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Kraków, Poland – A study in collectivism

Yours truly, John Galt himself has been away for the last week enjoying the warm sunshine of Kraków, Poland and, as well as taking in the cultural sights, also took in the collectivist ones.

Krakow - Wavel Castle

Wavel Castle, home to kings, Nazi generals and Communist apparatchiks down the ages

Despite my being something of a world traveller, this was my first visit to Kraków (or indeed Poland) and I heartily commend it as a cultural destination, having a mix of Eastern European character, fine architecture dating from the founding of the city around the 7th century, with the vast majority from the late medieval period.

Unlike Warsaw, little of Kraków was bombed during WWII or even substantially damaged by the repeated hoards of collectivist vandals from 1921 through 1989 (Lenin’s hoards, Hitler’s hoard’s and finally Stalin’s hoards). Indeed, to say that the poor Poles feel somewhat “trodden underfoot” would be an understatement.

Though Poland has a long and proud history, it has repeatedly been carved up between its larger neighbours and indeed between 1795 and 1918, virtually ceased to exist except in the hearts and minds of the Polish people.

However, all of this is beside the point, CCiZ not being a tourist blog but about more fundamental issues. No, the thing that most drove it home for me was that Kraków became a model city for both the Nazis and the Communists and they have left their mark on the city, region and populace in ways that are both subtle and telling.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they had already decided that Kraków would be the cultural centre of the region known as the General Government and that this would be a German city in every possible measure and all of the non-Germans could just bugger off and die, often with a little help from the SS. The Poles became second class citizens in their own city and the Jewish population (about ¼ of the cities residents) were herded into ghettos and largely exterminated.

The pictures of wartime Kraków under the Nazi’s is largely wiped clean, indeed I was amused to find that the detailed history of Wavel castle’s renovation from 1880′s onwards ended in 1939 (just before it was taken over by the Nazi’s). I suspect this is a deliberate lapse, probably given the amount of funding received from the EU, as Harold Wilson once said “You don’t kick your creditors in the balls”.

The museum on the site of Oscar Schindler’s D.E.F. factory at 4, Lipowa Street has no such qualms and the breadth and depth of historical artifacts (especially film and photographs) from 1918 – 1945 are a testament to the irrepressible courage of the Poles and the unbelievable arrogance of the German occupiers (not just the Nazis).

It was clear from the wealth of documentary evidence that the Poles were virtual slaves of the German occupiers and any who opposed them were executed in the same off-hand manner as the Jews. Indeed had the Germans won the war, it was quite clear that the Poles would have been given the same “special treatment” as the Jews – as far as the German occupiers were concerned they were equally expendable, just not the priority.

The surviving Polish residents of Kraków might have breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet troops “liberated” the city in 1945, but the Soviet Occupation and subsequent Polish puppet government were little improvement.

Once again, the region around Kraków became another model city, this time in the form of Nowa Huta (English: “The New Steel Works”), which was built on reclaimed land about 10 km outside Kraków in the SocReal (“Socialist Realism”) style, both the new city and the steel works were the “gift” of Comrade Stalin (to be paid for in full by the output of the steel works naturally), so once again the Poles became little more than slaves in their own country, this time to a Communist rather than a German overlord.

Nowa Huta

Nowa Huta central square (Aleja Róż, 2012)

Our tour guide, a rather enthusiastic young Pole called Koba (pronounced Koobah rather worryingly) who is studying to be an electrical engineer, took us through the heart of the architectural gem that is Nova Huta in a rather glorious pink Trabant, but also gave us an insight into the working conditions and lack of freedom of Poles during this time. “We pretended to work and they pretended to pay us” being a fair assessment of the attitudes of both sides.

Koba's Pink Trabant

Koba’s Pink Trabant called “The Pink Panther” – more colourful than useful

One amusing point that Koba made was that the statutes of Lenin and Stalin have been torn down, largely to be replaced by statues of  Karol Józef Wojtyła, whom Koba described as “The New Lenin” – at the present time it is unclear how many divisions this new tyrant he has got. :-)

One encouraging point was that Koba was equally unenthusiastic about the EU, being pretty well informed about how much EU bureaucracy and the CAP were really costing Poland. He was equally grateful that they hadn’t exchanged their Polish Złoty for the Euro. All-in-all I found myself smiling at this, for if the youth of Poland can be pretty well informed and not misled by EU propaganda then there might be hope for us after all.

I’m just preying that Kraków doesn’t go for the hat-trick and become the new model city of the EU, hopefully by the time Koba gets to my age the EU will be a dim and distant memory like the Nazis, USSR and the League of Nations.

We can always hope.

13 Comments

  1. Peter MacFarlane says:

    Slightly worrying that your guide was called Kuba.

    It’s a bit close to Koba for my liking.

    Let’s hope there is no connection

  2. John Galt says:

    Thanks for the correction, Peter. I believe you are right and will revise accordingly.

    I never saw it written down and went based upon my Anglo/Saxon interpretation of what I heard.

  3. NickM says:

    I’ve been to the town twice and OK this might be a little OT but there was a restaurant that was holding a “pork knuckle festival) – this was around mid-October. Now I don’t like pork (I do like ham, gammon, sausages, bacon…) and my wife is vegan so we didn’t partake in this hilarity because the menu was pork knuckle (note not any other cut of pig) in a bewildering variety of sauces. Now I didn’t sup there but it says something poz.

  4. John Galt says:

    Yes Nick, got to admit that pork knuckle and “trotters” are a bit of an acquired taste for us decadent Westerners.

    For myself, I was eating either Polish or Russian dumplings for lunch every day washed down with 1/2 a litre of Tyskie beer for about £5 each. The main square was surrounded by tourist trap bars and restaurants, but they were all fairly varied and reasonable. Lots of variety from Pizzerias to French-style gourmet.

    Jon and I went to quite a few of the local Polish cafe’s, which were a lot cheaper and just as good in terms of quality. Their fruits of the forest (i.e. mainly mushroom) soup was to die for – all from Grandma’s recipe of course.

    This one was an especial favourite, just off the main square:
    http://www.domoweprzysmaki.pl/en/

    The folks touting for tours and titty bars (good alliteration there Andy) could get a bit annoying, but took a straight “No” for an answer, which is always good.

  5. Paul Marks says:

    Yes John – those who say that the West did not need to oppose the Nazis are as demented as those who say the West did not need to oppose the Communists (indeed the same people often say both things).

    National Socialist tyranny and Marxist tyranny must be opposed – and as they are prepared to use the power of the state (i.e. the power of organised violence) it must also be used against them.

    If that means I am not a pure libertarian (because I believe the “Sword of State” should be used against those who themselves would use it) – so be it.

  6. John Galt says:

    Yup, it’s why my anarcho-libertarianism tends to fail and why I’m now tending towards a minarchist / nightwatchman form of libertarianism.

    There is no point living in a land of pure freedom if you are not prepared and capable of defending it from collectivists of all colours both within and without.

    Freedom carries with it the responsibility for protecting that same freedom, indeed any truly libertarian society would be an armed and trained one. This is one of the things I like about Switzerland, but there are plenty of things I don’t like as well.

  7. Mr Ed says:

    Kuba is a Polish name, short for Jakub, so it’s “Jimmy”.

    Do they still have the trumpeter who cuts his recital short to mark the Mongol arrow?

  8. John Galt says:

    Yes, Mr. Ed. the Kraków Anthem is still played at regular intervals, indeed the Poles seem to be a lot better at protecting their traditions than Brits do in the face of the invasion of foreign hoards.

    If you tried doing that off the top of St. Paul’s, you’d get arrested, even though it is pretty clear that the Mongol hoards have already descended. Thank you New Labour!

  9. Timbo says:

    It’s “hordes”.(Signed, the Spelling Nazi)

  10. John Galt says:

    Given the subject matter Timbo, a Spelling Nazi seems appropriate.

  11. NickM says:

    JG, you got the touting for titty bars. I got endless touting (I’d got the sleeper train from Prague) for taxi rides to Auschwitz. Which I’ve been to and you only go once. They have a room full of hair. It’s utterly dreadful. My wife had also been. We didn’t want to go. They kept harrying us. And that was after we’d had a woman at the station unable in either Polish or English to explain to us where the taxi rank was (we had to find it ourselves). She offered the helpful comment that it was “outside” and then pulled the blind down on her booth. But then Polish railways are dreadful. They are a place Communism never died. The whole we’ll pretend to work and you’ll pretend to pay us mentality is alive (if it can be called alive) and kicking there. One of my sisters-in-law was once left in the middle of nowhere because a train was cancelled whilst in progress for no apparent reason. And we complain about bus replacement services! Don’t get me wrong the Poles are spot-on but Polish railways (government owned) is dreadful.

    Given that you are gay, my wife is bisexual and neither me nor her wanted a reprise of Auschwitz the touts did though get it wrong.

    I did though once get the nicest Mexican food I’ve ever had in Poland. And I’ve spent quite some time in the USA. OK, there was a great little gaff in Atlanta but I was amazed by going to a top-notch Tex-Mex in a small Silesian town. Having said that the best steak I ever had was in the Czech Republic and that was in a bizarre joint in Prague run by ex-firemen but then that is Czechs for you. Mad as a box of frogs but in the best possible way. On the Charles Bridge there was a geezer busking. He was dressed in a monk’s robes and balancing a variety of rodents on a dog. It is a truly great city. We were eating outside a restaurant (and Prague was cheap – well back then it was – just a few years back) and a cavalcade of blokes in Edwardian dress upon penny-farthing bikes came past. Just down by the river. A lovely evening. I really like central Europe. Beer for a quid a half-litre in a city centre bar in the capital, the Franz Kafka Museum having the statues of two blokes urinating on a map of the country, the fact they dynamited the World’s largest statue of Stalin (a special gift from him – would have preferred socks…) and it’s now a skate park and they deep-fry cheese – which is gorgeous. What is not to like?

  12. John Galt says:

    Yes, I know what you mean about the touts, but we were in the square everyday and I think they get used to us saying “No”!

    Jon is a big bloke (stone mason) so not someone you would like to piss off or meet in a dark alleyway.

    We did visit Auschwitz I; Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plasow concentration camps. I haven’t written anything about this matters as its not something that is easy to write about, especially in the remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz I looking up the vent where they used to drop the Zyklon B pellets – all very grim.

    Auschwitz I vent

    As you say, somewhere that you only visit once. More a pilgrimage than tourism, certainly for the Jews.

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