Friday, 25 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

world-map krakow


A big week for me coming up as I’m off on my annual backpacking adventure! On Wednesday I’m flying to Kiev where I’ll be visiting Chernobyl before then heading south for Odessa and journeying through the weird and wonderful country of Moldova to Romania where I hope to explore parts of Moldavia and Maramures. I can’t wait!.

What all of that means however, is that for the next few weeks Uncle Travelling Matt is going to be a bit different as I can’t go on posting my finished works stored here on my home computer. So instead I’ll be posting updates of where I am with, if I can work out how to do it, photos downloaded from my camera. That way, when I get kidnapped by Transdniestran terrorists, you’ll be the first to know!

All well and good, but that then leaves us with another problem, namely the fact that we’ve not finished the Poland travelogue and it is proving to be very popular with readers. So what I’ve decided to do is start posting an installment every day or every other day until it’s all up, (3 more I think…) and along those lines, here’s Part IV in which Mike and I explore more of Krakow’s tumultuous past including a communist model city, a church inspired by Noah’s Ark and an enamelware factory once owned by a certain gentleman named Oskar Schindler.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip  


We had a late morning and then headed to the railway station to try and work out Kraków’s complex tram system. In Poland it’s not just a case of jumping on, buying a ticket and going where you want. Oh no, instead one must first buy a ticket, but alas tickets are only sold from kiosks but, crucially, not all kiosks and there is no clue to the uninitiated as to which the correct ones might be. We tried about three before we found one that had tram tickets to sell to us but then, first task done, we had to cope with the second, namely finding the correct tram to get on. There are route maps next to the stops and from one of these I’d worked out that the tram we needed passed by the railway station, but in which direction and from which stand? Eventually, after trying no less than four tram stops, we found the one that we needed and when our tram eventually arrived we had to wander out into the middle of the road, dodging traffic, to get on it. Hardly a Health and Safety Rep’s dream but we survived and managed to board our carriage. That done, it was then onto task three, namely finding the machine that verifies our tickets and inserting them into it in the correct way. Then and only then could we finally sit down and enjoy the ride.

Our destination that morning was Nowa Huta, a suburb of Kraków with a population of around a quarter of a million. After the war when the communists came to power they embarked upon the modernisation and industrialisation of the country and the construction of Nowa Huta was a key plank in their strategy. In true Stalinist tradition, it was decreed that steel production needed to increase dramatically and so a vast new steelworks was planned and beside it a new city to house the workers, (the name ‘Nowa Huta’ literally means ‘new steelworks’). A decision was made that this new city would be a model city, a bold declaration to the world of the new, socialist Poland.[1] As such it was to be built on a grand, monumental scale in the officially approved Socialist Realist style and with plentiful amenities for the workers. Those who had previously been ignored and trampled upon were now the masters and would be treated accordingly. They would have access to theatres and green spaces and would live in buildings that resembled the palaces of the old nobility. Significantly though, in this new city of the future, in the Brave New Poland, there would be no room for the ‘superstition’ and ‘backwardness’ that I had witnessed two days before in Czestochowa. Nowa Huta was to be a beacon of atheism with not a church in sight.

Our tram dropped us off in the magnificent Plac Centralny[2], the centre of the new workers’ paradise. Grand avenues stretched off in all directions whilst three sides of the square were flanked by impressive classical buildings. It reminded me strongly of Ceausescu’s Bucharest but then it should do for both were mammoth projects inspired by the same ideal.


Plac Centralny

We walked down the grand Aleja Roz to the Ratuszowy Park. Nowa Huta was never completely finished and this was originally planned as a vast ceremonial square with a magnificent city hall in the centre. That never got built and newer buildings betray where the original plans were modified to something less spectacular. It is a shame for if built to the original vision, it would have been incredible.


Original plan for the city hall

Just beyond the park is the small Nowa Huta Museum. We entered and checked out the exhibits which detailed not only the grand vision behind and the construction of the city, but also many subsequent events, in particular the building of the Arka Pana – the first church eventually allowed in the city by the communist authorities – and Nowa Huta’s starring role in the anti-communist Solidarity movement during the 1980s. Ironically, the workers who were so extolled by the regime that purported to represent them during the 1950s were the very people who brought it down in the eighties and their model city was one of the main focal points of resistance.

We walked on through the damp streets of that model city towards the Arka Pana and I thought about the whole Nowa Huta project. On the one hand, I must confess to liking it; architecture and town planning have long interested me and planning on such a grand scale – the ‘mega-project’ – is always exciting to witness, and I was sad that this one – like so many mega-projects – was never completed. I was attracted too to the idealism, the goal of building a better world, a world where the worker is valued, the poor man is king. It is a noble dream and that nobility is what gave communism its appeal and sustained it for so long. Who cannot applaud the efforts of men who believed that those at the very bottom of society should have access to theatres, libraries, decent living conditions and proper schools for their children so that they could escape the poverty trap that ensnared their parents, green spaces in which to run and play, and all the other amenities which give life its purpose and quality. The style too is rather to my tastes. I like architecture with a nod to the past and Socialist Realism, although much decried by many critics, has just that, both to classical architecture and the vernacular Polish styles. Furthermore, it is an architectural style that states something clearly and that is a statement of hope in the future, of progress, of victory, of belief in a better world to come. Modern and Post-Modern architecture is so often, by its very definition, purposeless, drifting, driven more by cost factors than aught else. Socialist Realism on the other hand implies that the poor are worth spending a little extra on and that to me is refreshing to see.


Nowa Huta: the vision

However, despite all these factors, at Nowa Huta something was wrong. I can’t place my finger on it exactly, but definitely something wasn’t there. Perhaps it was the grey? The formerly socialist world always seems to appear overwhelmingly grey and dark and Nowa Huta is no exception. To be fair, on a dark, rainy afternoon in February most places ever appear at their most colourful, but nonetheless, this was still was a dour place. More than that though, it was the scale. Nowa Huta is grand, big, stupendous in its vision. The streets are wide and the buildings high yet in amongst all that the humans that live there are almost lost, overwhelmed by the scale of the built environment that surrounds them. In his book A Vision of Britain HRH Prince Charles argues that the human being should be central to the scale of all buildings since that is who they are built for yet at Nowa Huta this maxim seems to have been ignored. Perhaps this is because, whilst the ideals behind it are laudable, Nowa Huta, like so many communist initiatives was imposed on the people, with pressure from above, not below. People were being told what was good for them, not consulted, but without that consultation those people somehow got forgotten on the way.

On our way to the Arka Pana, just past the Teatr Ludowy we stopped at a market. Mike is an avid browser of such places and had been told to explore them by his Polish neighbours. This one however, held little of interest, mainly cheap tat and vegetables. At one stall some old women were selling goat’s cheese and, feeling pity for them, we thought about buying some but when they gave us a taster it was bland, watery and vaguely unpleasant so, much to their disappointment, we passed on.

The Arka Pana (Lord’s Ark) Church is remarkable not only for its architecture – bold and modern, the architect Wojciech Pietrzyk was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp – but also the story behind its construction. As I have already said, Nowa Huta was conceived as an atheist city and there was to be no church within its boundaries, but as early as 1960 residents were agitating for one to be built. Construction finally began in 1967 and built entirely through donations and voluntary labour, it rose brick by brick. The Arka Pana was finally consecrated by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla – later to become Pope John Paul II – in 1977 and during the years of martial law (1981-3) Masses for the Fatherland were held every Friday followed by anti-government demonstrations after the services had finished.


Arka Pana

Not being a particular fan of modern architecture, I must admit to being rather nonplussed by the exterior but inside it was altogether more appealing. There was a Marian grotto underneath the main altar but what caught my eye most were the Stations of the Cross, fourteen grand paintings depicting Christ’s Passion in a traditional rural Polish setting. I’m a firm believer in the principle that religion should interact with and become part of the local cultural tapestry and this was a perfect demonstration of this. They were marvellous to behold.

station of the cross

Detail from one of the Stations of the Cross, Arka Pana

We walked back to Plac Centralny and ate a traditional communist restaurant named Stylowa where we enjoyed soup, a meat main with cabbage and mash and fruit juice for a very reasonable 14zł. Then we jumped onto a tram and headed out to our next stop on our tour of Kraków’s outer districts.

On the 3rd March, 1941 the Germans ordered that all the Jews from Kraków and the surrounding districts be collected together in a ghetto in the working class district of Podgórze on the far side of the River Vistula. Conditions were appalling. Some fifteen thousand people were crammed into an area containing some three hundred and twenty buildings, or, to put it another way, there were over four families in every apartment. On top of that, food rations were minimal and unless you had a job – unpaid – Jewish wages went straight to the SS – starvation was a real danger. Even so, most Jews still did not realise just what the Nazi masterplan was. “At least we are still alive”; “This is the bottom, things cannot get worse”; “They won’t get rid of us, we are useful to them” were the kind of comments that were banded about by Jews still in a state of shock at the degradations they had already been made to suffer. They were wrong. On the 30th May, 1942 all residents without work cards were rounded up and sent to Belzec Concentration Camp. Few survived the war. Then on the 28th October, 1942 all the ‘excessive’ residents – the elderly, infirm, children – were also rounded up and taken to Belzec. Few survived. Then in December 1942 the ghetto was divided into two zones – Zone A for the workers and Zone B for the others. Finally, on the 13th March, 1943 all the inhabitants of Zone A were moved to the nearby Płasów Concentration Camp. The very next day everyone left in Zone B was massacred. In retrospect the German plan was clear: concentrate the Jews so that they could be controlled more easily, squeeze them slowly, use the useful and dispose of the excess and then finally kill those that remained. They were all doomed from the moment that the German tanks first rolled into Poland.

Little remains in Podgórze today to remind the visitor of the horrors that once occurred there. The most interesting building that Mike and I came across was a fantastically ornate church but that had lain outside of the ghetto walls. All that we saw to remind us was a short section of the ghetto wall that had been preserved and in Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto Square) a memorial to those who had been killed. It was a series of empty chairs, meant to symbolise the shock and the hurry in which the residents had been forced to leave.

Just outside the former ghetto though, stands Oskar Schindler’s Emailia enamelware factory where many of the ghetto’s Jews once worked and which was to become the ark that saved over a thousand of them.

Schindler’s factory is now a museum and a very good one at that. It details the history of Kraków during the years immediately preceding the war and with a particular emphasis on the Jews and Schindler. Mike, who once designed museum sets for a living, was particularly impressed by how it was set out and I had to agree. It was fascinating and we were both glad to have spent a couple of hours there, giving more depth and understanding to what we had seen at Auschwitz the day before.


Inside the Schindler Factory Museum

That evening we returned to Chłopskie Jadło where I enjoyed one of the finest soups that I have ever tasted. It was made from bacon and sour cream and called zurek. It was followed up by some ribs in honey sauce which were also rather moreish. After than neither of us fancied drinking so we retired to the hotel and Mike fired up the computer and started bidding for antique watches on eBay, (he’s a bit of a buyer and seller). Such things are addictive though, particularly to one with a penchant for buying old banknotes and very soon I was bidding two and by midnight we’d both spent all that we would have spent on drink and more with naught but some inter-war German currency and Soviet timepieces to show for it. Hmm… Money-saving strategy fail.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

[1] One reason why this new city was built adjacent to Kraków was because in a referendum on establishing the People’s Republic in 1945, the predominantly middle-class and conservative citizens of Kraków had voted firmly against it – a major source of embarrassment for the communists. Consequently, a new satellite city was planned to attract people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and thus “correct the class imbalance”.

[2] Actually, it has been renamed in honour of Ronald Reagan since democracy although this was controversial, unpopular and no one uses the official designation. Good.

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