What, what’s the sun doing in Poland in winter? Oh, setting at 2:45pm, that’s what it’s doing…
The scent of diesel and smoldering rubbish, a gloomy populace and an ethos of perpetual defiance. I must be in Eastern Europe! Am I taking advantage of the curd, mushrooms and heavy empty carbs? You bet I am, three times today already!
Poland was one of the first countries I ever visited, so it’s interesting to see it again, and recognize how it’s similar and different to its neighbors. In sum, I think the people are more filled with an independent spirit than even its fellow rabble rousing neighbors. Solidarity in the 1980s is probably Poland’s most famous resistance; indeed the country is currently celebrating 30 years of those monumental dissidents with TV specials and monuments.
But Polish history also boasts the January Uprising (crushed by the Russians) the Warsaw Jewish ghetto uprising (crushed by the Germans), the Warsaw Uprising (also crushed by the Germans who then completely obliterated then forcibly depopulated city) and the more successful stance against communism trumpeted by Pope John Paul II.
Poland is indeed not afraid to fight and lose. Polish Commander Josef Pilsudski is famously quoted that “to be vanquished and not surrender, that is victory.”
To understand a county’s attitudes, I first usually head to the National Museum. Warsaw’s National Museum was closed for renovations, so I went instead to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. There is no easier way for me to gain respect for a people than by learning about their resistance. The Czechs, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians all have famously documented suffering and loss of life in standing up to 20th century oppressors, but I think Poland is the league leader there.
The labyrinthian Warsaw Uprising Museum was surprisingly modern, and the many displays definitely bestowed the stereotype that Poles are both strongly anti- Russian and very religious. Many priests and bishops were mentioned or featured in the museum, and there is even a chapel built as part of the complex. John Paul II was widely featured. And as for the anti-Russian sentiment? Indeed omnipresent. Check out this one, subtle but biting: It is also sometimes said that Poles are anti-Semitic. Sometimes countries sugarcoat their past. Indeed, regarding the mass killings of Jews, the language blamed the Germans, and emphasized the role of the Church and poles in general in helping Jews. It also acknowledges that some Poles helped conspire with the Germans. Should it have been dedicated more to the Jewish component? Maybe not, this museum was dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising, not the Ghetto uprising (which was indeed mentioned several times, however). So the amount of credit the museum gave to Jews was actually probably notable.
The Adam Mickiewicz museum also gave me an interesting perspective on the Polish psyche. Mickiewicz is a Polish Nationalist writer, and probably the most highly regarded Slavic poet, though his nationality is a bit of a controversy. The museum, however, seemed very straightforward: Nowhere did it hide that Mickiewicz was fully Lithuanian by birth and by loyalty; indeed it mentions that his first and only visit to Poland was for a few months as an adult.
And sticking with our theme that Poles are anti-Russian and religious, the museum did point out that Mickiewicz disagreed with Pushkin, Russia’s most famous poet, because Pushkin was too loyal to the czar. And it seemed to go out of the way to point out that Mickiewicz and his wife received last rites, even going so far as to name the priest who administered them to Mickiewicz.
Those were some of my brief impressions of Warsaw in the last 3 days (I’d been for a day previously in 2003). There were some Lithuanian national souvenirs and national dishes in the old town square that made me excited to go there next week. But now, first on to Hungary!
UPDATE/ ADDENDUM: After being back in Warsaw again for the second leg of the trip, I thought I’d add a few more brief thoughts after a couple more days in the city, for posterity.
When I was in this part of my world with my family in 2003, we visited 4 capitals and here is how I ranked them, favorite to least: Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna. Vilnius is truly charming, but the surprising thing was, against all odds, I actually liked Warsaw. It’s big and ugly, but it’s also vibrant. If you can forgive the monstrosity soviet buildings, you just might notice the great people and just might dig the place.
The old town is the major tourist destination. Reconstructed from nothing following its shellacking in the Warsaw uprising. But while the old town is quaint and full of cute personality, the rest of this giant city has the polish spirit: tough, unrelenting and full or fight. The city itself has uneven development. There is quite a lot of Western level of development, but also a good about of the post-Soviet poverty found across Russia, Ukraine and other places that have found some money, but not enough for everyone. But that also makes it interesting. There is commerce happening. Bustling.
It must be said, the country feels a lot like Lithuania, and this attitude very much appeals to me. The independence museum, for instance, showcases Poland’s fight for independence (recognition) as WWI tore its occupying powers’ alliances apart. The tone of the museum was decidedly nationalist, Poland against the world. I like that, as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Some of the enemies mentioned (Czecholovakia, Lithuania) were also fighting for their very existence and a square of land to call their own not to wipe out Poland—the distinction between the imperial powers like Russia and fighters trying to have freedom like Ukraine should have been made.
This is the danger of nationalistic fervor, while useful it sometimes makes for paranoia. I got to meet up with Violeta, my Polish Friend from Vilnius but who now lives in Warsaw. In a very balanced analysis, she said that the Polish press reports of discrimination against Poles in Lithuania were highly exaggerated, if not fabricated.
More subjects at Vilnius Polish language schools were being transferred to be taught in the Lithuanian Language, but she said she understood that perspective of wanting the people to speak the national language. Yet, she said having going through the old curriculum she could speak Lithuanian without an accent, so perhaps it was a bit paranoid on behalf of the Lithuanians. It’s a tough world for both countries, who had their national identities suppressed for the majority of the last 200 years.