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Krakow, Poland: A trip of mixed emotions

By Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher

My trip to Krakow, Poland was a combination of the sublime—the best of man’s creativity and the worst of man’s inhumanity.

In other words, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and the Krakow szopka competition which was my reason for going to Krakow in the first place.

What is a Szopka? It is a unique creation of Krakow which depicts the Nativity of Jesus. A szopka is Krakow in a nutshell—it contains the most popular and recognizable elements of Krakow architecture into which the Nativity scene has been integrated. Usually, the key element is Saint Mary’s church which dominates the main square of the city. Also included are segments of other historic buildings such as Wawel Cathedral, or Saint Florian’s Gate. The construction will usually have patriotic, mythic, and even present-day figures from politics or culture.

The primary materials used for the construction of the szopka include wood, plywood, paperboard, foil paper, and sometimes recycled materials which might otherwise be thrown away.

The szopka developed in the nineteenth century. Making the szopka is passed down from generation to generation and is within the master-apprenticeship relationship. In 1978, the making of the szopka was listed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Szopka makers include children and adults, inhabitants of Krakow as well as other cities. In 1937, as a means of encouraging the tradition, a competition was started to select the most beautiful szopka. There was a hiatus during World War II, but the competition was revived after the war. Today, the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow is in charge of the competition and runs a number of workshops headed by Krakow artists.

I had heard of the competition some years ago, and it always sounded like something I wanted to see in depth. I also knew that as nobody had heard of me, nobody was going to invite me. By coincidence, I was working on my book, Meditations on Christmas and asked for the Historical Museum’s participation; I also introduced myself as a member of the Friends of the Creche society in America. That combination did it.

I was on my way to Krakow with an invitation.

My Lufthansa flight out of Philadelphia was two hours late and I had to make a connection in Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt Airport must be one of the largest in the world, so by the time I reached the gate, the plane was boarding and I was among the last. When I got to Krakow, my suitcase remained back in Frankfurt, so, of course, having to fill out various forms, I now was among the last to clear through customs.

But at least, I was in Krakow and someone from the Historical Museum was there to meet me.

Krakow is a beautiful city. It was not bombed in World War II so the buildings in the traditional main square are hundreds of years old. The square is dominated by St. Mary´s basilica, a high Gothic church. Every hour on the hour, a bugler in the church sounds the alarm that the Mongols are coming. Legend has it that his call was cut short when he was suddenly killed. To this day, the bugler´s call stops at that same point.

When I was there in early December, the Christmas market was in full swing. Dozens of stalls and vendors selling Christmas goods, clothing, furs, and food. I tried a different lunch every day: perogies; kielbasa, and foods I didn’t know the names of, but were good. The split pea soup was more ham chunks than it was soup. I tried hot chocolate every place I could: at the first place the hot chocolate was essentially molten chocolate topped by two inches of whipped cream; the other places served more normal hot chocolate, but generally thick and chocolatey.

The first Thursday of December is the day the szopka competition opens. The weather was bright, sunny, and COLD. By ten o´clock, the szopki started arriving at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz monument in the center of the main square. What an exciting time! Reporters, tv, the press interviewing participants. Excited participants, their families and friends all jockeying to place their projects in the most advantageous spot. Then, plain viewers like me wandering around the monument trying to see all the projects.

From ten o’clock until noon, the projects sat on the monument for public admiration. Then at noon, the participants took their projects and processed to the judging hall. Again, all sorts of excitement as bystanders juggled to see the szopki passing by.

On Sunday, he final competition results were announced, and the prizes awarded by the Mayor of the city of Krakow. After his announcement, a group of costumed singers performed and a large cake was cut up for all members of the audience—and there were more than 200 of us.

From there, we all headed to the Historical Museum where the szopki were exhibited. And what a dazzling sight that was. Many of the szopki had lights and moving figures, and the gilded paper facades of the buildings sparkled. The constructions were incredibly beautiful.

To top off the evening, we then walked over to a hotel (one walks everywhere in Krakow) for a champagne reception and buffet dinner. Not only did we have champagne, but some of the szopka makers brought their own home brews. It was a very happy evening.

In contrast to the szopka events, I took in some historical places. I had not wanted to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau to view the tragedy, but then I felt they were part of history and I should go. What a great sadness to view the camps. So unbelievable what man can do to man. The only light spot was that Melania Trump and Angela Merkel were visiting the same day.

A fascinating side trip was to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. One descends by stairs about two miles down into the mine. It was very well planned. Just when you thought you really would like a rest stop, lo and behold, there was a well appointed modern rest room. The mine has many chapels and statues sculpted out of the salt. At the lowest level there is a cathedral like chapel with chandeliers and an adjoining ballroom. Apparently, some brides like to be married down in the mine and have a reception there. And of course, there was a shop to buy refreshments or souvenirs. Happily, to get out of the mine, there was an elevator.

Another treat was to go to the local art museum and see one of Leonardo DaVinci’s beautiful women, Lady with an Ermine—a painting of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting was commissioned by Sforza and the ermine in the painting alludes to him who was known as the white ermine. This painting is particularly important as it has not been heavily restored.

My trip to Krakow was one of the most interesting I´ve taken, with its high points and low points of human activity.

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