Why is it that when winter comes, a certain type of British person feels the need to go… somewhere even colder? I made my first ever trip to Poland in December and believe me, I was glad I’d invested in some cashmere socks and an enormous scarf. Krakow is beautiful though, and there was so much to see that our short trip could have been much longer – I’ll definitely be going back.
We spent part of one day exploring the Kazimierz district, just outside the main hustle and bustle of Krakow centre. Founded in the 14th century, for many centuries Kazimierz was happily integrated between Polish and Jewish cultures, but come the second world war the area became a ghetto as Jews were forcibly relocated there from their homes elsewhere. Now this makes it one of the most historically interesting – albeit heartbreaking – areas of the city.
Kazimierz is home to a huge number of synagogues, some of which you can step inside for a small donation. Remember that men must have their heads covered by a kippah – most synagogues have a supply outside which they are happy to lend to visitors. Women should be appropriately dressed – not that I saw anyone wearing hotpants in December! There are also a number of public memorials, from the traditional to the contemporary, plus some fantastic street art.
Apteka pod Orlem
The Pharmacy Museum tells the story of the ghettoisation of Kazimierz, and the lives of the Jews who lived there during the Second World War. It’s highly interactive, and really focuses on the stories of the real people whose lives were so terribly affected – and the brave pharmicist Tadeusz Panciewicz, the pharmacist who refused the offer to relocate to the non-Jewish art of the cisty and was the only pharmacist allowed to continue operating in the ghetto by the Germans. Make sure you open all the drawers and cupboards, press every screen, pick up every phone handset and look into every corner to make the most of your visit – I could have spent hours in here. It is a small space and does get busy at peak times, so plan carefully if you don’t like crowds.
Plac Bohaterow Ghetta (Ghetto Heroes Square)
Outside the pharmacy museum you will find the Ghetto Heroes Square, commemorating the people who lost their lives in the ghetto during the war. It is dominated by the large metal sculpted chairs that form the (relatively new) memorial but look closer and at the corner of the square you will find the address that served as the headquarters for the Jewish Underground Resistance.
The Old Synagogue
The Old Synagogue is the oldest synagogue building in Poland, dating back to the 15th century. The building was ransacked by German forces during World War Two – its artwork and relics were looted and the building was badly damaged. During the war it was used as an artillery store, and was the place where prisoners were shot against the walls. Now it has been restored and now houses a museum where you can learn more about Polish Jewish culture.
The Remuh Synagogue stands just across the square from The Old Synagogue. As you enter, you will see inscriptions on the walls in memory of Jews who died during the holocaust. The beautiful prayer hall features many different types of architecture, including an Holy Ark with an Art Nouveau door. Outside is the cemetery, where graves are covered in small stones – a Jewish tradition of uncertain origin.