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Travel in music: Chapter 29 - 2005, Poland

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2005 – Chapter 29 | After Pakistan, Leanne and I went our separate ways. She headed to South Korea and I went to Poland. Warsaw was definitely a fun place as spring turned into summer. Polish winters are notoriously tough so when people emerged from hibernation, the first consistent rays of sun provoked frenzied explosions of joy. The terraces of restaurants and cafés suddenly filled with people, skirts shortened to microscopic lengths, parks blossomed and echoed with the sounds of open-air theater performances, and the banks of the Vistula turned into stages for festivals and concerts. I was probably a little less fun to my teammates, to be honest. The combined effect of long-distance separation from Leanne and a slight erosion of enthusiasm from being on the road too much (Poland was my 20th project) turned me into a grumpier, less social version of myself.

Nonetheless, I still have great memories of that summer. Our project was on the chemicals sector, forcing us to visit factory towns whose recent past on the eastern side of the Berlin wall was all too apparent. Close to the plants we visited, whose names were all Zakwady-something, grey cinder-block-and-cement jewels of Marxist architecture uniformly lined the streets, like disciplined tall bunkers. It may seem unappealing – and it was, aesthetically speaking – but to a Westerner like me, it also evoked a reality that was rather unknown and, therefore, almost romantically exotic. Anyway, the exceptional architectural beauty displayed in most old town centers, from Wroclaw to Krakow, and from Gdansk to Poznan more than compensated for the ugliness of their outskirts. Additionally, not all communist-era landmarks were failures. Although it looked like Sauron’s eye could have sat atop it, I harbored a particular fondness for Warsaw’s Palace of Science and Culture. Sure, as a gift from Stalin to the city, it symbolized the five decades of Soviet grip on Poland most Varsovians would prefer to forget. Yet, as a sheer landmark, to a tourist devoid of emotional baggage, it was hard to hate this tower’s ridiculous, nearly comical majesty.

In its obsessively equalitarian approach, communism had also distributed factories throughout Poland’s provinces. To each its production center and source of labor. Our project therefore turned into an interesting road trip. The gloomiest plant we visited once belonged to Bayer who had built it on a large plot of land, with its production divided between several semi-buried buildings interspersed across the campus. It defied logic and logistics, until we found out why. The current manager explained that the German owners of the time had built it that way to be less vulnerable to aerial bombardments because, during WWII, it produced the infamous Zyklon-B, the poisonous gas used to murder victims in the Nazi extermination chambers.

Our apartment was very close to Warsaw’s old Jewish ghetto, though I really had to do some research to find that out. The history of Warsaw’s ghetto, the largest in Europe, is extremely important because it destroys the ‘lambs to the slaughter’ myth, which contends that most Jews opposed little resistance to deportation. Although the authorities imprisoned nearly half a million Jews within the ghetto walls as early as November 1940, mass deportations only truly started in the summer of 1942. By January 1943, only approximately 100.000 souls remained, starved and desperate. From those, a handful of combatants, armed with only black market handguns, Molotov cocktails and artisanal explosives, managed to stave off the Waffen SS and halt all deportations for four entire months. Despite its significance, in 2005, there were few visible traces of the ghetto’s former existence. Of course, in the battle that crushed the ghetto uprising, German troops leveled nearly all buildings of this 3.5 km2 area, including Warsaw’s great synagogue. There is a memorial commemorating the victims of that battle (55.000 according to Nazi figures, executed, blown up or sent away) and another devoted to the 300.000 deported from the ghetto to the death camps beforehand. However, the city only installed boundary markers indicating which streets exactly formed the ghetto in 2008 and 2012. Clearly, Warsaw was not very proud of this particular incident of history.

I had hired a translator/transcriber for our project, who became a close friend and later even a colleague. In fact, I would work with him again six months later, on a second Poland project. That summer, he was mostly our social and party guide. He introduced me to a fun bunch of youngsters and to all the cool, underground clubs in Warsaw. Those youths we met were worldly and multilingual. They were also decidedly focused on their country’s bright future, especially now that they finally shared a common destiny with the rest of the European Union, which Poland had joined barely a year earlier. The past, on the other hand, meant very little to them. Whether it had distant significance (Poland’s ambiguous role during WWII) or personal elements of memory (the communist period of their early childhood), it all seemed relegated to the forgotten vaults of history. Who could blame them? The path ahead looked prosperous, promising and theirs to forge.

They had tons to say about Poland’s future, all of it very positive. Their optimism was contagious and easy to believe. After all, the economy was booming and the Catholic Church and the political parties, traditional bastions of rigid conservatism, seemed to be slowly accepting softer, more liberal stances. For information about the past, however, they were not a good source. I had to turn to museums and old people. I loved the museum devoted to Solidarnosc’s history in Gdansk, for example, but I loved even more the opportunity I had to chat to Ryszard Kapuscinski, a veteran of the communist-era Polish press agency and a personal hero of mine, whose books I had devoured one by one. He was a voluble old man, as full of fun anecdotes as I had expected. Best of all, his journalistic instincts and boundless curiosity seemed intact, as he displayed almost more interest in me than I had in him. The minute I mentioned my experiences in Angola, at the end of its civil war, he assaulted me with a barrage of questions and I awkwardly turned from interviewer to interviewee. I blushed and he laughed.

To illustrate this chapter musically, I also reverted to history. A 1930s tango, sung in Polish and Hebrew, this song bears testimony to the vibrant Jewish contribution to Poland’s culture in pre-war years. Its composer, Władysław Lidauer, fatefully died in the ghetto...


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