If ghosts could give testimony to historical events, the ones in Kazimierz town of Poland would narrate a tale of human suffering and persecution. A living Jewish community, forming a substantial part of the population, thrived in Kazimierz for centuries. The district is like an open museum of the pre-war life of the Jewish community. Out of the 32,000 strong community, only 3-5,000 could survive the Nazi onslaught.
A walk through the old Jewish quarters in Kazimierz will take you through Old Synagogue, the most outstanding building of the Jewish district; cemeteries with layered tombs dating back to centuries and tombstones inscribed in Hebrew and symbols of Judaism.
After nearly 75 years, the district is seeing a sort of cultural and economic revival as some cafes and restaurants have opened up in the Jewish quarters in Krakow, the intellectual and cultural capital of Poland that also used to be its political capital till 400 years ago. Jewish music and smell of local cuisine waft through the air, but the majority of the people around you are the tourists and history buffs. The Jewish community in Krakow is less than 1,000 and only some live in Kazimierz.
Poland has an Indian connection as well. During World War II, over 1,000 Polish children—mostly Jews—fled persecution in the country as horrors of Holocaust were unfolding in the region, and found shelter over 5,000 km away in Jamnagar, a princely state of Gujarat.
India’s very own ‘Schindler’ —the then King of Jamnagar Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, also known as ‘Jam Sahib’, provided refuge to these children in 1942 after they were denied entry by other countries. They were put up in a camp at Balachadhi that now serves as a Sainik School.
A visit to Poland is imperative to see the world of real Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist immortalised in the Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. In fact, the empty streets of Kazimierz had served as the set for the Hollywood film. Schindler, also a member of the Nazi party, exhibited a rare initiative in saving 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory. Despite odds, Schindler used every means—bribes and placating German Army officers through goods procured in the black market—to save them. His factory has now been turned into a museum.
Apart from museums, Krakow has many other sites to offer. The Wavell Castle on the banks of the Vistula River has been the seat of Polish rulers. It was only 400 years ago that it ceased to be the country’s capital. During World War II, the German Governor General had his Headquarters in Krakow and it was for this reason the city did not see much destruction. At the medieval market square of Krakow, one can see the St. Mary Church, the city’s best known landmark with its red façade and asymmetrical silhouette. A leisurely stroll through these streets is enough to soak in the architectural beauty of Krakow.
How to reach: Take a direct flight to Warsaw and a bus/train to Krakow
What to eat: Kumpir (huge baked potato), Polish Vodka, and sausages made of pulses and pork.