In the streets of Cracow, Linda Grant discovers a schmaltzy "Jewish experience" - complete with Amer
Ten years ago I went to Poland to write a travel piece about that country's Jewish heritage, a visit born out of personal curiosity. My father had been brought to England as a baby from a market town in the middle of a rural region of wheat and millstones between Warsaw and Bialystok. I could not imagine the world of my grand parents. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, to walk where they had walked and see what they had seen. The Polish tourist office assumed that I wanted to go to Auschwitz, that monument to public history, which I definitely did not wish to go anywhere near. I really did not want to accuse anyone of anything, Germans or Poles. I just wanted to make a private connection with the old man who sat in a chair in an old-age home in Liverpool, smoking Capstan Full Strength cigarettes and talking to me through the in terpretive mediation of my father, because my zaidie never learned to speak English, even after 60 years in England.
I had no curiosity about Auschwitz, let alone historic Cracow. My grandparents were never in the south of the country and I was more interested in Warsaw, or Vashava, as it was pronounced by the wide-eyed Jews who visited it from the sticks. When the tickets arrived, I found that I was to be flown to Cracow and that the first stop on my itinerary would be a guided tour of the gates, barracks, standing cells, gallows, gas chambers and crematoria. I was looking for life not death, but the Auschwitz Museum, as it appears on road signs, is considered to be a necessary excursion. Much as I protested that I really did not want to go to Auschwitz, Auschwitz is where I was taken.
Back in Cracow the next day, I was shown around the city: its palaces, churches and mansions, its royal castle and cathedral, its medieval Old Town, its market square, the 14th-century buildings of the Jagiellonian University. Such is the seam of continuity between the town and the camp, I noticed, that the same metal lanterns bearing the house number appeared on buildings in Cracow and the barracks at Auschwitz. Next we stopped at the gates of the Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik, Oskar Schindler's enamelware factory. Here tourism took a Hollywood turn as crocodiles of American visitors filed past the wall where a red-coated girl is seen by Schindler, from horseback on a hilltop. Tourists wept. Here she fell!
In parenthesis, I would like to point out that a by-product of Steven Spielberg's film was the creation of a foundation that has recorded the memories of non-fictional survivors, those whose stories were too mundane to deserve dramatic treatment, yet whose collective testimony is a powerful weapon against Holocaust denial. For the tourists, however, the Hollywood story had assumed a reality that only a fiction writer could dream of, or perhaps dread. Fiction takes many curious forms. We moved on to the Kazimierz quarter, originally founded in 1335 by Casimir the Great specifically for Jews after , legend has it, he fell in love with a Jewish girl called Esther. Kazimierz is famous for its "Jewish" restaurants offering "traditional Jewish cuisine", and the one we went to had a floor show - a cabaret act of a selection of Sophie Tucker songs, sung by a snake-haired Swiss blonde. "Mein Yiddishe momma," she crooned, "I miss you more than ever now." Parties of tourists sang along at their tables, dissolving into easy tears. "This is a famous old Yiddish song," my guide said, "from Poland." It was written in New York in 1925.
The dishes on the menu, the waiters, the decor, the synagogues, the tour guides were a full Jewish Poland, complete, without any Jews. What we had entered was a theme park, a ride, like Pirates of the Caribbean at EuroDisney; Kazimierz had been reconstituted as an Experience. A Polish guide would proudly show you round a synagogue where, a few months earlier, a chamber orchestra had recorded a CD of those Lower East Side-meets-Tin Pan Alley schmaltz-squeezers, and the ay-ay-ay-ay of the sobbing lines ("I long to take her hand in mine/As in days gone by/ And ask her to forgive me for/Those things I did that made her cry") sounded like Beethoven.
Throughout Cracow, street vendors were selling curious wares on blankets on the pavements. Wooden figures of Jews - rabbis with beards, prancing Fiddler on the Roof-type Jews with violins stuck under their necks - stood there, a wooden inch or two away from Der Stürmer caricatures, yet they were in the same league as garden gnomes or leprechauns, figures from the folk imagination. A run-down building in Kazimierz housed the city's few actual flesh-and-blood Jews, who ran a kosher restaurant. I don't think they were native Poles. One man, a former camp inmate, came over from Los Angeles for two months every summer to lead group tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a five-hour slog through the seldom-visited main camp where the actual extermination had gone on and where he would stop and say, "Here I saw . . ." I asked if anyone used the synagogues and they said a few times a year an American family would bring their son over to be bar-mitzvahed.
So you had this curious shell: a society keen to commemorate the fact that once there had been individuals, people, a community, a society, and now they were all more or less gone. They preserved the physical fabric of what remained of their existence, and as to the human life that animated it, they did their best, through impersonation. They wanted to keep a simulacrum of the past alive, a hologrammatic replica. It was as if Britain had murdered and ethnically cleansed its entire Asian population but you could still go and eat a "genuine" balti at a Birmingham curry house run by a Welshman, and listen to sitar music played by Scottish blondes. I prefer my history now in books.
Linda Grant's most recent book is "The People on the Street: a writer's view of Israel" (Virago, £9.99)