by Jude Wing, Becketwood Member
Poland is a land of contrasts. It seems to have one foot in the Soviet era and one in modern times.
But first, I have to tell you about my friend Maria – Maria is Polish.
She grew up on a small farm about 5 miles from the Czech border. Like so many girls in the Post World War II era, she had to leave home – with 15 dollars in her pocket. The countryside was devastated, people were very poor and could not afford to provide for their children. Many people had to make their way in the world; their families would bring them to the city, give them a few dollars to “make a better life.” That was Maria’s philosophy: she first went to France, and was in service to families, then emigrated to Chicago where she had friends who were part of the large Chicago Polish population. She worked, always the best, superlative in every task she undertook for people. She married a Polish man and had two children—but her husband left her. She raised her two girls, Kasia and Basia, in Poland through elementary school then returned to the U.S. and has maintained her job at the post office for over 20 years in addition to part-time work and helping anyone in need.
I thought I would have a better experience if I traveled with Maria. I didn’t want to do touristy things exclusively. I wanted to understand some of the culture, to see, really see. We stayed most of the time in Krakow, a stunningly beautiful city with amazing architecture and historical sites ancient and modern. I didn’t have an itinerary—I had books. I recommend the Eyewitness Books guide, Krakow, which has a pullout city map and a chart for walkers, showing the distances between major sights.
We walked almost everywhere. I love to walk and hiked somewhere every day. Our apartment was close to the Old Town, in Polish Stare Miasto. Old Town is part of the city's first administrative district, also named Stare Miasto, although it covers a wider area than the Old Town itself—for many centuries Krakow was the royal capital of Poland. The architectural plan dates back to the Thirteenth Century and features the Main Square, Rynek Główny, one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Krakow was not bombed to the ground as Warsaw was, during World War II.
There are a number of historic landmarks in the district, such as the gothic Wawel Castle, where kings of Poland lived and now the site of one of the country’s premier art museums. Maria was anxious to show me St. Mary's Basilica, her church, a famous one noted for its wooden altarpiece. The wood is larch, but what was astounding is that the piece, 13 by 11 meters wide, contains over 200 religious figures covered with gold leaf, shimmering and lovely. Gold leaf—in a country where people were desperately poor!
More lovely to me were the stained glass windows of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, another brick church that seemed unassuming and easy to miss as I walked toward Wawel. The church burned in 1850 and was rebuilt slowly, maybe a blessing, Polish people say, because a competition was held for the new decoration. Stanislaw Wyspianski, the talented artist and designer, won the competition. Once I was inside, I could see his stunning windows that filled the interior with dazzling light and energy.
On Krakow’s Memorial Day, November 1, we visited Radowicki cemetery, where many Krakowian notables like Tadeusz Kantor, renowned painter, set designer, and theater director, and poet Wislawa Szymborska are buried. Poland loves its artists and poets: In Poland, Szymborska's book sales rival those of popular prose authors. On this day, the cemetery was lush and radiant with flowers, mementoes, candles, arrangements of many kinds; people pay respect to their dead family members, clean tombs, and bring displays and decorations and often spend the day, which is a national holiday. I was learning how deeply honored family ancestry was, from Maria and from what I could see around me.
One day I walked also to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Remuh, established in 1535, in the Renaissance Kazimierz district next to the 16th-century Remuh Synagogue. During the German occupation, the Nazis destroyed the cemetery and hauled away tombstones to be used as paving stones in the camps or sold. Today, tombstones unearthed as paving stones have been returned and re-erected, though they are a small fraction of the monuments that once stood there. Although I could not enter, I took this photo from the gate.
I enjoyed meeting people on my walks—the streets, especially near Old Town, were sometimes winding and confusing, but people were helpful and seemed to understand me, the young knowing English (I do not speak Polish). I asked to photograph a friendly young couple walking with me toward the Wawel Castle, noting the “topknots” that were fashionable among young people in Krakow.
Sometimes my hikes led me to unexpected places. As I rambled, intending to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, I came upon the plaque for Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory. Schindler is credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware factory; the factory site, behind the Art Museum, is now a history museum.
Another unexpected experience was an auditory one: shopping in Old Town in the market square, I thought I heard familiar organ strains, a Bach Toccata and Fugue? The robust, stirring chords came from an accordion! playing in the square, in the open air. The musician was Petro Chyhys, member of a quartet whose classical dvd I now treasure.
Among the fine—and inexpensive (with the favorable exchange rate to the Polish zloty)!—meals was the borscht I had at Pierogi Vincent restaurant in the Kazimierz neighborhood. The restaurant, famous for the variety of its pierogi, is also known for its ambiance, with its warm colors and Van Gogh-inspired décor, prints and sunflowers on the walls and the entire ceiling a reproduction of Starry Night.
Most of my weeks were spent in Krakow, a cultural and historical center for Polish people—but the most meaningful, and disturbing, hours were those I spent at Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, only about 30 miles from Krakow. Among those who died there were around 74,000 Poles; more people died at Auschwitz than at any other Nazi concentration camp. Absorbing some of the history and cultural riches of Krakow gave me a new understanding of “homeland” that only deepened at Auschwitz. I can understand the desire for a homeland that Jewish people experience.
From Krakow we went to Zakopane, near Maria’s family farm and the mountains that mark the border between Poland and the Czech Republic. Zakopane is a beautiful city drawing tourists for skiing and summer vacations. I felt renewed there in the clean, fresh air and clear water that came down from the mountains. Maria’s aunt Jasia was warm and welcoming, a lively 84-year-old who walks up four flights of stairs to her apartment. Stairs, not elevators, are the norm in Poland.
I’ll close by listing a few of the other memorable experiences:
- Bathing at Bania thermal spa, where we sat outdoors in the cool night in 80+ degrees natural thermal waters;
- Climbing the mounds outside Krakow;
- Walking Planty Park, which surrounds Krakow’s Old Town and includes art and statues, the Bunker of Art, and the University District;
- On our guided bus tour of Warsaw (it was a cold and rainy day) I met a couple who are on the Becketwood waiting list!
And now I am back home from an amazing experience—but the enlargement of my world continues via books that involve Poland and the Holocaust.