My grandfather David and his brothers grew up in the small city of Ostrowiec. They emigrated to the USA in 1938, and as far as I know, none of the family have set foot in Poland since. Until now; this academic year, my sister Dara is living in Warsaw on a Fulbright scholarship to study Polish theater and its relationship to the Greek chorus. Pam and I went to visit her over the winter holidays, continuing a family tradition of her studying abroad and me visiting. Here are highlights and selected photos. Full photo album, as usual, on Flickr.
Dara found us a hotel with all the modern conveniences and English-speaking staff in downtown Warsaw. This was nice, because it’s the first time (as an adult) I’ve been to a country where I understood not one word of the local language upon arrival, and we lost most of the first few days in-country recovering from Airplane Crud (a phenomenon not entirely unlike Con Crud); I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate room service in Polish with my brain operating at less than 50%. We did manage to get out to the Palace of Culture and Science which was only a few blocks away, and to a luncheon party with some of Dara’s friends from the Fulbright program. When we were feeling a little better, we walked through the reconstructed Old Town (Warsaw was quite literally razed to the ground by the Germans during WWII, but the Poles rebuilt as much as they could manage after the war, working from photo and art references) and visited the castle of Stanisław II August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland (1764–1795), which is right in the middle of the old town. It currently houses two of the three Rembrandt paintings in Poland, and an exhibition on Stanisław August’s life.
We got better just in time to go to Michałowice, where other friends of Dara’s—specifically, the Szumski family, the principals of Teatr Cinema—invited us to their house party for New Year’s Eve. This was quite a journey from Warsaw, beginning with five hours on the train to Wrocław. Wrocław survived the Nazis’ hatred of all things Polish almost unscathed, because it was part of Germany during the war (they called it Breslau). It has sprawled a bit since then, and I saw some of the Soviet-era slab apartment blocks on the way out, but its old downtown is still full of gingerbread townhouses and elaborate civic architecture. We were trying to conserve our energy for the house party, so we crashed in a hostel and didn’t do very much in Wrocław the following day, just walked around a bit and took photos.
The next hop on the journey was a two-hour bus ride to Jelenia Góra, which is in the mountains west of Wrocław, almost to the border with the Czech Republic. The son of our host, and five of his buddies, picked us up from the bus stop in their van, and drove us even farther into the mountains, to the Szumski house in the small town of Michałowice. It was what you might call a country mansion, with several floors and lots of space for guest rooms on the third floor; they were putting at least ten other people up, besides us. It’s full of art, made by them or their friends.
The house party itself was fairly low-key. Dara and Pam and I had a game of pool (it is a family tradition that whenever Dara and I are in the same city, we must play a game of pool somewhere, even though both of us are terrible at it). There was a jam circle for awhile. There was lots and lots of food. We had an interesting conversation with a fellow who’s been a doctor in Poland for many years and is now moving his practice to Denmark. We went to bed pretty much immediately after midnight, being still tired and not quite well yet. Pam suggested getting up at nine to celebrate midnight-in-the-USA, but we didn’t actually manage it. I did get some nice pictures of the countryside the following day, before being driven back down the hill to Jelenia Góra to catch the bus back to Wrocław.
In Wrocław the following day, we did more walking, out to
Still feeling a little under the weather, we scrubbed prior plans to visit Krakow and/or Gdansk, and just did a bunch of sight-seeing in Warsaw. We visited the Old Town again, and the other palace of Stanisław II August, which is on an artificial lake in Łazienki Park. As palaces go, this is more of a large house, except that it’s crammed full of art and classically inspired statuary. The park itself is huge and has lots of other stuff in it, but it was raining, so we stuck to the palace.
We also got to see the new staging of the great Polish national opera, Halka, written in 1848 by librettist Wlodzimierz Wolski and composer Stanisław Moniuszko, using traditional Polish musical styles (mazurkas, for instance). The music is inspired; the plot, unfortunately, was pretty threadbare in 1848 and is downright embarrassing today. It’s not good when you spend much of the second half thinking
now would be a great time for Granny Weatherwax to turn up and scold some sense into everyone. The new staging was very modern, with minimal set design (except, bizarrely, at the very end), mostly modern costuming, and an initial filmed sequence. As Dara’s mentor in Warsaw (a longtime theater critic) said, this might have worked if they hadn’t then gone on to play the piece 100% straight. But they did, and it all fell rather flat. Curiously, one of the characters was acted by one person and sung by another. I’m not much of an opera buff, so I don’t know if this is common.
Warsaw has several interesting historical museums. We visited the biographical museum of Fryderyk Chopin and the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. Chopin spent most of his adult life in France, but he grew up in Warsaw, and is still very fondly remembered here; they named the airport after him, even. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as much a museum of his music as I would have liked, and the presentation of his life was interesting but felt a little bereft of historical context. Probably I would have appreciated it better if I’d grown up in Poland and gotten their take on history in high school.
Speaking of historical context skimped on in a USAnian education, the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising is packed full of it. Summarizing extremely: in the summer of 1944, the Red Army was advancing toward Warsaw, and the Polish resistance decided it would be a good time to rise up against the occupying German forces. They did this partly because they figured the Red Army would back them up, but also because they were afraid Stalin wanted to conquer Poland or at least set up a puppet government; this would have been harder if it was the Polish native resistance that liberated the capital. The resistance was initially quite successful, but the Red Army only made one half-assed attempt to cross the Vistula, which was repulsed. After that, they sat on the east bank and waited while the Germans first put down the resistance, then burned the city to the ground by way of vengeance. Then they moved in and pushed the Germans out. And Stalin got his vassal state, just like the Poles had feared.
I’ll close with this image, a neon sign in Plac Konstytucji, photographed out the window of the taxi taking us back to the airport to return to the USA. There are lots of these neon signs in Warsaw; they were erected in the 1960s, and are now considered part of the city’s cultural heritage. Quoting this article by David Crowley for the Neon Muzeum:
When the Eastern Bloc tried to cast off the dark shadow of Stalin, much attention was given to the appearance of Warsaw. How could it be brought back to life? For some, the answer lay in neon. Stolica, a popular magazine, led thecampaignto neonise Warsaw: Marszalkowska Residential District – with its monumental sculptural ornaments and classical colonnades – would shake off its dreary atmosphere withadvertising, lighting and neon. These arethe elements which in the evening hours lend great liveliness and diversity to a city.