In Krakow, my love to Eastern Europe and its Jewish heritage begun about 20 years ago. Since then I have been there again and again. Last weekend I was back in Krakow. Much has changed since my first visit. Krakow is now a city of mass tourism and it is also the Jewish past and present, which attracts visitors from all over the world.
How was Krakow, when I was there for the first time? Beautiful, a bit run down, on the way to recover from the communist periode, and just discovered as a tourist destination. Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List” made the city and its Jewish heritage popular, but at that time the majority of visitors were individual travelers – adventurers – who began to explore the East of Europe. The number of hotels, restaurants and cafes was overseeable, the prices were low, and not many airlines and airports offered flights to Krakow.
During my current trip, everything was different. The airport is going to be expanded by a new terminal, taxis have doubled their fare for a ride to the city center, and crowds move through the old town even in late October. Not only through the old town – also through Kazimierz. The old Jewish district is a tourist destination as well. One tour group is followed by another, you can hear all languages of Europe, and in addition there are many American and Israeli visitors. In the breakfast room of our hotel they are prepared for this – in the morning the news of CNN are on the television screen, four years ago, it was a Polish news channel.
My friend Miriam, with whom I travel, is surprised by this hype – so am I. On Friday and Saturday night it is nearly impossible to get a table in one of the many pubs in Kazimierz. It’s not only tourists who crowd the bars, also many young Poles and Erasmus students. Miriam and I decide to get up early to escape the many tour groups – not always possible. Miriam has not been to Krakow before. Therefore we walk up the Wawel hill to visit the Royal Castle and explore the streets around the Rynok – the medievel market square. The other day is for Kazimierz, its cemeteries and synagogues – beautiful and moving like always.
From some friends I know they mourn old “undiscovered” Krakow. I do not. Yes, much is a fake today, like Jewish restaurants offerin kosher cuisine – operated by ordinary Poles. But there is also a Jewish rebirth. Next to the Tempel Synagogue is a new Jewish community center, which invites visitors to enter. The Isaac Synagoge was taken over by Chabad Lubavitch and is a synagogue again today. In addition, Chabad has opened a restaurant offering “glatt kosher” dishes.
It was never the concept of an ancient trading city like Krakow, to be a picturesque ruin. Such cities have always lived by its visitors, its shops offered all possible goods, streets and markets were crowded. Krakow has become such a city again, and tourism provides an opportunity to preserve the rich heritage. Again, I was happy in Krakow and I wish other cities to take a similar development. No reason for sentimentality – rather an example for others.
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