Of war and peace

Echoes of history ... a view over Krakow's rooftops.
Echoes of history ... a view over Krakow's rooftops. Photo: AFP

Paul Willis follows the cycle of modern history through Krakow, from independence to occupation to freedom.

I'm in Krakow as the city celebrates its independence. It's a fresh winter's morning and the city's sumptuous main square is bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated with brass buttons marches at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny, the largest mediaeval square in Europe, the veterans narrowly avoid a florid sick stain on the flagstones that threatens to diminish to the dignity of the moment.

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords in 1990, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its mediaeval ramparts that date back 700 years, it's a fairytale-looking city of castles, baroque churches and moderately priced beer.

A fair volume of male travellers tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow's status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else, though. Its historic Jagiellonian University counts among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late Pope John Paul II. In the evenings its present intake mills about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny downing vodka shots in the proliferation of bars here or in the cafes off Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

If you were being precious you might consider all this hedonism a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, but that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced.

When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I see memorialised in the town square), it became part of an independent Poland. Independence lasted until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the systematic murder of the city's Jews, the Russians took over; their rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged.

These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist era is reflected in hostel names such as Good Bye Lenin and driving tours, in a restored Trabant, of suburbs and old steelworks.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour's drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was the scene of the most systematic and brutal act of state-sponsored mass murder ever known.

Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The red-brick prison blocks look like warehouses; the chimney stack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, it accommodated 200,000 people in wooden blocks that resembled stables. More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau.

I ask our guide, Beata, if she finds it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day. "Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place," she says. The first director of the museum was a former prisoner. So was Beata's uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

At the outbreak of war there were about 65,000 Jews living in Krakow. Today there are fewer than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as "the Righteous Among the Nations" by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he dispensed medicine (often for free) to severely malnourished residents.

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working-class neighbourhood of Podgorze. He employed Jewish forced labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor but it was civilised relative to conditions outside.

The factory site is now a museum. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler's Jews. I visit on a Friday afternoon. When I leave it is dark and I walk through Kazimierz, past a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. Outside the bars are rosy-cheeked girls handing out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant in the old town I eat goulash and bread. After a few vodkas I move to a bar where the house band is stomping out American rock standards. On the dance floor are vampish-looking blondes and bleary-eyed men wobbling like bowling skittles. I join in for a few tracks but I can't get into it.

The past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walk, I think about Beata's uncle living in Krakow after the war. How often had he passed the spot where he was arrested?

Crossing the square under the town hall tower, I pass the site of the morning parade. A drunken young Brit, his hair gelled flat like a set of railings, approaches me. "Mate, you know any strip clubs?"

There is a restaurant called Roosters, I reply, where they show boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wear hot pants. This information doesn't seem to satisfy him and he squints at me suspiciously. "Nice place, Krakow, ain't it?"

"Lovely," I reply.

"Been to Auschwitz?"

"Yes."

He squints some more and, shaking his head, he says angrily: "Nazi bastards!"

And with that the young man staggers up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorates the otherwise pristine flagstones.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Lufthansa has a fare to Krakow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2525 low-season return, including tax. You fly with a partner airline to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Frankfurt (13hr), then to Krakow (95min). See lufthansa.com.

Touring there

Many hotels and guest houses offer trips to Auschwitz (Oswiecim). They cost about 100 zlotys ($31) and include transport between Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you have your own transport, the guided tour costs 40 zlotys; see auschwitz.org.pl.

The Historical Museum of Krakow, housed in the former enamelware factory of Oskar Schindler, is open daily, except for the first Monday of the month. Entry costs 15 zlotys. It is a pleasant two-kilometre walk south-east of Krakow's old town. The closest tram stop is on Plac Bohaterow Getta Square; see krakow-info.com.

More information

See poland.travel/en.

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