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.