Greetings from Poland – 4

Pozdrowienia z Polski 4 14 March 2008
Greetings from Poland 4

Awhile back Joanna & I had a great meeting at a fancy downtown coffee shop ($12 for two cups of coffee and a slice of cake) with an American woman named Juanita who is married to a Polish author and philosopher-poet named Henryk Skolimowski. She is the sister of my accountant Wayne Cameron (also my daughter Jan’s one-time boyfriend before she married her husband Kevin). Juanita or Joan is a warm and vivacious 60-some lady who is leaving shortly for several months in the US, which she does every year because Poland is hard on her. She and her husband also have a home in Greece where they go every summer. We may meet Henryk sometime because he has a new book for which Joanna may be able to help find a publisher. Henryk has an interesting web site at including quite a few poems of his that I like. The five key tenets of his eco-philosophy are: 1) The world is a sanctuary. 2) Reverence for life is our guiding value. 3) Frugality is a precondition for inner happiness. 4) Spirituality and rationality complement each other. 5) To heal the planet, we must first heal ourselves. {Right on, dude!]

Juanita says that Henryk, although he was a professor at the University of Michigan for a long time, now prefers to live in Poland because of the dark political situation in America. Juanita is also a poet and has published a bilingual book of poems in Polish-English. Juanita told us that when she first arrived here to live in Poland years ago, she was struck at how aloof everyone was, and so she resolved to always smile at women on the street (smiling at men of course is not a good idea) despite how they ignored her friendliness. She persisted in this for months before she got the first hint of a return smile. But that was years ago, in the old hostile Poland. Today she says that she receives smiles in return quite often, a positive sign of the new Poland.


Richard Marcus asked via email about anti-semitism in Poland today. I have seen no direct evidence but then I am a Yankee know-nothing unlikely to. Joanna says that many Poles either dislike or detest Jews, usually to the same extent that these critics are communist, socialist, conservative, nationalistic, or unsophisticated (ie, from the villages). The most liberal newspaper in Poland is Gazeta Wyborcza, for which Joanna used to work, with many Jews on its staff including its director Adam Michnik. Joanna says this paper is widely disliked for being pro-Jewish as well as liberal and democratic — but it is also the strongest voice of intellectual Poland and tells the truth however unpalatable. The recently ousted government of the Kaczynski twins (one president, the other still prime minister) was nationalistic in that it supported the ideal of Poland for Poles, which is to say, no Muslims, no Jews, no foreigners, no non-Catholics. Kaczynski at one point urged Poles to have more children in order to keep out the Muslims hordes. Still, the this government was recently voted out and a more liberal regime presides today.

As for the future, it is impossible to say or guess what will happen. Millions of the best and brightest Poles, usually the youngest, are leaving Poland to work and live in other countries of the European Union and abroad (the biggest group is now in Ireland and UK, fewer in Germany, Scandinavia, France, Austria). Meanwhile, Poles at home are caught between poverty and politics, materialism and Catholicism, modernity and tradition, tempted by the West and afraid of the East.

There is a Jewish Center here that I hope to visit, and I want to learn more about the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. Much to learn. Joanna always points out to me the boundaries of the Ghetto as we drive around town, and points out how in places the level of certain streets slightly rises and falls or how the buildings are placed on embankments — because she says it all is built upon uneven piles of rubble and graves and bodies from the former Ghetto. She is one Pole who never forgets this. Joanna’s historian friend Stanislaw says that during the Ghetto Uprising lasting four weeks in 1943, many sympathetic Poles helped the Jews by supplying them with food and guns as long as they could. There was also Zegota, a Polish resistance organization whose objective was to help Jews during the Holocaust. Among others, Zegota was responsible for saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. So there is also a humane counter-element that is also part of this horrific story.

There are a lot of reports on the internet about modern Polish anti-semitism (and other difficult issues regarding Poland) but it’s hard to assess the truth. Knowing Poles and something of Polish history, I’d say that anti-semitism is strongly and historically rooted in Poland but at the same time is repudiated and disavowed by the best and most liberal modern Poles. (And by liberal Poles of the past, such as the revered Marshall and President Pilsudski of the 1930s).

Joanna says that politicians are one of the main sources of contemporary anti-semitism. The second was always and still is the Catholic Church, which states that Jewish people killed Jesus (while failing to note that Jesus also was Jewish). No, probably Jesus Christ was Polish (it was even proposed in parliament to make Jesus the king of Poland), had blue eyes and long blond hair, so for sure he was Polish. And of course Madonna Mary was obviously Polish and She is the Mother of Polish nation and the only one.

All I can say from my own experience is that there is no blatant anti-semitism here, but any definitive look at Poland must admit and allow that various elements of Polish society have always been and probably will always be brutish, ignorant, prejudiced, and dangerous to more enlightened points of view. Polish history is not pretty but its human stories are indelibly engraved in world history.


A few days ago I went to the Muzeum Powstanie, or the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is a new (2006), world-class, ultramodern, multimedia, must-see attraction that tells the almost unbelievable story of the 1944 heroic and tragic uprising of the Polish underground against the German garrison in Warsaw. It lasted 63 days, during which 18,000 Polish Home Army soldiers died (25,000 wounded), while 180,000 citizens of Warsaw also died (mostly murdered) and what remained of the city was systematically destroyed under Hitler’s orders to wipe Warsaw off the map of Europe. (Reported German losses were 10,000 killed, 7,000 missing, and 15,000 wounded.– which were their greatest losses in any battle except on the Russian front.) To put this in perspective, 5,000 Americans & allies have died so far in Iraq & Afghanistan in five years (about 30,000 wounded) — so the American war deaths are averaging under 3 per day, while the Polish underground army deaths during the uprising were 300 per day, AND 3,000 Polish civilians dying each day. Yet this people’s army resisted longer than did the well-equipped French army in 1940 during the Blitzkrieg. The Warsaw Resistance failed after two desperate months because, not only were they poorly equipped (no planes, tanks, armored cars, artillery, or heavy mortars as the Germans had in abundance), but mainly because they were betrayed by the Russians and virtually ignored by the Allies. In the Spring 1944 Yalta Agreement, before the Uprising, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to abandon Poland to Stalin. As a result, the Polish Home Army felt politically compelled to try to liberate Warsaw from the Germans because they felt it was their best chance to avoid Soviet totalitarianism in the aftermath of WW2. They wanted to show the world that Poland would fight for its own freedom, not only from Germany but from Russia. But they failed, and thus Poland was forced to undergo Communist domination for another four decades following their five years of Nazi domination. Finally, in the 1980s another Polish uprising — the Solidarity Movement — erupted and ultimately succeeded, becoming the first crack in the Iron Curtain that finally toppled the USSR itself. One of the most horrendous aspects of this story is that the surviving Polish leaders of the Uprising were repatriated to Poland after the war, only to be arrested by the Communist government and sent to Russian prisons where they were tortured and murdered. Stalin was as bad as Hitler.

This epic story of triumph and tragedy is told in the Warsaw Rising museum in vivid and graphic detail. The exhibits include an B24 bomber suspended from the ceiling (commemorating some supplies dropped by the Allies during the siege), a 500-foot-long, Vietnam-Vets-style memorial wall engraved with the names of almost 20,000 dead, a re-creation of the brick sewer channels in which the insurgents moved supplies and escaped the incessant air raids, films and combat photographs by the hundreds, a b/w slide show on a large suspended screen showing pre- and post-uprising photos of prominent Warsaw sites, first as handsome buildings and then as piles of rubble still recognizably the same places, and much more in the way of interactive exhibits.

One of these is a video interview with Marek Edelman, a Jewish-Polish hero and leader in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, AND the 1980s Solidarity Movement (which itself was almost a decade-long struggle against Communism that finally succeeded in 1989 with the election of Lech Welesa, and the later withdrawal of Russian troops and bureaucrats). Edelman, a remarkable survivor, is still alive and lives in Warsaw, and has written several books about his experiences of a lifetime struggling against Nazi and Communist tyranny. To me, the museum testifies that resistance against the most monstrous oppression can ultimately succeed if the populace is sufficiently courageous and willing to sacrifice everything for their freedom. The motto of this museum is: “We wanted to be free — and to owe that freedom to nobody else.”

As a kind of postscript to the museum, today Joanna and I drove to Kampinoski National Park, a large forested area north of Warsaw to take a walk in the woods on a budding spring day. Before long we came to the Palmiry cemetery and execution site with 2,200 graves of murdered partisans and citizens including several mayors and even a prewar olympic medalist. Reminders of the great Polish sacrifice are everywhere. Joanna believes the Uprising was disastrous for Poland because it destroyed an entire generation of its finest young people and degraded the national gene pool, but in any case, Poland’s war dead are omnipresent and grim reminders of Poland’s modern heritage.

Lest all this gore and mayhem prove too depressing, there was also a delightful visit we made to Wilanov Palace at the south end of Warsaw, to which one drives on what is still called The Royal Road. This present-day museum was the home of several centuries of kings and wealthy families, and is a treasure-house of antique furniture and art, portrait galleries, and dozens of wonderfully beautiful rooms decorated and embellished to an astounding degree. Their are formal gardens with topiary, lavish statues, a king’s tomb, a private museum of Greek and especially Etruscan art that was collected personally by various owners of the palace, friezes and frescoes, tiles and tapestries, gold and gilt to the max. When you go in, you have to put on disposable plastic bags over your shoes. (We forgot to take ours off and walked around outside in our plastic bags for quite a while.) As we left the grounds, we saw some tiny crocuses poking up through the soil, the first harbingers of spring.


Feels So Damn Good

I wake at night
Needing to pee,
Stagger around,
Find the bathroom,
Void my bladder–
Feels so damn good.

Stagger back to bed,
Blow a cleansing fart–
Feels so damn good.

Lie back down and sigh,
Knowing I can sleep
As late as I want–
Feels so damn good.

Reach out for her
Warm naked body,
Skin pressed to mine–
Feels so damn good.

Back to my dream,
Relaxed and at ease,
Drowsy and smiling–
Feels so damn good.

One thought on “Greetings from Poland – 4

Leave a Reply