We began our trip in Krakow mostly because we wanted a chance to drive across southern Poland and western Ukraine, the area once known as Galicia, to Lvov, the city where we would be staying, but also because we had frequent flier miles on Swissair which we mistakenly thought we’d be able to use on Lot Polish Airlines. At the Krakow airport we met Alex, our guide, translator, and driver throughout the trip. Alex has done well in the “New Ukraine.” His business, guiding mostly American Jews through Eastern Europe, gives him a nice income in hard currency and his Lvov apartment, which he later kindly invited us all to dinner at, would have made many a well-heeled New Yorker green with envy. Alex was constantly pushing and haranguing his less than service-oriented countrymen to work harder, faster, and better—he’s got the soul of a New Yorker trapped in the body of a Ukrainian. In the Polish and Ukrainian restaurants, where the belief seems to be that any meal should take at least the better part of a day, he frequently vanished into the kitchen to have an animated discussion with the chef, probably over some fine point of cuisine, after which he would emerge shortly followed by our food. He’s never been to the U.S.--somehow that evoked in all of us a childish desire to show him supermarkets filled with gleaming rows of vegetables and frozen entrees, and neatly swept suburban streets with well-tended lawns.
Walking through the former Jewish quarter of Krakow is little bit like walking through parts of the Lower East Side—you distinctly get the sense that the neighborhood has changed. And while traces remain of Jewish culture, Krakow seems to have swallowed up its 65,000 missing Jews and moved on. There’s a small tourist industry that caters to visiting Jews—a few Jewish restuaurants, a bookstore where I picked up Roman Vishniac’s collection of photographs of Polish Jewish childen in the 1930s, children whose mischievous and shy smiles I see in my own children every day, photographs that would be poignant even without the realization that all of these children, who remind me so much of my own, were shot or gassed a few years after the pictures were taken.