Snapshot Saturday: a window on Krakow

Poland, WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge

We’re just back from our holiday – that epic journey through Poland and to Berlin. It feels like the beginnings of a voyage of discovery into a so far almost unknown part of my family history. And I may have a post or two to share still. You have been warned.

But here’s just a bit of fun.  Walking down a street in Krakow the other day, I spotted the streetscape behind us reflected in the window of this car.  Here it is:

This week’s WordPress photo challenge is ‘windows’

Very flat, Poland.


By train, we’ve travelled from Gdansk to Krakow, from Krakow to Warsaw, and now we’re on the train from Warsaw to Berlin.  In all, that’s some 1400 km.

What is astonishing me is that the countryside is almost all the same. It’s flat, flat, flat. Long narrow unboundaried fields – and gosh, Polish cows don’t need fencing in – are interspersed with swathes of forest.

No wonder that that throughout history, invading armies have been able to march unimpeded across the land, conquering as they went. Hitler’s tanks, Stalin’s tanks all had a pretty easy ride here.

Just now, we’ve been passing through flatlands of long, wide peaceful lakes. And we’re drawing closer to Poznan, near to which my father was born, to a farming family.  I feel surprisingly emotional.

View from the train window, almost anywhere in Poland.

Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau


I’m glad I went to Auschwitz. I’m still processing what I saw, what I heard. Most of you will know the histories of the dreadful death camps.

The weather was appalling today. Double speed windscreen wipers on the way there. I was cold and wet. But I was well-clothed and shod, I’d had a good breakfast, and soon I’d be warm and dry. The inmates of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau had their one and only pair of never-washed louse-infested pyjamas and next to no food inside them. They wouldn’t be going somewhere cosy for a change of clothes and a nice hot drink in a couple of hours.

I’ll just share two vignettes. Imagine a long narrow room, with a display case on each side running the length of the room. Each is filled with human hair. This hair comes from the heads of women and girls exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. A very small proportion of the total. This is the hair of some 80,000 women.

In the next, similar room are shoes. Thousands of shoes. They belonged to some of the thousands of murdered Jews.

I took no photos in Auschwitz. It seemed disrespectful to take snapshots of those glimpses of real lives, real tragedies. I’ll just include one familiar image of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the train lines which transported people to their almost certain deaths.

I’m glad to have gone because I left with a certain feeling of optimism. The custodians of these camps and the guides who bring those dreadful days back to life are passionate about sharing the stories, to try to make sure, against the odds, that they are never repeated. Our young guide told us he had been trained by an Auschwitz survivor. He clearly saw his job as no ordinary responsibility.

Today, and every single day, thousands of visitors take these lessons away with them.

My visit there does deserve a more considered post. Just – not yet.

Krakow 1940


It’s a toss-up whether to showcase our simple but delicious lunch – soup, crammed with every veg. known to the allotment patch, eaten in the company of a pile of Polish students and workers, or whether to hark back once more to the war.

All these vegetables were lined up in the café waiting to be transformed into soups and stews.

For positively the last time, the war wins.

My mother always acknowledged that she was lucky and lost nobody she cared about in WWII. She was a young teacher in York and evening fire-watching duties were rather fun. And all those handsome Polish airmen …. reader, she married one.

Compare Krakow for the first four years and five months of the war. German troops marched through the city and occupied it. If your house was requisitioned by the army, so were its furniture and contents. You just had to leave. Familiar streets were renamed in German. Polish news sources of all kinds were banned. Secondary and University education was banned, and teachers who taught in secret risked the camps. Foods were in such short supply that Poles and Jews alike subsisted on under 300 calories a day for stretches of the war. Minor infringements, such as boarding a tram intended for Germans, or breaking the curfew resulted in a stretch in a labour camp. And if all that was tough, the Russians who succeeded the Nazis as occupiers were even worse.

I know all this from our visit to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, now a museum of Krakow under Nazi Occupation.

Polish street names ripped down, to be replaced by different, German names.

I decided to bite the bullet, and tomorrow, I go to Auschwitz. Malcolm’s chosen not to go. I don’t blame him.

A day down the salt mines


We weren’t sure about visiting the salt mines near Krakow. They have over a million visitors a year, so mightn’t they be, well, a bit tacky?

Actually no. It was quite a special experience. And a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.

They’ve been mining salt in Wielicza since the 13th century.  We walked down 800 steps to get to a depth of more than 300 feet to see some of the earlier workings. Further seams can plunge to a depth of over 1000 feet.  Miners routinely walked down to their seams, or in the early days, were winched down on precarious rope hoists.

 Salt encrusted wooden pit props.

English coal mining is the only mining history I know. So it was wonderful to learn that visiting these mines has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century. There are pictures of elegant 18th century balls being held in the more spacious caverns.

And which English coal mines ever had built in chapels? Miners constructed and ornamented these places of worship so they could give thanks for surviving another day in these dangerous surroundings. They would greet each other ‘God be with you’ (so you survive another day).

A man I talked to at the end said his Fitbit revealed that we had walked 5 km. in our four hours down the mine. Just think how much else I could tell you about this fascinating place if I put my mind to it.

This is a cavern where dancing and other events took place. The walls and floor are made of salt. As are the droplets of the chandeliers.

A mish-mash of a day….


…. At the market at Stary Kleparz. Just look at all those mushrooms.

At Collegium Maius, the oldest part of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world, and my father studied there.

Up the Town Hall Tower in the Market Square …

… from which we could see St. Mary’s Basilica, whose wonderful polychromatic interior seduced me as much as the magnificent altarpiece by Veit Stoss.

All of these deserve posts of their own.  But not just now. I spend my time getting lost. I can’t even walk the 300 metres or so to our favourite café without getting in a muddle. Every single time.

Nowa Huta


That’s where we’ve been today. New Steelworks. It’s the name of a town, now part of Krakow, that was part of the post-war dream of the communist regime. Krakow was seen as too bourgeois, too intellectual. It needed a healthy dose of industrial work. Steelworks.

There was no coal or ore nearby. No matter. Bring raw materials in from miles away.  The site proposed for this industrial powerhouse was fertile agricultural land that had been productively farmed since the Middle Ages. No matter. Destroy the villages and evict the farmers and labourers.

Nova Huta was born. In its heyday it employed more than 100,000 workers.  They benefitted from good facilities for their families, and cultural opportunities, at the same time as they and the Krakow region choked under catastrophic industrial pollution.

Today the pollution is sorted, but the town of Nova Huta lives on. It was a model of Socialist Realism. Monolithic concrete blocks of flats flank broad grassy tree-lined boulevards, interspersed by parks. We expected to hate it. But we didn’t. The massive blocks of flats are medium-rise, and grouped round communal lawns. Shops and community facilities form the ground floor of blocks along the main boulevards. The parks are spacious and seem to be home to lots of – yes – red squirrels. And groups of tables with inlaid chess boards where we came upon gaggles of men playing cards. Honestly, I’ve seen much nastier social housing all over Europe.

When the Solidarity movement began in Gdansk under Lech Walesa, the workers of Nova Huta, aided by the priests of the churches they had struggled to have built, and by the monks of the nearby Cistercian monastery were eager to join in the fight against communist oppression.

As is now clear. The main streets of Nova Huta are now named after Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Solidarity itself.

What a day. Such a contrast from historic down-town Krakow, and from the local Cistercian Abbey and ancient wooden church of Saint Bartholomew, which we also called in on. As well as the 1970s church of Arka Pana, which was such a struggle to have built. Luckily for the parishioners of Nova Huta, their bishop was on side. A certain Karol Wojtila, later Pope John Paul II.


Social housing

The offices of the steelworks.

The interior of Arka Pana.

Wawel Castle


Poland’s had a tough history. There’s never been a century when it hasn’t been invaded. I found a map that showed the western countries that hadn’t had a go at taking over Poland were few and far between. What with Swedes and Prussians and Austrians and Germans and Russians invading, ruling, dividing and subjugating, it’s a wonder that Poland has a national identity, language, or culture at all.  But it has. And the Polish people are proud of it.

Take Wawel Castle in Krakow. Originally built in the 11th century, then rebuilt, it burned down in 1499. And what a palace Sigismund the Old commissioned in its place! His wife was from Italy, a Sforza, and Italian workmen wrought a Palazzo fit for her to enjoy.

Since then, it was repeatedly sacked by armies from Sweden, from Prussia, and then from Austria. These last razed churches and houses on the site, constructing instead barracks and a military hospital while ruining the mediaeval fortifications.

Poland was once again re-established after WWI. Since then, the castle and the entire enormous site has gone through a period of painstaking restoration to reveal its earlier Polish ancestry. If this means rebuilding, or scaling away later additions by conquerors, so be it.

Wawel Hill is an enormous site shared by state and church alike. Here are some pictures to give some idea of this magnificent area of Krakow. The images show the Renaissance courtyard, the Royal Cathedral, the Sandomierska Tower and a view of the site from within the Castle walls.

Comfort food, Polish style

Food & Cooking, Poland

After a couple of emotionally draining days, we had a low-key day exploring endlessly fascinating back streets.

Rain threatened all day, and when it finally came, we knew about it. Deluge. We needed comfort food. This is what I chose at lunchtime: zureck. It tasted slightly sour, slightly fermented. I loved it.

You make a zakwas of rye flour, bread crusts, garlic, and warm water set aside for some days to ferment. Then you make a broth from root vegetables. Then you fry onions, bacon, white sausage, and add it to the strained broth. Add a hard boiled egg. And the zakwas. And you’re done. I’m going to make this at home.

This evening we shared a single portion of potato cakes, goulash type stew, sauerkraut, carrot salad served with sour cream. We almost failed to finish it. And I’ve recently acquired a taste for fruit vodkas. Expect us to have gone up two sizes at least by the time you next see us.

Jewish Krakow


Here we are in Krakow. And here we are, staying in the former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, once a completely separate town.

How come there were so many Jews in Poland by the early 20th century? They formed, for instance, 20% of the population of Krakow by the beginning of WWII.

Blame the crusades. The Polish kings at the time declined to get involved. Jerusalem was so far away after all. So there were no crusaders from Poland in the routine persecution of Jews that took place in those so-called Holy Wars.  And Poland became a place of sanctuary.

Along came the Black Death. Citizens from all over Europe looked for someone to blame. Jews, obviously. Jews needed somewhere to flee. Poland, obviously. Poland somehow escaped the Black Death, so didn’t need to persecute Jews at that time.

Over the centuries, Jews did well in Poland. Well educated by their rabbis at a time when education was far from universal, they prospered. They tended to live together, in harmony with their Christian neighbours.

Then Hitler came to power.  As he occupied Poland, he began his all-too familiar persecution, then extermination of the Jews. But in Krakow, the factories were short-handed. and Jews were required as slave labour. 3000 Poles were forced to leave their homes in the Podgorze area, and 16,000 Jews moved in to the ghetto it became. 

This street forms one of the boundaries of the ghetto.

One of those factories was Otto Schindler’s. 1000 Jews who might otherwise have died lived because of his protection – he could have managed with 100 workers. This dark period is remembered in Plac Bohaterow Getta – Ghetto Heroes Square, where 70 chairs symbolise absence, departure. This Square was the place where Jews were executed, or sent to almost certain death in the local Concentration Camps. Another sobering day.