A matter of life and death

Should a picturesque suburb of Krakow be redeveloped or left as a memorial to the Jewish community that perished in Auschwitz? Michael Church visits Kazimierz
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The Independent Culture
In a cemetery in the Kazimierz district of Krakow is a wall where Jews from all over the world come to bear witness, as they do by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It's built from fragments of a gravestone bearing names, bits of carved foliage and pairs of praying hands - an intricate patchwork stretching into the distance.

On the other side of the wall is the square in which Steven Spielberg filmed the ghetto exodus in Schindler's List. But, like Eisenstein on the Potemkin steps, Spielberg was taking poetic licence because Kazimierz was not a ghetto. It was a town within a town, where Jews and a minority of Christians co-existed for 600 years. The ghetto into which the Nazis forced the Jews, and whence they exported them to nearby Auschwitz, was on the other side of the river.

In 1939 there were 60,000 Jews in Krakow; there are now fewer than 200. Most of the city's Jews died in the gas chambers. Of those who survived, most settled in the United States or Israel. A mere handful came back "home".

As a result, the map of Kazimierz is peppered with what Krakow's town planners call "white spots", or plots of land, whose ownership is unknown. This matters greatly to planners and architects who want to breathe new life into this run-down, but not ruined, part of the city. One local economist (a former mayor) sees the issue in relatively simple terms: "I believe that most of the people who own the title to their property have already claimed it." In other words, the rest are dead. Others are not so sure. What paralyses them - and prevents the rejuvenation of Kazimierz - is the fear that when the unclaimed buildings are renovated, people will arrive from Jerusalem or New York and claim them as their own.

This is just one facet of an extraordinarily complex situation in which history, politics, economics and buildings interact. To get it in perspective, I visited the area with Margaret Walchak, a politician who liaises with Krakow city council and Kazimierz's existing residents. These people, she explains, were resettled here from other parts of Poland by the post- war Communist government and now regard the place as theirs.

They are largely working class, and cannot afford to buy or improve their homes. On the other hand, there are people who do have money - developers and members of the affluent middle class - itching to get a toehold in the area, which Unesco has listed as a world heritage site. The cash-strapped city is desperately seeking outside investors; gentrification looks inevitable. "We're longing to start work," says Ms Walchak. "But, we can't just tell our tenants, "The good news is that your district's going to be beautiful. The bad news is that you won't be able to afford to live here'."

In an effort to resolve things, the city has asked the worldwide Diaspora to help to track down surviving claimants. Meanwhile, two American-Jewish law firms have offered - for a substantial fee - to "clarify" the ownership of "white spots", so they can be sold and developed.

This has put the locals on their guard, prompting fears of a new wave of anti-Semitism. This unlovable trait existed in Poland in post-war years. In the Kielce pogrom of 1946, 42 Jewish survivors were murdered by a mob, and it was fanned further into life when the government blamed the Jews for student unrest in 1968.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote recently: "Poles and Jews did not live together, but beside each other ... while histories intertwined, life- worlds stayed hermetically sealed." Ms Walchak does not share this pessimism. "For six centuries, Jews and Christians took huge risks to shelter Jews from the Nazis." Hostility in Kazimierz, she says, is directed against all outside buyers, not just Jews.

Our tour of Kazimierz begins with the toweringly splendid church of Corpus Christi, with its Cranach Virgin and boat-shaped Baroque pulpit. In the adjoining square, the old Jewish market now functions under gentile ownership. Every so often, along the neat, well-cared-for streets, we pass a graceful building crumbling into ruins. Several boarded-up synagogues - what use have 200 Jews for eight of them? - are awaiting new uses.

A collapsing piece of wall in the middle of a derelict site is propped up by clumsy wooden buttresses. This, says Ms Walchak, is the last remaining section of the wall that once separated Christians from Jews. The owner of the plot on which it stands would love to tear it down and put up a hotel, but the conservation authorities won't hear of it. Massive tenement blocks, which at first seem derelict, overlooking the site, turn out to have carefully patched windows and washing hanging from broken balconies.

Pretty, cobbled Szeroka Square, where the Schindler's List exodus was filmed, is the cockpit in which all the competing interests are slugging it out. At the end of the square, the grandest of the synagogues has been turned into a museum of the history of Krakow's Jews. The final exhibit is a German newspaper cutting that proclaims, "The German city of Krakow is reclaimed for the Volk".

Nearby is the exquisite Remu'h synagogue, built in 1557 and named after the Polish philosopher Moses Isserles, also known as Rabbi Remu'h. Next door is a Jewish "foundation" that has made a fortune selling kosher vodka and which has been thwarted in its plan to put a hotel in the corner of the cemetery. The same foundation is currently building a restaurant-cum- shop on to the back of the Remu'h synagogue, leading to a battle royal between irreconcilable camps, "those who want to keep Kazimierz as a symbol of death, and those who want it to have life again".

Life is already returning in the guise of coaches taking day-trippers to Auschwitz and guided tours of locations from Schindler's List. But the most dramatic infusion of energy comes from an unlikely source. Backed by EC funds, Edinburgh and Berlin are collaborating with Krakow in a drive to restore Kazimierz. The Prince of Wales Business Leaders' Forum has set up a Krakow Development Forum and Krakow is taxi-ing for economic take-off.

War guilt apart, Berlin is well-placed to help the Poles over questions of land-ownership thanks to its recent experience of re-unification. And Edinburgh's work on its own historic quarter equips it to give architectural advice. "At present," says a member of the Edinburgh team, "Kazimierz is like the Marie Celeste. In a few years it could be as pretty as Bath."

McDonald's has already arrived in Krakow and Burger King is on the way. "We want to preserve our identity," says the deputy mayor, "not by banning things, but through the positive force of our ideas." Kazimierz does not want to repeat the Prague experience (an urban theme park), nor end up as an urban graveyard.

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