Kraków is a fine, bustling city with bags of self-confidence and plenty to be proud about. Here are the tombs of the Polish kings – something like the tombs of the Kings of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings. The only earthly analogy I can think of is the tomb complex of the Ming emperors near Beijing, though those were designed to be less accessible to the people whose ancestors they ruled over – more religious mystique and less populism.
I set out into the streets armed with Stephen’s guide – cafes, restaurants and jazz clubs, all class. I could go on about the food, but what really did it was the jazz. At the Piec Art club was the Sound Quality Quartet – drums, bass, accordion (simultaneously playing different melodies with both hands) and flute – a completely original (to my ears, anyway) combination of 1970s jazz-rock, with all its tempo changes, and Slavonic tunes. This clip doesn’t really do them justice:
They played a Coltrane song – The Promise – which had been so radically transformed that I only recognized it from the announcement; it completely recontextualised it while retaining all the vitality of the original. Stunning virtuosity and feeling – and only 20 people to see it, in spite of the €3 entrance charge. Two days later, the PF Trio, actually a quartet: bass, drums, and brilliantly dueling alto and tenor saxes.
Tourist gear: the big church, St. Mary in the main square, has a major Gothic altarpiece for a big draw. No crucifixion; that is reserved for high up in the interface between nave and choir. Impressive it all is, but more so is the fact that the church is internally painted: from the ground upwards in earthy ochre, and a starry firmament on the ceiling:
The main town square teems. I take pleasure in seeing Jews with skullcaps strolling among Polish crowds while jazz bands play Slavonic trad for multinational audiences; all these things were supposed to have been eliminated 70 years ago, but today they are happening, while Hitler and all but the last of his thugs have long been six feet deep. This is Europe; may it thrive.
That can’t reverse the damage that was done, of course. The tourist floats in the city streets, among the city’s other sights, advertise “ghetto”‘ “Jewish quarter” and “Schindler Factory” (yes, it was here that Schindler did his famous good deeds), but this cheerful Holocaust tourism can only do so much to hide the fact that it would have taken thousands of Schindlers to prevent what happened; and that while there are a number of historic synagogues and even some Jewish restaurants with bands in Jewish dress playing traditional Jewish music, there are hardly any Jews in the Jewish quarter, which is moving from run-down towards being Kraków’s answer to Camden Town.
There is, though, a wonderful little gallery, one of the finest I have been to in Europe, called the Galicia Museum. Galicia was a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire created after Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 18th century, and stretched eastward from Kraków into what is now Ukraine. In almost every village there was a thriving Jewish community; no more. The photos in the gallery concentrate on what remains in the part of Galicia that is now in Poland: the abandoned or converted synagogues, the shattered graveyards, the copses that were once graveyards and around which the local farmers still plough carefully, the houses that have become dilapidated because no-one can figure out who owns them; the massacre sites and the death camps; and the memorials, both large-scale and quiet and local, that have sprung up to commemorate. It’s an exhibition worthy of tears, for Hitler, in this part of Europe, achieved his aim: a way of life that had existed for a thousand years, gone.