A Whirlwind Tour Around Poland

The memoirist trades Tuscany for the northern light and unexpected pleasures of Krakow and Gdansk

Krakow possesses a wealth of cultural treasures such as Wawel Royal Castle where the country's kings lived. (Christophe Boisvieux / Corbis)
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Next we find the Podgorze district, which would seem ordinary had I not read of the rabid and heroic events that occurred in these courtyards, houses and hospitals. A memorial in the Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto) commemorates the Jews who were gathered here, with only the belongings they could carry, before deportation to death camps. The Plac memorial consists of 70 metal chairs, symbols of the abandoned furniture of the some 18,000 Jews who were taken away from the Ghetto. Overlooking the memorial is the Eagle Pharmacy of Tad­eusz Pankie­wicz, who with three brave women employees, aided Ghetto residents with medicines and information. Stories like this one and Oskar Schindler's (his factory is nearby) are small victories in the deluge of evil and sorrow. A small green building facing the square was once the secret headquarters of the Resistance. Now it's a pizzeria. Ed says, "You come to these neighborhoods more to see what's not here rather than what is."

We hire a guide to take us to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. At Auschwitz, a glass-walled room displays 4,000 pounds of tangled hair; another room holds shoes and the pink sandals with kitten heels that some young girl wore there. In the sleeping quarters, Gregory, our guide, points out names in tiny handwriting near the ceiling, scrawled from the top bunk by a few of the prisoners. Approximately 1.1 million Jews perished at the two main Auschwitz camps, along with at least 70,000 non-Jewish Poles. Of the 3.3 million Jews in Poland before the war, only some 300,000 survived. Often lost in the horror of that statistic is that approximately 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles—ordinary people, Resistance fighters, intellectuals—also died at the hands of the Nazis. I notice a dented teakettle in the mound of everyday objects, and the gallery of ID photos, grim faces lining the halls—their eyes burn with foreknowledge of their fate. Seeing the settings of atrocities turns out to be different from what you experience from books and documentaries: a blunt physical feeling strikes, a visceral awareness of bodies and souls that perished.

Grasses and trees have softened Auschwitz. "Then, grass would have been eaten," Gregory says. Birkenau (Auschwitz II) is starker. It is the most monstrous of the many—Gregory says 50—concentration camps in the Krakow area, with its flat fields of chimneys, still standing after fleeing Germans torched the buildings and records, making it impossible to know exact death tolls. Enough structures remain to tell the tale. We file through bleak sleeping quarters, then the toilet barracks, four long concrete rows with holes over gutters below. "Guard duty here was prized," Gregory tells us, "they got to inspect excrement for jewelry the prisoners swallowed."

Outside Birkenau, three people pick lettuces in a field. Has enough time gone by that no whiff of smoke, no mote of DNA settles on the leaves of their spring salads? I remember a line from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska: Forgive me distant wars, for bringing flowers home.

First stop the next morning: Cmentarz Rakowicki, founded outside Krakow's Old Town in 1803 by the ruling Austrians, who thought cemeteries in populated areas caused epidemics. I like wandering in cemeteries, partly because you can tell much about a culture by how they bury their dead and partly because they're often surpassingly lovely. Here plum and cherry trees bloom along lanes crowded with Gothic chapels, hovering angels and sorrowing women. If I lived here, I'd come often for the warming rays of sun falling on mossy crosses and stone lambs. Gregory tactfully says we can linger, but we move on to Nowa Huta, where more than 200,000 of Krakow's 757,000 residents live.

In 1949, during the Soviet Union's dismal sway over Poland, the Communist authorities began this development as well as the pollution-belching steelworks about six miles from central Krakow. Workers' families who'd never had running water flocked to live in the planned community but were soon disenchanted with working conditions, pollution and the lack of a church. Sixty years on, the huge gray apartment blocks have retained their austerity, but now trees have matured and open spaces make the neighborhoods friendlier. The steel mill has not been entirely cleaned up, but it no longer spews soot over everything. The arcaded central plaza was modeled loosely on Piazza del Popolo in Rome. When we look closely, we see Renaissance touches on balustrades and windows. If only the buildings' facades were not heavy gray.

Near Nowa Huta, we see my favorite Krakow church, part of a 13th-century Cistercian abbey, built near where a cross was found floating in the river. It's filled with hundreds of ex-votos, 16th-century frescoes and soaring arched columns in pale stone. Pilgrims making their way on their knees to a statue of Mary have worn paths in the marble. Strikingly, the side-aisle ceilings and vaulting are painted in traditional folk flower designs, with a bit of Art Nouveau flourish.

Poland has a curious tradition of memorializing its dead with earth mounds; the country has 250 of them. Early ones may be prehistoric or Celtic, no one knows for sure. Near Krakow, one commemorates Krak, the ancient king and namesake of the city, though excavations have found no sign of his burial. Another honors his daughter Wanda, who drowned herself rather than marry a German prince. We drive up to see the mound honoring the Polish independ­ence fighter Tadeusz Kosciuszko and built in 1820-23 with wheelbarrows of dirt. He's also the American Revolutionary War hero whose name we butchered in fifth grade. A warrior as well as an engineer specializing in fortifications, his skills took him to many battlefields, including Saratoga in upstate New York. From this steep 34-yard-high cone with a spiraling path, you can see in the distance the mound of Krak. I like hearing that earth from Kosciuszko's American battle sites forms a part of the memorial.

At dusk, we take a last walk in the old heart of Krakow to the restaurant Ancora. Chef Adam Chrzastowski's cooking with plum, cherry and other fruit confitures exemplifies how he reinterprets tradition: he serves venison with onion and grape marmalade, his duck with a black currant and ginger one. Ed tries the cold, cold vodka with pepper and an oyster. One gulp or you're lost. Other delights: scallops wrapped in prosciutto, pear sorbet, chocolate soufflé with a surprise hint of blue cheese. It's late when Adam comes out and chats with us. Inspired by his grandmother's cooking and a sojourn in Shanghai, he moves Polish food into the bright future the country appears headed for as well.

The GPS in our rented Renault took us quickly out of Krakow, but the freeway soon petered out, dumping us onto two-lane roads interrupted by stoplights and road repairs. Town names are all consonants, with maybe a "y" thrown in, so we forget where we've passed, where we're headed. Ed is a blood-sport driver, but his training on Italian autostradas does no good; we're stuck behind people who poke.


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