(this is an abridged version of the first essay in Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski’s Znasz-li ten kraj?… / Know Thou This Country?, titled The right bank of the Vistula. The translation and the choice of images are mine)
Stanislaw Wyspainski Planty at Dawn 1894
At the end of the nineteenth century, Cracow was the most original city under the sun. Its geographical position was peculiar. Pressed into the corner of Austrian Galicia, cut off from nearly all the rest of the region, which was located in the Russian zone, cut off from the industrial basin in Silesia, disinherited by Lemberg from its aspirations to be Galicia’s capital, restricted in growth by being an Austrian fortress, Cracow could not develop into a modern city. It was a big small town. In the 1880s, Cracow had 56,000 inhabitants. The former capital of the Jagiellonian dynasty was relegated to the position of a small provincial town on the peripheries of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Cracow, however, has never resigned itself to its fate. It has never abdicated from its role of the nation’s capital during the period of partitions and even acquired new insignia of royalty; its role was to maintain Poland’s spiritual values, stifled in Prussian and Russian Partitions, and carry them to better times.
Julian Falat (1853-1929) Wawel
All this turned Cracow into a peculiar creature. One might venture to compare Cracow with Paris which is composed of two distinct parts, divided by the Seine, la rive gauche and la rive droite. Cracow was, both metaphorically and geographically, the left bank. There were there, like in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, old aristocratic palaces; and caps, cassocks and black hats – like in the area of Saint-Sulpice. There were solid walls of the Academy, birettas and gowns; swarms of young people spilling from the university buildings. There was also a district of artists. There were quiet, narrow streets; and picturesque corners and old churches – it was the left bank, quite impressive; no capital would be ashamed of it. But that was the end: when Paris roars on the right bank of the Seine – all modern, rich, populous and fashionable, on the right bank of the Vistula there was only …. the village of Dębniki.
Erno Erb Fountain at the Main Square in Lemberg
Lemberg was indeed lucky. Austria made it the capital of Galicia; it was the seat of the Diet and its executive department, where thousands of interests competed for attention. Situated near the vast expanses of the fertile land of Podolia, Lemberg was not far from the oil fields of Drohobych and Boryslav. Lemberg, compared with Cracow and other impoverished areas of the Austrian Galicia, was seething with life; big banks and small banks rose and burst like soap bubbles; trade with the East blossomed; big deals were made and also small deals; there was humour, verve and gaiety. Lemberg had a happy combination of Polish, Ruthenian (Ukrainian) and Armenian blood. It had beautiful and vivacious women, lyricism, musicality, and fire in its veins. Lemberg looked therefore with pity on a quiet and impoverished Cracow which, in turn, looked at Lemberg from the heights of its cultural splendour like an impoverished nobleman looks on a nouveau-riche. Lemberg had indeed a different climate.
Władysław Podkowiński Sobótki 1893/94
Climate … It is certain that there was some kind of organic sadness, some infection of sadness in Cracow. It may have been the result of psychological factors or physical conditions or, in fact, maybe there was indeed something in the atmosphere?
Witold Wojtkiewicz Puppets 1906
This muffled life, with no surprises and no risks and no opportunities, made a profound effect on Cracow. Cracow was not the city of love like Lemberg. When in Lemberg even the execution of a murderer was thought to be a proper subject for a lively song, Cracow was silent, at most a drunk bricklayer, coming back from the tavern sang off-key “Here goes a bricklayer, whistling a waltz while a louse is marching on his collar.”
Witold Wojtkiewicz Marionettes 1907
Life in Cracow was sad. Cracow’s atmosphere was determined at that time by the aristocracy which lived in the impoverished town in isolation from the other social classes. The aristocracy was also the town’s only plutocracy. Aristocrats lived in extraterritorial places of their palaces, clubs, often travelling abroad. The bourgeoisie lived, rather sanctimoniously, in Biedermeier apartments. Cracow’s proximity to Vienna had a destructive effect on the town’s social life. Anyone who wanted to have some fun travelled to the capital of the empire under some honourable pretext.
Even the Cracovian demi-monde was rachitic. Emaciated and anaemic factory girls lived in terrible poverty. Their lack of coquetry was striking. Similarly, nice bourgeois girls without dowry resigned themselves to spinsterhood. As ladies from “good homes”, they could not even fill their time with paid work. One could see those tragic pairs – mothers and daughters – walking in the Planty park, ever older and more and more bitter!
Wojciech Weiss Cracow
During the day, Cracow still had some semblance of life, living quite independently from its walls; during the night, the walls took dominion over man. When the clock struck ten at night, deserted streets were left only to a policeman and a solitary streewalker. One could only fall in love with the romantic beauty of this city of the dead. Soon the night watchman equipped with a halberd emerged from the dark and one could think that one is back in the Middle Ages.
Jacek Malczewski Melancholy 1890-1894
Cracow’s attitude to its defensive walls was completely different to that of other modern cities. Everywhere else, life was stronger than stones and man was engaged in a struggle with the walls and the past. Everywhere else, cities were boiling over their walls, spreading widely, expanding into new districts, leaving monuments of the past on the side. Krakow was until recently almost entirely locked within the old walls, the enclosed area being filled with old streets and churches. In Cracow, man was repeatedly defeated by the walls, too week and powerless to change his circumstances.
Jan Stanisławski The Planty in Cracow circa 1900
… but not without a fight. This capital of strange worship had a peculiar form of vitality. It has always, even in the most challenging circumstances, refused to accept to be a small town, like today it refuses to be a province for Warsaw. It again and again manifested its individuality and independence. But the fight with walls was difficult.
Arno Erb (1890-1943) Procession
Nothing in this city was like in other towns. All seasons of the year had their rites. Visiting graves, participating in May devotions and Corpus Christi feasts, letting wreaths on the water, singing carols. All these events, and any other event in general, played a disproportionately large role in Cracow’s life. Decorative spirit was highly developed. Cracow’s peculiar political situation made it the preferred city of national celebration, a vestibule to the Skalka sanctuary and the Wawel Castle.
Witold Wojtkiewicz Meditations. Ash Wednesday. 1908
Dressing up was done at every opportunity. Even as a child I remember a few individuals who wore ancient robes every day, with a sabre; others favoured czamaras. In other places, people celebrate on many occasions but quickly return to everyday life, in Cracow celebrations are a way of life. Everywhere in the world, celebrations quickly dissolved in the stream of everyday living, in Cracow people were addicted to them like to a drug. Cracovians preferred to live in imagination, detached from reality. Life was but a dream and day-dreaming was a way of life.
Stanisław Wyspiański Chochoły 1898
The attitude of Cracovians to nature was quite distinct. The sun felt uncomfortable here, making people prone to sadness. The sun illuminated indiscreetly the misery of life, women’s faces – faded and aenemic, unfashionable clothes showing signs of being patched and mended on many occasions. But the moon was at home in Cracow, wonderfully harmonising with the landscape of narrow streets and alleys, having some kind of affinity with the people. Cracow was a town of the moon.
Jan Styka A portrait of Franciszek Krudowski 1882
Cracow had its own spectre. Painter Franciszek Krudowski did not venture out of his apartment in the daylight but wandered at night for hours. One had an impression that this mysterious man could appear at once in several places.
Julian Falat A view of Cracow 1904
Such was the town of my childhood. Cracow of my youth was rather different. From the walls new shoots began to emerge. From the salon and the sacristy life slipped out into the street and appeared in cafes. Young people, who were before barely visible, suddenly swarmed the streets in their cloaks. On the left bank of the Vistula River a new phenomenon appeared – Cracow’s bohemia.
Wojciech Weiss Poppies 1902-1903
Cracow changed dramatically at the beginning of the twentieth century. New energy entered the town’s psyche. One had an illusion of living among interesting people of great intelligence. There was apparently enough talent to share it with the entire nation. Unlimited possibilities seemed to have awaited those who dared to dream about greatness.
Witold Wojtkiewicz Mi-Caréme 1907
I remember one night we walked down Florianska Street, through the Main Square, then down the Grodzka Street, past the St Mary’s Church, the Church of St Barbara, the Church of St. Adalbert, the church of Dominicans, the Church of St. Peter and Paul, the Church of St. Giles, the Church of St. Andrew, until we reached the Vistula river – grey, small, insignificant and rather ridiculous. On the other bank there were a few houses. The right bank of the Vistula. Dębniki.
Stanisław Wyspiański Vistula river 1905
The right bank of the Vistula, and what was not there, this was Cracow’s tragic fate.