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.