Author Archives: polandianguest

Operation Heads

Another post by mochafueld (Lon). There’s no holding him back once he gets started. Edited slightly by me, scatts.

A giant statue of French President Charles de Gaulle in the middle of Warsaw? Why is there a giant cross near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? What is that symbol that I keep seeing on buildings of what looks like an “anchor with a P?” These are just some of the questions I asked myself as I started to spend time in Warsaw last year. I quickly learned that Warsaw’s streets, statues and buildings have many interesting stories to tell to anyone who will stop to look and read (or even a Google search). More interestingly I have found that Warsaw has many stories that lay buried or unmarked due to Communist era suppression, lack of funds, or just being lost to time and the destruction of Warsaw in 1944.

I will admit I am one of those people who loves history and taking trips to visit obscure battlefields or museums just to walk the ground and lean more. It was this curiosity and a chance picture I took off a plaque on the ground in front of Park Ujazdowski, located on Aleje Ujazdowski street, that led me to the Story of Operation Kutschera – the assassination of a Nazi SS General in early 1944 by the resistance.

Now I don’t read or speak Polish so it was not until I had a friend translate this plaque followed by a Google search that for me this incredible story and the even bigger story of Operation Heads in in World War II Poland. Briefly, Operation Heads was the Polish Home Armies answer to the cruel treatment of its citizens by the occupying Germans and their collaborators. The answer, targeted assassination of those who were most cruel in carrying out reprisals against the Polish population (in 1942-44, 400 people a day on average were being murdered).*

What fascinated me about this event was that it took place on streets that people now casually walk along every day and near such a lovely park, without really knowing what happened here only a few decades ago. Additionally the men and women who carried out the assassination were mostly teenagers – the plaque talks about a 14 year old girl who took a dangerous and key position in full view of the Germans so she could signal the start of the action. Today this event is honored every year by the Polish Boy Scouts and a rock/plaque stands in front of the building where the event happened.

I set out to find out more and took a few pictures along the way, which can seen in the slideshow below.

Reading about this WW II operation led me to consider what other pieces of history was I missing out on? Over the next few months I spent time; at the Casino Monument (dedicated to Polish soldiers who fought in Italy) at Ratusz Metro, tracked down the story of the statue at the Plac Bankowy tram stop (Mayor of Warsaw in 1939 who disappeared into concentration camp), was shown the still standing parts of the Warsaw ghetto walls and toured the old Jewish Cemetery with a Polish friend, dug further into the incredible story of the only British airman to survive the explosion of his bomber (delivering supplies to the uprising in 44) over Park Skaryszewski in Praga and read as many plaques (i.e took a picture and asked a friend later!) that I came across. My eyes were opened to the incredible history that that Warsaw has to tell. Curiosity killed the cat, but I was enjoying it.

Now I am not going to give you the answers to my opening paragraph that will be up to the reader. A great starting point for people visiting Warsaw is the Uprising Museum dedicated to the events of 1944; you will find a lot of information here and if you want to learn more I am sure the staff can help. It should be noted again that many of the interesting stories from WW II and that emphasize Polish nationalism were suppressed under communism so finding the locations or stories themselves take a little work.

Another story from Operation Heads that of Operation Burkl. This was the second action of Operation Heads and the first success. The assassination of Franz Burkl took place at the junction of Marszałkowska and Litewska. The shot below, taken from the linked website, which is very helpful by the way (but in Polish) shows how the junction looked then. In the slideshow is a shot of how it looks today.

How it looked in 1943

So I/we would love to hear from the readers what places have they discovered or would suggest are worth visiting or knowing more about?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*It must be noted that between 1940-43 over 250,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw ghetto to German concentration camps to die plus another 50,000 died in the uprising of 1943.

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Park Ujazdowski – the best park in Warsaw?

Lon (mochafueled) is back with another guest post for Polandian. This time about a nice park, with no litter!

So what is the best park in Warsaw?

For me Park Ujazdowski located on Aleje Ujazdowskie is the best of many great parks in Warsaw. Warsaw’s public parks are its special treasure in my opinion and I am sure others would agree. I can’t say I have visited every green spot in Warsaw but I can say I have spent time in the most well-known of them during my visits to this interesting capital city. As the city gets ready for Euro Cup 2012 I thought I would state my favorite and urge a visit by those who passing through and ask readers their opinion on the best park and will even expend the question to include other Euro Cup 2012 venues Poznan, Wroclaw and Gdansk.

Dedicated in 1896 and then renovated again in 2000-2002 this small park bordering the more famous Łazienki Park and located only a short distance from several embassies is for me the perfect combination of greenery, lake, statues, walking paths, and benches. Also well maintained and clean, probably as a result of closing at night. This can be also be said for a couple of other parks but for me this place and its quiet peaceful surroundings just draws me in and is that place that I go when I need to relax and just walk or sit for awhile. I will let a few pictures speak for me both winter and spring/summer. This is a park to be enjoyed year round.

Also this park was also played a role in a famous WW II assassination and gun battle in early 1944; a marker on the sidewalk bears witness to a part of the remarkable story of “Operation Heads”.

Further information on the park history

Further reading on WW II event, which will be subject of a more detailed forthcoming post on Polandian.

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The trashy side of Warsaw

This post is brought to you by the delightful – Lon (mochafueled) – who will be available for questions and arguments in the comments section.

Who’s Responsibility….

Lovely clear blue skies, a gentle breeze with a pleasant warm temperature I started my walk along the Wistula River this past Sunday. Starting at Poniatowski Bridge at a little after the lunch hour I started a leisurely walk north towards the Old City along the water front.

View across the Vistula to the new football stadium

I had put out of mind my experience the previous week, World Earth Day, of all the broken glass, discarded beer and wine bottles and overflowing trash cans that I saw along the way. Sadly I was greeted again by broken glass, bottles and trash every few meters along the cement steps that line the water front of the west side of the river all the way to the Old City. But what struck me most was all the people casually sitting or congregating amidst this mess and blight on the river bank. It was if I was experiencing an Emperor has no clothes moment…. All the rubbish but no one see’s or will speak up.

Overflowing trash bins. A cunning plan to make sure there's no space for bombs.

I had also just come from a walk in a park with a Polish friend. When I pointed out to her the bits of bottle caps and trash near our bench she agreed with my disgust but with one difference, she felt no obligation to help clean it up… as a tax payer she felt it was not her job, which left me wondering how many other people feel that the cleanliness of Poland is not their job. I have seen plenty of trash filled parks and roadsides in the last eight months.

Łożma Export, a unique beer with a soul - apparently.

Poland is full of people who love nature; to run, bike, hike, canoe and camp in its beauty. But yet on more than one occasion I have come across filth in public spaces while people just blindly carry on around it. Except for a Facebook post on the US Embassy page I would not have known last Sunday was World Earth Day and Poland was clearly not doing anything special to clean things up. I could put this all down to another 3rd world country too busy with living to care about its public spaces. But Poland is not a 3rd world despot and is supposedly trying to clean itself up for Euro 2012 in a few weeks… but from what I see it matters not what work the local governments do to clean up the city if the people of Warsaw do not pitch in and help. What will greet football fans who venture here will be a dirty city trying to hide its crumbling pieces and dirty parks and roads.

Beer 2 - 0 Vodka

So I ask who is responsible for a clean Warsaw and a clean Poland. Is it the government or the people? It would only take ONE person with a heart to love and clean this city to make a difference and show the world a clean and lovely landscape.

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President Ronald Reagan Centennial and Poland – A reflection on 21 years.

Maybe it is the cold weather here in Warsaw and the fact I was walking from a modern warm coffee shop in Centrum to the area of the US Embassy to view yet another statue of former US President Ronald Reagan unveiled on November 22nd (I was at unveiling of another in Budapest in June). As I walked I started to think back 20+ years to a time when Poland was still behind a wall (of Iron) and the idea of sitting in a coffee shop reading western papers while drinking coffee from Costa Rica was maybe a very distant dream for Poles. Weather and smell are two things that remind me of time and places. The first time I remember being really cold (being from California) was when I arrived in W. Germany (FRG) as a young US Army PFC in November 1987 to begin my Germany assignment. Ronald Reagan was a president embattled both with Iran-Contra and engaging Gorbachev in summits while the mujahedeen in Afghanistan were shooting down Soviet helicopters with American missiles. Books like Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy along with movies like Red Dawn were popular. My memories of Poland from that time are of Solidarity constantly in the news. I know Pres. Reagan gave a famous Christmas speech in 1981 but I don’t remember it amongst all the other TV news of that period.

In 1987 the Iron Curtain was strong and the idea of anything different was hard to contemplate. As soldiers, we trained for WARSAW PACT tanks coming through the Fulda Gap and to survive NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) warfare. From my perspective listening in on the Soviets and her allies every day was an electronic war of cat and mouse, looking from light into darkness. Then suddenly it was over. I remember seeing trains coming through German train stations at the end of 1989 and/or early 1990 full of cheering Germans (west and east)… the wall was down…. the Iron Curtain that divided nations and peoples was no more.

Even so, the idea of me someday visiting Poland or other Eastern Block countries was still very much an unattainable dream (I made my first visit on a weekend trip to Czechoslovakia in 1992 as a college student). This year, 2011, is being celebrated in many places as the Centennial (100 years since his birth) of President Ronald Reagan. Many people credit President Reagan’s leadership and tough stance toward the Soviet Union as ultimately bringing about the collapse of the USSR and helping to free Poland (I do know Pope JP II played a big role too).

I invite you as readers of Polandian to comment on 21 years since the crack appeared in the Iron Curtain in Berlin (I do know Poland played a big role going back even further). All these years later does the memory or Pres. Reagan mean anything to you? What was your life (or your parents) like back then? Do other public figures such as the Pope or your politicians at the time hold more prominence in your memories? Do you feel you life is better now than if events of 1989 had not occurred the way they did?

I have asked some of my students and local friends about Reagan, the fall of the wall, and what memories they have. Surprisingly the comments have ranged from life is to busy apathy to hostility towards my question and the United States. I get the impression in today’s younger generation no one really thinks much about back then and the events that unfolded and how things were. I do apologize in advance if my Americanized perspective offends anyone, that is not my intention.

"Honey, I forgot to duck."

(Guest writer Mochafueled, after many visits to Poland is currently in Warsaw and trying to make Poland home for a while. Mostly he is exploring all the best locations for eating potato pancakes and goulash while sharing a few words of American English with students).

Six Years in Poland

As of the 15th of August I start my seventh year of life in Poland. I thought I’d take some time to look back on the previous six years and think about what has changed and what hasn’t.

Porsche, Apple, Hard Rock Cafe and Habanero logos and images

Lovely things you can buy now

We have, for the most part, more choice. Just this summer I’ve found loose habanero peppers at Alma, something unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s also been possible to have stuff shipped often for free from Amazon, from the UK, for a year or two now. While you need to visit Warsaw and Warsaw only to buy a Ferrari, you’re spoiled for choice if you want to buy a Porsche as there are dealerships spread across Poznan, Warsaw, Sopot and Katowice of all places. A few years back we saw the arrival of Subway sandwich shops and, in the last year, we’ve seen both Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe show up in Warsaw and Krakow. The restaurants in general are getting a bit better as Poles start to appreciate true, authentic dishes that taste just like what they’ve had while on holiday. Apple’s iPad was even simultaneously released here at the same time as Canada, Japan, the UK, and Norway  received it, although there is still no iTunes store and no Apple stores.

While we have more choice, I’m not sure that customer service has improved.  I know that many decry the American style of cheery, upbeat – almost maniacal – customer service but against the alternatives of disinterest, indifference and downright incompetence, I know which I prefer.  If things are improving, it is sporadic.  I hope that as more Poles return from working abroad they will both demand better customer service and provide better customer service, having provided it and experienced it away from Poland.

Speaking of being abroad:  we can travel, often do and now more than ever any destination is reasonable even if it is exotic. I don’t know if this is a Polish thing, a Central European thing or a European thing …but Poles travel widely. Of course, all the usual, fairly close or cheap places are frequently visited. However, I have friends or colleagues that have traveled to the Galapagos Islands, Peru, China and elsewhere. In just six years my wife and I have spent at least one or more nights in 13 European countries. Since we’ve been included in the Schengen Zone and since a number of countries have opened themselves to Polish workers, it seems as though Poles travel even more.

President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek

President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek

The political situation here is better as well. Note that I say “better” not “good”. Right after I moved here PiS gained power and it was like Bush III: Po Polsku. A few years back, though, and PO gained power and turned the dial down on the rhetoric. Smolensk happened and paved the way for a PO PM and President, removing an outlet used by PiS to maintain the appearance of popular legitimacy while at the same time allowing them a platform from which to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. A few years back Jerzy Buzek was elected President of the European Parliament and his time there has been largely a success, even if he has presided over the European Parliament at a difficult time. Just recently Poland assumed the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

For Krakow, in particular, the job situation seems to be very good. There’s been an explosion of outsourcing companies here and for workers with a bit of experience and/or education it’s possible to earn, relatively speaking, quite a lot of money. The problem is that things are almost too good – the market is extremely competitive and as such has driven wages up very rapidly. I’m worried that this isn’t sustainable but only time will tell.  Elsewhere the job market seems good and I’m sure it is booming for people that export, as the Zloty has recently dived into the toilet for the umpteenth time.  Unfortunately, the jobs need to be good since so many young couples took out home loans in Swiss Franc and have seen their payments balloon by anywhere from 50 to nearly 100 percent.  Since it is likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare to file for bankruptcy in Poland, I suspect that most will simply accept the utterly crushing debt and make budget cuts until they can just barely afford it, keeping whatever remains of their sanity by repeating the mantra “it will go back down”.

Accident warning

Warning: Homicidal Drivers Approaching

Unfortunately, a critical point that hasn’t changed for the better – at all – is how people drive. It’s as terrible as ever, with the most unthinking, self-centered, and reckless behavior occurring constantly. There seems to be very little desire on the part of the government to honestly crack down on this sort of thing and so it continues with no improvement in sight. As a result, people routinely die on Polish roads at rates that are many times higher than in almost every other country in the EU. Poland is a dangerous place to be a pedestrian or a driver in and will be until Poles stop making excuses like “the roads are crap”, “the trees…”, “it’s OTHER drivers that are bad, not me”, “I’m not drunk; I can drive ok”, etc. At least there are “more” roads and they are a bit better but from a visitor’s point of view it is still abysmal.

Another thing that hasn’t significantly changed is how religious people are and, in general, how religion here is treated. While I know of a few others that haven’t been married in a church, they are in the very, very small minority. Remarkably, I recently did happen to see a Hasidic Jewish person working at Makro here in Krakow. I think it is the first time I’ve seen someone who is clearly a local and who clearly is Jewish. I was quite pleased to see this but, in general, Poland remains very deeply monotheistic. I do think that the influence of the church in most Poles daily lives is waning but there is a vocal minority that continues to agitate for zero abortions, no business on Sunday, etc.

Polish Border Crossing Sign

There Be Dragons Here (Smok Wawelski!)

Last but not least:  the situation for foreigners in Poland.  I believe there has been a slight improvement here.  More people speak English, for one, but coverage is sporadic at best.  I’m sure I’ll get plenty of stick for this but, I’m sorry, if Poles want tourists, if we want to do business with foreigners, and if we want visitors to have a positive impression of Poland we need to speak English.  Signs and information at museums, monuments, government-owned sights and other similar locations need to be provided in at least Polish and English and, ideally, Polish, English, German and likely one other language (French?).  Don’t bother telling me that everyone that visits or moves here needs to learn Polish; every ex-pat has heard it a million times.  The fact of the matter is there are a billion people that speak English and about 50 million that speak Polish.  You can also stop calling it “Polish for Foreigners” and start calling it “Polish as a Second Language”.

There are probably a dozen or more things I’ve missed or not included here but, in general, I would argue that things have improved. I would also argue that they haven’t improved quickly enough and that there is still a long, long, long way to go before Poland is equal of France, Germany or the UK. My hope, though, is that we get there some day and my belief is that we can get there if we are determined.