Friday, 18 November 2016

Going Krackers for Christmas in Krakow

Typical Krakow Christmas Market stalls (see bottom of post for picture attribution)
Travel forums are often littered at this time of year with people asking for advice on whether the Christmas Market of a particular city is worth visiting, and Krakow often features within this. 
Just about everywhere now seems to offer Christmas Markets and, certainly in the UK they are more often than not referred to as German Markets.
So, what is the Krakow market like during the festive period and is it worth booking a trip especially to visit it?
Having not perused every Christmas Market in every European city - I am no expert. However, what can be said in Krakow’s favour is that it has the luxury of one of the largest central squares in Europe in which to set it up. The spikey gothic columns of the St Mary’s Basilica and the chocolate box baroque buildings offer an atmospheric backdrop that many cities would envy. What also goes in its favour is that it runs in tandem with some pretty old festive Polish traditions which lend an air of authenticity to the atmosphere. In addition of course, there is the Polish climate which often obliges with some of the white stuff to dust the quant wooden huts and stalls. What could be better than sauntering amongst the smells of barbequeing sausages, mulled wine and sugary treats to the sound of gentle carolling by children and a sprinkling of fresh snow?

The Lost Mezuzahs of Kazimierz, Krakow

Whilst walking around the vibrant, bohemian Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow keep an eye out for marks on the right doorposts of the main entrances into buildings. You will notice that many have strange diagonal dents or scars on them. These mark where mezuzah boxes were affixed in the past, and signify that previous tenants were Jewish.
Mezuzah literally is the Hebrew word for “doorpost” since this – funnily enough – is where it is placed. It is not a good luck charm, but serves the important purpose of reminding the inhabitants of God’s presence and his commandments.
The instruction to place a mezuzah in this position comes from the Book of Deuteronomy in the bible in a passage commonly known as the Shema. In this passage the Jewish people are commanded to keep God’s words constantly in their minds and hearts - and the mezuzah box assists with this.
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart…You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
The words of the Shema are written by hand by an expert calligrapher on a tiny piece of parchment paper with God’s name written on the back. It is then rolled up and placed in the mezuzah box, but care must be taken to ensure that the first letter of God’s name is visible.
The box is then affixed at an angle on the right doorpost of the house.
Every time a Jew passes the box or enters the building they should kiss their fingers and touch the box as a reminder of the commandments within.
What is significant with the indents on Kazimierz’s doorposts are that they symbolise the extermination of what was once the thriving, rich cultural Jewish life of 60,000 Krakow Jews. Perhaps they were removed as soon as the Nazis invaded to try and cover up the Jewish presence within the building. Perhaps they simply are a sad, poignant reminder of the Holocaust. Are they all that remains of the lost souls that once inhabited these buildings who never returned as their existence was to be lost up the crematorium chimneys of Auschwitz/Birkenau? What is also sad is that with Krakow and Kazimierz now enjoying the prosperity that mass tourism brings, the renovation of these buildings means that these marks are gradually being plastered over and lost forever.

The image below brings home the harsh reality of the fate of many Krakow's Jewish residents. Remember this when you spot mezuzah marks on Krakow's doorposts.
Forced deportation of Krakow's Jews
 Image courtesy of the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team