ASense of Place

A Day in Krakow

Among the riches of this magnificent city in southern Poland

Today, I will be visiting the Marian shrine in Czestochowa as part of my research for the book that I’m writing. Matt, my son and I went to Krakow early in order to take in the sights. We spent time exploring this lovely city in south Poland as Matt wasn’t feeling the urge to visit Auschwitz. It is hard to praise it enough. The Old Town is the best in Europe. The people are very friendly. Good food is delicious. If you aren’t looking at Communist-built architecture, then it can be inspiring.

We were wandering after breakfast down a certain street and found ourselves amid the urban campus of the Jagiellonian University, founded in the 14th century. Pope St. John Paul II was a student there when he was a teenager. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet, taught here. As we walked into the courtyards and looked at the old stones, I was struck by the beauty of civilization. Later, we ambled into a Professor’s Garden between buildings, and saw an exhibit marking the arrest by the Nazis of the Jagiellonian faculty in an operation called Sonderaktion Krakau. The Germans attempted to exterminate Poland’s intellectual elite and prepare for Germanization. The professors were taken to concentration camps where they were held for two years. Only the Jewish professors were released before being executed. Some professors were killed in captivity. They all suffered terrible. Despite the fact that the Germans had shut down the university in Krakow when the group returned, some academics set up an underground college. Karol Wojtyla was one of their students. He would become the pope.

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It is difficult to comprehend the pain and suffering that Poland suffered in the 20th century. They were trapped between Germany, the Soviet Union and their totalitarianisms, Nazism, Communism, and both the Soviet Union and Germany. There is no other country on Earth that has suffered so much. Six million Poles were killed in World War II fighting or in German camps. Three million of them were Polish Jews.

We went over to the Krakow branch of the National Museum, which was a marvelous way to spend an afternoon. Matt was a student and got into the museum for twenty cents. Although some parts were closed we spent much of our time in the gallery for decorative arts and the picture gallery. I don’t know enough about the history of painting to say why it’s this way, but many of these paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries reminded me of paintings of the same era I saw, and fell in love with, in the Russian State museum in St. Petersburg. They have a vibrantness and freshness that strikes me as very different to Western European art.

Here is a beautiful canvas. It’s called, I believe “The Secret Note”.

Here’s a 1934 woodcut from Tadeusz Cieslewski, titled “Nostalgia,” that I found striking:

Here’s a 1949 canvas by a Polish artist. Remember, remember, the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on the Poles during their time with them and their concentration camps. This painting’s title is “Boy with His Murdered Mother”.

This quasi-sculpture has been called “The Cloak of the Good Samaritan”. This made me think about Matt’s family, whom Matt and I will spend the weekend with. For weeks, they have housed a Ukrainian refugee family:

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This is Odysseus in the sea. Notice how the faces rise in the waves:

This is a 1956 painting called “Waiting Room II,” created in the immediate post-Stalin period. You can see that the only sign there is of life is found in this sad woman’s womb.

This is the one that struck me most. It’s a 1987 painting by Tadeusz Boruta, from a series called “Via Crucis”. It is the structure of a tower’s crude skeleton. Instead of footprints there are tracks made by tires in the snow. This reminds me of Paul Kingsnorth’s writing:

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Finally, here’s a 1978 painting called “Good Shepherd” by Leszek Sobocki. It’s probably a self-portrait. The red pencil that is placed over his ear appears to be a gash. This is a symbol of the Communist dictatorship’s suffering artist, who was passionate about the welfare of the sheep. There’s bloody sweat on his skin.

We are leaving for Czestochowa. Visit Krakow and Poland if you have the opportunity! You will find so many things to do in Central Europe.

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