A city of woes and wonder
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From one perspective, Krakow bears the proud beauty of the past. From another, the insistence of the everyday. Affinity Konar delves into both sides as she explores her family's heritage and the backdrop for her new novel, Mischling
Poland is my family's motherland; I grew up imagining its mystique. To me, it was the land of fur coats and cabbage, horses and flowers, war and remembrance. At the centre of these childish fantasies was Krakow. The very word sounded like breaking a vessel and finding something wonderful inside. The city became a refuge in my new novel, Mischling, and a point of connection for its narrators, twin girls imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On the flight over, I studied the language that my paternal grandparents – whose families had emigrated in the 1930s – reserved for secrets and argument. Ashamed of my lack of connection to Polish, I tried to piece out bits of conversation from fellow travellers. But all I could truly focus on was a pair of identical twins, boys engaged in a contest of who could watch Taylor Swift's Bad Blood video more times while crossing the Atlantic. Watching their bond, one I'd tried to mimic in fiction, I was reminded how terrible it was to feel suddenly parted from the company of your characters. I hoped to find reunion.
At the Krakow airport, I was bodily embraced by two different characters, Americans who were far too cheerful after a 12-hour flight. I will admit: I'm 38 years old and capable of self-navigation only at amusement parks featuring oversized mushrooms. My parents accompanied me so that I wouldn't fall into the nearest sea while trying to locate a pharmacy.
To speed past castles in some violet Polish evening with such beloved company? This wasn't something I'd ever anticipated. My father had travelled far and wide, in counterculture fashion befitting a man whose old passport photo announced an admiration of the Doors.
But that freethinker had avoided Poland – its history had been too sad for him to bear.
Now, he was here, clutching my mother's hand in the back seat of a car, while the driver hurtled us toward Hotel Ester in Krakow's Jewish quarter, or Kazimierz. I wish I could truly say what it means to stay in a room that overlooks one of the most aged synagogues in Europe. The Old Synagogue, with its peaked roofs and white face, seemed to hold its own light in the evening darkness. Later, we'd enter it to find the Jewish History Museum, with its displays of original oil paintings and parochets, manuscripts and shofars, all seated in a place once badly looted by Nazi hands. But on the night of our arrival, the exterior of the Old Synagogue alone justified this visit. To see history and endurance expressed by that structure was confrontation and wonder.
And from the other window, a different view – a brick café, strung with firefly lights, young patrons lounging with bottles. A convertible sped past, disco music blaring.
"Ruffians," my father joked, shaking his fist.
From one perspective, the proud beauty of the past. From another, the insistence of the everyday. Window after window, this theme would repeat throughout the city.
By the next morning, my parents declared their conclusion: Everyone was too beautiful and courtly. At the hotel's restaurant, my mother took pictures of the young waiters, insisting that they looked like younger versions of my father. He smiled at this action, amused, while I regretted my decision to protect my engagement ring from my forgetfulness by leaving it in my jewellery box. Surely these waiters suspected my mother of amassing a visual catalogue of prospects. I hid behind a giant omelette and side-glanced Szeroka Street, studded with cafés and restaurants. The square looked like one story tucked into another, a music box whose music had been threatened and diminished, and the rest of it tucked away for safekeeping.
After the conclusion of our breakfast embarrassments, we took a little car, manned by a guide, and trundled through the streets. Past the birthplace of Jewish beauty queen Helena Rubinstein, past the baroque glory of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, where literary heroes such as Czeslaw Milosz lay. Past the mournful loveliness of Remuh Cemetery, looted of its tombstones in the Second World War, some returned and restored to mark the resting place of distinguished Polish Jews, and past the façade of Hotel Eden, the one place in Poland that still offers the ritual Jewish mikvah bath. And as our tour guide took us past history, we heard too, of his own worries – a marriage gone bad, stalled career prospects. My parents have a confessional effect; they smile, people spill. His disappointments interwove our sights, as we crossed the bridge over the Vistula River, a reminder that even as we sought history, present burdens remained.
And again, there it was, the past: the fragments of the Krakow Ghetto wall. We'd visit it twice, so overwhelming were those blue-grey slabs, with a plaque commemorating, in Polish and Hebrew, the deaths of the ghetto's residents. If it's ever fitting to wonder what walls have seen, it was then, and one might hope that the sight of these particular walls might never die, that they might know visitors flock to them now with reverence, with flowers, with prayer. Perhaps it sounds odd, but Krakow drew out my tendency to assign feelings to the inanimate. Maybe this is one of the consequences of being in a city beleaguered by a history that is both warning and tribute – even the smallest object gains meaning, and the inanimate feels anything but.
I would be revisited by the tendency. At Schindler's Factory Museum, the famed gates of the factory fanned like the wings of some great, grey protective bird. There, I was led through scenes of the vanished Jewish life in Krakow, and to a display that introduced the creep of nazism through a swastika-patterned floor. A dizzying effect, a nausea, a pause. The museum's presentation of this history is oddly beautiful and layered: shelves of children's toys from the ghetto, Oskar Schindler's office, pictures of prisoners, smuggled letters, a room that bears text testifying to the atrocity, all a tribute to the diminished Jewish population of Krakow, and to a man who saved who he could. One hardly knows where to look. It is a feeling you are repeatedly visited by in Krakow.
As in the blankness of Ghetto Heroes Square. Positioned in what used to be the centre of Krakow's ghetto now sit 33 chairs of bronze and iron, a commemoration of Polish Jews lost to the tragedies of 1941-43. Thirty-seven additional chairs are stationed at the edge of the square and at tram stops, as if in wait.
So many monuments struggle for poetry. But here, poetry crept and lingered and watched you. I saw a stray cat wander through the square and weave about the legs of a chair.
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Between these tributes, Krakow presented its restful charms. By afternoon every day, a klezmer band was stationed at the door of our hotel. At dusk, we'd pick our way through the cobblestone streets and fall into a habit of listening to the menu of every hostess that approached us, before settling into meals of bigos and holishkes and herring, all the smells and colours I'd only seen expressed by my grandmother's kitchen. As a child, these dishes were secrets best kept out of the sight of friends. As an adult and vegetarian, they held a troublesome allure. My parents praised dish after dish – the prize for holishkes though, my father noted, still belonged to my grandmother.
A cartoonish luck visited us on our third and final day as we stumbled unexpectedly into a pierogi festival at the small market square in Old Town. There were the women with the braided hair and flower crowns of my Polish colouring books, the folkloric dresses, boys in black vests. A procession of children representing Zakopane – the region of my grandmother's origins – sang and stalked the street, waving painted silhouettes of birds overhead, a gentle riot of sound and colour. In the midst of this fanfare, my father and I parted from my mother, who was intent on enjoying the scene while we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
As we were lowered through the earth by elevator and shuffled through dark passages, the guide told story after story, but at times the crackle of her voice was lost to my ear as I watched the frost of salt festoon the walls. We learned about the currency of salt, the legend of Princess Kinga, the risks that enabled these tunnels, and found ourselves in an underground cathedral, pure crystalline. I looked at the saints stationed at the walls, their carved, salty hearts more luminous than one might imagine salt could be. Chandeliers spun of salt swung, spidery crystals blotted out duskiness.
After emerging from this underworld, we found that my mother had disappeared. The hotel clerk explained to us, via much gesture, that she had been taken to the hospital. And so we found ourselves in a new labyrinth, one that held my chastened mother, who had taken a fall and found herself whisked into a world of caretakers. Not content to be a bystander, one waiting-room angel, Magdalena, had hovered over her attentively, translating every bleat of pain. My father repeated our thanks and tried to give Magdalena all the bounty a vending machine can supply.
"Maybe this means I won't have to go home tomorrow," my mother whispered from her wheelchair, her smile bent with pain.
Because they didn't want to leave, even as they knew we'd leave with new appreciations. For my family, it was connection and pride. For me, it was being with my parents, in a city I'd long imagined in my novel, a city committed to finding beauty alongside sorrow and to the preservation of memory.
Mischling, a novel by Affinity Konar, is available now. Published by Random House Canada.