The Warsaw Madonna: The Tale of Brzeska Street
#travel in poland
small, The Warsaw Madonna: The Tale of Brzeska Street, Brzeska Street, Warsaw, photo: Elena Golosiy, 2016, 29.jpg
Warsaw’s Praga – a district on the right bank of the River Wisła – is a city within a city. A peculiar neighbourhood with its own specific folklore and natives, along with museums filled with artefacts illustrating Praga’s past and present. Although Praga is actively being built up and renovated, neglected alleyways with dilapidated houses, merely functional at best, can scare away the hapless passer-by. Vladimir Gromov and Elena Golosiy took a walk along Praga's famous Brzeska Street, never deviating, and captured its essence to share with the world.
The Madonna meets us in every courtyard. Extravagant, painted in blue and white colours, crowned with a halo of electric lights, she stands here among dingy brick walls, blackened by the decades. These courtyards seem beyond saving. Drug addicts don’t especially conceal themselves, hoodlums in Adidas sportswear drink vodka, and children play ball. They run very fast, kicking the ball around the hollow, well-like courtyard, which repeats their endless echoes. The sign ‘Playing ball is prohibited’ stops no one.
If you follow the chain of arches around the yard, you might find yourself in an empty space with a pigeon house. The fat caretaker never takes the cigarette from his mouth, even when feeding the pigeons and cleaning the cages. Cursing wildly, with the cigarette butt in his teeth, he climbs onto the roof, whisking in his wards and brushing away the bird droppings. The birds fly off in fright and flock into a large cloud above the head of their caretaker. The aroma of flowers that are just beginning to bloom in the spring mix with the smell of the ubiquitous garbage.
It seems that there is not a more morose nor attractive street in all of Warsaw. The sombre houses of red brick here were built at the end of the 19th century. They were erected mainly by Jewish merchants to provide apartments for railroad men, craftsmen and labourers. The train stations Vilnius (Dworzec Wileński) and Terespol were not far from here, so those in need of housing tolerated the surroundings. Then came one war, and after that came another. This street was awash with strange people: on it was Różycki Bazaar where it was possible to buy many things even during the German occupation. It was also during this time that the Madonna statues began to appear in the courtyards: what else was there left to believe in? And then came the Soviet forces. On the other side of the Wisła, everything was burning and dying in the Warsaw Uprising, but in Praga the war was already over, and no one touched the crumbling brick houses.
In the 1960s, a young student of the Łódź Film School, Krzysztof Kieślowski, came to one of the courtyards on this street. He wanted to seek out those boys in Polish army hats, holding machine guns, who had been photographed by a war correspondent on the day this district was liberated from Hitler’s forces. A cameraman and sound engineer came along with Kieślowski. They filmed the street and its inhabitants, ordinary Varsovians. It was Kieślowski’s first film in which we see Warsaw. The houses looked just as dilapidated as their residents looked unsettled. Yet you could find many similar places during those years in the Polish capital.
The street continued to age. The city around it changed, got better. A new age arrived, one that brought good changes. At the end of the street, a gigantic shopping centre emerged, absorbing Dworzec Wileński. Shops and supermarkets began to open all around, and the Różycki Bazaar no longer interested anyone anymore, as it had faded from Warsaw’s chief marketplace into an ordinary clutter of Chinese commercial goods.
Everyone who could emigrate left. Neither the city nor district authorities were concerned with the fate of the street. No one wished to install central heating in the old brick houses, to equip them with plumbing, or repair the electricity. In the 1990s, it became truly dangerous here. Brzeska became an edge of the so-called ‘Warsaw Bermuda Triangle’, the other sides being Ząbkowska and Targowa streets.
At night there was nothing but the night itself. The streetlamps didn’t turn on. Unsteady light seeped out only from windows and the ridiculous halos of the courtyard Madonnas. The careless pedestrian or the occasional tourist might be assaulted and robbed. The street became the most criminal place in Warsaw. It returned to being a separate settlement inside the big city with its own unique community and culture. Those who were not able to leave took a dislike to other Varsovians and separated themselves from them.
In other districts of the capital city, the inhabitants tried to enrich their homes and courtyards, they cared about maintaining their apartments and the façades of their buildings, but here no one had any money, or the will to exert any effort. Well-to-do Varsovians shopped in big shopping centres, but the residents of Brzeska Street preferred to steal shopping carts from there. They stuffed the carts with various junk and trash, and afterwards brought them into the courtyards, not knowing what else to do with them.
For the children on this street, there was no other entertainment besides lighting matches and smoking in a blind alley somewhere. Someone was trying to take care of them, talk with them, to give them lessons, but the children confessed that they were never interested. The majority of them had never even been to the left bank of the Wisła, where the Royal Castle stands and the Old Town spreads out before them. In fact, it only takes seven minutes to get there by tram, but for the residents of Brzeska Street, even this distance seems insurmountable.
Some enthusiasts decided to help the children and created a social club for them. At the club ‘On Brzeska' children are taught how to communicate, make movies, write books. The organisers of the club – psychologists, facilitators of culture, volunteers – started to take them to the cinema and the theatre, to swimming pools and athletic training. They tried to do everything so that the children would connect with the rest of the world, would see how much was happening outside the limits of their street. To this day, the club remains one of the only truly lively places on the street.
Sometimes artists would come here and try to beautify the gateways and naked walls with drawings, frescoes, unusual stone carvings. This enlivened the street, but the artists left, and everything returned to normal, although the walls may have become a bit more cheerful.
The street continues to exist. Slowly but surely, the city closed in around it. Some houses were demolished, some that were close to the shopping centre were renovated and now look decent. A large portion of the old brick houses were preserved, though many stand abandoned. They are rapidly decaying, overgrown with weeds – their old bricks are crumbling. Inscriptions and signs that are already many decades old can be seen on the walls. Such signs can't be found anywhere else. Other houses still seem alive. They are falling apart, growing dark, but the residents will not desert them: they put in new plastic windows – and the new white frames sharply brighten the dark façades, like dentures in the wizened mouth of a decrepit old man.
On many a Saturday afternoon, you'll even find tourists strolling around with cameras in hand. They have heard of this legendary forgotten place, and come prepared with their Nikons and Canons to capture this point stuck in time. They fill their Instagrams with abandoned red-brick moments. Small tour groups see the boarded windows and the murals, guides leading foreigners in-between scattered playing cards and confused locals. How long will visitors have the chance to get such photos? Another old building is torn down, the foundations awaiting a new build. But planning permission is complicated. Everything is in a wretched stasis, stuck between the troubled past and inevitable slick gentrification by Warsaw's hungry property developers. The tourists capture confusion in their camera lenses.
Only the Madonnas look well-groomed. They are cared for. Sure, some statues are chipped and peeling, but there are always flowers around the pedestals. They try to paint the pedestals, and someone changes the bulbs in the halos when they burn out. If a Madonna is ensconced in a glass case, the glass will surely be cleaned, and the base swept, the frames decorated with curtains or, at worst, lacy napkins. One Virgin Mary may be sculpted with some mastery, while another may look absurd. A Pieta with an angular Christ downright elicits a smile. You will not find such artistic primitivism in any province.
Why are there so many Madonnas in the decaying courtyards of this terrible, yet strangely captivating place? Yes, the Madonna accompanies you everywhere in Poland. She watches over you from the façades of buildings, postage stamps, from the windshields of cars and from the intersections of streets. But, it seems, she is not met anywhere more often than in these places, forgotten by other Varsovians, separated from the rest of the city. Probably, the residents of Brzeska Street believe that they really don’t need anyone except the Blessed Virgin. She indeed loves and embraces everyone. It's something you can't help but feel when on Brzeska Street.
Originally written in Russian, 16 May 2016; translated by KA, additions by AZ, 16 Oct 2017