Drawn Back Somewhere I’ve Never Been

I’m at the Krakow Airport, after a trip more beautiful and sad and cold than I expected. I’m eating a bagel (they’re all the rage here), staring at an empty tarmac and hoping that my delayed flight will get me to Munich on time to make my connection.

Krakow brings to mind the kind of old Europe that reminds me of my great-grandmother. A large part of my family comes from the eastern part of Galicia (the southern part of Poland). The town we’re from is now in the Ukraine, but at one time it was all the same country. The food here smells like my house did during the holidays. The Jewish history of the city is palpable and tragic and you can feel it wherever you go, even in the souvenir markets. The deep Antisemitism that existed in Poland before the war has, in many cases, been replaced by a kind of nostalgia for the decimated culture. There are lots of “Jewish style” restaurants and Kazimierz (the old Jewish quarter) is now the vibrant, trendy area of town, with tons of pubs and galleries. The markets are filled with carved wooden figurines of Jews in traditional garb, like the ones pictured above. I wasn’t sure how to feel about them.

I felt particularly moved by the old temple and the cemetery at Remu, built in 1553. It was ancient and intrepid and quiet. Even the building itself felt like a survivor.

I went to Shabbat services at the bright and modern Galicia Jewish Museum. I happened to be walking by and heard the music and it sounded great, with a Klezmer type of feel, so I went in. There was a large group of tourists there and it was a lively service. It definitely feels that there’s an effort to keep some Jewish soul of the place alive. I asked someone how many local Jews generally attended and he said about twenty. The entire Jewish population of Krakow now is around 500. Before the war it was 60,000.

I surprised myself by attending services, as I don’t usually go at home. A lot was surprising about the trip. It was meant to be a work trip- promotion for the Polish translation of my memoir- not some rootsy back-to-my-origins pilgrimage. Yet after services, I found myself saying to a guy from Hungary, “Something drew my back here.” I don’t know why I put it that way. It’s not as if I had ever been there before.

My trip to Auschwitz is another story and I need a moment to sit with it before I blog about it. It left me feeling like one of those cartoon characters that got an anvil dropped on its head. I’m still half-flattened. It’s going to take me a minute to rearrange myself and figure out how to put words to my experience.

Now Israel is bombing Gaza and my head is spinning with sadness about all of it, all of it. I’m grateful for my trip. And I can’t wait to get home.

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