On my second full day in Krakow, I decided to do my walkabout. I knew there were places I wanted to go — mostly the locations on the map marked with a Jewish star, also known as the Jewish District.

I know Poland is seeped with a terrible history as it relates to Jews (and many other religions, cultures, etc.), and it makes my heart heavy to think that such a beautiful place has such sad stories behind it.

The Jewish District is one of those places. Lined with kosher and Jewish restaurants and shops, the area oozes charm, personality and beauty.

And, then there is the darker side. The side that hurts me and makes my chest feel tight.

I’m not a religious person. I never have been and most likely never will be.

But, the day in the Jewish District, I did something I hadn’t done since just after 9/11 — I prayed. To God. In Remuh Synogauge.

I’m not even sure why I did, but with tears in my eyes, I stood at the front of the synogauge, hand on a bench in front of the Torah, and prayed.

Well, prayed might not be the exact right word, but I did something. I let God know I was there. Aware. In Remuh. In Poland, where my emotions run high and my Jewish-ness, which I normally only identify myself as for cultural identity, suddenly seemed so much bigger. In that moment, I felt closer to my Jewish heritage than I had in years (only being in Israel could top it).

I was keenly aware this was a place where my relatives, my Jewish brothers and sisters, were herded and killed by the Nazis. At Remuh, memorial plaques line the courtyard walls with statements like “perished because of Nazi atrocities …” I could barely read a few before tears burned my eyes and ran down my face.

In the old cemetery next to the synogauge, it was harder still. Buried in the cemetery are Rabbis and Jewish leaders from the 1500s on. I am sure it would have been a beautiful place to visit, but during World War II, the Nazis made sure no one would be able to rest there. They destroyed the tombstones and trashed the grounds. Fortunately, most of it was able to be restored, but now the cemetery sits more as a museum and a monument than an actual place of rest.

Standing in the cemetery, an overwhelming sadness washed over my heart.

This cemetery stood in stark comparison to the Hungarian cemetery I had been to only days ago in Cluj. The peace and quiet and tranquility of Cluj’s is replaced here with the sounds of a city — car horns, traffic, dogs barking and more. And, the beauty of Cluj’s immense marble graves, statues, mausoleums and beautiful flower wreaths … well, in the Jewish cemetery, they just didn’t exist.

The refurbished headstones are laden with stones, a Jewish tradition, because unlike flowers, stones can withstand the passing of time and remain on a grave for eternity. Some graves in the cemetery there are piled high with little stones.

After walking slowly, breathing in the cemetery and its past for a bit, I decided I wanted to leave a mark here, too. I searched for the perfect little stone against the wall of the cemetery, and when I found the one I wanted, I searched for the headstone that needed someone to notice it. There, amidst the rows of graves, I found the headstone I wanted to acknowledge. It was split in two, laying in the spring green grass and dandelions.

I leaned down and placed my smooth stone on top of one half of the headstone. I had no clue who was buried there, but in that moment, it didn’t matter to me. In that moment, everyone in the cemetery was related.

I walked out of the Jewish District a few hours later, feeling pretty good. Except, in the back of my mind, I knew the next day was going to be the most difficult day for me — Auschwitz.

30 comments

  1. Diezie…I loved this post. Krakow’s Jewish district is an amazing place and Auschwitz is a place where I found it so hard to describe my feelings – I thought I would bawl but I was just…numb. It’s unimaginable sometimes in Eastern Europe – so beautiful, such lovely people but so much tragedy. I’m so happy for you that you’re getting to see these amazing places 🙂

    Like

    1. Auschwitz was REALLY hard for me. I just walked thru it in silence with tears in my eyes nearly the entire time. Very numbing, for sure. Thanks for the note, love. Wish you were here to share some of this with me. xx

      Like

  2. Diezie…I loved this post. Krakow’s Jewish district is an amazing place and Auschwitz is a place where I found it so hard to describe my feelings – I thought I would bawl but I was just…numb. It’s unimaginable sometimes in Eastern Europe – so beautiful, such lovely people but so much tragedy. I’m so happy for you that you’re getting to see these amazing places 🙂

    Like

    1. Auschwitz was REALLY hard for me. I just walked thru it in silence with tears in my eyes nearly the entire time. Very numbing, for sure. Thanks for the note, love. Wish you were here to share some of this with me. xx

      Like

  3. As morbid as it seems, seeing Krakow and especially Auschwitz is one of the things I MUST do. I went through a phase when I was in my early teens where I devoured holocaust books because I simply could not wrap my head around such brutality. It changed the world for me. I need to see it.

    Like

    1. I did the same thing in my teens. Armed myself with tons of information. Auschwitz Birkenau HURT me. The sheer magnitude of what happened can hardly be felt and yet it is the most horrific place I have ever visited. It is definitely a MUST. Bring someone with you who will make you smile after. The exhibits alone are brutal, let alone actually walking into and through the gas chamber and barracks. Especially in Birkenau. That is just hell.

      Like

      1. Just read your Auschwitz post, damn. Brutal doesn’t even begin to describe it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a fun tourist attraction, just a way of better understanding humanity…maybe.

        Funny, I don’t know much about Birkenau…might have to brush up on my knowledge. Thanks!

        Like

      2. Candice — it was the most disturbing thing. I wasn’t going to write about it, but since you mentioned it … there were people there who made me sick. At one point on the tour, they show you the wall where hundreds of people were killed execution style in between two blocks. A group of people actually got together in front of the memorial covered in flowers, candles and rocks and smiled for a group photo. And, then there was a couple in my group who stood in front of the entrance to Birkenau, arms around each other, smiling for the camera. It just seemed as if they were treating the experience as an attraction, rather than respecting its historical significance and the countless murders that occurred there. I didn’t even take my camera out … I just kind of felt there was no need to capture and show other people images of camps that marked the end of lives for millions. Birkenau is the uglier of the two camps … and was much more brutal in terms of the conditions. Not that either were good, but it is basically in this never-ending field with row upon row of wooden barracks crowded with bunkbeds three high.

        Like

  4. As morbid as it seems, seeing Krakow and especially Auschwitz is one of the things I MUST do. I went through a phase when I was in my early teens where I devoured holocaust books because I simply could not wrap my head around such brutality. It changed the world for me. I need to see it.

    Like

    1. I did the same thing in my teens. Armed myself with tons of information. Auschwitz Birkenau HURT me. The sheer magnitude of what happened can hardly be felt and yet it is the most horrific place I have ever visited. It is definitely a MUST. Bring someone with you who will make you smile after. The exhibits alone are brutal, let alone actually walking into and through the gas chamber and barracks. Especially in Birkenau. That is just hell.

      Like

      1. Just read your Auschwitz post, damn. Brutal doesn’t even begin to describe it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a fun tourist attraction, just a way of better understanding humanity…maybe.

        Funny, I don’t know much about Birkenau…might have to brush up on my knowledge. Thanks!

        Like

      2. Candice — it was the most disturbing thing. I wasn’t going to write about it, but since you mentioned it … there were people there who made me sick. At one point on the tour, they show you the wall where hundreds of people were killed execution style in between two blocks. A group of people actually got together in front of the memorial covered in flowers, candles and rocks and smiled for a group photo. And, then there was a couple in my group who stood in front of the entrance to Birkenau, arms around each other, smiling for the camera. It just seemed as if they were treating the experience as an attraction, rather than respecting its historical significance and the countless murders that occurred there. I didn’t even take my camera out … I just kind of felt there was no need to capture and show other people images of camps that marked the end of lives for millions. Birkenau is the uglier of the two camps … and was much more brutal in terms of the conditions. Not that either were good, but it is basically in this never-ending field with row upon row of wooden barracks crowded with bunkbeds three high.

        Like

  5. I just returned from a trip to southern Poland and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a terrible place. Thank God the Polish government began making it a museum two years after the war ended so that no one can deny what took place there.

    Poland is a tough place to visit because of its tragic history. Overrun throughout history by Swedes, Germans, Russians, Germans again, Russians again, its people have a residual sadness as well as a powerful resilience.

    I went because my paternal grandfather was from a small town south of Krakow. I had done my research and visited some of his sister’s descendants. They were incredibly welcoming and generous, but you could see the sadness of unrealized dreams written on the adults’ faces.
    The old people had been through hell, over and
    over again, but they didn’t want to talk about it much.

    Krakow is a stunningly beautiful city–someone said it is “effortlessly beautiful,” and it’s the truth.
    The Jewish quarter, Kasimierz, has come alive, with restorations and festivals. But the sad side of that is knowing that the Jews who had made it thrive in the past met a terrible end.

    On a friend’s behalf, I went to a little town the Germans had overrun in 1939, destroying the Jewish village entirely. I went to find the cemetery in which his great-grandfather had been buried. I expected to find nothing. What I found was actually amazing. While the Germans had destroyed many of the headstones, someone has been putting the pieces together like a puzzle. We found the intact headstone of my friend’s great grandfather virtually intact and leaning on a tree. A simple but powerful monument has been erected, and the cemetery sits in a treed, protected place. Stones were on the monument. With the help of a friend who speaks Polish we went to the house of the parents of the village administrator and knocked on the door. They welcomed us in and tracked down (by phone) a local historian and teacher who had great knowledge of the family of my friend. Though we couldn’t get to him because of the flood, he has agreed to speak or meet with my friend if he comes. We also met with an old Polish woman who lived through the German invasion and occupation as a child and whose family sheltered a Jew who eventually escaped.

    I came home carrying the beauty and sadness of Poland with me, and it is harder to re-enter my life after this trip than any other I have taken.

    Kathleen

    Like

  6. I just returned from a trip to southern Poland and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a terrible place. Thank God the Polish government began making it a museum two years after the war ended so that no one can deny what took place there.

    Poland is a tough place to visit because of its tragic history. Overrun throughout history by Swedes, Germans, Russians, Germans again, Russians again, its people have a residual sadness as well as a powerful resilience.

    I went because my paternal grandfather was from a small town south of Krakow. I had done my research and visited some of his sister’s descendants. They were incredibly welcoming and generous, but you could see the sadness of unrealized dreams written on the adults’ faces.
    The old people had been through hell, over and
    over again, but they didn’t want to talk about it much.

    Krakow is a stunningly beautiful city–someone said it is “effortlessly beautiful,” and it’s the truth.
    The Jewish quarter, Kasimierz, has come alive, with restorations and festivals. But the sad side of that is knowing that the Jews who had made it thrive in the past met a terrible end.

    On a friend’s behalf, I went to a little town the Germans had overrun in 1939, destroying the Jewish village entirely. I went to find the cemetery in which his great-grandfather had been buried. I expected to find nothing. What I found was actually amazing. While the Germans had destroyed many of the headstones, someone has been putting the pieces together like a puzzle. We found the intact headstone of my friend’s great grandfather virtually intact and leaning on a tree. A simple but powerful monument has been erected, and the cemetery sits in a treed, protected place. Stones were on the monument. With the help of a friend who speaks Polish we went to the house of the parents of the village administrator and knocked on the door. They welcomed us in and tracked down (by phone) a local historian and teacher who had great knowledge of the family of my friend. Though we couldn’t get to him because of the flood, he has agreed to speak or meet with my friend if he comes. We also met with an old Polish woman who lived through the German invasion and occupation as a child and whose family sheltered a Jew who eventually escaped.

    I came home carrying the beauty and sadness of Poland with me, and it is harder to re-enter my life after this trip than any other I have taken.

    Kathleen

    Like

  7. Really powerful post. I’m the same way–raised Jewish and had a bat mitzvah, but I don’t practice anymore. I’m not religious and really only feel culturally Jewish, but I really want to go to Poland (especially because my Jewish side of the family is from there). As much as I want to go there, I know it’s going to be emotionally grueling and upsetting. Thanks for sharing your experience there.

    Like

    1. Thank you. I think those moments are very difficult, but it gives you a different perspective on our culture. I was very apprehensive to go to Auschwitz. I knew it would be emotional. But, after I went, I was so glad I did. It’s one of those things you just have to do.

      Like

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