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Revisiting the past

Synagogues, Jewish cuisine and Klezmer music take us back into another era, in Kazimierz, Poland.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2011 01:19 IST
Kalpana Sunder

We are sitting at an outdoor table at the Jewish restaurant Ariel in the Jewish district of Krakow, Poland called Kazimierz. The witty waiter, who worked on large cruise ships, regales us with stories of Indian guests on board. Inside, the restaurant has a

Fiddler On The Roof

ambience with paintings of bearded rabbis covering the walls, seven-branched menorah candlesticks and a shelf of kitschy wooden dolls portraying Jewish musicians. Before the Holocaust, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe. Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, almost half came from here.

Kazimierz was a vibrant Jewish quarter, till the Second World War. It bears the name of its founder, King Casimir the Great, who welcomed the Jews and gran-ted them generous privileges.

Another story goes that King Casimir wanted to house his lover Estereka in a separate part of town and that was the origin of this locality. During the communist era, Kazimierz was in disrepair — a place that visitors shied away from. It underwent a renaissa-nce, thanks to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that was shot largely here. Every year this area is the venue for a festival of Jewish culture, with lectures, film screenings and streets buzzing with action.

Two great religions existed here for centuries: we see the Gothic church of Corpus Christi alongside synagogues. The Corpus Christi church has a plain brick exterior in contrast to its gorgeous interiors with a golden boat in the pulpit, held up by mermaids. In the heart of Kazimierz, stands the Remu’h Synagogue. Inside, are rows of Jewish tombstones, carefully restored after Nazi damage. At the other end is Krakow’s largest synagogue, the Old Synag-ogue which has been made into a museum. The main scene of action is Szeroka Street with its multi-hued, distressed-looking buildings, restaurants offering Jewish fare and Klezmer music.

Kazimierz is more than just a Jewish quarter today. It’s the artistic side of Krakow. Kazimierz plays host to hip cafés like Singers and Alchemia. Dinner is at the Klezmer Hois restaurant with old world decor filled with lace doilies and sepia photographs from long ago. The restaurant serves Jewish food and has a talented trio playing Klezmer music. The next day we visit Podgorze, where the Nazis herded the Jews in 1941 to establish the infamous ghetto. Today, Schindler’s factory (in the movie) has been converted into a museum which offers a multimedia look into Krakow’s life under the Nazis. Kazimierz and Podgorze have truly taken us back in time.