Polish Joys 3 — Warsaw

Apologies in advance for any formatting problems; I’m posting from a basement cage in Krakow. Here are a few loose, unedited observations from my visit to Warsaw:

I arrived on the 22nd in Warsaw and wandered up Nowy Swiat until I found a square dedicated to a famous bishop who died in 1981. There was an open-air history exhibition featuring photos and stories from the local newspaper in the 1960s. It was called something like "our little piece of stability." There were pictures of various incidents of Warsaw life: fashion shows on the wall of the old city, streetcar reppairs, street-beautification campaigns during which all citizene were encouraged to participate, lines outside food stores, beaches on the side of the Vistula, and many other things besides. One letter reprinted from the newspaper was from a man whose "diabolically jealous" wife refused to believe that his delay in returning home had been caused by tram repairs; he called upon other citizens who’d used the same tram to write into the newspaper and confirm the story. At around 9 pm, a film began on an outdoor screen. It was a collection of black and white documentary newsreels from the 50s and 60s. It wasn’t propaganda, it just showed ordinary people at work — steelworkers bent over forges, newspapermen delivering newspapers, one oddly well-dressed woman activating a railway switch almost in passing, old women collecting milk, and people lining up outside of food shops. I couldn’t understand the narration, which was a pity, since the young, hip audience laughed frequently, and I couldn’t tell whether the humor was intentional in the film or a by-product of its socialist quaintness. One particularly odd feature was that the film was interrupted by episodes that looked like spy documentaries, with stop-action surveillance photos and descriptions of "figurant" (subject) x or y. I got the idea this was ironic, perhaps they were trying to valorize the ordinary worker by implying that delivering newspapers was all part of the grand work of building a socialist utopia.

The next day I dropped by the national museum. It’s got odd opening hours and even odder security policies (you must pass through a security checkpoint near the main entrance, even though at least half of the collection is in side galleries that you can visit long before you come near the main entrance. The museum boasts a decent collection of ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts, including many wall-paintings from an 8th century Coptic Cathedral which was sunk in the mid 1960s when Nasser built the Aswan high dam.

There are also many Polish painters from the 18th and 19th centuries, including Jacek Malczewksi, a Symbolist active at the turn of the 20th century who seems to have developed a complex private autobiographical private mythology that’s well worth exploring.

The high point, for me, was the collection of Gothic altarpieces from Poland and neighboring regions. Marvelously vivid and contorted sculptures of Christ being whipped and scourged and crucified. They’re graphic and expressive enough to send a chill down the spine of even the most secular visitor. Especially since, in many sculptures, Christ, as well as Joseph and the thieves both repentant and un, are wearing wigs of real human hair!

The next day I popped over to the 10th Anniversary Stadium, a neglected stadium on the working-class east side of the Vistula which has been converted into a daily open-air market. The stalls are run by a motley assortment of Africans, gypsies, Poles and other Eastern Europeans, and Vietnamese. Most shops feature simple goods for poor people — cheap clothes and cookware, tools, fishing poles, imitation sneakers, CDs and DVDs, batteries, electronic goods, portable phone parts, and the like. There was one booth run by a Russian which had heaps of both Soviet and Nazi paraphernalia, including foot-high busts of the Führer. One woman ran a DVD shop which apparently specialized in used pornography. As I dallied over Hustler’s 1996 offerings, she glanced at me through a cloud of blue cigarette smoke with an expression that said "I’ve seen it all."

The market stretches out to cover the entire former parking grounds. There must be three thousand stalls. As I wandered through the thick, steaming warrens (it was at least 35 degrees), the scene became ever more surreal. Womens’ wear owners had rented half-mannequins to show off cheap pantyhose, one man sat sweating behind a big box containing at least 20 women’s legs, all sticking foot-upward, each clad in a different kind of pantyhose. It looked like a fetishistic flower display. Huge portions of the grounds have been taken over by Vietnamese. The women sit in the alleyways eating ang gossiping. The men rested prone on the ground under the tables. As soon as I stopped in front of a table, a Vietnamese guy would pop up behind the table like a jack-in-the-box and address me in what I can only assume was Polish with a heavy Vietnamese accent. The market’s been there so long that it’s developed its own corrugated-shack infrastructure — there’s a corrugated-shack police station, corrugated-metal-shack toilets, and even a corrugated-shack food court selling Vietnamese, Polish and Middle Eastern food. The grills are mostly improvised from sheet metal and tinfoil.

I crossed back to the chic part of Warsaw on the new Holy Cross Bridge, which features nice broad pedestrian walkways and shady places to stop and enjoy the view. Along the Ulica Dobra (which seems to mean Good Street) I wandered into a chic bookstore (it’s near the Uni) and bought a pack of abstract drawings and other odd cards from this hip place, which has a fake-cowhide swing in the middle and 3 floors of books, mainly art and literature. One bald guy sat at a table, with a laptop, many books, and handwritten notes in front of him. He appeared to be a regular, since the coffee waitress from the café section treated him familiarly.

I haliled a cab to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw. It’s housed in the former library of the Jewish community here. Built in 1936, it was one of the only buildings related to Jewish life in Warsaw to have survive the war in any shape at all. You can still see burn marks on the floor and stairs. It used to be attached to the main synagogue, which was blown up bu Jürgen Stroop of the SS in 1943. The second floor contains a thorough and well-presented documentary exposition of life in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. The accompanynig documentary film has an English version and is quite moving, despite one or two unconvincing sound-effects and the fact that one of the English voice-overs is from an Englishman with a fairly strong Yorkshire accent, which hardly passes to the texts written by educated Warsaw Jews. On the third floor is a collection of art either by Polish Jews or by Polish artists on Jewish themes. With depressing regularity, the date of the artists’ death is listed as 1943 or 1944. The museum’s guidebook, like almost everything else in Poland, has been expertly translated into flawless English.

Then it was about a 30 minute walk to the former grounds of the Ghetto. One park, which contains the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, is named Willy Brandt Square, after the German Social Democrat Chancellor. On 12 December 1970, when Brandt visited the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he fell wordlessly to his knees to express German contrition to the Polish people for the unspeakable suffering inflicted by the Nazi occupiers. There is much debate in Germany over the so-called Kniefall (was it planned? Was it genuine?) but it seemes to have made an impression; there is a simple bronze plaque in one corner of the park commemorating this silent expression of remorse.

Small stones and candles had also been placed on the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising leaders itself. While I was there two large tour buses disgorged Jewish teenagers speaking American English. Many were wearing kippas, and one waved a large Israeili flag while the tour guide explained basic facts about the ghetto. Small stones have been put on horizontal surfaces by Jewish visitors. Other, smaller Israeli flags had been wedged into crevices in the monument itself.

A French woman approached me as I was looking at the (artistically) rather unspectacular Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, offering her services as a guide. She observed that the Polish guides "don’t tell you everything," for instance the fact that the monument was actually created in France in 1948. I politely declined her services, sensing a possible tourist scam.

After chatting with her a little longer, I think I was wrong. A poorly-worded memorial plaque, or an allegedly slanted tourist guide’s description can rankle deeply. The culture of remembrance of the suffering of Poland under the Nazis is one of the most densely-packed ideological minefields anywhere. Millions of Poles were brutally exploited and murdered; their cities razed to the ground, their churches and museums bombed, their civilian population decimated. Jews, on the other hand, do not want the world to forget that although Poland was brutally victimized, Poland still exists. The huge and thriving Jewish community in Poland, however, was wiped out. The film in the Jewish Historical Institute describes the relationships between Poles and Jews before WWII as "defying easy characterization" but "generally harmonious". One part of the exhibit highlights the fact that the Polish government-in-exile created a committee for the welfare of the Jews in Poland, which was unique among the governments in exile then. The guidebook notes that 1 in 3 of the recipients of "Righteous Among the Nations of the World" recipients (for those who saved or protected Jews) was Polish, but also notes Polish anti-Semitic propaganda and books about the massacre at Jedwabne. It’s against this background that the ideological conflicts at the monument play out.

After seeing the monument, you follow a series of black marble memorial tablets (only in Polish and Hebrew, alas) through the former Jewish ghetto, ending with the famous Umschlagplatz (transfer area) where Jews were assembled for deportation to Treblinka. You see this place memorably depicted in Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist."

The U-platz is a rather simple affair consisting of a small oblong square surrounded by white marble walls about 3m tall, with inscriptions in Polish, English, and Hebrew, and a list of typical Jewish first names of the period. Mila street (from Mila 18 fame) retains its original name; other streets have been named after other leaders of the uprising. The bunker at Mila 18, the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization, which organized the Ghetto Uprising, has been left intact, a mound has been erected on top of it and a simple memorial stone set atop it. I found it the most tasteful and understated monument along the way.

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