A visit to Krakow Part I - After WWII

HG's recent post on the Architecture and Culture 302 projects inspired me to write a follow up post. One of the projects every year focuses on Auschwitz, and I see that this year has been no exception. I recently visited Auschwitz, but I'm not going to write about that. I'm sure Auschwitz has been enough discussed. I think instead, I shall write about Krakow, the nearest major city to Auschwitz, and a city which has been very much impacted by recent history. World War II, and then the the subsequent communist period both took a toll on the city both socially and in terms of the urban fabric. I found Krakow a fascinating place to visit, because it is a city undergoing a lot of change. It really feels like it has just found itself again. However, as it undergoes so much change and renewal, it is also in danger of losing its old self as its people attempt to erase the painful history.

When I visited Krakow, I stayed with a friend of mine. She was born in Krakow and she studied in Krakow. She has an interest in political science, and she can rattle off several centuries of Polish history including dates and details. Essentially she was an ideal tour guide, because she knew why things were like that.

Before WWII Krakow had a large Jewish population; it now has a large number of buildings with no known owner. Many of these buildings are crumbling after more than half a century without maintenance. Many of these crumbling buildings, surprisingly, had people living in parts of them. As we walked along a street past buildings in varied states of repair one day, my friend walked in through what to me looked like a front door, a private space I would never have thought to enter. We walked across an entrance hall which had a large crack running the length of the tiled floor, one side of the crack being several centimetres higher than the other. We passed though this bizarre urine scented place ignoring the staircase and walking straight into the garden courtyard beyond. From the garden we could see the windows of the various apartments in the building. Some were obviously vacant, with broken or boarded up windows; but then, just next to, just above or just below windows like this there were windows which looked lived in and looked after, with clean curtains and neat flowers growing over the sills. It was quite remarkable. The city as a whole was like that: abandoned buildings grey and cracked were right next to ones which had been carefully repaired and painted in bold clean pastel colours.
an abandoned building

one of the buildings we entered

in the courtyard

empty windows on the top floor with well looked after geraniums one floor below

There was a problem with this newness though. As lovely as it is to have a city which doesn't look like it's crumbling, these new buildings were somewhat devoid of the character they once must have possessed. My friend didn't like them at all, she said, "It's like they're stripping the city of its history," and she was right. The streets which were dominated by these pastel buildings looked more like something belonging in a sweet shop, than something belonging to an old city with centuries of history and hardship.

"sweet shop" architecture I didn't take any photos of these buildings,
so this one is from http://www.krakow-info.com

This wasn't the only place where over-restoration seemed underway. We visited one of the Jewish cemeteries, which during the war has been smashed by Nazi soldiers. As we entered you could see broken headstones littering the ground, overgrown with weeds. The wall of the cemetry itself was constructed of broken headstones held together with mortar. The stones were carefully placed so that the fragments of the inscriptions could be read. We wandered though the cemetery moving off the wide well cared for path onto the narrower paths between the headstones, which had been worn free of weeds, by people's feet. At some point one of these paths opened up. Here restoration had commenced. The area had been cleared of weeds. The ground was now covered in loose gravel. Fragments of headstones had been collected, re-assembled and re-erected. The years of dirt was being cleaned off, revealing bright sandstone beneath the dark grey black exterior. There were three of us wandering through the cemetery on this particular day. One of the three of us, quietly said, "They're ruining it."

the wall surrounding the cemetery

broken headstones

restored gravestones


FJE said...

Great piece L! Very revealing.

AJH said...

I second FGE it's wonderful to hear about your thought provoking adventures. Just with the restoration of the cemetery, these are hard questions aren't they? Especially if the restoration is being undertaken by relatives who may not want their ancestors headstones to remain forever desecrated even if it is a powerful layer in their history. It is sometimes funny that buildings can go through an infinite number of lives, whereby they are restored to look brand new, become derelict, then restored again. Maybe the candy architecture will look better with new layers of dirt in about 50 yrs or so. And how do you not put one stage of history above the other by restoring or not restoring eg the height of the buildings in their splendour or their damage through WWII??

HG said...

I tutored the Auschwitz group this semester and part of what they were looking at was 'sugar-coated' architecture, so it's a little strange to be seeing/hearing about your real 'sweet-shop' architecture now too!

L said...

HG - that is a rather strange coincidence!
AJH - It's definitely a dilemma. I think people's emotions play a huge part in what is restored. For example, the architecture which is now being restored and looked after is mostly pre-WWII architecture, whilst the buildings from the communist period are largely being neglected.
I'm planning a part II about the communist buildings.

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