Alex and I went to Krakow on Wednesday. Husband's friend was kind enough to procure tickets for us, which is supposed to be a nightmarish process for people whose mastery of Polish includes six phrases (hello, thank you, please, I'd like..., yes, goodbye), so all we had to do was show up for the train. We managed this well. What we did not manage well was planning what we would do in Krakow, a city that survived WWII almost intact. We neglected to bring a guidebook, and had no idea what to do in the city. Alex's friend, an ex-pat, met us at the train station and showed us around for 90 minutes. This was great. She was very helpful in suggesting some places.
Upon her advice, we went to a Jewish museum in a former synagogue. The plaza in front of the synagogue was the site of mass killings by the Nazis, but the building itself survived in tact. I had been warned about this museum by a friend who went to Krakow a few years ago. She found its tone offensive. Still, I wanted to see the interior, so we paid our 8 zlottych (slightly less than $3). The collection of Jewish religious objects and the still language describing Jewish customs enraged me. One reproduction of a wood cut from the 17th century even struck me as anti-Semitic in the way it depicted Jews barbarically "circumcising" a toddler-sized baby while it sat screaming on a guy's lap. I felt like it should be called The Museum of Extinct Peoples: Polish Jewish Edition. Of course, there is no explanation as to why this vibrant community suddenly disappeared and warranted a museum explaining its exotic culture and practices.
After that, we went to the only operating synagogue left in Krakow. We paid 5 zlotty each to see the tiny sanctuary, which can probably seat no more than 50 people comfortably, and the modest cemetery. The man who sold us our ticket said that only 100 people are active in the synagogue now. I put some money in the tzedeka box.
The rest of the day was dedicated to super cheesy tourist activities. We consumed lunch at the equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg, although the waitress did not wear a costume. The restaurant was supposed to the represent the stores and workshops of various Jewish people Once Upon a Time. I ordered the "Jewish caviar," aka chopped liver. I was certain that my digestive system would revolt on the train ride home, but it was so delicious that everything behaved. This was unfortunately not the case with the pierogies that Alex ingested, but that is another story.
Once we ate, we opted for a tour of Krakow by souped up golf cart. These little tourist traps were all over the place. It was an adventure to drive on major streets, up against trams, cars, and trucks. Every time we turned, Alex or I nearly fell out the side. But the recorded tour was decent and we actually discovered what the hell we were looking at. Very worthwhile: a one hour tour for two people was about $60, including tip. We also walked around the Wawel Palace, but didn't feel like paying for admission tickets. Later we regretted not splurging $1 per person to enter the "Dragon's Den," which is apparently a cave that the legendary Krakow dragon lives or something along those lines. (I actually only half regret this, as part of my reluctance to enter the lair was the large number of wild animals - er, I mean school groups full of screaming children.)
Then we wandered around the Rynek (market) and shopped. Long story long, we bought a dinner of bread, Kielbasa, and cheese to eat on the train. Alex offered some to the businessman who shared our first class compartment with us, but oddly enough, he declined. We took the leftovers home.
Hence we arose to the scent of Kielbasa on Thursday morning. What an excellent way to begin the day! The weather was also sunny and in the low 70s, perfect for a long walk to the Jewish cemetery, where an employee met us. Alicja more or less immediately located my great great grandfather's grave, which we never would have found on our own. She also explained that he was buried in a section reserved for followers of a tzaddik (a religious leader who is not a rabbi). It sounded very cult-like to me.
Alicja also brought us to my great grandfather's grave. I made a rubbing of his stone. (One of the few intelligent things I did was pack a huge sheet of wrapping paper, which was the perfect size for a headstone, and crayons.) Mosquitoes ate my right hand as Alicja held the paper in place while I rubbed and Alex took photos. I asked what the symbol on the top of the grave - a hand putting a coin in a cup - meant. Alicja said it indicated that he was generous. The stone, however, was not very expensive. This did not surprise me, as my grandfather grew up in the poorest section of Warsaw, Powisle. We also learned that he was buried in a men's section of the cemetery. It was rare for families to be buried together.
Finding the graves was a highlight of the trip. The rubbing only came out OK, as parts of the stone were crumbling off and it was hard to get the letters to stand out distinctly from the rough surface. Still, I think I will take it to a graphics shop to make a copy for my parents.
Later that night, we took a two hour walking tour of Powisle. The guide was very interesting, and she brought me a large picture of my grandfather's building. I'm going to make a copy for my parents and frame them.
Today I woke up at 5 am Warsaw time, which is 11 pm in NYC, to return home. Alex and I parted ways at Heathrow (where she had to run for her plane, as we arrived late). I met my friend Mara for a few hours during my long layover. My plan was to write when I got on the plane, but then my fucking laptop did not work. I also thought I was hallucinating when I noticed the pirate sitting a few rows ahead of me. However, there really was a man with a black eye patch and a hook for a hand on the plane.
Now I have officially been awake for 24 hours. I am going to bed, lest I see this pirate again. All of my pictures will eventually be on facebook, so I shall post a link when everything is uploaded. Sadly, I was unable to photograph the pirate.