Posts Tagged ‘ Krakow ’

Krakow’s 2010 March of “Tolerance”

Police and participants

This past Saturday I participated in the sixth annual March of Tolerance in Krakow, which is a march to raise awareness for sexual minorities.  The event received very little media attention as far as I can see, but according to Radio ZET, there were around 500 participants that marched from Plac Wolnica in Kazimierz (the Jewish District) to the Market Square in the center of the old city.  Krakow police reported that this year’s march was very calm and that there were no serious incidents.

Inside the crowd of particpants

From a Polish perspective the march may have seemed calm but it was an interesting experience for me as an American.  In the past, I attended and participated in the Gay Pride Parade in Philadelphia, as well as other events organized by the GLBT community in my city.  Certainly it is not fair to compare a liberal city in the United States with a smaller city in former-communist, Catholic Poland.  However I am used to events in Philadelphia and the march in Poland seemed anything tolerant.

Praying for parade participants

First I noticed a group of priests holding a cross on the grass outside of Wawel Castle.  Policemen encircled the group, each with a German shepherd on a leash, lazily watching the priests pray for the parade participants.  People watched as the parade walked towards the center, carrying signs, rainbow flags, and holding balloons.  Some stood on balconies gawking out of their windows as the people walked past.  Just before the market, nationalists threw eggs at the parade.  Some shouted (according to the article, because I couldn’t understand all of the Polish yelling) “Boy, girl – a normal family!” and “We do not give you Krakow!”  As the parade participants released the balloons at the end of the march, I watched a man who was standing with a priest that seemed to be his friend spit at one of the demonstrators holding a sign.  However the most interesting thing for me to see was the sheer number of policemen that worked the event.  The policemen, some holding large plastic shields or with tanks of gas on their back ready to control an unruly crowd, formed a tight wall between the marchers and the public.  They intimidated me, dressed in all black like members of a SWAT team.

Looking at Poland’s homophobia in the past decade, one can understand why the police reported this year’s march was calm, despite the eggs and shouting.  A decade ago, there were no politics of sexuality in Poland, and no one openly discussed any of these issues.  The first “Equality Parade” in Poland took place in Warsaw in 2001, but received very little media coverage.  As the community became more visible, the country reacted more strongly against it.  In 2003, there was the “Let Them See Us” Campaign, which was an exhibit of thirty photographs that opened in five galleries around the country.  The photographs featured same-sex couples in their everyday lives, holding hands, etc.  The more controversial subjects such as marriage or adoption were avoided.  Nevertheless, within days most of the photographs were destroyed, ripped, or painted over.

In 2004, violence erupted at the Krakow and Poznan equality marches.  The extremely nationalist group All-Polish Youth and their supporters attacked the demonstrators by throwing rocks and punches, and even beating some with clubs.  They chanted sayings like “labor camps for lesbians” or “faggots to the gas.”  The police were unable to control the violence.  In 2005, the “gay parade” and its legality was a huge topic during the presidential elections.  Recently deceased Lech Kaczynski (elected president in October 2005) banned the 2004 and 2005 marches when he was mayor of the city of Warsaw.  This decision strengthened his political career.  The 2005 Equality March in Warsaw was held despite the ban, which ended up adding to the event’s popularity.  Around 3,000 people participated, which was the largest march in the history of the movement. Later that year, the march in Poznan was also banned by the city’s major, but it was less peaceful.  Again the All-Polish Youth group organized the attack, and they threw eggs, horse manure and slurs.  As the crowd got out of control, the police ended up attacking the demonstrators rather than the attackers.  A participant reported seeing a boy dragged by police with his head hitting the pavement, another person was dragged away from TV cameras when he was talking about police brutality, and many people were arrested without explanation.  This time the media did cover the event, mostly criticizing the police brutality.

In January 2006, the EU Parliament passed a resolution against homophobia in Europe, which explicitly named Poland as a country where homophobia exists.  Poland perceived this as an attack against the country’s religious and moral beliefs.  Right-wing Polish members of the EU Parliament unanimously opposed this resolution, but it was passed anyway.  In June 2006, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution in response to homophobic and racist violence in Europe, and again specifically named Poland mentioning groups like the All-Polish Youth. A survey from 2005 found 89% of the population stating that they considered homosexuality an “unnatural” activity.  A Eurobarometer poll in 2006 found that 74% of Poles were opposed to same-sex marriage and 89% opposed to adoption by gay couples.  Only Latvia and Greece had higher levels of opposition.

Some of the police leading the parade

So in comparison to past events in Poland, this year’s Tolerance March in Krakow was relatively peaceful.  Participating in the demonstration provided me with a valuable insight into the culture and mentality of the country.  It is only an excuse to say that Poland is homophobic because it is Catholic.  Now that it is a member of the European Union, it needs to catch up to the level of tolerance of the majority of the Member States. I was shocked by what I saw on Saturday.  Some of my friends with me felt that the strength of police presence shows that the country is willing to protect these minority groups but I am not totally convinced this is the case.  I could not help but feeling that the number of police was overkill, and that they were also meant to intimidate the participators themselves.  Maybe next year the city of Krakow will send less police, judging from this year’s calm result.  Eventually, I hope that Poland not only becomes tolerant for its Tolerance Marches.  I hope that Poland learns to be accepting and embracing of all minority groups in the country.

A wall of policemen walking with the parade

Source  for Historic Information: Graff, Agnieszka. We Are (Not All) Homophobes: A Report from Poland. Feminist Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 434-449

Catholic Poland in Question

Portraits of Karol Wojtyla pop up everywhere in Poland, usually when I am least expecting to see him. When I shop for produce in the large open-air market, I see his face peering at me from small plaques on tables otherwise filled with kitchen and cleaning supplies. Bookshops prominently display books about the former pope in store windows to lure in customers. Of course likenesses of Pope John Paul II are included in most of the religious sites I visited in the past few months. Still, my favorite sighting was at the Niedzice Castle in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The photograph seemed out of place on the stone castle walls built in the 14th century, especially after a tour that included many anecdotes about the aristocratic owners’ odd sexual behavior, and I truly doubt the place has any connection to the former pope. In Poland this does not seem to matter.

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Courtyard of 14th Century Niedzica Castle


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PJP in the Castle

Obviously Poles are extremely proud of Pope John Paul II, and rightly so. In a country reported to be over 90% Catholic this comes as no surprise. Many businesses are closed on Sundays, and I see families walking to church wearing their Sunday finest. However, I wonder how many Poles who self-identify as Catholics are actual believers. In a country where the Church has such a large influence on politics and lifestyle, I would guess that many Poles claim to be Catholic just to be part of a community. This past October, Krakow held a “Freethinkers March” where atheists and agnostics gathered in what the Krakow Post claims to be the first march of its kind not only in Poland, but in Europe as a whole. The group walked through the center of the city with surprisingly little counter-protest. The organizer of the protest Ewelina Podsiad explained to the reporter that there are no reliable statistics on how many nontheists actually live in Poland. “Ms. Podsiad explained that in Poland, ‘many people are afraid to admit that they are nonbelievers,’ and cited scores of letters she has received from those who ‘came out’ to their families or co-workers and were ostracized afterwards.” Funny the phrase “came out,” usually heard in the context of homosexuals identifying their sexual orientation to their family and friends, is used here to describe religion.

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Marchers in Krakow with a sign reading "Thank God I'm an Atheist"

The article continues to explain that although religion classes are not mandatory in Polish schools, families that opt out of these classes often face ridicule, especially in the villages. In hospitals, if a patient declines a visit from clergy, they could face discrimination by the hospital staff or other patients. Reading the article about the first “Freethinkers” demonstration in Poland, I wonder what the Catholic Church really means for Poles today. Surely there is more religious diversity than what appears in statistics. Also, I doubt surveys ask little more from participants than to check a box describing their religion and a box to explain their average church attendance. I would like to see a survey that asks people to define their beliefs further…are you a religious Catholic or a cultural Catholic? Do you go to church to pray or so that your fellow parish members note your attendance? Of course this issue is not unique, but interesting in a country claiming to be 90% Catholic, and in an EU member state with as much voting right as Poland. Maybe the freethinkers march will become an annual event with an even bigger participation next year.

Quotes from Krakowpost.com.

Lenin’s Leftovers

Nowa Huta (meaning literally the “New Steelmill”) is the easternmost district of Krakow with over 200,000 inhabitants today.  Immediately following the communist take-over of Poland in 1945, the Party authorities encountered strong resistance from middle-class Krakowians.  In order to maintain authority, the communist government commenced building a satellite industrial town to attract people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to the region and thus creating an “ideal” town for Party propaganda.  The town was a feat of socialist realism architecture and careful urban planning.  Many important people including Fidel Castro visited Nowa Huta to see this new model.

In 1954, the Lenin Steelworks opened, and in less than 20 years the factory became the largest steel mill in Poland.  Factory workers were given a place to live and even a garage for their cars, although no one owned one and 5,000 garages remained empty.  Following the opening of the factory, Lenin made a high-profile visit to Nowa Huta and a year later a statue of him was unveiled in Strzelecki Park. The monument was moved to the Lenin Museum soon after, and thereafter mysteriously disappeared. In 1970 the decision was made to construct a new one in a highly visible central square.

Only four artists were considered, and Marian Konieczny won the commission.  Coincidentally, the artist was living in Lenin’s former flat from the time he spent in Krakow in 1912.  His depiction of Lenin was slightly bent as if walking forward, and the artist explains that the statue of Lenin, “like his ideas, are in perpetual march forward.”  Ironically enough, all factory workers were required to help pay for the construction of the massive statue from their own salaries even though no one wanted it constructed.

Forced to contribute to a highly visible symbol of a regime they despised, the residents of Nowa Huta constantly plotted on how to get rid of the statue.  In 1979 a bomb was planted at the base, with two packs of explosives each weighing 6 kilograms attached to the legs.  The prankster thought if the explosion broke the legs, the whole statue would topple.  The blast was so powerful that neighboring houses were damaged with broken windows, etc.  The only casualty was a local man who died of shock waking up by the explosion.  Despite the strength of the blast, the statue remained standing.

Later attempts to destroy the statue were also in vain, including efforts to pull down the statue as well as an arson attack.  Finally on December 10, 1989, Lenin was picked up by a giant crane, boxed up and left abandoned in storage.  Authorities held an auction for the statue, but there were no bidders.  Years later a Swedish businessman and philanthropist bought him for 100,000 Swedish crowns, and had him shipped to a museum outside of Stockholm.

After the fall of communism, these massive monuments of the old regime proved problematic in many places in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.  Highly visible, they stand representing a period of history that locals wish to forget.  Today in Nowa Huta, the former street named after Stalin has been renamed for Ronald Reagan.  These small but highly symbolic changes matter most to the residents as they forge ahead into the future.  The square near the center of Nowa Huta that formerly held the massive memorial to Lenin remains empty, but I suspect that many locals who lived in the town during a different era still vividly picture it in place.

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Arial view of Nowa Huta depicting the carefully planned city.

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Former sign in front of the steel mill, named for Lenin.

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Protecting Lenin:  Nowa Huta, Poland

Ordinary Days in Auschwitz

I fear this will not be my only post on Auschwitz.  Living in Krakow for five or six weeks now, I know that I am getting closer to my inevitable visit to the nearby extermination camp.  It is hard to walk through the center of the city without noticing many advertisements for tours of Auschwitz, although I doubt the Poles are particularly happy that so many visitors use the beautiful city of Krakow as a stepping stone to something they didn’t want in the first place.

People are used to hearing stories of heroism and victimization surrounding Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  Everyone knows about Anne Frank- after two years, her hiding spot was discovered and she was sent to Belsen where she died of typhus.  Most people have also seen Schindler’s List, which chronicles the story of Oskar Schindler who rescued around 1,200 jews by employing them in his enamel factory.  In fact, many tourists look for locations from the movie around Kazimierz (former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow pre-WWII) and Krakow.  There was also Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz.  He was canonized as patron saint of “Our Difficult Century” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for his extraordinary heroic and selfless deed.  Also unique is the story of Witold Pilecki, the only known person to volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  Once a prisoner, he sent invaluable information to the West and organized resistance.auschgate

This list is in no way complete; there are countless heroes of the holocaust and Auschwitz.  In retrospect, people like to hear these stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary deeds in the midst of the biggest disaster of the twentieth century.  It provides some hope that “good” really does conquer “evil.”   However, as I read the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski, I see a completely new perspective.  After publishing in underground circles, Borowski walked into a trap and spent 1943-1945 in Auschwitz until the Red Army’s “liberation.”  His experiences are reflected in this book, which is in first person narrated by a fictional character named Tadek.  Sometimes he has the “privileged” job of helping to unload the new arrivals to the camp from their crowded trains, directing them onto trucks to extermination.  Afterwards, he and the other workers take their food from the abandoned suitcases on the tracks for means of survival.  Tadek also works with groups doing heavy labor around the camps, and discusses the hierarchy of prisoners.  He talks about daily life with an incredible amount of distance.  Every person discussed has the dual role of the executioner and a victim, as they try to make it through the day.  No one is innocent.  And when the work is done for the day, Tadek describes the camp as a “haven of peace.”  People are dying but one has enough food and the ability to work…

Of course, the impact of this book cannot be summed up into a few paragraphs and I digress.  However the stories are unique in many ways.  Often, we hear the Auschwitz perspective of the Jewish people and usually heroic tales of solidarity.  Instead, Borowski unabashedly recounts ordinary days in Auschwitz.  Although a collection of his personal experiences, the perspective of a narrator allows the stories to be those of many, instead of just Borowski’s.  These stories could be those of the ordinary days of many people, and Borowski identifies himself with millions in the writing of this book.

Polish Food- Not Recommended for Those on a Diet

Polish food, typical of the East and Central European cultures I have encountered so far, is heavy but delicious.  The most typical ingredients used in Polish cuisine are sauerkraut, beetroot, cucumbers, sour cream, kohlrabi, mushrooms, sausages and smoked sausage.  Meals in a restaurant come in courses starting with homemade soup and contain large portions.  Although I did notice two vegetarian restaurants in Krakow, salads in Poland are not the same as the lettuce-based American salads.  Basically, avoid Poland if you are on a diet but you will definitely miss out.

Here are pictures of a few mainstream Polish dishes… just to make sure my Babcia in America cooked authentically.

golabki

First, Gołąbki.  These cabbage “parcels” are originally from Lithuania but are popular  in Poland.  The cabbage is stuffed with they are usually stuffed with meat and rice and either topped with a mushroom cream sauce or a tomato sauce.  Many East/Central European countries have their own version.  In Serbia, these are called sarma.  In Polish, golabki literally means “little pigeons.”

shaslik

Next we have the shaslik… which is pretty basic and common on the menus here.  It’s really just a shish kebab and often contain either pork or chicken.  Here it came with frytki and a salad.  The salad is primarily cabbage.

pierogi

Lastly, the pierogi.  This is probably the most well-known Polish dish.  Every Wigielia (Christmas Eve) my family eats pierogi that my Babcia makes from scratch, expertly preparing the dough with years of experience. Pierogi were traditionally peasant food but eventually grew in popularity for all social classes. They are very traditional small white dumplings, larger than ravioli, filled with sauerkraut, mushrooms, meat, cheese and potatoes or even with fruit. My favorite kind are ruski (pictured) which are filled with potato and cheese and served with fried onions.

Delicious.

Tacky Tours and Exasperated English

rynekPoles seem to be accustomed to the hordes of tourists visiting Krakow, and I feel nostalgic for my days of being the only tourist in town.  When I lived in Novi Sad, I drew attention as a foreigner and was constantly asked by taxi drivers or street venders where I come from-  “What is an American doing in Serbia?” they would ask me, and I would respond enthusiastically “Učim srpski jezik!”  My answer was followed by stares of disbelief and sometime bursts of laughter.  No Serb could believe that a young American woman moved to the country to study their culture.

Serbia is an isolated place.  Not many people think to visit even though it is a lovely country, and unfortunately Serbs are very limited in their ability to travel.  Sure, some foreigners live in Beograd working in the capital city for embassies or NGOs, but very few seem to venture north to Vojvodina.  Aside from the infamous EXIT festival in Novi Sad each July, the city is homogenous.  Even though I arrived months before EXIT, people asked if I were there for the concert because they couldn’t imagine any other reason.

Krakow is different.  No longer does my English spark a look of interest, but rather a look of annoyance.  I hear many languages spoken in the center by photo-snapping tourists.  Golf carts advertising Schindler’s List or Kazimierz tours circle around the square, ready to carry lazy visitors to nearby sections of the city.  Cities do prosper economically because of tourism, but I definitely long for the days when I had a more authentic experience.

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