I recently visited Kraków, Poland, with nine of my writing colleagues, for a ‘writing retreat’ and some minor tourism.
We arrived 10 November, the day before an important national holiday, National Independence Day…
… a national day in Poland celebrated on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918, after 123 years of partition by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. (Wikipedia)
In pursuing the tourism, I went to the English language Massolit Bookstore. The fellow at the cashier and cafe desk is interested in the Beat Poets, as I am. He and I struck up a conversation and I promised to send him a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
After returning home, I sent him the poem, along with some personal comments and links to my writing. I received from him a most unexpected response. Here it is:
I am happy to read that you enjoyed your stay in Kraków. It is my favourite Polish city and I am happy to have moved here for good. You found it much settled in history and past. The city was lucky, very lucky not to be destroyed much by any war. Even the Communist regime didn’t crush its beauty and spirit. And seriously, to me Kraków is an escapist city.
In any other Polish city I always feel some destruction. Warsaw was paved to the ground and awfully rebuilt after 1945. Lublin, which I came from is a God-forgotten place suffering from the consequences of a too rapid switch from communism to capitalism. Wrocław, which I lived in is a German town made Polish fifty years ago and still struggling to reinvent it’s identity, a continuing process. Only in Kraków do I feel at home, without all the damage that has been done to this country.
I am writing this at age thirty-four, in the generation that grew up seeing the old being replaced by the new Poland after 1989. I was eight when it all happened. My parents would tell me “how it’s been” and why the Regime should “never repeat”. They raised me with this warning. Their parents raised them with the warnings against war. I am happy to notice twenty-year-olds not influenced with this kind of perspective.
My grandfather lost all his family during the war. He never came back to Lviv (today’s Ukraine, yesterday’s Poland). My mother tried to look for our relatives, didn’t meet anyone when she came there. I don’t feel like going there at all. Let past be the past.
This might sound cruel, but… I am sick and tired of war literature, especially the Holocaust kind of literature still being “mass produced” by yet another Jewish person coming to Auschwitz as a part of their “identity trip”. With masterpieces like Ellie Wiesel’s “Night” we don’t need any more Shoah books to understand the trauma.
I spent one year volunteering in Israel, which was a great lesson on complexity and diversity of life in all kinds of meaning. I walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and it was the most precious experience so far.
I came back to Poland and got close to Judaism again. I acted in Jewish theatre groups. I think that if there is any space in which we can work out the demons of all kinds it is art. Only in art and only on the non-personal but emotional and spiritual level of metaphorical language we can “speak with the ghosts.”
Some people now say: “If they chose Trump it means that humankind didn’t learn anything”. Well, a bit overstatement I would say, but I find an answer in Walter Benjamin’s “The Angel of History” essay. He said that all the answers have been given a long time ago and that if there is something like the Messianic times it IS the time of now, and if we can recognise ourselves and recognise our calling in the calling that has been left to us by the late generations to be accomplished, then it means we are doing right at life.
But why am I writing all this actually? Well, I believe life is a journey and I am trying to learn from all the passengers I happen to be travelling with. Sometimes I feel like explaining myself. Maybe that was one of these moments. We, Poles, have an idea of “The Polish complex,” which is an old fear of not being appreciated or never being understood by outsiders. Maybe this is also my complex that keeps me trying to tell this story again and again, come back to past, tell the identity and keep on checking if I have really told “the whole” story…
— Jakub Wydrzynski
This latest post of yours is very profound and laden with history. It is akin to a kind of cathartic pilgrimage that both physically and mentally reaches out to the past from the present with sobering messages for the future!
Given that you “believe [that] life is a journey and [that you are] trying to learn from all the passengers [you] happen to be travelling with”, I would like to thank you for your insights and would hereby like to resonate with the tenet and spirit of your excellent post with the following statement by Robert Louis Stevenson:
In deep resonance with you ……
Deep thanks for your comments, SoundEagle…
You are welcome. Poland is changing fast. There is a danger that it may be seized by clerical fascism.
Your post seems to be reminding us how lucky we have been in peacetime.
During the World War 2, Vera Lynn was singing “Nightingale Sang on Berkeley Square” in 1942. Madam Lynn must be over 100 years old by now, if I am not mistaken.
I like listening to the Warsaw Concerto. When the haunting Warsaw Concerto was being broadcast as the theme song from the movie “Dangerous Moonlight”, my old friend Fred Atkin had the following story to tell at 08:19 PM on 19/04/2005:
In addition, my late mother was twice nearly sent to an internment camp as an enemy alien during the Japanese occupation, as detailed in my latest post published at
Once again, I commend you for composing this thought-provoking post. May you have a lovely week ahead!
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