First-time visitors to Warsaw who arrive by train and disembark at Warsaw's Central Station - Warszawa Centralna - may be surprised upon Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue). In the distance, a single a palm tree figures on the congested rondabout in the centre of town
Is this a mirage? What is a palm tree doing in a Central European city, in this adverse climate? Perhaps a different question should be asked, although not many people do: why is the main street of Warsaw named after Jerusalem?
In the 18th century on the city's border the Polish nobles Józef Potocki and August Sułkowski founded a Jewish settlement called New Jerusalem. Not more than two years later went by when the Jews started to emerge as too much competition for the Christian merchants. The settlement was demolished, leaving the name of the road leading to it as the only memento.
Today the name can be interpreted symbolically as a tribute to all the Jews who once lived in Poland, but who were killed in the Holocaust. Before the war Jews constituted 30 per cent of Warsaw's population. Most of them were killed in the ghetto and concentration camps. And those who remained were further persecuted by the 1968 "anti-Zionist" campaign of General Secretary Władysław Gomułka.
What does a palm tree have anything to do with all this? Imported from a different climate it evokes all those memories and the questions - where does the name of the street come from and where are all of Warsaw's Jews? Israeli artist Yael Bartana also asks about them in her film Nightmares, in which Sławomir Sierakowski, editor-in-chief of "Krytyka Polityczna" delivers a speech at the defunct Stadion Dziesięciolecia (10th-Anniversary Stadium), directed at Jews. Return! - he calls. The stadium answers with nothing else but silence.
Joanna Rajkowska, in preparing her project, wasn't initially familiar with the history of New Jerusalem. She was only interested in a vision of contemporary Jerusalem. The idea was born after the artist's first visit to Israel in 2001. She chose a gesture to tell the story of her trip - planting a row of artificial palm trees along Jerusalem Avenue - one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares. On one hand she was accompanied by a fresh memory of the situation in Israel, on the other - a feeling of absence given the disappearance of the Jewish diaspora in Poland.
Strictly speaking, the palm had not been ‘transferred' from any tropical country into any place in Warsaw, but rather "brought" from Jerusalem to Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie. This way, Rajkowska wanted to draw attention to the street's original name - Jerusalem Avenue - which had with time become so common that it detached itself from its late-18th-century etymology. It was also supposed to be a social experiment, testing whether the Polish society is ready to absorb an object that is so culturally (and naturally) alien to them.
For technical and financial reasons, the project, entitled Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, was ultimately limited to just a single tree - a massive, 15-metre-tall chunk of a tree, in fact. The Palm, which is modeled upon the phoenix canariensis variety, sprouted up on the de Gaulle roundabout in Aleje Jerozolimskie in December 2002, following a year and a half of preparations. The spot had previously been used as a Christmas tree.
The artist had a fair amount of trouble with the project as it sparked controversy and resistance, especially on the part of the authorities and public administration. With a great deal of effort she was able to gather the required permits, although she has remarked on the direct effects of the political situation in Poland:
The most likely scenario is that the retiring coalition of PO-SLD (left wing) wanted to hand a hot potato to PiS (right wing), who are famous for their complete lack of any sense of humour.
Can the the palm be a monument that "remembers" for us? The palm that greets passersby along Aleje Jerozolimskie doesn't accuse or invoke despair. It is a lively, unexpected breath of fresh air that stimulates our memory and imagination. In a country that is fond of dwelling on its war history and insurgent martyrology, the palm triggers a process of revising the trauma. It points toward the future, rather than the past. In an interview given to Artur Żmijewski Rajkowska explains what she is missing in Poland and in Warsaw:
There is a lack of people who are different in the full meaning of that word, who demonstrate these differences without shame, but also without aggression. Our society lacks the Arabs or the Africans. We lack the energy of immigrants who decide to leave everything behind and start again, we lack their angst and drive. Maybe it is because of this longing I feel so comfortable at the Stadion Dziesięciolecia. In terms of diversity Poland is pathetic. A white, Catholic society unified by similar behaviours and similar beliefs. This silent understanding, this "normality" are horrible. There are no minorities or majorities, there is a more and less wealthy homogenate. This is where Polish racism and intolerance come from.
The palm showed the value of a positive antic, of a sudden surge of imagination; it was able to unite many people. It quickly turned out that it wasn't only about the Jewish issue. The problem is here and now, it exists in our environment, society, the general atmosphere where "different" views don't have a right to be. There is no room for this especially in the public sphere. Lech Kaczyński, during his tenure as the president of Warsaw, was equally zealous to eradicate the palm and the Gay Equality Parade - "When it comes to the palm we are still bound by the contract but after it expires, ideas of this kind will not be accepted", he said.The palm tree in Warsaw, as a sign of everything that escapes our way of reasoning, is a groove. The transferring of an object typical for the tropics to the cold, wintertime Warsaw may have simply been an absurd gesture - "someone's gone nuts and planted an artificial palm tree" - but from the very beginning the project came to be perceived in the context of the place's history.
In a less literal way, the palm tree relates to the idiomatic expression that Poles use to describe something unthinkable, something outside of reason, something idiotic - "palma odbiła" / "hit by a palm tree".
Does the palm inspire onlookers to think about the world differently? To recall those places on earth where palms grow freely, even in December? Warsaw's palm appears to be performing this function. In a poll conducted among Warsaw inhabitants in 2003, 75 per cent of the surveyed voted for the palm tree to stay. There has also been a special Palm Protection Committee (KOP - Komitet Ochrony Palmy) set up to defend it against opponents.
The spot where Rajkowska's work is standing is all the more significant when one takes into consideration that on the one side of the intersection stands an edifice, where, for tens of years, Polish United Workers' Party's Central Committee was located. On the opposite side - the EMPIK media shop is housed in a building that sports an engraved inscription remembering the renovation of the city after the war damages: "The Entire Nation Builds Its Capital". Another of the artist's contributions was making the inscription and the name of the Avenue more legible.
Today, the palm tree is a meeting point. It has become a distinguishable symbol of Warsaw, a new icon of the capital, under which the tourists and newlyweds take photos. As Rajkowska says: "The palm was supposed to work like a film, it was supposed to have the same ability to create an illusion". Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2010.http://www.palma.art.plSource: www.culture.pl and **link*www.palma.art.pl**
- Joanna Rajkowska
Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue
Established in 2002 at the De Gaulle Roundabout in Warsaw