I landed in Krakow at just the right time. The community was celebrating several end-of-summer festivals and the clouds broke every morning just after breakfast to allow the sun to shine down on the packed city squares. After an all night train ride from Kutna Hora, I was exhausted but excited to meet the city who encouraged dancers to dress in festive costumes and prance about on a stage at 8am on a Friday morning. The enthusiasm coming from a place I’d perceived to be a rather small town was unexpected and I stopped to ask a man slow roasting meats near the stage what I could look forward to in the days to come. He pointed around and said “Full. All day. Today. Tomorrow. Tomorrow Tomorrow.”
The square would soon be full of vendors, performers, food stands, and tourists. Wonderful! I didn’t stop long, but instead continued in search of my hostel. The map I had saved on my phone was less than helpful so by the time I’d found the hostel, it seemed as though I had already toured the whole city. It was down a small alleyway, hidden by a skate shop and bar of the same name. Since I had arrived several hours before check in time, I secured my bag in a storage closet, poured a fresh cup of instant coffee and powdered creamer, then returned back to the main square.
The Main Square:
Already it had filled up. A new act was on stage: seven school aged children singing in harmony a Polish song that the audience adored. Girls with blonde braided pigtails and boys in black caps, they were a crowd favorite, encouraging audience members to clap along to their beat. Just past the stage and the roasted meats were handmade ornaments, candies, felted caps, wool socks and Christmas ornaments of various shapes and sizes. Old women smiled and older men called out at passerby’s, encouraging glances and potential customers to pass other stands and instead stop by their shop for a look at this season’s must-have collection.
Next to this festive square was a large building housing more artisan stands, each selling these same familiar objects year round and under the protection of a closed roof. After taking a quick look around, I passed through the arched doors to yet another square. Large and open, this square was void of artisans with the exception of a few talented painters and charcoal artists. Babushkas sold fresh flowers in large bundles near an old church and street side cafes filled with visitors ready to splurge on a breakfast of vegetable omelettes and toasted bread. I found a group of tourists huddled closely together near Saint Mary’s Church. Three people led the pack, each dressed in matching t-shirts and holding a distinct sign: “Communist Era” “Jewish Quarter” and “Old Town”.
In Prague, my uncle had opened up a curiosity in me to the meaning of Communism and its effects on peoples’ lives during and after the Communist regime. The lives of entire nations were impacted in a way that limited freedoms, created uniformity and turned even the smallest of sweets into the biggest of treats.
The Communist Tour:
In the square of Krakow, a sign which said “Communist Krakow” called me close. The woman holding the sign was a tour leader about to embark on the day’s only Communist tour. She offered to let me join her and the four others who had gathered around, and together we set out to see and hear different ways in which Communism had impacted the community. More powerfully, she also shared with us how this form of rule had changed her own life.
She spoke of the one bedroom apartment her family had applied for when they found out her mother was pregnant with her first child, and which they secured all of twelve years later. We stopped to look at the small Trabant cars which were allocated in a similar fashion, only one per family no matter the number of people, and only acquired after years of patience. She spoke of the matching uniforms everyone wore, the identical food rations each family was given, and the lack of religion. She took us to see homes in which several leaders stayed and worked, assigned a certain floor based on their ranking within the Communist Party. She took us to a site where one of the community members set him self on fire to denounce support for the maltreatment he felt. Nearby, another grave had been marked in a central park after similar behavior had been demonstrated, leading to the sacrifice of another young man’s life. She also brought us to a celebrated yellow house: Bishop’s Palace, the acting residence of Pope John Paul II, who not only lead the Catholic Church but also helped end Communism in Poland.
The woman was full of energy and full of life. She reflected fondly on her childhood days growing up in Krakow and showed appreciation for all the trials she and her family had been through. It wasn’t a time in her life she looked at sourly, instead it was simply what childhood was for her. She was frank and offered answers to our questions with modesty.
We explored much of the city, but still there was plenty to be seen. Throughout the next two days, I hiked through the soot stained buildings of Krakow’s more modern streets to an historic location she mentioned during the tour. Across the river from old town stands a warehouse known for making high quality enameled goods. It drew so much attention that Adolf Hitler himself paid a visit to the large white factory which employed Poles and Jews during the early 1940s. Schindler’s Factory, which has become famous to the masses after the film “Schindler’s List” was produced, has since been turned into a museum of history and of contemporary art. Masses line up each day beginning at 9am to catch a glimpse of this historical building which continues to show visitors a glimpse of life in Poland during years past.
Intrigued and on a constant journey for an understanding of the world, I left deciding tomorrow would be a visit to the most well known concentration camp of all time.
The Pierogi Fillers:
But first, to keep a balance between historical heavyweights and light hearted holidays, I returned to the main square to partake in yet another festival. In addition to the morning’s festivities, Krakow was also celebrating their annual Pierogi Festival. Restaurants from around the city had set up stands, each offering tastes of their flavored Polish dumplings, ranging from potato and chives to sour cherry to fresh lamb with carrots. The festival’s final moments named Polskie Smaki the best pierogi in Krakow for 2015, awarding the restaurant the sought after title for the upcoming year along with a statue of Casimir the Great, as voted on by public taste testers. At an equivalent rate of 40 cents per dumpling, I sampled until I could not sample any more, and went to bed with a rather full tummy, sleeping through the night and rising early in the morning to dive even deeper into our world’s history.