May 25, 2024
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Lost Then Found in Krakow

Sometimes it’s just good to pay extra attention.

Remember your hotel’s location.

Know the hotel’s name. That’s right, its name.

Write down the street address, especially in a nation where consonants merge to form names.

Oh, and…you want to make sure your phone is working.

Okay, so I did none of these things. Zero.

I was walking back alone from our school’s tour bus drop-off point (I stayed behind to make sure no one had left any valuables on the bus), but when I got off the bus, I left my sense of direction in my seat.

I couldn’t find the hotel. I did manage to find the bus drop-off point, but there was no bus to be found.

My phone service wasn’t working.

So let’s review. No hotel name, no bus, unfamiliar neighborhood and for all intents, a dead phone.

Not good.

Especially when you are co-chaperoning 60 high school students.

Did I mention I was in Poland? Krakow, Poland.

One could get lost.

And “one” did. This “one.”

Your Krakow boutique hotel has no bus parking so the prior evening, I was following a stream of teenagers with roller suitcases who had just traveled from the location of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, hadn’t eaten in quite some time and desperately needed to use the bathroom.

I could remember the sounds of the luggage wheels clunking down steps followed by “umph” noises from students pushing and pulling up rampless entrance ways. Keeping track of the 62 students in the dark in Krakow, that’s what my chaperone mission entailed.

Looking at street signs? Creating mental landmarks? Remembering the hotel’s name?

Note to self. Get the name of the hotel. Not every place I stay in the world has the name Holiday or Inn on the sign.

Here’s where all of this becomes important.

About 24 hours later, after visiting some of the most soul-crushing Holocaust sites Poland holds, including a mass grave with over 800 babies in the Bucyna Woods outside of Tarnow, our quiet double-decker bus pulls into the same service station near our hotel. The same place I neglected to give my attention.

The now nameless hotel does not have bus parking accommodations so our crew has to walk several blocks. Notice that I wrote “quiet’ in the previous paragraph. Over 60 teens on a bus, and quiet and somber are the only words that can describe the mood after the day of bearing witness to the unhealed scab of Polish Jewry’s annihilation.

Our students walk quietly out of the bus exits. My co-chaperone and I scour the bus making sure no cellphones or valuables have been left behind.

Somehow, I leave the bus without my colleague, walking in a direction I think is familiar.

The street signs are crunched words made up of “s”s and “z”s.

What? Just use my phone and call my colleague.

My cellphone is a story in itself. It’s working some of the time, but not working most of the time. Don’t know why. While I’m beginning to feel panic set in that I am lost on the streets of Krakow, my phone is useless.

It’s dark outside. A chilly late April wind cuts through my flimsy jacket. I am feeling very sorry for myself. I walk back in the direction of the service station. When I get there…no bus.

I am with the unfamiliar. It’s not lost on me that I am in a land that still isn’t particularly fond of those who are Jewish. Cars are passing me with their lights on. It soon will be dark. I am in Krakow, Poland. I cannot find my hotel. I cannot call my wife. I cannot find my group.

I ask an elderly man with a cane if he speaks English. He kept shuffling by, no response.

Enter Kseniia and her toddler Danny.

He is pedaling away on his toy car. I approach the young mom and ask her if she speaks English. Indeed, she speaks beautiful English.

I try to explain my situation without sounding like a person gaining in the momentum of desperation.

Kseniia looks me over, tells Danny to stop pedaling and listens as I try to put the words: teacher, school, trip, bus, hotel, chaperone, lost, phone and dead together in a sentence.

Kseniia tells me her name and insists that we walk to her apartment. She says in a pretty Slavic accent, “I can see that you aren’t ax murderer.”

Never thought that sentence would come my way. Admittedly, it gave me some relief in this self-created drama.

We walk through a neighborhood of garden style apartments. Front doors leading up to homes almost identical to any quiet suburban neighborhood.

We make small talk.

I ask Kseniia about her profession. She describes her job in one word: “Eyebrows.”

We get to her building. The hallway is dim as in poorly lit. A young man wearing a drab green jacket eyeballs us as we enter the stairwell. In someone’s living space a dog is barking, I think at us.

Upstairs to the third floor, Kseniia and Danny welcome me inside their comfortable apartment.

Danny runs ahead and insists that I join him with Legos. Kseniia turns on the TV and while she is making us tea, her toddler and I are watching “Bob the Builder” in Polish, probably the same episode I’ve watched with my own grandchildren back in Baltimore.

Kseniia brings me a mug of hot, wonderful tea. She then gets on the phone and in a conversation with a friend learns that there is a small, boutique hotel not far from her apartment.

In an exchange of phone calls, my co-chaperone learns that I was lost. She thought my disappearance from the group meant that I had conked out for the night.

With the help of our Polish tour manager and Google maps, she found her way to Kseniia’s apartment.

In a kind, nurturing way, Kseniia opened her window to make sure that my colleague, who was shouting “Phil” up to the building, was someone with whom she could entrust my care.

Danny held my hand, not wanting me to stop playing Lego. Kseniia hugged me and let me go out into the Polish evening.

My colleague rescued me and walked me back to the hotel.

So I don’t ever want to be in that position again.

But what Kseniia did was give me so much hope about the human spirit. I was in the nation over 3 million Jews once called home, and now their number is miniscule. How many had relatives slaughtered by the Nazis regime in occupied Poland?

Indeed, my high school seniors walked on the very hallowed ground of the memory of what was once one of the world’s greatest Jewish communities, the Polish kehilot.

If a stranger walked up to any of us on our local streets, would we be so quick to show them hospitality? I would pray so.

But it happened in Poland on a street called Generala Tadevsza.

I am still trying to communicate with Kseniia. I’ve found her on social media and messaged her, but she might find it safer to engage with a stranger in person than online these days. Can’t say that I’d blame her.

I will never forget her generosity.

In Krakow.

In Poland.

And, by the way, the hotel is the Hotel Grodek.

Don’t think I’ll forget that.


Philip Jacobs is the former associate editor of The Jewish Link, former executive editor at Baltimore Jewish Times and Washington Jewish Week, former editor of Detroit Jewish News and multi-time Rockower Award winner. Best known for investigative pieces covering sexual molestation within Baltimore’s Orthodox community and how it was covered up.

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