Through Krakow to Central Europe
“Cities have lived longer than the nations to which they owe their existence, and longer than the languages in which their builders communicated. The birth, life and death of cities depend on many laws that cannot be expressed in any model or assigned to any law. These are unique laws.”
There is much more than a geographical fact hidden in the simple observation that Krakow is a similar distance from Warsaw as it is from three other Central European capitals – Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. The cultural and mental position of the city under the Wawel Hill on the map of Central European heritage has opened up Polish culture to the world for centuries, giving it ever new and unobvious meanings. In an age of a return to thinking in national terms, it can also be a promise of change.
In an interview with the online magazine “Dwutygodnik”, the excellent translator of Hebrew literature into Polish, Piotr Paziński, shared an interesting reflection on the place of Krakow and the former Galicia region in Polish culture. Situating the main axis of Polishness on the line between Paris and the Borderlands, on the legacy of Romanticism and the myth of the noble manor house, Paziński sees in Krakow’s “side branches of time” and “cafés with candles set in bottles” a parallel tradition, on the one hand strong and well rooted, and on the other hand extremely up-to-date. To the arch-Polish sacrifice and veneration of the bards, arch-Polish Krakow thus adds the vital charm of a city that is debatable, open, curious about the world and sensitive to difference.
Established just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the International Cultural Centre, which came into being just over 30 years ago, is a national cultural institution whose seat is not coincidentally located in the heart of Krakow, in the historic Pod Kruki (Under the Ravens) building on the Market Square, beautifully adapted for its new purpose. The life’s work of Professor Jacek Purchla – a world-class specialist in reflecting on cultural heritage and one of the most important historians of Krakow’s history – is now a modern managed unit, very actively involved in research, publishing and exhibition activities.
Synonymous with the highest quality have been successive exhibitions at the ICC, presenting selected cultural phenomena of Central European countries in an in-depth, issue-based manner, to cite only the unforgettable The Myth of Galicia (2014) – a kaleidoscopic picture of the non-existent province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from four perspectives: Polish, Austrian, Ukrainian and Jewish. The searching public, on the other hand, eagerly awaits successive issues of the quarterly Herito, which take a condensed look at successive countries in the region – but not only, as the sold-out edition on Central European women, which sold out in record numbers, proves.
The key experience and turning point for Krakow’s development at the turn of the century was undoubtedly the title of European Capital of Culture in 2000. The programme prepared for the occasion under the slogan “thought – spirituality – creativity” gave rise to the city’s flagship festivals and laid the foundations for the development of cultural institutions, with the current KBF at the forefront. Even before Poland’s accession to the European Union and the symbolic return of our region to the world of Western culture, the foundations of a system had been laid in Krakow for a contemporary sustainable cultural policy for the city, harnessing its creative potential and uniting its diverse creative communities.
The memory of Central Europe, and above all the memory of the great absent in today’s cities of the region – the culture of the Ashkenazi Jews – is cultivated today by the Austeria publishing house founded in Krakow’s Kazimierz district. Run by Wojciech and Małgorzata Ornat in three locations simultaneously: Krakow, Budapest and Syracuse, is an excellent example of how a book publishing company can be at the same time an intellectual laboratory and a circle of people with different interests and creative styles dedicated to a common cause. The motto liber ad scribendum – freedom to write – guides the activities of the publishing house, which emboldens and encourages successive generations of authors to embark on intellectual adventures, and also brings out of oblivion and restores to their rightful place in the public debate authors who are not with us. Joseph Roth, quoted at the beginning of this text, is just one of them.
“The motherland of Polishness” – as Krakow was called during the Partitions of Poland – carries a paradoxical inoculation power against all manifestations of inbreeding and non-relational thinking. Special achievements in popularising Central European countries are honoured by the Stanisław Vincenz Prize for New Culture-New Europe. Bearing the name of an eminent Polish antiquary and pioneer of Hutsul culture, the award has so far been received by, among others, the film director Agnieszka Holland (2009), the Austrian historian and reporter Martin Pollack (2012 ), the Belarusian reporter and Nobel Prize winner in literature Svetlana Aleksijewicz (2017), the world-famous Krakow composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki (2018) or the aforementioned Austeria publishing house (2021).
It would be impossible to list in such a short summary all the moments in which Kraków’s central European élan vital manifests itself. Who knows if the most suggestive sign of it is the astonishing internet career of the former Polish TV star Robert Makłowicz. As Sebastian Smoliński rightly pointed out in Tygodnik Powszechny, the seemingly rubbishy, epicurean swagger and manner of the popular Krakow chef, who has won the hearts of a new generation of Polish women and men, conceals a well-considered and extremely desirable message today. The turn to grasping life and realising the need to get to know the world has proved to be particularly relevant at a time of pandemic isolation and social divisions cynically deepened by politicians.
The wave of warm feelings which overwhelms many at the thought that Krakow and Dalmatia, where Makłowicz has his second home, were once part of one and the same country, allows us to remember anew that the most beautiful things in Krakow always began when one man with a foreign name met another man with a foreign name and began to talk to him – in Polish or in whatever language the walls of our city bear traces of.