Cityscape: Poznań

The Great Romanesque buildings of the old Kaiser’s palace hunker heavily on St. Martin Street, just outside of Poznań Główny railroad station, their gray stone walls now blackened by auto and bus exhaust. The black accentuates their squat, stubby, square towers capped by low pyramids, the heavy, low arches framing small windows, the broad, horizontal stairway leading to what is now a cinema. Across the street, more heavy neo-Norman architecture: the Wielkopolski Bank Kredytowy. Behind, the Berliner heaviness of the Poznań Opera rises in neoclassical simplicity, either side of the entrance flanked with a large lion. (The interior is lighter, mostly gold and crystal reflected in mirrored walls and marble floors). Across a small square, the neo-Renaissance buildings of Adam Mickiewicz University, dark as everything else in the neighborhood: the Aula and Collegium Minus, with a splendid baroque meeting hall upstairs. In the middle of the square, a typically heavy East Bloc monument: two thick crosses, one bearing the date 1956 in memory of the Poznań riots of that year, the other bearing the dates 1956, 1968 (student demonstrations, mostly in Warsaw), 1970 (demonstrations at Gdańsk), 1976 (Radom), 1980 (Solidarność), and 1981 (martial law).

Poznań is a heavy city, old German heavy, roof lines red or black with tile, whose sharp peaks bubble at intervals to incorporate the low half-oval window of Berlin roofs. In some older buildings, you still see a lot of German timber ornamentation, especially along the upper stories and under the eaves. There are several brick and half-timber buildings reminiscent of Bavarian architecture; some of the side walls rise on the top story in a scrolled steps common in northern Germany. Elsewhere around Poznań, more Berliner neoclassical or Jugendstyl, stucco over brick, painted, once, a yellow or orange or dull gray, darkened now to diesel-fume black.

An old, German, heavy city with broad streets and a bustling populace and—for Poland—a thriving economy. Smudged exteriors aside, a tidy city: “You can always tell when you’re in a part of Poland that once belonged to Germany,” a Pole once told me. “The cities are cleaner, the people more industrious. Poles do not like to admit it, but that’s just a fact. Maybe there are Polish people living in these places today, but they behave as if they were Germans. Perhaps geography conditions people more than ethnicity.”

Poznań is a city largely in possession of its soul: it lacks Warsaw’s pretension, Kraków’s self-consciousness, Gdańsk’s aggressive working-class mentality. Ship engines are built here: the technology is a little higher. The Poznań English Institute is acclaimed throughout Poland as the best for English philology (it’s Łódź, of course, for literature). In the presidential elections of 1990, former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the intellectual, received a greater plurality from Poznań, his home town, than from any other part of Poland. Poznań hosts the annual International Trade Fair, biggest trade fair in Poland. The Poznań consulate is infinitely more pleasant than the American Embassy in Warsaw, or certainly was when Tom and June Carmichael were there. Situated directly on the train line between Berlin and Warsaw (with Moscow to the distant east), Poznań owes its considerable sophistication in part to the presence of Westerners. In town for a conference in the spring of 1991, who should I run into but my old friend Brother Leo Ryan, Dean of Commerce at DePaul University, come to Poznań to finalize arrangements for a seminar in Western business theory and practice. Things like that happen in Poznań.

Poznań contains two zoological gardens, one nearly in center city, the other at a quiet remove from downtown confusion.

Poznań contains a number of old churches, and on Sunday morning you open your windows to the sound of church bells.

Poznań contains two, almost three large lakes, where Poles swim, sunbathe, jog, picnic, play sports.

Poznań offers a greater variety of Western goods than any other major Polish city, including Warsaw. It was in Poznań that Michelle and I were finally able to buy an electric toaster in spring 1990.

Poznań, which goes back even to Piast Poland, has preserved its past: on the far side of the river remain fragments some Gothic chapels and a rebuilt cathedral.

Food is good in Poznań. Poland’s best bakery is the Merkury Bakery, and the Merkury restaurant is not bad either. Downtown, any number of small, absolutely acceptable eateries, including a little café operated by an Iraqi immigrant who likes to play his own ethnic music for visiting Americans during the late hours; and the ice cream parlor with the white grand piano on the far corner of market square; and the Restaurant Club Elite, in the middle of square, in the building next to the watering trough with the bronze statue of the little girl. Here, in Poznań’s prime location, $8 buys you cutlet stuffed with liver paté, boiled potatoes, cauliflower in cheese sauce, cabbage salad, and a non-alcoholic drink. Try the Lithuanian beet root soup too, while you’re at it. Fresh carpet on the floors, newly painted beamed ceiling, attentive waitresses, leaded glass windows looking out onto the square, and a fresh rose floating in a brandy snifter on each table. Beer available, always.

Poznań is Berlin of 1960 available in 1992, at German prices of 1970.

Poznań is a city of museums, none of them particularly crowded. Most popular is the Old Garrison Museum and Cemetery, the museum filled with World War II memorabilia; the museum grounds filled with tanks, air planes, trucks, and artillery; the cemetery filled with graves British (narrow), Polish (equally narrow) and Russian (spacious). Drive toward downtown Poznań, then follow the signs, some of which are in English. If the gate to the Museum grounds is locked, an attendant will give you the key to the padlock: let yourself in and browse to your heart’s content. A museum of musical instruments on the perimeter of old town square houses instruments from all over the world, made from brass and wood and shells and skins, instruments fashioned from turtles and deer skulls, from animal horns and tree trunks. Two glass harmonicas. One of Chopin’s (apparently numerous) pianos. A heap of regimental snare drums from the early 1800s. Several “dudy” (a bagpipe-like instrument made from the stomach of a cow, with a horn shaped to resemble a goat or ram).

Poznań city square

The military museum’s collection of pikes, armor, sabers, and other weaponry approaches the Tower of London display. There is the City Museum, with a display relating to the Uprising of 1956: photographs, a list of citizen-martyrs (many mere teenagers), artifacts, the shirt of one victim, blood-ringed bullet hole directly over the heart. There is a very fine branch of the national art gallery, its exterior a monument itself, all heavy with mosaics and nineteenth century ornamentation, its interior rich with works by Dutch and French painters as well as Poles, especially Malczewski. The mediaeval and Renaissance paintings are especially well restored, few, carefully chosen, high in quality.

There is an ethnographic museum with a wonderful collection of folk wood carvings. There is the old town hall, restored, with a celebrated goat clock (overly celebrated, methinks: I’ve visited Munich), commemorating the Goat that Saved Poznań by escaping one market day to the top of the tower, whence his owner followed him, from which vantage point he observed a fire which might have destroyed the city. The tower was burned during World War II from the second floor up, but the Renaissance Hall on the first floor is genuine and well worth seeing. The exterior style reflects the Italian influence common throughout Poland: despite the copper dragon-shaped downspouts, the building takes a visitor immediately to Renaissance Padua or Verona.

There is, more than any other museum, the old town square itself, everything rebuilt, of course, but quite as charming as the squares in Gdańsk or Warsaw, and not nearly as touristed.

For people who would rather buy than look, Poznań is full of antique shops with prices quite more reasonable than Poland’s big three cities, where genuine Russian icons go for $300-$500 each, and a nice second-hand book shop on the corner of the square, where $150 will buy you a vellum-bound treatise in Latin printed in the sixteenth century.

On Ślusarska Street, between the town square and the Warta River, there used to be a crazy little cabaret, not often open, a refugee from pre-War Paris: cozy, decadent, small stage for cabaret singer, seating for maybe fifteen, drinks and meals available.

Poznań city square

On the square’s perimeter is a jazz café right out of America in the late fifties: Sarp, originally the Architects’ Club. Espresso coffee or beer, taped period jazz (no rock-n-roll), Polski beats (middle twenties) in black clothing nursing inexpensive drinks through endless hours of political and intellectual analysis.

Off a side street, through one of the darkened doorways, a staircase with lovely art nouveau railings and newel posts. On one of the back streets of old town, a real violin-maker’s shop. On another, an art glass shop. Several shops sell silver and amber, and one features what I believe are the finest amber pieces in all Poland: cleaner, modern cuts instead of traditional Victorian elaborations found in places like Gdańsk and Warsaw.

A shop for making picture frames.

Any number of gateways and entrances and side streets that transport one immediately into Normandy, Berlin, Kraków, Italy. Wrought iron gates and cobblestone streets. What remains of the old royal castle, of the Jesuit complex.

Poznań, even old town, even high season, is not yet killed with tourism. Across the cobblestones of market square, a father walking with his daughter hand-in-hand, the only people in sight. An old woman with a market basket passing along a low-vaulted colonnade out of some mediaeval monastery. One of those achingly beautiful Polish women, dressed to kill in a black-and-white skirt eight inches above her knees, setting out a doormat and plastic bushes in front of her dress shop.

Down Świętosławska Street, the old Jesuit Church, Fara Poznańska. The approach to the church, through a narrow street with stucco walls painted now in a dirty rose color, smacks of northern Italy, Padua or Ferrara. The church itself is a baroque magnificence built between 1651 and 1701 on the site, of course, of an earlier Gothic structure, a church which at “150 elbows in length and 70 elbows in width” had been “one of the largest in Europe at the time.” The cruciform building is paved with white and pink marble, mainly neoclassical in appearance, with enormous fluted Corinthian half-columns set in the walls, reaching to a ceiling divided and subdivided by arches and windows into elaborate patterns of square, triangle, rectangle and octagon, each component further elaborated in high relief plaster: scrolls, foliage, reliefs, Cupids, angels. Umber, red, peach, orange, and pink predominate. A baroque high altar, flanked by two huge white statues, was designed by Pompeo Ferrari. Around the perimeter of the side aisles, a series of altars, also baroque, flush with seraphim and cherubim, angels and spiraled columns. All confessionals and pews are carved: there’s not a right angle in the building.

Despite its baroque elegance, Fara Poznańska is, like Poznan, a working church: there are no tours, and those responsible for its maintenance go about their daily business with matter-of-fact directness. Parishioners enter to kneel and pray. A custodian sweeps the imitation oriental rugs with an electric vacuum cleaner. Somewhere in a back room, a choir practices songs and chants. The organist practices on the 1875 pipe organ. A nun climbs up onto the high altar, there beside the gold and silver facing, to put fresh gladiola in the flower vases. Another nun crosses the transept, kneels, crosses herself, hurries out a side exit. A knot of German tourists mutters in surprise at having stumbled upon this treasure in the old city of Posen.

This building served as a German magazine during the War. It was vandalized but not severely damaged, so restoration was relatively easy, and finished shortly after 1945. By now a patina of heavy dust makes the building look much as it would have in the 1930s: dirt darkens the laps of cherubs and angels nearly to black, removes the shine from gold and silver. Several paintings are blackened nearly indistinguishable; they hang loosely in their huge gilded frames in the dark recesses of the nave. Cobwebs fill the crevices between altars and behind the free-standing columns. These new layers of grime smudge to invisibility the seams between restoration and original surfaces.

Fara Poznańska is an old, elaborate, quiet, and complex building, a metaphor for the city of Poznań, for the country of Poland. An exterior which is basically quite simple conceals an incredibly complex interior, not a straight line in the place, now a rich mix of old and new, distinctions rendered by time and history incoherent and indistinguishable even to those who might want to draw distinctions. Here is an odd mixture of genuine marble and plaster imitation, cleverly decorated and almost as good as the real thing. Here is a good deal of serenity and solitude, among the most luxurious of surroundings, a vaguely hidden quality. Here is a great deal of beauty, and a great deal of dirt and apparent neglect. Here is something very substantial, very compelling.

I have spent a great deal of time in this church, and in Poznań, and in Poland, and I barely begin to penetrate below the surface. It’s that kind of a church. That kind of a city. That kind of a country.