Archive for the ‘ Re-emerging Cities ’ Category

Krakow is More than Just a “Second City”


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Krakow may give you the impression that it has a “second city” attitude. Its rivalry is with Warsaw, more than twice its size in population and the capital of Poland. Krakow, of course, was the original capital and remained so through Poland’s Golden Age in the 15th to 17th centuries. Krakow does not let you forget that. It flaunts the Palace and Cathedral on its Wawel Hill, both sacred national symbols, and its magnificent Old Town. It reminds you that Poland’s all time greatest scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus, studied in its Jagiellonian University, the oldest in the land.  It showcases its almost native son, Pope John Paul II, in no fewer than seventeen statues. In this most Catholic of all countries, Krakow is not restrained even to claim the past glory of its Jewish residents, and in the process, not only putting all the blame for the stain of the liquidation of their Ghetto on the occupying Nazi Germans but asserting that its other citizens helped the Jews. The comfort that such shaping the narrative of a city provides may, on the other hand, make it sound provincial. Krakow, however, is not resting on its laurels. The intellectual ferment that its many universities sustain by the large number of their students ensures a future of change.

The Fields

The Warsaw train station looked industrial, standing next to the swank newshopping mall of luxury stores. It was utilitarian. The large hall with a few chairs served many passengers as indicated by the busy schedules for the numerous trains posted on one wall that rose to its high ceiling. The clerks at the information desk and the ticket windows did not speak English as few international customers were expected. I boarded my train for Krakow on time at the lower platform.

Our comfortable compartment for six was full. My fellow passengers were all men on business trips. I walked along the hallway and looked at the views outside as the train sped through the fields of Poland. I imagined that it was a terrain like this where the first Slavic tribes migrated here some thirteen centuries ago. The name “Polanie” means the people of the fields. It took those tribes a couple of hundred years to form a political entity which they then named Polska (greater Poland). Their chief was called Piast. His great grandson, the Duke of Mieszko converted to Christianity. His descendant, Piast Kazimierz I, made Krakow his capital in 1038. It remained the seat of monarchial power for the next 550 years.

From my train the landscape between Warsaw and Krakow was pastoral. The fields were farms . The cloudy sky made the fall scenery melancholic  . The scattered buildings were modest farmers’ houses and barns . I struck up a conversation with a man standing next to me. He was an agricultural economist. “Poland is still very much agricultural,” he said. “Nearly sixty percent of our total area is farmland,” he explained. “Most of the farms are small. Half of Polish farmers produce only for their own needs.”

The train station in Krakow was also close to its major new shopping mall, the Krakow Plaza, but its feel indicated that this town was more a provincial center than Warsaw, the nation’s capital. From the taxi that took me to my hotel I could see the town’s cemetery.  Next to it was a quaint flower market . It was in Krakow that I heard about its rivalry with Warsaw. One man proudly referred to Krakow’s local dialect as a sign of distinction, saying that there were words in this “authentic Polish” which people from Warsaw could not pronounce correctly.  Another person sported a license-plate frame on his car which had this disclaimer: “The license plate is from Warsaw but I live in Krakow.” A tour guide offered bluntly that “Warsaw is the ugliest city in the world, ruined in WWII and rebuilt by the Communists; an example is its Palace of Culture and Science, a ‘gift’ by Stalin.”  Even the remarkable reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town, which has won UNESCO’s admiration, was belittled: “Warsaw’s Old Town is reconstructed, Krakow’s is the original.” Warsaw did not pay such attention to rivalry with Krakow. What I heard there said about Krakow was that it was “prettier and historic.”

Wawel Hill

Krakow escaped destruction in WWII and has since benefited from restoration work regarding previous damages from its long past. The Castle and Cathedral on Krakow’s Wawel Hill are historic symbols for all the Poles. The Castle is the home of Poland’s medieval royalty. The Cathedral, the venue for those kings’ coronation, funeral, and entombments, has been Poland’s spiritual sanctuary.

Polish rulers resided on the Hill from the middle of 11th century. The Cathedral was built in 1364 at the site of two even earlier churches. The heyday of the Hill was the time of the reign of the Jagellon Kings (14th -16th cent). The Palace has since been reconstructed as it appeared in the 16th century.

I entered the compound on the Hill past the equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. He is a national hero in Poland because, as the Commander of the Polish National Armed Force, he led the 1794 uprising against the occupying forces of  Russia and Prussia. Just inside the compound was the statue of Poland most recent hero: Pope John Paul II. “This is called the Mobile Pope,” our tour guide said. Permanent statues are no longer allowed in these hollow grounds, he explained. “So the current Bishop of the Cathedral who has insisted on keeping the Pope’s statue here has put it on a pedestal that allows turning it a few inches every so often.”

There are many chapels around the Cathedral . Curiously, this site also has had a special attraction to the Polish believers in Chakra. A concept rooted in Hindu practices, Chakra (Sanskrit for wheel) is said to be a “force center,” a focal point for transmitting energy. Our guide said: “There are seven such points in the world, in such places as Delhi, Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem. There is also one point in Krakow.” That is believed to be in a certain back alley inside the Cathedral. “It has been visited so often by the believers that the Cathedral has closed off the entrance to it. Now the believers come and touch the wall closest to it.” The guided pointed to the wall .

The Wawel Palace was a three-story Renaissance structure built around a courtyard within a brick wall. The wall was added by the invading Austrians who occupied the Palace in the late 18th century and turned it into army barracks. Refurbished, the Palace is now a museum. Of its many rooms, the Royal Chambers on the second floor are the most impressive. I visited several, generally named after the scene of the freeze located under their ceilings: the Tournament Room, the Military Review Room , the Zodiac Room, the Planets Room, the Bird Room, the Orsza Hall, and the Hall of Deputies. This last was also called the Heads Hall because of the 30 separate wooden painted heads carved in its ceiling. These are all that remain from the original 194 heads installed in the 16th century, meant to demonstrate man’s life cycle from birth to death. The biggest room in the Palace was the Hall of Senators, a symbol of the emergence of a parliamentary government of the feudal nobility in the 16th century Poland. Constituting ten percent of the population, the nobles sent representatives who met in this room as the parliament (Sejm).

This museum in the Palace was also distinguished by a remarkable collection of various types of Flemish and French tapestries dating from the middle of the 1700s. There were figural tapestries, depicting scenes from the Old Testament, “verdures” tapestries, showing real and fantastic animals with a landscape background, and tapestries with compositions of the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania, allies in the Commonwealth that ruled Poland in the late 16th century. Late baroque tile stoves  in the corners of the rooms were the reminder of the way the place had been kept warm. I also noted that some walls had cordovan fabric coverings. In several rooms the walls displayed portraits of the former royal occupants of the Palace, including King Sigismund I , King Sigismund III, his wife, Queen Constance, King Ladislas IV, and King John Casimir .

In the Orsza Hall (named after the site of the Polish and Lithuanian victory over the Muscovites in 1514) I saw four musicians performing. They told me that they were playing the music popular in the Palace in the 1700s. Their instruments were the reconstruction of the instruments of that era, except for the violin which was new.

From the Wawel Hill I could see the Vistula River , Poland’s longest and most important, which connected Krakow to Warsaw.  We walked in the old neighborhood around the Hill. Here was one of the oldest streets in town, called Canonist Street , where the “Canonical Advisors” to the king used to live. Nearby, stood the Paul and Peter Church dating to the 17th century which had been built with a mission to refute “reformation apostles” from outside Catholic Poland, as our guide said. He pointed out that typical for the era, buildings in this area were identified by figures of animals , and not by numbers.

Old Town

Wawel Hill is at the southern tip of Krakow. By 962 Krakow had become a trade center as reported by a traveling merchant from Cordova, Ibrahim ibn Yagub. It was made a bishopric in 1000 and the capital of Poland some forty years later. The town center was designed in 1257, after devastation by the invading Tatars, and has remained mostly unchanged since. Its Market Square (the Rynek) is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. One corner of the Square is still anchored by the domed Church of St. Adlbert which dates to the 11th century.  The remarkable acoustics of its nave make the small church an ideal venue for concerts of medieval music, as the one held on the night of my visit.

Another corner of Rynek is occupied by the Town Hall Clock Tower which is what is left from the 15th century town hall. Diagonally across is the St. Mary’s Basilica built in the 14th century. From the higher of the Basilica’s two watchtowers  a bugle call (hejnal) is made every hour. It is a simple melody of 5 notes.  The call is a tradition that goes back 700 years. In medieval times the hejnal served as a warning call. Today it is broadcast on Polish National Radio every day at noon.

In the middle of the Market Square is the Clothing Hall  which was once the center of the rag trade, established in the early 14th century by putting a roof over two rows of stalls. Thus, they say in Krakow, the first shopping mall in the Western world was invented. The more elaborate structure of the Hall was built in the middle of the 16th century. The arcades were added to it a century ago. I walked into the ground floor which was now full of souvenir stores. One was selling wooden chess sets for three players. The original that the Indians had invented to depict a battle between the armies of two parties had been modified to fit the age of multilateral conflicts. I looked around for what would be a memento that would be uniquely representative of Krakow. I ended up with Krakuska, the traditional hat for men. It is a red tufted four cornered hat with a black lambs wool trim and a peacock feather tied with multicolor ribbons to one side. That evening I wore it at the dinner given by our host, a local university. A jaunty professor got up from his seat and took my hand and dragged me to the stage where I followed him in vigorous steps which he said were Krakowiak, the traditional dance of Krakow. Three musicians accompanied us with exuberant sounds of their two violins and a base.The Market Square is a favorite of Polish as well as foreign tourists. On the day I was there a group had come from a small town an hour away, as they told me. They were having a group picture taken at the foot of the imposing statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s 19th century great bard, surrounded by four allegorical figures representing poetry, learning, motherland, and valor. This was in the midst of many pigeons who have given this area its name, the “pigeon pasture.” My guide said “people are actually encouraged to feed the pigeons.” Flower stalls in the background were run by women; a monopoly which they have kept since medieval times.

I went into St. Mary’s Basilica to see the famed gothic stained glass windows  of its nave with the blue, starred ceiling. My guide pointed to the drape-like walls and said it is the combination of all these magnificent arts that made a visiting Pablo Picasso remark that this church was “the 7th wonder of the world”. The Basilica has 13 altars of which the most cherished is the 15th century altar of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary with its elaborately decorated triptych. Next to another altar there was Christ depicted on a wooden crucifix. “Note that, uncommonly for a crucifix, Christ is not shown as dead in this; he is looking at you,” my guide said. “Emotional engagement of the spectator is a characteristic of the arts of this church.”

All around the center of the Old Town is a belt of parkland called Planty. This has replaced the former moat. The fall season had turned the leaves of its trees gloriously yellow-green. The Town’s defensive walls has also been removed, but the Florian Gate, one of the eight which allowed entry through the walls, was left standing with its two towers  .

The Pope

My tour guide pointed to a building across the street from the southern part of Planty park and said: “That is the high school where Joseph Conrad once was a student . He was kicked out of school after two years. His uncle sent him to Europe. He became a seaman.  He wrote only in English. Two of his books, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness are now must-reads for students in Poland. But we find his English difficult to understand.” Nearby, we saw the residence of a man Poles have no problem relating to: the Archbishop of Krakow who became Pope John Paul II.

Karol Wojtyla had been selected by the Communist government of Poland as the bishop of Krakow from among three candidates recommended by the then senior Polish prelate, Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski. His election as the Pope in 1978 “was a surprise to  the Poles as they could not believe somebody from a Communist country could attain that position,” our tour guide said. The following year, Pope John Paul II came home for a visit. “The Communist regime was angry. When he came to Krakow for the Holy Mass, the government stopped all transportation means. Nevertheless, two million people attended the Mass.” After the Mass the Pope went to the Archbishop’s residence for a rest. “People gathered around the residence and clamored to see him. The Pope came to a window, and said this to the crowd: ‘Go away! It is not easy to be a Pope. I need to rest. Go to the Archbishop!’” The guide pointed to the window which now displayed a large image of John Paul II in white dress (simar), bare-headed, holding onto a cane. “Of course, the Pope was just joking,” our guide said. “That evening he stood at that window and talked for three hours with the people below on the street.”  When the Pope died “this street before that window which is a busy traffic route was closed for several days because people had put on it so many candles and flowers for the Pope.”

To say that Pope John Paul II is revered in Krakow would be an understatement. Our guide said: “He is like the new Jesus. In Krakow they don’t believe in God, they believer in John Paul II. When they say Pope, they still mean him. Politicians always agree with whatever he said. To do otherwise would be political suicide.” There are 17 statues of John Paul II in Krakow. In the small church across this street, which was his favorite in Krakow, there is one large statue, one painting, and another smaller statue on the chair where he used to sit. This was “the ugly side of Pope-mania” in view of our guide: “The Pope himself was against it. He repeatedly said ‘build hospitals and orphanages instead!’”


For many centuries before Pope John Paul II, Krakow’s most famous citizen was Nicolaus Copernicus. Poland still honors him as its most valued scientist. It is his statue that stands before the prestigious Warsaw Science Society. The 15th century Copernicus’s major contribution was to postulate that the earth orbits around the sun. As they say in Krakow, Copernicus “stopped the sun and moved the earth.” I went to see some of the tools he used for this feat, in a place just a few blocks west of the Pope’s former residence. This was in the Museum located in Colleggium Maius, the college where Copernicus studied.

Colleggium Maius (Grand College) is itself historic as it is the oldest college of Poland’s oldest university, Jagiellonian. The college was founded at this location in 1400 by King Vladislav II Jagiello. The walls of the original structure with the distinct wide stone composition were still visible at its entrance. The rest was rebuilt at the end of the 15th century, with a late-Gothic facade, around a courtyard surrounded by arcades. On the day I was there repair work was being done in the courtyard and the center of it, which used to have a well, was fenced off. The upper floor of the two story building used to be the residence of the school’s professors, and the lecture rooms were downstairs.

Jagiellonian University expanded and evolved in Krakow on the model of Italy’s fabled University of Bologna. It boasts among its alumni, from the faculty of philosophy, John III Sobieski whose victory over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 earned him the title of the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization” from the Pope of the time. Pope John Paul II’s older brother graduated from the faculty of medicine of Jagiellonian. The Pope himself attended as a student for a year.

The old building of Colleggium Maius has since been turned into a Museum. The collections are on the upper floor where the brick wall displays a clock. At one in the afternoon I faced the clock and saw it perform a short show with wooden figures of former kings and famous professors of the College parading to solemn music, coming out of a window on the left side of the clock and disappearing through a window on the right. The Museum displays more about those long gone professors. It offered me an opportunity to peak into the life of a medieval Polish academic faculty.

The professors lived and worked in rooms still marked for their original functions, including a library and a common room (Stuba Communis). The furniture was original. The docent who was guiding me pointed to a short bed and said: “This bed is from the 19th century. At the time, they believed that it was best to sleep in a half-sitting position”. An oriental carpet was spread on their table, serving as a table cloth. A vertical tile fireplace  was how they heated the place. “This one is from the 17th century; it is oriental minaret style,” the docent commented.

Copernicus’s memorabilia had a special place in this Museum. On display was a roster of students in his class of the 1490’s. His name on the page was underlined. There was a copy of the handwritten manuscript of his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in Latin. “The original is in the library vault,” the docent said. In one room there were an assortment of wooden instruments “used by Copernicus in his astronomy experiments,” as the docent said. There were also four astrolabes, key instruments for making astronomical measurements in medieval times. They were from different places and times. Three existed before Copernicus and hence available for his use: a 15th century German astrolabe, a 1370 Italian (Jan Brozek) astrolabe, and a 1054 Moorish (Arab) astrolabe from Spain.

The Museum collection also included a wooden statue of King Kazimierz the Great who in 1364 founded the Krakow Academy, considered to be the predecessor of Colleggium Maius. Furthermore, there was “the first globe which mentioned the New World, made in the beginning of the 16th century,” the docent said. In another room there was on display the Honorary Oscar awarded in 2000 to Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish film director. Wajda had donated it to the Museum when he decided to come and live in Krakow.

The Jewish Legacy

In contrast to Wajda, another Polish Oscar winner, Roman Polanski, was in fact born in Krakow but had to escape at the age of eight -through the sewer ditches of Krakow’s World War II Jewish Ghetto. “Polanski was asked to direct the movie “Schindler’s List” but did not accept because he said he was not yet ready to make a film about the Ghetto; when he was ready later he made ‘The Pianist’,” our tour guide said, referring to the movie which won Polanski the Oscar in 2003.

Schindler’s List has played a major role in creating interest in Krakow’s Jewish heritage since it was released in 1993. I joined a large group of foreign and Polish visitors in a guided tour of Kazimierz, near the Old Town, which had been home to the Jews for almost a half millennium. From there we went to Podgorze, just across the river, where the occupying Nazis in World War II housed the Jews on the way to the nearby Plaszow extermination camp. The guide’s commentary was laced with references to Schindler’s List.

“It has been said that the first written reference ever to Krakow was by a merchant who traveled here from Spain in 962,” our guide said. He was referring to Ibrahim ibn Yagub whose travel reports exist only in excerpts in the writings of later Arab geographers. “He was probably a Sephardic Jew,” according to the guide. His inference was based on the argument that the traveler’s name was in fact a common Jewish name (Abraham ben Jacob), although there have also been famous Muslims of that era with those names.

“We know that Jews lived in the center of Krakow as early as the 14th century when King Kazimierz III (1333-70), passed a law ensuring certain rights for them.” The guide pointed to a building in the Market Square and said that used to belong to a wealthy Jewish family. “The Jews could not own land so they came to the cities. Christians could not charge interest so Jews became bankers and, as a result, rich. Jews used to live near the Town Clock Tower. But all that changed because of the persecution of the Jews in Prague. They left and came toward Krakow. Krakow did not accept them. So they went to Kazimierz. The Poles then pushed those Jews who were already in Krakow out and they too ended up in Kazimierz.”

Kazimierz had been founded in 1335 by King Kazimierz III as a town independent of Krakow. After the Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1494, they were settled in a designated area of Kazimierz separated by a wall from the Christian quarters. Their numbers grew as Jews fled here from persecution elsewhere in Europe. As our guide said: “Kazimierz became the most important Jewish center in Poland. In 1820 the wall dividing Kazimierz was removed. By the eve of WW II, Kazimierz had become a predominantly Jewish suburb of Krakow with 65,000 Jews.”

Six of their synagogues are still standing in Kazimierz. Only one of them, Ramuh, which is the smallest, continues to function as a regular place of worship, the rest are now kept as museums. “This is because only 97 practicing Jews are left in Krakow,” our guide said.” We were standing before the Old Synagogue which dated back to the 15th century.  “This is the oldest synagogue in Poland,” the guide said.  “Note the yellow part, which was for women, while the part in bricks, was for men. The sexes were separated from ancient times because Jewish men were commanded not to talk to women during the worship so that they could concentrate on the Torah. Originally, the women’s section was in the back and on the top floor, but here it was different. The women’s section is to the side.”

As we approached the 17th century Izzak Synagogue , the guide said that it was named after its donor “Izzak the Rich, so called because he was the banker to the King.” The guide also showed us the “Progressive Temple” which he said was “built later just outside the medieval quarters of Kazimierz to claim that its members were blending with the rest of the Poles.”

It was when we arrived in the grounds of Ramuh Synagogue that I saw the only person in Krakow who was wearing a yarmulke . Behind the Synagogue was the oldest Jewish cemetery in town. The Nazis “destroyed all the tombs here except the tomb of the rabbi. That rabbi wrote a commentary on Torah which is considered to be one of the most significant books in Judaism. The Nazis did not touch his tomb because of their superstition: they feared his curse.” This was the 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles, better known by his Hebrew acronym ReMa, the name sake (Ramuh) for the Synagogue.

The cemetery has been reconstructed since. There were many new memorial plaques by descendants of those buried there. Our guide pointed to one plaque from two descendants who lived in New York . “Some of those who survived the Nazis went to the United States and Israel. Around 3000 survived. Some went to Warsaw because that is now the financial center of Poland. Those who have left Krakow would not want to come back. Why come back to bad memories?”

The fabled Jewish cultural life of the pre-War Kazimierz has disappeared. “This was their Broadway,” our guide said as he pointed around to ul Szeroka, a short and wide area that was more like a square. “This was the center of the Jewish community. It was used in Schindler’s List.” We noted stores and restaurants here with Jewish names such as Babelstein  and Rubenstein . “Helena Rubinstein’s family once lived here,” our guide said. But those were faux signs. “No business in Kazimierz is now owned by Jews,” our guide said. “The Klezmer music you hear here is not played by Jews.”

Krakow, however, actively helps the Jews from abroad keep the memory of its Jewish culture alive. Europe’s biggest annual Jewish festival takes place in Kazimierz. The posters of the festival in June were still on the walls when we visited in October, a few yards away from an old house kept as it was damaged during the War. This house “was used in Schindler’s List,” our guide said.

In fact, Kazimierz has now become fashionable as an edgy, artistic quarter with many bars and even a chic hotel. “It was not like this, twenty years ago,” our guide said. “Under the Communists the alcoholics and criminals were pushed here.” This made the real estate cheap. “Consequently, the bohemians moved here. Many bars opened up.” Our guide pointed to a circular structure: “In that building at one time there were 18 bars.” He continued, “Eventually Kazimierz became the place of choice for many.”


The Jewish “Ghetto” which the Nazis created during their occupation was not in Kazimierz. It was in a suburb of Krakow across Vistula River called Podgorze. “The Germans considered Krakow to have been originally a German city which was now being returned to the homeland,” our guide said. “They wanted to annex Krakow, so they did not bomb or destroy it. They told the Jews to leave Krakow. Some did. Then the Germans decided to make Krakow ‘Jew free’ by moving the rest to Podgorze.”

We walked over the pedestrian bridge on the Vistula to reach Podgorze in the early evening as the sky was crimson in the aftermath of a rain and hail storm. Podgorze had been developed as an industrial district by the Austrians who had occupied Krakow in the 18th century. The Nazis used it first as a work camp where Jews became the labor for its factories. To survive, the displaced Jews needed to work and for that they needed a work permit which the Germans issued at a building that still stands in Podgorze. Our guide said: “As might be expected this was very cheep labor. Oscar Schindler hired many of these Jews of Podgorze for his Enamel factory. He did not pay them; he just fed them.” The guide then showed us the administrative building of Schindler’s factory which had recently been turned into the Museum of Nazi Occupation of Krakow.

“Most of the events portrayed in Schindler’s List took place in Podgorze and the Plaszow extermination camp, not in Kazimierz,” our guide said. We stood transfixed in the main square of Podgorze, now called Peace Square (Plac Zgody). Around us were 70 empty chairs . The Jews were put on the train to Plaszow from this square. Initially, those who were able to work were allowed to stay, but eventually the Nazis decided to liquidate all. The chairs represent their furniture and other belongings discarded on this very site. The former German Guard House still stood on one corner of the square. Just outside were remnants of the Ghetto wall with a commemorative plaque. “Look at them. The wall was like a Jewish tomb; the Germans wanted to taunt the Jews,” our guide said.

The guide then turned around and directed our attention to “that modern building.” He was pointing to a new high rise which reflected the last rays of sun from its glass windows. “The producers of Schindler’s List concluded that this was not the scene they could use for events that took place in the 1940s. They shot the movie instead in Kazimierz’ ul Szeroka.” Now he pointed to another corner of Plac Zgody: “That is where the Pharmacy Under the Eagle was. It was run by a Polish non-Jew called Tadeusz Pankiewicz. He managed to persuade the Germans to let him keep his business here in the Ghetto. He was the real hero. He gave medicine to the Jews, often without charge, brought them news from the outside, and on occasions, made his store available to them as a safe house.”

The guide did not think highly of Oscar Schindler. “He saved some Jews’ lives only because he needed their cheap labor for his enamelware factory.” He called the foreign born Schindler “a Czech spy for Germany.” On the other hand, the guide said, “the Poles did not collaborate with the Nazis and had a unit to protect Jews in their resistance movement.” He named a Polish man, Chmielewski, who “owned a factory next door to Schindler,” and said that he saved many more Jewish lives.


Later that day I asked a local professor of journalism about Chmielewski. He said he had only recently heard that Chmielewski was credited with saving 400 Jewish lives, “but there is no evidence for this.” The professor was our host at Krakow’s John Paul II School of Journalism. He was proud to show us the student radio station which had opened just a few months before. He was their faculty advisor. There are many schools in Krakow and students constitute a large portion of its population, some estimates go as high as twenty percent. I welcomed the opportunity to talk to the students who ran the radio station.

They were mostly fourth year students in the five year program that the school offered for a degree. I asked the young woman who was in charge of music at the radio station what kind of music she played. “What I like,” she said simply. The news broadcast was “about the school,” said the young man in charge of that department. The third student, the sportscaster, was quite knowledgeable about American teams. He mentioned that a Polish-American played for the National Basketball Association team Magic. I asked him if he knew “Coach K,” the most famous Polish-American in sports I could recall. He did not. We Googled Coach K and when the sportscaster saw the full Polish name of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, he beamed and said: “Of course, he coached the American basketball team in last summer’s World Basketball Tournament.”

Later that day I toured a different college nearby: the Institute of Oriental Philology at Jagiellonian University . They taught two languages there, Turkish  and Indian. I spoke to two students who were studying Sanskrit. I asked what motivated them in that pursuit. One answered while the other nodded agreement: “Because we want to learn Hindu; we are just interested in Hindu.” They did not have a specific career plan.

I sat next to several students from other colleges at the dinner given by our host that evening. One said her home was about one-hundred kilometers away. Her mother “taught Russian which she says is a beautiful language.” The daughter, however, was studying English: “My generation thinks it is a more useful language.” I asked her friend who was from the “suburbs of Krakow” what the occupations of her parents were. “My mother sells real estate. She is moderately rich.” Still a third student said that she roomed with three other girls in a two bedroom apartment which had a kitchen, but they “mostly” ate out. As to her parents, “unfortunately, my father died 10 years ago; it is sad that I am losing the memory of him.”

I shared what I heard from those few students with my host. “That is a pretty accurate cross section of the students in Krakow,” he said. He was taking us to the “journalists club” in Krakow. It its café some guests were deep in conversation. A woman with a large black hat and a cigarette in her hand stopped talking long enough to acknowledge us. We went inside a large room full of a group of journalists who were discussing the subject of “blogging”. Two young men, one in a black T-shirt, and an older man were the panelists. They stood in front of the room. Our host announced us. We sat and listened to him interpret what was being said for some time. “It is a hot subject for debate these days among the intellectuals in Krakow,” he emphasized.

Back in the café, we were introduced to the editor of the “established” Krakow newspaper. He told me that his paper had a circulation of 40,000. Its competitor was “the regional edition of the National Polish paper, with a circulation of 15,000.” His newspaper was the local favorite partly because it was “the most independent paper during the Communist rule.” It got “most of the local advertisements as people are used to it.” Much of the ads were “from real estate people and car dealerships.” He said that his paper was owned by four “local people” and that “it was profitable.” When I mentioned the blogging discussions in the next room, he said: “Of course we are concerned about the changes in journalism due to the digital age. We expect digital competition, and we already have a digital version. But most of our readers in Krakow still want to touch the newspaper they read.” Then he added: “The new generation probably will feel differently. Change is unavoidable even in old Krakow.”


This article, entitled “ Krakow: More than just a second city”, was published on the following website of on April 28, 2011, with related pictures:

Warsaw: The Phoenix City


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Warsaw became the capital of Poland because it was geographically close to Lithuania when that Duchy joined it in a 16thcenturyCommonwealth. It was razed to the ground in 1944 because the uprising of its residents outraged the occupying Germans. It was rebuilt by the Polish Communist regime and received its largest landmark building as a gift from Stalin after WWII. It emerged as a leader in the movement that by 1990 ended the European Communist Empire established byRussia,Poland’s nemesis for over two centuries.Warsaw then became a showcase of the “New Europe” for the American Neo-cons.Warsaw is where the memory of its more than 300,000 Jews killed by the Nazis is indelibly etched in its Ghetto. It is where the Catholic Church is thriving. It is where Chopin’s heart is kept in an urn. It is where democracy is messy but to all appearances civil. How could I not welcome an opportunity to visit such a city?

Old Town

In the Castle Square of Warsaw’s Old Town the light that the sun cast against the brilliant blue sky was crystalline on this crisp late October day in 2010. People, old and young, had poured into the square [1], many just out [2] from the many churches around the square. A newly-wed couple posed for pictures in front of the red-brown brick edifice of the RoyalCastle[3]. At the foot of the SigismundIIIVasa Column [4], which was the meeting place of the youth, a man in a chapeau and wearing a bow tie played the tuba [5]. A fun carriage passed him [6]. Otherwise, there was no car and no extraneous noise in the Square. The outdoor café was full [7]. I stood waiting for my turn. A middle-aged woman  motioned me to share her table. She was dressed in red -her Sunday best in this very Catholic [8] of cities. She did not return my smile offered as gratitude. I spoke no Polish and she did not say a word. That is how I had my first meeting with aWarsawresident.

The first residents of Warsawsettled only a few hundred yards away from me where the RoyalCastlenow stood on the bank of Poland’s longest river, Vistula(Wisla). That was in the beginning of the 14th century, and the settlers soon made the Polish Duke of Masovia the ruler of the new Duchy of Warsaw. The Castle became the official home of the King of Poland in 1596 when he moved his Capital here fromKrakow. It remained the Royal residence until 1795 and, after a century long interregnum, whenPoland regained its independence in the form of a republic in 1918, the Castle became the residence of its presidents. It was also here that the Polish Parliament (Sejm) draftedEurope’s first written constitution in 1791. Such was its historical grandeur that I remembered as I entered the commensurately vast interior courtyard of this immense pentagonal Palace.

The Castle’s expansion into its current shape was done during King Sigismund IIIVasa’s reign. The Column nearby that bears his name was erected by his son and successor in order to glorify him in 1644. As my tour guide now related, the power of the Catholic Church in Polandat the time was such that “the new King had to build another column a few steps way in the glory of the Madonna so as to appease the clerics protesting his father’s column.” The guide showed me that column in the property of a church facing the column. Churches abound in the OldTown. Within my glance was the 15th century St. Anne’s church in the neoclassical style [9]. In the same style, at the end of this main street, was the 18th centuryChurch of Carmelites [10].

The RoyalCastlewas once connected to the most important church here, St. John’s Cathedral, by an eighty meter long elevated corridor. This church [11], originally built in the 14th century by the Masovian Dukes, is still the main Cathedral of theWarsaw archdiocese. Right next to it, we saw the ornate pink Jesuit Church founded by SigismundIII in 1609. A large portrait of Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski adorned the front of still another church [12]. He was the most renowned personification of the conflict and cooperation between the church and the Polish state in recent times. In 1950, as the Archbishop of Warsaw, Wyszynski entered into an agreement withPoland’s Communist government which allowed the church to hold property provided that it stayed away from politics. He did not stop supporting the opponents of the regime, however, and was imprisoned in 1953. Released in 1956, Wyszynski continued to be sympathetic toward dissidents. Typically, however, when the Solidarity trade union movement emerged toward the end of his life in 1981, Archbishop Wyszynski counseled both sides, the workers and the government, “to act responsibility,” as my guide put it.

By now the Church’s stature had been immeasurably enhanced in Communist Poland. Karol Wojtyla, who had been selected by the Communists as the Bishop of Krakow from the three candidates nominated by Wyszynski, had become Pope Paul II in 1978 and made a historic papal visit toPolandin 1979. At the site just outside the Old Town, where the Pope held his historic mass, attended by “millions of cheering Poles,” as my guide said, I noted just a simple but eloquent marker: a cross [13]. The pageantry of other occasions, of course, continues in theOldTownchurches. I observed a wedding party coming out of one such church; the married couple then held court in the front yard to receive the best wishes of the well-attired guests standing in a line [14].

TheOldTownis so picturesque that it is the choice for memorable photo shoots; around the corner I saw yet another couple recording their nuptials by a photographer [15]. Its Market Square is lined with magnificent Baroque and Renaissance buildings [16], with a bronze statue of the Mermaid of Warsaw in the middle, “the emblem of the city,” as our guide said. The Square attracted tourists of all stripes, including the definitely non-Catholic Hari Krishna followers [17].

The alleys from here led to the red brick defensive walls surrounding the Old Town[18] with their Barbican, a semicircular tower [19]. Through the Barbican and beyond the wall and it moat we entered the New Town, so called because it was established later, in the 1500s. Here the notable monument was the house where Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867. She left forParisafter 24 years to study, marry Pierre Curie and take his name, win the Noble Prize for Physics with him in 1903, and the Noble Prize for Chemistry eight years later all by herself. She was the first woman to win a Noble Prize and the first person to win two. Her birthplace is a museum [20].

In a sense both New Town andOldTownare museums too. They were razed to the ground in World War II by the Germans, and have been reconstructed since. At the entrance to theMarket SquareI saw showcases with pictures of “the ruins of theOldTown.” In one General Dwight David Eisenhower, then the Supreme Allied Commander is shown visiting the ruins of the “Old Town Marketplace” onSeptember 23, 1945. He was quoted to have said “I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction [21].” What we see now has been built from scratch.

The reconstruction of the OldTownhas been so faithful that it has won a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This was made possible because the planning to “revitalize” the OldTownhad begun before WWII and the plans then made, along with some original drawings and photos, had survived. I saw one such photograph taken in 1774 of the main street, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, on display in situ. Except for the animals roaming the street then, the reconstruction was accurate [22]. This rebuilding was undertaken under the Communist regime inPoland, but the Communists are refused credit. My tour guide stressed that the reconstruction was done “by the Polish people and not the regime.” He said that “much of the money came from the exiled Poles.” He did allow, however, that some of “the furniture now in theRoyalPalace came from Communist countries like theSoviet Union andEast Germany.”

In such narrative, you get the distinct impression that the Polish Communist regime is viewed as an extension of Russia. The Poles have historical reasons for disliking Russia. Three times late in the 18th Century (1772, 1793, and 1795)Russia joinedPrussia andAustria in the territorial division of their neighboringPoland among themselves, progressively until it ceased to exist as a state.Poland did not reemerge, as a Republic, before the changes imposed by World War One in 1918.

The man who gets most credit for Poland regaining its independence after those 123 years is Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who was the first President until 1922 and then from 1926 to 1935, as Prime Minister or as the military leader, virtually the de facto ruler of Poland. I heard more than one Pole refer to Pilsudski as the “most important person” in their country’s history. Admiration for him was suppressed until the fall of the Communist regime. It was only then that a Pilsudski statue was erected, at the entrance to Warsaw’s Lazienki Park[23]. He is remembered primarily as the man who “defeated the Red Army.” That was in 1920. The Soviet Army had reachedWarsawin a counteroffensive to an attack that Pilsudski had begun in 1919 against Imperial Russia and its successor, theSoviet Union. The Poles now even honor a young Charles de Gaulle for having volunteered in Pilsudski’s army in that war against “the Bolsheviks” in 1920. A major Boulevard inWarsawis named after de Gaulle.

TheSoviet Union, of course, came back; it dividedPolandwithGermanyat the beginning of World War II. Painful as that memory might be, for the Varsovians I spoke to even a more bitter episode was the Soviet “betrayal“ at the time of the Warsaw uprising against the Germans in 1944. In the summer of that year as the Germans retreated across Poland under pressure from the Soviet Army (nowGermany’s enemy), the Polish resistance leaders ordered a general uprising. Their goal was to establish command before the Russians came, but they still expected the Russians to support them.

The Red Army, however, stayed put in its camp in Praga just across theVistulaRiver[24]. The uprising lasted two months. Hitler was enraged and ordered revenge.Warsawwas totally destroyed. Then the Russians marched in to “liberate” it. As my tour guide put it, “the Russians waited until the Germans killed all non-Communist Polish leaders so that the way was paved for a Communist takeover.”

Those “Polish leaders” are remembered in the unknown collective of “The Heroes of theWarsawUprisingMonument” in a square just outside theOldTown. On the corner of this square is the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army with the “Katyn Chapel -Mausoleum,” to the right of the altar, which “commemorates the martyrdom of 21,857 Polish citizens -war prisoners and captives” in 1940 by “the order of the highest authorities of theSoviet Union” in the Katyn forest inRussia[25]. The specific names of “about fifteen thousands” Army officers and policemen, and 3435 more “Polish citizens” are engraved on the two walls of the Chapel [26].

Ghetto Uprising

Fourteen months before the general uprising inWarsawthe Jews had staged their own uprising in this city.  Theirs was an act of desperate defiance. Of the estimated 390,000 Jews who lived inWarsawin 1939 (more than in any other city butNew York) only about 50,000 had remained by April 1943. The invading Nazi Germans had swiftly established a ghetto in 1940 with a three-meter high wall topped with barbed wire to which they moved all the Jews from the few districts they had inhabited.

I was on a tour bus in the area of that ghetto now, listening to a guide’s voice, transmitted with the help of aGPSdevice to coordinate with my location. “Nearly 100,000 residents of the Ghetto died due to disease and starvation. Then in the summer of 1942 about 250,000 more were transferred to the extermination camp of Treblinka with its gas chambers, which is sixty miles north of here.” I saw a small structure on the side of the street as the voice said: “That is the train station used to send them to Treblinka, kept as a monument.”

As the bus moved a few more blocks the guide continued: “In the spring of 1943, the Nazis began the ‘final liquidation’ of those left. The Jews now took up arms in a spontaneous uprising; this was the first in any European Ghetto under the German occupation. Nazi terror was the worst here and so produced the strongest resistance as a natural reaction.  Fierce fighting lasted four days but lingered on for another three weeks.”

Now we were inMila Street. “That is the site of the bunker where the leader of the uprising, Mordehai Anielewicz, committed suicide, surrounded by German troops.” The Germans then flattened the Ghetto to the grounds. “Only a small section of the wall remains now,” the tour guide voice said.  The German commanding general sent a cable to Hitler: “There is no more Jew inWarsaw.”  The bus now stopped facing a monument. The voice said: “That is theGhettoHeroesMonument, built with the grey stones which had originally been set aside inSwedenfor a Nazi monument.” In the center of this monument Anielewicz was depicted holding a grenade in his hand.

Not all Jews were heroes in the Ghetto. Desperation also produced collaborators. The Ghetto had two areas, the rich Jews were in the “small Ghetto,” and the poor were in the “large Ghetto”.  “A few Jews from Warsawwere lucky and found refuge abroad, especially in the United States,” the bus guide’s voice said in an accent that was obviously American. Perhaps his usual customers were also from the United States. On this day, oddly, I was alone on the bus. We crossed Jerozolimskie Street, a main thoroughfare that now cuts across Warsaw. This was the road leading to the old villageof New Jerusalem, inhabited by the Jews who first arrived in this area in the 17th century. “There are now only 200 Jews inWarsaw,” the concierge at my hotel had said. They are reluctant to identify themselves.  They suffered from an anti-Semitic campaign lunched by the Communists in 1968.” This was surprising as theGhettoHeroesMonument was the very first monument erected by the Communist government in post warPoland, in 1948.

A Jewish restaurant was among the most popular I saw in theOldTown. It was modest in decor with a small number of simple tables. It was too crowded and we could not get a table. “The very small Jewish population ofWarsawhas created a community of their own around the old Ghetto,” my tour guide said. The next day I went to see for myself.

A seriously damaged long block [27] of the Ghetto has been preserved as a museum of its past life. The enlarged black and white portraits of its former inhabitants [28] are affixed to the dark brick walls [29] of a row of five story buildings. The street level floors used to be shops [30]. The signs for a few were still hanging on the doors of these shut shops. A net above them now protect the passersby from the falling debris of the abandoned residential floors above [31]. In the middle of the block, however, preservation of precious past memory has given way to the need for living now. TV satellite dishes and curtains have been installed [32] by current occupants of the upper floors, and stores below were open for business. The hotel concierge later told me that the occupants of those apartments and the owners of those stores were not necessarily Jewish.  The Nozyk Synagogue two blocks away, however, had been repaired and repainted [33]. It was now used for religious purposes [34], and a grocery store in its basement advertised its kosher food [35]. The Teatr Zydowksi [36], with current programs [37], was around the corner.

Palace of Culture

Among the structures the Nazis blew up in the Ghetto none was as sacred to the Jews as the 19th century Great Synagogue, the largest in Warsaw. “Its last rabbi cursed that nothing should be built on the site afterward,” as my tour guide related the urban legend in Warsaw. In the 1980s, however, a structure, commonly referred to as the Blue Skyscraper was erected here, after agreeing to establish inside it a memorial to the Synagogue. Notable as this 28 story building might be, with a facade that reflects the blue of the sky on a clear day, it is not the dominant building in Warsaw. That title goes to the massive Palace of Culture and Science [38], the tallest and largest structure in Poland [39]. Stalin ordered it constructed in the early 1950s as a “gift from the nations of Soviet Union (sic)” [40]. That provenance has helped it earn this derisive reference now current in Warsaw: “It has the best view of the city because that is the only place where you could not see the Palace itself.” I went up to its observation deck on the 30th floor, and shared the views ofWarsaw from many sides with a group of young Polish visitors [41]. This city that was rebuilt after World War II in the “socialist fashion,” with a reputation as “a gloomy concrete city [42],” now looked different [43] only due the addition of a hodgepodge of high-rises [44].

Lazienki Park

Warsaw, of course, is not without parks. In this fall the LazienkiPark, its largest with 76 hectares at the center of the city, was glorious in the yellow leaves of its maple trees [45]. Its level grounds exemplified the flat land that is Warsaw[46].  Now a favorite of the common folks [47], in the 18th century Lazienki was the summer residence of the last King of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1764-95) who acquired it after ascending the throne in 1764. His “Palace on the Water” is located on a lake watered by the Lazienki (baths) River in the property [48]. The royal peacock pets still strut around here.

Beyond the lake is a statute of JohnIIISobieski, the monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania) from 1674 to 1696 [49]. He was on his horse trampling a semi-naked vanquished enemy. Sobieski is remembered as an extraordinary military commander.  His prominent foes were the Ottoman Turks and his greatest victory was the Battle of Vienna in 1683. With the Turks close to breaching the walls ofViennaon September 12, Sobieski ordered a full attack, leading a united army of Polish cavalry and their Austrians and Germans allies, and succeeded in scattering the Ottoman forces in confusion. Byfive thirtyin the afternoon the battle ofViennawas over. For this the Pope hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”; and the Turks are said to have called him the “Lion of Lechistan (Poland).” Our tour guide relished telling us his version of the event as we stood near Sobieski’s statue:

The Poles had a spy in the camp of the Ottomans who had put a siege on Vienna. The spy had been a merchant in Turkey and had learned the Turkish language. Because of the Turks’ success in the campaign against Vienna the Austrians were dispirited, considered their situation hopeless, and were about to surrender. But the spy heard from the Turks that they were also feeling weak and not hopeful. He reported this to the Polish forces. The Poles encouraged the Austrians to join them and attack the Ottomans. They defeated the Turks in what was like the battle of Stalingrad of that era. The Ottomans consequently withdrew from much of Europe.”

Just outside theLazienkiPark, the statue of Józef Pilsudski stands in front of theBelwederPalace, which became his residence after he became President upon re-establishingPoland’s independence. Belweder later continued as the residence of several ofPoland’s presidents for much of the time until 1994. I would see its replacement the next day.


At eight in the morning I could not find a place open for even a light breakfast of coffee and pastry in the Old Town of Warsaw. I noticed a young woman on her way to school on this Sunday. “Do they teach classes today?” I asked. “Yes,” she said she was attending them today because she worked on Fridays and Mondays at a “notaria, something like a law office.” She was studying “Administration” at the university. She lived 20 kilometers north ofWarsaw and commuted buy bus. She said that the bar a block away might be open.

I recognized the dimly lit place. It was the only one open late the night before when I was looking for a bite to eat. I could not get even close to its counter then as four rows of boisterous young customers separated us. This morning I had the place to myself. A man came out of his little corner of a make-shift office when he noticed my puzzlement. “English menu?” I pleaded. He pointed to the drawings on the wall, fresco images of which only a steaming cup of coffee looked appealing. Nothing else resembled what I might swallow as the first meal of the day [50]. He smiled and spoke in serviceable English. I settled for a dish of white sausage with cabbage and pickled cucumbers and some version of feta cheese with a small roll of bread.  “Very small,” the man said as he handed me my bill. It was 16 Zlotys (about 8 dollars). “How long staying?” I told him my itinerary. He said: “Oh, my God! Alone or in a group?” I said alone. He asked with a smile: “Where is your woman?” He said he had family living inPhiladelphiafor the last 40 years. He visited them but did not stay as he liked to live inPolandbecause it was “steady.” He demonstrated this with the palm of his hands down.

Only two other customers came in while I was at this bar. They stood eating at the semi-circular counter. I sat on a stool near a window. Fifty yards away I could see the current Presidential Palace of Poland, flanked by the Carmelite Church[51] and the legendary Bristol Hotel (which I would visit later). A man was sweeping the sidewalks [52]. Four guards were casually talking in front of the Palace. It was all clean and peaceful.

Prince Józef  Poniatowski looked imposing on his equestrian statue in the front courtyard of the Palace [53]. But the statue of this former Minster of War had been transplanted here in the 1960s, as though for warehousing, after the Polish General Staff building several blocks away before which it originally stood was destroyed in the War. The Palace had many other claims to history. It was the fabled palace of the Radziwill family, among the richest in Europeof the 18th century. It was here that in 1791 the family hosted the authors of the Constitution of thePolish–LithuanianCommonwealth. As our tour guide would say, it was thus the appropriate place to hold the initial tripartite negotiations of 1980 among the Solidarity union, the Church, and the Polish Communist regime. These negotiations eventually led, several years later, to the ending of that regime.

Beyond Solidarity

That evening I saw some forty demonstrators before the Presidential Palace [54]. “It is the party that lost in the last Presidential election,” I was told by one of them. They were using a bullhorn, but not even the Palace guards seemed to be paying much attention. I mentioned this demonstration to Eva and her daughter Irene at the reception following a Chopin concert the next day. They were forthcoming in their discussion of the Polish politics since the fall of the Communists and provided me with their distinct perspectives, each reflecting their different generations.

Eva was an eye doctor, a specialist in retina diseases of babies born prematurely. She was invited to many professional conferences and could “understand” English, but was hesitant to speak it. She could not learn English in the Communist era because she “could not travel abroad.” She let Irene translate for her. Yet she said, Russian, which she spoke fluently, was “the language of the future.” I was surprised but we did not pursue this subject further.

Irene was a college student in “the philology of English, but also German.” She wanted to “go into advertising and human resources.” Eva’s grandparents were lawyers as was her other daughter who was married to a physician. They had a new baby and both Eva and Irene had pictures of the baby which they were eager to show me. “She is happy when she eats,” they said.

Those demonstrators in front of the Presidential Palace, Irene said, were followers of “the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski” who had died in a plane crash in April of 2010. His brother, Jaroslaw, ran as a candidate in the recent election to replace him. Having lost, he was now the head of the opposition minority party in the parliament. Irene supported him as a presidential candidate but not any longer. “After the election, he turned his true color,” Irene said, “he is now very conservative in social issues: he is anti-in vitro, anti-gay; and he is focused on domestic issues: he does not want to expandPoland’s relations withEurope.”

In 2006 Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his job as Prime Minister of Poland after just four months for the same kind of alienation he engendered among too many Poles. His conservative Law and Justice Party had defeated the “postcommuist” technocrat A. Kwasneiwski to win the Presidency for his brother,Lech, in 2005. Kwasneiwski had in turn beaten Lech Walesa in 1995 by a small margin, and won reelection in 2000 when Walesa received only one percent of the votes.

Walesa was, of course, the first President in the post-communist era which began in 1990. Eva remembered those early days: “The Solidarity movement represented many shades of opinion. It was Walesa’s charismatic leadership that kept it united on a moderate course.” She added: “But Walesa was not good as President because he was only a simple worker.”

That is not how Walesa considers himself. Referring to his 1983 Nobel Prize, Walesa recently wrote: “I decided to establish a prize of my own that would support those fighting for a better world.” Since 2008 the award has been given to the King of Saudi Arabia “for promoting dialogue between religions and for his efforts on behalf of peace in the Middle East, and three Iranians fighting for human rights and the rights of women -Shadi Sadri and the sisters Ladan and Roya Boroumand.” This year, Walesa continued, “Having spent some time considering who should receive the award …. I realized that there is a Polish organization” which is deserving because it has been “providing assistance and aid to people … struck by war and disaster.” Walesa’s choice is called The Polish Humanitarian Organization. He concluded: “In bestowing this year’s Lech Walesa Prize to (it) I would like to say…: Solidarity!”


It wasFryderyk Chopin,Poland’s best known composer, thatWarsawprized and especially celebrated in this season which was the 200 anniversary of his birth. Chopin was not born inWarsawand he died inParis. But he literally left his heart inWarsawwhere he lived twenty of his 38 years. Upon his death, Chopin’s sister smuggled his heart toWarsaw. (The rest of his body was interred inParis’sPèreLachaiseCemetery, also as he wished.) “The smuggling was forced because the Russians who ruledPolandwould not allow Chopin’s remain back,” our tour guide said. “In fact, some fourteen years after Chopin’s death, the Russian troops showed their dislike of Chopin by throwing his piano out of the window of a second story building as they suppressed a Polish uprising.” The guide continued: “As soon as the Russian occupiers were gone,Warsawmanifested its love for Chopin.”  The urn containing his heart was placed in theHolyCrossChurch. A statue of Chopin was erected in the prime location by the lake inLazienkiParkin 1926 and, after its destruction by the occupying Germans, again (its replica) in 1958 [55]. Until recently this statue was the world’s tallest Chopin monument. On summer Sundays free piano recitals of his compositions are performed at its foot.

Chopin’s visage was all over Warsawas part of the celebration of his anniversary. A big poster dominated the entrance to the campus of the Universityof Warsaw, his alma mater [56]. The big show was the International Chopin Piano Competition, which has been held here every five years since 1949. Usually as many as 250 pianists from over 35 countries participate and the competition is judged by an international jury of eminent musicians. This year it was especially elaborate because of the 200th anniversary.

The Competition had just ended when I arrived inWarsaw. Unfortunately, the Polish pianists were not among the top five prize winners. The major contestants, however, were in town and doing an encore performance at the National Opera house. Indeed this was their second encore program. Still the tickets were all sold out.

As a consolation prize another program was scheduled at the “beautiful Palace on the Water” in view of the Monument to Chopin in theLazienkiPark. Because I had missed the hotel shuttle, the organizer of this program himself came in his car to pick me up. We chatted on the way. He was a Chopin scholar, in his seventies with gray hair, who wore the collar of his white shirt over a disheveled dark sweater. Just as we passed the Opera House [57], he pointed to another lot nearby. “That is where Chopin lived. His house was ruined in the bombing during the War.” The place he took me to was not the Palace on the Water. The sign at the door said: “TheMusicPublishingCenter”. He explained that the Palace was not available for the concert that evening contrary to the advertisement.

The “concert hall” here was a stately large room with elaborate moldings lining its high ceiling [58]. It was heated by radiators which helped make it feel cozy. A portrait of Chopin was on the wall above a grand piano. He looked young, boney-faced, with inquisitive eyes and a pursed mouth [59]. A large bowl of cut flowers, red, pink and purple, was on a stand next to a Bechstein piano. We sat in armchairs which had red cloth covers [60]. The hall was not quite full, the tickets were 60 dollars each, the audience was mixed in age.

The organizer introduced the program. It consisted of seven parts -all “Chopin’sWarsawpieces”. He reminded us that although Chopin first performed at age 8 inPrague, he was “Warsaw’s favorite son.” He compared Chopin’s “emotionalism” with Franz Liszt’s “pyrotechnical performance.” Although the Hungarian Liszt was a friend and admirer of Chopin and, in fact, wrote a book about him, Liszt was also Richard Wagner’s father-in-law, the organizer reminded us. “Was it not ironic that the Nazis who admired Wagner destroyed Chopin’s statue here?” he asked.

The organizer then introduced tonight’s performer. She was a Professor of Music at a university. As a performer, she had won the 2nd prize in a national competition. She came up from the back of the room. She said no word, sat down on the bench at the piano, and started playing for us. Her eyes were open and she looked up. The first pieces were somber, even sad. She showed similar emotions in her expressive face. She murmured under her lips. After playing each piece she stood up facing us. We applauded. She smiled faintly, bowed, and sat back down on the bench at the piano.

When it was time for intermission the organizer rose and said that some typical Polish appetizers and wines were set up for us in the parlor outside the room. He said Chopin was very found of Polish food. He smiled as he told us of what Chopin’s lover, writer George Sand, had said: “Chopin was more Polish thanPoland”.

As the room emptied, a Spanish couple approached the piano. The man sat on the bench and asked his wife to take his picture. He was not satisfied with her framing for the shots, and kept telling her to move back and forth and sideways. The organizer was looking. I asked if I could touch the keys of the piano. He said “Of course, you should play.” When I confessed my total lack of skill, a young woman standing next to me laughed. Pointing to another woman who was with her, she said her mother was an accomplished pianist. The mother demurred. I introduced myself and they said they were Irene and Eva. We proceeded to the area where food and drinks were served.  The wines were from Hungary. I asked Eva why the music we had heard was not happier whereas I thought Chopin had been inspired by Polish dances. She looked at the program and said wait for the next ones. She proved to be right. This even showed in the changed mood expressed by our pianist. The last item on the program was the familiar Drum Polonaise. Then there was an encore.


At one time in Warsawthere was a pianist almost as famous and popular as Chopin. What is more he, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, even became the Prime Minister of Poland, briefly, in 1919. He was also very rich thanks to his business acumen. I was hearing all of this in Paderewski’s prominent physical legacy in Warsaw, the Bristolhotel. He was a partner in the company that built this hotel in 1900. The Bristolsoon became Warsaw’s best; its heyday was in the roaring 1920s. Renovated after World War II in the “socialist realism style,” it was nationalized in 1948. After the fall of the Communist regime, the Bristolwas “thoroughly refurbished in its original style” by private owners and opened in 1993 as Le Royal Meridien Bristol, promising the “splendour of Old Warsaw.”  Its bar is now “the place to have an after dinner drink,” I was told by a bon vivant expatriate fromBritain.

The bartender could not agree more. He had set six shot glasses on the counter in front of him and was pouring Vodka andTabascosauce into them. He said: “This is our signature drink. It is called Mad Dog. It is ideal for those cold winter nights whichWarsawis famous for.” I declined his offer to taste that drink, saying that I had to get up very early for my flight back toCalifornia. “President Bush stayed here, you know,” the bartender said.Polandwas a key country in the friendly “New Europe” that the Bush Administration juxtaposed to the likes ofFrance(of the Old Europe) that opposed his invasion ofIraq. President Bush, famous for virtually not having traveled abroad before becoming President, visited Warsaw in June of 2001 and two other Polish cities in two more trips to Poland. TheBristolbartender remembered fondly: “It was cold that night when Mr. Bush was inWarsawand he had not brought a warm enough topcoat to wear outside. Our manger offered him his own topcoat and Bush accepted and wore it that evening.” I asked the bartender what he thought about Obama who was now in the White House. He considered his answer carefully: “It is still too early, Obama has not yet been tested like Bush.”

Berlin: The making of a Capital city


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: You go toBerlin forBerlin. This was especially true during the Cold War. My brother had the required permit to fly his plane there through the air corridor fromWest Germany but, nonetheless, was chased by Russian Migs and forced to land in theBerlin airport designated by them. Such restrictions isolatedBerlin. It was an island in the forbidden surroundings ofEast Germany. Even now it is a destination preferably to be reached without distraction by other “uninteresting” sites on the road. ButBerlin is not without detractors. A few yeas ago I was visiting a German Ambassador I knew who had retired to a home inBonn, the Capital of West Germany. He said there was nothing much to do inBerlin which had recently become the Capital of unifiedGermany. He took me to see Beethoven’s house. “You don’t need to go toBerlin to see art,” he said. But I did. The return of the city that had often claimed primacy inEurope was a cause not just for celebration of its artistic heritage but for full attention to its exemplary historical fate.



“Klavierkonzert Nr. 12,” the radio announcer identified the piano concerto when it was finished. Then he said the composer’s name in full: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”. This was now followed by that most familiar piece by “Ludwig van Beethoven,” again announced in full. His Fifth Symphony took “the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite,” as its famous early admirer, E. T. A. Hoffmann, had written. I looked around at the finite corners of my small hotel room in Berlin. On the desk were four volumes of Suddeutsche Zeitung Bibliothek (The Great Novels of the 20th Century). I could make out the title of only one; it was Anthony Burgess’s “Die Uhrwerk-Orange,” which I assumed was A Clockwork Orange. My German was woefully inadequate. The book next to my bed was also in German; it was a volume of Berliner Anthologie. There was a note on my pillow, a twelve line poem, “Verklarter Herbst” by  Georg Traki, about how the year ends in the “Transfigured Autumn.” One line was especially appropriate: “Mit goldnem Wein und Frucht der Gärten (With golden vine and fruit in the garden).” There was a bowl of fruit on the side table in my room next to a window that overlooked the exquisite garden courtyard of this hotel, Brandenburger Hof. At the bottom of the poem, the hotel said it wished me good night: “Wunscht Ihnen Gute Nacht.” The innkeeper added a personal welcome note in English:  “Live in my urban villa for a day, for a weekend -for a marvelous time.” I told myself I might just do that.

Bismarck(Otto von) would have approved. I was staying near Kurfurstendamm, the boulevard he commissioned (in late 19th century) to rival the Champs-Elysees, on one of its side streets of residential buildings where the refined lifestyle of earlier times still lingered. The hotel’s restaurant had earned a star from Michelin. Like the hotel’s notable bar it attracted the same somewhat stuffy European clientele that had given the Ritz of Place Vendome its signature character. The “Direktor” of the hotel, also called Otto, was positively Prussian in his mannerism.

The crown jewel of  Ku’damm (as locals called Kurfurstendamm) was the KaDeWe, which was an abbreviation for Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West). With “60,000 square meters of sales space,” it is continental Europe’s largest store. On its 6th floor, I strolled in its legendary food hall, comparable with the Harrods’ basement in London. I sat at the sea-food counter  for dinner and shared a conversation with a man visiting from the suburbs. He had come to Berlin for his regular “cooking night” with his buddies; that was to be the following evening. “We get together and cook a meal every month, while our wives go shopping,” he said. “I get my inspiration from this kitchen,” he laughed.

He updated me on the eventful history of KaDeWe. “It was just bought by a Jewish man from New York,” he said. The department store itself was still making money but “its mother company had been doing poorly. That was the reason for the sale.” The last time a Jewish enterprise bought KaDeWe, in 1927, it was a hugely successful store. Soon, however, the worldwide Recession hit, followed in a few years by anti-Jewish policies after Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933. Ownership changed, and the store did not recover from its adversities, including bombing by the Allies during the War, until 1950 when it reopened.

When I came out, the moon was peaking through an iconic reminder of that War, just a few blocks away on Ku’damm. The  bombed-out tower of Kaiser Wilhelm MemorialChurch has been left standing, nicknamed “Hollow Tooth.” I recorded the moment on the camera ; I was struck by the speed that the moon  moved on . When I told Steve about this, he nodded thoughtfully. “Time flies,” he said. He was now talking about himself: “It is now 35 years that I have been in Berlin.” He was the guide on the “hop on, hop off” bus that gave me a tour of the highlights of the city. He had come from New Jersey and stayed on. He spoke German fluently enough so that he gave commentaries in both German and English. He said his real job was in music. “I am a pianist, mostly jazz but also classical.” He said “well, Berlin is that way; it is hospitable to expats like me.”

Steve had arrived in Berlin in the wake of political turmoil. “(Ulrike) Meinhof and (Andreas) Baader had just committed suicide,” he said, referring to the two leaders of the Red Army Faction, the radical remnant of the 1960s left-wing student movement. “The rest of that movement eventually evolved into the Green Party.”  It was that party which, Steve said, is about to take over the government of Berlin. “It is no longer a red-red city; the Greens are ahead in the polls.” He explained that a “red-red” coalition of two parties, the center left SPD (Social Democratic Party )and far left Die Linke, won the city-wide election in 2001. Its choice, a gay man (Klaus Wowereit), has beenBerlin’s mayor since.

The Berlin that Steve was showing us from his bus also marked the signs of time. Prominent among his landmarks were the new architectural styles of foreign embassies erected sinceBerlinreclaimed its position as the capital of the newly unifiedGermany. Some belonged to the new or newly important states like India, Egypt, and Mexico. Some were remnants of the legations of old allies such asJapanandItaly. The Italian embassy was symbolic, an old structure refurbished. These were all in a cozy neighborhood at the edge of the city’s central park, Tiergarten.


The pre World War II Berlin was collected on the other side of Tiergarten. Its heart had been resuscitated in the Brandenburg Gate with its Pariser Platz . The Plaza again served as the city’s “reception room,” where tourists checked in for the short walk around the period monuments. The Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, on the top of the Brandenburg Gate is once again brandishing the Iron Cross which in the 19th century the Prussians had put in place of the original olive wreath meant to signify it as a symbol of peace. The East German government had removed the Iron Cross as a symbol of militarism. Its return is part of the “critical reconstruction” of the area looking back to the Prussian tradition. The same architectural guideline has kept at bay the encroachment of Frank Gehry’s now ubiquitous curved titanium structures. They were allowed only inside the building of DZ Bank  at one side of the Plaza. Michael Jackson’s antics, however, could not be kept out. From the reconstructed venerable Adlon Hotel  next door, the entertainer caught the attention of the world in 2002, by dangling his infant son out of the window of his room.

“That day, a noisy crowd cheered Michael Jackson on,” our tour guide recalled. In contrast, the nearby Holocaust Memorial we were visiting now invited somber silence. We meandered through its 2711 sarcophagi-like columns that rose up a few meters above the uneven ground . “It cost $27 million Euros in public fund,” the guide said. “Some people said it would have been better to spend that amount differently, for example, to endow free bus services for visiting the concentration camps. But this is very strategic. It is a place for all to see.” She continued: “Also, it is not meant just for the Jews of Germany. It is called ‘the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’” Its designer, “from New York, Peter Eisenman, has declined to give an explanation for his design. He has only said vaguely that it was based the Jewish cemetery in Prague. He has left it for each viewer to decide what it meant.” Our guide now invited us to say what the Memorial meant.  One woman said that it was “ugly but the event it commemorated was also ugly.” Another woman said, “The money spent was worth it because it reminds us of atrocities elsewhere, likeCambodia.”

Where Hitler killed himself was devoid of a reminding marker; his famous bunker of World War II had been turned into an ordinary park ing lot. “No meeting of the new Nazi party is allowed at this site,” our guide said. A few blocks away we saw the monument to a past gathering of the precursors to this group. In the square before the faculty of law of Humboldt University, empty shelves in a basement visible through a glass pane commemorated some of the 20,000 “un-German” books from the University library burned here by the assembled Nazis on May 10, 1933. They were led by rightist students; the authors included Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, and Thomas Mann. The commemorative plaque quoted a Jewish writer, Heinrich Heine, who, in 1820 had reflected on that age-old original Inquisition: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people” .

Intellectual epicenter

This place with its “empty library,” was once the intellectual epicenter of Berlin, Opernplatz (renamed Bebelplaz). It was the parlor of the National Opera House, the favorite of the music loving Prussian king Frederick the Great (1740-86) who erected the many buildings of Berlin’s cultural center called Forum around it. Even today, the opera’s orchestra comes out into this Plaza to play “for the people” twice a year. Nearby, the statute of Frederick, re-installed on his horse in 1980 by the Communist East German government, looks on approvingly.

The Communist regime had reinforced yet another legacy of the Prussians here– HumboldtUniversity. Berlin’s oldest university, Humboldt was established in 1810 in a former royal palace with the permission of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was renamed after him in 1828. The statue that I saw standing at its entrance, however, was not of a Prussian royalty. It was that of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the school’s founder, after whom the Communists again renamed the university in 1949. The plaque under the statue said that it was the gift of the University of Havana, erected in 1939. The rather tenuous connection was that Humboldt was Al secundo descubridor (second discoverer) de Cuba. Humboldt and his brother Alexander were respected lecturers in sciences at the University. Their reputation, however, pales next to the other luminaries’ associated with this university. For this has been no ordinary school.

I walked into the lobby of the school’s building and perused the brochure made available to visitors. It boasted that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck had taught at Humboldt; since 1901, twenty eight Nobel prizes had been awarded to the University’s natural and medical scientists; and its historian Theodor Mommsen had received the Nobel Prize in literature for 1902. The man whose presence above all dominated the lobby was an alumnus of the University’s law school (1836-40): Karl Marx. On the wall over the landing in the staircase facing the entry were these words by Marx inscribed in golden letters:

“Die Philosophen haben die welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verandern.”

The brochure translated them into English:

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.”  Those words from Marx were installed in 1953 by the East German regime when it reconstructed the lobby which had been destroyed in WWII. They are not from any of Marx’s famous writings. Rather they were discovered after his death “in an old notebook of Marx” by his friend Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Marx in 1848 and published the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Das Kapital after Marx’s death, was also a student at Humboldt.

Marx’s notebook was about “eleven theses on the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.” Feuerbach (1804-1872) was the highly influential German philosopher, who similarly studied at Humboldt, attending all of Hegel’s lectures which shaped his thinking. As Engels wrote in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy about those notes by Marx, “These are notes to be elaborated at a later time, written in haste, absolutely not intended for print, but invaluable as the document wherein the ingenious seed of the new ideology is deposed.” It was Marx’s note on the 11th thesis of Feuerbach that was on display in Humboldt’s lobby. A young fellow with a backpack was standing next to me, looking at those words. I asked him if he understood what they meant, as he did not have the brochure in his hand. “Yes, of course.  I am a Marxist!” I asked him where he was from. “Greece,” he said.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Humboldt there was a competition to find an installation that would redesign the lobby. The British artist Ceal Floyer won. Her installation is called Vorsicht Stufe (Mind the Step). Fifty six identical brass signs inscribed with these words have been mounted on the steps of the main staircase of the lobby and the two upper flights branching out to the left and right.

Floyer has explained her work as the “re-contextualization” of Marx’s words in Humboldt’s lobby. They are simple warning signs that we all know, she has said, but the hidden strength is in the perception of the situation created. “Seen from the foyer, the signs appear to continue indefinitely…. But it is precisely this confusion and the matter of danger, both of which grasp our attention, that the risk of tripping up -physically and mentally- becomes hidden.”

In the post-Communist unified Germany, the retention of Marx’s words in Humboldt was criticized by those who called them “a symbol of the old regime.” Others argued that keeping them were, in the words of the brochure, “a sign of the historical tolerance and the internal satisfaction of a formerly divided country.” They have prevailed.


Important as Humboldt University is, it is the other legacy of the Friedrich Wilhelm IIIthat attracts the visitors’ attention these days: the Berlin Museums. The Prussian king followed the trend that had become fashionable among European royalties in the late 18th century by making his private art collection available to viewing by the public. His museum put Berlin on par with Paris, London, and Madrid which contemporaneously established their Louvre, British Museum, and Prado. It has since grown into a collection of five museums in Berlin, all clustered together on the tip of the small island in the River Spree  next door to Humboldt. It was on this island that Berlin began as a settlement in the 13th Century. Its “Museum Island” now aims to display human culture “from its earliest beginning to the present day” in the five buildings, connected by an underground walkways, of the Old Museum, New Museum, Old National Gallery, Bode Museum, and Pergamon Museum. Construction work for renovation and repair of damages, mostly caused by bombardments in World War II, still continues although the last of the main buildings, Pergamon, was built in the 1910-1930 period.

The Director General ofBerlin’s State Museums, Michael Eisenhower, personally welcomed me in theNewMuseumwhich he called the “jewel” of all five national museums. This was through the medium of the audio guide. He went on to talk about Nefertiti, who is called “Berlin’s most beautiful woman.” He acknowledged that “perhaps most of you came to this museum for her.” The bust of the Queen of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BC) was in the museum’s North Dome Room. I examined it behind its glass cabinet.

It had remained almost perfectly preserved in the sands of Armana, Akhenaten’s capital city until 1912 when it was discovered in its sculptor’s shop, by archeologists fromBerlin. Only its ears were damaged. The sculpture looked not yet completed. Inlaid jewels had been set in only one eye. It was the portrait of a mature woman, with creases under the eyes and corners of the mouth.

The Museum’s brochures said the display of its Nefertiti formed “the apotheosis” of its “unprecedented exhibit” which “places special emphasis on giving visitors a good idea of what the Ancient Egyptians looked like, through a series of sculptures arranged in several rooms to various viewpoints.” These and a freeze of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as well as a painted relief from the tomb of Pharaoh Seti in Luxor’s Valley of the King were good for Berlin but, frankly, less impressive to a traveler like me who had spent the week before that in Luxor and Cairo marveling at their innumerable collections of masterpieces of Egyptian antiquities. Their abundance had not quieted the Egyptians’ demand that their patrimony be returned. The Berlin Museums argued back on the signs in its galleries that their foreign artifacts were kept based on the consent of the “local governments,” or a payment for retaining them.

I was impressed by the sheer size of such artifacts from foreign lands that Berlinheld in PergamonMuseum. The Museum was literally custom made to fit them. These artifacts, beginning with the collection of “Ancient Near East,” founded in 1899, had been brought here mostly around in the early part of the next century following German archeological expeditions in the ancient cities of Babylon, Assur, Uruk, Habuba Kabira in Mesopotamia, and  Miletus and Bergama in today’s Turkey. So much is due to the last site that the Museum is named after it. Its centerpiece is a reconstructed Pergamon Altar dating from the Hellenistic era nearly 2180 years ago. I climbed up the many steep twenty-meter wide steps [21] to better admire the 113 meter long freeze  of battling gods and giants  covering the facing wall. Next door in the Museum, Roman architecture from the early 2nd century A.D. was showcased in the reassembled “Market Gate of Miletus,” brought here from that town which is just south of Bergama.

From Miletus the Museum takes you toBabylonCityof eight centuries before. Here you are dazzled by the splendor of glazed bricks in orange, blue, and ochre that make up the huge reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate  to King Nebuchadnezzar II’s city. This is followed by similarly colorful Procession Street that leads to the king’s Throne Hall. All along on the freezes you are watched by sculptures and reliefs of lions , horses , and dragons  which were the main Babylonian gods. The Old Museum of Berlin displays artifacts collected in ancient Rome and the territories it occupied inEgypt. Roman culture is presented as being based on those of Etruscans and Greeks, but also influenced by ancient Egyptians. From the Etruscan city of Vulci, north of present day Rome in central Italy, there were the fragments of a statute of a woman and the male-head of a crouching Sphinx with a lion’s body and wings that once stood as sentinel at a grave , dating to 600-550 BC. Greek influence was evident in clay oil lamps  and pots with decorations depicting “Gods and Demigods from the Circle of Dionysus/Bacchus” with animal body parts and in “unrestrained sexual activity” .

The signs in the museum tell us that much could be learned from the necropolises. “The urban culture is most prominently comprehensible in the necropoleis (sic).  These cities of the dead mirrored the world of the living in layout, style, and pieces of furniture.”  The Romans at first followed the Etruscans and cremated their dead. Later they changed their practice to interring. By 120 AD the upper class was using stone sarcophagi for their deceased. In the east of theRoman Empire the old Egyptian burial rites were adopted as the Museum’s Roman mummies discovered in the Oasis of Fayum showed. The Museum also had examples  of portrait paintings that accompanied the mummies in that Egyptianprovince of Rome.

A further reminder ofEgyptwas a section of a floor mosaic, dating to 80 BC, found in Praeneste (close to the city ofRome). It shows couples reclining underneath a pergola in what the Museum called “Banquet during the Festival of the Nile Flooding. The template for the artist is believed to have been an illustrated travel account.

It is in the Roman sculptures that, as the Museum signs said, one can find “the most impressive” example of the “creative adoption” of various strands from foreign lands. “The models from the Classical age of Greece were adapted to the Roman taste”. Perhaps the best examples were the sculptures of the famous love and power quadrangle of the Macedonian-Egyptian Queen Cleopatra , Rome’s Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) , and his successor Octavian Augustus who defeated the rival Mark Antony , Caesar’s successor as Cleopatra’s lover, causing the couple both to commit suicide.

From the Museums I strolled toward a street they share with HumboldtUniversityas part of an urban campus. The cafe-restaurant I entered was full with a mix of tourists and students, as my friendly server Christina described them. She was herself a student. She introduced me to her friends at the table next to mine, students hosting relatives from out of town who had just visited the Museums.  In our conversation someone brought up the subject of “contextualization,” something which the artist Ceal Floyer had attempted in the Humboldt foyer. I had seen the original “contexts” of the OldMuseum’s mosaic both as to the substance (in the Luxor’s Templeof Karnak) and as to the art form (in the ruins of Pompeii). I had also seen in situ the Roman ruins of the Pergamon type, a few miles south inEphesus,Turkey. I had been inside of the tombs next to Seti’s in theValley of the Kings. Yet, I argued, there was value in seeing distant objects in the center of a city, even beyond the important issue of accessibility to many. Here was a glance at the collective heritage of mankind. That was a service a capital city had a duty to provide.

The Wall

The art that contextualizes the memory of Berlin’s division after World War II is elegant in its simplicity. It is a line of two bricks set side by side on the streets going 27 miles where the Berlin Wall dissected the city. The Wall was put up in August 1961, and brought down in November 1989, by the East German government which called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. Its purpose was in fact to prevent the defection of East Germans, some 3.5 million of whom had departed since the establishment of the East German government. In that, the Wall was successful until it was undermined by the collapse of the Soviet bloc which made migration through the neighboring Communist countries a practical alternative for the East Germans.

I followed the brick line to the most famous of the nine crossings at the Wall where movement intoEast Berlinhad been allowed. This one, Checkpoint Charlie , was restricted to passage by Allied personnel and non-Germans. I heard several tour guides who brought their hordes of eager customers here, ironically, deriding its “Disney-Land” transfiguration since the fall of the Wall. The Wall itself had immediately become a target of souvenir hunters who chipped away parts. The government removed the rest, setting up protective barbed wire around the small segment left for viewing by tourists.

The graffiti that still remain on this segment expressed the sentiments of West Berliners toward the Wall at the time of its fall. Their reaction at the time of the erection of the wall was expressed by their Mayor, Willy Brandt:  “The Wall must go, but until it goes, the city must live.”

Unified Berlinremembers the East German regime in the contrast of two narratives on display at that regime’s bureaucratic center, called “The Ministry of Ministries.” Formerly the headquarter of the Nazi Air Force, this building was so solidly built that it was the only one which survived the war and could be used immediately. In the colonnaded entry hall of the building, I saw a massive mural painted in 1952 in the style of social realism, showing an ideal scene of happy people engaged  in all types  of work  and civic activity . In the plaza fronting the building, under the ground seen through glass [62] was a different tableau created after the unification. It consisted of pictures of real people engaged in the protest demonstrations of May 1953, in response to the East German government’s recent decrees calling for more work and less money, which led to riots demanding the resignation of the government. “The demonstrations were put down by the Soviet army; afterward that there was no demonstration until 1989,” our guide said.


Meanwhile Willy Brandt’s city not only “lived” but it thrived. It became known as edgy, with an “experimental climate”. I continued my walk in that town along the footprints of the Wall. I noticed people inside a gallery at the street level. I tried to read the posters on the window. There was a reception desk at the door. There were three women tending it. One motioned me to come in. I went in.

There were red and white wines on a table, and a guitar player who was also singing. I started looking at the pictures on the walls. A young woman was looking at me. I asked if she was one of painters. She said she was in charge of organizing the event. This was a Water Department (Berliner Wasserbetriebe) building and she was in their public relations office. The Water Department had dedicated this gallery to showing paintings about water fromBerlinartists; they were to have three shows a year. Soon they had run out of “Berlinpainters of water”. They had to expand the genre. They now showed all German painters on all subjects.

This show was by three painters, two women and one man. I met one of them, Eike Emsel, and she accompanied me as we saw her paintings. She was from a small town nearLeipzig. I told her I especially liked a whimsical one that was in the Marc Chagall style. Her expression of modesty was in the form of saying “I have my own style.” She gave me two postcards of her works. One was the picture that headlined tonight’s show as a poster . It was mysteriously dark. When she wanted my comment, I asked “What mood motivated this painting?”. “Rain,” she said. Her favorite was the one on the other postcard: a plump nude jumping joyfully “as a rite of spring,” she explained.

A young man overheard us and came up to me after Eike Emsel left to talk to other viewers. He said he was an art critic fromLeipzigwhere a new style of painting had become famous worldwide. “It is called Neue Leipziger Schule (NewLeipzigSchool). Its famous painters are Neo Rauch and David Schnell. They are different, but what they have in common is a mastery of figurative art which greatly influences their works, something that was lost in the West’s recent artistic trends, but protected in the old fashioned paining departments of universities inEast Germany, isolated due to the Berlin Wall.” Then he said “It is ironic, but that now seems to have been one of the few advantages of the Wall.”  His comments which I summarized here were unusual in that I had heard nobody else saying anything good about the East German rule inBerlin. Its role in the reconstruction of much ofEast Berlin after the war was taken at best with benign neglect.

I told my interlocutor fromLeipzigthat it was a promising sign of German unification that aBerlingallery was hosting an artist fromLeipzig. He said “yes, but much more needs to be done.” The protest movement for change inEast Germanywas focused on the “freedom of movement, freedom to travel.” He remembered how thrilled he was as a young boy to see “on the night of November 9, 1989, when the Wall fell, the flimsy East German cars, Trabants, passing through Checkpoint Charlie and being received enthusiastically by West Berliners thumping on it.” He said since then “the attitude has been that the West would invest inEast Germanyand that this would creates jobs.” But, he said, “the profits are taken out to the West. You cannot develop the East if the profit goes out. This is like in other developing countries. The gap is due to the fact that the West Germans lived long in a capitalist system and were able to accumulate wealth but not the East Germans. And the gap is between the north and south as well as East andWest Germany.”

Radialsystem V

It was only coincidental that my next destination was another facility of the “Berlin Water Services;” around the turn of the 20th century it had been the city’s main pumping station. Since 2006 it has been Radialsystem V, which is billed as Berlin’s new “creative space for the arts.” It maintains that it is “a cultural centre where new ideas ‘radiate’ out in all directions.” Run by a nonprofit foundation, Radialsystem V promotes “the idea of the dialogic principle,” which it defines as “the combination of apparently opposed concepts leading to a result that exceeds the sum of its parts.”

If that sounds like dialectic, Radialsystem V is not out of place, physically. It is located in the Freidchshain District of former East Berlin, with its main street, Karl- Marx-Alee, running through it. It has been a rather poor area with a high unemployment rate, a habitat for students.  I was going there to see a performance.

It was getting dark and walking there was not easy as I had problems matching street signs with my map. I kept asking passersby for directions. The last one was Mack who was himself going to Radialsystem V. It was his first time and he was from Victoria, Canada, but he had been in Berlin for some time. He was a Tuba player and a composer and was studying in Berlin’s well-known school for modern music. “Is it still atonal?” I pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the genre by that question. “Yes, but it involves more.” Largely with Mack’s help I soon found out what he meant.

The concierge of my hotel had told me that the performance for which he had bought a ticket for me was a recital of “oboe and flute.” In fact, it was neither. What I saw did not involve any instrument including the voice, as in singing.  The first piece was a form of pantomime, the second was a reading of John Cage’s discussion of the evolution to modern music, and the third consisted of disjointed sounds made by an artist in a formal composition.

Mack was fond of this last, by Kurt Schwitters, called Ursonate and composed in 1932. Mack thought it was not intended to be funny, although two girls sitting behind us continued to laugh loudly throughout the performance.  I did not wait for a session of discussions by the audience (publikums-gesprach) that was to follow. I took a taxi to my hotel where loud conventional music was playing for a private party which was identified by a balloon attached to a chair that said “Just Married,” in English. Oddly, the attendees were all German.

 Night at the opera

Berlin’s venerable National Opera House  — built by Frederick the Great, bombed by the British in 1941, rebuilt by Hitler, bombed by the Americans in 1945, rebuilt by the Communist regime in 1955– was closed for renovation. The consolation prize was the program at Deutsche Oper Berlin, the city’s other state-funded opera house: Don Giovanni, deemed to be Mozart’s best opera. Gustave Flaubert had called this singular opera one of “three finest things in creation.” Johann von Goethe was overwhelmed and inspired by it and Richard Wagner felt humbled before it. Although Mozart himself had catalogued it only as an opera buffa, Don Giovanni was far more than a mere comedy; it had melodrama and supernatural elements. Indeed, as would become clear later, what Soren Kierkegaard had said about it was perhaps most relevant in light of the production I was about to see: Mozart’s Don Giovanni is “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.”

Deutsche Oper Berlin which was established for the burghers ofWest Berlinwhen they were deprived of the opulent Opera House in the East, looked physically unsightly. Its lobby was not grand, but we were welcomed in by six musicians playing Mozart’s. We gathered at the bar where I met two regular subscribers, Dagmar, a dentist, and Manuela, a “natural Doctor of physiotherapy.” They said the “music supremacy” of Deutsche Oper Berlin was commonly acknowledged.

Soon we were ushered upstairs, to the waiting room at a level corresponding to our seats. The waiting room was small and cramped with a crowd. Most wore jacket and tie and cocktail dresses; a few men had open collar shirts. Most were middle age; a few were younger. No usher was in sight here. No program magazine was offered. In English, there was only a page of writing on both sides called Synopsis, set on a table in one inconspicuous corner. It was signed merely by “Ronald Schwab, Christian Baier.” The assumption was that they needed no introduction. In the English materials I had read before, Schwab was listed as the Inszenierung (Director) and Baier as the Kunstlerische Produktionsleitung (Artistic Director).

The forty-year old Schwab has a reputation for favoring “vivid images and fantastical dramatic landscapes.” I sat in the second row and was intrigued by the stage as the lights went on. The only light was white. There were almost no props.  There were about twenty men and two women on stage. The men were black suits and the women all white. The men brandished golf clubs. They all sang with dramatic group movements. I liked their voices and found their dances invigorating. They were fit and attractive. The exuded an air of sensuality.

At Deutsche Oper Berlin all operas are performed in their original languages; and the Italian libretto of Don Giovanni was translated into German on a sole sur-title above the stage. Schwab wanted to create a Don Giovanni conversant with Berliners of today. That explained the staging. Elsewhere in writing Schwab explained the frolicking and his overall intent further:

“Opera forces a director to declare himself on the essential nature of the riot of life, the rite of life. Don Giovanni is no Casanova, whose seduction of women is an end in itself. Don Giovanni’s women are stepping stones on his path to transcendence. In the erotic, the physical and psychological wasting of oneself, all boundaries of exterior civilisation are done away with and the parameters of social propriety are no longer valid.“

Now on the stage two performers clothed in cellophane rode on a carousel with red lights. Near us, a topless maimed woman hobbled in a metal leg brace on the edge of the orchestra pit used as an extension of the stage. The focus lights shone on musicians on the two upper chambers above the stage corners who were amplifying Mozart’s sound coming from the orchestra. A male performer came into the isle facing me, held up the head of a man sitting in front of me and flashed his light into his face.

When the curtain came down on the first act that man and some of us sitting around him applauded enthusiastically. From behind I heard a noise that sounded like booing. The German man sitting next to me confirmed my suspicion. “Provincial people,” he said. “This would not happen in the Opera House in the East. They always have avant-garde performances there. Those who are booing here are typical bourgeois West Berliners.” A Japanese woman sitting to my left nodded. She was a physician who had come overnight from London, her home, just to see this performance. Her object of desire was Hildebrand D’Arcangelo, the Italian bass-baritone, who played Don Giovanni. “I try to go wherever he performs.” She had seen him twenty times, she said.

At the intermission I reviewed the Synopsis. It was unconventional. The program was described in two parts. The first, which we had just seen, was titled “The impotence of freedom.”  In summary, the Synopsis said, it sketched the following: “Coming out of the darkness -Don Giovanni.  Now that he’s getting on in years, the ‘seducer of all seducers’ has acquired so many faces! But who is he really?”

Unlike the first part, the Synopsis did not summarize the second part, called “The last temptation,” which we were yet to see. Its description included these cryptic lines: “Too much has been said, made up, written about him (Don Giovanni). After all the centuries of interpretation, there’s no room to move.” This sounded to be more about the Director’s dilemma. Schwab seemed to confirm this with another line from his Synopsis: “True hell is repetition.” At the end, however, he added “Heading into the darkness, towards the next interpretation- Don Giovanni.”

As we shall see, Schwab could not take us to the darkness at the end. For now I decided to use the remaining part of the intermission to learn more about his intent regarding “the next interpretation.” I asked the head usher. He went to some back office and brought out another person who introduced himself as “a director of some other operas” in the house. He said Schwab’s Don Giovanni was a story of “redemption, sexuality and religion.” This was “a new interpretation.”  It was controversial: “It faces conservative opposition by those who want conventional opera, but this is not an ‘industrial production.’”

About his interpretation Schwab had said:

“Albert Camus says: ‘Lust knows no lie.’ You have to let yourself go. But where do you go when you let yourself go? Don Giovanni is intent on finding this out. In a metaphorical sense he returns to a throbbing nightclub to find, at its centre, disillusionment, to understand, once and for all, who he really is.”

We now went back to the “nightclub” Schwab had prepared for us on the stage. The lights in this second act were multicolored- blue, salmon, peach, and red. The acting continued to be physical. The opera’s known sequence in story were followed until some twenty minutes to the end, when something totally unexpected and unplanned happened.

A dancer fell into the orchestra pit as its ledge collapsed under his vigorous movements. He was hurt and he hurt some musicians. The performance stopped as the stunned actors looked on. Medics were called in. IV’s were attached to the injured. Soon some from the audience approached the pit with their cameras. Some musicians left the pit. We were now all asked to leave the hall and wait in the lobby. There we waited ten minutes before being called back in. A person came on the empty stage and announced that the dancer and two musicians he hit “were seriously injured and had to be taken to the hospital.” The rest of the performance was canceled. We were offered no refund or other compensation.

The Japanese Doctor was disappointed. “The ending was the most interesting part of the Opera,” she said. In the ending of almost all contemporary productions of this Opera, the statue of a man (the Commendatore) who had been murdered by Don Giovanni takes him down into the ground as it sinks; and the moral lesson for Don Giovanni’s excessive follies is then delivered by a chorus, Questo è il fin: “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life”. The unintentional sinking of Schwab’s production of Don Giovanni in the pit before us was dramatic enough. Our German friend reminded the Japanese Doctor that Schwab had intentionally eliminated the concluding chorus from his production so as to leave the “next interpretation” to the audiences.


This article, entitled “Berlin: The making of a capital city”,  was published on the following website of onApril 17, 2011, with related pictures: