Published On: December 1, 2014

Poland Unbound

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CIE’s travel correspondent, Clifford Hallam, has traveled extensively around the world, along with living in a number of different countries. He describes his two-year residence in Poland working as a visiting university professor.

Łódż is Poland’s third largest city, located about 135 kilometers from Warsaw, the capital. Oddly enough, Łódż is pronounced “woodj” and means boat, though the urban center remains landlocked. During the Russian occupation, a robust economy depended on textile manufacture — at a price. The toxic dyes polluted rivers, ground, and air, virtually annihilating wildlife, except for pigeons, while reducing life expectancy.

In 1994, when I taught American literature and theory at the university in Łódż, major factories had been shut and the environment sympathetically lacked color. The sky, buildings, and scant vegetation reflected shades of metallic grey. The older generation, which had endured decades of political suppression first by Nazis, then by Communists, acquired ashen complexions, complementing the environment.

The pall served as an empirical legacy imposed by the Russian dictatorship, which effectively had devastated the entire country. An implicit question, then, demanded a measured response: I was eager to learn how the Polish citizens were dealing with, appreciating, and coping with their newfound freedom and responsibility.

Lodz, Poland today

Lodz, Poland today

 

Predictably, the social pattern offered a binary grouping – the older versus the younger. Men ranging from working adults to pensioners reeled about the streets, clutching bottles of cheap vodka or wine. In winter, drunks lay frozen on the sidewalks, unattended by pedestrians who ignored the casualties and continued on their way. By contrast to these victims were the children who had come of age after the Soviet plague withdrew; most, like my advanced university students, remained aloof from their elders, poles apart.

My graduate students, Łódż scholars, like their European/American counterparts, demonstrated curiosity and ambition, fueled not by alcohol, but by the conviction that most anything is possible through personal effort in an open society. Indeed, the late 20th century generation, largely unaffected by Stalinist communism, eagerly embraced the wonders of capitalist opportunity grounded in political freedom. Once directed toward tangible goals, virtually impossible under the Soviet system, no sacrifice in time, no amount of tedious work mattered.

Lodz, Poland

Lodz, Poland

 

The first item on the bucket list for newly liberated citizens: a home of one’s own. Since WWII, entire families including divorced couples had shared one cramped apartment, for which under the Russian occupation people sold out their dignity. By contrast, I was provided by the university — rent free — a five-room furnished flat.

My living quarters were comfortable, but no threat to an American condo or high-end suite. Upon entering my shabby apartment, Polish guests invariably asked: “Cliff do you live here alone?” I often rehearsed a favorite gag. Visitor: “Where’s the toilet? Host: You’re in it.”

My Polish friends were nonplussed by the punch line. For, although I resided in the Russian sector (Bałuty, in fact, was the Jewish ghetto during the War) with grey buildings arranged like dominoes, my modest apartment inspired wonder and envy. As a product of runaway free enterprise rife with corruption, fraud, endless scams, invasive advertising, and pressure to succeed, I would sometimes reply to an ambitious enthusiast bent on making it big: “Are you sure this is what you want?”

Lodz

Lodz

 

Exceptions of course do not prove the rule — quite the opposite — but anomalies test the paradigm. One of my outstanding students was a case in point. Like most Łódż residents, he lived with his parents, siblings, and grandmother in a cramped apartment. His parents slept behind closed doors, while the rest of the residents had to shift for themselves. The senior family member claimed the sofa, while two brothers slept on a futon. My young charge slept fitfully on an overstuffed chair with a broken back to accommodate his six-foot, slender frame. He studied at the university library, which was the smallest university library I’d ever seen, but the dimly lit reading room provided warmth with a measure of peace and quiet.

Yet, my hopeful friend somehow earned a Master’s Degree and later a Doctorate despite his unproductive scholarship time spent traveling with his business partner to nearby Germany twice a week. During a conversation over tea and pazki (Polish donuts), I made mention of his sleep patterns, wondering where he found the time for it. “What’s that?” he enquired half-seriously.

Lodz

Lodz

 

Generalizations about people of any description seldom hold, and thus American preconceptions regarding Polish lack of intelligence or laziness were immediately put to the test. I can attest to the fact that my students were exceptionally bright and hard working.

Additionally, my fellow university professors proved among the best-prepared scholars I have known in my long and varied career. They demonstrated unusual aptitude and skill in pursuit of their studies, as the Russian occupiers required a pass to leave the city, which afforded little opportunity for research. My friends and university colleagues often described the bureaucratic nightmares of Kafkaesque proportions they’d endured.Lodz-Poland-101_9391-Web

Nevertheless, my colleagues’ scholarship was impressive. One, for example, Professor Kristoff Warga, completed his habilitation manuscript, a study of the post WW II Kunstlerroman. He produced a work of deep and specialized scholarship, which was later published in several editions. Moreover, I attended several high-powered conferences during my two-year stay in Poland and learned a great deal from the participants.

Łódż University hired Dr. Matthew Gibson and myself to direct seminars in British and American literature, respectively. Unlike my British colleague, I am literally dumbfounded when visiting non-English speaking countries. Dr. Gibson, on the other hand, was an accomplished polyglot, speaking the major European languages, plus Polish, Russian, and Bulgarian.

Consequently, in addition to Matthew’s companionship, I profited from his translating skills during our academic junkets to Warsaw, Krakow, Italy, and Vienna during our Łódż tenure. The Dean of our department encouraged these travels in order to broaden our experience and make use of well-stocked libraries outside the country.

One afternoon, while sampling Polish vodka at a local bistro with Matthew, I said, half-jokingly, that the purpose of existence is to fool around and have fun. “So I’ve noticed,” he replied drily. Overseas friendships grounded in such nuanced experiences can last a lifetime, and, although separated by oceans and continents, we still keep in touch.

Poznanski Palace, Lodz, Poland

Poznanski Palace, Lodz, Poland

 

Teaching assignments in remote countries tend to attract exceptional individuals of both extremes. At lunch with my department Chair, who had studied at Yale and was thus familiar with “yankee” individualists, I attempted to explain a fellow American, whose eccentric behavior was attracting unfavorable attention. I tactfully pointed out that the professor, Richard Lecklus, did appear a bit odd or eccentric. The Chair promptly replied: “And so do you, Cliff. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.” Touché.

Like Ivan Denisovich in the famous Solzhenitsyn novel, I learned the ropes as a traveling scholar. While living and working in remote countries, a smooth adjustment to a new life remains crucial for personal, social, and political reasons. As a denizen of Łódz, however, I could not ignore the rampant anti-Semitism.

Public buildings, trolley shelters, and even the Jewish graveyard enclosure were vandalized with graffiti: a gallows with a Jewish star in the noose, “raus Juden,” in German, and the English phrase “Hitler was right.” During an election campaign, a popular magazine published the candidates’ photos with the caption “Which one is the secret Jew?”

 

Jews marched to Lodz Ghetto in WWII

Jews marched to Lodz Ghetto in WWII

 

Significantly, on April 30, 1995 (the 50th anniversary of Hitler’s death) neo-Nazis, under the cover of night, plastered posters depicting a thug with a sledgehammer striking the Star of David under the heading: “Smash Judaism.” Their posters covered every available façade, wall, utility pole. The following day, I presented one such poster to the Provost of the university, who mumbled that the soccer club might be responsible. He added only that the anti-Semitic propaganda would be promptly removed. It wasn’t.

In my classes, I pointed out to the Polish students that a predominantly Christian country that produced a Pope (later beatified) should bear the responsibility for racist dogma. No one argued the point, but few actively supported my position. I left Poland at the end of the semester.

 

Lodz ghetto WWII

Lodz ghetto WWII

 

In retrospect, my stay in Łódż provoked contradictory feelings ranging from admiration to disappointment, from aesthetic fulfillment to utter disgust. Today, free at last, government functionaries in Poland no longer insist on Kafkaesque double binds. The hotels, restaurants, and shops on ulicia Piotrkowski are blossoming, their once barren show windows bursting with a profusion of high quality goods. World class scholarship has asserted itself in conferences, articles, books, and translations. Indeed, the Poland of Copernicus, who revolutionized astronomy; Chopin, whose musical compositions enthrall millions worldwide; and Kosiuszko, the patriotic general who secured West Point in 1778, has come into its own.

However, there is also a dark side to Poland, which persists to the present, and it should not be ignored or forgotten. Yet, free of dictatorial fetters, the post Berlin Wall generation today in Poland has joined the community of democracies, and the nascent society with its legacy of scientists, musicians, artists, writers, and intellectuals is thriving. Moreover, as a NATO member, the Central European country effectively protects the infamous Polish Corridor, which provoked conflicts, invasions, and decades of totalitarian rule. On balance, then, Poland is poised to evolve constructively, address past grievances, and sustain an unprecedented era under the rule of law.

 

Clifford Hallam, Ph.D., is a retired American professor who loves to travel and has taught comparative literature and literary theory in the US as well as several other countries.

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[Street Art: photo © Courtesy Urban Forms]

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