Tag Archives: WARSAW

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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PKiN loses a few carbuncles

The PKiN would not win any beauty contests but it does have a certain Stalinist charm and balance that was deeply upset by the addition of a collection of massive “Zepter” adverts encircling the lower roof above the entrance to the Sala Kongresowa.

These appeared about a year or more ago, seven big, ugly, unimaginative and very much in your face billboards staring down at Emilii Plater. Heaven only knows how permission was gained to do such a thing. Can only be friends in high places, large contribution to party funds or both but they went up and stayed up.

We should be grateful for Euro 2012 and the fan zone because a part of preparing Plac Defilad was to remove the Zepter ads and leave the billboards plain white. I was expecting them to be used for projections or ads from the sponsors but nothing more happened, they saw out the football championships in virgin white.

A couple of weeks ago a massive crane arrived and a few workers wielding big spanners dismantled everything and took it all away. It is now, with the exception of the equally obscene sign for the cinema, back to its former, almost original, glory. Hurrah!

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I think Warsaw needs to hurry up and come to terms with the PKiN and either fully embrace it or knock it down. This whole attitude of “Well it’s there but we don’t like it” is holding back development of the most significant part of the city’s architecture and town planning and leading to stupid decisions like Zepter ads. My vote is to keep it, love it, restore it, use it. Make it yours. If anything, this hesitation and indifference is just prolonging the the impact of communist times, exactly the opposite of what is intended.

The money for demolition can be better used elsewhere and anyway it would only be replaced by equally naff modern versions of the same thing when the right thing to do (if demolished) would be to restore the historical city centre layout and buildings – a monumentally massive and expensive task. It’s there, you’ve let the right time for demolition slip by (1989) so let’s make the PKiN our friend and an expression of modern day Poland not a pile of Stalinist bricks.

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The Guardian does Poland

For the past four weeks, Britian’s The Guardian newspaper has run a series it has called New Europe. It has spent one week each analysing Germany, France, Spain and finally in the past week, Poland. The introduction to the series says “Who are our neighbours? Too often Europe is discussed and reported through its common institutions or purely in terms of its relations with Britain. Starting today, the Guardian’s Europe season looks in depth at four European countries – with a week exploring every aspect of their cultures, economies and day-to-day lives.”

As a further part of the lead-in, a survey was also completed in each of the four countries and in the United Kingdom and an overview of the results was presented. And finally, an interactive guide is shown giving information on all EU countries and how they compare in the areas of population, life expectancy, education levels, personal technology ownerships levels, and financial indicators such as cost of living and savings levels.

During the past week of Monday April 4th to Saturday April 9th, there have been many articles related to Poland specifically and they can all be found in the Poland sub-section of the New Europe featured area 0n the Guardian website. The majority of the articles also appeared in the print versions of the newspaper during the week. Below is a quick summary of some of the main articles and highlights from the week covering Poland.

Current Affairs, Politics and History

This section covers some of the articles covering topics such as:

A Jewish renaissance – which highlights efforts by Krakows Jewish Centre in particular in raising awareness.

The giant Swiebodzin Jesus – which of course raises a debate on religion and the Church’s influence in Poland.

Poland gets to grips with being normal – which of course raises a debate on religion and the Church’s influence in Poland.

Feminism in Poland – where the author gives some interesting examples of experiences with industry colleagues being condescending bordering on sexist.

Culture, Sport, the Arts & Entertainment

This section looks at how Poland is developing in terms of culture and other such areas.

Guardian Readers Tips – these include suggestions for cultural options and other highlights, including parts of Poland to visit outside of the urban areas.

How football hooliganism still haunts Poland – While this article does present the spectre of hooligans arranging ‘ustawki’ fights, there are also some other articles highlighting positives that Euro 2012 will bring such as stadium building, infrastructure redevelopment and a podcast from Jonathan Wilson with interviews with Grzegorz Lato and Lech Wałęsa where the hope is that hosting Euro 2012 will help to increase Polands self-confidence as a country.

Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz – with the poem ‘The World’ written in 1943 being a personal favourite of his

Travel & Tourism

This section highlights some of the features presenting Poland cities and other locations and what is worth seeing, including

Top ten Warsaw hotels to consider – these range from Le Meridien Bristol and the Rialto, to a hotel not even yet open – the Old Embassy – which is based in the former Soviet Embassy and not scheduled to open until September.

The locals guide to Kraków and Warsaw – with tips on places that you won’t necessarily find in the regular guide books

Kraków vs. Warsaw – a few more shots are fired in the never-ending debate of which of Polands two main cities can claim to be the best. With a notable appearance from our own Jamie Stokes (also representing the Krakow Post), as he battles with Dana Dramowicz of the Warsaw Life publication. They verbally spar to win the hearts and minds of those not yet decided on the subject.

Top trips in Poland – including Lancut castle, walking in the Karkonosze mountains and taking a steam train in Wolsztyn.

Food and Drink

This culinary section aims to present a taste of Poland, notably:

Guardian Readers Tips – these include suggestions for cafés, restaurants and bars in the main cities in Poland

How to cook perfect borscht (barszcz) – which also includes some free geo-political comments as a discussion builds over who has the best claim to ‘own’ the recipe

A pierogi recipe – or Polish ravioli as it is described on the webpage.

A recipe for roast duck with apples – with a suggestion to try with a dry red wine.

A gołąbki recipe – Suggested as being similar to the recipe of the babcia of the author

Summary

To summarise, the series overall is aimed at increasing knowledge of other European powers for British readers. The series (and articles on Poland) work fairly well in that regard as many pieces of information are presented that would not be known without regular exposure to Poland or Polish culture. However a disappointing recurrence was how the majority of articles were not written by Poles. This lead to some inaccuracies in information presented (often quickly pointed out) and also lead to a ‘parachute’ feeling – where it felt like the author was dropped into Poland for a few days – the article on the Polish family even mentioned how the author just landed with them for a few days, as opposed to presenting the views directly from the family.

Another feature seemed to be some articles being presented (perhaps deliberately) in a way to induce as many comments as possible on the web version of the article. The pieces on ‘Debunking Myths’ in particular seemed to rouse those commenters who shout loudest to say “Poles go home”, “Poles are lazy” and “Dey tuk ar jabs”. Ironically it seemed that bringing out these elements went against the Guardian’s message of getting to know the other countries and cultures.

Overall, it was a good series, but a suggestion for improvement would have been to have less articles (perhaps 20 or 25 instead of the 67 Poland-related ones) which could go into more detail and ensure accuracy of information and present more real views. Some articles felt too short to provide anything more than a discussion starting device which tended to decend into extremer viewpoints being aired.

All images are from the Guardian interactive guide to the EU countries with the original source data coming from the Economist.

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Geo-tagged maps of Krakow and Warsaw

Here’s a cool and non-controversial thingy: maps of Warsaw and Krakow superimposed with visualizations of where people take photos. They were created by a chap called Eric Fischer, along with a lot of similar maps of other cities that you can see on his flickr page.

Using location data added to photos on Flickr and Picasa, Fischer plotted where photos were taken, and then coloured them according to whether they were taken by residents or tourists—a trick he achieved by classifying individuals who took photos in the same city over a period of more than 3 months as residents, and less then 3 months as visitors. Red dots indicate photos taken by visitors, blue by residents, and the yellow are unknown (individuals who took only one photo).

Click the image for an absolutely enormous version covering a wider area. Can you identify the hot spots? There are some clusters in outlying regions that must represent the work of local photography enthusiasts. Anyone we know?

The second map is of Krakow, but in this case the colours represent distance in time between photographs taken by the same individuals. Fischer interprets this as photos taken by pedestrians (black), photos taken by cyclists (red), and photos taken by drivers (blue).

Click the image for a huge version and indulge your compulsive pattern-recognition disorder.

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Warsaw -Institutional racism leads to violent death of Nigerian?

I confess, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen and now, sadly, it has.

Last Sunday, the police carried out a “routine inspection” of what used to be the “Russian Bazaar” in the Praga district of Warsaw and ended up shooting dead a Nigerian called Maxwell Itoyi. Today there is a protest march in Warsaw in the name of “Solidarity against racism and police violence”. The Police say they did nothing wrong and have several of their kind injured as proof this was not a one-sided affair. Many others, including eye witnesses, disagree and see this as the unjustified shooting of an innocent man just because he was black.

The bazaar used to occupy the area that is now the construction site for the new National Stadium. The new stadium will be the jewel in the crown of Poland’s venues when it hosts the 2012 European Football Championships and will be visited by many thousands of visiting foreign fans. It is reasonable to assume that the government would not wish to have these visitors’ impression of Poland spoiled by an encounter with what has always been a slightly dodgy bazaar and so it is also reasonable to assume that there is an agenda to move, close or seriously upgrade this bazaar before the visitors arrive. I suspect the action last Sunday was at least partly connected with that agenda.

I’ve wandered around the Russian Bazaar a few times myself, in the old days when it was inside the old stadium. Despite being warned about it, nothing bad happened during my shopping for illegal software, beaver-skin hat and replica NKVD uniform but I did notice on latter trips the growing presence of Nigerians using their often slightly over-aggressive sales techniques. This is not unique to Warsaw of course, you can find the same people selling slightly different goods (although the African masks and carved giraffes are always part of it) anywhere in the world. Last year we encountered them in Pisa, Italy.

African bazaar Pisa

The year before that on the beach in Marbella, Spain. No, I don’t have a thing about photographing Nigerian salesmen, I just take too many photos so I usually have at least one of what I’m looking for!

Marbella Nigerians

So, we have a few of the ingredients for trouble already in place – a lot of black people being slightly pushy in a dodgy part of town that the city would like to clean up. What was missing, until last Sunday, was an over zealous and armed police force with little experience of all the issues that hang around the term “racism” and make the lives of anyone in the position of having to manage such situations pretty much impossible. Given that the few Nigerians in the Russian Bazaar probably account for a significant percentage of all blacks in Poland, it might be perfectly reasonable to assume that the Nigerians are far more widely travelled and experienced in the unwritten rules of racism than are the Polish police force. This might have worked to Maxwell’s disadvantage. I mean, in the UK after so many years of accusations of racism and accidental shootings a British policeman would have to be pushed almost to the point of his own death before he’d dream of shooting a black man, or indeed a person of any colour that’s not milky white. The Polish police force has absolutely no experience of these things and is therefore just starting to understand the additional consequences involved shooting a black person as opposed to shooting anyone else, which might be summarised as “guilty of a racist attack until proven innocent”.

At times like this it is hard to know exactly what to believe. The people on Maxwell’s side claim he was a wonderful guy who would never dream of causing any trouble. The police say otherwise and claim there have been increasing incidents of violence against the Police (presumably perpetrated by Nigerians in the bazaar). Experience suggests to me that both may well be right and that Maxwell was just a very unfortunate victim of circumstance. There probably are some dodgy Nigerians in the bazaar who might push things either because that’s just the way they are or because they don’t like the police interrupting their legal/illegal trading or because they know the race/minority thing is on their side. Equally, there probably are policemen who are racist and who are tired of having to accept violent and provocative behaviour from the Nigerian ‘gangs’ and who would welcome the opportunity to open fire. It is therefore entirely understandable that an incident such as last Sunday could and would take place and also that the frequency of such incidents is bound to increase.

For the moment, the attitude of the citizens not directly involved appears to be one of coming down firmly on the side of Maxwell and his friends. This might be because of a general mistrust of the police, a knowledge that Maxwell was innocent or a general wish to side with a downtrodden minority who have such wonderful reggae music and like to smoke ganja. Who knows? What will be interesting to see is how public attitude might change as and when the impact of immigration and the number of black faces on the streets starts to have a much more significant impact on everyday life outside of the Russian Bazaar than it does right now.

I don’t know about you but I DO want an effective police force in Poland, one that can deal with nasty people who might otherwise make my life difficult or dangerous whether they be black, white or yellow, Nigerian, British or Vietnamese. I’m also fair minded enough to recognise the impossible situation they find themselves in when it comes to using firearms. The only occasions on which a shooting is immediately justified is when they hit either Osama Bin Laden or a nutter offloading a semi-automatic in the school playground, anything less that that and they’re in trouble. However, if having an effective police force means they carry out routine inspections of bazaars armed to the teeth then they had better make damned sure the police officers are better trained with the use of weapons and/or better psychologically selected for the job than they are now because I wouldn’t want anyone I know to be the next innocent (and dead) victim of bad policing.

As Poland is now at the beginning of this particular journey I think we also have the chance to get the balance on racial issues such as this correct before it goes too far. I’m not alone in thinking the pendulum in the UK has swung too far in the direction of favouring racial minorities against all common sense and to the point where there is strong positive discrimination for them and against the main body of white Christians in the population. People, the police especially, have to work with one hand tied behind their backs when dealing with minorities for fear of the “race card” being played and them getting into a lot of unnecessary trouble. The case of Ali Dizaei of the UK’s Metropolitan Police Force is a good one for Poles to read and try to avoid the nurturing of institutional anti-racism.

Maxwell might have been the first, but he certainly won’t be the last.

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