Thursday, January 31, 2008

Poland tries to defuse truck-jam crisis on eastern EU border

The Polish government on Monday tried to defuse a crisis on the country's eastern EU border, where truckers are facing days of jams amid a wage protest by customs officers.

The road 30 kilometres (24 miles) from Poland's Terespol crossing with Belarus was completely blocked Monday. Furious at having to wait days to cross the border, truckers parked across the road near the crossing, refusing to let anyone pass.

"This is the fourth day I've been waiting here and I've moved just a kilometre and a half. Since yesterday I haven't even moved one metre," explained Sergei, a trucker from Kazakhstan, en route for his homeland. The 50-something driver declined to give his family name.

"I understand the Polish customs agents want to earn more money, but nobody is paying attention to our situation, nobody is helping us," he said bitterly.

"I'm not paid for the hours of waiting and my employer is losing money. Everyone is losing in this case."

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited the nearby town of Biala Podlaska Monday to examine the situation up close and launched an "ardent appeal" for customs officers to return to work.

Rather than formally go out on strike, customs officers began earlier this month to take holiday or sick-leave to underscore their wage demands, resulting in backups of thousands of lorries.

They are looking for wage hikes of up to 1,500 zlotys (420 euros, 620 dollars), while the government has proposed just 500 zlotys. The current starting salary for a Polish customs officer is 1,300 zlotys per month.

The protesting officers also want better legal protection against accusations of corruption and improved retirement benefits. The government has vowed to satisfy those demands in the coming months.

So far two drivers have died stuck in the gridlock, one from a heart attack and the other after his vehicle's cabin caught fire. Massive queues of lorries on Poland's frontier with Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad continued to grow Monday.

At the Dorohusk crossing with Ukraine, around 1,000 trucks were queued in a 40-kilometre-long tailback, with an estimated 100-hour-long wait for passage.

Furious truckers have threatened to block the Polish capital Warsaw in order to force a resolution to the crisis. Drivers' union officials said they will take a decision on Tuesday following talks with Interior Minister Grzegorz Schetyna.

Schetyna, who is also Poland's deputy prime minister, vowed to resolve the crisis on the border "within two to three days."

Customs procedures were beefed up along Poland's eastern border with non-EU Ukraine, Belarus and Russia after the country was one of nine states to join Europe's Schengen free travel zone on December 21.

While members of the 24-nation Schengen zone drop internal border controls, countries on its outer rim are duty-bound to boost checks with non-members.

Tusk said Monday that only fully-qualified customs officers could meet the requirements for processing border traffic and that police or soldiers could not step in to speed-up border traffic.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Poker-faced Poles cleaning up their act

Pilkarski Poker [Football Poker], the 1988 Polish film, illustrates a game rife with corruption, match-fixing and backhanders. Janusz Zaorski, the director, made a film so extreme that it could only be a black comedy, an überparody of a sport ruined by greed, excess and money. Indeed, Zaorski was an exponent of what is known as “Cinema of Moral Concern”, a movement preoccupied with weighty ethical themes.

Of course, we’re told that life imitates art and, true to form, Zaorski’s vision seems to have come true in Polish football. In the past two seasons, five top-flight clubs have been found guilty of match-fixing and were relegated, most notably Zaglebie Lubin, the champions, and Widzew Lodz, twice winners of the Polish league in the 1990s. Zaglebie were also docked ten points and fined 80,000 zloty (about £16,000). The relatively low sum was explained by the fact that Zaglebie are owned by a state company and, therefore, prosecutors did not want to burden the taxpayers.

But the web of corruption stretches far below the top flight. Indeed, dozens of clubs in the second and third tiers have also been implicated. More than seventy people have been arrested, many of them match officials.

The scandal’s roots go back to 2005, when Piotr Dziurowicz, chairman of GKS Katowice and son of the former head of the Polish FA, gave an explosive interview to Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper. “I have had enough of a football where I have to pay money to buy matches for the team so that it occupies the top positions, so that the players can stay in the league and have jobs,” Dziurowicz said. “Especially when they cheat me and then sell games [to opponents].”

Thus Dziurowicz became Polish football’s whistle-blower, albeit one not necessarily moved by a profound sense of moral outrage, but rather one who evidently could not pay bribes as effectively as his rivals.

Jacek Debski, the Polish sports minister, sounded the alarm in 2001, when he said: “We have seen a systematic degradation of Polish football. This must be addressed urgently. It’s partly due to the fact that the communist-era model of financial sports was destroyed and no coherent new model has been introduced.”

Debski made no secret of wanting to clean up the game, which is probably why, a few months after making that statement, he was shot in the head, execution-style, in what many suspect was a mob hit. His death came at a time when Poland was undergoing transformation, as the nation fought hard to adopt a more transparent free-market economy. While other sectors of society were cleaned up, football remained behind. Now, however, there is a sense that things are changing. With the economy booming, some feel it will be only a matter of time before football catches up.

Which, as many things in Poland do these days, brings us back to the Kaczynski twins: Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, who, until two months ago, was Prime Minister. In 1962, they shot to prominence as child actors in The Two Who Stole the Moon, the children’s film. It tells the tale of two boys, played by the Kaczynskis, who are cruel and lazy and decide to steal the moon (which, apparently, is made of gold) so that they will never have to work again. They manage to steal it but run into a gang of bad guys who capture them and the moon. But then the baddies – presumably as some sort of divine punishment – turn into gold themselves. The twins manage to escape and, having learnt their lesson, pledge to stop being lazy and help their parents on the family farm.

The moral is almost too obvious: you can’t achieve success by stealing (or, in this case, corrupting match officials). And you certainly can’t steal the moon. Success is achieved by intelligence, hard work and a bit of luck. Those elements have allowed the Polish economy to do well in recent years. They can help Polish football to do the same.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Truckers stuck in border jams threaten to block Warsaw

Polish truckers, fed up with massive queues at border crossings due to a protest by customs staff, threatened Saturday to block Warsaw and other cities in the country.

"If the government and the customs agents do not quickly agree we are ready to block Warsaw, Monday at noon (1100 GMT). Blockades in other cities could follow," the president of the Polish Association for Road Transport Employers, Boleslaw Milewski, told AFP.

A large number of border agents have been missing from their posts for several days, taking holiday or sick-leave in a dispute over pay, and causing major queues at border crossings.

So far two drivers have died stuck in queues, one of an apparent heart attack and the other when a fire broke out in his truck cabin.

Queues for heavy trucks at the borders with Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad continued to grow on Saturday.

In response, truck drivers blocked access to the Dorohusk border station along the Ukrainian border -- where the line was over 800 trucks long -- police spokesperson Renata Laszczka-Rusek told AFP.

The crossing had been closed overnight due to a lack of customs agents, but reopened in the morning. However, the waiting time to leave Poland via this passage was still an estimated 55 hours.

The truckers also blocked the Kuznica crossing with Belarus, causing a line of about 350 vehicles at the border post, the PAP news agency reported.

Hundreds of trucks queued at other major crossings -- there was a line of approximately 800 trucks in Koroszczyn, on the border with Belarus, and 200 in Hrebenne on the border with Ukraine, according to the Polish media.

"At the moment, circulation of people and goods is totally paralysed," said the Belarussian foreign ministry in a statement, cited by PAP.

Negotiations with border agent unions started Friday afternoon, but were without result, according to the agents.

Some agents even threatened to quit should Poland's finance ministry refuse to meet their demands.

"Our protest movement continues," said Iwona Folta, head of the customs officials protest, early Saturday.

The customs officials' demands include a pay rise equivalent to 420 euros (618 dollars) per month, as well as retirement benefits in line with other civil servants and stronger legal protection against corruption accusations.

Customs procedures were tightened on December 21 along Poland's eastern border with non-EU states Ukraine, Belarus and Russian Kaliningrad after Poland was one of nine countries to join the Schengen free travel zone.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Polish police announce ‘Old Fork’ campaign

The Polish police headquarters will be littered with old aluminium cutlery in February. Police officers will be sending old forks to their Warsaw HQs in protest against their “starvation salaries”.

The initiative has been advertised on the Polish Police Internet Forum, according to TVN24, and aiming to bring to police management’s attention the fact that the overwhelming majority of the police employees in Poland are dissatisfied with their pay.

A mass protest is set to begin on February 5.

The “Old Fork” campaign is also a sign of the police officers’ disappointment at the government’s procrastination in delivering on the previously promised pay rises.

The police Internet users’ protest has not been co-ordinated with the police trade unions, as they are “useless” in the opinion of the majority, according to TVN24.

The police force are one of many public employees who are pressing for higher wages: these groups include medical staff, teachers, customs officials, prosecutors and even judges.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Polish killer jailed after extradition

Mariusz Szpyt served time in Poland for other violent offences
A Polish man has been jailed for life after he stabbed and hid the body of a fellow Polish national.
Mariusz Szpyt, 24, pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court to the murder of Ryszhard Sawczyk on 18 October, 2005.

Mr Sawczyk, 32, disappeared after an incident in Rugby, Warwickshire. His body was later found in a car boot in a country lane near Taunton, Somerset.

A nationwide search was launched to find Szpyt who had fled to Poland. He was extradited last year.

Mr Sawczyk had been living in a house in Evans Road, Rugby, with Szpyt at the time of the incident.

Police believe Szpyt murdered him at that time although his body was not found until later.

Szpyt disappeared, probably driving away in Mr Sawczyk's left hand drive Golf car.

'Long and complicated'

The car was found abandoned in the country lane on 24 October. Mr Sawcyk's body was in the boot and a post-mortem examination revealed he died of a stab wound.

After the hearing Det Ch Inspector Adrian McGee said the case had been long and complicated.

"Szpyt was arrested in Poland less than six weeks after murdering Ryszard Sawczyk, as a direct result of information provided by Warwickshire Police," he said.

Officers tried to get him back to England but had to wait for him to serve a sentence for other violent offences.

He was sentenced to life with an order he serve a minimum of 11 years and eight months, taking into account time spent in custody in Poland and England.



Poland Expects Lift on Import Ban

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk expects Russia to lift the remaining ban on imports of Polish agricultural products during his visit to Moscow in February, he said.

Russia imposed an embargo on Polish food in 2005 but meat imports resumed in December in a gesture toward Warsaw's new government.

"I have the right to expect that during my visit to Moscow the embargo on plant products will also be lifted," Tusk told Newsweek in an interview Monday.

The two-year dispute added to deteriorating relations under the previous conservative government.

Tusk has sought to improve the strained relations with Russia and Germany. One of his first actions since taking office in November was to lift Poland's objections to Moscow's efforts to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Other issues on the agenda include Russia's objections to the U.S. plans for anti-missile defense system on Polish soil and the Nord Steam gas pipeline, which skirts Poland and the Baltic republics.



Saturday, January 26, 2008

Confronting Poland's Anti-Semitic Demons

Book launches for works of history are typically sedate, often even boring affairs, but the shouts of "Lie!" and "Slander!" from the agitated crowd suggest that the latest offering from Jan Tomasz Gross is garnering attention in circles way beyond those of academic historians. Gross has come to Warsaw's Entrepreneurship and Management Academy to promote his new book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, and the visible police presence and the plethora of TV cameras in the jam-packed hall make clear that the topic has aroused strong emotions.

Gross, a U.S. historian born and educated in Poland became internationally famous for his 2001 book Neighbors, chronicling the massacre of Jews in the village of Jedwabne during the Nazi occupation. That book stoked controversy in Poland because it demonstrated that the Jews of Jedwabne had been brutally murdered not by the Germans, but by local Poles. Fear, published in English in 2006 but first released in Polish just two weeks ago, takes a wider look at post-war anti-Semitism in Poland, investigating why Jews returning to their homes having survived Nazi atrocities were terrorized and sometimes murdered by Poles. Needless to say, it is not a topic with which Poland has been comfortable in dealing.

Poland, which lost about 6 million of its citizens in the war — half of them Jewish — prides itself on being the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe that did not have a collaborator government. But Gross suggests that being a direct witness to Nazi atrocities — Jews from all over Europe were herded to concentration camps in Poland — unleashed a brutal anti-semitism in the country that had for almost nine centuries been home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities. Gross provides extensive evidence of how many Poles chased away or killed Jewish Holocaust survivors, often out of fear that returning Jews would reclaim their property that had, during the occupation, been taken over by other Poles.

At Entrepreneurship and Management Academy event, Gross recounted his amazement at reading the memoir of a Jewish activist traveling across post-war Poland seeking Jewish children hidden from the Nazis by Poles. "Those people who had heroically saved an innocent Jewish child begged not to have their names revealed out of fear that their social circle would find out," said Gross. "I did not understand that, and in this book I have attempted to answer that question."

His conclusions are harsh: "A very brutal anti-semitism was widespread in Poland," he told his audience. "Many Poles agreed with the opinion that Hitler should have a monument elevated for helping Poland solve the Jewish question. That was happening not in only Poland, but in all of post-war Europe."

Many leading Polish public figures have criticized the book, saying that Gross neglected to take into account the context of of a shattered and demoralized post-war Poland suffering the the brutal imposition of the Soviet system. The victims of the turbulent postwar years were not only Jews, but also anti-communist Poles as well as Ukrainians and Germans expelled after the post-war shifting of borders. "Let?s remind ourselves of what was going on in New Orleans after a few days of a hurricane," historian Marcin Zaremba wrote in the Polityka weekly. "In Poland, the 'hurricane' took place for five years, or even longer."

Gross even has his critics among Polish Jews. At the Warsaw event, Feliks Tych, longtime head of the city's Jewish Historical Institute, criticized Gross for telling only part of the story, selecting the facts that suited his thesis about deeply-ingrained anti-semitism while forgetting to take into account the post-war collapse of state institutions and social control. "Gross is too much of a judge in his book but too little of an analyst," said Tych. "But after his book, it is no longer possible to escape from the question why there were killings of Jews after the war, and that is is his undeniable achievement."

Poland's Catholic Church, blamed by Gross for doing nothing to stem the wave of post-war anti-Semitism, has lashed out at the book. The Krakow archbishop and close associate of the late Pope John Paul II, Stanislaw Dziwisz, has written a letter to the Catholic ZNAK publishing house, saying that it should not have published the book. A publishing house should "propagate historical truth," not "awake anti-Polish and anti-Semitic demons," said the archbishop. Polish prosecutors are considering charging Gross with slandering the Polish nation.

Gross, a Princeton professor who left Poland in 1969, having been expelled from college the previous year during an anti-Semitic purge of 1968 student dissidents, has returned to confront the country of his birth with some uncomfortable truths.

Early in the proceedings, about a dozen young people demonstratively left the room shouting "Shame!" and "Enough with slandering Poland!" Gross remained calm and quiet. "I speak about things that have been known but have not yet been put in such a clear, sharp and unambiguous way," he said. "It's difficult because we are talking about the time that has shaped our identity, who we think we are."

Still, the fact that there was as much applause as booing from the crowd at the Entrepreneurship and Management Academy suggests that there are many in Poland ready for a more honest accounting of the past.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Polish customs strike halts hundreds of trucks on Ukraine and Belarus borders

Hundreds of trucks lined up on Poland's border with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia Saturday, as a strike by Polish customs officers stretched into its sixth day.
Fourteen checkpoints on the border with the three ex-Soviet states have been clogged as only a handful of Polish officers showed up for work, according
to Russia's NTV television.

Only drivers with nothing to declare and vehicles with diplomatic plates are being allowed through, the report said.

A 43-year old Ukrainian driver was burned alive Friday at the Krakovitz checkpoint after a short circuit sparked a fire in his truck, and a Polish driver died of cardiac arrest at the Yagodin checkpoint Wednesday after standing in line for three days, said Volodymyr Sheremet, spokesman for the western Ukrainian border unit.

«Things are very tense here,» Sheremet said.
At the border with the Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, dozens of cargo trains have been unable to move into Poland, NTV said.

At the Belarusian town of Brest, a major East-West cargo crossing point, only one customs booth was operating Saturday, Russia's Vesti 24 television said.
One driver, Alexander Stroganov, was quoted as saying that trucks stretched back more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border.
Polish custom guards started their work slowdown on Monday, demanding higher salaries. They have threatened to stop all customs inspections Monday if their demands are not met.
The Polish government says it can only afford a third of what the customs officers are demanding.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Strike of Polish customs complicates situation on Belarus-Poland border

A strike of Polish customs officers has complicated the situation on the Belarusian-Polish border, BelTA was told in the press centre of the state border committee of Belarus.

“Polish customs officers called a strike and stopped operations at the border checkpoints “Domachevo” and “Warsaw Bridge”, the committee says.

The number of customs officers has been reduced at the border checkpoints “Peschatka” and “Kozlovichi” and the movement of transport vehicles has been very slow either side. In the morning January 25 the queue on the border in “Kozlovichi” was 150 vehicles.

The state border committee advises Belarusian citizens against crossing the Belarusian-Polish border by car and recommends using railway transport instead. The situation at the railway border checkpoints is stable so far.

Polish Customs leaves skeleton teams at border checkpoints

After going on strike the Polish Customs left only one officer per border checkpoint at the Belarusian-Polish border, the press service of the State Border Committee of Belarus told BelTA.

“The situation with people and vehicles having to cross the border is rather complicated, as every border checkpoint has only one customs officer on the Polish side,” said the source.

According to the source, the Polish Customs caters only to tourist coaches, diplomatic transport and perishable cargoes. There are queues up to 15 km long on the Polish side of the border.

Thanks to a timely awareness campaign there are no long queues on the Belarusian side of the border. The Belarusian border service recommends postponing all trips to Poland to all citizens until the situation is clear. BelTA has been told, when forced to get back to the home country fast, some Belarusian citizens had to leave behind goods they had bought in Poland in order to cross the border without customs examination.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The old-new Poland

By Nir Becher

This year, too, Warsaw eagerly awaited its Christmas miracle. On December 9, the decorative lights were illuminated above Nowy Swiat Street, the event sponsored by the Swedish energy company Vattenfall. The buildings at the University of Warsaw, having undergone a facelift funded by the European Union, were decked out in bright, soft lights. The Finnish Embassy and a number of Scandinavian companies flew in a Santa Claus clone from Lapland to inaugurate a series of charity banquets for children, with the mayor in attendance. For a moment it seemed that Nowy Swiat, once the scene of historic upheavals and adorned with a variety of architectural styles, was living up to the promise of its name: "New World Street."

But beyond the borders of this new world, Warsaw still sits in partial darkness. It's hard to imagine a European capital so illuminated on Christmas Eve. The big, glittering tree that stands in Plac Zamkowy - Castle Square - stirs little interest in the alleyways of Old Town. In the candy shops you can still find candies wrapped in colorful rustling paper, a Christmas decoration from times past. From the lookout point over the Vistula River, frozen in mid-December, another promise of a newer world is visible: the illuminated string bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. But you can find that sort of thing in Petah Tikva, too.

Hence, the Christmas magic has to be sought beyond the heads of winter cabbage and potatoes that rest in wooden crates at the produce stalls on the street, beyond the heaps of clothing in the bazaar at the foot of the Palace of Culture, beyond the ghostly buildings of the Praga quarter, beyond the irritable ticket sellers at the train station who need at least 15 minutes to produce a receipt and five copies for the authorities. If you search for the Christmas magic, you may just find it.

Stalin's moustache

It's two degrees below zero Celsius and the Warsaw Zoo is in its winter slumber. A group of kids and a guide are having fun with an anaconda snake in the reptile house. The beloved polar bears have disappeared, to be replaced by three brown circus bears with shabby pelts. The hippopotamus pond is in ruins, and there's no trace of the monkeys. Some of the animals will survive this winter thanks to companies who act as sponsors, who've recruited the animals for their advertising campaigns. Each one has a price tag.

The glory days of the zoo, which opened 80 years ago, ended with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, which began World War II. The rare animals were confiscated and sent to zoos in the Third Reich; others were killed in bombings or slaughtered to feed hungry mouths. The zoo's director, Jan Zabinski, with his wife Antonina and son Ryszard, hid hundreds of Jews here - they were disguised as workers and hidden in the cages. Zabinski later joined the Polish underground, where he hid ammunition in the elephant cages and explosives in the veterinary hospital. In September 1944, during the Polish revolt against the Germans, Zabinski was captured and became a prisoner of war.

To commemorate Zabinski and other Poles like him, the Warsaw Uprising Museum was established in a building that formerly served as a power station for electric trams, not far from the central train station. Three shifts worked around the clock to have the museum ready to open in July 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the uprising against the Germans. It was the vision of Lech Kaczynski, the former mayor of Warsaw who was later elected president of Poland, that the history emasculated in the commissars' textbooks shall be rewritten in this place.

Those 63 days, which ended with the Poles' defeat and paved the way for the Soviet occupation, are revived here by every means known to modern museums: sewage tunnels to illustrate how underground fighters moved around, war footage that was once banned from the screen, collections of weapons, uniforms and makeshift household implements. There is also a reconstructed wall from the ghetto with announcements in Yiddish - to show that the Jews also contributed something to the underground effort.

From the museum restaurant, which seeks to replicate a bohemian cafe from the war years, waft the aromas of pea soup with pork that drift toward Stalin's bushy mustache - his portrait hangs in the hall of Soviet propaganda. Apparently there's no more original way to demonstrate the Polish disdain for the Red Army, which dug in indifferently on the east bank of the Vistula as the Home Army fought the Germans for Poland's liberty. After Warsaw fell to the Soviets, many of the fighters were executed or charged as Nazi collaborators, sent away to rot in the Gulag. Ever since, Poland has been waiting for an apology that will never come. Britain's Princess Anne, former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have already visited here. They're still waiting for an official Russian visitor.

Kaja's face

Kaja Lebkowska is the new face of Poland. An impressive young woman of 24 who may well be discovered soon. Her diplomat father became a successful banker in Moscow, her mother lectures in economics at the university and her twin sister lives in Paris. They grew up in Geneva and returned to Warsaw after the fall of Communism, because their parents wanted to experience history close up.

Lebkowska, who speaks five languages, is currently moonlighting at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which seeks to spread Polish culture in the wider world. When she's not escorting the institute's guests on a stroll in the rebuilt Old Town, she's dreaming of starting a Web site for Polish design and writing a book about her stint as a battle-tested hostess in Yokohama. And when she's not busy maneuvering gracefully between her Canadian ex, Mark, and her Estonian boyfriend, Jarek, she also has something to say about the modern architecture that can be spotted in Warsaw amid all the Communist-era buildings.

The central railway station is an example of late modernism, which abounds with stalls selling kremshnit and grilled chicken. Rising above the four sooty platforms is a marble-covered space with a glass facade, of the type popular in the 1970s. This ridiculous building was dedicated in 1975, on the occasion of the visit of a friend - former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

In the propaganda film documenting the glory of that moment, the announcer waxes about the escalators, the closed-circuit television and the automatic doors. Of course, since that hasty opening, countless design and engineering problems have been discovered in the station, and it has become a permanent renovation site. This was the swan song of the Polish architect Arseniusz Romanowicz, who in the 1960s dressed some of Warsaw's beautiful train stations in concrete and glass. All are now neglected and fail to arouse human compassion.

But Lebkowska is not about to give up. One tram station away is the rotunda of the Polish Central Bank. Items of furniture and lighting fixtures remain unchanged since the 1960s, though the facade is obscured by a giant billboard.

A few minutes' walk to the north is the old Smyk department store, which dressed generations of Polish children and is reminiscent of the department stores Erich Mendelsohn built in Germany in the 1920s for the Schockens. Maybe we'll be able to get a peek at the escalators that were installed in 1952? Lebkowska is disappointed. She was sure she'd seen them with her own eyes. It turns out they were installed in the 1980s.

Carrefour's bunker

If there is promise in the past, perhaps it is to be found among the abandoned buildings of the Praga neighborhood on the Vistula's eastern bank. What was long Warsaw's crime- and poverty-ridden backyard has been coming into fashion in recent years, similar to the Mitte quarter in east Berlin. The Trzciny factory has been transformed into a multicultural space, the neo-Gothic Koneser distillery now hosts concerts and fashion shows, and another club features a work by Karol Radziszewski - "the famous Polish artist" who exhibited video works this month at the Beit Berl College Gallery. Radziszewski also publishes an alternative magazine called Dik Fagazin, which has been received with some enthusiasm on the Western European fringe. Being a gay artist in Poland is no simple thing.

Other promises are currently on the drawing board. In the next five years, Warsaw is due to get a new museum of modern art, a Jewish museum, a soccer stadium, new tram lines, shopping centers and residential neighborhoods. It looks like they've managed to halt the race to build skyscrapers at least. Even so, this city has trouble operating on a human scale. The vast spaces opened up by the Nazi bombings during World War II really ought to be dealt with at eye level, not at sky level.

The new modern art museum aspires to be one such project. After a scandal-plagued competition, the Swiss architect Christian Kerez was chosen to design the building, having edged out bigger names such as Herzog & de Meuron and Mario Botta. It will be built near the Palace of Culture and Science, that colossus of wedding-cake Soviet architecture that was planted on Warsaw's nose as a gift from Stalin.

Kerez has designed a minimalist, gray, L-shaped structure that did not easily excite the critics. Some called it a branch of the French retail chain Carrefour, and others thought it resembled a bunker with a parking lot. Instead of seeking to hold a tense dialogue with the neoclassical buildings around it, the white insides are slated to be filled with natural lighting through a transparent roof. A million visitors a year are expected to revive and redefine the city center, which currently suffers from a dearth of cultural and architectural attractions.

The Jewish Museum, too, which is being planned for what was once the Jewish Quarter, is meant to become another obligatory stop for tourists interested in the Holocaust and the Jewish revival. Tens of thousands of participants in the March of the Living will pass through here on their way to visit Auschwitz. At the museum they will discover that Poland was not just one big concentration camp.

Visitors there will get a sense of how hard it is to define the relations between Israelis and Poles, who are captive to the baggage of the past. One may come looking for anti-Semitism and Nazi collaborators only to be exposed to a thousand years of Jewish life, in a multimedia exhibit that will bring the shtetl back to life. Here, too, the design competition was won by a European architectural firm, in this case Lahdelma-Mahlamaki from Finland, who designed a symbolically cracked concrete cube whose cool grayness is reminiscent of the planned new modern art museum.

A more adventurous design comes from the nsMoonStudio firm, whose offices are located in an upscale residential neighborhood in Krakow. From the top floor, on a clear day you can take in the entrepreneurial appetite of the developing nation. In the space of 10 years, Piotr Nawara and his people have turned themselves into major players on the local design scene. What haven't they designed there? A communications company in the style of a space center, Corbusier-influenced luxury villas, a museum in honor of the playwright and artist Tadeusz Kantor, a shopping mall shaped like a ship, exhibition pavilions, supermarkets, shops and art catalogs.

In the Polish cultural season about to descend on Israel, Nawara's team will curate at the Artists' House in Tel Aviv a traveling exhibition entitled "Made in Poland," which aims to reflect the latest achievements in Polish product design. To qualify, the participants had to prove that they had manufacturing ability and not just talent. And maybe that's the story of Poland in a nutshell.

The war over Oscypek

A long line of customers bundled in heavy coats gathers at the Oscypek stall in Krakow's central square. Pieces of smoked cheese, the pride of area residents, are roasted over a coal grill and served in a miniature cardboard boat, with or without pickle relish. It was a good year for this tourist-filled city. After a tenacious effort to get Oscypek recognized as a unique regional specialty, the bureaucrats from the EU finally ruled that Poland - and not Slovakia - has the rightful claim to this sheep's cheese.

Since the 15th century, the cheese has been manufactured by traditional manual methods. While Poland's inclusion in the EU was quickly settled, Oscypek threatened the continent with a regional conflict. Farm owners on the Polish side of the Carpathian Mountains were furious about the claims of their Slovak neighbors, and charged that they diluted Oscypek with cow's milk. Local papers called on the Slovaks to take their calloused hands off the cheese, ancient recipes were pulled out of the local archive, and a cheese festival was founded to promote Oscypek to young people. On both sides of the border, the feeling grew: It was "To be or not to be" time.

At first, the Euro-pessimists feared that EU officials would not deign to recognize a non-pasteurized cheese that ripens for two weeks in wood molds. When the threat was removed, and the continent plunged into pitched battles (involving pride and money) over the registration of local foods, Poland's Agriculture Ministry sought immediate recognition for its asset, as was done for Italy's Parmesan, France's Camembert and Britain's Stilton. In October, the verdict was handed down. Oscypek became a legal and official part of Polish cuisine.

So food is a good starting point for the Polish story, one that isn't usually on the tourist's map. It's not the Oscypek, but a steadily disappearing world that's being gobbled up by multinational corporations. The new Poland is having trouble reconciling the vast shopping malls trampling the local identity and the Oscypek sellers fighting for the Poles' right to be Poles.

It's not easy being Polish - but then who has it easy? In one of the last cafeterias that still offer working people a menu of basic dishes, you can order pierogi with fried onions, pearl barley soup and plum compote. It might sound like a nostalgic trip back to grandma's kitchen, but here the grandma is a stout and cranky cook practicing - without much success - how to decorate a cup of red jello with whipped cream.

In recent years, with their newfound affection for capitalism, the Poles have discovered the culture of going out. It started with McDonald's, continued with KFC and ended with the final scream - Kapulsky-style restaurants that have endless menus offering just about anything: Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese. Is everything else one can think of really preferable to pickled cabbage?

Not at the Gessler Restaurant in Warsaw, next to the exhaustively renovated Bristol Hotel. There, they still have respect for tradition - but at classic Europe prices. Pieces of pickled herring are served on fine china and accompanied by a sauce of sour cream and onion, which is poured with much formality from a silver bowl. The slightly sour borscht is strewn with pieces of beef and will leave you wishing for seconds. The sliced scallops are served sizzling right from the skillet as the diners watch, and accompanied by warm biscuits to soak up the full flavor.

And yet, there's no denying it, this is what Polish gourmet food comes down to: The herring is herring, the borscht is borscht and the scallops - well, okay. This new-old cuisine has been so successful that Mr. Gessler's two wives (the current one and the ex) continue to hold on to their man from either side: One runs the restaurant kitchen while the other oversees the bistro next door.

Across the street, at the Bristol Hotel, you can go overboard on Polishness with a dense hot chocolate, get dizzy from the sweet mountain air and then come back down to earth. This is one of the dozens of ornate Wedel bars - Wedel is the veteran chocolate manufacturer that had a surreal time during the privatization craze. At first it was sold to Pepsico, which changed the taste of the chocolate and threw out a 160-year-old tradition. Later the factory was taken over by Cadbury-Schweppes, which restored the original recipe. This was no small matter in this part of the world. The Russian "Red October" chocolate factory, which was founded the same year in central Moscow, had to make way recently for a real-estate project for the wealthy. In the international press, this was quickly declared the end of an era.

The Gazeta project

In the offices of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's second-largest newspaper, they try to find the stories that will set the Polish agenda. Nineteen years after it was founded by a group of dissidents that led Poland to democracy, it is still edited by the intellectual Adam Michnik, who has transformed the newspaper into a communications giant with 500 editors and reporters and a daily circulation of 430,000. The principles have remained unchanged: Liberal journalism that is socially involved, exposes corruption and fights to preserve the character of the fragile democracy.

In Gazeta's elegant building in central Warsaw, they've been learning the hard way about the wonders of the free market. First they had to join in the freebie trend and publish Metro, which has a circulation similar to that of Gazeta. And now a new, serious competitor is nipping at their heels - Dziennik, the Polish edition of the German political weekly Die Zeit.

Grzegorz Piechota, the paper's special projects editor, is confident that innovation will keep Gazeta on top. In the past year, he has been telling anyone willing to listen how the newspaper has reinvented itself with a string of original ideas.

It began with a trip to Dublin. Piechota went to visit friends in the growing Polish expatriate community there, heard only Polish in the pub and told the editors that he had a big story in hand: the Polish plumber. Fifteen reporters from the mother paper and the local editions were sent to 15 countries in Europe and asked to put themselves through the travails faced by young Polish emigrants in search of work. They had to write a blog and feature articles, report on the bureaucratic obstacles and provide practical advice.

The project, which was promoted with massive billboard ads and help-wanted sections, aroused massive media interest and turned the paper's reporters into heroes of the new working class. At the peak of the project, a Polish rock band volunteered to write an "emigrant song" to a familiar tune. The paper's circulation rose by 15 percent.

Yes, there were critics who saw this as a campaign to encourage emigration, but Piechota says that debates on the opinion pages and talk shows only strengthened the newspaper's enlightened image. Poland isn't Israel, and 4 million Poles who are looking for work and not finding it are a force to be reckoned with. He believes that after they establish themselves financially in one of the EU countries, they'll return home, to a different Poland, one with more opportunities.

Meanwhile, in the basement of a club in Praga, young people gather to watch a cult movie by a Ukrainian director. Having lost a tenth of its population, Poland is ready to absorb a constant trickle of immigrants from the east who find their own opportunities here and take the place of the plumbers and waitresses who have migrated westward. It's not that a great love story is developing here between the two historic rivals, it's just the changing reality that's making the match. Poland wants to see Ukraine join the EU so it can shed its status as a frontline country exposed to the mercies of the Russian bear.

Crazy Mike's refinement

Krakow, for its part, will have to suffice with the title of audience favorite. Eight million visitors inundate the city each year, some looking for things of interest outside the borders of the Old Town. The owner of an alternative tour company, "Crazy Mike," offers in his brochures "Communism for those of refined taste."

On the menu: A trip to Nowa Huta, the socialist utopia 10 kilometers from the center of Krakow. Who wouldn't want to spend two hours in a spluttering East German Trabant on a nostalgic trip like this?

Hundreds of thousands of settlers were supposed to fulfill the dream here in Nowa Huta, a center of heavy industry, where they could enjoy a modest 40-square-meter apartment, a view of the Lenin statue and lung cancer - all at Party expense. When Fidel Castro visited Poland, he wanted to skip bourgeois Krakow and be taken straight to the main square of Nowa Huta, to experience the vision from up close.

In an old cafeteria, one of those where they still serve pale coffee with sour milk on a wax tablecloth, the tour guide shows photographs from the 1950s of what the Party propagandists promised and delivered: an electric tram to Krakow, a cinema, a theater and a cultural center. The artificial lake and athletic stadium remained on paper only. The sleeveless builders, photographed smiling, would lay the foundations for the character of the working class hero Mateusz Birkut, in Andrzej Wajda's film, "Man of Marble."

The revolution crawled out from under the nose of the authorities sooner than expected: By the 1960s, Scandinavian-inspired high-rise apartment buildings replaced the vast housing blocks designed by the architects of Stalinist realism, and the workers soon had their hearts set on a Fiat Polski 500 of their own. The master plan left no room for a church, but it wasn't long before one was built anyway.

At first, the workers attached a giant wooden cross to a tree in an open field right under the authorities' watchful eyes. Later on, with money collected from the masses, the Arka Pana church was erected on the outskirts of the city and resembles the Le Corbusier-designed Notre Dame du Haut church in Rounchamp, France. Here, at the top of the staircase, is where the Polish pope John Paul II gave encouragement to the Solidarity movement. Those who had sought to keep religion hidden got the protest marches of Lech Walesa and his broad following.

The guide in the Trabant, a student of geographical tourism (!), points out a branch of McDonald's, which so far does not have an outlet in Nowa Huta. If Unesco doesn't declare the city a World Heritage city, it's doubtful whether this intriguing past will survive for long. The main square, from which one can look at the steel factory as if it were the Eiffel Tower, is now named after Ronald Reagan.

Aneta's chance

At the kiosk at the entrance to the Gdansk shipyard, they sell Solidarity T-shirts with the iconic red logo by Jerzy Janiszewski. To the right is a mast-shaped monument commemorating the 28 shipyard workers who were shot to death in 1970 during a strike. To the left, etched on rusting steel panels, is the history of the movement.

This is where Wajda sent the heroine of his movie, the film student Agnieszka, in search of the legendary builder Birkut, who disappeared from Nowa Huta after making his contribution to building the utopian city. Instead of Birkut, she finds his son, Maciek Tomczyk, a shipbuilder, who tells her that his father was shot by the Polish secret police a few years before.

The Solidarity movement doesn't seem to have a better future to look forward to. When Lech Walesa isn't giving bitter interviews about the democratic dream and its disappointment, or receiving medals of honor from human rights organizations, he's contending with the liberal left, which is trying to rein in the church's power.

Aneta Szylak, an art curator and researcher, is well acquainted with this post-Solidarity reality. A few years ago, she presented gay-related images in the local museum, which evoked the fury of the church and got her fired. Fed up with local politics, she founded an art center at the shipyards, called the Wyspa Institute of Art, in a space that was once used as a school for shipbuilders.

The economics of guilt feelings plays a notable part in the success of this center. With funds from the EU, Szylak has set up an art gallery, workshops, a collection of works, a publishing house, cultural evenings and international ties. She is eager to learn about Israeli art, and will soon come here at the invitation of Galit Eilat, director of the Center for Digital Art in Holon, who sent her traveling video-art library to Gdansk.

You can't really say that Szylak is all that wistful for the Solidarity days. She recognizes the role the movement played in developing Poland's democratic ethos, but has difficulty seeing the benefit in a connection between politics and the church. In the "Guardians of the Shipyards" exhibit she curated in 2005 on the occasion of the movement's 25th anniversary, she tried to examine the deceptive boundaries of memory, as inspired by another Wajda film, "Man of Iron," which fixed the images of the struggle in people's minds. Artists from Poland and abroad were invited to test to what degree the public's memories are real or fabricated. At the opening, guests were entertained by a double of Lech Walesa, who shook hands with them, joined them for a picnic and sat down with a victorious flourish on a tattered chair.

Irony is abound once again in Gdansk. The shipyards that became the symbol of free Poland were privatized and sold to a Ukrainian company, and Szylak's art center is now at the mercy of a Scandinavian real-estate development company that wants to turn the shipyards into an upscale residential neighborhood. While the guests from Israel were enjoying an espresso, there was an unexpected knock on the door from a representative of the company, a fair-haired man in a gray suit who drove up in a black Mercedes. Szylak tried to convince him that her high-quality center would attract visitors to the shipyards and raise the market value of the apartments. At the end of a tense day, she was able to soften him up and convince him to renew her contract, getting him caught up in her enthusiasm. Now they are friends.

Lech Walesa will thus have to console himself with the local airport named after him and which is having difficulty keeping up with the crush of spa tourists headed for nearby Sopot. Next to the legendary Grand Hotel, hotels from international chains are springing up, all with views of the longest wooden pier in Europe. Eighty years after its construction, from a depth of 500 meters in the North Sea, it still holds the most promise for a brighter and more magical aspect of the Polish story.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Coal-fired Poland in fighting mood over EU emissions rules

Coal is king in Poland, the European Union's top producer, and Warsaw is poised for a fight to keep burning as much as possible in power stations, feeding its economy despite the pollution.

Sitting on an estimated 140 years' worth of coal reserves, Poland is on tenterhooks ahead of Brussels' announcement Wednesday of final proposals for how the EU's 27 member countries will have to shoulder the burden of slashing 20 percent of the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

"We hope the European Commission is taking into account the fact electricity production in Poland remains and, unfortunately, will remain based on coal burning, which is a polluting technology. That's a Polish specific, and there's no getting away from it," environment ministry spokeswoman Elzbieta Strucka told AFP.

Poland, which has a population of 38 million, generates 96 percent of its electricity in power stations fired by coal, much of it from the country's still-plentiful Silesian reserves in the south.

In contrast, the proportion in neighbouring Germany is 60 percent, and in France, 10 percent.

Coal miners were the aristocrats of communist Poland's working class and despite losing some of their privileges since its collapse in 1989 they still remain influential and command both respect and fear among politicians when they hit the streets with protests.

"Poland won't be in a position by 2020 to make significant changes to this dominant technology," said Wladyslaw Mielczarski, an expert from the European Energy Institute think-tank.

The 2004 EU entrant currently lacks the financial resources to upgrade to less-polluting fossil-fuel power stations nor is it ready to launch a programme for the construction of nuclear plants, said Mielczarski.

"Poland also lacks the right conditions to be able to develop wind power and hydraulic plants," he added.

Alternative energy sources and energy-saving programmes nonetheless represent the country's best chance to change tack fast, according to Andrzej Kassenberg, head of Poland's Institute for Sustainable Development.

"The communist era left us with an industrial base that wastes an incredible amount of energy. But whenever we've actually done a real economic calculation of the costs, and shut down or upgraded the most polluting plants, Poland has achieved real results," he stressed.

Poland was able to more than meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations to curb emissions of carbon dioxide -- one of the main gases held responsible for global climate change -- largely thanks to the closure of a swathe of polluting, communist-era industrial behemoths during market economy reforms after 1989.

The country's emissions are now 32 percent lower than in 1988 -- surpassing the required six-percent cut -- despite a tripling of the number of vehicles on the road amid growing wealth since the fall of communism.

But the EU's executive body, the European Commission, wants Warsaw to do even more.

In March 2007, the Commission gave Polish heavy industry a carbon dioxide emission quota of 208.5 million tonnes for 2008-2012, almost 27 percent lower than Warsaw had requested.

Like several other ex-communist EU nations which joined the bloc in 2004, Poland complained that Brussels' calculations had failed to take into account the needs created by rapid growth -- the country's economy is expanding by around six percent a year, keeping Poland near the top of the EU table.

As a result, Warsaw last year launched a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice to contest its quota.

"Poland has growing energy needs and should have the right to a higher quota," said environment ministry spokeswoman Strucka.

With producers required to buy pollution permits under the EU's carbon-trading system if they want to exceed their quotas, the ministry is forecasting electricity prices could balloon by 18 percent by 2012.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Scholar's Legal Peril in Poland

Jan Gross
Polish prosecutors are considering taking the unusual step of filing criminal charges against an Ivy League professor for allegedly "slandering the Polish nation" in a book that describes how Poles victimized Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II.

Jan T. Gross, a Princeton University historian and native Polish Jew, has raised hackles here with the publication of "Fear," an account of Poland's chaotic postwar years in which Jews who barely survived the brutal Nazi occupation under the Germans often went on to suffer further abuse at the hands of their Polish neighbors.

The book was first published in 2006 in the United States, where reviewers found it praiseworthy. Gross's work, however, generated bitter feelings among many Poles who accused him of using inflammatory language and unfairly stereotyping the entire population as anti-Semitic. When the Polish-language edition of his book was released here last Friday, prosecutors wasted no time in announcing that he was under investigation.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office in Krakow, which is handling the case, said a decision was expected this week on whether to press charges against Gross or summon him for questioning.

The law in question was adopted in 2006, around the time that "Fear" was published in English; Gross and some other historians say it was partly a response to the book. The measure prohibits anyone from asserting that "the Polish nation" was complicit in crimes or atrocities committed by Nazis or communists. The maximum penalty is three years' imprisonment.

The threat of legal action has not deterred Gross so far. He arrived in Warsaw on Monday for a nationwide tour to promote his book, which has already sold out in some stores. In an interview, he said he doubts prosecutors will charge him.

"It's completely bizarre," he said, seeming to relish the attention. "There's an old saying in Polish that if God wants to punish someone, he takes away their brains first."

Poland has prosecuted Gross for his views before. In 1968, during communist rule, he was arrested as a student for participating in a free-speech movement and served five months in prison. He departed for the United States a year later, taking advantage of a Polish government policy that encouraged Jews to leave the country. He enrolled at Yale University and ultimately became a U.S. citizen.

In 2001, as a scholar, he provoked an intense public reckoning in Poland by publishing "Neighbors," a book about a 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne. Uncovering new evidence, he documented how hundreds of Jews were massacred by Polish villagers in an atrocity that had previously been blamed on the Nazis. Although the book caused an uproar, its findings were later corroborated by an official historical commission and endorsed by the government.

Many Polish historians are less enamored of Gross's most recent book. But several have slammed the authorities for even thinking about taking the Princeton professor to court, saying it makes the country look backward.

"As a historian, I quite simply consider it a scandal," said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. "It jeopardizes the standing of Poland as a democratic nation. We must demonstrate that we are not afraid of any historical truths, no matter how devastating."

At the same time, Machcewicz and other scholars have strongly criticized "Fear," arguing that Gross has sought to inflame public opinion by exaggerating the Polish attacks on Jews as "ethnic cleansing." They also said he ignored how Polish society was filled with ethnic and religious recriminations after the war and that many Catholics, Poles and Ukrainians found themselves the target of violence.

"I'm not going to say the majority of his facts are wrong," said Machcewicz. "It is true: Polish anti-Semitism existed. There were pogroms. Many Jews were killed. There is no reason to deny it or hide it. . . . But the language he used is counterproductive."

Poland's tragic wartime history remains a highly sensitive topic here. The Nazis exterminated an estimated 3 million Jews in Poland, or about 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population. But 3 million other Poles were also killed, and many people see them as forgotten victims in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Many Poles are still reluctant to engage in an open discussion of those years. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow, suggested this week that the publisher of the Polish-language edition of "Fear," a printing house with close ties to the church, had made a mistake.

"Your task is to promulgate the truth on history and not to wake up demons of anti-Polishness and anti-Semitism at the same time," he said. "Reading the book filled me with pain."

Andrzej Paczkowski, a well-known Polish historian and board member of the Institute of National Remembrance, said Gross had succeeded in stirring up emotions but questioned whether the public debate would do much good.

"This book is as much for psychologists as historians," he said. "I think in this case he's not a very good teacher. If you want to persuade someone of your own opinion, in my view, you should avoid scandals and media circuses and instead slowly demonstrate the course of events by relying on facts."

As he prepared to launch his book tour, Gross said he was not surprised at the hostile reaction.

"The memories of the war here are fixed, of people being victims and heroes," he said. "The truth of the matter is that European societies during the war did not behave as they'd like to think toward Jews."

He also said he was not intimidated by the risk of a legal backlash or any other dangers. Next week, he is scheduled to make a public appearance in Krakow, the city where prosecutors are weighing legal action.

"People have warned me that I should worry and not walk at night alone, but I don't feel any threats," he said. At the same time, with his photograph in dozens of newspapers and magazines these days, he admitted to wearing a hat to disguise himself on the streets. "We'll see what happens," he said with a shrug.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fear in Poland

The Polish language version of Fear: anti-Semitism in Poland, the book by Jan Gross, has just been published here, two years after the English version.

Polish historians have jumped on it, calling it ‘speculative’ and reinforcing a tired old stereotype of the anti-Semitic Pole. And a Polish prosecutor is reading the book to see if Gross has ‘slandered the Polish nation.’

The previous Kaczynski government brought in a law in 2006 that made it an offence to 'slander the Polish nation by accusing it of participating in communist or Nazi crimes.'

Gross’s publisher, Znak, is delighted, naturally. Empik, the largest book chain store, has been selling out of Fear since it was released last Friday.

I hope the prosecutor in Krakow doesn't go ahead and take Gross to court. The right way to settle a historical dispute is to debate it. Thankfully, that is what some have been doing.

Another book by an author, like Gross, who was born in Poland but since has made an academic career in the US, The Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz seems to argue that understanding the pogrom in Kielce in 1948, and other acts of violence against Jews in the post-war period, was not connected to the Holocaust, or to a general Polish anti-Semitism, but to the situation of Jews, and Poles, in a lawless land with private property appropriated by what was, effectively, a communist occupation.

From reviews, Gross points the finger at the Catholic Church, Polish nationalism before the war, among others, which added to the ‘ideology’ of anti-Semitism which was evident, he says, at that time. The wiki entry sums Gross’s book up like this:

"Fear" undermines Poland's self-image as the heroic and the principle martyr of the war. [Gross] points to Polish "society's violently expressed desire to render the country 'Judenrein' (Jewless). For Gross, Poland's communist regime took over where the Nazis left off in the annihilation of three million of the 3,5-million Jews who lived in Poland before the war. "Poland's communist rulers fulfilled the dream of Polish nationalists by bringing into existence an ethnically pure state,"

In an interview with Polish daily Rzeczpospolita published on Friday, January 11 2008, Gross rejected charges that his book was directed against Poland. "I am convinced anti-Semitism was one of the main poisons that were injected into the Polish identity," he was quoted as saying, and he blamed nationalist and Catholic circles.
Chodakiewicz, on the other hand, puts the murders of Jews in the context of the conflict – sometimes violent on both sides - caused by concrete circumstance, he says. His argument is interesting. He told Polish Radio, in what is a very interesting piece (it sounds better than it reads):

"A free country would have taken care of all the burning issues. Number one was property restitution. Whoever has been despoiled by the Nazis and the communists should have his or her property restored. That goes both for the Christians and the Jews. That didn't happen because of the communist hostility towards private property. Therefore, there were conflicts over property which only the communists could have solved.

Also, the communists entirely destroyed the machinery of the Polish state. When the communists pushed the Nazis out of Poland they started shooting, arresting and deporting functionaries of free Poland. That also means the police and the judiciary of the underground. There was no law and order. When there's no law and order banditry is rampant.

If you add into the mixture what the Soviets were doing – raping, pillaging and killing then you have a fuller picture. The Jewish community which survived the Holocaust, individual Jews and the Jews who returned from the bowels of the Soviet Union were thrown into this mini inferno.'
The truth? Dunno. But what’s good about all this, is that Poles do not go nuts anymore when they are accused of anti-Semitism. They have debates. And if they drop the daft prosecution nonsense down in Krakow – which would be an attack on academic thought and debate - then that will be progress, I suppose. So is the fact that they are talking about something that was taboo for years. And for that they can thank Jan Gross for, as much as anyone.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Two Polish football clubs relegated in corruption scandal

The Polish Football Association (PZPN) will downgrade two Polish football clubs Zaglebie Lubin and Widzew Lódz to the second league for their involvement in the corruption scandal, sports daily Przeglad Sportowy has found out unofficially.

The official decision of the Football Association will be announced on Wednesday.

Both clubs in question have admitted to their participation in the corrupt practice of setting up game results for bribes in the hope of being granted the possibility to remain in the first league.

Widzew is accused of having arranged the results of twelve matches between August 2004 and May 2005, and Zaglebie - all nine matches it played in the spring of 2004.

The corruption “co-ordinator” in Zaglebie Lubin was the club’s chairman Jerzy F., who paid referees up to 80,000 zlotys in bribes. In Widzew Lódz it was one of the club’s co-owners who corrupted referees, writes the daily.

Michal Tomczak from the Polish Football Association has refused to comment on the revelations unofficially disclosed by Przeglad Sportowy.

“I’m not going to make any comments on possible consequences until Wednesday”, Tomczak said.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Family Wants Answers In Marine's Suspicious Death

Heartbreak for a family in Anne Arundel County after their son, who served as a Marine, died overseas under mysterious circumstances.

Kathryn Brown talked to family members who say he was murdered.

The family says medical reports show their son was beaten to death. But nearly a year later, foreign police refuse to search for a killer.

Loretta Lawson-Munsey has a heart full of steely determination--to get justice for her oldest son.

Aaron Lawson, 28, died mysteriously in Poland eight months ago. Bruises marked the Marine reservist's head, neck, arms and legs.

"He was a good guy, and he didn't deserve this," said Lawson-Munsey.

Nearly a year later, his family has virtually no answers about how Aaron died or why.

Polish police have ruled his death an accident, though the medical examiner's report shows Aaron likely died from blunt trauma.

"The police still won't rule it as a homicide," said Matthew Lawson, Aaron Lawson's father.

"I did a horrible thing. I took pictures of my dead son with the funeral director showing me his marks because I knew someone killed my son," said Lawson-Muncey.

The Lawsons have made repeated pleas to the U.S. Embassy in Poland, the Marine Corps, the FBI and Congress for help.

They believe Aaron was the victim of a Polish Mafia hit possibly because he befriended a young woman who had Mafia ties and tried to help her leave.

"To them Aaron was just some guy on the street that may or may not have gotten in the way of their business and to us he was so much more," said Sam White, Aaron's best friend.

The circumstances surrounding Aaron Lawson's death are a source of endless pain and bitter frustration for his parents who want nothing more than justice for their oldest child.

"We just want somebody to help us. We want somebody that may know help," said Lawson-Muncey.

Police in Poland do not answer to the victims' families so the Lawsons are unable to communicate. They're currently working with Maryland congressman Wayne Gilchrest to hopefully get some answers about how their son died.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Polish President Warns About Russia Policy

Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Tuesday criticized the government that took over from one led by his brother, saying its policy to improve ties with Russia could prove dangerous.

In an interview with state-run Radio 1, Kaczynski said a decision to pull out Polish troops from Iraq and a general change in foreign relations under Prime Minister Donald Tusk was one of the "key political problems" facing Poland.

He also reiterated that Russia must accept that Poland has "permanently left their sphere of influence."

Tusk's pro-EU Civic Platform party won fall elections, defeating the Law and Justice party and its nationalist government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president's twin brother.

Kaczynski's tough-talking government strained relations with the EU, along with neighboring Germany and Russia, but moved closer to Washington.

Tusk's team, which took office in November, has fundamentally changed Poland's foreign stance, particularly toward Washington and Moscow.

One of its first moves was to decide to bring Poland's 900 soldiers home from Iraq by the end of October and demand more say in a U.S. plan to include elements of a new missile defense shield on Polish soil.

As for Moscow, Tusk's government dropped a veto that had blocked the opening of talks for Russia to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In return, Russia's government lifted a two-year ban on Polish meat imports.

Tusk will travel to Moscow in February to try to improve relations. Neither of the Kaczynski twins visited Moscow or received President Vladimir Putin while in office.

The Polish president said without elaborating, however, that the "fundamental turnabout in foreign policy made by this government seems to be ... sometimes very dangerous for our country."

"I want the best possible relations with Russia," Kaczynski said, but he repeated his view that Moscow "must remember once and for all that the geographical sphere where Poland lies ... has permanently left their sphere of influence."

He suggested Moscow was still trying to influence Poland's politics by -- among other things -- dictating whether Warsaw should accept the U.S. request to host a missile defense base.

The U.S. request to place 10 interceptor missiles in northern Poland as protection against possible attacks from unpredictable nations like Iran has drawn the ire of Moscow.

Russia says the shield would threaten its own security and has warned of targeting it with its own missiles.

The controversy is to be the main theme of Tusk's talks in Moscow scheduled for Feb. 8 and in talks he is expected to have in Washington this spring.

New Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich, meanwhile, was in Washington on Tuesday to push U.S. officials for security aid in exchange for hosting the missile defense interceptors.

Klich, on his first visit to Washington as defense minister, met on Monday with senior State Department officials, including Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. On Tuesday, he was to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Schoolboy hacker derails Poland's tram network

A teenage boy who hacked into a Polish tram system used it like "a giant train set", causing chaos and derailing four vehicles.

The 14-year-old, described by his teachers as a model pupil and an electronics "genius", adapted a television remote control so it could change track points in the city of Lodz.

Twelve people were injured in one derailment, and the boy is suspected of having been involved in several similar incidents.

The teenager, who was not named by police, told them he had changed the points for a prank.

A police statement said he had trespassed at tram depots in the city to gather information and the equipment needed to build the infra-red device.

"Questioned by police in the presence of a psychologist, the teenager testified he switched tram tracks three times, once causing a tram to jump the tracks," said the statement. A search at the boy's home turned up the device he had used to switch tram tracks.

Miroslaw Micor, a spokesman for Lodz police, said: "He studied the trams and the tracks for a long time and then built a device that looked like a TV remote control and used it to manoeuvre the trams and the tracks.

"He had converted the television control into a device capable of controlling all the junctions on the line and wrote in the pages of a school exercise book where the best junctions were to move trams around and what signals to change.

"He treated it like any other schoolboy might a giant train set, but it was lucky nobody was killed. Four trams were derailed, and others had to make emergency stops that left passengers hurt. He clearly did not think about the consequences of his actions."

The first sign of the chaos came on Tuesday afternoon, when a city tram driver tried to steer his vehicle to the right, but found himself helpless to stop it swerving to the left instead.

The rear wagon then swung off the rails and crashed into another passing tram, hurling screaming passengers to the floor.

Transport employees were reported as saying that they knew immediately that someone outside their staff had caused the accident.

The boy will face a special juvenile court on charges of endangering public safety, police said.

The incident is the latest in which "hackers" - many of them young computer experts - have broken into computer systems.

A 20-year-old was questioned in New Zealand last year suspected of writing programs for an internet "spyware" scam targeting several hundred thousand bank accounts.

In 1999, a group of hackers used home computers to break into the systems controlling Skynet, a British military satellite, and changed secure settings.

A report by the US Federal Aviation Administration this week raised concerns that a passenger aboard the new Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" aircraft might be able to hack into the aircraft's systems via its internet connection.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Poland to investigate allegations former government used secret services against opponents

Poland's parliament on Friday set up a commission to investigate allegations that high-ranking officials in the previous government pressured the country's secret services to dig up dirt on political opponents.

Lawmakers voted 265-157, with 10 abstentions, to establish a special parliamentary commission charged with investigating whether senior officials in former
Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's government and top law enforcement agents abused their powers by using the secret services, police and prosecutors to achieve political goals.

Kaczynski's Law and Justice party has rejected the allegations and says it intends to submit a challenge to Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, arguing that the new panel may not be in line with the constitution.
Kaczynski's party was ousted from power by Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform in October elections.
While in opposition, Civic Platform and left-wing politicians accused the former justice minister, the secret services and prosecutors of abusing their powers to silence government critics and political opponents.

The opposition pointed to a sting operation run by the Anti-Corruption Office that implicated former Agriculture Minister Andrzej Lepper in a corruption scandal.
Lepper _ the leader of the small Self-Defense party, which for a time shared power in a coalition with Law and Justice _ denied the allegations against him, but was promptly fired. Prosecutors have not brought charges against him.

Last month, lawmakers also set up a commission to look into the death of former left-wing minister Barbara Blida, who committed suicide in her bathroom while special agents searched her house.

Blida was under investigation for allegedly taking bribes tied to the coal trade in southern Poland. Left-wing politicians say the investigation against Blida was politically inspired.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Poland signals a shift on U.S. missile shield

Signaling a tougher position in negotiations with the United States on a European anti-ballistic missile shield, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski says the new Warsaw government is not prepared to accept U.S. plans to deploy part of the shield in Poland until all costs and risks are considered.

"This is an American, not a Polish project," Sikorski said in an interview published in the weekend edition of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

The previous Polish government had consented in principle to accept parts of the U.S. shield, but no formal agreement has been signed. Now Sikorski is saying that the terms under which the shield would be deployed were unclear and that the new government wanted the risks to be explained, the financial costs to be set out and clarification on how Poland's interests would be defended if the shield were deployed on its territory.

"We feel no threat from Iran," Sikorski said, challenging the U.S view that some of the biggest threats facing the security of Europe and the United States are from "rogue states" in the Middle East, including Iran.

Still, Sikorski said, "if an important ally such as the United States has a request of such an important nature, we take it very seriously."

He added: "It is not only the benefits but the risks of the system that have to be discussed fully. It cannot be that we alone carry the costs."

There was no official response from the United States. Bogdan Klich, Poland's new defense minister, is expected to make his first official visit to Washington this month to explain his government's position.

NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance, said Sunday that the missile defense issue was essentially a bilateral discussion between Poland, the United States and Russia.

"NATO is happy to be a forum for discussion, and it is a useful one," said James Appathurai, a spokesman for the alliance. "But it does not substitute for the bilateral track."

Sikorski also said he was worried that the United States could abandon the project after the American presidential election in November. In that case, Poland would nevertheless have to bear political costs, like the deterioration of relations with Russia, if it signed on to the shield prematurely.

The deployment of the U.S. missile shield has become such a contentious issue between the United States and Russia - and indeed between Poland and Russia - that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has warned of a new arms race if Washington proceeds with deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Having accused Washington of threatening Russia's national security interests, Putin last month suspended his nation's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Under that treaty, one of the last major arms pacts concluded between the former Cold War foes, countries stretching from Canada across Europe to the eastern parts of Russia cut their conventional forces and agreed to on- site inspections and an elaborate system of verification and notifications. It was implemented in 1992.

The Kremlin did not say how long it would suspend its participation. But Russian diplomats said it depended on not only what kind of concessions the United States was prepared to make concerning changes to the treaty, but also whether Poland and the Czech Republic would deploy part of the U.S. missile shield.

The new approach on missile defense taken by Poland's new center-right coalition government, under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, reflects a different negotiating strategy from the previous nationalist-conservative government led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski, who was much more pro- American, had in principle agreed to deploy several interceptors on Polish territory without going into detail over the costs, the maintenance and the risks to Poland's security, according to Polish officials.

But the former prime minister did little to allay Russia's fears about deploying the missile shield in Poland, or to drum up support in other European Union member states. He left it up to the United States to explain the issue to the Kremlin and to European governments.

In contrast, Tusk and Sikorski, while having no illusions about Russia's new self-confidence under Putin, have nevertheless repeatedly said they want to improve relations with Russia.

Later this month, Poland and Russia for the first time will hold direct talks in Warsaw over the missile shield. The Russian side will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kisliak.

Sikorski, who was defense minister in the Kaczynski government, had been forced to resign early last year after criticizing, among other things, the government's handling of the missile defense negotiations. He later joined Tusk's Civic Platform party and was appointed foreign minister last month.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Muggers of tipsy tourists arrested in Poland

Police in the historic Polish city of Krakow have arrested a gang of muggers who targeted tipsy foreign tourists for late night attacks in the popular weekend destination, authorities said.

“Typically one of the muggers would approach a drunk tourist going to their hotel late at night and ask for the time,” Krakow regional press officer Dariusz Nowak told AFP. “If it turned out to be a foreigner, gang members would follow him and then attack using tear gas.”

The muggers stole cash and valuables but made sure their victims retained their identity documents in the hope that they would not report the attacks to police, Nowak said.

“Some of the victims were drunk to the point they weren’t entirely certain whether they’d been mugged,” he said.

Around 20 attacks were reported to police over the last three months. The muggers were finally caught after special plain-clothes officers were stationed on Krakow’s scenic mediaeval central market square near which most muggings took place.
Officers managed to catch two muggers red-handed during an attack on a 62-year-old US citizen. A third was detained later.

The majority of victims were British. Budget flights from Britain have made Krakow in southern Poland a popular spot for short breaks, especially for groups of young men on stag nights.

The muggers, aged 31 to 34, face up to 12 years behind bars for assault using tear gas.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Polish police hunt octogenarian Romeo fraudster

Polish police asked for help from the public Wednesday to find an 80-year-old man who allegedly swindled the life-savings of women looking for love through match-making agencies.

Photographs of the man, identified as Eugeniusz Gadomski, were published on the Internet site of the Warsaw Metropolitan Police.

"The man we are seeking is 170-175 centimetres tall, brown eyes, he may wear a moustache, grey hair, but he may colour it," reads the police profile. "He changes hairstyles often and has been seen wearing a ponytail, a brush-cut, hair combed back and parted on the side," it says.

Suspected of a long string of swindles, the 80-year-old has been in hiding since 1998, according to police.

"Eugeniusz Gadomski defrauded a significant sum of compensation for having been in a (WWII) concentration camp in which it turned out he never set foot," according to the statement.

"Moreover, he has swindled many single women, one of whom he also severely injured," it says.

Despite several warrants for his arrest, the octogenarian has successfully eluded police for years.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Polish NASA?

Surly some mistake? But no: a cross party group has decided to set up a Polish rival to NASA. Well, not really a rival to it, but at least have one that rivals...Italy’s space agency [I didn't know they had one, either]. So will we see a Polish Space Shuttle powering off the launch pad at Warsaw airport anytime soon?

No. The project is a little more modest than that. But let’s hope it’s not a Polish version of Galileo – not the EU’s finest hour.

But while Brussels’ has a Galileo complex, Warsaw must have a Copernicus complex. At present Poland spends just 7 million euro on space research – a little less than NASA’s budget of 16 billion dollars. But this hasn’t stopped parliamentarians from having sky high ambitions. takes up the story:

According to "Polska" daily newspaper, Polish deputies gathered in the Outer Space Team are planning to set up a national space agency, similar to the American NASA.

Poland participates in the PECS (Plan for European Cooperating State Charter) programme carried out by the European Space Agency, yet in this way Poland spends only a small fraction of all EU funds allocated for space research […]

The idea of a Polish space agency is supported by deputies from different political parties. Yet, the route to such an agency is very long, taking into account the fact that Poland does not even have its own satellite in space.
Well…quite. ‘Could take time’ as it ‘doesn’t even have a satellite...’

And I love the idea of there being a Polish parliamentary ‘Outer Space Team’!

Team? I thought the whole parliament was from out of this world.

Basically, this is Polish MPs trying to think of ways to get more money out of the EU. The whole of Poland is doing it. I am going to be working on a project this year to try and get some single currency out of Brussels. But it is a good idea, with a ‘social’ I’m entitled.

But what have the Poles been doing in 2007 with their 7 million euros? Fortunately, the same provides us with a summary of the year:

A discovery of an extrasolar planet, participation in astronomical projects, as well as numerous successes of Polish students within international educational projects make up only a part of a summary of the year 2007 as regards Polish astronomy.
But that’s good. Discovering planets is one of the Poles’ greatest talents. They are at the forefront of planet discovery, in fact. Maybe they just have good eyesight?

But I wonder if Polish astronomers this New Year did the same as those wacky guys last year.

In mid-January, on the occasion of the Grand Finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, the radiotelescope situated in Piwnice near Torun sent a radio signal to nearby stars with greetings to any extraterrestrial civilisations.
Wacky! Maybe the legacy of Copernicus has left stars in those Polish eyes.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Billionaire Krauze returns to Poland to face prosecutors questions

Billionaire Ryszard Krauze, who controls several Warsaw-listed companies, returned to Poland last week to face questions in an investigation related to a political corruption row that led to the collapse of the last government.

'In the time set by the Warsaw court Ryszard Krauze arrived last Friday for questioning,' Prokom Investments spokesman Krzysztof Krol said.

Krazue, Poland's fifth richest man, stands accused of giving false testimony to investigators. He denies the charges.

Since August Krauze, who controls oil venture Petrolinvest as well as the blue-chip biotech company Bioton and builder Polnord, has remained abroad. Shares in his companies rose earlier this month on news that he would be returning to Poland before Christmas.