Category Archives: UNDERSTANDING POLAND

Warsaw Uprising Museum

I had the chance a few months ago to visit the Warsaw Rising museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego), while in Warsaw. I take a keen interest in history, especially of that time period, and as a result the museum was among the best I have visited. Open since the 60th anniversary of the Rising in 2004, it commemorates the efforts of Varsovians to rise against the Germans during the latter stages of World War 2, trying to give a glimpse of live during the 63 days of insurgency. The museum is styled to provide the full atmosphere of the Rising, from the sounds piped in, to video clips and photos of the time, along with items used in the Rising such as guns, papers and clothing. In a few sections of the museum, they have even laid cobblestones to replicate the streets of the time. Another area simulates the sewers with the brick walls, low ceilings and sounds to be expected, while the official museum cafe is styled out in 1940’s to match the period (although prices are at 2012 levels of course).

It is a very good museum, and well worth visiting if you might be in Warsaw and have a few hours to spare. It’s not too expensive (some days such as Sundays are free entry even) and gives an authentic feel for the Rising atmosphere and experience (also covered in Norman Davies’ book Rising ’44: Battle for Warsaw). I’ll let the below pictures speak for themselves.

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Warsaw Uprising – Book Review

The Warsaw Rising is a topic of strong historical and emotional significance for Poles, but yet is one that is not as visible for many outside of Poland, although it took place at a key time in World War 2, and can possibly be seen as a key trigger for the Cold War. I visited Warsaw a few months ago, and had the chance to visit the Uprising Museum (more to come on that later). Following on from that, I also received a present of the book Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. It is written by Norman Davies, the pre-eminent ‘Western’ writer on Poland and its history. With a strong pedigree in presenting Polish history through examples such as God’s Playground, Davies can be trusted to tell the stories of Poland that were not recognised outside.

Davies presents the story of the Uprising as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century” and “a story that has never been properly told”. In order to frame the story well, it is split into the three parts. First comes before the Rising, particularly trying to focus on Poles and how they were impacted by and were impacting the war so far, in order to give an understanding where the desire for Uprising came from. In the centre of the story he tells about the Rising, chronicling the 63 days from August to early October 1944. This middle section is particularly strong and emotive, as he splices in inserts and personal experiences from those involved, mostly from the perspectives of the Varsovians, but also with German, Soviet, British and American views. And in the final section, he covers the aftermath of the Rising and what it meant for Warsaw, Poles and Poland.

The introduction focuses on Poland as the ‘First Ally’, being the reason why Britain declared war on Germany. By 1944, with the Germans on the retreat and the Soviets advancing through eastern Poland, the decision was agreed to make a break against the tyranny of oppressors and launch an insurgency. However – as Davies recounts – the Rising was beset by issues and looking back had a minimal chance of success. Politics between the Western allies, and within each country involved left the Warsaw insurgents mostly fighting alone. The Germans also chose that moment to stage a fight back, recognising Warsaw as a key defence point as the capital, trying to hold off the Soviet advance. It resulted in them preferring to demolish Warsaw than give it up. There was also the case where the Soviets mysteriously stopped their advance on the east bank of the Vistula for two months, after having made rapid gains in the preceding months. For Poles, it was a repeat of history up to and including 1939, where larger neighbours split Poland as they pleased, and allies were slow to react.

What was particularly interesting from my perspective was the presentation of what the post-war effect was. In terms of Warsaw as a city, 75% of it was destroyed. Up to 200,000 civilian deaths were estimated, meaning the population was decimated. And then with the political wrangling, the Soviets installed the Communist government which would rule for 45 years afterwards. This was the final blow for those who had fought to free Poland. The Communists denied the Uprising taking place, as the lack of Soviet involvement and support was airbrushed from history. This meant insurgents being arrested and tried as ‘anti-Soviet’ with some sentenced to   some going to the Gulags. When recognition was given later for an uprising in Warsaw, the Soviets were fine to acknowledge the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when Poles could begin to talk about the Rising and recognise it. This is partially why those in ‘Western’ countries have little understanding of it.

Davies’ portrayal of the events of August and September 1944 are strong, and his ties to Poland make it a particularly emotive topic. He does not hold back in criticising the bumbling of the Americans and British in trying to support, and their failings through political wranglings in trying to appease Stalin. He recognises the cold approach of the Soviets, which he notes is a fore-runner of the Soviets extending their sphere of influence ending in the Iron Curtain dividing Europe. The communist regime in Poland, and it’s re-writing of history also get criticism, while the citizens of Warsaw get some credit but ultimately it’s seen as a thankless sacrifice which was worthless in the end.

The book is a very strong retelling of the situations. Davies’ emotions shine through but one or two other choices in presentation are difficult to follow. For example, he made a point of anglicizing all Polish names involved of individuals, cities, streets and other locations. For me, this actually confused the story, as I felt I did not connect with the individuals, as the names seemed to be more nicknames or code names. But overall, it told a story I had not heard before and is one all history buffs should be aware of.

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Strangely Park, Warsaw – A neighbourhood like no other

While nobody is looking I thought I might slip in a little shameless self promotion. Might also be of interest to our readers (all three of them!), at least that’s my excuse!

I’m writing a story of a fictional neighbourhood here in Warsaw and the wealth of eccentric characters who inhabit the place. Any resemblance to anything or anyone real is purely coincidental, so my lawyers say.

It is written in my usual style, whatever that is, somewhat humorous, a tad satirical, vaguely informative with scattered boring bits. It has a life of its own and at the moment seems to be coming out as a kind of diary although I have a feeling it may wander around a little. Anyway, I hope you visit and enjoy it. Facebook tells me I need 30 “likes” before it can give me some really useful information….I’ve got one so far, and that’s me! Hmmmm.

Here’s a random sample for you:

Monday, November 12th
Update on the garage works.

As predicted but no less disappointing for the inevitability, the garage was not useable on Saturday, nor Sunday, not today either. I sometimes wonder why they bother typing these info-notes. Even if it was, the Holy Toyota, which was pushed out so they could paint the floor, is now blocking the entrance! Almost as bad, our left-over skirting boards were moved off the floor and hung on the bicycle racks belonging to Penthouse and Slightly Dangerous, her husband (we think), who live above us.

Relations between us and our upstairs neighbours have been strained recently, to say the least. I’ll explain later but suffice to say that our “Hi”s have turned into “Good Morning”s but both have been met with at best a grunt. All we are getting from Slightly Dangerous these days is blank, rather psychotic stares.

There’s more to worry about too. When they pushed the Holy Toyota out, Darth Muller was here and had the keys. He has since returned to Vienna so I’m hoping he left the keys or we might be without a garage for a while. If he did leave the keys that would be uncharacteristically trusting of him believing as he does that all Poles, in fact all humans, are out to get him.

On the plus side it does look as though the whole garage floor has been painted and we have new gratings over the drain. Small mercies.

Anyway, here are the links

STRANGELY PARK BLOG

STRANGELY PARK FACEBOOK PAGE

All support and encouragement gratefully received!

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I Need A Hero!

The sudden rise of Jerzy Janowicz into consciousness over the course of the past few days has highlighted the desire to see a genuine sporting hero emerge from Poland. For those not watching the news at some point in the past few days, Janowicz has risen from mild obscurity to find himself qualifying for the mens ATP tennis tournament in Paris. Simply qualifying would have been considered a huge success for someone ranked as number 221 in the mens world rankings as of one year ago. However, he then performed past any expectations to win five ties and qualify for the final, played today. In qualifying, he proved his potential by beating five players currently ranked in the top 20 of the world rankings. It was only after his quarter final win over Andy Murray though, that he rose to fame and began appearing as a noteworthy person on Polish news reports. Unfortunately, he suffered defeat today in the tournament final, losing in 2 sets to David Ferrer or Spain, but Janowicz’s joy in proceeding so far through the tournament was evident with each successive game.

Jerzy Janowicz shows emotion after his semi-final victory in Paris

The increase in interest through the week showed through his appearance on all of the news reports and sports bulletins, although the 21-year old probably had barely a mention before this. Interviews with parents, coaches and neighbours were all lined up in order to get the low-down on Jerzy and put the spotlight on him. He had some level of success as a junior player, but would expect a big jump in profile now following such success. However, the way in which it has affected life in Poland is interesting. A Yahoo! sports report published yesterday after his semi-final win indicated huge media following already

“Janowicz can now expect to attract some sponsors, especially since TV crews have been besieging his house in Poland. “The street next to my house actually is completely blocked. There is like about nine or 10 cars, TVs, and it’s completely blocked. There is no way to get to my house right now,” Janowicz explained.”

There is even talk of contact from President Komorowski, to congratulate Janowicz on his successful progress through the tournament.

The above seems to highlight the need in Poland to find and hold onto a sporting hero, usually in a sport which is individual. In recent years, the focus has hopped between a few various contenders for the crown of Poland’s most beloved sportstar.

  • For some time, that seemed to be Adam Małysz. In the winter of 2001/02, the Wisła Eagle, as he was known came to prominence through wins in ski-jumping competitions, and became a household name and top contender easch season. He had a strong following, but as success tailed off after the 2006/07 season, he seemed to lose his edge. However, a strong finish gettgin solver in the 2010 Winter Olympics and more success before his retirement in 2011 meant he left well-loved.
  • Justyna Kowalczyk is another name seen as being well recognised across winter sports, with her having the all time record of 10 wins in the Tour de Ski cross-country competitions. She has a hugely impressive record, but has not always gotten the recognition for it, as her style her been based more on power rather than grace which many other skiers use. However, her popularity in Poland has lead to recognition and advertisement for a bank among others.
  • Robert Kubica displayed natural ability for motor racing from an early age, and with success in Formula Renault series, it seemed inevitable for him to move to Formula 1 racing. He built up experience through 2006 and 2007, which then culminated in a race victory in the Canadian Grand Prix of 2008. He continued to progress through 2009 and 201o, getting 7 further podium finished after his win. However, his crash in early 2011 while rally driving in Spain has resulted in him missing 2 seasons of Formula 1 , and there are questions over his potential return.
  • Mariusz Pudzianowski won 5 World’s Strongest Man competitions, more than anyone else, and also finished in second place twice. He has recently switched to MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competitions, with 5 wins and 2 losses from his 8 bouts so far. During his time in the Strong Man competitions, he was a household name and would be easily recognised as one of the best.
  • Agnieszka Radwańska has made strong progress through the ranks of women’s tennis, improving steadily over the past few years and picking up 10 tournament wins. This was highlighted by her reaching the final of the 2012 Wimbled0n tournament, although she lost that over three sets to Venus Williams. She reached the world ranking of number 2 also during this year, showing consistent performance over sustained periods.
  • And now Jerzy Janowicz makes further tennis progress, this time on the mens side.

What connects all the above (in one way at least) is that they are all participating in individual sports, fighting for themselves rather than for a club, group or national team. Apart from the volleyball squads (which do not get the same level of profile, despite good success levels), there seems to be more focus on finding that individual sports hero or heroine who can represent the best of Poland. The expectation is set with a few years of monitoring performances closely, at least until the next new idividual star comes along. Thus the question for Poland will be if Janowicz can pick up the ‘hero’ mantle from those who have gone before.

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Scavenging or Extreme Recycling?

It seems like the concept of recycling is one that is yet to really take off in Poland. I’m not saying it’s not there – in fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see bottle banks, clothes bins and paper storage options in many housing estates and other osiedla – but rather that recycling seems to take place on the hush-hush. Just at the end of the road of the apartment block where I’m living, there are a set of recycling banks which I can’t remember ever seeing people using, but when I am dropping in bottles or other items, they seem to be regularly full of items to be taken away.

In fact, when considering the topic of rubbish and it’s disposal, it is something which is approached on the quiet, in general. Living in an old block, 10 stories high, the main rubbish disposal is an internal ‘piped’ system, where there is a small room close to the lifts on each floor with a pipe then allowing people to drop rubbish down to the large bins on the ground floor. It means that most people won’t need to leave their dressing gown and slippers in order to dispose of garbage. If you pick your time right, your neighbours would never see you throwing things out, and might assume you either never make a mess, or perhaps never clean your apartment.

When previously living in Ireland, it was easy to see that recycling is in-your-face, always available and unavoidable. The slogan “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” is commonly advertised, on television, in newspapers and in other media, with support provided through local and city councils also pushing for householders to use multiple bins to ensure rubbish is split into such categories such as ‘food waste’, ‘paper’, ‘plastic’ and ‘other waste’. While it does ensure a strong positive focus, it also brings out the other end of responses, with some recycling snobs having panic attacks if other people around them are not splitting disposable items correctly. I’m not complaining about recycling, but it is somewhat refreshing that in Poland, it’s something which is done because people want it, rather than being told to do it, or it being in your face.

However, another factor which probably has an impact in not needing to focus on recycling is the kombinować culture. In terms of rubbish, it  seems to manifest itself in the form of scavenging. At least once a week, I have found someone looking through bins or rubbish piles, seeing if something is worth salvaging. In fact, in terms of the building rubbish disposal, it seems to be designed to allow for this as a possibility. In the area the bins are held in within our building, there is a shelf-like space along the side. It happens quite often that people will leave items there that they are no longer using or needing, and rather than simply dumping them, they are picked up by people looking to scavenge something.

You might think that it could be poor or destitute people who resort to trying to salvaging something from rubbish, but there is a surprising level of ‘professionalism’ involved too. I have seen guys with makeshift trollies, bicycles with boxes built-in, and even two guys working as a pair with a torch each, and each one would take on every second door in order to save time and move on quickly. This kind of ‘can-do’ approach sums up kombinować. I have even seen guys make a concerted effort to approach apartment blocks with specific timing associated. Once a month the management company with responsibility for the block will organise a pick-up of major or larger pieces of rubbish to be disposed of – such as furniture or so on. However, the scavengers will try to nip in, a day or a few hours in advance, and see what they can salvage for their own use. I have become accustomed to this now, so that even seeing someone looking in standard rubbish bins on the street (usually looking for tin cans) doesn’t cause any surprise at this stage.

So, recycling is not something I have a feeling is pushed here – but perhaps it’s for the better as, through various routes, people seem to push themselves, in a few different ways.

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