Poland Here, and Poland Now

Poland’s 1989 elections ended communist rule, and have earned 20th anniversary acclamations. With economic pain worldwide, an Economist piece on Eastern and Central European nations under strain said that in Poland “things look better” by a sturdy margin. Relations with Russia remain testy: At a South Ossetian checkpoint in November, President Kaczynski rattled sabers along with his ally, Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, and the August agreement to host ten U.S. interceptor missiles met with a Russian general’s bald threat. During a September trip at the invitation of the Polish Cultural Institute (PCI) in New York for concerts and recitals of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, I asked a question on the missile accord at dinner with a music publisher, and got a wry smile. Governmental one-upmanship with their near neighbor left Poles nervous, he said, but they feel nevertheless that immediate alternatives are best with the West.

Student groups at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photos by Alan Lockwood.

The Warsaw Pact decades were hard. Much of the nation’s production shipped east, and an acquaintance I looked up in Warsaw recalled a family outing during martial law in the 1980s that landed the dad in jail when a butchered goat, hidden in the car trunk by sympathetic country relations, was confiscated at a Warsaw roadblock. During the Second World War, most people had fought for Poland’s independence, not Soviet “liberation.” In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz’s anti-totalitarian tract, he writes of resistance fighters imprisoned after the Germans’ defeat—“another of History’s ironic jokes”—in a land that never demonstrated much taste for Communism. Milosz terms the social quandary that followed “metaphysical Ketman”: the mandatory masking of what you think and feel.

The Holocaust remains the awful national intractability, centered there as it was, both statistically and operationally. Poland’s 3.5 million Jews comprised 10 percent of the population in 1939. Only 300,000 were alive in 1945, making Jews the majority of Poland’s six million war dead. This reality grew even worse when, around 1968, the government countered civil unrest with “anti-Zionist” platforms. Most of the remaining 40,000 Jews saw that more plainly as anti-Semitism, the prime weapon of European nationalism, and chose to emigrate. In New York this autumn, Tovah Feldshuh starred in the play Irena’s Vow, about Irena Gut Opdyke, a Catholic Pole who saved a dozen Jews in the basement of a German major. (In 2008, another hero died: Irena Sendler, who smuggled several thousand children from the Warsaw Ghetto.) Feldshuh, who played Golda Meir in a Broadway hit in 2003, traveled to Poland for a PBS special. At a Polish Consulate event, she declared that “the great synagogues of Poland are now malls,” then said when one meets a Polish intellectual, one should be prepared for a person acutely attuned to contradiction and complexity. To an outsider, such contradictions can leap out of the very language: In Warsaw’s Old Town, a cobbled lane named Piekarska has a square, Piekielko, execution site for the seventeenth-century nobleman Michal Piekarski, who tried to kill King Zygmunt III as he entered a nearby church (his gibberish under torture became a Polish expression for nonsense: “muttering like Piekarski”). This grasp that Feldshuh acknowledged derives from deep, perilous experience, and can boggle a mindset that prefers seeing the world in black and white, especially when that attitude derides “intellectualism.” While it may be possible to view Poland strictly in its current robust guise, it’s perhaps more instructive and accurate to see it through the layers and ambiguities that resonate everywhere in a nation where such an important portion of its history was annihilated so recently.

Up the Finnair MD-11’s bustling aisle stood pianist and composer Anthony Coleman, en route to play a Lithuanian festival. Over the Atlantic, from dinner ’til dawn, we pored over my PCI itinerary. Coleman said that Autumn Festival LPs were decisive in his development: leading composers’ work as interpreted by top Polish orchestras and ensembles, with fluency and polish that new compositions were not then receiving in the West. He noted a scheduled stop in Krakow at director Tadeusz Kantor’s foundation, and recalled Kantor’s plays at La MaMa, such as Wielopole, Wielopole, which radicalized Coleman’s spatial conceptions. The concert of Mauricio Kagel’s 1898, scheduled on the festival’s closing day at the renowned Lutoslawski Radio Concert Studio, also piqued his interest; a spring event he’d organized at Merkin Hall included a rare Kagel performance (the Autumn Festival concert became a tribute, as the Argentine composer died the day of our flight, at 76, in Cologne).

At Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, PCI music programmer Ania Perzanowska collected me and Steven Lankenau, the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s programming director. Our base, the Victoria Hotel, alongside the Saxon Gardens, lay like a great H tipped on its backside, bone-toned with copper-tinted windowpanes. A guidebook declared the Victoria to have been “Warsaw’s most exclusive hotel” in the late 1970s, and two Varsovians I know mentioned youthful visits to the gleaming lobbies when their parents had out-of-country visitors. From a top floor window mists obscured the Palace of Culture and Science, erected by the Soviets in the mid-1950s as Europe’s second tallest building. The PCI group, with Jessica Schmitz of the Electronic Music Foundation and Michael Lawrence of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, crossed Pilsudski Square in a drizzle. Named for the first head of state after Poland regained independence under the Versailles Treaty (the marshal who’d repulse a 1920 Soviet invasion), Pilsudski was the site of the 1979 mass by the former bishop of Krakow, Pope John Paul II, in a crucial rebuke to communist authority. We toured the immense Teatr Wielki, home of Poland’s national opera and ballet companies. It took decades to recover the Wielki from war damage; on reopening in 1965, it was one of the planet’s imposing performance facilities. A yawning metal service lift took us to a sky-lit prop workshop, and to a climate-controlled vault densely organized with costumes, fashioned in-house, that span the operatic canon. Dinner with Krzysztof Knittel, impish VP of the Polish composers’ union, was followed by the festival opening at the National Philharmonic Hall. Krzysztof Urbanski conducted the Warsaw Phil in Giacinto Scelsi’s choral masterpiece, Uaxuctum, chocked with fearsome crags of sound, then in the cante jondo of Mauricio Sotelo’s Si después de morir, with the singer Arcangel winning audience acclaim.

Gray morning light tinged ancient buildings on Market Square in the Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage site. They bear the date “1953,” when Warsaw was rebuilt, the Germans having destroyed 85 percent of the city in 1944 after crushing the Warsaw Uprising. Narrow ways in the Old Town’s core abound in stone doorframes, hewn centuries ago. Studiously reassembled, they’re now thickly patterned by bullet pocks. The imposing Royal Castle, home to presidential offices when Poland was free, was left in rubble during the communist era. In the Autumn Festival offices overlooking Market Square, director Tadeusz Wielecki said that, in solidarity, the festival had skipped one year in its half century of operation, to defy the government that imposed martial law. Funding plunged when capitalism ran rampant in the 1990s, but with commitments of $500,000 from the culture ministry and the city, Wielecki’s planning three years down the track. At Polish TV and radio headquarters, conductor Tadeusz Wojciechowski led an energetic Schumann rehearsal by Sinfonia Iuventus, an age-limited orchestra founded to offer conservatory grads jobs in Poland. That evening, in a white tile private room at the Gessler’s U Kucharzy, a chef minced steak tartar on a castored butcher block as we met with composer Pawel Mykietyn. Mykietyn’s hundred-minute, willfully ambitious Mark’s Passion had just premiered, in Wratislavia (highlights include guitar onslaughts and an ecstatic soprano having it off with the orchestra). Cigarettes followed pastries, and Steven Lankenau asked Mykietyn for, say, three suggestions for visitors. The composer offered one: the few remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Breakfast at the Victoria included fresh plums, cured Baltic fish, strong coffee, and torte cubes dense with mak (poppy seeds), then Michael Lawrence and I crossed the Marszalkowska tram lines to the former Ghetto, stacked with housing blocks, glass towers, construction cranes. Four hundred thousand Jews—a third of Warsaw’s population—were walled into its two square miles by 1942. Typhus, malnutrition and German cruelty killed a hundred thousand people, then forced removals swept Jews through the Umschlagplatz to Treblinka-bound cattle cars. A thousand ZOB insurgents took up a hopeless month-long battle in 1943, armed with a few dozen pistols and rifles. The Ghetto Uprising, Europe’s first urban rebellion against German occupation, resulted in the district being razed. Pedestrian paths within one block led us to the compact Nozyk Synagogue, which survived as a German storehouse and is the city’s sole active synagogue. A shell-battered brick factory and a collapsing tenement still stand at Mirowski and Walicow, too far south to have been obliterated in the aftermath.

Dinner at Smaki Warszawy with Pawel Szymanski and his wife turned not to the composer’s influential sur-conventionalist approach (of a recent commission, he said “I assume they want it not easy”), but to the large prize just given to his younger colleague Mykietyn. Szymanski’s limpid settings for director Krystian Lupa’s Zaratustra was awarded Best Score of 2005 by Teatr magazine (available on EMI, as are Szymanski solo piano and string quartet discs). We crossed the Vistula River to Praga, heart of Warsaw’s gallery scene. The late night program at the converted Fabryka Trzciny complex peaked with soprano Agata Zubel’s Cascando, its denouement as bruised and beautiful as its Beckett lyrics.

A wall of Monika Strugala’s office at the Chopin Institute is adorned with faint pencil sketches of the composer at his piano. Strugala, project coordinator for the 2010 Chopin bicentennial, told us of the design by Milan team Migliore + Servetto to fit cutting-edge biographical exhibits into Ostrogski Palace, home of the Chopin Society. She praised minister of culture Bogdan Zdrojewski, “the first minister who talks about perspectives, not just ‘tomorrow.’ The government changed in October,” she said of prime minister Donald Tusk ousting President Kaczynski’s twin in 2007, “and thank god, because the previous one was terrible.” Lunch at the venerable theater club U Aktorow introduced us to composer and dramatist Boguslaw Schaeffer and his Aurea Porta team, gearing up for his 80th birthday events. Soft-spoken and wily, Schaeffer’s deft arms handled an air violin as he asked, “Where are pieces for two strings?” Chuckling at the pleasure of writing what no one’s done—“even more so, to do something no one else can do”—Schaeffer continues challenging a culture that’s endured tyranny and oppression and where, as another acquaintance put it, “people are not afraid to fail.”

A taxi took me south to the Teatr Nowy (New Theater) offices of director Krzysztof Warlikowski, whose Krum at BAM took a 2008 Obie award. (Warlikowski was to have opened Gerard Mortier’s 2009 season—now canceled—at New York City Opera.) Dramaturge Piotr Gruszczynski indicated a hangar-sized building slated to be renovated into Nowy’s auditorium, before cultural funding shifts to Poland’s co-hosting of the 2012 Euro Cup. Warlikowski’s (A)pollonia premieres this spring, and Nowy plans city-wide, serialized handouts of novels by young writers. Nearby, a billboard featured economist Joseph Stiglitz (the Nobel laureate has extolled Poland’s gradual restructuring after shock therapy against inflation). At the back of a narrow jewelry shop, booksellers dug out a stained, hand-stapled samizdat excerpt from Witold Gombrowicz’s renowned diary (dead in exile in 1969, the writer’s harshly comic works weren’t available in Polish bookstores until the late 1980s). Dinner with music publisher Andrzej Kosowski had him skip his night train to introduce our group to Mad Dogs, shots of Zubrowka rye vodka with berry extract and drops of hot sauce. He taught Jessica Schmitz the word tak (“yes”), which she’d use to general mirth when the waiter inquired about more rounds.

Central Poland, once carpeted in Europe’s vast forests, was roamed by bison from which Zubrowka takes its name. Checkerboarded with small farms, it lay out the windows of the Krakow train, thicketed with sunflowers, lanes lined with laden apple and pear orchards, fields wedged with cabbages the size of purple basketballs. For centuries, this land was the switching yard among competing empires, a fate that gives Norman Davies’s monumental history its title: God’s Playground. Divided through the 19th century by Russia, German kingdoms, and the Austrians, Poland’s émigrés sustained its identity: Paris was where national poet Adam Mikiewicz wrote and Chopin died (his embalmed heart went to Warsaw’s Holy Cross cathedral); Shakespearean heroine Helena Modjeska left in the 1870s for a utopian colony in California; Joseph Conrad’s unsurpassed English prose signifies an ultimate exile effort.

Krakow’s Romanesque and medieval structures help make the nation’s ancient capitol a tourist magnet. In the lobby of our hotel, the elegant Francuski near the fortified Barbican Gate, a Muzak version of the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” gave an eerie break from Polish radio’s penchant for stadium rock. Krakow wasn’t bombed in the Second World War, and the vibrant streets make for elusive contrasts to rebuilt Warsaw. Is the latter a simulation, and if so, are history’s specters and resonances any less graphic and pertinent than standing, for example, before St. Andrew’s 11th-century steeples? After seeing Veit Stoss’s grand Gothic altar at St. Mary’s, which towers over the central square, we passed the Jagiellonian University, where Copernicus studied. The Kantor Theater Foundation director showed plans for a brace-shaped, rust-glass administrative building, which will envelop a power plant being converted along the Vistula. Within the sprawling Wawel Castle, on riverside heights and convincing evidence of Fortinbras’s Polish foe in Hamlet, we saw tombs of royalty and poets, then met in the Kazimierz district with Robert Gadek of the Jewish Culture Festival, focused since 1988 on education, cooking, film, and performance (the Sephardic project of Brooklyn’s Elysian Fields played this year’s fest). “It’s about changing minds a little bit: If you have interest, if you have doubts, come,” he said for the sake of enthusiasts and skeptics of a renewed Jewish presence in what had been a thriving township of synagogues and markets (Schindler’s List scenes were shot there). In their auto, Gombrowicz scholars Klementyna Czernicka and Janusz Marganski sped me through the Krakow nightfall for curtain time at the Stary Teatr, where director Michal Zadara’s Iphigenia emitted much sound but little fury (the 2009 Philly Fringe hosts Zadara’s production of Gombrowicz’s cataclysmic romp, Operetta). Two electronic music mavens, Lukasz Szalankiewicz and Marcin Barski, kept Steven Lankenau and me out ’til all hours at a club called the Lovely Dog. Tatankas, apple juice and Zubrowka, were my chosen potion, then steely rain and a seat on the 8 a.m. Auschwitz coach were the hair of that dog.

The PCI group headed to Zakopane, the Carpathian Mountain resort town near the Slovakian border, while my itinerary accommodated a request to first visit Auschwitz, west of Krakow. An hour-long introductory film screened during the bus ride, but preparation doesn’t exist for the site where more than a million people were murdered in less than three years. The Auschwitz memorial was operational two years after the Soviet army arrived in January 1945. Most visitors are Polish, a large percentage on school trips, and the scale of German engineering is unforgettable. Without even the pretense of a collaborationist government, the Reich annexed the southwest of defeated Poland, located at Europe’s geographic center and already webbed with rail interchanges. Eight local villages were destroyed, with the name of one, Oswiecim, Germanized to “Auschwitz.” An artillery base was commandeered and staffed by the SS, its two dozen brick barracks filled first, in 1940, with Polish resistance suspects and intelligentsia. Forced labor produced chemicals and artificial rubber at munitions factories established nearby, including an extensive IG Farben works. Only at Auschwitz were inmates’ forearms tattooed; in 1941, Zyklon B was tested for slaughter (a manor-like building housed the canisters), and the low hospital where Josef Mengele worked stands near the gate. Almost 50 feeder camps were developed and, as the Final Solution got underway in 1942, the death camp at Birkenau was built three kilometers away. A smattering of 50-foot-long plank huts have been preserved at Birkenau, which today is a stark landscape of skeleton chimneys. The squat guard tower overlooks this infamous acreage from the brick gatehouse, which gives through to the rail siding where SS medical officers sent undocumented masses of Europe’s Jews and “inferior races” to four gas chambers and incinerators operating where the woods begin. In 1944, a Hungarian government edict transported 440,000 Jews here, overwhelming those ovens. On their retreat, the Germans demolished Birkenau’s incinerators, but the lesser one at Auschwitz remains, and tours pass through the false shower room to where metal carts on rails fed corpses into nine ovens. A tight plaza above ground holds the camp gallows, where Commandant Rudolph Hoess, whose family had occupied the hedge-enclosed home a stroll away, was brought to be hung after his postwar trial. Vitrines in the barracks hold two tons of hair shorn for marketing to German fabric manufacturers, along with rail tickets sold to Greek Jews, and notes slipped to sympathizers through electrified razor wire in failed attempts to engage the West.

Heavy weather at the Krakow bus station turned to cold rain in the southern highlands. Clouds enveloped Gubalowka Mountain’s sheer rock faces, which loom as Zakopane’s picturesque backdrop. The study group, whittled down to three, heard one fierce Gorale string combo at dinner, then another highlander band for baked apples at a cozy establishment on the Krupowki, the steep pedestrian street on which Gombrowicz opens Cosmos, his brutal, exacting 1965 novel. In morning rain, we trooped to the valley market (sheep cheese, tart berry preserves, mushrooms in oil; fleece booties and raw-wool socks), then to Villa Atma, the wooden home of composer Karole Szymanowski, family friends with pianist Artur Rubinstein. (His opera King Roger was revived this summer at Bard, and in Mariusz Trelinski’s more acclaimed production, conducted by Valeri Gergiev at Edinburgh’s International Festival.) The Museum of Zakopane Style resides in one of Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s ornate, steep-roofed manor houses. Luscious, frequently jolting portraits by Witkacy, the architect’s home-schooled son, were displayed. Witkacy would posthumously become Poland’s brash voice of modernism and a cornerstone of contemporary Polish theater, having killed himself as the Germans and Soviets overran Poland in September 1939.

Above the Warsaw train station, stars dangled beyond the bronze-lit Palace of Culture and Science. Many Poles felt the portico-capped tower and colonnaded annexes deserved an end similar to the demolition, after Poland’s independence in 1918, of what was then the city’s tallest structure, a monolithic Russian Orthodox cathedral on Pilsudski Square. (“Pole and Russian,” writes Czeslaw Milosz, “have never loved one another.”) A late concert in the Ochota Sports Centre, of pieces for beatboxers, was followed by a tepid combo in a Warsaw jazz club and a late-night Silesian sausage soup, served in a hollowed-out onion loaf.

The Vistula River bridges in Warsaw.

Brunch at Pawel Mykietyn’s apartment, arranged during our dinner the previous weekend, yielded insights into the composer’s dozens of theater collaborations with Krzysztof Warlikowski. The actor who played the lead in Warlikowski’s Krum, Jacek Poniedzialek, joined us, pointedly comparing rehearsal approaches of Warlikowski and TR artistic director Grzegorz Jarzyna. Mykietyn’s desk was soon strewn with scores, with our PCI guide Ania Perzanowska, a cellist herself, in the thick of the sonorous cello sonata and Mykietyn’s three-year-old son grinning in an armchair as the hi-fi played interwoven accelerandos that propel the dad’s second symphony. At TR Warszawa that evening, the revival of Jarzyna’s Magnetism of the Heart mainlined and double-clutched with the company’s thrilling vigor. On exiting for dinner with Cezary Kosinski—Macbeth in TR’s Dumbo production last June—teen cliques pounced for photos and his autograph. Jarzyna drove to Gessler’s bistro, where overflowing crowds set their plates and vodka shots on parked autos. At the Old Town’s brink, past stone steps falling to the riverbank, we were nodded into a club without a sign for a private birthday behind a velvet curtain. At dinner, Jarzyna had said that Edinburgh just picked Macbeth for their ’09 opening night, utilizing the mobile stage constructed for the Dumbo production. On the club settees, he essayed on the influence of Witkacy, and Gombrowicz’s “masks upon masks,” then spoke of a “maybe thirty minute” movement sequence in his new piece on Pasolini, set for a December premiere. Deep in the morning, we passed a restaurant where Jarzyna said Gombrowicz used to skeptically observe Young Poland’s leading literary lights, in a nation that wouldn’t exist after its 20th birthday.

On the sunny afternoon of our final day, we saw the Warsaw Rising Museum, in a converted tramway power plant on Przyokopowa Street. Brimming with up-to-date curating, jagged with its ghastly story, the fact that it’s only existed for four years reveals again forces in Poland’s conflicting past. In June 1944, the Home Army fought the uprising, but were then shunned by communists who deemed them counterrevolutionaries. The uprising, planned to jumpstart Western support or intervention by the Soviet Army watching from the Vistula’s far bank, did neither. Two months later, with 200,000 Varsovians dead, the city was emptied then systematically wrecked. We had a reviving lunch in actress Kasia Figura’s snazzy restaurant, KOMunikat, in the PAST telecom building, a site of intense fighting during the uprising. At the National Philharmonic Hall, the Autumn Festival closed with Oscar Strasnoy’s The End, a vigorous send-up of classical pomposities. Humor must fail in the face of ineradicable realities here, from the Holocaust to hostile foreign occupations. But the audience response indicated that, as Polish comics showed in the 1970s with double-speak social critiques, a particularly clear-eyed, complex-minded Polish capacity to laugh endures.

In November, the Rail ran Alan Lockwood’s piece on Polish master filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, whose 2007 feature on Soviet wartime massacres, Katyn, receives U.S. distribution this February.

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Alan Lockwood

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