A Paradise That Was Never Lost – Krakow: The Great Escape (Travels In Eastern Europe #46)

If Warsaw was an acquired taste than Krakow turned out to be my favorite flavor. It did not take me long after arriving in the city to realize that the old Royal capital of Poland was a jewel box that offered up a multitude of sumptuous treasures. The beauty of Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) was a feast for my eyes. It was both quaintly charming and splendidly grand, thoroughly royal and invitingly homey. Spectacular, but on a human scale. Resisting the charms of Krakow was impossible. I gave in willingly to this seduction. It had everything, a world class castle, ecstatic Renaissance architecture, evocative neighborhoods filled with the ambiance of vanished cultures and enough history to fill a set of encyclopedias. It was one of the most enthralling places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking time and again that Krakow should be the capital of Poland. It is little wonder that following the movement of Poland’s capital to Warsaw in 1596, Polish kings continued to be crowned at the famed coronation castle on Wawel Hill. Such was its magnificence that Krakow could make royalty fall at its feet. I was no different, unable to resist its enchanting allure. My impression of Poland would largely be informed by Krakow. To the point that Warsaw became a faint memory. That led me to question how Krakow had managed to avoid the worst excesses inflicted on Poland over the last several centuries. The answer, luck.

Wawel Castle - A crowning achievement in Krakow

Wawel Castle – A crowning achievement in Krakow (Credit: Jakub Hahn)

The Unscathed City – Great Escapes
One of the most tragic of numerous traumas in Polish history was the partitions. Over the course of three separate, but similar instances – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – Poland was carved into oblivion by ravenous neighboring states. Portions of it were divvied up to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires. Krakow, as part of a region that came be known as Galicia, was fortunate enough to end up under Austrian rule, which was relatively lenient, largely respecting Polish culture. Nevertheless, in 1794 a revolt started in Krakow’s Market Square. The rebellion turned out to be still born, as it was rapidly quelled by Prussian forces who then looted treasures from Wawel Castle. Fortunately for Krakow, this turned out to be pretty much the worst of its suffering during that era when Poland was partitioned into nonexistence. For three decades – beginning in 1815 – Krakow enjoyed an exalted status as a nominally independent Free City.

Meanwhile, Warsaw suffered as a frontier and administrative outpost on the fringes of the Russian Empire. Tsarist control was extremely heavy handed with few rights for ethnic Poles. The same was true for the Polish population in what had once been the Kingdom of Poland’s western reaches, as they were subjected to intense Germanisation by their Teutonic overlords. Meanwhile, the situation continued to improve for Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. The province of Galicia was given autonomy by the Austrians in 1868, leading to a wellspring of Polish intellectual and cultural revival whose epicenter was in Krakow. The city was proving to be Poland’s favorite child time and again, sidestepping the draconian measures inflicted on its fellow countrymen in other parts of the land. Krakow’s elegant Old Town sparkled radiant in the waning light of the hundred-year peace that lasted from 1815 through 1914.

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town - Kraków

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town – Kraków (Credit: Taxiarchos228)

Superficial Survival – The Darkest Of Ironies
Two cataclysmic world wars wreaked havoc on Poland. At least superficially, Krakow remained intact, but the human toll was tremendous. In the First World War, much of the population fled the city to avoid a Russian siege in the depths of winter. Twenty-five years later the situation turned exponentially worse, even though it did not start that way. On the sixth day of the war, Krakow’s mayor surrendered the city before it could be attacked. The Germans then decided to headquarter their General Government (administering occupied Poland) in the city. This meant that very few bombs fell on Krakow. While Warsaw underwent repeated waves of destruction, Krakow’s architecture remained intact. Inside museums and churches it was a much different story, as countless works of art were stolen by the Nazis. Intellectuals were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps.

The greatest price was paid by the city’s Jewish population, some 70,000 lived in the city when the Germans first arrived in 1939. Famously, Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews working at his enamel factory. While a heartwarming story, that figure pales in comparison to the approximately 65,000 Jewish Krakovians who perished in the Holocaust. By the end of the war only about 4,000 Jews were left in Krakow. Though much of the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz was left intact, the people and culture it had fostered were extinguished. It would eventually become a place for tourists, rather than Jews. Parts of Schindler’s List would be filmed there, bringing it much acclaim. Many failed to see the macabre irony in this. It would never have been used as a film set if a thriving Jewish community had still existed.

There was another dark irony to come during the Cold War. Krakow’s architecture may have survived World War II intact, but a focus on heavy industry by the postwar ruling communist regime inflicted much greater damage, especially in a superficial sense. This was almost totally due to Nowa Huta, a vast industrial development and planned urban settlement built as an eastern suburb to the city. The Nowa Huta steelworks was one of world’s largest. The pollution emitted from that giant complex left the city’s historic architecture coated in a sheen of toxic grime. The district was supposed to be a touchstone of enlightened central planning that would expedite the movement towards a worker’s paradise. Instead, it became a cauldron of dissent. By placing so much of the working class in one area, it spawned movements against, rather than for the state. Communism finally collapsed, just like fascism and imperial authority had before it, the one thing still standing in Krakow was its architecture, awaiting a restoration that would soon arrive.

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square - Krakow

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square – Krakow (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

Eternal Mission – The Peak Of Poland’s Past
The restored and preserved version of Krakow was the one I had come to visit. A city of superlatives, architecturally, culturally and intellectually. Here was the greatness of Poland, collected all in one place. Eastern Europe’s Renaissance city with an edge, a paradise that could never be quite lost. Krakow was a romance with many dark chapters, but it had arrived at a happy ending. This was its lot and its luck. Krakow always managed to find a way to escape and was an escape, at least for the Poles. The city acted as a hidden gate that led back to the glittering kingdom that once was and would forever be Poland. Now another golden age was in progress, the city was living off and building upon itself, realizing an eternal mission to forever stand at the peak of Poland’s past.

 

A Transcendent Vision – Lwów’s Ossolineum: Triumph of the Intellect (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #6)

The cultural destruction wrought upon Eastern Europe by war and revolution is not well publicized in the west.  Hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, maps and artifacts have been stolen or destroyed as a direct result of conflict. Consider for instance, the successive Soviet, Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lviv during World War II. While the human destruction has been largely documented, the loss of cultural wares and institutions has been almost forgotten. In the aftermath of World War II, the city’s Polish culture, like its majority ethnic Polish population was uprooted. Much was lost in the upheaval, but fortunately some parts of the Polish intellectual legacy were so important and prominent that they managed to be at least partially saved. Chief among these was the renowned Ossolineum (National Ossoliński Institute), an intellectual powerhouse of Polish literature and learning.

Statue of Józef Ossoliński

Statue of Józef Ossoliński on a buidling in present-day Lviv

The Immense Legacy of What Was Almost Lost
Prior to World War II, the Ossolineum held hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, autographs and maps, many of which were the rarest of their kind. The material losses of the Ossolineum in Lwów (the Polish name for Lviv) can be somewhat quantified, but the intellectual loss was incalculable. The library survived in another form, in another city, in a new part of Poland. Today it is a storehouse of Polish culture in Wrocław (formerly Breslau, Germany). Meanwhile a new institution was created in the exact same place where the Ossolineum once stood, the Lviv National Vasyl Stefanyk Scientific Library of Ukraine. The library, like the city, became Ukrainian focused.  Nevertheless, it is something of a miracle that both Ukrainian and Polish intellectual traditions still survive at these institutions today. This would not have been possible without the immense legacy of the original Ossolineum and the strong vision of its founder, Józef Ossoliński, a man who had also lived through geo-political changes which his love of learning had managed to transcend.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński was the scion of Polish nobility. The Ossoliński family’s aristocratic roots stretched all the way back to the earliest days of the Polish Kingdom. Over the centuries they acquired estates across the eastern parts of the kingdom. One of these, Krzyżtopór, was home to the largest castle in Europe before the construction of Versailles. The family’s wealth and splendor was threatened by the late 18th century in one of the most turbulent periods in Polish history as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared during three partitions. The Ossoliński family estates were now in lands ruled by the Austrian and Russian Empires. It was during these times that Józef Ossoliński came of age. Because of his homeland’s geopolitical situation Ossoliński developed hybrid loyalties, straddling the lines between Polish nationalism and adherence to Austrian rule.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński – the visionary who founded the Ossoliński Institute

A Gift Of Knowledge – Creating the Ossolineum
At the time when the Commonwealth suffered through its third and final partition in 1795, Ossoliński was living in Vienna where he was head of the Austrian Imperial Library. He was known to be a voracious reader and researcher with a love for learning that has rarely been surpassed in Polish history. Ossoliński was able to use his cleverness to great personal advantage, co-opting Austrian policies to expand his own personal library holdings. When Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monasteries, Ossoliński took the opportunity to expand his holdings through acquisition of many rare books and manuscripts. In his later years, he decided to transform his personal library into an institution to promote Polish literature, learning and history.

Ossoliński had earlier been involved in the reestablishment of the University of Lwów in Austrian ruled Galicia. This helped lead him to a decision years later that the city would become home to the Ossoliński National Institution (Ossolineum). To house the institution he acquired another asset from a shuttered monastery, an abandoned convent building. Within these walls, where spiritual enlightenment had once taken place, the enlightenment of intellect would now take precedence. Sadly Ossoliński did not live to see this happen. As a matter of fact, during the last years of his life he could not see at all. Ossoliński had lost his vision, but his love of learning was so great that he employed Polish students to read aloud to him. Ironically, this took place far from Lwów and Poland, Ossoliński lived out his finals days in Vienna where he died in 1826. The Ossolineum opened the next year.

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

From Polish Intellectual Resistance to Renaissance
At the time of its founding, the Ossolineum was an island of Polish culture beset by sweeping tides of Germanism. The Austrian authorities had imposed the German language on Polish Lwów. The city’s was given a German name, Lemberg. The language on public signage was changed from Polish to German. The professional classes were completely dominated by Germans. The Poles were reduced to second class status in a city where they held a majority. The Ossolineum acted as a bulwark of Polish intellectual resistance. This alarmed Austrian authorities to the point that they took harsh measures against the Ossolineum during its early years. A director and his closest associates were imprisoned for treasonous activities. At times the entire facility was shut down and catalogs of its holdings taken away.  During the Revolution of 1848, an Austrian general openly regretted that the building had not been subjected to artillery fire.

It was only in the late 1860’s, following the Austrian loss in the Austro-Prussian War and the Habsburgs historic compromise with Hungary, that Polish culture was finally given room to blossom in Galicia. The Ossolineum was in the vanguard of this Polish intellectual renaissance. Illustrious Polish aristocratic families, such as the Lubomirski’s, bequeathed their entire personal museum collections to the institution. A famous publishing house developed, known as the Ossolineum Press. World War One delayed progress, but this turned out to be only a temporary setback. During the interwar period, the Ossolineum’s holdings expanded to over 220,000 works with everything from rare tapestries to coins to the largest newspaper collection in Poland. It was an incredible accomplishment of Polish intellectual achievement, but then the World War II began and everything changed.

Vasyl Stefanyk Lviv's National Scientific Ukraine Library

Vasyl Stefanyk Library now on the former site of the National Ossoliński Institute

Worst Was Yet To Come – The Ossolineum on the Brink
In 1928 an article entitled “The Centenary of a Great Home of Research in Poland, The Ossolineum, 1828 – 1928” in The Slavonic Review by Roman Dybosko stated, “the Ossolineum, now entering, in a free and reunited Poland, on the second century of its existence, we behold – and I think must admire – a house which has outlasted the earthquakes of a tragic national history, and proudly stands as a monument to the power of self-sacrifice and endurance, in the service of high ideals of culture and progress.” The author wrote this a little too soon because the worst earthquakes, from both east and west, were yet to come.