Three capitals of Poland

I do not think that this title is overdone. The inside of the Cultural Center has been transformed, continually gaining beauty and functionality.

The place of special importance for Center’s members and friends is the banquet hall, transformed to a ballroom through renovations. Utilized in many ways, it becomes a literary salon, a discussion forum, or a theater audience. Most often it is a place for meeting friends, united by consumption (Sunday dinners, dances).

It is difficult to identify the diversity of events, to which ingenious organizers invite us. The feeling of self-contentment fills the air when you spent time in a comfortable setting in an ecstatically designed and well taken care of interior. The stage holds a grand piano, a gift from Mr. Mark Bak and Mr. & Mrs. Sobieraj, and on the walls are architectural scenes of buildings in the three capitals of Poland. Two of them are historical, Gniezno and Krakow, and Warsaw, remaining in the status till this day as one of the major cities of Europe. The creators of these works are Mr. Hubert Wisniewski, architect, and Mr. Artur Berg, artist. The history of the mentioned Polish capitals follows.

Gniezno as capital

During the year of Mieszko I’s Christening (966), Gniezno enters a growth stage. The city grows in inhabitants and building. All of this happens because of religious activity. The city gains fame as a fire of bringing nonbelievers to Christianity.
In 997, an unfortunate mission of brother Adalbert to part of today’s Elblag ends in his death. The body of the martyr is brought back by the current leader, Boleslaw Chrobry, and laid in the cathedral. Two years later, Gniezno becomes an archdiocese with the martyr’s brother, Radzimin Gautanty appointed as the archbishop. In a short period of time, Adalbert was made a saint, and the numerous pilgrimages made to his grave united the religious and lay people. In 1000, during the Gniezno Gathering, the German Cesar Otto III gave alms to Saint Adalbert. The last years of Chrobry’s life were preoccupied with attaining the crown. He received the honor in Gniezno in 1025.

The city was destroyed several times by enemies. The cathedral was torn down and rebuilt several times. Double winged doors made out of bronze were added to the cathedral. The flat sculptures on the doors showed scenes from the life and death of St. Adalbert (a priceless monument).

For almost 200 years, Gniezno was the residence of Chrobry’s descendants and an important cultural center, until the great fire of 1320. Without waiting for the rebuilding of the castle, the capital was moved to Krakow.

Krakow as capital

The records of the Wawel hill date back to 1300. Thanks to the natural defensive placement (hill surrounded by Vistula river), it was a safe place for the monarchs and servants. Wladyslaw Lokietek picked Wawel as his home and was crowned in 1320 in Krakow. His reign ended the breakup of Poland into regions, remains after Boleslaw Krzywousty, who divided the country between his sons. King Lokietek united the lands and successful reign over the vast country.

The next leader, Kazimierz Odnowiciel, known as the Great, adopted in Krakow the location law from the west, which was very useful in the urbanization of the city. During this time, two new cities developed next to Wawel: Kazimierz and Kleparz. The number of craftsmen and merchants grew. The city was so rich that in 1934 a university was founded. The wealth of the monarchs was seen in a feast given by Nicholas Wierzynka for the monarchs of Europe. Each ruler in attendance received a gold patter at the end of the visit. The market place was designated (one of the largest in Europe) and it was filled with the town hall and its high tower, visible in the city’s skyline. Across from the Marjacki Church, a merchant hall was built called Sukennice.

The buildings of Krakow changed as the styles of architecture changed, from roman, through gothic, to the most prevalent renaissance. For the Marjacki Church, Wit Stwosz created the famous altar with sculptures in wood according to the late gothic style.

During the year of America’s discovery 1942, King Jagielo passed away after 45 wonderful years of reign. His son, Sigmund, called the Old, was another great leader who reigned for the next 40 years. It was 1956; no one living at the time realized that the years of the father and son’s reigns were an important time of passing from the Middle Ages to the modern ages.

A true revolution took place in culture. Many artists visited from abroad and the locals also created. From Italy came the renaissance. Buildings such as the Wawel, Sukiennice, and the university were modified. Krakow became a city of Mediterranean style, popular at the time in Europe.

The effect of Krakow’s poor placement at the ends of the huge country – Poland and Lithuania united, were beginning to be felt. For some time the parliament was called in Priotrokowo or Warsaw, which was slowly turning into a large city. Then in Krakow, a fire destroyed many building and the castle. The next monarch made his home in Warsaw. For Krakow these were difficult times. The downfall was made even stronger by the Swedish war (The Flood). The last coronation in the Wawel castle took place in 1733, when August III was made the king.

Warsaw as the capital

The decision to make Warsaw the capital was made in phases from 1596 to 1609. King Sigmund III Waza, when returning from the Moscow war in 1611, did not go to Krakow, but remained at the castle in Warsaw. The castle was recently transformed from residence of the princes to one for a monarch. Many historians believe the official movement took place during the time of Stefan Batory, when the alms giving ceremony of Hohenzollern for utilization of Prussia was moved from Krakow.

Warsaw in the 18th century grew past the new and old city limits. The number of occupants grew significantly. Its new residents: the gentry, clergy, and the magistrates build grand residences. The style of baroque Saxon was no longer mandatory, and came the local classicism named after the last king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski.  His personal painter, Canaletto brought the beauty of the city to his many painting, and he did this with so much detail that his painting were used in the future to rebuild the city. The time of Warsaw’s greatness came to an end with the fall of Poland in 1795.

Warsaw stopped being the capital of independent Poland; it followed as the capital of Prussia, Principality of Warsaw, and Principality of Poland, in reality performing an integral role in the Russian empire. It stayed under this occupation for 100 years, constantly fighting for independence. An uprising took place twice – in November of 1830 and January of 1863. The loss of these fights did not diminish the spirit of the patriotic Warsaw, the hope of independence returned during World War I.

The return of the Republic of Poland brought the first spark. Though it was short, but full of strength, enthusiasm, and fantasy. The capital experienced its best years in between the two wars. Many building for public use were built, like theaters and restaurants. People worked and played with triumph and happiness. All this was taking place without foresight of the upcoming tragedy, which is why life needs to be enjoyed, as it does not last.

During World War II in 1939, Warsaw became the central target of the German’s aggression. It was bombed for the first time from air. The brave defensive lasted four weeks. The capital had many loses. The next five years of occupation by the Nazis were a degradation of everything that mattered to the city and its residents.

The greatest tragedy took place in 1944. It happened during the rise and fall of the Warsaw Uprising. During the 63-day fights in the streets, homes, churches, on the ground and under ground 600,000 people lost their lives. Those who stayed alive were moved out. Three months was all it took to destroy the Polish capital’s 82% of buildings in the left part of the city. Warsaw simply died. But the death was short, as it did not share the faith of Babylon or Troy. In January of 1945, the city was a desert of ruins. But, the city showed its heroism once more. It rose like a Phoenix from ashes. The greatest rebuilding effort took place from 1946 to 1953, and ended when the Warsaw Castle was completed in 1980.

Today the city has more than 1,650,000 residents. It grows with new districts. It booms with life on streets and sidewalks. It is a glowing center of culture in all its forms. The pride of Warsaw is the largest in Europe scene of National Opera and Ballet. The artistic performances follow one after another; plays, local and international art showings, contests, museum expositions, and concerts – all of this brings together audiences from Poland and the world.

Parts of Poles are united with Warsaw in great emotions. Others despise it, though they do not know why. Currently, I invite you to view the wall painting in the banquet hall of the Cultural Center. It displays a fragment of a city, which rose from the fall and has served as the Polish capital for over 400 years.

dr. Elzbieta Ulanowska

Forum, 6/2004