Poland exudes tradition. That was clearly demonstrated during our visit to Cracow this weekend. Our twenty students from midwestern colleges (two from Monmouth College) were surprised to discover that the churches really had worshippers in them, people who just slipped in during the day to pray. That is something one encounters less often in the Czech Republic and seldom in the American Midwest, at least where I grew up. As I think about it, I realize how little I know about this aspect of American culture. I don't remember ever going into a church just to look at it when I was young, worship was on Sunday morning, and prayer was something one should do at home. Such habits of thought and action are hard to break. Although I've been into most churches in Monmouth, it has been as a guest speaker, during concerts or ice-cream socials, or for weddings and funerals. I notice whenever a number of cars are parked somewhere and the doors are open, but I really have no idea how many people just drop-in.
When I told the students how deeply Polish patriotism and the Roman Catholic Church are intertwined, it was the first time they had heard of it; obviously, the glorious days of Solidarity's glorious resistance to the communists is now too far in the past for young people to remember. In part, this close connection between the Nation and the Church exists because Poland's traditional enemies were German and Swedish Lutherans, Orthodox Russians, and Moslem Turks; more recently, Poles have resisted Nazi neo-paganism and Soviet atheism (and, perhaps, western materialists, though they may have decided it is better to join this enemy than to fight him). In part, this connection may exist because over the centuries Poland was proud of its tolerance of minorities and, consequently, the Roman Catholic Church had to work hard to retain the allegiance of its core membership. Certainly, no one can hope to understand Poland without some knowledge of the Virgin of Czetochowa, where a handful of Polish troops withstood a long siege by the unbeatable Swedes in the seventeenth century. We couldn't fit that site into this trip, but we saw some very impressive churches in Cracow; and the students were a bit uncomfortable at times, because the worshippers were obviously not behaving as though they were in museums. I am less bothered, perhaps because I know that the builders of the churches were interested in attracting pilgrims (a major form of medieval tourism) who wanted to see all the windows, all the sculpture, and relied upon guides to explain everything to them; this was a form of religious education and it was not considered at all sacrilegious to ask for a donation for the completion of the construction. Today, of course, American students who are self-consciously less pious, sometimes ultra-Protestant in their attitudes (though usually not having much real knowledge about any religion) have conflicting feelings about being there at all--similar to my reluctance to just walk into American churches. For them it is easier to talk about other forms of tradition--and there were plenty of alternative forms to be seen.
Cracow was sponsoring a folklore festival. We arrived at the huge central square during a rain shower, to see a youth group in bright costumes dancing on a raised platform, They didn't even slow down; it was Polka time. If that was pure show, something for the tourists, how could we explain our experience at supper, when we saw a six-year-old girl get up from the next table, go to the temporarily empty dance area, and work on her polka steps?
On the other side of the Cloth Hall were folk musicians from the nearby Tatra region, the area from which most American Poles hail. Women in costume were processing wool and weaving it into rugs; country women were hawking their knit sweaters (often half-acrylic). At the hour, everyone halted for a moment to listen to the Hainau, the haunting bugle call from the top of St. Mary's which recalls the story from 1242 of the watchman who saw the Mongols breaking through the city wall and blew a warning to the citizens to take refuge in the churches; the call breaks off in mid-note at the point a Turkish archer in the Mongol army shot the watchman.
There was a well-organized flea market on the square, with a 10,000 zloty entrance fee (about fifty cents) so that only serious antique collectors would go in; and almost every store had some kind of folk art or handicraft--leather, crystal, jewelry, needlework.
However, it is also clear that Poland is trying to modernize. Obviously a poorer country than the Czech Republic, Poles have to explain to themselves why this is. Some accept the historical arguments--foreign rule, the distances which make transportation more expensive, the destruction of entire cities by war and forced migration, Nazi genocide and communist mismanagement--but others turn their back on every aspect of the Polish past. Some of these remain communists at heart, others have become punkers and skinheads.
During the day I saw a skinny young man with sagging shoulders, ragged clothes and a pickaninny hair-do walk by. When he saw the women in their gay colors, he said with disdain, "tradijica" (tradition), and spit in their direction. What looks good on young Black girls doesn't work for pimple-faced Polish adolescents. If he is an example of the alternative to tradition, I imagine most Poles will continue to honor their ancestors' folkways.