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Revisiting the past

travel Updated: Jan 29, 2011 13:50 IST
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We are sitting at an outdoor table at the Jewish restaurant Ariel in the Jewish district of Krakow, Poland called Kazimierz. The witty waiter has worked on large cruise ships and regales us with stories of Indian guests on board. Inside the restaurant is a Fiddler On The Roof ambience with paintings of bearded rabbis covering the walls, sevenbranched 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 an independent town, a vibrant Jewish quarter till the Second World War. It bears the name of its founder, King Casimir the Great, who had welcomed the Jews and granted 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 started experiencing a renaissance thanks to Spielberg and Schindler's List which was shot largely here. Every year this area is the venue of a festival of Jewish culture with lectures, film showings and street happenings. 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. Legend goes that this church was formed on the spot where a robber who had stolen a precious relic repented and left it behind.

In the heart of the Jewish district stands defiantly the Remu'h Synagogue. Inside are rows and rows of Jewish tombstones, carefully restored after Nazi damage. At the other end is Krakow's largest synagogue, the Old Synagogue which has been made a museum. The main scene of action is Szeroka Street with its multi-hued, distressed-looking buildings with peeling fasades, restaurants offering Jewish fare and Klezmer music venues. Kazimierz is more than just a Jewish quarter today. It's the artsy side of Krakow. Come night, Kazimierz plays host to hip cafés and is the place for the pub crawl crowds. There are atmospheric smoky cafes like Singers with old machines converted as tables and Alchemia with its candle lit tables and a huge replica of a Narnia wardrobe leading into another room.

Dinner is at the Klezmer Hois restaurant with old world decor filled with lace doilies and sepia photographs of people from long ago. The restaurant serves Jewish food and has a talented trio playing Klezmer music. They play traditional Jewish melodies as well as an eclectic collection of music with varied influences. We are surprised to hear that all the performers are Polish and have learnt Yiddish, and are trained musicians from the Krakow Music Academy. The next day we visit Podgorze, across the river where the Nazis herded the Jews in 1941 to establish the infamous ghetto. Many Jews were sent to a labour camp, others perished at Auschwitz. Today, Schindler's factory (in the movie) has been converted into a museum which offers a multimedia look into Krakow's experience under the Nazis. The outside world encroaches: a hypermarket across the road and the distracting sounds of traffic. Kazimierz and Podgorze have truly taken us back in time.

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