“… Here the past lay everywhere… An entire continent sown with memories…”
The above quote comes from a novel set in Europe and is used to describe the European continent as a whole, but nowhere is this more true than in Krakow… Situated deep within the heart of Europe, Krakow stands as a testament to the past. A visual reminder of the people who shaped it, those who lived there and those who died there and every one of them has left their own little mark on this most wonderful of cities.
Ask anyone who has travelled to any of the cities in what is termed ‘Eastern Europe’ and they will regale you with tales extolling the virtues and beauty of them all – Budapest, Prague, Tallinn, Bucharest and Bratislava… But what they might not tell you is that Krakow is the most beautiful of them all.
Framed by snow covered hills, the town sits close to the border with Czechia and Slovakia and is best known for its well preserved medieval core. Legend says that the town was formed by a mythical leader called Krakus who built it above a dragons cave. Its position in the heart of Europe led to it becoming a major commercial centre and then eventually the capital of Poland for over 500 years.
During this time the city was almost totally demolished by the Mongol invasion before rising up to become a major centre for the arts, boasting one of the oldest universities in the world and attracting renowned artisans from across the continent.
However towards the end of the 16th century the Polish throne was passed down to several rulers and Krakow declined in importance. Weakened by a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague and a Swedish invasion, in 1596 the title of capital city was bestowed upon Warsaw instead of Krakow.
Over the following centuries a number of different countries and rulers claimed Krakow and the land it stood on for their own… Most devastatingly so in 1939 when Krakow was brought to its knees… The pain was to endure for another 60 years.
We visited Krakow at the very end of October as Autumn was being ushered out by the bitter Polish Winter. Attracted by the cities history, we were able to book a short break relatively inexpensively. We knew we wanted to visit Auschwitz, but beyond this we didn’t know what to expect… What we found however will stay with us forever.
Krakow is a city where you can sense sadness… Its on every street corner and no matter where you go, there are reminders of the distressing past. In Kazimierz, grand old Synagogues stand proudly and hebrew lettering is as prominent as the Star of David and the Jewish cemeteries.
Here lived a significant population of Jews. Fathers, mothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, sons and daughters who lived, laughed and loved on these very streets… For centuries their art, culture and achievements shaped this environment, building great monuments in the hope of a united Poland and a united Europe, free of bigotry and discrimination.
Yet today, the Synagogues are silent. There are no new graves in the cemeteries and no longer can you hear the sounds of Hebrew as you walk across the square. Only the ghosts of the past echoing forever more on these streets that cannot tell of the horrors they once saw. In 1939, the Jewish community accounted for 30% of the population of Krakow… Today only a handful remain… A featureless holocaust graveyard, empty except for the occasional chance relic; a reminder of a normal pre-holocaust Jewish world, now a symbol of the tragic events that engulfed it.
As we walked through the Jewish quarter, the sadness and history was palpable. It’s difficult now to comprehend what happened here and the sheer scale of it.
Sadly for Poland, the pain didn’t end in 1945 as instead of the return of democracy, an iron curtain was to descend, subjecting the town and its people to further terror and oppression. The brutalist concrete tower blocks stand as a reminder of the age of the Soviets. In this town where artists once flocked and trade flourished, it is painful to see the negative impact the years of Soviet rule have had. For every grand medieval building and mighty castle, there sits a concrete behemoth, or a decaying old structure left to ruin by the Soviet state…
But in the lessons of yesterday, history teaches us how to move forward and in Krakow, hope springs eternal. A new educated and liberal class is emerging and building a new society built on hope rather than hate. Music plays in the opera houses and artists once more flock to the city. Restaurants and bars are full to bursting and new luxury boutique shops are opening daily.. Every street in Krakow tells its own story and the story of the 21st century looks set to be one of great prosperity and growth, free from the shackles of hatred.
Whatever you take from a visit here, memories of Krakow will never fade.