Kraków: The River Speaks Yiddish

In the section on Poland in his book A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, Ben G. Frank writes:

Jews don’t visit Poland dispassionately. Sholem Asch once said that the broad shallow river, the Vistula, the queen of Polish rivers, spoke to him in Yiddish. No matter what language you speak, the Vistula—“on whose bank the Jew dwelt for centuries”— will speak to you about the Jewish past in Poland, a past that must be remembered.

Today: A walk along the Vistula, lovers’ locks, and departure for Warsaw.


Bronze sculptures, Father Bernatek Footbridge, Kraków

Sunday, October 21, 2018

I pray the morning service at the Isaac Synagogue. Unfortunately, we do not have a minyan. But it is good to pray here in this old building, even without a minyan. I return the kumkum that Beth and I borrowed from the gemach and thank Rabbi Eliezer Gurary for his assistance during our stay in Krakow.

One of the things I have wanted to do, but have not yet done during our stay in Krakow, is to see and walk along the Vistula River, the largest and longest river in Poland. Beth has scheduled a walk along the river for us this morning, after breakfast.

Rivers fascinate me. I grew up In Jackson, Mississippi. I would sometimes drive over to Vicksburg, about an hour away from Jackson. Vicksburg, scene of a famous Civil War battle, is located on the Mississippi River, the second longest river in the United States.

In his book Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain records much of the mystery and magnificence of the river as he remembered it from the time when he worked as a steamboat pilot on the river before the American Civil War. In the book, speaking of himself, Twain notes that, “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.” Writing is remembering.

In the 70s, I moved to Philadelphia, and lived in the Roxborough section of the city, within a short walking distance of the Schuylkill River, captured beautifully by the American artist Thomas Eakins in several of his paintings of rowers on the river. On the weekends, my family and I would often walk along the Wissahickon Creek, one of the Schuylkill’s tributaries near our home. It is the place I took Beth on our first date.

All of this is by way of saying that rivers hold a special place in my consciousness: the Mississippi where I grew up, the Schuylkill where I lived and worked, and the Vistula, the quintessentially Jewish river for many Ashkenazic Jews.

We leave our room on Miodowa and walk to Starowiślna. At the intersection, we turn right and head toward the river. It’s drizzling, but I don’t mind. I have wanted to see this river for so long. We reach the river and cross the Powstańców Śląskich Bridge. We look for a way down to the river. The path on this side has become muddy from the rain. We decide to retrace our steps and walk down the Podgórska Street side of the river.

As we descend from the bridge to the river walkway. I can feel my spirit lifting, despite the weather. We walk in the direction of the Father Bernatek Footbridge. Beth has her camera.

On the Father Bernatek Footbridge, we find exquisitely balanced bronze sculptures in the bridge’s rigging.

Since the completion of the Father Bernatek Footbridge in 2010, lovers have adopted a custom that one finds in other places in Europe. They fasten locks to the bridge and toss the keys into the river. It is a symbolic way showing the unbreakable bond between them. 

Lovers’ locks on the ​wire fence, Father Bernatek Footbridge, Kraków

Finished with our walk along the river, Beth and I make our way back to our room. The gray sky and light rain match my mood. I think of the lovers’ locks and of the relationship between the Jews and Poland. It is a relationship forged over time. Some of our greatest achievements occurred in Poland. Some of our greatest, if not our greatest, pain was experienced there as well. But as in all relationships, even when tattered, when the seams appear to be broken, neither side can, or should, so it seems to me, forget the other, forget the history of their lives together. It’s part of who they are, both of them.

Back in our room, we finish packing our things, arrange a cab through the front desk, and are soon at the train station. I gaze out the window of the train, heading north, on our way to Warsaw. I’m going to miss  Kraków.


Photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

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