Posts Tagged ‘ Poland ’

Czesław Miłosz on Sarajevo

Living in Poland, it certainly  is hard to ignore Czesław Miłosz, the great Polish poet and prose writer of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in 1980.  I took a class on Central European literature last semester with the leading scholar on Miłosz and attempted to analyze his methods of representation of the visual arts in poetry in an essay for the class.  Even though I spent a great deal of time looking through his volumes of poetry for the essay, I just noticed his poem on Sarajevo today.  The poem introduces the book The Black Book of Bosnia: The Consequences of Appeasement and it  was included in his volume New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001, which was published in 2001 only a few years before his death.  When this poem was printed on the front page of a Polish newspaper, it was criticized for being anachronistic.  Still, I think Miłosz passionately and beautifully expresses the international abandonment of Bosnia in his poem.  Miłosz understands from firsthand experience about countries that cease to exist.  In his poem about the siege of Sarajevo he warns that inactivity – here in the case of Western Europe – will be punished by fate.

Czeslaw Milosz

Sarajevo

-Perhaps this is not a poem but at least I say what I feel.

Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.

Arbeit Macht Frei

Who the hell would steal the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from Auschwitz?  Meaning ‘Work sets you free’ and constructed by prisoners from the camp, the entrance sign is symbolic of the Holocaust.  The camp, in which 1-1.5 milion people died,  has been a museum since 1945.  The sign is 5 meters long and weighs 40 kilograms.  I wonder how such a large sign was taken unnoticed, but apparently the one security camera used was blinded by the snow.  Borders were closed in case the sign is on its way out of the country, 50 criminal investigators are patrolling the camp grounds with dogs, and a temporary replica was installed in the sign’s place.

Who would do such a thing?  The museum has 1 million visitors every year, and the memorial stands as an important educational tool.  World leaders are outraged, and I have to agree that this act could only be antisemitic.  Will the sign go up for sale?  Will this symbol of the Holocaust be destroyed in an act of hatred? I have nothing new to say about this hurtful act of vandalism, but I feel truly sick over this piece of news, and I hope the criminals are caught and imprisoned.  This sign is more than just pieces of guilded iron- it is possibly the most recognized symbol of the millions of  people that died in the Holocaust.

What is Wigilia?

Pierogis made by my Babcia last Christmas Eve

I was going to wait to write about Polish Christmas traditions until the holidays are closer, but last night my university had its annual Christmas Party/Wigilia Dinner, and now I am very excited. My family has a Wigilia dinner every Christmas Eve in Philadelphia and it is my favorite day of the year. The university scheduled the party early because soon all of the students will leave for the holiday break, but typically this dinner is on December 24th.

The word “Wigilia” comes from the Latin verb vigilare, “to watch”, and literally means ‘eve’. Once the sun goes down, the whole family gathers for a huge Christmas Eve supper. Traditionally, you are supposed to leave one seat empty at the table for the “uninvited guest” in the spirit of hospitality, but my family has enough trouble fitting the “invited guests” at the table so we leave this part out. The evening begins with the sharing of oplatki, or Christmas communion wafers, so before sitting down to eat everyone takes a square. Mingling around the room, you break a piece off of someone else’s wafer wishing them a Happy New Year and vice versa. Although I am not a religious person and did not like eating the communion as a kid, now I think its nice to take the time to personally thank and wish everyone the best.

When that is over, everyone sits down at the table. Traditionally this is a meatless dinner with only fish served. First, my family starts with white borscht (sour soup) or mushroom soup. Next, there is fried fish, which is usually carp in Poland, but in Philadelphia we usually have two kinds of tilapia. My family laughs as a course of only peas go around, and then a course of just carrots as we wait for better courses to come. Śledź, or pickled herring, is served but only my late grandfather really enjoyed it. Finally the best course arrives- the pierogi (polish dumplings). My grandmother makes two kinds for every Christmas- ruskie (filled with potato and cheese) and kapusta (filled with cabbage). There is coffee, polish cookies for dessert, cake, etc. With the several courses, the meal takes a very long time and it’s nice to have the chance to sit and talk with family. However as a child, this is a long time to wait for presents, which come after the meal.

Perhaps my family’s Wigilia dinner with its few substitutions is not strictly traditional. In Poland we would eat more than one kind of soup, and probably a lot more cabbage. Also, my family usually has a baked ham hiding in the kitchen for those that do not like seafood. I think Wigilia dinner is probably a little bit different in every home, with the traditions partly Polish, and in part specific to the individual family. Since I’ve now lived in Poland for three and a half months and eaten my fair share of pierogis, it will be funny to go to Philadelphia for more. Still, living in Poland has made me cherish this tradition in my family even more, and I cannot wait until the dinner this year.

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.

Lego (1996) by artist Zbigniew Libera

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Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.

Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.

When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.

When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”

In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.

Sources:

  • The artist statement
  • Stephen C. Feinstein

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.

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