Monday, May 7, 2012

Peoples and places * Monday, May 7, 2012 * the 30th day of the Omer

old Polish classy building
the Palace of Culture, a "gift" from the Soviets
This country is a jumble of mixtures and absences.  There is the looming presence of astonishingly ugly Communist-era architecture in the midst of the older, more decorative Polish styles or the post-1989 buildings that are modern and angular but not Soviet-like.

historic German home in Mazury
Many buildings in the Mazury lake region are in a German style because the land for centuries was East Prussia, but that region was taken from Germany and the Germans booted out after World War II.  Their absence is recognized because of the distinctive building styles and because there are so many German tourists coming to visit their "homeland," Lucyna says dryly (and with some satisfaction, since she loves having Mazury in Polish hands).   

Piotr Skurowski, a professor of American history at the Warsaw University of Social Sciences and Humanities, described what happened in Mazury when these the Polish Communist regime (puppet strings pulled by the Soviets) filled Mazury with new residents plucked from a variety of places with no real connection to each other except for their Polish ethnicity.  One policy established them on farms to be run according to communal principles but without the resources or leadership to make the farms functional. (Think of being forced to live on a failing kibbutz with unfamiliar Jews.)  So there was lots of misery and rampant alcoholism. Jobs were scarce in the repopulated towns, too.  Into all the towns that had been dominated by Jews and the place of residence for Germans, Lithuanians, and Byelorussians before they were murdered or expelled -- the Communist rulers placed Poles who lacked strong bonds with each other and whose enterprise was hampered by rigid and unhelpful policies.  After 1989, when the Communist regime fell, Poland had to rebuild itself economically and socially.  Today on the bus I met an American woman who has lived here for three years and enjoys it, she told me, because she likes seeing the evidence of change in a society that is so consciously rebuilding itself. 

Polish non-Russian Orthodox church
Here's an interesting re-make: a church in Bialystok that uses the Russian Orthodox liturgy and rules, yet the community wants to deny that Russian heritage but keep its traditions. It's gorgeous inside (no photos allowed) and out, new and old at the same time. Lucyna thinks that the congregants are Byelorussians but Polish patriots.   

Except in places where synagogues weren't destroyed and are currently marked as synagogues, Poles don't seem aware of the absence of the Jews.  The Jewish remnant mostly didn't want to stay and rebuild, and the few that remained in Poland were treated so poorly that they later left or went underground or assimilated during the Communist era.  There were barely enough Jews present in 1989 and after to stake a place in the new democratic Poland.  Today the estimate is that Warsaw has 2000 Jews, Bialystok has 4.  Why bother rebuilding when there are better places to go to?  When I'm in these cities now and observing life from the perspective of a historian, I'm mostly thinking in post-Jewish terms.  

a tram I could one day drive
And challenging myself to do something productive in a city where every word sounds like buzzing and reads like a series of incompatible consonants.  I left the hotel this morning in the rain and bought a tram ticket at a machine that, thank goodness, had directions for people who know to tap the British flag for English (not sure why there is still a sullen, silent, and unhelpful lady still sitting at the ticket window when these nifty machines are now in place).  I got one of the neat new trams -- this one had heat, wall maps of the route and video-screen written versions of the incomprehensible station announcements.  Since moving to L.A. in 1975 I have thought that when I retire I could be happy driving a Santa Monica Blue Bus, and today I thought the same about one of these new trams.   
What does it mean?
That's probably not going to happen, I realize.  Even though the sights are not as intriguing, gardening is really a better pastime. 


sunset outside my hotel window
Anyway, I went to the big mall in the town center and bought me a SIM card and re-charger for my phone (my number, for those who want to text/call for some reason, is +48 503 097 932).  I was as unsuccessful buying clothing for myself in a Polish store as I am in an American store.  Then I located the vegan restaurant that I'd found online and ate lunch, storing up a week's worth of spices from that one Vietnamese meal. I wandered around neighborhoods and random stores until catching the tram back to Praga.   It'll be an early night, because tomorrow my Fulbright work begins.    

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