The last time I saw Krakow was the summer of 1990.
Communist power had ended in Poland, but old ways continued. The police still barked orders. The buildings moldered. The air still choked with brown smoke.
It took two decades to make it back. Boy, do I feel like Rip Van Winkle – and not only because this time my wife and I are traveling with a college-age daughter. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through the streets behind new BMWs. Michelin stars are affixed to restaurant windows. The house in which Copernicus stayed when he visited Jagellonian University has been converted into a hotel in the Relais & Chateaux chain.
Back then, Poland’s history was filled with blank spots where its Jews had been. I visited the town of Kielce, hometown of my maternal grandfather, where Jews returning from Nazi camps had been attacked by non-Jewish townsfolk who feared the survivors might reclaim stolen homes and property. Old synagogues rotted, or were put to new uses without anyone bothering even to paint over their Hebrew letterings. I would ask older people if they could point out this street or that; seemingly nobody could remember.
Everything is different this time. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere outside Israel where Jewish history is commemorated the way it is here. The row of golf carts in the main square advertise (in English): “Old Town – Jewish Quarter – Oskar Schindler’s Factory.”
Yes, that Oskar Schindler. The former enamel factory celebrated in Stephen Spielberg’s movie has been lovingly restored, transformed into an ingenious museum of Krakow’s wartime history. That’s in addition to the museum inside the city’s oldest synagogue, and the new museum of Jewish life before the war. The Nazi-smashed headstones in a 500-year old cemetery have been repaired. A nearby hotel advertises its mikveh. Kosher restaurants overlook one of the oldest synagogues in Europe, now sheltered by a rebuilt roof. The ghetto into which the Nazis confined Krakow’s Jews has been demarked, the fragments of ghetto wall preserved. The ghetto’s lone medical store – operated by a non-Jewish Pole who remained inside the walls – has been protected as yet another museum.
All these museums can exact a toll on the spirit after a time. Better fewer museums, and more survivors. Perhaps it’s easier to be comfortable with the Jews as ghosts than as neighbors. But the commitment to remembrance is a statement about the present and future, not only about the past – about the city and country you want, as well as the city and country you have.
Attached to the outer wall of the church on the main square is a monument to John Paul II, the Krakow-born pope whose tour of Poland in 1979 set in motion the tumults that created the Solidarity movement in 1980 – and tumbled Polish communism in 1989. John Paul II was also the first pope ever to visit a Jewish synagogue, and the pope who spoke most eloquently about reintegrating the Jewish experience into the Christian narrative. Did he inspire the new spirit of his native city? I don’t know enough to say. But I can say that the hopes my new wife and I felt all around us when we visited in 1990 have more than come true: “Someday we’re going to return here – and it’s all going to be better than it ever was, ever before.”