“Turon gave birth to me, Krakow polished me with the arts.”
Many see Krakow as Poland’s preferred destination: an engaging, traditional city pulsating with history, charming vistas, tourists, and college students.
In the late 10th and early 11th centuries, Krakow became rich through commerce. Traders who passed through this Polish town were required to stop for a few days to sell their wares at reduced prices. In turn local merchants sold these goods at higher prices, driving Krakow’s prosperity. In 1038 Krakow became Poland’s capital until 1609 when it moved north to Warsaw. In spite of that shift, Krakow remained Poland’s cultural and intellectual center.
In 1241, Central Asian marauders overran Krakow, leaving the city in shambles. But the Krakovians soon rebuilt their town in grid-like fashion––in contrast to the ambling paths that defined most European towns in the Middle Ages. Krakow’s restoration also made way for Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest Main Market Square, today still the heart of city life.
In the 14th century, the reign of King Kazimierz, the Great (also called King Casimir), who ruled from 1333 to 1370, launched Krakow’s Golden Age. He was seen as a progressive, tolerant ruler, establishing in 1363 Jagiellonian University, the second oldest university in Central Europe. Today it still brings stature to the city and numbers Copernicus and St. John Paul II among its former students.
In the 14th century when other nations were expelling their Jewish citizens (for example, in 1290 about 16,000 Jews were ousted from England; in 1306 more Jews were banished from France), the opened-minded Kazimierz instituted laws that gave Jews greater opportunities and better recognition, thus making Poland a sanctuary for Jews in Europe. By the middle of the 16th century, about 80 percent of world Jewry lived in Polish lands. Our guide told us that in Yiddish the name “Poland” is said to mean “I shall rest here.” By 1930 Jews in Poland consisted of about 3.5 million people, encompassing about 10 per cent of the total population of the country. By the start of World War II about 65,000 Jews lived in Krakow.
The Nazis invaded Poland in September of 1939, with the goal of making Krakow the nation’s capital. They renamed the aforementioned Main Market Square “Adolf-Hitler-Platz,” and imposed industrial development––in many cases seizing factories and other businesses from Jewish owners.
Soon thereafter, in an effort to console the Polish people, Winston Churchill announced before The House of Commons, and thus to the world, “The soul of Poland is indestructible . . . she will rise again as a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.”
During our visit to the campus of Krakow’s famous Jagiellonian University, our guide recounted a harrowing tale from the World War II era: On November 6, 1939, the occupying Nazis assembled the university’s professors as if for a meeting.
With nearly 200 academics gathered unsuspectingly in a lecture hall, they were suddenly herded into trucks and taken to a concentration camp for execution. Recounting this tragic event our guide added, “You destroy a culture when you destroy its intelligentsia.”
Just 50 miles west of Krakow lies the village of Oswiecim, from 1941 to 1945, the site of the infamous Auschwitz Concentration/Extermination Camp, today for much of thoughtful civilization a symbol of the unspeakable tragedy that was the Holocaust.
Before going there a friend asked me, “Why even go there? Isn’t it too much horror to take in?” I could only answer, “To pay homage. . . to pay respect . . . .”
As I stumbled through the grounds of the revulsion that was Auschwitz, and the overall catastrophe that was the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but ask, “How could this happen?” and “Where does this kind of evil come from?” All that came to mind was a quote by the art historian, novelist, and journalist Lain Pears [1955-], who said,
“The point of civilization is to be civilized; the purpose of action is to perpetuate society, for only in society can philosophy truly take place.”
Hitler so totally missed the point.
When the war ended, only a few thousand Krakow Jews had survived the war. Today Krakow has only about 200 Jewish residents. As foretold by Winston Churchill in 1939, Poland survived the Nazi tidal wave. It now enjoys one of the most dynamic economies in the European Union. It offers its citizens free university education, state- funded social security, and a universal health care system for all citizens. It belongs to NATO.
Throughout the centuries, Krakow has produced its share of luminaries, among them:
The already mentioned Nicolas Copernicus [1473-1543], the Renaissance era mathematician and astronomer, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe;
St. John Paul II [1920-2005], head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978-2005; and
Helena Rubinstein [1872-1965], cosmetician, business executive, and philanthropist. In addition to her business acumen, she was also known for her quips, among them: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
Poland as a whole has given the world such giants as Fryderyk Chopin [1810-1845], composer and virtuoso pianist; and Maria Sktodowska-Curie [1867-1934], Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice.
During a free afternoon in Krakow, a fellow traveler and I slipped away from our group to take in Schindler’s Factory Museum, once the complex where Oskar Schindler [1908-1974] and his approximately 1200 Jewish employees worked. As just about everybody knows, the Oskar Schindler story was made famous through the 1993 Steven Spielberg Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List.
Initially the factory produced metal pots and pans that were dipped into protective enamel. In time Schindler and his workers manufactured grenades and rocket parts, which were later revealed to have been mysteriously defective.
Oskar Schindler asked to be buried in Jerusalem, where he has been named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”