Friday, July 07, 2006

E Unum, Pluribus (July 7)

I discovered today that part of my problem in getting a handle on Krakow is that it really is several quite distinct cities, rather than one large one. That's not all that unusual really -- most cities have different neighborhoods -- but in this case, I really needed to step back and see the mosaic.

First off is the Stare Miasto, the old city of Krakow. This is the area around the gigantic central square and represents the medieval heart of the city. Surrounding it is the "Planty," a large public park that forms a green belt where the defensive walls of the city used to stand. Inside this area, the streets are often pedestrianized, the houses are 3-4 stories tall, and most of the buildings have a 17th-18th century exterior.

Kazimierz, on the other hand, is the former Jewish neighborhood of Krakow. Established outside the walls, it became the primary neighborhood after Jews were expelled from the city of Krakow during the Renaissance (in other words, I'm not sure of the exact date). The Nazis expelled the Jews from Kazimierz in 1941, forcing them to relocated across the river to the ghetto at Podgorze. When the ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, those not slated for extermination were marched to Plaszow Labor Camp, built a short distance away on top of a Jewish cemetery.

Kazimierz has been the center of efforts to identify, preserve, and restore Jewish sites in Krakow. Virtually all of the surviving synagogues have been restored, some quite beautifully. Some now serve as museums for the history of Jews in Krakow. Yiddish signs and displays (very few survived) have been preserved. Jewish-themed restaurants have opened (though I find them a tad kitsch) and this is also the center for the annual Jewish cultural festival, which will have its climactic conclusion tomorrow night with a marathon free concert in the plaza on Ulica Szeroka, opposite the Stara Synagogue. Other than the synagogues, most of the buildings in this area are 19th century, and many have peeling walls, and show the impact of decades of air pollution.

My old hotel was between these two neighborhoods, about a block to the southeast of the Planty in the direction of Kazimierz. Its sidewalks were narrow, there were few trees, and the buildings rose 5-6 stories above the pavement. I very much enjoyed getting out of this neighborhood and heading to the open, green countryside.

Today, however, I changed hotels. My new hotel is not as nice as the old one, in terms of what it provides: no airconditioning, a sink big enough only to wash one shirt or two socks but not all three at once, no English or German-language stations on the tv. But what it does have is a much more comfortable neighborhood. Like my old hotel, I'm just half a block from the Planty, but now I'm on the west side, adjacent to Jagellonian University (the hotel is a guest house that normally serves faculty visiting the university). The sidewalks are wider, there are trees, the houses are not as tall, and many are set back a bit from the street with some trees and grass. It just feels more airy and light.

As a result, for the first time I really enjoyed being in the Stare Miasto. I walked to the Planty and this time felt like strolling through it. It wasn't as crowded as the other side and it just felt more comfortable and inviting. I spent the afternoon visiting museums in the old city. I started off with the upstairs in the Cloth Hall in the center of the Rynek. This is a museum dedicated to 19th century Polish art and there were some fun pieces there. Many of them are more noteworthy for their political significance that their artistic merit (e.g., The Homage of Prussia -- -- depicted the scene when Albert of Hohenzollern, the last master of the Teutonic knights and later founder of the kingdom of Prussia, swore vassal homage to the Polish crown (a pointed reference to Prussia's violation of that oath in the 18th century by the partion of Poland). Another painting, by Chemonski, puts the viewer in the position of being about to be run over by a cart driven by four galloping horses: (but much more intense in person).

After that I walked across the square to see the high alter in the Kosciol Mariacki. Carved in the 15th century, the panels are only opened once a day. If you want to see a picture, go to

I couldn't help but be struck by the radical difference in decorations between the cathedral and the various Polish synagogues that I've visited over the last two weeks. Its not that the synagogues didn't have decorations, or even elaborate carvings and images. It's that the general style of Polish synagogues was to decorate them to look like illuminated manuscripts. The walls were covered in texts, adorned with plants, animals, zodiac signs, leviathans, landscapes, etc., but it was the texts that were central. By contrast, there's very little writing in the cathedrals, instead you have an unending series of religious stories told through images and tableaux.

After lunch I went to he Wyspianski Museum. Stanislaw Wyspianski was one of the leading figures in the "young Poland" are movement during the fin-de-siecle. Bearing some similarities in motivation to art nouveau and the arts and crafts movement, Wyspianski did drawings, stained glass, furniture, and ornamentation. Quite interesting, actually. Then I went to the Czartoryski Museum a few blocks away. This contains the private collection of a Polish aristocratic family, and their prize possession is Leonoard da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine. It occupies a room by itself (except for a photo of the other prize possession, Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, which was stolen by the Nazis and never recovered). Had this painting been in the Louvre, I would have had to fight crowds of people struggling to see it; here, I stood in the room all by myself and could look at it to my hearts content with no one to bother me or snap flash shots in violation of the museum rules. To see what it looks like, go to:

After that, I strolled back down to the Rynek and finally saw the "klezmer cruise" -- a free half hour concert as part of the Jewish Cultural Festival. A French klezmer group performed some numbers, while most of us watching hid under an arch in the shade to listen. Then I had a nice ice cream sundae, with fresh strawberries and strawberry and raspberry ice creams (and jello!). Tonight I'm going to see Ha-breera ha-teeveet in concert. I last saw them at the Jerusalem Theater for their Israeli Independence Day concert in 1999. They combine musical influences from North Africa, Iran, India, Spain and Eastern Europe. I really like them and this is the concert I've most looked forward to.

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