Chapter 5: To Krakow

Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth | The Book

I left Romania.

I took the night train north from Bucharest. Marcel from the Jewish State Theatre met me at the station when I got back to the capital from Braila. I was a bit nervous because on my way out of the city a few days earlier on the way to Focsani I had had my camera nicked off me near the station which is notoriously dodgy. He was a true friend – he met me – took my case (I didn’t ask him to!) – dragged us all over Bucharest to find the right police station to report the crime – and set me on the train again with kindness.

I had met some lovely people, but I was glad to leave. Getting robbed had unsettled me, even though that could have happened anywhere, and it had been a challenging few days, as well as inspiring. Romania is not an easy country to be a tourist in – they don’t even have a tourist information office. And I had been doing strange things – going off the beaten track, to places that even the locals asked why was I staying another night? I can see that this was one of the most challenging things to do on this trip. I had put myself outside my comfort zone, but then isn’t that what a journey should be all about?

It is 2 days travel from Bucharest to Krakow, Poland, a journey I was making as quickly as possible due to pressures of time. I was making my way towards Auschwitz now. I took the night train from Bucharest to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. I had a day there and then was getting another night train from Budapest to Krakow.

If you only ever have one day in Budapest go to the Szechenyi Furdo or Szechenyi Baths – that’s all you have to do! It is an amazing complex of thermal baths built in 1908 set in the City Park. Thermal pools indoors and out, saunas, fountains and statues.

Everyone seemed to be there from tourists to local people who go there as a matter of routine. Lucky them! I wandered the various rooms and tried the different pools, saunas and steam rooms, indoor and out. It was a sunny day and I blissed out in a naturally warm water outdoor pool, even getting a bit of a tan on my back. I was so relaxed, I could barely walk by the time I left! It was just what I needed, plus on the one day between 2 night trains, you get a good wash!

I had something to eat and then took a walk. I saw the River Danube again, wending its mighty way 400 miles upstream from Braila where I’d seen it a day or 2 before. Here it divides the districts of ‘Buda’ on the west from ‘Pest’ on the east. I don’t know much about the Danube but my Dad once told me a story about it. It was a story about his father who he barely mentioned – ‘the only kind thing he ever did’ was how he put it. He didn’t get on with his father. During the war his father had taken in a German Jewish woman and her daughter. The husband and son had got stuck in Europe, not able to get out, and were picked up by the Germans. The story was that they were being taken by boat along the Danube somewhere. (Did the Germans really do this?) The two decided to take a chance and make a run for it and jumped ship. By some miracle they made it, survived the war and were later reunited with the wife and daughter. I have no idea of the truth of this story but an uncle did confirm that the family had taken in a few German Jewish girls during the war under the guise of ‘au pairs’ as a way getting them out of Germany.

It was good to see the Danube again.

At teatime I got on the night train from Budapest to Krakow. It wasn’t lost on me that I was travelling quickly by train across Europe from the land of my Jewish ancestors… to Auschwitz.

I arrived in Krakow at 6.30am somewhat bleary eyed. I put my case in a locker at the station and made my way on foot to the city centre. It was too early to do anything but look for a coffee.

Krakow is a beautiful city. It is much more on the tourist trail than anywhere in Romania. I was embarrassed to admit to myself, I experienced this with some relief. I liked that there were more westerners around (tourists) and a lot more English spoken! I don’t always feel like that I hope, but it was good to feel the boundaries of my comfort zones, and to notice when I was crossing in and out of them.

I made my way to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, famously the biggest and best preserved in Europe. (What does that say?) I began with a most welcome piece of Polish apple cake and a couple of cups of coffee at a quiet cafe in the old market square. Thus fortified I went for a walk. The streets were narrow and beautiful, with several synagogues – now museums – and a graveyard. The whole of Europe has become a museum for the Jewish people who used to live here it seems to me. In places it is invisible, overgrown, but here it is amazingly visible, a bit miraculously left, shocking in the absences it’s presence reveals.

When I got there early it had been quiet but by 10am it was swarming with tourists, traders and those offering tours. Kazimierz has become a tourist attraction and the funky part of town, with quirky shops and nice places to eat. It reminded me a little of Manchester’s lesbian and gay village – once safe harbour for a minority group, now the fashionable part of town and a tourist attraction for everybody. But where are the Jews?

There are barely any Jews living in Poland now. There is Jewishness here, but it is history, Jewish people in general are not much known or talked about in contemporary Poland. I wonder how Jews who do live here feel about this, and their ‘old quarter’ turned into a tourist attraction.. after the Holocaust? Unfortunately I didn’t stay long enough to find anybody to ask.

At lunchtime I got on a bus to Oświęcim – the Polish village renamed ‘Auschwitz’ by the Nazis. This too has disconcertingly become part of the tourist trail which I found extremely uncomfortable, though of course I am a tourist myself really. A tourist to a place where surely time should have stopped never to start again? But of course it has carried on. The village has had to survive its terrible notoriety. As we drove in I was amazed to see from the bus shops and schools and everything – life carrying on.

Funded by Arts Council England

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