has eroded, replaced instead with a new, more mature attitude that pays tribute to history while looking to the future.
In this respect, Kazimierz has excelled to become a poster child for modern Poland: gentrified, yes, but also arty, enlightened, dynamic and creative. Its former residents, you get the idea, would approve. To now see its streets so empty, therefore, is a bitter pill to swallow.
But let talk of “the Spielberg effect” not end there, for it is thanks to him that the city has also been left with one of the most remarkable sights anywhere in Poland.
With the remains of Płaszów concentration camp too sensitive to film on, the director instead rebuilt a reduced replica of the camp in the Liban Quarry on the city’s right side: included in this were seven watch towers, thirty-four barracks, stables and an imitation of Amon Goeth’s villa.
Over a quarter of a century later, remnants of the film set still exist, among them an avenue built using mock Jewish tombstones, fences, foundations and furnaces (which are actually thought to be genuine relics from the wartime when the quarry was used by Jewish slave labour). Overgrown and derelict, it’s a haunting departure from the vivid, vibrant city that lies across the river.