Greetings from Tarnów: From Factory Town to Humanopolis
#travel in poland
default, Tarnów, a view of the Main Square and city hall, photo: Jan Włodarczyk / Forum, tarnow_stare_miasto_forum2.jpg
A garden city, a city of the future and a city of death. Culture.pl presents a series of snapshots from the history of Tarnów, a city in southeastern Poland.
A Galician city
At the beginning, there was a village, but following a royal decree, the Kraków voivode of Spycimir (with the Leliwa coat of arms) made it a city. From then on, Tarnów was a private city, held by the Tarnowski, Ostrogski, Zasławski and Sanguszko families – but it also belonged to emperors and kings. Its castle ruins, city hall, basilica and renaissance tenement houses are great reminders of its long history.
In time, Tarnów amassed everything a Galician city needed: a railway station, art-deco architecture, Vienna-style cafés and a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, which became the site of patriotic celebrations. In fact, Tarnów was not just any ordinary city, because it was a metropolis for Galician standards – the third biggest settlement of the region, after Lwów (today’s Lviv) and Kraków. But ascribing a metropolitan character to Tarnów might be an overstatement, given that, as Karol Estreicher put it:
Galician cities have always been lethargic and languid, devoid of light and any desire for noble diversions. They have been and always will be so. The tiniest town of Congress Poland is much greater than Przemyśl, Rzeszów, Tarnów, Jasło or Sącz – cities covered under a cloud of ignorance.
Martin Pollack’s Po Galicji (After Galicia) is written in a similar tone:
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Karl Ludwig’s railway went from Kraków through Tarnów, Przemyśl, Lwów and Tarnopol to the East, where it reached the Podwołoczyska customs station at the Russian border. […] After around 70 km, the train reached the county capital of Tarnów. Located at the right bank of the Biała river, it was the seat of a Roman Catholic bishop and a railway junction. […] Tarnów was a place not worthy of a visit.
‘Plener Galerii Raster w Tarnowie’ (‘The Exterior of the Raster Gallery in Tarnów’) by Edward Dwurnik, 145 x 113 cm, oil on canvas, 2002, from the collection of BWA Tarnów, photo: courtesy of BWA Tarnów
To support his thesis, Pollack included the city’s description found in an old travel guide:
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Guest houses: Hôtel de Cracovie, de Léopol, de Londres, each one has its own restaurant.
Cafés: J. Breitsser, H. Funkelstern (both open only to Polish-Jewish merchants).
Bakeries: Spargnapani e Picenomi (worth recommending without question: warm hachés, exquisite liqueurs), Felix Drozdowski. Both places are clean.
The old city hall and the cathedral church are both visiting. However, the city hall is difficult to access, as it is surrounded on all sides by an ocean of filth, from which it emerges like an island. Tarnów is one of the filthiest cities in Galicia, and this needs no elaboration.
From Illustriter Führer Durch Die Ungarischen Ostkarpathen, Galizien, Bukowina und Rumänien (An Illustrated Travel Guide of the
Stanisław Wyspiański had an altogether different opinion. In a letter to his friend and fellow painter Józef Mehoffer, he wrote:
I arrive at the station at 4 p.m. and want to continue my journey to Kraków. I purchase a ticket to Tarnów, and another passenger convinces me on the way that I should stay in Tarnów. He had little need to repeat his suggestion – I stayed and do not regret it.
A couple of Wyspiański’s sketches from these days in 1889 have survived until today. He praised the city even more in another letter to his friend:
I have found Tarnów so much to my liking that I know not when I will leave… The church has wonderful Gothic choir stalls, which I want to imprint and recreate.
Our houses next to the factories
During the reign of Franz Joseph I, Tarnów saw some signs of progress, such as the introduction of the cinematograph and electric trams, but only during the interwar period did it fully enter modernity. The district of Mościce, named after President Ignacy Mościcki, was the second biggest investment at the time, after Gdynia. The newly constructed nitrogen plant was surrounded by a modernist garden city.
In 1928, there were 7,000 people working at construction sites – they came to Tarnów from the entire region. Prime Minister Eugueniusz Kwiatkowski (who later became the director of the plant) wrote that ‘it was a major accomplishment for the state’. Rafał Malczewski created a painted reportage entitled COP – Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy (The Central Industrial Region), which consisted of paintings of Mościce’s factory halls, pipelines and cauldrons.
In his Sztafeta, Książka o Polskim Pochodzie Gospodarczym (A Relay Race: A Book about Poland’s Economic Development), Melchior Wańkowicz described how ‘the people of Mościce rejoiced in their fight against the crisis’:
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As we approach, we see a line of workers arriving from the neighbouring villages on bicycles, which the factory makes it easier for them to purchase. The employees work in three shifts per day, because stopping production would cost 100,000 złoty. As a result, there is a constant stream of bicycles entering and leaving Mościce.
We have just finished touring the plant. It is a great aspiration towards godhood – because what else could one call the human genius which turns air and water into solid matter, capable of creating new life in the fields? God is able to oversee this process in the roots of the legumes, in the joy of a summer day. A man has to overcome himself, he must empower the dangerous world of machines.
The chemical industry and the multitude of bicycles were not the only signs of progress. In his novel Mercedes-Benz, Paweł Huelle referred to the biography of his grandfather Karol, the deputy-director of the Mościce plant. He used, for example, the anecdote according to which the engineers, the new elite, created their own entertainment aimed at replacing the old, ‘noble’ diversions which had not been available to them, such as hunting. It was no longer a sign of progress, but modernity itself:
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In the evening at the club, one of them had a truly Wagnerian, syncretic idea to combine his favourite sport, automobile races (which was practised in every spare moment), with hot-air balloon flights. In this simple way […] the idea of a modern, revolutionary and democratic fox hunt was born.
X Krajowe Zawody Balonowe o Puchar Wańkowicza - Mościce 1938 roku.
Mościce was also the childhood home of Wilhelm Sasnal. In an interview published in Tarnów – 1000 Lat Nowoczesności (Tarnów – A 1000 Years of Modernity), he said that ‘Mościce is a unique and one-off place, while Tarnów seems to be an echo of Kraków, which itself is an echo of Vienna.’
In another interview, Sasnal described Mościce in more detail:
The district became home to a modern nitrogen plant, which was itself a part of a unique urban development. Everything the inhabitants of Mościce could ever require to live a comfortable life was situated in a 10 km radius. It was a self-sustainable organism, which has survived in most part to today. The factory was the workplace and a source of income for the entire district (in the 1970s, it provided for the entire city of Tarnów, employing 14,000 people). Tenement houses and villas for employees, divided by greenery, were constructed next to the factory. There was also a community centre, the Dom Chemika (a hotel visited by President Mościcki and Prime Minister Kwiatkowski, the later director of the Azoty factory), a public park, a church, a cemetery and infrastructure for shopping and services. The pre-war buildings of Mościce remain an enclave of harmonious architecture, well-suited for people even today. It is an example of humanist or even humanitarian urban planning and spatial arrangement.
The district was often depicted by Sasnal in his paintings. He created his works on the basis of black-and-white photographs from a pre-war album of industrial landscapes created by Tadeusz Zwisłocki, the director of the plant. One of Sasnal’s paintings presents New York City’s JFK Airport terminal alongside the community centre in Mościce, as the two were built in the same period.
There is also Sasnal’s local sculpture made of concrete rings. It is a memorial to a 1983 nuclear disaster which never took place. During the Cold War, there was much talk of NATO missiles targeting the strategically important factory. But even without the threat of imperialist attacks, the vicinity of the nitrogen plant posed a danger to the inhabitants – each of the district’s streets was equipped with loudspeakers, ready to inform them of any potential cause for alarm.
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In Mościce’s Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski Park there are also Marcin Zarzeka’s sculptures, which depict the never-fulfilled designs of Jan Głuszak, also known as Dagarama. This designer of future cities and ‘an extraterrestrial for personal use’, as he used to call himself, created ideas for enormous settlements of one million people, space stations and cities floating on oceans. For Tarnów, his birthplace, he designed Klub Koniczynka (The Shamrock Club), which resembled something from a sci-fi movie. He developed his own idea of a perfect city – the Humanopolis.
Let us return to the centre of Tarnów, or, more precisely, to the no longer extant Jewish district. Up until World War II, Jews made up almost half of Tarnów’s population. The last leader of the city’s Jewish community, Abraham Chomet, said:
It might have been the only city in Poland where in the City Council, citizens of different nationalities and religion worked together in peace and harmony to the benefit of all.
The city was an important centre for both the Hassidic and Zionist movements. An important modern Hebrew writer, Mordechai David Brandstaetter, lived there. His grandson, Roman Brandstaetter, was in turn a Polish-speaking Catholic writer and an author of historical plays.
Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class also originated from Tarnów, as the director graduated from the city’s Kazimierz Brodziński Secondary School. On the one hand, the work contains a universal message about the impossibility of returning to the past. On the other, Kantor created it in the context of the Holocaust.
Jan Bielatowicz, Kantor’s classmate, also recreated their class in a dream-like way in his short story Polihymnia: Zjazd Maturzystów (Polihymnia: A Reunion of Graduates), written years after the war in London. Mieczysław Jastrun, a graduate of the same school, wrote the following in the 1970s:
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I walk on the main street of the city of T. I recognise almost every house, every distortion of perspective on the street. It all appears very familiar and close, but at the same time, strange and distant. Nothing, nothing, not even a single recognisable face. Only on the street running down next to the damp high-school wall, greeted by the sound of tall chestnuts, did I feel the shudder of an old longing. It seemed to me that I could see with my very eyes the superimposition of my two different times. Stumbling, unsure, I crossed through the narrow border between these two times. At some moment, at some square, I felt as if I was exposed to the falling stones of all of the surrounding houses. Could I expect, coming here, that all these unchanging, but as if slightly smaller and uglier houses would stone me, painfully, with their dead and heavy silence?
Originally written in Polish by Patrick Zakrzewski; translated by MW, Jun 2019