Published: June 2009
By Nina Darnton
With a keen eye to the future and a newfound respect for the past, Poland is being reborn
Twenty years ago my husband, John, and I, both journalists, moved to Warsaw with our two young daughters to cover Communist Poland. Two days after our arrival, we took a drive through Warsaw's beautiful Old Town, on the banks of the Vistula River, to explore. As we searched for a parking space, we inadvertently crossed a solid white line in the road. Within seconds we were pulled over by a grim-faced policeman who spoke no English and sternly demanded our passports, firing questions that we struggled to understand. Then he motioned for us to follow him. It was getting dark, and as he led us down a narrow alley, I expected the worst my movie-scorched imagination could concoct -- arrest, blackmail, entrapment, confidential papers stuffed into my purse. I clutched John's hand. Finally, we arrived in front of a scaffolded building.
The Royal Palace, like most of Warsaw's Old Town, had been almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during the war and was being meticulously rebuilt. The officer pointed at the palace, then at a slotted contribution box, and uttered his only English word: "Dollars," he said. "Dollars."
We understood. I deposited $5 in the box. The officer beamed and shook our hands.
This was my introduction to the complex, contradictory mystery that was Communist Poland. A police officer in a regime that officially despised royalty was collecting money to rebuild the palace that once housed Poland's royal family. As I came to learn, the politics of the moment in this country are never a match for the pull of its history.
Returning last spring for the first time in almost two decades, I found Poland's history more alive -- and more resplendent -- than ever. After a sweeping renovation completed in 1984, the Royal Palace glitters like a crown jewel, its seven-story onion-domed clock tower decorated with 50 pounds of gold. The vast pentagonal structure is open to the public; proud guards lead lines of visitors through many of the palace's 300 rooms.
On a rare sunny day in May I sat at one of a dozen outdoor cafés that now surround Warsaw's cobbled Rynek Starego Miasta, or Old Town Square. All around were cheerfully colored umbrellas, souvenir stands hawking Russian nesting dolls and handmade wooden pull-toys, and upscale shops selling amber jewelry and crystal. An organ-grinder and his monkey performed for some excited children.
Tour groups from all over the world marched through the square, their guides rounding up stragglers in five languages (including German, which provided a bit of irony). Nursing a glass of white wine, I looked out at the busy waiters, the ice cream vendors and flower stalls, the crowds wearing the latest Western fashions -- and I remembered a night in 1979 when John and I crossed the nearly desolate plaza to a restaurant called Bazyliszek. We were delighted to see several young Poles playing guitars and singing, and even more surprised to hear them strumming an old Dave Van Ronk song. The scene was one you might have found at any American university at the time -- if the music and clothing hadn't been 10 years out of date.
On that night Bazyliszek was almost empty. And though the menu was extensive, each of our choices was met with the waiter's polite but firm "Nie ma" -- "We don't have any." In the end, I think they offered only duck.
Bazyliszek still exists, but today reservations are hard to come by, as are tables at Dom Restauracyjny Gessler and at Fukier, the two other elegant restaurants that front the square. Each serves a variety of dishes, from traditional borscht to roast venison in cranberry sauce; well-dressed locals crowd the bars and dining rooms. Raucous dance music blares from a nearby club.
As I sat at the café I marveled at what these 20 years had wrought. Except for the Royal Palace, the restoration of the Old Town had already been completed by 1979, but only now could its effects be appreciated -- in the gleaming façades, the bustling restaurants, the new life on the streets. For though the seeds of the city's revival were planted under Communism, it took the spoils of capitalism to bring them to full flower.
"I come here every day for a cup of coffee," says Hanna Szwankowska, 79, a Warsaw historian born and raised in the Old Town. "I like to see how much livelier the neighborhood is now -- even more so than just a few years ago."
Hanna and her husband fled to the countryside in the early years of World War II, but returned on January 20, 1945, three days after the city was liberated by the Red Army. "The Germans had destroyed street after street with firebombs and robbed all they could find," she recalls. "When we returned to the Old Town, the piles of brick were as high as one-story buildings. Rats were everywhere. There were no people, just snow and absolute silence."
The day after Poland's liberation, teams of volunteers began the seemingly hopeless task of saving what was left and rebuilding what was lost. They sifted through endless rubble to collect and categorize usable pieces of architecture. They interviewed thousands of people for their recollections of what the buildings looked like. They sorted through daguerreotypes and photos from the 1850's, old wood prints, and an album of cityscapes painted in 1778.
In a bid for authenticity, the restoration teams also searched the country for craftsmen familiar with old construction methods. At the Royal Palace, for example, workers reproduced gilded wall lamps employing the same lost-wax technique used to cast them 200 years ago. One 90-year-old worker had learned, during the czarist occupation of Poland, how to spin gold onto bas-relief; he told the younger craftsmen to smear butter on their fingers to better handle the sticky filigree.
In some cases the planners had to improvise. It was understood that, in the 17th century, the exteriors of some buildings were painted, but no one knew exactly how or with what colors. Today, their façades are done up in sepia, beige, muted green, and burnt orange. The color scheme was, Hanna Szwankowska says with a smile, "a bit of fantasy." Indeed, the whole project has the feel of fantasy. As I walked the streets of the Old Town I found it hard to believe that all this was rebuilt from scratch, through a nation's colossal will.
It's one thing to reconstruct buildings; it is quite another to rebuild the culture of a people who have largely vanished. The attempt to restore some vestige of Poland's pre-war Jewish life has been predictably fraught with problems. By 1979, when I first arrived in Warsaw, even the memories of that life had faded from the former Jewish quarter. Sterile apartment buildings had replaced the wartime rubble of Jewish prayerhouses and meeting halls. All that remained from the old days was an overgrown Jewish cemetery and a single synagogue -- saved from destruction during the war because the Nazis had used it as a stable. There wasn't one rabbi residing in all of Poland. The synagogue stood empty, its windows broken -- a sad site of pilgrimage for tourists and a handful of elderly Polish Jews.
Today, the synagogue is restored and a rabbi presides over the city's growing Jewish community. But despite the changes, the Jewish presence in Warsaw is still minuscule. I had hoped to find vital incarnations of the old culture -- its music and poetry, its folk dancing and storytelling, and not least of all its cuisine -- but I searched in vain. For this, I was told, I would have to travel 180 miles south to Cracow, where the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is in the midst of a remarkable revival.
In stark contrast to Warsaw, Cracow emerged from the war relatively unscathed: its famous architecture, notably the 13th-century Market Square -- one of Europe's most beautiful plazas, surrounded by lovely medieval houses -- survives intact. Nor has the skyline changed significantly in the years since my last visit, though a number of expensive shops, exclusive hotels, and dozens of new restaurants have added a sheen to the ancient city.
But there were always two Cracows. Kazimierz is just a 10-minute walk from Market Square, yet it has often seemed a world away. Here, as one would expect, wartime damage was more extensive, and it took decades before Kazimierz began to reemerge from the rubble. When I came in 1979, the historic Remuh Cemetery was still in ruins and the synagogue was, like Warsaw's, abandoned. Its fine wall carvings and architectural details remained, but they were dreary, covered in dust. The Jewish community that once made up more than a fifth of Cracow's population was reduced to a mere handful, and their children were ignorant of their customs. In 1939, 100,000 Jews lived in Cracow; in 1945, only 5,000. During the sixties a wave of Communist-inspired anti-Semitism led to massive Jewish emigration, and by the early seventies fewer than 200 Jews were left in the city. Scarcely any of them practiced their religion, and few visibly identified with their heritage. I felt saddened when I visited Kazimierz in 1979; it was a pathetic, forgotten place. Judaism was a subject hardly mentioned.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I returned last spring and saw an ad for a concert of Yiddish songs -- to be held at the Jewish Cultural Center, opened in 1993 in the heart of Kazimierz. I went, curious to see who would turn up. I was astounded to find a once-shabby 19th-century building tranformed into a sleek complex with marble floors, green velvet curtains, and curving arches suggestive of Moorish architecture. The main hall, seating about 150, was full of smartly attired people of all ages -- young mothers with children, teenagers, elderly folk. Who could they be?
The program began and an elegant, white-haired woman walked onstage. She sang traditional Yiddish songs with charm and gusto, accompanied by an old-time trio (accordion, bass, and violin) dressed in the black hats and vests of Orthodox Jews. It was obvious the singer did not expect her audience to understand Yiddish, because she translated and explained each lyric before performing it. "Let me now sing a song by a Jewish poet who lived here and was shot in the ghetto," she announced. "The song says, 'Let's eat, sing, be merry, and enjoy life.' "
The people in the audience were certainly enjoying themselves. I wondered again who they were: surely there were not enough Jews in Cracow to account for the crowd.
"I found out about this show from a cultural newsletter on the Internet," said Radoslawa Herzog, a 23-year-old psychology student. "I think Jewish culture is beautiful. Especially the music."
"Do you know any Jews?" I asked.
"Not really," she said. But she comes to the center often with her friends. Afterward, they like to eat on Szeroka Street at one of the many Jewish restaurants. "You see Jewish people there," she said.
The Cultural Center, which offers music performances, lectures, and art exhibitions, is only one part of the extraordinary Jewish revival taking place in Cracow. It also includes the rebuilding of the main synagogue and two others; the cleaning and renovation of the Jewish cemetery; and the creation of a Department of Jewish History and Culture in Poland at Cracow's Jagiellonian University. There is also a new Jewish Youth Club organized and supported by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
What makes the rebirth especially interesting is that there are still hardly any Jews in Cracow. The "cultural revival" seems more for the benefit of non-Jewish Poles -- who in learning about their Jewish compatriots are also learning something about themselves. "One of the dreams of Solidarity was to build an open society," says Joachim Russek, assistant director of the Cultural Center. "To do this we must go through a profound, perhaps painful, examination of our history. Young Poles also now realize they might have Jewish roots themselves, roots that were hidden during and after the war. So this is an opportunity for them to ask questions."
There's a thin line, however, between revitalization and commercialization. Szeroka Street, near the Remuh cemetery, hums with activity: three Jewish restaurants and a bar attract Cracowians and foreign tourists alike in search of an exotic night on the town. Some of the tourists are American Jews looking for the Poland described by their parents and grandparents; a local travel agency advertises a Roots Tour for those tracing family histories. The restaurants all display Jewish artifacts: a menorah, a seder plate, dolls representing Orthodox Jews in traditional garb. (These are also for sale in nearby shops.) Over matzoh-ball soup and kishke, diners can watch Polish entertainers in Orthodox costumes perform lively Yiddish tunes.
The decorations are more kitsch than classic. At a bar called Zinger (named for the Polish Jew who manufactured Singer sewing machines) an antique Singer machine sits in the center of each table. In some stores you can find Fiddler Vodka, whose bottle cap is shaped like an Orthodox Jew's hat; it comes with a card that plays "If I Were a Rich Man" when opened.
Szeroka Street is noisy and crowded these days. But the cumulative effect of all this activity is troubling. The ersatz nature of this "revival" only underscores the fact that the culture it claims to represent is, in fact, gone. As with Warsaw's "new" Old Town, the appearance of historical continuity proves deceiving. Of course, many argue that even this theme-park development is preferable to the alternative-- the obliteration of any memory of Jewish life.
Those at the Cultural Center are unfazed by accusations of commercialism, pointing instead to notions of duty. "How long will there be eyewitnesses among us?" Joachim Russek asks. "This is our chance to prevent a situation where the Jewish issue will be interesting only to archaeologists."
Russek does not exaggerate the seriousness of the problem. When I ask him if his own origins are Jewish, he smiles apologetically. "No," he admits. "But nobody's perfect."
A Billion Grains of Salt
Six miles southeast of Cracow is one of Poland's most unusual monuments: the Salt Mine of Wieliczka, whose first shafts were dug in the 1300's. The caverns descend 1,000 feet across nine levels, incorporating some 200 miles of dimly lit, labyrinthine tunnels. But what's most intriguing about the Wieliczka complex is what the miners have done -- over a span of 400 years -- to make this harsh place more tolerable.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, one out of every 10 miners died in an accident. In constant fear for their lives, workers sought solace in folklore and religion. They built underground chapels where they would pray for safety, and carved devotional statues and artworks of pure salt. As their sculpting techniques became more sophisticated, the makeshift chapels grew more spectacular. There are now 34 such rooms in all. The greatest of these, the 9,880-square-foot Chapel of the Blessed Kinga -- dedicated to Poland's beatified Princess Kinga -- was begun in 1895 and only completed in 1963. Finely wrought statues of saints and monks adorn the altar; biblically themed bas-reliefs decorate the walls. Everything in the chapel -- the pulpit, the bas-reliefs, the intricate floor tiles -- is made out of salt. Today, with electric lights installed, the chapel is often used for concerts and wedding ceremonies.
A guided tour of the mine takes about 90 minutes and begins with a dark, narrow staircase descending 378 steps to the first level. The tour covers three levels in all, ending at a museum of artifacts and a shop.
A Walk in the Woods
One of Europe's last primeval forests straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, 370 miles east of Warsaw near the Polish town of Bialoweiza. Preserved over the centuries as a private hunting ground for a succession of kings, czars, Nazis, and Communists who ruled Poland, the 580-square-mile Bialoweiza Forest remains a rare and remarkable wilderness, with towering 500-year-old oaks, substantial populations of elk, beaver, and wild boar, and approximately 550 European bison. This magnificent beast, slightly smaller than the American variety, had disappeared entirely from the forest before being reintroduced in 1939.
In 1921 the Polish government converted a huge swath of Bialoweiza Forest into a national park, banning hunting and logging while making much of the forest accessible to visitors. An 11,700-acre Strict Nature Reserve was also created, and it is here that the primordial forest survives in its purest form, virtually untouched by humans. Though parts of the reserve are open to the public, visiting times are limited and reservations for tours (with a guide) must be made in advance.
Despite the changes of the past decade and the increasingly cosmopolitan outlook here, English is still not widely spoken in Poland. If you're traveling beyond the major cities and tourist routes, consider hiring an English-speaking guide. I recommend Magda Przybojewska (48-22/627-2386, fax 48-22/625-7143), who works out of Warsaw and charges $80-$100 per day. Also in Warsaw, Weco-Travel (132-134 Chmirlna St.; 48-22/627-0112, fax 48-22/658-1671) can arrange guided tours.
Lot Airlines (800/223-0593), Poland's national carrier, now offers nonstop flights from New York's JFK to Cracow on Thursdays, and from Newark on Fridays.
The Bristol 42-44 Krakowskie Przedmiescie St., Warsaw; 48-22/625-2525, fax 48-22/625-2577; doubles from $205.
Just a short walk from the Old Town is a little jewel box of a hotel built in 1901 and beautifully restored. Old World charm, up-to-date amenities, and lavish breakfasts.
Francuski Hotel 13 Pijarska St., Cracow; 48-12/422-5122, fax 48-12/422-5270; doubles $159.
Built in 1912, renovated and reopened in 1991, this is Cracow's best hotel, offering fin de siècle ambiance and modern conveniences. Located opposite the Czartoryski Museum.
Grand Hotel 5-7 Slawkowska St., Cracow; 48-12/421-7255, fax 48-12/421-8360; doubles $189.
Not especially fancy, but pleasant and well situated near the Old Town with polite, efficient service. Avoid the street-side rooms, as they get noisy at night.
Dom Restauracyjny Gessler Old Town Square, Warsaw; 42-44/831-4427; dinner for two upstairs $85.
Actually two restaurants, in the heart of the Old Town: upstairs is the formal dining room, serving the finest traditional dishes in Warsaw; downstairs is casual, with good herring, caviar, and dumplings.
Swietoszek 6-8 Jezyicka St., Warsaw; 48-22/831-5634; dinner for two $50.
Candles and vaulted brick ceilings add to the cozy atmosphere of this popular subterranean bistro serving excellent Polish food.
Fukier 27 Old Town Square, Warsaw; 48-22/831-1013; dinner for two $55.
Next door to Gessler on the square.
Chlopskie Jadlo 1 Agnieszki St. S.W., Cracow; 48-12/421-8520; dinner for two $20.
Cracow's best restaurant, offering specials like grilled piglet with apples and grits, and roasted "black duck" with cranberries, in a rusticated setting. The five separate dining areas are decorated as rooms in a Polish country house.
Wierzynek 15 Market Square, Cracow; 48-12/422-9896; dinner for two $50.
Elegant restaurant that conjures up pre-World War II Europe -- it used to be Cracow's only formal eating place. Since the advent of capitalism more than 100 new restaurants have opened here, but Wierzynek still stands out.
Café Ariel 17 Szeroka St., Cracow; 48-12/421-3870; dinner for two $20.
At the center of Kazimierz's Jewish cultural revival. Kishkes, matzoh-ball soup, and Polish musicians in Orthodox dress performing Yiddish songs for curious locals and tourists alike.
One of the many concerts, readings, plays, or exhibitions put on by the Jewish Cultural Center in Cracow (17 Meisels St., Cracow; 48-12/423-5034).
On the Web
Travel Poland (http://www.travel-poland.pl) -- Exhaustive site offering everything from city guides to etiquette tips, plus free subscriptions to an on-line newsletter.
Poland in Sound, Noise, and Pictures (http://www.outdoor.se/artiklar/poland) -- The intro to this page reads: "Anders Thorsell went to Poland equipped with a Minidisc recorder, determined to record odd Polish sounds." See (or hear) for yourself.
-- Emily Berquist