I wake up to a cloudless, cool autumn Friday. Outside, all is perfectly still-- no wind and no movement at 7:30 am. No cars. No parents bringing their children to the two preschools across the street. At 8:00 am, a church service begins on publicly sponsored classical / jazz / world music radio station, although a quick check of the dial makes it clear that commercial stations play by their own rules. In Polish class a few days before, our teacher impresses upon us the importance of All Saints Day in this country where the population is almost totally Catholic, at least in background, if not in practice. The TV news last night covered the outgoing traffic situation in the major cities, as millions travel to be with family and visit the cemeteries.
Walking along the park surrounding Krakow’s Old Town, I go to meet a Polish friend who lives and teaches in the States, but is here for the year to do academic research. About noon, we head for the Salvator Cemetery. Thousands of people of all ages are coming and going, carrying bouquets and special candles. Joanna has a candle to place on the tombstone of the famous science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Americans may know him through the Spielberg film remake of his story Solaris, starring George Clooney. Of the thousands of tombstones in this Catholic cemetery, his is the only one with dozens of pebbles and small stones, in addition to flowers and candles. As marking a grave with stones is a Jewish custom, it seems a way for his fans to express respect for his Jewish background, although he had come from a totally assimilated family. Some stones, combining Jewish and Christian symbolism, are placed in the shape of a cross.
After stopping for tea and apple cake in a small café, she heads back home and I jump on a tram towards the other side of town and Krakow’s main Rakowicki cemetery. Here lies the full pathos of modern Polish history – from victims of Krakow’s ill-fated 1848 uprising quelled by the Austrians, to civilian victims of Hitler and Communism. Unknown soldiers’ graves from World War I and II lay in neat lines at the military section across the street. The whole city seems to be visiting, young and old, in strollers and on crutches, families and people on their own, making their way to the graves of loved ones, and exploring. I wander around for a few hours, taking photos and noting how candles and flowers, especially chrysanthemums, multiply, particularly at the gravesites of the monuments and cultural figures. Poets and writers, singers and painters are honored and remembered in the same way as family members. I seek out the grave of the poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. I return again later with friends, to see the countless candles lighting the dark night My day ends at a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at St. Catherine’s Church, one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in Poland, located around the corner from my flat in Kazimierz. I squeeze in under an alter, one of more than a thousand concert goers listening in rapt attention to music that sublimely befits Poland’s ethereal day of the dead.