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Monday, June 27, 2011

Plaques of Sorrow

I don't know whether Poland is a mourning nation stuck in the present or a modern country stuck in its history. Perhaps its both or somewhere in between. It is confused like every country.

The sun shone, the birds sang and the churches watched everything - like little old women on misty morning porches. Tourists like us adjusted our sunglasses and stumbled along behind a guide. "So and so built this church or this university building or this garden"... but every single anecdote ended with the same thing... "before it was destroyed."

Plaques are ubiquitous in Warsaw, this time-traveling city. On every street, the passerby is reminded about who was killed or what used to stand here before it was leveled. The historical umbilical cord that connects the Warsaw of 2011 to the Warsaw of 1945 and onward is unmistakable in its strength and you simply cannot spend more than a moment in the city without thinking about the tragic events that took place on the very stone upon which you stand.

(34 people were shot here on December 12th, 1943)


The four of us were in Warsaw for a weekend, led around by one of my close friends, who, I suspect, is having his own identity crisis. He has traveled to the city so many times that he knows it like the back of his hand. It seems that now Warsaw is his adopted home and for us, this was a blessing.

The construction work at every street corner struck us on the train ride in but really hit home when we emerged out of the station into central Warsaw. Scaffolding and cranes and cordoned off areas seemed to shy away from our gaze in futility. Poland is going through tremendous change, both socially and economically. It is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and Warsaw is probably its flagship city in this respect. Shiny brands sneer at you from electronic billboards that cling to the skyscrapers.

The most imposing building in the city is the monstrous palace built by Stalin. It resembles a cross between something you would built in an Age of Empires game and the Empire State Building. My friend told us that the Poles hated it and planned to build skyscrapers around it. This was the first time I realised how deeply connected the Poles are with their past and how they live in limbo between wanting to remember and wanting to forget. It is similar to the German paradox except that the Poles were unequivocally victims. Victims of the 20th century.

Our hostel, like most things in Poland, was fantastic value for money. We each paid 25 euros for 2 nights at Tamka Hostel, which was reasonably well located and very cozy. It boasted a 24 hour reception, clean toilets, a 4-bed shared room (which was perfect for us) and free breakfast. Like with all hostels in major European cities - and this is what I love about them - there was a massively diverse mix of guests. We dropped off our bags and went into the middle of town to search for a bar or cafe. It was already midnight by the time our train had arrived and being a public holiday of some sort, many places were shut or closing.

As we walked along one of the numerous pretty streets, we took in the majestic buildings all around us that lit up the night. The plaques followed us too. My dad taught me that you only get to know a city by walking its streets and so I had all my senses open to the pleasant Friday night air. And then out of the blue, we were attacked.

I had seen him out of the corner of my eye: a stocky, crew-cut man of about 25 walking on the other side of the road. As he neared, he shouted something which sounded like a song or chant of some sort. I dismissed it as drunken banter. He clapped me and another friend around the back of the head but failed to make good contact - all he ended up doing was "popping" my collar. Just as we turned around, a large group of men and women who were walking in the opposite direction came to our aid. A gigantic Polish guy who must have been our attacker's age calmly ushered him away from us as we stood in curious shock. I was assured by our guide that this was extremely rare and down purely to alcohol. I was shaken up and didn't really enjoy the rest of our 10 minute walk to the "Back Yard" - a series of bars and cafes knit closely together behind one of the main touristy streets. It was where young Warsowians came to unwind at less trendy prices than on the other side of the touristy stores. I just wanted a beer.

The rest of the night passed rather uneventfully. We had a few drinks and got the last hot-dog from a street vendor. Delicious.


The next day we began by walking through the University of Warsaw Campus. The buildings were all impressive structure with Greek columns and various statues and busts. From a sky-walk over one of the greenhouses in the campus, we got a great view of the Wisla River and the Praga area on the other side. The new National Football Stadium was also a symbol of Poland's intentions - the 2012 European Champions will be held there.

We then headed to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where all of Poland's fallen are honoured. Two sentries spend 3 hour shifts absolutely motionless, rifle in hand.

The large, empty square on the threshold of the Tomb is rather surreal. It's looks totally Soviet - a gargantuan, bare courtyard in the middle of the city. It is now used for military parades though once a cathedral had stood over it. Plans are in motion to rebuild the majestic cathedral and finish the park that it over looks. If I've overused the word "empty" in the last paragraph, its because it is the only word that does justice to standing in that square, next to the Tomb. It is a gaping void in the middle of the city, one as spiritual as it is physical.

The four of us then walked through Old Town, which, because it has almost entirely been rebuilt after the war, is newer than New Town. Grand buildings, palaces and monuments greet you as they do in so many of Europe's historic capitals. And everywhere you are reminded of what stood there. You are sort of whispered to, that what you're looking at is merely an imitation of razed authenticity. The beauty of the place is tarnished only by the fact that it is too beautiful: it is too new, too glossy and too finely cut to be original.

The Poles have done a truly outstanding job in rebuilding their city but as a tourist, you feel that something is not quite there. It is the same feeling you get when you visit Dresden - another city almost completely obliterated by the Second World War. Some of the magic is lost, when a building is reassembled to look just the way it used to. It doesn't diminish the actually aesthetic splendor, it just... it just seems like listening to a song without the bass guitar.


We had a lunch in an Indian restaurant, which was actually fine by me, since I was missing home anyway. The food was nice enough. Tomatoey, creamy Europeanised Indian food.

After eating, we headed to the place I was really excited to see: the Ghetto. And it began with a skyscraper. On the site of the old Ghetto, shiny glass towers had come up. There was a Holiday Inn. All the was left of the Ghetto was one street, that had been left untouched. It was truly decrepit. All the bricks were worn away to different degrees, leaving the walls multicoloured. Every few feet along the side of the 2 story buildings, a portrait-picture of one of the old inhabitants was hung. The looked on awkwardly in the mid-afternoon sunshine. This was not what I had pictured. I kept thinking back to the movie The Pianist and tried to superimpose the snow and the scores of poor Jews upon this street. For a while it worked. A movie can only transport you so far into a realm of horror and suffering. You have to stand there and look at the paint peeling off the dusty walls and really meditate.

In truth the actual street itself was supremely underwhelming. I would have loved to have gone to the Warsaw Uprising Museum we simply didn't have time.

We had an afternoon siesta in the hostel before heading out for the evening. By now all of us had completely forgotten about last night's little incident. We had a few beers at various places. I particularly enjoyed sitting outside, at the foot of yet another beautiful church.

We had a long discussion about German war guilt (my three companions were German) and who should be blamed and how they should pay. It was a lively discussion which brought out many good points and I found myself defending German youth from themselves. They feel obligated, they feel burdened. The world has a tendency to only look so far back into history as it suits them. War turns human beings into animals: should trawl back through the pages of textbooks and pick out those who we think deserve punishment even now? Should animals really be blamed? The beer and that unique European evening "buzz" that flow together in charming piazza's made our chat live long and healthy.

We got into a taxi and made our way over to the nightclub where we had heard there would be a fusion music party, off jazz and funk. The taxi driver spoke English and told us that he used to drive a black cab in London in 1982. I was generally very impressed with the standard of English that we encountered. We didn't really need to speak English as our unofficial guide spoke perfect Polish. The club was inside the courtyard of what looked like an old-style apartment. Upstairs was the jazz-funk floor and the well-lit bar. On the courtyard were chairs and tables and a barbecue that went strong until 6am. Downstairs was the "mainstream" floor with truly cringe-worthy sounds including Ricky Martin and the Back Street Boys. I had a great time and we partied until the sun came up (which was at 3:30am). There were plenty of interesting people there and we all made a lot of new acquaintances. It was as fun and vibrant a night out as I'd had anywhere. Great music, great people and most importantly a great atmosphere. People were more than happy to talk English. We clambered into our beds at some unearthly hour, glad to finally be off our feet.


Sunday was when we had planned to go to the museum and see the famous Park but by the time we woke up and got our bearings, it was already mid-morning. A long, luxurious and grossly unhealthly breakfast at KFC put any chance of visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum to bed. It was an eventful meal as first we were interrupted by a homeless guy who spoke very good English and mumbled something to me about how India and Poland were both ultimately doomed because our governments didn't have control. How uplifting. Then as we were about to finish a Gypsy woman decided to go through our left-overs in search of some half eaten morsels, with her baby strapped precariously to her side. We offered two an entire tub of coleslaw but she refused and instead snatched my drink out of my hand and went on her way. My first encounter with a Gypsy. Interesting. Beggars in India are not that bold or that rude.

After filling ourselves with fried chicken, french fries, soft drinks and other stuff that will make my mum gasp, we decided to have a relaxed day at the Park and recover from the night before. The weather was glorious: bright sunshine, plenty of passing clouds and a pleasant breeze. It was on the breeze that we heard the Pianist.

As we reached the Park, we realised that there was a free open-air piano concert going on. An old lady and her slender fingers cast beautiful, soothing tones over the silent park as listeners of all ages swayed to the breeze and the melodies. We sat there for a good hour, taking in the sights and sounds. The smell of the freshly cut lawns and the glistening laughter of a angelic baby. Each song was a good 10 minutes long and followed by raucous applause from the captivated audience. It was nice to lay down on the soft grass and let the Park swallow you.

She played compositions by the legendary Warsowian, Frederic Chopin. Noon came and the concert was over. We grudgingly got up from the lawn and walked through the giant garden that sprawled through the centre of Warsaw.

There were beautiful buildings, ponds and water features at every turn. The people were out in force, today. Poles of all ages were frolicking through the lush greenery and rippling man-made lakes. It was serene.

We chanced upon a Greco-Roman style amphitheater that was used to show evening plays and ballets but in the afternoon sun, the only performance was by the 3 large peacocks that had made the stage their own. They cawed and cooed in unison. As soon as one started his cry, the other two followed not a split second later. Children who ventured too close were sent laughing/crying back to their parents by the colourful tail-feather display that peacocks are known for.


We waited for our train back to Germany at the large shopping mall that sat next to Warsaw's central train station. The mall was like any of the hundreds I've seen in my life. It was a characterless beast of translucent plastic and consumer culture. I suppose it was a necessity in today's world, where a world city has to tick certain check-boxes. I mean, as far as shopping malls go, it was nice. It had all the usual bells and whistles. It had the designer stores and the multiplex and the Food Court. But to me, it felt forced. Maybe that's because I've seen so many places in the developing world try and imitate American Mall Culture (TM).

We had cold coffees and reflected on a eventful and fun-filled weekend. The scuffle on the first night seemed years ago and I didn't even care any more. Was it one drunk guy or something symptomatic of a deeper attitude towards foreigners that Poland has to deal with? I don't know enough to make a judgement but that same incident could have taken place on any street in the world on a Friday night - I've traveled enough to know that.

I thought about the lovely rebuilt buildings. I thought about how at every square there is an information board showing either an artist's rendition of that plaza in the Industrial Revolution or a black and white photograph showing the destruction after the war. I had never been to a city with this kind of "in your face" history. Even in the main Warsowian newspaper, there is a full page every day, dedicated to something that happened during the Nazi occupation or Cold War. Whether it was the history of a cafe or a survivor's account of some gruesome incident. Even the newspapers paraded the tragic history of the city at every chance.

I learnt from our guide and from talking to other Poles at my university, that the Soviets are just as disliked as the Nazis, if not more. I don't need to tell you about the Warsaw Uprising or Katyn or any of the atrocities they exacted upon the Polish population. They are simply another oppressor. Any enemy of the state and the people and an enemy that, now that it has dissolved, I suspect the Polish people will also struggle to come to peace with. Not "come to peace" in a sense of forgiveness, but to begin a process whereby history can be seen purely as history and not as a cosmic battle of "us versus them". I don't wish to sound pretentious; who am I to lecture the Poles?

All that I think I want to see is a better way to deal with sorrow then to put up stark plaques - and they are stark. I have a feeling that many Polish people see the state of their country today as a direct consequence of the ancestors of their neighbours in Germany or Russia. It seems to me that there is still a lot of anger and frustration that the nation as a people must come to terms with. People must walk past those plaques everyday. Normal Poles must pass them on their way to get bread in the morning or reach a bar in the evening. I just think that the current situation is not in balance. Just like the Germans are trying to reconcile, I think there is some soul-searching that has to happen, for the country to truly be at peace with itself.

Warsaw is a beautiful city but my shoulders are wet from its weeping walls.


Vijay Bhat said...

What a beautiful article, Shravan!

You have really captured that unique, bitter-sweet flavour of Warsaw ... it brought back vivid memories of my own trips there.

So nice to see the 'holiday report-writing' that we forced upon you during your childhood coming good too!

Love, Dad

Vijay Bhat said...

I loved the Shravanisms. Especially the last line. "My shoulders are wet from its weeping walls"..lovely.

You have sensed something very important. The phenomenon of a nation's and peoples' collective psyche carrying a wound and 'victim-hood'. We are not to judge when it is time to heal, let go and move on. But to move on and overwrite the old story with a new, more enabling, uplifting one is a choice they can make and when they do so, they will heal.

As Victor Frankl says, can they find a new meaning from the past that provides the springboard to the future?

Also, do not dismiss the drunken incident. THANK GOD for the Grace that saved you and protected you and did not make it any worse than it got. There are too many stories of such incidents that do not pass so lightly. Learn from it and be grateful for the Divine protection and stay alert and sharp on your travels.

Love, Mum

Debby said...

Some lovely shots there!
All the very best for the contest.

Vaish said...

lovely pictures especially the ones of "then and now".
I haven't been to poland, but have heard/read and in touch with lots of polish friends. They are the most affected country during the WW2 - particularly during the holocast. It is sad to know that they've been the victims most of the times. So they have that fire burning in them. they often get offensive when we talk about german/holocast in general.

Anukriti Sharma said...

You are one of the best writers I have come across... Lucid and beautiful... you pen down thoughts that makes one think... Your words rejuvenate the memories of Warsaw Jews... I was reminded of The Pianist (my favourite movie) when I read this post... As a travelogue this is a masterpiece! The pictures add essence to your flawless writing... All the best for the contest! :)

Farcenal said...

Thank you all so much! You make me very happy :)