The New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow is a relatively tourist-free area. Tucked away between a major shopping mall and a construction zone for the new train route, it’s off the beaten bath. I discovered it back in late August when I ventured into Kazimierz. What was intended to be an afternoon walk to figure out where different side streets went and if there were some special running routes I had overlooked, I found myself before the iron door.
I forget which Saturday I found my way to the gates and even more what I wondered as I stood there trying to catch a glimpse at what lay out of sight. The Jewish Sabbath forced me to return a day later and I was not disappointed. Not only did I find the place to be an undiscovered gem, but I enjoyed seeing the history before my eyes.
Cemeteries general speaking are not the biggest draw. Many go to pay their respects to loved ones and friends who have gone before them. Others go out of tradition, to see several generations of family. And yet, there are others who are curious to travel in these hallowed grounds and to learn and see what they can better understand.
I go simply to feel the energy, to get a glimpse of the past, of those that have walked before me and the connections those individuals made. While I didn’t recognize any names at this cemetery it brought me home, a recurring theme of late in my life.
Walking in solitude and yet feeling part of the community, where thousands of graves harmoniously welcomed me into their place of rest, there was peace. Not kept up like other cemeteries, the overgrown bushes and unkempt shrubs provide additional blankets and pillows for those resting eternally. They also create a mood and a wink that this place is special and not to be overlooked.
Especially meaningful to me, with every step I took around the perimeter, was the thoughtful creation of the walls - a menagerie of old tombstones plastered together, where the memories of the departed stand watch. Whether out of necessity to rebuild the cemetery after its World War 2 desecration, or simply as a meaningful way to utilize those stones that were too badly damaged to be preserved, it feels right to be guided along by this wall of names and dates.
While one can get lost in the many twists and turns and the countless memorial markers, the serenity in the place is what gets to me most. I’m drawn to the trees that provide a canopy of cover from the sun and rain. I’m drawn to the methodic sound of my footsteps over the partially cobbled grounds, and to the fact I can let myself drift to other places, that is if I don’t wish to dive into the history around me.
Sometimes when I visit I simply focus on saying little prayers for those who had to say goodbye too soon to a loved one. I might think about a family name and what took them from Bavaria to Krakow in the early 1900s or even in the early 1800s. I don’t overlook the fact that many returned here in the 1980s choosing this location for their final stop. For a city where the Jewish population is miniscule at best, knowing that some returned here after years away, after a forced exile in some circumstances, the connection to this land is mesmerizing.
So I visit. I walk. I look around. I breathe the same air. I lose myself in this place.
While I don’t know any of those that have departed, I thank them for the solace they provide and a place for me to let my mind wander freely should I care to do so. In a place where tourists run wild, not even five minutes, several blocks away, this is a place of refuge and a place for respite. Should you ever find yourself at the gate, take a moment and step inside. You certainly could be better off for stepping off the heavily traveled tourist route and into a place that could be your diamond in the rough or at least one that could be a treasured Krakow memory.
The video below is from a late October day, just prior to when I left for Latvia and Estonia. I hope I did the cemetery some justice and perhaps some of you will find the same charm and spirit that I do from every visit.
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Sixteen plus years as a published author, Jonathan has been independent the last eleven. With readers across forty-seven countries and six continents, he has readers around the world. Writing across genres, he loves good dialogue and flawed characters.