Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Celebs think so, too

A post about what happened in Lodz last weekend coming soon, but in the meantime, here is an ad from our EU presidency campaign that has been making the rounds, with some international celebrities talking about how awesome Poland is.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Locomotive

Isn't it funny how even today, when talking about trains, most of us imagine a big, fat, steam-powered locomotive? Though the oldest among us still remember them, such machines haven't been running in years. And yet the locomotive remains in our collective awareness as a symbol of railroad travel- all the more magical for its anachronism. Harry Potter rode an enchanted steam train to Hogwarts, and Thomas the Tank Engine is still teaching young children that trains have funnels. Toy trains are more fun when they appear to run on steam, even if the dial connects to electricity.

And one of the most iconic, most famous, most beloved children's poems in Polish literature is an ode to a steam train. The Locomotive, written by Julian Tuwim, is catchy, quotable and a veritable masterpiece of rhythm.

First a toot!
Then a hoot!

Steam is churning,

Wheels are turning!

This week, on September 13th was Julian Tuwim's birthday, which is celebrated with great pomp in Łódź. Born into a Jewish family in 1894, Tuwim was a proud citizen of the industrial town. (Note: at the time of his birth, Poland was partitioned, Łódź was part of the Russian Empire, and it would be twenty four more years before the country regained its independence and reappeared on the map.) He spent most of his life in Łódź, then Warsaw where he studied law. After the war broke out, he emigrated West in 1939, finally settling in New York for five years. He returned to Poland after the war and remained here until his death in 1953.

Tuwim carried a shrewd quill. He wrote about the everyday, about daily struggles- in a city run by ruthless industrialists, he had the guts to mock the greed and lust for riches that defined so many of them. In 1937, he wrote a work gracefully titled "A Poem in which the author politely yet firmly implores the vast hosts of his brethren to kiss his arse", a satire to annoy and denounce those whinging elements of Polish society he found most deplorable.

Suffice to say, the man was outspoken and unafraid. But while it was his sharp tongue and wit that made him famous in his day, it is the "Locomotive" poem that he is now best remembered by.

He has a statue on Piotrkowska Street, the most important street in Łódź. It shows him as an elderly gentleman with a kindly smile, sitting on a bench in front of the City Hall. There is a spot on the bench next to him, and if you sit down, Tuwim smiles at you, sparks in his eyes, as if he were about to tell you a story.

Julian Tuwim
Tuwim's bench, decorated by schoolchildren.

His nose is shiny and golden, worn from all the hands that touched it over the years. Tradition says the nose must be rubbed for luck. Other statues on Piotrkowska share the superstition- their noses are proof. But none have a smile as mysterious as Tuwim.

Tuwim & kids
Tuwim and the children

Every year on his birthday, schoolchildren gather around the statue to celebrate and recite the poem together- for "The Locomotive" is a poem best read aloud.

256/365:The choo choo train
In 2007, the kids made a live choo choo train which they paraded down the street.

Go on, give it a shot! Here is an excellent translation by mr. Walter Whipple. I'll give you some pointers: Start off slow- the locomotive is tired.

A big locomotive has pulled into town,
Heavy, humungus, with sweat rolling down,
A plump jumbo olive.
Huffing and puffing and panting and smelly,
Fire belches forth from her fat cast iron belly.

Poof, how she's burning,
Oof, how she's boiling,
Puff, how she's churning,
Huff, how she's toiling.
She's fully exhausted and all out of breath,
Yet the coalman continues to stoke her to death.

Now gesticulate, get excited- all this cargo! It's amazing!

Numerous wagons she tugs down the track:
Iron and steel monsters hitched up to her back,
All filled with people and other things too:
The first carries cattle, then horses not few;
The third car with corpulent people is filled,
Eating fat frankfurters all freshly grilled.
The fourth car is packed to the hilt with bananas,
The fifth has a cargo of six grand pi-an-as.
The sixth wagon carries a cannon of steel,
With heavy iron girders beneath every wheel.
The seventh has tables, oak cupboards with plates,
While an elephant, bear, two giraffes fill the eighth.
The ninth contains nothing but well-fattened swine,
In the tenth: bags and boxes, now isn't that fine?

There must be at least forty cars in a row,
And what they all carry — I simply don't know:

But if one thousand athletes, with muscles of steel,
Each ate one thousand cutlets in one giant meal,
And each one exerted as much as he could,
They'd never quite manage to lift such a load.

Now watch we go! It's moving!

First a toot!
Then a hoot!
Steam is churning,
Wheels are turning!

Slowly now...

More slowly - than turtles - with freight - on their - backs,
The drowsy - steam engine - sets off - down the tracks.
She chugs and she tugs at her wagons with strain,
As wheel after wheel slowly turns on the train.
She doubles her effort and quickens her pace,
And rambles and scrambles to keep up the race.
Oh whither, oh whither? go forward at will,
And chug along over the bridge, up the hill,
Through mountains and tunnels and meadows and woods,

Faster, read faster!

Now hurry, now hurry, deliver your goods.
Keep up your tempo, now push along, push along,
Chug along, tug along, tug along, chug along
Lightly and sprightly she carries her freight
Like a ping-pong ball bouncing without any weight,
Not heavy equipment exhausted to death,
But a little tin toy, just a light puff of breath.
Oh whither, oh whither, you'll tell me, I trust,
What is it, what is it that gives you your thrust?
What gives you momentum to roll down the track?
It's hot steam that gives me my clickety-clack.
Hot steam from the boiler through tubes to the pistons,
The pistons then push at the wheels from short distance,
They drive and they push, and the train starts a-swooshin'
'Cuz steam on the pistons keeps pushin' and pushin';
The wheels start a rattlin', clatterin', chatterin'
Chug along, tug along, chug along, tug along! . . . .

Don't stop! Keep going...chug-along tug-along chug-along tug-along, tak-to-to, tak-to-to, tak-to-to, tak-to-to...

Meta info:

Wikipedia page for Julian Tuwim:

Julian Tuwim's works at

The Tuwim Birthday Event Page:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sewers- fun for the whole family

Sewers. Generally a place we avoid, yes? Apologies to any intrepid jumpsuit-wearing reporters among our reader base, but climbing down a manhole to hang out with your buddies is just sixteen kinds of creepy. Besides, you don't need to go that far to find mutants in Poland- check the immediate vicinity of any 24-hour alcohol store.

Still, there are those to whom a sewer is just another world of exciting adventures. I'm not naming any names, but....okay, me. I like sewers. Why wouldn't I? They fulfil all of my criteria for fun, being:

1) a place where people usually don't go
2) a place that is rarely captured in photography
3) a place that has interesting architecture.

You may wonder about the third one, but have you ever considered what the underground world of your city looks like? It may surprise you.

The sewer system in Łódź, for instance, is nearly four thousand kilometres long (sic! and Lodz isn't that big a city) and was built according to designs by the renowned British engineer, William Heerlein Lindley (not to be confused with his father, William Lindley, although their engineer business was a family affair).

Łódź got its sewage system extremely late- construction began in 1925, and the first building was connected in 1927; no other European city of that size was, at that time, lacking a sewage system . It was especially important, since Łódź was an industrial city, and so it was not only human waste but chemical and industrial sewage that ran down the street gutters.

It was engineer Stefan Skrzywan who took up the challenge to bring Lindley's designs into being. He was a remarkable man, driven and enthusiastic. There is an anecdote which sums up his attitude quite well: upon moving in to the building designated as the Waterworks Office, he ordered a mosaic to be put down in the hallway, spelling out the word 'Smile'.

I guess when you're in sewage, you have to have a sense of humour!

The sewers of Łódź, much like any of the sewers built in the late 19th and early 20th century boast brickwork that is almost too beautiful to fill with the waste it was built to channel. I believe 'gothic' is the word that comes to mind, and perhaps not unjustly- the water reserve tanks at the edge of the city are so spectacular in their construction, they have been nicknamed 'The Cathedral'. I am still looking for the right strings to pull in order to access that wonder.

So, how does one get a look at that red brick underground network? For those who are disinclined to trespassing and can't abide revolting smells, the city of Łódź offers a fortunate alternative.

Lodz Sewer Museum
Not for the claustrophobic.

In 2008 it drained one of its old water retention loops underneath the Plac Wolności square and opened it up to the public.  Built in 1926, the reservoir is nicknamed the Dętka, or 'inner tube', on account of its circular shape. Several other sewers connect to it radially; when one of them needed to be flushed out, the Dętka was filled with 300 cubic metres of water, which was then released into the sewer in question.

Nowadays, sewers are cleaned using special mobile pressure machines, and that is why it was possible to drain and clean the Inner Tube, evict the sewage and rats, and open it up to the public.

Lodz Sewer Museum
The space is clean and well-lit, though a damp trickle remains on the floor.

They also rent out the space for photoshoots...ah, I can hear those steampunk cogs turning in your heads. ;) So, if you visit Łódź, don't miss this fabulous chance to see what's going on underneath your feet.

But what does a sewer look like when it's not cleaned out for tourist access?  Let me demonstrate. Here are some photos of an authentic Lodzian sewer, still in use today.

In the sewer
Speleothems which can hurt your head if you don't duck, silly.

Mushrooms grow on the walls- I couldn't tell you what kind, but they are all white for lack of light, and look rather like mutated Hattifatteners.

In the sewer

In the sewer

In some places, tree roots penetrate the sewer and form a delicate mesh on the ceiling.

Roots above our heads

 These are some of the oldest passages in the city, built in the mid 1920s. This one in particular is a storm drain, which connects to several waste sewers. Note the careful brickwork.

The junction

Sewers. So beautiful. Built with such passion.Who would have thought?

Meta info:

The Dętka Museum official Website

The William Heerlein Lindley Wikipedia entry:

The Stefan Skrzywan Wikipedia entry:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Strońsko-Beleń battle of September 1939

One more WW2 post before we move on to lighter things.

September 1939 is not a good month in my country's memory- the Nazi advance was swift and overwhelming. To put things in context, here is another map which shows, roughly, the borders of Poland in 1939.

You shouldn't trust in the details, my mapping skills are very amateurish- but you get the idea.

As you can see, Germany was much closer to Łódź than it is today, and so the industrial town would be one of the first larger targets for the advancing army, which was then to move on to Warsaw. To stop the attackers and protect the city was the immediate goal of the 30th Rifle Regiment of Kaniów (named so to honour a 1918 victory, the Battle of Kaniów) and the Łódź Army.

There had been, of course, some anticipation of an attack, and so a line of defense had been built along the banks of the Warta river. Alas, it remained unfinished on the day War broke out- supposedly, farmers had asked the army to hold off construction until after the harvest. The defense had to make do with what was on hand- 47 concrete bunkers, few of them complete.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
Seven bunkers remain in the area, and are kept clean by volunteers.

Seven of those artillery bunkers remain to this day in the stretch between the villages of Beleń and Strońsko, in the river valley that saw one of the first battles of World War Two.

 Last Saturday, I biked down there to watch a reenactment.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
I park my bike, I walk away for two minutes, and when I get back, there's German motorcycles everywhere. Oh dear.

 The event's main organisers were the Strzelcy Kaniowscy Historical Society, a group of military history buffs who work to preserve artefacts and sites relevant to the Rifle Regiments of Kaniów. A few hundred amateur reenactors and extras took part, with several thousand people gathered on the hill above the battlefield to watch.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
The Germans

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
The Poles

Stronsko-Belen battle reenactment
An audience for a memorial.
In a strangely contradictory manner, it was at once fun and extremely upsetting.

This was not a victorious battle for Poland. The Łódź Army and Kaniów Riflemen held the defense for three days, but were eventually overpowered by the German forces. They hardly stood a chance- one regiment against a whole division. And so, the colourful, picnicking crowd of families that spread over the hillside last Saturday had in fact gathered to honour the valor and memory of those who fought, and failed, by watching them desperately fight and fail again.

Shivers down one's spine are not optional in such a situation. Sitting high up in this naturally-formed amphitheatre, we were directly behind home trenches, our soldiers's backs to us as they scanned the forest line for enemy forces. All was peaceful, at first, and we watched as a group of peasants slowly walked across the valley, the adults carrying bundles, the children clutching beloved teddy bears and dolls. A strangely gentle image of flight- they looked like families out for a pleasant weekend stroll.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
My dad was four when the war began. His family packed up and ran East, because the Germans were coming.
Soon enough they turned around and ran back West, because, word had it, the Soviets were coming...

 And then, the skies roared, and a Luftwaffe machine tore through the blue. Down in the valley, the civilians froze, then began to run. Where were they expecting to go? With the forest line behind them, and the trenches too far to offer any shelter, they scattered like rabbits.

Stronsko-Belen battle reenactment
I didn't know there would even be an airplane. My first reaction was: "Wow!" And then: "Oh god."

Boom. Boom. Smoke and fire; screams that we heard even where we sat. Most dove to the ground- some never rose again. The airplane tore away and vanished behind the trees, only to return again and again. In the trenches, guns aimed for the skies and the plane, trying in vain to destroy it and protect the refugees.

Then, by the forest, something moved. German troops crept forward, the plane covering their advance.

Stronsko-Belen battle reenactment

Closer and closer they came, and even sitting among the colourful crowd, it was not difficult to forget, for a moment, what year it was, and that there was no need to seek shelter. It was over quickly; much quicker than in 1939. From where I sat, I had a good view until the police line thickened and official photographers wandered into my frame. It's always like that, isn't it? The light did not favour me, either- we were staring West at the setting sun. So, the photos are what they are.

Since the reconstruction was spread over a good couple kilometres of the valley, I couldn't possibly see everything. For one thing, I missed the TKS tankette in action on the battlefield, but I'd snuck over earlier and caught it on video. You can watch that here:

 This TKS is a particularly interesting vehicle as it is one of a handful still in existence, and was recovered in a remarkably good state from Norway, where it was being used as a tractor. Its rescuer, private collector Jacek Kopczyński had his work cut out for him, but he restored it beautifully. This machine dates back to 1936- it was a Polish improvement on a British design, manufactured in Poland and a significant tank force for our army in 1939. It's a titchy thing, but very maneouvrable and good for reconnaissance missions.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
The TKS by one of the remaining bunkers.

So, that was my Saturday.  I'd never been to a reconstruction like this before; not one dealing with history as fresh as World War Two- and in Poland, even for generations born decades after the war was over, it is still fresh. Some people say events like these are ridiculous, childish. I would rather say, seeing all the care put into the reconstruction by the historical societies, that they are like a living memorial. An open-air history lesson. This was no popcorn and candy-floss affair, there were no stalls with plastic guns and chinese knock-offs. As we sat on the hill, every minute of the battle was narrated and explained through large speakers, and the conclusion was inevitable- our side would lose. Our country would be invaded and tormented for long years- not only during the war, but after it.

If any of the thousands of kids and teenagers standing on that hill last saturday thought of their fighting counterparts from seventy-two years ago, if any of them found that the distant memory had suddenly become much more fresh and painful for them, then I think the reenactment was worth it. We all need to know where we come from.

Stronsko-Belen Battle Reenactment
Anointment with fake blood. They were not so lucky seventy two years ago. 

Meta info:

The Strzelcy Kaniowscy Historical Society:

The Łódź Army Wikipedia entry:

The TKS tankette Wikipedia entry: 

Friday, September 2, 2011

On September 1st

Let's get serious for a minute.

For most people around the world, the word 'Poland' means only one thing. World War Two.  Though one of the goals of this blog is to peel that drab label off of the country, that particular period should neither be ignored, nor forgotten. Awesomeness also comes from standing up to an adverse situation, and for the most part, Poland represents.

Yesterday was September 1st, a date globally considered to be the First Day of World War Two. Seventy two years ago on September 1st, two attacks on Poland happened.

The timelines are disputed, but I side with the following. On September 1st 1939, at 4:45 am, without warning or prior declaration of war, the Luftwaffe bombed Wieluń- a small town with no military structures or units stationed, utterly insignificant in strategic terms, but as good a start as any for a ruthless demonstration of power. Soon after, shots were fired from the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, in an attack on a Polish Military Transit Depot on the Westerplatte Peninsula.

Westerplatte is in Gdańsk, on the coast, but Wieluń is about 100 km from Łódź, the city I live in. I am tempted to say that Łódź did not suffer much during the war- compared to little Wieluń, three quarters of which were blasted to ruins, or Warsaw, razed to the ground so thoroughly that she was never fully rebuilt, it seems to have fared well. But what it did not lose in brick and mortar, it lost in flesh and blood.

Wieluń after the bombing, and Warsaw at the end of the War. If you've seen the Pianist, my dad tells me it was exactly
like that, with one difference- everything was red from the shattered brick. Movies usually show the ruins as grey.

Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a place in Poland that remained untouched. The wounds of the War in Łódź may not be as apparent as they are in Warsaw, but they certainly exist.

One such wound gapes open in the ruins of the Radogoszcz Prison, now a Monument and Mausoleum. Once a textile factory built by Jewish businessman Samuel Abbe, in Nazi hands it became a grim holding facility.

The remains of the prison, now a memorial and mausoleum. You can still see it has the shape of a factory.

It is supposed that some 40,000 people passed through the gates of Radogoszcz Prison. How many were killed, how many deported and how many sent to labour camps, it is difficult to tell. Its first 'residents' were chiefly Polish and Jewish intelligentsia, citizens of renown, taken in accordance with the Nazi repressive strategies which aimed to eliminate the intellectual elite and leave behind malleable masses fit for slave labour, yet uncapable of rising against the oppressor. About 1500 people, intellectuals, office workers, clergy and military veterans were murdered in the Lodz region alone.

The prison also served as a transit point for labour camps, death camps, and mass execution sites, often the end fate of those who committed crimes against the Reich (breaking any of the special laws that applied to the 'subhuman'), or were simply taken randomly from the street.

Never again to fascism
"Never again to fascism"

But on the night of January 17th 1945, the prison saw its first mass execution. The Eastern front was approaching, and orders to retreat were dispatched by the SS command- orders which stated that all prisoners must be exterminated before the troops move out.

A wave of mass murders swept over Poland. In the Radogoszcz prison, about 1500 people were still being held. At midnight, the German soldiers began the massacre, using firearms, bayonets, and finally a machine gun which fired bursts at prisoners being chased out of the building. When the soldiers reached the third floor, they met with resistance from the prisoners, who fought back by throwing bricks and debris.

Thus confronted, the Germans decided to burn the prison down. Bullets awaited those trying to escape the flames. Only twenty five prisoners survived.

Five of them did so by submerging themselves in the prison's water tank. It was housed at the top of the building, and filled using small steam-powered pumps. A similar tank, taken from a different building with the same gravitational water distribution system, is now on display in the old prison yard.

The tank
A water tank used for gravitational water distribution.

The plaque explaining the event has the following quote from Bolesław Popławski, a survivor:

"(…) We submerged ourselves in the water, then surfaced again for a moment after. Our heads were covered with wet blankets. A half hour later or so the roof collapsed, giving us more fresh air. We climbed out of the tank and hid in the corner, between the tank and the wall, by the sandbox. We watched what was happening. We couldn't climb down, because the Germans spent all day in the yard, guarding the prison.

(…) Once it started to get dark (that is, on Thursday evening) we climbed downstairs, to the ground floor, over dead bodies, because we had to warm up. We were freezing cold. We sat behind the chimney and heard the Germans finally leave Radogoszcz. At around nine or ten at night, a car drove by and took the rest of the Germans. In the night, two prisoners who had hidden on the roof joined us, then seven more from the roof.

We sat there all night, and at around five in the morning we took a ladder from the storage room. In the kitchen we saw the body of the cook dressed in a leather jacket. We climbed out of the window into the yard and crawled along the ground. In this manner, we made it to the outer wall, which we climbed using the ladder. We leapt over the barbed wire onto Zgierska street, and ran into the fields. I was the seventh one to climb over the wall."

Here we lie

For over a month, citizens of Łódź tried to find and identify the bodies of their close ones among the burnt-out ruins. The found remains were buried in February 1945; in 1961,  a memorial sarcophagus was unveiled in the prison yard. The inscription on it states:

Here we lie
on the eve of freedom
Our names and bodies were taken by the fire
We live on only in your memory.
May a death so inhuman
Never again repeat.

Meta info:

Warsaw and Wieluń photos:

Radogoszcz Mausoleum and Memory Museum official site: