The Jews of Kraków and its Surrounding Towns

Trip to Kraków - 1974
by Julius & Lily Susser

We boarded a steam engine train for kraków about five or six in the morning. The ride took about three or four hours. Our compartment companions were a pleasant older peasant couple who offered to share their food with us. The lady opened a large cloth napkin and offered us her homemade streusel coffeecake, the kind my mother used to make and I was never able to duplicate. It was excellent. We visited, but the time dragged on just the same. The train stopped at every station, every village and chugged along in between. Finally, we arrived in Kraków. There was no one to help us with the luggage – no porters – and we did not know where we were heading. We had no hotel reservations and Julius did not know where to find a hotel. We asked an old passerby if he knew where to get someone to carry our luggage.

"Where to?" he asked.

"Well, we want a hotel but don't know of one. Do you?" I replied.

"Do you want to go to the Francuski?" Julius knew this one and agreed. Without a word, the stranger picked up the suitcases and marched on. We followed him. Even though he carried the luggage and looked to be in his 60's, we had a hard time keeping up with him.

At the hotel, I made the mistake of speaking Polish. I did not know at the time that hotels prefer foreign guests, particularly those bringing in Dollars or German Marks. Polish Zloty had absolutely no value and we must not have looked like foreigners. Using the Polish language turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. At first we could not get a room, then luckily, they found a room for one night, but it would not be ready till 3:00 P.M. It was about 11:00 A.M. now. We wondered what we should do meanwhile to utilize our time. We were anxious to see the town. Sitting on our luggage for several hours was frustrating and disappointing. We were loosing precious time. Suddenly, a guy came out of nowhere, offering to take us for a drive to the Tatra Mountains, and "Morskie Oko", famous vacation spots near kraków and truly worth seeing. As an alternative, he offered to take us just sightseeing, wherever we wished to go. And of course, he was prepared to exchange money.

The stranger talked faster than I could comprehend. As usual, we were uneasy talking to strangers, particularly since we were not yet settled in the hotel and had no time to adjust to the situation or evaluate the circumstances. We did not know the real value of the money, and the brochure that came with the visa from the Polish Consulate warned of severe consequences if caught exchanging money on the black market or if found to have more Zloty's than the exchange slip showed. Each "legal" exchange transaction was documented. Even so, we were besieged by people wanting to exchange our dollars for more than the legal exchange. We remained cautious. Just like the stranger in Lodz, this guy was persistent and refused to take no for an answer. Finally, Julius walked up to the hotel manager and asked if it was all right, in his opinion, to take the offer. Time was precious and we were eager to see something. For now, we were confined to the hotel lobby with time passing idly by. Also, we were used to having a car and did not yet know how the public transportation worked. A drive in a private car was appealing. The manager immediately called the police, but when our guide saw what was going on, he fled before we knew what was happening. "Gone in a flash!"

We later found out the term for these money exchangers on the black market is "horse." No one knew why. We came very close to getting into big trouble.

As in Lodz, they asked for our passports at the desk and kept them overnight. By now we were accustomed to this procedure and didn't let it bother us. We found out later that everybody – even the natives – had to register with the police when leaving their home to go out of town or to travel – even to move across the street. In our case, the hotel did this for us as a service. Julius asked the manager if he knew a former soccer player by the name of 'P' something. Julius played soccer with him before the war. The manager was familiar with the name but not the person. He looked up the phone number in the phone book and dialed the number for Julius. Mr. P's daughter, Pola, answered the phone. Her parents were out of the country, but she offered to come to meet us. We waited for a long time – impatiently – in the small lobby, wondering what was taking so long. Finally, she arrived and had a cab waiting for us. We piled in and drove to her uncle Poldek's house. She had never met Julius before and wanted her uncle's approval before letting strangers into the house. Her parents were in East Germany at the time. They recognized Julius, although it took a little time. After all, they were not prepared for such an unexpected reunion.

Because of this lucky turn of events we decided to extend our stay in Kraków and requested a few additional nights at the hotel. Unwittingly, I repeated the same mistake as before: I spoke Polish. We could not get the room for another night. Everything was taken. No amount of persuasion worked. We had to go pack our things and give up the room. But where were we going? Miss P. was supposed to pick us up shortly. We didn't know what to do with our luggage or where to look for a place to stay. Just as Miss P. came in to get us, the clerk decided we could keep the room after all, but by then our luggage was in the cab already. Miss P. took us to her uncle's house, a place where Julius had spent a lot of time before The War. Miss P put us up at her house for the following nights, but we spent the daytime at the uncle's or sightseeng.

Although food was very scarce in Poland at the time, people managed to supplement it with "pull" or black market. In short supply were paper products from toilet paper to stationary as well as light bulbs and soap, not to mention the most basic food items. When something became available there were long lines. People lined up before asking what the line was for. They stood waiting for a long time, sometimes in vain. Once something did become available, people purchased massive amounts, often spending their whole weekly salary, just in case. Stores were often closed for lack of things to sell. Sometimes there was only one or two items shown in the window and they were usually either not for sale or the wrong size or color. The motto was, "If it is available, take advantage of it". The toilet paper – when it was available – looked like dirty gray crepe paper, but much coarser. It had the feel of sandpaper. To use a public restroom, one had to pay for the use of the stall. The paper was extra. A few sheets of the precious commodity was given after payment. Additional charges applied for the use of the sink and for the use of a pull down – mostly wet from frequent use – "community" towel.

Needless to say, Julius was in seventh heaven running around the neighborhood looking up old friends and neighbors. Thanks to our hosts, we got to do a lot of sightseeing and had a wonderful time. Our host's son-in-law was a taxi driver, so we got all the benefits of a chauffeur-driven car – a luxury.

First we went to Auschwitz. It was a painful and emotional experience. This is where I lost my mother during the Holocaust. Then we went to the salt mine in Wieliczka, which we enjoyed immensely. The mine, still in use, is miles below the ground and everything inside it is carved from salt. Every floor has a chapel and carvings of Holy Images, all in salt. So are the stairs, banisters, chandeliers, and the many statues. All a work of art. The air is perfect for people with bronchial or upper respiratory problems, in fact, the lowest part of the mine houses a sanatorium. The prescribed stay is usually eight weeks.

We got to see the famous Castle Wawel. We visited the chambers and viewed the beautiful arrases, carved furniture, and paintings. In the church, we saw marble statues and the crypts of kings. On the last day of our stay in kraków we saw an exhibit of Jewish artifacts recovered from the Nazi plunderers. We also saw the Temple where Julius had his Bar-Mitzva. It was in sad shape; during the communist regime nothing was being repaired or even kept up because materials were not available.

At one time we passed a park and I noticed a couple of men sitting on a bench back to back, leaning on one another fast asleep. My impression was that they were drunk. But our friend corrected me, "Oh no, they are at work," she explained. "But they are sleeping on the job," I said. "That's right," she replied, "They work according to the pay they get." This was communism at work! You adjust your work according to the pay. Often, we saw a store closed in the middle of the day with a sign, "Closed for receiving of delivery." In some cases the clerks were visiting with one another, ignoring the client, and when they did respond to a client they were unfriendly, often rude, as though they did not want to be bothered.

Our money, which we were able to exchange on the black market through connections, turned us into wealthy Americans. We could afford things the natives could not afford in their lifetimes, and we were able to treat our friends to things they were little used to or hadn't had since The War. The better hotels still managed to have decent food, mostly for foreign guests, and we got the benefit of it. A dollar tip brought service with a bow. Everything previously unavailable became plentiful at the sight of a dollar. At that time, a doctor in Poland earned about eleven dollars a month in American money. I shopped a lot for whatever was available, including embroidery, nationality dolls, and woodcarvings. All national specialties, and at bargain prices for us.

It is not surprising, then, that we had a marvelous time, except for Mary who did not speak the language and missed out on a lot of the conversations. As much as I tried to interpret, it is impossible to translate every word of a conversation.

Now came the time to head back to Warsaw to catch our flight back to Germany. At the airport, after we passed customs, we had about an hour wait, so we went to the restaurant to pass the time. It had nothing to offer. We "refreshed" with some tea or coffee and Mary asked for a toothpick. I turned to the waiter, who was dressed in a white waiter's jacket, a serviette over his arm (typical of a fine restaurant). "Excuse me," I asked, "do you have a toothpick?"

"A toothpick," he repeated slowly, as if trying to remember what it meant. "No… I sure don't."

"How come you don't have toothpicks? Don't you have them elsewhere, or is there a place we can get one?"

"No, we don't use things like that."

"What do you mean you don't use things like that? Are you telling me people here don't use toothpicks?"

"No we don't."

"How come, what's the reason?"

"People here are so healthy they don't have the need for one." With this he smiled, exposing his few remaining teeth, spotted with black cavities and resembling a badly weathered picket fence with half of the pickets missing. The real reason, of course, is that toothpicks were not available. It was not uncommon, even in a fine restaurant, to get a fancy menu with a long list of entrées, from appetizers to deserts. But, whatever one ordered was unavailable.

The plane was on time and we were ready to board it.


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