25 years ago, the people of Poland voted in democratic elections for the first time since WWII. President Obama is coming to Poland on June 4th to commemorate this occasion. This cultural review offers suggestions for a programme that would introduce Polish culture so as to appeal to the American head of state while allowing him to discover what 25 years of freedom has brought to the country.
On the 4th of June 2014, along with other heads of state, President Obama is coming to Warsaw for the anniversary of the first partially-free Polish parliamentary election after the Second World War. After years of occupation by the Nazis and foreign rule imposed by the Soviets, the elections opened a new chapter in the modern history of the country. In the 25 years since, Poland has become a dynamic country able to follow its own path, for example, by joining the organisations of its choice (NATO in 1999, EU in 2004), and by choosing its own economic system.
The programme of the President's visit, like any other state visit (this visit being Obama's 36th foreign trip and 2nd to Poland), will be planned out down to the last detail and laced with speeches, dinners, hand-shaking, meetings with important people, playing of national anthems, wreath-laying, and signing memorial books. The motto of the event is 'promoting democracy'. For those words to gain meaning, the programme has to fulfil two more points:
1- Show the Poland of the Poles
2- Entice the President to relate to the country and its culture on a personal level
After all, "I am part of Poland because I come from Chicago," Obama said during his last visit to Poland in May 2011, "And if you live in Chicago and you haven’t become a little bit Polish, then something’s wrong with you". Culture.pl’s experts have put together this list hoping that the iconic American president will leave Poland feeling more Polish than ever.
Streets, ruins and reconstructions exercise the imagination more strongly than museums and programmed ceremonies. The less known, authentic places of the survivor city which, in the last 25 years, has adapted to the international environment, often through dexterous improvisation, will give a true image of its current state, needs and potential.
East of the Vistula which divides Warsaw in half is the district of Praga. It's a place of contrasts: pre-war red brick buildings mix with poverty and a growing underground arts scene sprouting in squats and communes. Ironically, close to the river the crumbling town houses have the greatest view of the skyline of the rich and modern Warsaw. If you're arriving from a metropolis like New York, you will be surprised to see that the Polish capital isn't lined with skyscrapers. This makes it easier to spot the Daniel Libeskind skyscraper (3rd tallest), right next to a massive social realist relic (built in 1955) - the Palace of Culture and Science.
Because of its rundown buildings, the North of Praga (Mała and Stalowa streets) were chosen by Polański as the set for the filming of Ghetto scenes in the The Pianist. A tall Ghetto wall and a wooden footbridge were built and an abandoned building on Zakopowa street served as the set for Szpilman's (Adrien Brody) safe house after he was saved at the Umschlagplatz (also filmed in Warsaw, on Krakowskie Przedmiescie).
Walking along the Thames Path is a piece of cake, but such a pedestrian promenade along the Polish river has yet to be constructed. Its appeal thus lies in its raw nature and wild urban beaches. It's the type of place where, in winter, you might spot a random adventurer ice fishing without proper safety equipment. Stretching along the shore of the Vistula through Warsaw, Powiśle is criss-crossed by bike paths along the water and dotted with hang-out spots: small restaurants, bars and open air discos. After all, during his trip to Europe in 2011, in Ireland, Obama shared a beer with the residents of Moneygall.
Strolling along all the way to the Old City (entirely reconstructed after it was levelled by retreating Nazis), he'll find the 19th century statue by Konstanty Hegel of a half-woman half-fish - the Syrenka (Mermaid). Represented in Warsaw's emblem since 1390, the legend features a mermaid named Sawa who swam along the Vistula all the way from the Baltic sea and decided to settle on these banks, and a fisherman named Wars who freed the creature when she was captured by a profit-driven rich man (Wars+Sawa=Warszawa). She is armed because she made a promise to forever defend the inhabitants of the city.
In our collage she additionally sports a more capitalist accessory - a SHANGHAI bag from designer Ania Kuczyńska, which would be great souvenir for young women back at home (see picture at the top of the article).
Urban planning under Soviet rule involved the mass-development of standardised tower blocks in park-like settings, built using structural insulated panels within a short period of time. The President will be able to see them from his limo's windows because they dot the whole city but the so-called Jamnik block at 11 Kijowska street in the north of Praga makes a lasting impression. Jamnik means Dachshund, aka sausage dog, and that's the nickname given to the building because of its length: it measures 0.32 miles (508 metres). It was erected in 1973. The British post-Britpop alternative rock band Travis shot a mellow music video here for Love Will Come Through. What this part of the trip ought to make politicians ponder about are the housing solutions for the millions of people who will have to be relocated once their homes' expiry date runs out.
Obama's favourite books fall under the categories of African American literature (Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon), adventure novels (Herman Melville's Moby Dick), and biographies (Taylor Branch's America in the King Years) to name but three. The following three diverse Polish titles are best suited to his specific tastes.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki, 1847
In the time of Napoleon's campaign in Spain, two soldiers from warring sides discover a strange manuscript at an inn which sucks them into a series of intertwining stories sown together by a brave and foolhardy guard Alphonse van Worden. Stories within stories concoct larger than life creatures not unlike Obama's favourite Moby Dick. 18th century writer, explorer, soldier and scholar Jan Potocki managed to lock his deep fascination with secret societies, the supernatural and "Oriental" cultures in a tale which captures the randomness of human fate. The book's first edition came out in French. Wojciech Has' cinematic adaptation of the novel (1965) became a cult classic. The film The Saragossa Manuscript is available on DVD with English subtitles.
Tadeusz Różewicz, Mother Departs, 1999
The President is himself an author. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance was published in 1995. Różewicz, the recently deceased Polish poet published a memoir called Mother Departs. From under the pen of a man who as a poet put "the speechlessness of the war generation in words" after asking himself the difficult question whether poetry after Auschwitz was possible, this memoir is the most intimate of his works, a personal account of his family and the death of his mother . Its personal character (photographs from the family album, fragments of Rozewicz's diary and his mother's memoir, poems) is simultaneously a reflection of an epoch by a man who witnessed the tragedies of the 20th century as a resistance fighter in the war. The English translation of Mother Departs was named one of 2013’s Notable Literary Translations by World Literature Today.
Anna Mieszkowska, Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. Irena Sendler's Story, 2010
The moral behind The Song of Solomon is that love is the most powerful force in the world. This book is the true story of a woman who saved the lives of 2,500 children in Warsaw under German occupation. As a worker of a social aid centre, Sendler had a special permit to enter closed-off wards of the Warsaw ghetto. She collaborated with the Polish aid, which was controlled by German forces, and organised the smuggling of Jewish children, placing them in the homes of Polish families and at orphanages and convents run by Catholic nuns. After the war she continued to set up orphanages and centres for children and the elderly that lost families in the war, all while being persecuted by the Communist secret police. She never spoke out about her war time activity and never realised that she had done something incredible. She received her first award at the age of 98, the same year she passed away. Her story made the headlines in the U.S. thanks to a group of students from Kansas who, in 1999, found out about what she did, corresponded with her, traveled to Poland to meet her and brought out a play based on her story that spawned worldwide interest.
There are many more pearls in Polish literature. Choose according to taste.
Just like books and music, preference in films can often be a very intimate matter. Websites round up Obama's favourite films list to Casablanca, Godfather I & II, Lawrence of Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A comic book fan and collector of Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics himself, Obama lauded Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher a fantasy novel series that has also come out as a video game and a comic book in the U.S. "The Witcher is the best example of Poland's place in global economy" he said.
There is more to discover in Polish films, the directors of this selection give a new perspective on topics of universal meaning through a common cinematic language.
Andrzej Wajda, The Promised Land, 1974
The closest you'll get to a Polish Godfather. A film about three friends: a Jew, a Pole and a German. Loyalty, values and friendships are put to the test in Promised Land when business and profits are on the rise. The film is set in the city of Łódź (know for its 19th century textile industry and its Film School attend by Polański, Wajda and others). Wajda managed to show the slowly progressing cycle of pursuit of money, inevitable quarrels and eventual inner emptiness. The film received an Academy Award nomination in 1976.
Jerzy Kawalerowicz - Pharaoh
The mechanisms of power and the influence of religion on social life built into a historical fresco set in ancient times. The cyclical nature of human history is crystalised through the the clash of two political approaches: the pragmatic one, which is presented by the monks, and the romantic one, eschewed by the young pharaoh. The film is an adaptation of a novel by the 19th century master of the historical epic genre, Bolesław Prus. Shot in the desert with Soviet soldiers as extras, Pharaoh is still considered one of the most spectacular Polish films.
The Promised Land and Pharoah are also Martin Scorsese's best Polish picks.
Andrzej Jakimowski, Imagine
Poland has yet to produce a love story as great as that of Casablanca but Imagine is a story of love built on trust and joy. In a Lisbon institute for the visually impaired, a blind man (Edward Hogg) is able to walk without a cane. He moves around fully alert to the sounds and smells around and "imagines" the landscape. The younger patients don’t believe that he is really blind. He wants to teach them independence. His methods spark the interest of Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara) a sensitive young blind woman who isolates herself from the rest of the group. Jakimowski's film is not art for art's sake, it's a universally packaged intimate confession.
Agnieszka Holland, Europa Europa, 1990
To grow up internationally and build relationships with all cultures while not having full ownership of any is a challenge to anyone. The President will perhaps be able to relate to Sally Perel - the protagonist of Agnieszka Holland's film. The young Jewish boy has many identities. He is able to pass for a Pole, a Volksdeutscher and a Russian. Speaking different languages and behaving in a certain way, his multiple identities save him from the Holocaust and WWII. Sometimes blissfully enjoying the privileges of a German, sometimes enduring the hardships of being a Soviet orphan, he experiences love, shame and sadness. Obama might be familiar with Holland's work on series like Treme, The Killing, Cold Case, The Wire.
The President is an avid jazz fan. He favourites include Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bach and The Fugees. As part of the Poland visit, the President will assist in ceremonies on Plac Zamkowy in Warsaw on the 4th of June. Speeches will be followed by a performance by pianist, jazz virtuoso Włodzimierz Pawlik who will play a song composed for this occasion, a salute to freedom. Pawlik received a Grammy Award in 2014.
Author: Mai Jones 30/05/2014, with great help from the Culture.pl creative team (in particular Bartosz Staszczyszyn, Janusz Kowalczyk and Sylwia Jablonska)
Sources: American embassy in Poland, Washington Post, Huffington Post, "Spacerownik Warszawki 2" by Jerzy S. Majewski, Tomasz Urzykowski and Dariusz Bartoszewicz, "Do it in Warsaw!" by Agnieszka Kowalska and Lukasz Kaminski, Telegraph, Wyborcza