Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
The Legend of Święty Krzyż: Monk Receiving a Piece of the Holy Cross from a Stag Accompanied by Angles, c. 1997
Acrylic on canvas
30 x 40 in.
"I was the first generation of Jews to attend the Polish public school. When I was about ten years old, we made a school excursion to Slupie, a small neighboring town, which sat at the foot of a mountain that was called Holy Mountain. At its summit was a monastery called Swiety Krzyz, which means Holy Cross. We went inside this beautiful old monastery, where they showed us all kinds of artifacts. I remember a lovely wall hanging that was supposedly made with gold thread by Queen Jadwiga, also known as Hedwig. She was a very pious woman. She had married the Lithuanian King Jagiello. Their marriage unified Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary into one big Commonwealth without spilling a single drop of blood. That was the Golden Age of Poland. Poland never had a succession of kings. Most of them were of foreign stock, especially Austrian and German.
The monastery takes its name, Holy Cross, from a legend. What the monk told us was that hundreds of years ago, a monk wanted to meditate, so he took a walk through the forest one summer morning at dawn. He stopped to pray and when he opened his eyes there appeared before him a stag with huge antlers and caught in the antlers was a piece of wood. The stag knelt before him and offered him the piece of wood. The angels that accompanied the stag proclaimed that this was a piece of Christ's original cross. That's why this place was called Holy Cross. This piece of wood was deposited in a reliquary. All the Christian boys were allowed to look in and see the piece of wood and touch it. But, of course, being a Jew, I was forbidden to do that. As a matter of fact, they sent us out before they did whatever they did inside. The Christian boys told me about it. We were also told there were catacombs where some ancient knights were laid out in full armor.
Right next to this monastery was a really severe penitentiary. The penitentiary was divided into two sections, one for hardened criminals and murderers and the other for political prisoners. Most of the political prisoners were young communists, as it was illegal to be a communist in Poland during the thirties. I saw the hardened criminals with chains around their waists, chains attached to their hands and feet, and carrying a heavy steel ball. This is how they worked all day, climbing up ladders, with that outfit. A prisoner would be up on the roof shingling or making repairs and I could see the ball and chain hanging from him. We did not see the political prisoners. Strange, but I never heard of a prison riot or of demands for better conditions.
We also made a school excursion to the ruins of an ancient castle, called Krzytopor. It stood all alone in the middle of a meadow way out in the country with nothing else in the vicinity. The four outside walls of the building were still standing. There were four gates for the four seasons. Inside, there were twelve doorways for the twelve months, and 365 windows for the 365 days of the year. We were told that there was a tunnel leading from the castle itself to Klimontow, so that in case of siege, the knights could escape."