Travelling to Poland becomes much more interesting if one has read its history. For some reason, Indian tourists seldom have Poland on their travel itinerary.
Krakow, I learnt, was the capital of Poland for nearly 600 years before it moved to Warsaw towards the turn of the 16th century. It remains, in ways more than one, the cultural capital of Poland.
As we stepped out of the train at Krakow Glowny railway station, the most striking feeling is of directly stepping into a shopping mall: the Emporia Glowny, a modern impressive mall seamlessly merged with the railway station and MDS bus station. The denizens of the city are fashionable, and it is visible on the street.
People on the street are friendly, and they often throw the legendary Polish humour in measured bits and try to be as helpful as possible. Most of the younger lot speak English as it is a part of the school curriculum. Being independent travellers, speaking only English posed no problems for us in Poland.
The public transport system is remarkably efficient. Trams are the favoured transport in both Warsaw and Krakow though buses cover a larger area. They are swanky new machines, punctual to the dot and remarkably fast. Every bus/tram/metro stop has free Wi-Fi, practically making the city a Wi- Fi zone!
All buses and trams have a self-service ticket vending machine (biletomat) on board. Tickets are interchangeable for bus, tram and metro (in Warsaw). Armed with all this information, I boarded a tram, fiddled with the touch screen, inserted money and my money came back. The machine did not have the exact change for returning. It did accept contactless cards, but my Forex card was older generation, without the RF chip. I panicked. Here I was, in a foreign land, travelling without ticket.
I visualised myself encountering the ticket examiner at the next stop. A young girl standing next to me sensed my predicament. She suggested calmly getting down at the next stop and trying the machine there. “But I am without ticket,” I say. “Sir, we run our system on trust,” she proudly declared, before alighting. A day ticket for 13 Zloty (less than Rs 250) is value for money: It allows unlimited access to all public transport for 24 hours.
Krakow old town (Stare Miasto) is a ten-minute walk from the railway station. It is unique in many ways. It is circumferentially surrounded by a garden called Planty Park. In a way, it is situated in the middle of a park. The old town square (Ranek Glowny) is the largest and easily the most impressive square in Europe.
In the 2018 Hindi film Andhadhun, the last part of the movie was filmed in Ranek Glowny. Every building is impressive in its own way but the square is dominated by the clotheshall dating back to 500 years.
The entire old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. In the evenings it is a happening place. Stalls selling their wares, thronged by tourists and locals alike, gleaming dual horse carriages drawn by handsome horses and driven by pretty girls — Pheaton, horses and the women, giving tough competition to each other in their livery, vying for the attention of the tourists.
Pubs and restaurants line the walkways, all in a spotless environment that could not have been better. I struck a conversation with an elderly man in a supermarket and enquired about the local wine. He smiled before quipping, “Asking for wine in Poland is an insult to Beer”. Indeed, beer is ubiquitous everywhere and is even cheaper than bottled water. For the spirit loving ones, there's always Vodka. The town is vibrant and shining at its best.
The high point of my stay in Krakow was to visit the district of Kazimierz, also called the Jewish Quarters. It is just south of the old city abutting the old town. Entering the area gives a sudden jolt by its stark contrast.
In the centre of an otherwise glittering metropolis, there is this island which speaks for its historical misfortune. It is less populated, the buildings crying for repair and maintenance. The atmosphere is melancholic and it suddenly makes the visitor think of 1941 when the most affluent residents from this part of Krakow were sent to Krakow Ghetto as the first part of the Nazi plan to rid the world of the Jews.
It was the prelude to the Holocaust that later consumed millions of Jews and Poles alike. Not much remains of the Ghetto now, save Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory (now a museum), immortalised by the Oscar winning 1993 movie Schindler’s List, and Eagle Pharmacy (also a museum now), subject of the book Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.
Oskar Schindler, a German, and Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Polish owner of Eagle pharmacy, are revered by Jews the world over for saving countless lives of the unfortunate ones who had no hope otherwise. A stubborn desire to preserve the cultural heritage and rebuilding a Jewish future is evident.
Shops and establishments wear the Jewish identity and the Israeli connection of Jews on their sleeves. I noticed a banner calling for ‘Building a Jewish Future in Krakow’ outside the community centre there.
My wife spotted a restaurant, The Indian Curry. We had been on European food for a week and the mere name of the eatery set the Pavlovian reflex in action. Once inside, we were greeted by the owner in Hindi.
The restaurant, we discovered, was jointly owned by a Pakistani, an Indian and a Bangladeshi. A real akhand Bharat concept, I thought! There are Indians in Poland but not many Indian tourists, we were told. Heartening was the soft power of Indian food. Five tables were occupied and except us, all were Europeans.
The typical street food of Krakow is Obwarzanek (bagel). It is best when eaten fresh. I tried to buy it from a stall near Wieliczka Salt Mine. The sales maid refused to sell it to me (a foreign guest) because it was not fresh! Another local speciality is Oscypek, which is cheese from Tatra Mountains. Pierogi is also a local favourite, more or less like our momos. Otherwise beef, wheat and potatoes are the staple food in the country.
Wieliczka Salt Mine, about 45 minutes by a city bus (covered by day ticket), has an interesting history. Salt used to be a precious commodity in olden days. In ancient Rome, the soldier's pay was originally salt and the word 'salary' derives from it. It also makes sense of the expression 'being worth his salt'.
Salt mining started in Poland more than 600 years ago at this very site. There is a separate tourist shaft that takes one down nearly two hundred meters. It is a guided three-hour trip (add an hour or so for the wait). It is actually an underground museum created in the natural surroundings. There are statues including one of Pope John Paul II, murals, a functioning church and a large hall in which everything, including the chandeliers, are made of pure salt.
Our guide invited us to lick them to verify this, which I did. It was indeed salt! Then there are souvenirs being sold, made of salt, of course. Mining technology in Poland is well developed. It may be of interest to us to know that we sought Polish collaboration for our newer generation coal mines in the 1960s and a large number of our mining engineers were trained in Poland.
Warsaw has a different story to tell. It is a modern, vibrant city with liberal values. The streets are impressively lined with imposing buildings.
The city saw the onslaught in the second world war like no other city did. The invading Germans and Russians considered Poles unworthy of existence and at best fit only to serve a gigantic labour reserve for German industry and war effort. For those unfit for hard labour, death was the prescription. In ‘cancelling the existence of Poland as a nation,’ Nazis ensured destruction of the entire Polish culture. Every physical form with a cultural significance was systematically destroyed.
Grant it to the city and the nation that every single item has been restored/remade to the last detail, starting from Sigmund's Column to Chopin’s statue in Royal Lazienki Park. Chopin is the cultural forte for the soul of the city. After all, not too many capitals in the world has named their airport after a musician unlike Warsaw’s Chopin airport. Every evening at 4 PM, there is an extempore musical congregation by the side of Chopin’s statue in the park. For music lovers, it is an uplifting experience.
Warsaw also had a ghetto. But, it was different. Polish society had a complex system of internal fault lines. The invading Germans hated the Jews and held them responsible for all their problems, real or imagined. The invaders also hated Poles and considered them worthy only of sub-human existence at best.
The Poles, on their part, also nurtured deep loathing for Jews. The Jews, therefore, came to be at the receiving end from both sides. In the ghetto, the Jews realised that death was their only certainty. Gradually, they formed a resistance in the ghetto. Arms were smuggled in, bunkers, rat holes and tunnels were dug to make an underground labyrinth around Mila Street in the ghetto. And there was an uprising by the inmates that was swiftly crushed by the Germans.
The entire Mila Street became a rubble heap with hundreds of the fighters entombed in their own bunkers. This story is chronicled in graphic details by Leon Uris in his bestseller Mila18. Made from the rubble of Mila Street, at No 18, stands a memorial for those fighters. It is a mound of earth with a small flag of Israel draped round it. Nearby is a stone obelisk that tells the story.
Polish people have not forgotten that time even two generations later. A young Pole was guiding a group of four British tourists. I was within earshot. She was passionately into her narrative of the horrors of the Holocaust when one of the tourists said, “I think we British did not know of these atrocities before the end of the war”. Guides are trained to remain cool and level-headed. But she did the unexpected.
She flared in a voice quivering with emotion, “Pardon me sirs. Britain did know of the goings on. RAF planes and bombers flew over the gas chambers in Auschwitz. They could have bombed it; they did not. I know it could not have been stopped but at least the process could have been slowed down”.
She realised she had crossed the laksman rekha of her profession and promptly apologised. For me, it provided an insight into her pain.
A short distance away is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, made in black Granite. It was here that German chancellor Willy Brandt created history in 1970 by going down on his knees before awestruck onlookers, in seeking forgiveness when words failed him.
Words have their limitation. How else could he express remorse on behalf of the German nation, for killing millions of innocent people for no fault of theirs but for the accident of their birth as Poles or Jews?