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October 18, 2011

Auschwitz – and the Polish crosses

Auschwitz IA long week-end in Krakow – a place where, as I wrote last year, I’m always happy to go back – allowed me also the time to go revisit, after a long time, Oświęcim, the mid-size town better known under its German name of Auschwitz, hosting what is, bitterly, the most visited ‘sight’ in the whole country.

I had been here for the first time in 1989 – when the guides were still often survivors, and completed the tour warning that in West Germany Nazism was still alive. And I was there again, more at length, in 1998. I was doing my PhD fieldwork at the Fiat factory of Tychy, only 10km from here, and suddenly Auschwitz was in the news worldwide because of the conflict over the so-called ‘pope’s cross’. I reported the events for the Italian daily il manifesto. The dispute was caused by a gang of Catholic fanatics occupying a gravel pit adjacent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz I, in defence of a cross that had been raised temporarily for the pope’s Mass five years earlier, but then kept there against the protests of Jewish organisations – who do not accept any religious symbol on a cemetery, and least of all a cross. For more details on a very delicate and multi-faceted dispute, I can direct to my longest analysis piece I wrote back then(oswiecim98.doc), but if you do not read Italian, I will try to summarise the issue shortly, hopefully not too roughly.

Auschwitz I is the concentration camp where tens of thousands of people, mostly Poles, were interned, exploited, tortured and killed. It has therefore an important place in Polish history: let’s remember that Poland had the largest anti-Nazi resistance movement in Europe, and that Auschwitz is, together with Warsaw's old town (for the uprising), its most important place of remembrance. But Auschwitz I is also the place where the first gas chamber was experimented for the annihilation of Jews – which would then take place in the most scientific, efficient large-scale way (at its peak, 10,000 a day) in the nearby camp of Auschwitz II – Birkenau: the largest Jewish cemetery in the world with over one million victims.

The co-existence of the memory of these two places has been difficult – especially at the beginning. The Polish majority was too scarred by its own suffering (over three million victims, total destruction of the capital city and near total economic devastation) to be concerned with the suffering of others, and to assimilate the meaning of the Shoah. Primo Levi, having described Auschwitz in Se questo è un uomo, in La tregua mentions how after the liberation Poles did not want to hear of Jewish prisoners. Jews, understandably, often complain about Polish ‘indifference’ during the war towards the Jewish suffering, although it must be remembered that in extreme situations indifference for neighbours’ fates is a psychological survival instinct – it was often the same among Poles, and indeed among Jews themselves. But Poles during the war did not need the Jews, but the Jews needed the Poles - desperately. As Władisław Bartoszewski (former Auschwitz inmate and resistance fighter, then first post-communist Minister of Foreign Affairs, and still an important moral and political authority in Poland) put it, to save a Jew ten Poles were needed, but to betray ten Jews, one Pole was enough. This was a desperate situation: in Plac Grzybowski, the centre of the former Warsaw Ghetto, a huge monument is planned to remember, by name, the thousands of Poles who saved Jews during the war - but they were never going to be enough (and the number is like everything disputed: for Bartoszewski, only the 6 thousands officially recognised by Israel should be named, for the Right, many thousands more).

What is more complex is why the indifference went on after the war. The communist regime was not conducive for open dialogue and trust. For long, many Poles ignored the major difference between their own suffering, and the Jewish one, not just in terms of ‘numbers’, but of principle: Poles had a choice, while Jews were all annihilated regardless of any individual merit. Even worse, in 1946 there were pogroms in Kielce, and the most conservative part of the population resented the Jews for welcoming the Russians. In 1968, it was the turn of the Polish communist regime to engage in anti-Jewish cleansing and expel tens of thousands of Jews.

The historical explanations of the difficult relations during the war, after it and during communism do not constitute any justification for the hostility after 1989 – when a part of the Church and the Right, including the broadcaster Radio Maryja, fell into open anti-Semitism, and the provocative defence of the pope’s cross in Auschwitz caused indignation worldwide. It took many months for Polish authority to remove the occupants and relocate the cross.

In 2011, Oswiecim is exceptional in an economically dynamic region for still not attracting any investment and keeping losing population: Made in Auschwitz is definitely not a good brand. But the situation is much calmer than in that hot summer of 1998. The guide does not blame current Western Germany anymore, but does point at the way Roma are treated in many European countries today, including the self-declared democratic, civilised West: deportation is how the Shoah started. The unique Jewish suffering is well underlined in Birkenau, while not detracting any attention from the Polish and Russian suffering in Auschwitz I. Similarly, Warsaw, which a few years ago built a spectacular, but very nationalist Museum of the Warsaw Insurrection of 1944, is refurbishing the few remains of the Jewish Ghetto (out of my window while I am writing this blog) and building a Museum to the Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

However, Poland keeps having problems with the cross. Last year, it was the one raised in front the presidential palace to commemorate Lech Kaczyński – and implicitly to deny legitimacy to the new president Komorowski. Now, it is the cross in the Parliament. It was hung to the wall at night by a group of rightwing MPs in 1997. Now, the new anticlerical party of Janusz Palikot asks to remove it, or at least to discuss and decide why one religious symbol should be there. Unsurprisingly, the Right and most of the Church reacts indignantly, re-enacting the dangerous myth that Poles-equal-Catholics. And in the XVII Century this was the most tolerant part of the Europe, and the most welcoming to persecuted Jews...

Auschwitz II - Birkenau

September 13, 2010

Kraków & Zakopane 21 years later

I had spent some important time in Kraków and in Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, between 1989 and 1994, but I hadn’t gone back to the former Polish capital since 2001. I am more familiar with, and partial to, the new but (Krakovians would add) ugly, rude and corrupt capital, than with the picturesque but (Warsavians would add) conservative and stingy old one. Now, Kraków is considered as a serious rival to Prague on the good and ugly sides of tourism. The Prague – Kraków comparison is actually meaningless whichever way you look at it: in the Renaissance Kraków was a capital of a major European power, while Prague had to wait until the XX century to be capital of a serious state; but then, in the XX century Krakow was no capital of anything. As a result Krakow wins hands down on Gothic and Renaissance (not just Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine), but Prague is head and shoulders above it from the XIX Century onwards; the physical setting is also hard to compare: Prague’s is more picturesque, but Kraków has better surroundings. The competition makes some sense only on Baroque & Rococo, and I’d say it’s a draw.

Twenty years ago, exiting the pre-war Kraków Główny station I would be met with the messy state of the station square, including the ugly coach station and a variety of jumbled kiosks. In the evening, I was also struck by darkness, given the very feeble public lighting: a warning to keep my eyes well open; and in winter, by the sharp coal burning smell, from household heating and from the nearby Nowa Huta steelworks (on Nowa Huta I recommend Vera Trappman’s and Alison Stenning's research). Today, I leave the platform of the new station and directly enter a huge shopping mall, with the disappointing feeling that it’s just like in Birmingham New Street Station: what’s the point of travelling? Once out, the square is smart clean and the bus station has been moved to the other side of the railways. And on the other side of a large communist-time subway, one is immediately in the Old Town.

Here is the good surprise. Despite the stag and hen parties and the coach tours, not much has changed, and the city has kept a very clear focus on cultural tourism. Renovations have gone on, but rather than simply repainting every single inch in pastel colours as in Prague, they have focussed on the important bits as the Central Market’s Sukiennice (Cloths Market), whose first floor will be open soon. Streets and pavements still have their share of potholes, but they are not entirely covered with tables for tourists. The historical artist café Jama Michalika, whose predilection for hard currencies was visible already in 1989, hosts folk shows for tourists in the evenings, but it looks exactly as it did and remains a café-museum, with its unbelievably slow service.

Kosciol MariackiChange is more visible in the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. In 1989 it was just derelict, Poles having little interest in Jewish heritage. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) put it on the tourist map, and cafés, restaurants and museums have multiplied since. During Schindler’s List’s production, Spielberg recruited hundreds of locals for walk-on parts for the concentration camp scenes, and offered a very attractive pay for anybody ‘Jewish looking’. Transition crisis-struck Krakovians queued for the posts but, reportedly, most of them started by saying ‘I’d like the job, but I’m not Jewish’ (by the way, I don’t think they were well selected, given how many of them looked overweight). Similarly, I doubt that any of today’s Kazimierz ‘traditional Jewish’ cafes and restaurants is actually Jewish. On the other side, if any tourist is so ignorant not to know that Kraków’s Jewish traditions were violently and radically interrupted, they deserve to be conned.

Like in Prague, food is not much value for money in tourist areas such as the Old Town and Kazimierz, but interesting places are only a couple of tram stops away, including, unthinkable 21 years ago, vegetarian or nouvelle Pologne ones. Some very good (Vega, ul. Krupnicza), some with mixed results. At the very Polish-sounding, recently opened Restauracja Kowalska, after an un-Polish sounding amuse-bouche I was recommended quail, only for the waitress, twenty minutes later, to tell me that there was no quail. Had it flown away? No, she admitted, there was ‘something wrong with it’ – which suggested the chef was incompetent either with supplies, or preparation. Worse, she went on to claim that the dish could be prepared in the same way with veal – a replacement that reminded me of shortage economy era recipes calling for ‘prawns, or in their absence frankfurter sausages’. But then at least, she asked how I wanted the veal done: in the past, nobody asked in Poland, because meat would invariably come in one way, i.e. overdone. And this time, the veal was as rare – and delicious – as I had ordered, something that happens rarely in England (I will comment another time about the ethics of veal farming and eating).

Krakow’s investment in culture is visible in a range of new museums (including Schindler’s Factory) and the New Opera, and is accompanied by more popular investment in the form of two new football stadia (Euro 2012 is approaching, although they won't play in Kraków). All this investment, combined with an efficient management of the city defence during this summer’s floods (floods make and unmake elections: ask Cimoszewicz why he lost in 1997, and Schröder why he won in 2002) gives mayor Majchrowski a near-certain re-election this Autumn. Majchrowski (last time elected for the Left) is an apparent anomaly for traditionally right-wing Kraków, but actually represents a trend in popular, independent mayors who successfully distance themselves from national politics. Majchrowski has left the party and rules with opportunistic coalitions. In April, he organised Lech Kaczyński’s state funeral and disputed burial in the Wawel castle alongside Polish kings and heroes, but since then he has carefully avoided the war of religion over the Presidential Palace’s cross that is consuming the national parties.Zakopane

From Kraków, it’s 110 km to Zakopane, up in the Tatra mountains. In the 1930s, the Torpeda Podhalańska locomotive, pride of Polish engineering, covered the distance in 132 minutes. Today, the train takes four hours (progress is not linear), so I took the coach. Thanks to road works and a couple of horse-powered vehicles, I arrived at the same time as the train. In the XIX-early XX Century Zakopane was considered as the cultural capital of (then inexistent as a state) Poland, being a meeting point of poets and artists. The extravagant Witkacy’s theatre is the best surviving memory of it. But now Zakopane is more and more overcrowded, and house pricesKasprowy Wierch are no cheaper than in the Alps: the High Tatra do look like the Alps, but cover a very small area and are the only high mountains for a country of 40 millions (plus 5 million Slovaks: their side is a bit less crowded, and better for skiing). It’s only because of low labour costs that tourist services are still cheap: at least in September, you can get a decent room for 20 Euros, and eat well for 10. The national park fights an impossible war against path erosion. In these conditions, the enduring dream of hosting the Olympics (despite defeat for the 2006 ones) is madness: Zakopane has not enough water, enough space, and a sufficiently long downhill slope for the Olympics. But Poles are romantic dreamers, and speculators exploit this. On this occasion, heavy snowfalls prevented me to reach the summit of Świnica (2301m), but the views from walking along the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia were a sufficient compensation, only disturbed by my mobile phone continually receiving the texts "welcome to Poland", "welcome to Slovakia", "welcome to Poland", and so on.

The gastronomic pride of Zakopane is the smoked sheep cheese Oscypek, for good reason. For the rest, the little town is now full of ‘Karczmy’, fake mountain inns where waiters in traditional mountain dresses serve rather dull food, at the sound of folk music. I am left wondering what Wyspiański, the neo-romantic poet who in Wesele (The Wedding) metaphorically described the impossibility of consummating the marriage between Polish peasantry and intellectual revolutionaries, would make of the marriage of convenience that is now consummated everyday between peasantry and tourists, in Kraków and Zakopane.

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