Friday, July 1, 2011

Late Night Hello from Poland

It's late at night, for me, Poland time, and even later at night, for me, New Jersey time. I'm a morning lark, not a night owl, and this computer I have temporary access to appears not to have miscrosoft word installed, so I'm typing this on the blog screen. It's underlining every word in red because, as this computer sees things, these are misspelled Polish words, not properly spelled English words.

I am dyslexic and rely heavily on spellcheck. Will I expose my inability to spell to all five of my blog readers with this one post? 

I am tempted to avoid posting a hasty and inconclusive update from Poland -- would it not be more prudent to wait till I get back and have the entire trip under my belt, and can craft a prepackaged product, not initial, slam bang in the face ramblings of someone still experiencing jet lag?

What I've found, over the years, though, in my travels, is that I often record in my diary an impression that later fades into oblivion, or is purposely edited out of the received narrative, the official story, the predigested truth. 

A month from now, will I remember how excited I feel right now, tonight, how honored I feel to be alive, how ... thrilled, and how much I am feeling that old childish love for Poland -- a love that is not my entire story, one throbbing peach of love -- (see, if I had microsoft word and time at my disposal, I could just type that absurd figure of speech and go back later and massage it into something less passionate and weird) -- but, rather, I feel that little girl's love for the land of spiritual swashbucklers and street demonstrators and people "just like my parents!" is the core, and around that core are layers and layers of life and realizations and memories and hopes and plans and disappointments and yet it beats, that unmanageable figure of speech, that -- that throbbing peach of love!

I posted a while back about a book, "Lost Between Worlds," that addresses WW II from the point of view of a Polish Jew who kept a diary while everything was happening. He didn't know the final outcome. And so you get his fresh impressions. Very valuable.

So, even though it's risky to post well past my bedtime, and without spellcheck, I have to talk. 

Random stuff, no time to massage it into a coherent narrative:

My current host, an excellent human being, took me to a very soignee party put on by the American Consulate. Everyone was beautiful, handsome, talented, and well dressed. I just loved standing in a room full of Poles who were all beautiful, handsome, talented, and well dressed. If you are Polish American, if you have read my work, I don't have to say anything else. You completely understand. 

Rabbi Schudrich was there, and Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, and a Rabbi in very traditional Hassidic dress. 

A Marine band played the Star Spangled Banner, and I stood at attention. It next played, without a stop in the music, Jeszcze Polska Nie Zignela, and it was all I could do to keep from crying. 

After an hour of just soaking up all the Polish beauty and talent, I saw a man I felt I absolutely had to speak with. I had not approached anyone on my own; rather, I followed my host's lead on whom we chatted with. But, this man  -- I just had to had to talk to him. I excused myself from my host, and crossed the room, and walked up to this man.

We chatted for a few minutes and suddenly I realized -- I had met him in 1988-89, when I was living in Poland. Back then, I and my friends thought he was a spy. I still think he was a spy. But it was very nice to run into him at the party. And rather amazing.

I just can't help comparing the Poland of today not only with the Poland of my first visit, but with the Slovakia my mother and I returned to in 1974. That was just a few years after the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring of 1968. I remember buses taking rest stops and passengers relieving themselves in the trees, my Aunt and Uncle who were non-persons, because of his political stands -- she had been gang raped by Red Army soldiers and bore lifteime scars --  my other uncle stopping a conversation, in his own home, an isolated village cottage, and saying to us, "Don't you know anyone can be listening to what you are saying?" The priest in the village who had been horribly tortured and sent back as a warning. The Soviet posters everywhere, which my mother translated to me as, "Big Brother Is Watching."

That is so much not the Poland I am in now. That is a layer, but not the whole story. 

I want to engage in another embarassing, over-the-top figure of speech --  I feel as impressed with today's Poland as I felt by the Himalaya. The Indian subcontinent crashes into Asia and pushes up the earth and the tallest mountains are formed. Poles and other good peoples were crashed into by Nazism and Communism and they pushed and they pushed and they pushed and slowly, sometimes impercetibly, sometimes with cymbals, they made history. And then they went to parties like the one I attended tonight, and stood around looking suave and can't-touch-this gorgeous.

I first learned of my people's tragic fate through very thin, red, white and blue, "Par Avion" air mail. My mother kept in touch with her family. We can't send them this or that. They can't do this or that. We can't visit --  not yet. Why, why, why? The Germans did this. The Russians did that. And nothing can change any of it.

When you are a little American kid, it's something to have relatives like that. Americans could, in those expansive days, have or do anything. Our family? An alternate reality. 

And that alternate reality is now gone. I just keep repeating this over and over again when I look at young people -- they don't remember communism. And when I look at people my age -- they don't remember World War II.

This is a different world. And it's all wonderful. You see history. One of the great parts of getting old is that you realize that you don't have to answer all the questions, or, maybe, frankly, any of the questions. Kids today will not have to answer why Mommy can't go back to the country she was born in, or why we can't send Uncle Jan that American product he liked so much the one time he tried it. My burning childhood questions have evaporated. The story has not evaporated. It keeps getting told. 

I remember the painful disconnect between me and my American siblings, growing up in the world where "everything is possible and nothing matters," and my Bohunk parents, from the world where "Nothing is possible and everything matters." 

My parents worked so damn hard -- my mother often two full-time manual labor jobs in one day -- and were so poor, and so limited in their choices. We American kids looked at them and thought, at time, what dummies are parents were. My brothers sometimes worked with my father, caddying. They were troubled by how rich American men treated my father. It wasn't till I was older, and American academia did me the favor of slamming every door in my face, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how well I met their demands, that I realized my parents' heroism, and logic.

America is flooding Poland now: glass and steel, shopping malls, advertising, and the internet porn, of every species, that drowns us all. Will young Polish kids conclude, or be brainwashed into thinking that, everything is possible and nothing matters, and that their ancestors, who sacrificed so much for a steady food supply for their families, or the right to speak Polish or raise a Polish flag, were a bunch of clowns? Or heroes impossible to emulate? Or so distant as to be worthy to be forgotten? 

I hope these matters play some role in Polish kids' questions, and if they don't, that's great. I'm just glad I got the chance to ride some of this wave. 

Wouldn't it be great if, on some future date, the questions that lead to "Bieganski"similarly evaporate? If Polish kids and Jewish kids look back and say, "Wow, in the past there was so much hostility and misunderstanding. Hard to believe that."

So much of my earlier trips to EE were about dialing down consumerism. Consumerism is now here. I ask myself, while riding the escalator in a shopping mall, am I in Poland? Or America? A question of essences. Anyone who wants to answer this for me, please raise your hand.

Hospitality. I have been shown the finest hospitality on this trip. "A guest in the house is God in the house." I don't want to risk embarassing my hosts by naming them publicly in this post, but they honor Poland. I'm so touched. 

One last thought: a group of citizens should really get together and do something about the signage, especially in Krakow. Billboards and neon signs screwed into centuries-old buildings defeat their stated purpose. Beauty sells. 


  1. Good to see that you feel happy in Poland.

    I had the same attitude during my second trip: if the younger generation wants to let go of history, more power to them. And yes, I dearly hope to live to see a time when people will be asking, "Ethnic bigotry? What does that mean?" They won't be able to understand it. It will make no sense.

    Here is a minor poem that relates to "letting go of history":

    At the Warsaw Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

    At the shrine-like Warsaw Tomb
    of the Unknown Soldier, its triple arch
    scrolled with names of battles, massacres,
    four skinny boys play at being soldiers.
    Two real soldiers stand the Honor Guard,
    one on each side of the eternal flame.
    Always fresh flowers, huge funereal wreaths.
    The Tomb summarizes Polish history:
    They died with honor.

    Giggling, the boys march back and forth,
    stiffly thrusting out their legs and arms.
    During the change of the guard, two new
    soldiers approach, solemnly goose-stepping.
    The boys hide behind the Tomb. Then they
    jump out, again start their parody march.

    People look on indulgently
    from the benches around the fountain
    in the lush Saski Garden paradise.
    These are no longer the times
    when some stranger might jerk
    a boy by the arm and shout,
    “Your parents should be ashamed of you!
    This is a sacred national monument!”

    I smile. Brave little boys, it cheers my heart
    to see you playing around
    the blood-soaked names and dates,
    mocking the soldiers’ airs.
    Brilliant builders of the future,
    history means nothing to you.
    A sign of hope.

    ~ Oriana ~

  2. Danusha, I soooo feel what you are saying, I latched onto every word! When I went to Poland in 1990, when my husband was coaching his student toward taking top prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition, I had similar feelings. Of course, Poland was not as Americanized as it is now, except for some misspelled cuss words spray-painted on an ancient wall, which both disgusted me and amused me. When I visited the cemetary in Strzyzow, where the majority of the maternal side of my family is buried, going back for generations, my heart and soul almost burst. When I walked around Krakow in awe, visiting all the churches and taking pictures of all the stained glass windows and altars, I didn't want to leave, ever. When we went to Kazimierz, the old Jewish part of town, I was fascinated by just about every building and sign. I wanted to eat all the history and culture of Poland, and also experienced "one throbbing peach of love". My mind is too tired and stressed out right now to write anything as eloquently as you do, but just wanted to let you know that I understand. And I'm glad that you are writing as you experience everything. Please don't stop.

  3. Oriana, I loved your poem. It reminds me of so much.

    1978: I was at Westerplatte and I saw some Poles picnicking and having a good time. I was outraged. Westerplatte? Where WW II began? What a place to have a good time!

    As I got closer, I saw the tattooes on their arms. And my attitude changed.

    1989: a young man reprimanded me for having a good time at a public showing of an Eric Clapton video. "Poland is having a crisis!"

    Now kids can goof around at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


  4. Anna, thank you so much for reading and commenting. Misspelled cuss words indeed!

    Anna, I so wish you could be here for my talk.

  5. You write beautifully for a jet-lagged writer! Last summer at this time, my husband and I made our first trip to Poland, where all our grandparents and my husband's father were born. Everything felt comfortable and familiar, and for the first time, I felt patriotic love for two countries at the same time, so I totally understand your "Jeszcze Polska" moment. My tears came when folk musicians in Wdzydze greeted us off the bus with old familiar tunes. Have a wonderful, wonderful time and please keep writing.

  6. Off Kilter, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I recommend your blog as well!

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Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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