I want to start instead with the music I went to last night, at Cheder cafe In the heart of Kazimierz, a long, windowed space with live musicians every week. A guitar player and a singer, he young, she older, who gave us traditional Polish and Jewish folk songs. Sung in the minor key of a half octave litany, they were spellbinding. It was just what I needed. The room was packed, rapt; there was vodka and wine; The woman's voice broke and carried and broke again in the three note rise and fall. It was somehow the perfect match of repeating prayer and erotic call.
Before the show I had been wandering. So much of the Jewish district of Kazimierz, in Krakow has been commercialized; filled with menorah’d neon signs and “real" kosher food. Ducking into an open courtyard entrance, however, I found the Kazimierz that hadn’t yet been renovated. Because it couldn’t be.
Green stickers, which indicate a Jewish family once lived here and no relatives can be found, covered what were left of the windows I walked past on my way in. The city takes these flats in trust, and I’m told they are not allowed to be sold or used. Through the darkness of the entryway into the courtyard, its walls festooned with graffiti. The darkness gave way to a leaf-lit inner sanctum. A giant black-trunked tree (a chestnut?) grew straight and narrow in the centre - one of the biggest trees I’ve seen here. Little saplings surrounded it, long grass, weeds, clematis climbing the ornate balconies and filigree trim.
About every tenth apartment, of the three buildings that came together to make this courtyard, looked as if it had an occupant. The sounds from a television came down from above; a light shone grimly. A window box was full of geraniums. But the rest of the flats lay with their windows open or missing all together, the curtains hanging askew or gone, their dimness at dusk like missing teeth. Each building was three or four floors. Each floor had perhaps six inner-facing apartments. The emptiness was like something iron and ornate and heavy landing on me. I walked through to another adjoining courtyard, and found the same thing. I walked up a set of inner stairs, their wood treads scraped so thin the original plank had halved in thickness, the board separating from its riser. On the second floor, the light of a tv from one apartment, its door ajar. Padlocks on another. Padlocks and a bar with two more locks on a third. An armoire with padlocks on both doors, sat next to a broken window, the swirling mustard and cherry tiles at its feet covered in bird shit and dust.
Seventy years later, and these windows still swinging in the snow.
I found these courtyards the day after I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. I was wandering around Kraków in a daze, careening from one ridiculous emotion to another. My father had told me, “good, I’m glad you’re going.” Which surprised me. He’s not one to live in the past. He believes in working and studying to do good for the present and the future. “I cried all the way through,” he told me. “It’s important.” But it was hard to access what I felt while there because of the speed of the visit itself.
I hesitate to use this metaphor, but they shuttled us through like cattle at the sites. Winding lines of tour groups in all languages, up stairs, down stairs, through corridors of eye glasses, rooms of luggage, rooms of shoes, rooms of face cream and enamel pots. We were encouraged to hurry. Through barracks with fireplaces where no wood was provided, ever; rooms with toilets where no paper was provided, ever; rooms with washing basins where no soap was provided, ever. At first the speed seemed to be about the sheer number of people present. But by the end I thought, perhaps they do this on purpose. There is scarcely time to take any of it in. They leave you with no time to process, but also no time to fall into the crevasse of history, to stand still in front of the carved marks on the inside door of a solitary confinement chamber. Little scrolls and decorative flourishes. No time to break down in front of the cavernous room of women's hair or the gas chambers themselves. One survivor, our guide told us, came back to take the tour because his memory of the camps did not extend past the registration process.
When I hit upon the courtyards in Kazimierz, I was forced to stop. The city noise faded. The green was private and watery and I could make myself slow. I wish I had stayed longer. It’s only now that I write this I realize the few people living there might have been some of the 200 Jews still living in Krakow, of the 60,000 that once made it their home. But what would there have been to say? What could I possibly say in the face of all of this? When a man walking his dog came through the courtyard, I stepped from behind a snowberry bush so as not to frighten him. I smiled a little, from across the watery space. He looked back at me, paused a moment, then whistled his dog and kept on.