(Warning: I do discuss concentration camps in this post)
I LOVE POLAND! Last summer I visited Kraków with a couple of friends and had an amazing experience. Being of Polish descent, I’ve been dreaming of visiting the country since we moved to Hungary in 2016.
As people who know me already know, pierogi are my absolute favorite food (if you don’t know what a pieróg is please read this first before continuing and also reassess your life) so of course I visited Poland with the goal of beating the world record for pierogi consumption. That is until I realized that record is held by Joey Chestnut, who ate 165 pierogi in eight minutes.
I did my best while in Kraków (literally eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) but I didn’t come close to achieving Chestnut’s record; however, this is just an excuse to make more trips to Poland (side note: Cleveland, Ohio–a city with a large Polish population–holds the record for the largest pieróg ever made).
This is part one of my Kraków trip because I want to devote an entire post to our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’m mentioning this here because if you’re planning on seeing Kraków, Auschwitz is only a 30-minute drive from the city and is absolutely a must tour.
Where are we?
Kraków (Cracow), Poland is only a six-hour drive from our town. The second largest city in Poland, Kraków is also one of the oldest, dating back to the 7th century. Located on the Vistula River, the city’s name is derived from the Proto-Slavic word “krak”, which translates to “staff” or “oak”. The city was first founded by Krakus, the prince who led the Lechitians, a Polish tribe. Legend states that Krakus famously slayed the dragon of Wawel Hill (more on that later).
Like many of the cities in Eastern Europe, WWII drastically changed the culture and population of Kraków. During the German occupation, Kraków became the capital of the General Government following the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939. Hans Frank, it’s ruler, lived in Wawel Castle; the castle is located in the center of Kraków, on Wawel Hill, and on the Vistula River. The goal of the Germans was to Germanize the city by removing all aspects of Polish language, culture, and the people who lived there. As a result, academics were sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps while Jews living in Kraków were first confined a portion of the city known as the Kraków Ghetto before being sent to various work and concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
The Nazis then renamed the streets and sites of Kraków to German titles and even produced propaganda detailing how the city was historically German. Because the city was loved by the Germans, most of the historical architecture of Kraków remained intact during the war. Poland suffered heavy losses of human life during WWII (16-17% of its population).
Main Market Square (Rynek Główny):
While people have inhabited the area that is now Wawel Castle since the Paleolithic Age (WHAT), the first ruler of the Polish state chose this site as his home in 966. The castle itself was built by Casimir III the Great in 1333; It’s one of the largest and oldest castles in Poland.
The legend of the dragon that terrorized residents of pre-Kraków settlements is an interesting part of the city’s history:
From that day on there was no peace in the village. Daily, the dragon would appear to carry off a victim. Sometimes a sheep, or dreadfully, a child or even a grown man. The villagers called the hideous creature “Smok”. Men banded together to try and slay the dragon, but their primitive weapons were no match for the thick scales of the dragon. Many men died in the attempt to rid the village of this terrible curse.
In the same village lived a wise man named Krakus. Some thought him something of a magician, for he would mix herbs to heal the sick. The villagers came to Krakus to ask for his help. Krakus thought for a long time, studying his jars of herbs and things, and all the while murmuring to himself. Then he started to mix up a paste. He summoned the villagers to bring a sheep to him. He covered the poor sheep with the unpleasant mixture and carrying it up the hill, threw the sheep inside the cave.
After several suspenseful moments, there came the sound of the great dragon roaring and bellowing its way down to the Vistula River. The mixture that the sheep had been coated with caused a great burning inside the dragon. It drank and drank until it began to swell. Some say it drank half of the Vistula River that day. Still it drank to quell the relentless burning in its gut. Suddenly, there was a great explosion and the dragon burst!
The people rejoiced at the demise of the fearsome creature. They were so impressed with the wisdom of Krakus that they invited him to rule over them. They built a stronghold at the top of the hill and below it, the city prospered under his rule. The city was named Krakow in honor of Krakus. When Krakus died the people gave him a magnificent burial, and erected a mound over his tomb, bringing the dirt with their own hands. It has endured throughout the centuries as a lasting monument to their wise and brave King.
Kraków Jewish Ghetto:
We took a guided tour around the Jewish Ghetto the Nazis created during WWII. Kraków’s Ghetto was one of five created by the Nazis to control, deport, and murder Jews and other people (including Roma, gay men, people with disabilities, persons of color, and many more) they found “unworthy of life.” The German occupation of Poland provided a large population of people that were transported and murdered during the Holocaust.
At the time of the German invasion, 60,000-80,000 Polish Jews lived in Kraków. In 1939, the Nazis required all Jews to report for forced labor, then wear mandatory armbands. Hans Frank stated that Kraków should be the “racially cleanest” city in General Government and as a result, the deportation of Jews started in 1940. Of the 68,000 Polish Jews living in Kraków before the invasion, only 15,000 were allowed to remain as workers. They, and their families, were resettled in the Podgórze district of Kraków (known as the Kraków Ghetto) in 1941:
Previously inhabited by a little over 3, 000, the Krakow Ghetto was spread over a few dozen streets in and around Zgody Square (since renamed Bohaterow Getta Square), containing some 320 tenement buildings. A 2-3 metre high wall was raised along the perimeter of the Krakow Ghetto, crowned by a line of arcs reminiscent of Jewish tombstones, tragically prophetic – portions of which remain today…
Windows facing onto the outside world were bricked up and the gates were strictly policed. Krakow Ghetto became desperately overcrowded: each new resident was allocated a mere 2m2 of living space. Life in the Krakow Ghetto was a constant struggle: food was scarce and hunger became the gravest affliction; sanitation was sorely inadequate and the German command grew increasingly brutal and inhumane.
There were many instances of resistance within the Ghetto walls including the Akiva Youth Movement, Jewish Fighting Organization, and the Polish underground (Armia Krajowa). In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Kraków Ghetto. Many were sent to the Krakow-Płaszów concentration camp, Bełżec death camp, and Auschwitz. Those unfit for work (2,000 people) were shot in the streets of Kraków.
Today, you can tour the Kraków Ghetto and see the many memorials that were built to commemorate the people and violence that occurred there.
Our tour guide actually lives in Podgórze and one thing I found interesting is that her building still retains the bricked windows facing the “Aryan” side of the city.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory: Museum of Wartime Kraków:
Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi who saved 1,200 Jews during WWII. Schindler owned a number of factories in occupied-Poland and employed Jews in Podgórze originally because their labor was cheaper than Poles, but then he continued to employ and protect his Jewish workers throughout the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto.
“Schindler’s Jews” as they became known, included men, women, and children of all ages. Schindler was able to protect them from deportation through his connections within the Nazi party, the vital role his factories played in the war effort, and by constantly making exemptions for the skills of his workers.
Towards the end of the war, Schindler’s bribes and black-market dealings became more and more suspicious, but he was able to protect his workers from deportation. Even when they were accidentally sent to the Gross-Rosen and Auschwitz concentration camps, he was able to manage their safe return to the factory. While Schindler isn’t the only German who helped protect Jews during WWII, he is arguably one of the most famous, due in large part to the 1993 movie Schindler’s List.
Schindler’s Podgórze factory was converted to one of the most amazing and interactive museums I have visited in Europe. I highly recommend making a trip if you can. I took a ton of pictures, but didn’t want to post them all here; I think it takes away from the overall experience and sheer “whoa!” factor of the museum.
Marchewka z Groszkiem (Peas and Carrots):
THE ABSOLUTE BEST PLACE. Marchewka z Groszkiem was highly recommended by friends of a friend who have lived in Kraków for years; I’m so thankful they told us about this adorable restaurant. With so many amazing options to choose from, I just basically ordered enough food for five people (no regrets) and loved every single thing. Look at this menu!
We had dinner at Da Pietro our second night day in Kraków. It was such a beautiful day and after a long afternoon of sightseeing, we wanted to grab food near our apartment. Thankfully they have a good menu with a ton of options and great drinks, along with outdoor seating so you can see the sites in the square.
My first pierogi in Poland! Chtopski Jadto is a cute little restaurant with a ton of different pierogi options. I prefer a crispier potato pancake, but the pierogi were great. In Poland you choose whether you want your pierogi fried in addition to boiled, so make sure to ask! You could also order 30 pierogi to go, which looking back, I should have done.
Tiffany Ice Cream:
Recommended by a friend, Tiffany Ice Cream is the absolute best ice cream I’ve had in Europe. Please note Monica (on the right) with her four scoops like a freaking badass.
We stopped at Pod Noseum on our way to Wawel Castle. The first floor of an executive hotel, it was definitely the most upscale of the restaurants we visited. Their special that day was mushroom pierogi, so you know that my obvious choice. They were amazing.
Random Starbucks Coffee:
We stopped at Starbucks before leaving Kraków and I had the best/most embarrassing Starbucks experience of my life. When I asked for a black coffee, the barista replied, “like your soul?” which made my day.
After paying, I swung my backpack back onto both shoulders (#twostrapping) and a bottle of Polish vodka flew out of my bag and broke into a thousand pieces all over the floor. The entire Starbucks smelled like plum vodka at 10am.
Thankfully, the barista was very nice and even refused to allow me to help mop up all that wasted liquor.
Kraków is one of my favorite cities and if you have the chance to visit, definitely make time to see it. While I crossed Kraków off my list of places to see, it’s absolutely top of the “need to visit again asap” list.
Watching: Peaky Blinders Season 4
Reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward