By By Harriet P. Gross
Will you walk with me again on the cobblestoned, curving streets of the once-Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland?
This stroll took me and my touring companions past the places where famed makeup mavens Helena Rubenstein and Max Factor got their starts, past the places where Billy Wilder and Roman Polanski once lived, past the former factory — renovated three years ago and turned into a museum — of Oskar Schindler, the most unlikely but most effective Righteous Gentile who saved as many Jews as he could from the Nazis’ noxious clutches.
In the site of the Krakow ghetto, we saw where 16,000 people had once been crowded into 320 tiny houses. One especially vicious Nazi officer is well remembered as having said that he couldn’t eat lunch before killing two of the Jews there. He did his part since he was a daily partaker of lunch, but only managed to do away with a fraction of the 65,000 who were taken from Krakow to concentration camps beyond, or to Plazow nearby.
Rosalie Schiff, one of Schindler’s select few, was once an inmate of the Plazow camp. A long-time Dallas resident, she is among the handful of local survivors still willing and able to give personal testimony to groups at the downtown Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance and elsewhere. Her harrowing story, and that of her late husband, have been told in “William and Rosalie: A Holocaust Testimony,” published almost five years ago.
Today, Plazow is pleasant grassy place. A park, almost, since there is almost nothing there but grass. Casual visitors might not guess at its gruesome past life unless they shade their eyes from the sunlight and look directly upward, to the very top of the high hill that crowns it. There stands a monument, a very modern sculpture: five massive, virtually featureless figures with bowed heads.
Are they meant to be weeping? I was, when I saw them. I haven’t yet asked Rosalie if she has ever returned to Plazow to see them. But she doesn’t need to see them to weep; memories are cause enough.
In Kazimierz, the square where Krakow’s Jews were gathered for their deportation to Plazow and beyond, there is also a sculpture: a stark gathering of empty concrete chairs. And the old Jewish cemetery is still there, now surrounded by a ring of wrought iron menorahs.
Outside of Krakow is the massive salt mine where Poles toiled for the hundreds of years when salt, the only way to preserve food, was more precious than gold. Most of what is now dug up and brought to the surface is boxed or bagged for tourists to take home as souvenirs or to cook with.
These days, visitors descend into its subterranean depths by elevator, then walk through vast halls decorated with huge figures carved from salt by the men who once labored there: people, animals, saints of the church.
Poland is a Catholic country, and Krakow has 200 Catholic churches today. No synagogues. Poland is known for its amber (we can identify Jewish actress Ellen Burstyn’s point of family origin by her last name, which is the Polish word for amber). Every shop sells amber jewelry. Crosses of every size, shade and design are offered. But no Jewish stars.
In the bowels of the salt mine, just as in any self-respecting tourist attraction, is a gift shop and there, across from the salt display, I asked the amber saleswoman if she had any six-pointed stars. Jewish stars.
No, she said quickly. Then: “Wait!” She ducked down below the counter and surfaced with a small bowl — the kind of container that many women toss useless small items into, like odd buttons, a broken chain, a pin with an untrustworthy clasp. She dug through its contents and came up with a pair of small silver stars centered with amber.
I have not been allowed to put weight on my lobes since having a tumor removed from behind my right ear more then 40 years ago, so I do not wear earrings. But of course I “liberated” these, my best souvenir, finer by far than any salt. A jeweler friend is making them into a pendant; when I wear it, I hope you’ll notice and comment.
Frederic Brenner, the Frenchman whose magnificent “Diaspora” photographs chronicle Jewish life across the globe, calls Poland “amnesia dressed up in the trappings of memory.”
I think I understand him now.