Krakow’s Christmas Tradition: the Szopka

One of Krakow’s favorite holiday traditions dating back to the Middle Ages is the creation of szopki or Christmas cribs. These unique lightweight structures resemble the historic castles, houses, or churches around Krakow in miniature. Other scenes inside a szopka depict historical and contemporary events and contain figurines illustrating elements of Polish culture, such as politicians, artists, the Pope or the Dragon of Wawel. The main materials to build the structure are wood or plywood. Smaller parts are made of cardboard and then are decorated with colorful tinfoil.

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The 2018 winners of Krakow’s Szopka or Christmas Crib Competition were announced on December 9, 2018, after the noontime trumpet call from the towers of St. Mary’s:

Kryspin Wolny is the winner in the category of large cribs

Renata and Edward Markowscy in the category of a medium nativity

Wiesław Barczewski in the category of small cribs

Jan Kirsz is the creator of the most beautiful miniature crib.

(I will include photos of the winners when they are available.)

Every year on the first Thursday in December, the szopka creators place their splendid entrees on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz located in Krakow’s medieval town square. There, with the 800-year-old Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s in the background, thousands of visitors to the Christmas Market view the newest szopki. Following tradition, the artworks are again presented in a parade before announcing the winner. The szopki are then displayed in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

Started in the 14th century, the szopka represented the birth of the Baby Jesus, with the calls of the angels, the homage of the shepherds, and the three gifts brought by the Magi. A gallery of other characters representing various regions or countries, occupations, and ethnic groups were often included to honor the holy infant.

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Szopki for sale in 1934 in Krakow

The modern tradition began in 1937 but came to a stop during the German occupation. The event resumed in 1945 on the steps of the destroyed Adam Mickiewicz statue.

The origins of the szopka were likely from mystery plays performed at Christmas in the early 1200s when the Church organized processions. Other historians related the earliest szopki to the portable medieval altars and the evolution of its theatrical function when they appeared in the form of a mobile puppet show in the late 1600s.

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In the past, the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow craftsmen (bricklayers and construction workers) during their idle weeks of the rain late autumn. In recent year, it is a passion of many Poles from all walks of life. Several families construct new creches every year.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

This year’s competition is even more special. UNESCO placed the Krakow tradition of building szopka nativity scenes on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO recognized the szopka’s important educational functions, as it passes on knowledge about the history of the city, its architecture, and customs.

Some szopki are quite unique and don’t follow the traditional format. This one resembles the bread sold on Krakow’s streets.

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Szopki can be purchased at the museum shop and in local stories throughout Krakow. We purchased this small szopka in a Warsaw gift shop selling items made in Poland. It sits in a place of honor on a table passed down from my Polish grandparents.

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Krakow Szopki from past years:

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My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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Milk Bars: A Taste of History in Poland

In Poland, tourists won’t find milk bars in a “Top Ten Places to Go” list.  Malbork Castle, the Salt Mines, Zakopane, and the Old Town in Krakow are all there, but milk bars (“bar mleczny” in Polish) should be near the top if you are seeking a unique experience not found anywhere else. Some refer to milk bars as “ Poland’s version of cheap fast food,” but it is more accurate to view them as “good traditional food served fast.”

Milk bars are very inexpensive restaurants found mostly in Poland’s larger cities and offer traditional polish cooking, just like your grandmother used to serve. The only difference is that the women servers in their flowered aprons won’t remind you of your sweet, solicitous grandma. These women are cooks, not chefs, are efficient and hard-working, but have a reputation for being impatient with those who don’t know how these cafeteria-like eateries work.  Seinfeld’s hilarious episodes about the man referred to as “the Soup Nazi” in New York might be the closest comparison.*

 History of Milk Bars

Milk bars have nothing in common with lounges and bars as you won’t find alcohol. The milk part of the name harkens back to their origins in urban dairies in the late 1800’s when the abundant supply of milk made it possible to help feed those on a very limited income. Early milk bar meals consisted of milk, egg, and flour-based foods and no meat

 After WWII, when Poland was satellite country within the Soviet Union, milk bars became state-subsidized. Workers were quite poor but could find an inexpensive, hot meal at these eateries. There were more than 40,000 in their heyday, but the numbers shrank to about 140 by 2016.

Milk bars began closing after Poland gained total independence in the 1990’s and embraced capitalism. During these transition years, milk bars represented a holdover from the decades of communism and patronage fell into decline.  Today, the younger Polish people aren’t burdened with memories of socialism, making milk bars popular with university students. The average Pole and lucky tourist will not find a better deal for dining. 

 Finding a Milk Bar

My favorite way to find the best milk bars and other inside information is to ask Trip Advisor Forum experts. These very knowledgeable and generous people will provide information for planning your trip or at the last minute “on the ground” (where is a recommended milk bar in Krakow, Rzeszow, Warsaw, Gdansk, etc.? Where can I find a store in Krakow that sells Polish pottery? etc.).

You will find milk bars in the large cities in Poland but not in the smaller towns. If you haven’t received recommendations, Google map your city and then search with the term “bar mleczny” (milk bar). Cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have quite a few so check out the reviews.

You will discover there are two types of milk bars: government subsidized and not subsidized. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but the ones who rely on government subsidies have their prices with odd numbers in the ones or cents place. These eateries, likely the less expensive of the two choices, change their prices based on the current costs. The menu and prices on a chalkboard, whiteboard or similar board is a clue.

The non-subsidized tend to keep their prices more stable, are slightly more expensive, and their prices are often listed in rounded up numbers: 9.50, 3.20, etc.

A new trend is what some refer to as “hipster milk bars.” Entrepreneurs often purchase milk bars that are going out of business and remodel them to make them more appealing. They often receive very good reviews with mention of friendly servers, nice atmosphere, table service, and the most important attribute: English speaking workers. The food tends to be a bit pricier, and you will find a menu with an international flare: Irish breakfast, crepes, lattes, paninis, etc. These restaurants are highly regarded by many locals and maybe a great place to start your milk bar adventure.

Atmosphere

 Depending on the milk bar’s popularity and the time of day, you can expect a relatively long line at lunchtime. The large menu on the wall will list the items in Polish and the price per serving. The interior will be low frills, usually metal-framed tables and chairs for 2 or 4 people, and minimal décor.

Milk Bars in Warsaw and in Krakow

 The typical patrons are university students and professors, local workers, and pensioners. They order, eat, and leave since the ambiance doesn’t lend itself to leisurely dining. The expectation is to eat and move on.

 Menu

Each milk bar is unique, but all the menu items are familiar to Poles and may not be in English.  Milk bars that cater to tourists have the foods listed in Polish and English. There is nothing wrong with that if it encourages visitors to order. Some milk bars offer an English translation on paper without prices.

      

 One of the best features of milk bars is that they serve fresh foods without artificial preservatives. Some favorite and traditional foods at a milk bar are:

 Pierogi filled with meat, sauerkraut, mushrooms or potatoes and cheese.

Soups: Zurek (my favorite), barszcz, chicken noodle, mushroom, or tomato

 Meat Dishes: breaded pork cutlet, fried chicken legs and thighs, beef roulades, golabki (stuffed cabbage), and Bigos.

 Sides: potatoes, sauerkraut, small salads such as coleslaw, cucumber salad, or mixed vegetables, potato pancakes, and bread

 Beverages: coffee, tea, Kefit, or kompot (homemade fruit juices made with fruit, sugar, and raisins)

 Desserts: Apple cakes, cheesecake, paczki, etc.

 How to order:

Since milk bars are mostly cafeteria style, patrons will see the menu displayed above the serving or ordering area. Stand back and study it before you approach one of the servers. 

The goal in ordering is to be quick and efficient. If you are a person with very limited Polish skills, study the menu and do a bit of translation. You might want to write down the food you desire before approaching the line and can ask other patrons for help. The younger people in Poland tend to have very good English skills. Many Poles in larger cities do speak some English, but the middle-aged and older populations were forced to learn Russian in school and often are not able to help.

Even if it is not reciprocated, smile while you order and start with “please” which is prosze (pronounced “proh-sheh”). Then say how many you want. You can also show the server with fingers, but it is preferable to learn the Polish number words:

  • one (jeden, pronounced “yeh-den”)
  • two (dwa, pronounced “dvah”)
  • three (trzy, pronounced “chrih”)

Many milk bars now offer carryout for a small fee. The cashier may ask you “na miejscu? (pronounced nah myay stsu) which means “For Here?” If you are finished ordering, say either “Tak” for yes or “Nie” (neeyeh) for no and continue to order.

Some milk bars are just a cafeteria line with most of the food in steam trays, but most have windows for picking up the order. You will receive a receipt to hand to the worker at the window. Soups and drinks are served immediately, but there is some wait for the popular dishes like pierogi. You can take the ready items to a table and begin to eat while waiting for the rest of your food. Listen for your order to be announced and be sure to bring your receipt. Confirm that the order is yours.

 The patrons are expected to dispose of their trash and return the dishes in the appropriate area.

Now that you have the basic strategies, you are equipped to partake in a bit of history not on most tourist’s radar. Enjoy your dining as a cultural adventurer! 

 

* If you want to see the Seinfeld episode, search youtube.com for Seinfeld and Soup.

 

The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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Gromnica: The Thunder Candle

One of the most unique gifts I have ever received came from a cousin who lives in a small village in Poland. He handed me a precious gift at our first meeting with these words of caution, “Now this candle is special. It should only be lit during lightning storms or if someone in your house is on their death bed.”

This lovely candle is a gromnica (plural gromnice) and is also known as a Thunder Candle. The Polish word “grom” means a clap of thunder. Almost every Catholic home in Poland will have at least one of these long and relatively thick candles that are decorated with religious symbols and images.  In modern times, the gromnice is stored away carefully for important ceremonies such as a christening, First Communion, Confirmation or Anointing.

The most important function of gromnice has not been ceremonial but protective. As its name implies, the gromnica was believed to protect against thunderstorms and was lit and placed in windows to keep lightning away. My ancestors’ village was in the middle of a huge forest, and I can imagine the villagers knew how the destructive havoc of a bolt of lightning. Likely they saw many homes that were destroyed that way. As a child, I can recall how terrified my Polish aunt was of lightning storms. Even though she didn’t live in a forest, her intense fear of lightning was obviously passed down through the generations. Polish prayer books often contain a prayer to say during storms.

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Travel Back to Your Roots- now on Amazon!

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Travel Back to Your Roots has just been released on Amazon.com. My goal in writing this book was to inspire others who wish to research their European immigrant ancestors and hopefully discover cousins back in the old country.

Travel Back to Your Roots is for beginning genealogists and those who may not know how to make the jump over the pond to research parish and village or town records in Europe. The reader will learn how to first find the necessary US census, church, and immigration records before tackling those in European churches and archives.

One chapter on immigration will give the reader insight into the reasons for immigration and details the Ellis Island experience to better understand our ancestors’ bravery and the struggles they encountered.

I’m optimistic you will have success in your research and therefore have chapters to explain how to find living descendants in Europe and then how to contact them. The reader will also learn how to plan a budget-friendly ancestral heritage trip.

Finally, another chapter explains how to self-publish beautiful and professional family history books and genealogies at no cost using Create Space. Check out my Amazon site to see examples of these types of books.

Starting genealogy just six years ago, I been able to go back to the 1700’s in the European records with seven out of eight of our immigrant ancestors (Polish, Swedish, and German.) I also found eight groups of cousins in Poland and Sweden and was enthusiastically welcomed to visit them in 2014 , 2016 and 2018. They all exemplified the saying “A Guest in the House is God in the House.”

Please ask questions!