Pozdrowienia z Polski 2 2/15/2008
Greetings from Poland 2
I’m gradually trying to get a handle on Poland’s impossibly complex history — 1000 and more years of duchies, monarchies, dictators, invaders, priests, popes, ever-shifting borders, dissolution and rebirth — in an attempt to make some sense of it. Poland disappeared as a country and was divided amongst Germany, Russia, and Austria for 123 years, from 1795 to 1918 — a period roughly approximating all of American history from the Revolutionary War to World War I. Would America come back if it were dissolved? Hmnn. Modern Poland reappeared only with help from America — after the Polish piano master Ignacy Paderewski, who became famous and popular in American due to extensive performance tours, influenced President Wilson to negotiate for Poland’s rebirth as a nation in the aftermath of WW1. A major plaza in Warsaw, Plac Wilsona, celebrates Wilson as the progenitor of modern Poland. There is also a Wazyngtona Boulevard honoring our first president, probably because two Polish heroes, Thaddeus Kosciusco and Casimir Pulaski, served George Washington in the cause of the American Revolution.
Even so, following the Russian Revolution, Russia invaded Poland in 1920, intent on once again destroying its new sovereignty and taking it back. But a small Polish army commanded by the former Russian prisoner Josef Pilsudski defeated a far larger Russian army on the river near Warsaw in what is referred to here as the Wisla Miracle, ensuring Poland’s survival and ushering in a brief Polish golden age under Pilsudksi’s subsequent presidency, with Paderewski as the prime minister.
The national museum here possesses a huge and marvelously interesting collection of art across many centuries and cultural eras. The early Christian pietas (13-14th century) are ornate and gory, with multitudinous, agonized Jesuses repeatedly pricked with bloody wounds and looking at least as scary as the Devil. Then there are myriads of regal portraits of gilded personages, panoramas of gargantuan battles pitting opposing armies in tortured but glorious struggle. Artifacts of bygone times fill gallery after gallery on multiple floors, an overwhelming display of mankind’s fascination with itself at its sorriest. The best part for me was the Polish art, sculpture, film, and more from the 1920s and 1930s, which was clearly a high point here, between the wars when Warsaw society flourished, producing outstanding art little known elsewhere but revered in Poland itself. Then, on September 1st 1939, Hitler attacked from the west, and on September 17th Russia attacked from the east. The Warsovians of that era quickly saw their culturally rich lives turned into ashes and death.
Another fascinating visit was the Warsaw Citadel, a 42-acre prison built in 1835 by the Russians, a classic monument to man’s inhumanity to his own kind. The brute ugliness of this place is awesome, especially when viewed on a misty day with almost no one else there, making me feel alone with history at its most terrible. Graves and crosses, execution plazas, prison cells, torture instruments, walls of victim’s photos –yikes! Imprisoned and murdered here were patriots in the 1863 uprising against Russia, and later victims of countless other persecutions. One cell, draped with red & white banners, belonged to the afore-mentioned Josef Pilsudski, who escaped by pretending insanity that got him transferred out of the Citadel. He became president in the good years between the world wars, 1918-1939, two decades of freedom that saw the development of the country in all areas — industry, economy, culture, art, and architecture. Many other exhibits at the Citadel commemorate Poles who were deported to labor camps throughout Russia and especially Siberia during the 1940s and 1950s. Photos, paintings, and documents attest to their harsh lives in gripping exhibit after exhibit.
Joanna says there can be little understanding of Polish-Russian relations by Americans. She cites the metaphor of someone whose belly is full (America) and someone who is starving (Poland). What does it mean to be Russian slaves for 250 years? What was the damage to the minds, attitudes, health, and personal history of the many Poles who refused to cooperate? — as in the generation of people born in 1920-30s and also for their children behind Iron Curtain until 1989. And then there is the thousand-year-old restrictive influence of the Catholic Church. Joanna says: We had no freedom in any aspect for so long.
Later I walked to the nearby Wisla River along its deserted paths and weed-choked banks, gazing into its swirling waters and existentially wondering what this confusing experience called Life is ultimately about. Nothing much, I guess. It remains a mystery. Like my mom always used to say, all your life you live and learn, then die dumb.
Joanna & I went to Radom again last weekend, continuing the effort to empty her deceased mom’s flat. It’s challenging, not just physically but emotionally. Her baby booties are here, her childhood schoolbooks, her family albums. Her father Witold, an economist by profession, kept detailed records of all the family income and expenses throughout his life, and had shelves of databooks, diaries, journals, magazines — extensive artifacts of a life finally ended by stomach cancer in 1993. Joanna says he suffered from clinical depression because he could not find any satisfaction in life and as an intellectual, anti-communist, and atheist felt like an outsider in his own country. Apparently he literally could not stomach life. His wife Hanna, who died of heart disease last year, was similarly broken-hearted by her life. Dealing with an entire household of personal goods and a complete history of generations of one family is difficult, especially in another town in another country. And it’s all on the fifth floor, 72 steps up and down, 15 trips just this weekend, 20 trips last weekend — like descending a skyscraper on the stairs, laden with luggage, then climbing back up for more!
Best wishes from the ever-expanding present, en route to the ever-shrinking future,
Death In The Family
Losing someone you love
Seems an emotional curse
That keeps extending itself
When their possessions
Need to be disposed of —
Ongoing exposure to pain,
Memory as punishment,
Once-dear objects serving
As instruments of torture.
The beloved dies yet again
As each personal treasure
Reminds us again of loss.
But may we take heart
Knowing the truth that
Death is but life after life, and
Life is but death upon death?
Mac Store Warsaw
On a small side street downtown
In contrast to adjacent old shops,
The modish Mac store in Warsaw
Displays neoteric Amerikanski tech
On polished plate-glass counters
Where flat-screen monitors glow
And crispy white AppleCo boxes
Beckon seductively for ownership
By fresh and green Polish nerdskis
Eager to interface with the West
And join the contempo conspiracy
To transcend the tired toxic past
Embrace the coming toxic future.