Sunday, August 3, 2014

Godzina "W"- the "W" Hour

We celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising (sometimes called Warsaw Rising) this year.

In 1944, the Western side of Warsaw had been occupied by German forces for five years. The Ghetto had been murderously emptied in 1943, its own uprising having failed. On the Eastern bank of the river Vistula, in the part of the city we call Praga, the Soviet armies gathered. Soviet planes had been dropping pamphlets calling Warsaw to arms for months now, and radio transmissions from Moscow where the Polish Committee of National Liberation had been formed urged citizens to rise up against the Germans.

Meanwhile, the German occupants were already enacting a retreat. Administrative workers were being evacuated. As Hitler had said to Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland: Warsaw, perceived to be the nest of the Polish resistance against the Nazi new world order- the 'Polish problem'- was to be destroyed at the nearest opportunity.

Today, some will say the Uprising provided that opportunity, and that it had been cleverly incited by the Soviets, who wanted a clean territory to move into. They could very well have expected it- Hitler's orders were clear: raze Warsaw to the ground and kill every single citizen. Take no prisoners: make it a terrifying example for the rest of the world.

Was the Uprising good or bad? This is a debate which happens every year. Decisions made by the Polish Home Army are often questioned, called foolishness or outright treason in the face of the 200,000 civilian deaths, destruction of 90% of the city, and the subsequent unhindered entry of the Soviets, who proved to be wolves in sheep's clothing. On the other hand, waiting meekly for rescue or oblivion was not a preferable fate- Poland had no options at that time, as even the Allies' help was insufficient, and blocked by the Soviets (sic!). We had already been sentenced to oblivion by both of our neighbours.

Whatever you make of it, one thing remains true: seventy years ago, citizens of Warsaw, civilian and military alike, fought against all odds for two months to liberate their city. 

We didn't always celebrate them- we weren't always able to. In fact, during the socialist days many former members of the Home Army and their families suffered severe repercussions. The Uprising was not a welcome or safe topic.

Even though the system changed in the 80s, it wasn't until the establishment of the Warsaw Rising Museum ten years ago that awareness of the Uprising began to improve. On the 60th anniversary, an advertising campaign aimed at young people was rolled out, featuring photographs of smiling elderly insurgents who would have been teenagers in 1944, and the question: "Would you go?"

I think that is the question we ask ourselves every time we notice the many reminders of the occupation scattered around Warsaw, every time we look at a building that looks old, and know that it was rebuilt from rubble. Would we go? 

You will see many, many plaques like these all around Warsaw. They say: 
"This place was sanctified by the blood of Poles who perished
fighting for our country's freedom", with details below.
In this case:
"In this place on the 27th of September 1944,
Hitler's soldiers shot 22 Poles in an insurgent hospital."

It's hard to put yourself in their place. They had no social media, no global information system. Their parents still remembered the first war, and their grandparents a time when Poland didn't even exist on the map. They lived in a country under the rule of an occupant who had made great efforts to erase their dignity through imposed language, racial and ethnic segregation enacted on multiple levels from the creation of a ghetto for Jews to tram carriages that said 'Nur für Deutsche', forced labour, deportations to concentration camps, random executions, and also very precisely planned executions aimed at cultural and national authority figures. Warsaw was no longer the capital. Warsaw was no longer a Polish city. Warsaw was dead.

Except it wasn't. Warsaw's motto is Semper Invicta- latin for 'Ever Invincible'. Clearly not because its walls have never been breached.

If you happen to be in Warsaw on August 1st, go out into the street just before 5:00 p.m. and wait.  5:00 p.m. on that day is "W" hour. "W" for Warsaw, and for walka, wybuch, wystąpienie; battle, explosion, stepping forward. You should be out in the street, because when the sirens sound, everyone will stop in their tracks and stand still for one minute. People will get out of their cars and stand up from their meals at restaurants. Trams will pause on the rails, buses will turn off their engines. Flags will be raised and flares fired in perfect silence.

And then everyone will go back to whatever it was they were doing.

It's my favourite way of celebrating the memory of the Uprising because it is the one that happens only because people want it to. Nobody forces us to stop. Nobody organises it. Nobody announces it, nobody stands up with a mic and says 'get ready now'. Nobody sets up a stage and gives out freebies afterwards. I guess at some point someone suggested: one minute of silence, and everyone thought it was a good idea. This happens in every part of Warsaw, and perhaps most spectacularly in the centre, where people no longer just stop what they are doing, but come out on purpose to pay their respects to those who fought.

There is another latin motto which we often hear in Poland: Gloria Victis. Glory to the Defeated. 
I will blog again this month about other ways in which we pay our respects to the insurgents.

The video above was shot on August 1st 2014 by the Warsaw Rising Museum. For the 70th anniversary, we stood in silence for 70 seconds instead of the usual minute.
Warsaw Rising Museum website:
Wikipedia Entry on the Uprising:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

25 years ago...

25 years ago the first free election took place in Poland- a partially free election, hard-won after a turmoil of long negotiations, workers’ strikes, deaths, injuries, military action and repressive tactics by the government against the opposition.
Eventually the Communist government was forced to recognise Solidarity as a legitimate political movement instead of dismissing it as disorganised riots. During the famous Round Table negotiations came an agreement to a compromise- a partially free election in which 65% of the mandates in the Sejm (parliament) would be reserved for the ruling Communist coalition.
Only the remaining 35% was up for grabs by any party… and the opposition, Solidarity, took 160 out of 161 available seats. 
This overwhelming victory prompted changes in Poland which the government had simply not anticipated, and which the Polish people themselves had not quite believed would be possible. Suddenly communism was no longer a status quo with no end in sight, but a crumbling system that could be challenged. Suddenly, the opposition had power beyond rallies and strikes. People had voted, and their vote counted.
I remember going to the voting booth with my parents, and I remember going to rallies and fundraisers for weeks before then. I was very young but the urgency of this change was clear to me, and I will always remember the hopeful atmosphere of those days. 
Here is a drawing I did afterwards- my mother later showed it to Wałęsa who signed it for me. :) I was six years old.
The Solidarity logo- below a portait of Lech Wałęsa
(with his name in the wrong declension and a spelling error),
one of the slogans "No freedom without Solidarity",
my childish rendition of this poster,
and a drawing of people voting!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

You can't warp in the rain, or a day in the Radomskie region

One Thursday morning my neighbour Mariza called me up.

"I'm going to the countryside on Friday, there's a huge old loom that needs setting up! And we'll be winding the thread onto the warping mill. Are you coming with?"

What a silly question. Weaving is a great tradition of almost every folklore, and woven cloth is particularly beautiful in Poland. The most recognisable traditional pattern is simply a composition of  colourful stripes, and Mariza, aside from having a loom of her own, just happens to be friends with an elderly woman who had supported herself all of her life by weaving skirts, shawls, blankets, and ceremonial rugs and throws of all sorts.

A typical Polish striped throw

So we got into the car bright and early at 6 in the morning. Even St. Christopher on the dash seemed sleepy.

Święty Krzysztof, patron of travellers

"I might stop at chapels," Mariza said, and that was all right by me. Roadside chapels are a peculiar characteristic of Poland, and they range from quaint to kitschy. It was may, and may is when the women of the villages decorate the chapels with garlands of flowers and ribbons. There is even a verb pertaining to this: 'umaić'. To make something 'May-worthy'. Something that is 'umajone' has been festively and brightly decorated.

Three chapels we stopped at. Mariza nicknamed the last one 'the road to Heaven'.

 I digress- I'll do one about chapels another time.

For now, a couple of hours later, we arrived at the weaver's house, ready and eager to set up shop.

"Pani Krysiu," Mariza called, in that manner which sounds so strange translated into English but which is the proper way to address an older person or a stranger in Polish: the Mr or Mrs honorific (Pan, Pani) plus the person's first name. "Mrs. Krysia! Pani Krysiu! Shall we get the workshop out of the shed first, or shall we warp the thread?"

As it turned out, neither. Pani Krysia gave us tea, grumbled and mumbled, and said the workshop was all gnawed on by mice, and she had no room to set it up, and her hands were old and too gnarled to go back to the craft, and it looks like rain, and you can't warp in the rain.

Slightly disillusioned but accepting that things just work differently in the countryside, we packed up the 30 km of thread Mariza had bought and went to her own cottage, a place she had inherited from her father.

"Luckily I've already been here this spring and evicted the bats from under the shutters," she said, and I disagreed, as I did not find it lucky at all that I had missed seeing bats fly out into the forest.

Mariza's loom

And I discovered exactly why we could not warp in the rain. You see, Mariza's warping mill was set up in the doorway of her barn- half exposed to the elements, and humidity would ruin the thread. The obvious solution was to move it into the house- but the central pole was too short.

The warping mill. It was raining already.

Advanced engineering and a clever pair of hands were necessary here. For lack of such, I stepped up. After some hemming and hawing, we decided to hop across the road to see Pani Tosia, who had an impressive stockpile of timber in her back yard, guarded by a ferocious dog.

Pani Tosia and her friend

Old as the world, but she picked the straightest little pine and chopped off most of the branches before we could protest. The rest was up to us. She lent us her axe. We measured, and began to chop, scrape, and carve.

Two hours and two inches of progress later...

I think I got pretty far considering the circumstances!

... we decided to call for help. Luckily, Pan Janek who lives just down the road was a carpenter. A few runs through a circular saw and then a few slices with the drawknife, and our pole was ready. Although I maintain that if I'd had eight hours to spend on it, I could have managed with just the axe.

All I needed now was to spend another hour hammering a support into the ceiling, and by late afternoon, the warping machine was set up in Mariza's cottage.

Harder than it looks- the pole has to spin smoothly and stay upright, and it also needs to be removable.

 We called up pani Krysia, proud of ourselves, ready to spin, only to hear these harsh, rhyming words:

 "Piątek zły pracy początek."

 Which means "Friday is a bad day to begin work", or more accurately translated, go away you silly city girls I've got no time for you.

That was that, the adventure was over. Friday is a bad day to begin work, and you can't work on that particular Saturday, because it just so happens to be May 3rd, a very holy day dedicated to Mary Mother of God, Queen of Poland, and of course Sunday is right out.

There was nothing for it. We heated up some pierogi on the old oven than sits in the heart of the house and heats every room, and we sighed and complained a little bit, and then I went home. I didn't see warping, and I didn't see weaving, and I didn't get to put together a weaving workshop.

Still…somehow I don't consider the day wasted.

I'll be sure to take another trip down there, maybe in the summer- and there will be a perfect warping mill with the date and my initials carved into it waiting for me. :)

(and just wait 'til I tell you about what we saw in Pan Janek's mother's house... but that's for another time.)

Consolation prize.