Thursday and Friday, June 2 and 3, 2011 * the 44th and 45th days of the Omer
During this second trip to Krakow, I’m staying in a lovely little B & B room right across from “New Square” or, the older name, “Jew Square,” a market area in the midst of Kazimierz. One story below my large window, market owners arrive at 5: 30 a.m. to set up their stalls and already by 8 a.m. crowds of food and fun-seeking Poles are gathered outside and stay until about 2 a.m. It is rarely quiet. Every warm and sunny afternoon from 4:00 - 4:20 p.m., a mentally-challenged young boy walks slowly around the square in the presence of his affectionately smiling neighbors, honking like a Canadian goose. Every day I go out and buy a fresh batch of apricots, bananas, and cherries. I like it just fine.
During my two days in Krakow with the Foreign Ministry, Rebecca and I met some of the activists in Polish-Jewish relations/ Jewish culture work, so we were in this neighborhood a lot. Chauffeured around in a hired car by chivalrous Rafal – I don’t believe I ever opened or closed the car door in his presence – I thought that Kazimierz was quite spread out. Now I realize it is six square blocks of one-way streets. On the edge of the neighborhood is the Galicia Jewish Museum, so named after the part of southern Poland that was under the rule of Austria-Hungary from the late 18th century until 1918. The museum building is a beautifully restored factory with the warm atmosphere of a culture club. It includes a book store and café and you can hear concerts, too. The permanent exhibit in the museum is the product of anthropologist Jonathan Webber, who researched the sites (discovering some of them, since the Jews who’d been living there are gone), and the photographs of the late Chris Schwarz. For years he and his wife Connie split their time between Poland and the UK, where Jonathan held an academic job, but they seem to have moved full time to Krakow. Connie is managing editor of an academic publishing house and can do that at a distance, and Jonathan is now on the faculty of Jagiellonian University. Because he focuses on Holocaust-related subjects, he is in the European Studies Department and not Jewish Studies (think about that for a bit, it does make sense). During both my visits to Krakow, I benefitted from their hospitality, good food, and extensive knowledge about life in contemporary Poland.
Rebecca and I met with the new director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Jakub Nowakowski, the first Polish director of the museum (remember, Pole = someone who is not Jewish). He had worked in the museum and possessed the proper academic credentials, having earned a B.A. and M.A. in Jewish Studies from Jagiellonian University. Note, dear students, that in Poland you can major in Jewish Studies without ever imagining that it leads to one day becoming a rabbi. Jakub is in his mid-30s, and so he is of the same age cohort as the other leaders in the emerging Polish-Jewish cultural scene. In these posts you’re hearing about Poles who regard the Polish-Jewish past as part of their own heritage – I’m not sure we in the United States have anything parallel. Western academics tend to call such people colonialist appropriators. I think that judgment says more about Western academics than it does about these Poles. The ruins, forests, and fields of Galicia are certainly as much or more his possession than they are of the Jewish tourists who drop into Poland for a few days. The life stories of the wartime Jewish girls, boys, women and men are a greater part of Kaja’s consciousness than they are of mine. And as one of the conference presenters pointed out in her analysis of klezmer music, everybody who makes use of it is translating from a different context to their own.
A tangent: There are currently 100 students majoring in Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University. 100. Are there even that many JS majors in the U.S. west of the Mississippi? Jagiellonian University regularly offers more Jewish Studies courses than CSUN’s Jewish Studies Program, and the J.U. buildings are far more stately. We, however, have drinking fountains and softer toilet paper. Rebecca and I met with the congenial department chair, an expert in late Second Temple era history, and another faculty who writes in Polish on American Jewish history. We left with goodie bags full of their books, wistfully imagining 100 Jewish Studies majors on our campuses back home.
Connie and Jonathan’s apartment walls feature many intricate and lovely paper cuts. Paper cuts were an Eastern European art form, and in the Jewish community they were typically the work of men who were tired of studying Talmud but had the type of temperament that enabled them to sit for hours at a desk making fine distinctions. The paper cuts on their walls were created by the contemporary Polish artist Marta Golab, a local Polish woman who uses an actual razor and not a laser-cut machine like they now do in the U.S., and her Hebrew is gorgeous, plus she tints them with delicate water color. I couldn’t find any for sale because she is preparing 50 for an exhibition soon somewhere in probably the only place where they would be bought up quickly, in Poland. The one in the photograph is from the 19th century.
Inspired by all this beauty, I spent an afternoon at the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow. As in the Warsaw ethnographic museum, this one also ignored Jews and urbanized Poles and focused on Polish peasant culture and arts. The Krakow museum was more extensive, and I got to see replicas of peasant homes: the beds, cradles, oven-stove-furnace, and in one, a basket made especially for when you want to keep the hen inside warming the eggs so they hatch. I saw but didn’t want to examine too closely the traps and nets they used to catch fish, birds (a little noose!!), foxes, and bear. One room featured peasant holiday displays and crafted ritual items, including hand-crafted puppet “theaters” that put Disneyland to shame. There are paper cuts, too, but not as developed as the Jewish ones I’ve seen. I enjoyed a huge glass cabinet contained six wide shelves of hand-painted eggs (eggshells, to be precise – the instrument used to extract the innards was on display) that someone had a good time arranging according to the themes and motifs in the painting like Christian, botanical, animals, geometric patterns, human figures, holidays, and so on.
After seeing the art of the lower-class, I went to Wawal Castle, the beautiful red brick mammoth structure surrounded by a huge wall that was created by the kings of Poland for their capital. This huge palace and cathedral complex is the pride and joy of Krakow, and it has been recently restored at a tremendous cost. While I was in Krakow I went into other cathedrals, too, that are famous for their age, lofty ceilings, costly art, and great acoustics (every night I could have attended a concert in one of these). I, however, am perhaps a reverse snob because I prefer the woven peasant rugs at the Ethnographic Museum over the gigantic tapestries (say, 25 feet high and 8 - 20 feet wide) that lined the walls of the royals’ living quarters. The tour guide told us that Wawal Castle has 138 of them. They were smuggled out of Poland before the Nazi invasion and sent on a circuitous path through Europe to England, and from there across the ocean to Canada where, unlike the millions of Jews who had no such protectors, they survived the war. (She did not actually make that comparison, duh.) But even had I not resented those tapestries their good fortune, I did not enjoy the dully-colored fantastical pictures of gowned women lounging in gardens populated by frolicking unicorns and dragons chewing on panthers. Also, I was irritated by all the gold, silver, silk, porcelain, marble treasures that were the property of the kings, as well as the cases upon cases of swords, maces, armor for men and their horses, cross-bows, pistols, rifles, and cannons. Each one of these weapons are intricately and delicately decorated like fine jewelry. If I had been allowed to photograph in there, I would post the really nifty rifle handle engraved with lovely and serene Mother Mary.
I took a lunch break from Wawal and went into the main square of the Old Town. As in the Castle, there were gazillions of people walking around or sitting under the umbrellas no doubt eating meat-stuffed pierogies. I sought out an obscure side street for a vegetarian restaurant and ate my fill of beans, grains, and vegetables. I returned to Wawal Castle for a visit to the so-called “Oriental Room” where I gazed at many prayer rugs and tapestries looted from the Turks. I imagined devout Muslims prostrate upon the woolen geometric designs, facing Mecca. I walked back to my hotel, collapsed onto my Polish folk art bedspread, and fell asleep to the sound of the bustle in the street.