Krakow and Auschwitz: beauty and horror

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Part of a costume gallery with local clothing. Courtesy Museum of Ethnography, Krakow, Poland.

Part of a costume gallery with local clothing. Courtesy Museum of Ethnography, Krakow, Poland.

On Wednesday, 5th June 2019, Willem Vogelsang wrote:

I am just back from six days in the beautiful town of Krakow, Poland. It was an academic meeting that took me there in the first place, but fortunately I had the chance to stay a few days longer to get to know Krakow a little bit better.

I was really taken with the ethnographic museum, which houses a large and beautiful collection of regional clothing from Krakow and surroundings. To be precise, the name of the Museum is the Muzeum Etnograficzne im. Seweryna Udzieli w Krakowie. It was established in the early 20th century, and its holdings are very much based on the folk art brought together by the collector, Seweryn Udziela. The Museum is currently housed in the former town hall of Kazimierski, a suburb of Krakow. Most of the collection, as said, reflects Polish culture, and in particular that of southern Poland.

What struck me most about the museum was its emphasis on the social and cultural context of the many objects that were on display. The museum is far more than a showcase of interesting objects. The items on display are used to tell about urban and regional life, especially around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among the objects on display are many textiles and garments, but also installations that are related to textile production.

Embroidery certainly also played a major role in the costume traditions of the region, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. As explained in the textboards, local people imitated urban dress and they decorated their clothing with beautiful floral and other motifs, in bright colours. Gillian and I hope to soon return to Krakow to study the embroideries for the Bloomsbury series of encyclopaedias that she is writing and editing.

On a very different note, my son joined me halfway during my visit to Krakow, and together we went to Auschwitz/Birkenau, the German extermination camp not far from Krakow. Between 1939 and 1945 more than a million people, most of them Jewish, were killed there. We of course had read about these camps, but nothing prepared us for the horrors that we could so vividly imagine while walking among the stone barracks of Auschwitz and the wooden structures, the ruins of the gas chambers and those of the crematoria, at Birkenau.

At Auschwitz we saw the piles of human hair that was intended for use as the filling for mattresses, and mounds of shoes. There must have been tens of thousands of them, including many for small children. The shoes shouted (in silence) a devastating message of what evil and hatred can do.

The next day our taxi driver, when going back from Schiphol to Leiden and when told where we had been, said to us that she was Jewish and much of her family had been wiped out during the war. So long ago, but still so very much in the present.

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