ON THE PLANE TO POLAND from the United States, I sat next to a petite and confident Swiss psychologist. She asked me if I had a job lined up in Kraków, or perhaps some friends.
“No, nobody, nothing,” I told her.
“That’s very American,” she said, “Europeans don’t do things like that. We don’t like those kinds of risks. What if something doesn’t work out?”
As a person committed to searching for my complicated Polish identity, this was not a promising start.
“But where were you born?” people often ask me, assuming that this will clear things up for them.
“In Germany, on vacation,” I tell them, “I left when I was twelve days old.”
My parents, both born and raised in Poland, met in France, were married in Mexico, and emigrated to the United States after my dad got a job there as a math professor. They had very different experiences moving to Arizona. When my mom first arrived in the United States, she didn’t speak a word of English. She and my dad went to a Whataburger for lunch, and as my mom tells the story, she bit into a hamburger and started crying.
“The taste was horrible, and I just wanted to go home,” she told me over and over when I was a child. Home, however – Warsaw – was not what it had been before she left. During the time my mom was gone, there had been a military coup in Poland, and my grandmother had died of uterine cancer.
My dad approached the United States as a land of hopes and dreams. Having finished his doctorate in Moscow, he was eager to explore the other great empire.
But twenty years in the States left him disillusioned. He was stung by what he saw as a mindless consumer culture instead of the land of creativity and innovation that he had expected. Eventually, he and my mom split up, and my dad moved back to Poland. For my mom, the U.S is now home.
My parents had made their choices, but I myself couldn’t decide. The year after I graduated from university, I won a Watson fellowship and set off on a trip around the world to chase after Polish Diasporas. Halfway through the year, exhausted and disillusioned by petty conflicts and a disturbing familiarity, I abandoned my project and pursued Southern African diasporas instead. Poland stayed in the back of my mind, as a place where to be Polish was not defined by the narrow confines of a diaspora.
I had to go back.
This is how I find myself one night in November, on a train from Kraków to Częstochowa, sitting with my violin case in a sweltering cabin, anticipating a night full of music, alcohol and improvisation with the celebrated DJ ADHD.
I, a graduate of the Shepherd School of Music – one of the more conservative music conservatories in the United States – have become a club star in Poland. A couple of years ago, I was finishing my elite music school, training through conservatory, festivals, and years of practice, to be precise and elegant in my gestures. Now, I improvise in clubs. I rouse crowds. I throw out dynamic subtlety in exchange for fast runs, daring arpeggios, and hair-raising tremolos. There are times when this work feels sacrilegious – after all, I spent so much of my life in a practice room, trying to perfect the tiniest of details which, in the smoke and drunken atmosphere of a club, nobody notices. Classical training is a kind of musical cloister – every day you go and fulfill your spiritual existence in a closed room, where exercises sometimes feel like prayers chanted endlessly in the hope of occasional moments of ecstasy.
To my surprise, the work I do now often fills me with the same kind of rapture that I see in the dancing crowds.
It’s ironic that this is the country in which I’ve partially abandoned my traditional music training. I’ve lived in Poland long enough now to feel the destructive religious and political tension in the country – to experience what is sometimes called the “Polish-Polish War.” One side is for “Polish” traditions, looking out for the national good, remaining a Catholic country, steadfastly holding to elsewhere unpopular beliefs. The other side argues for integration with the European Union: moving beyond outdated traditions, separation between church and state, and a focus on fixing the country instead of building more and more walls around a decaying environment.
As in most countries, however, public politics say very little about people’s actual lives. Poland remains a flurry of contradictions and unexpected gestures. The block where I live in Kazimierz was once a social block – meaning, the apartments were given by the government to dysfunctional families, the sick, the unemployed, the orphaned. My neighbors are still terribly suspicious of newcomers, and often bicker with me about small things. However, when a homeless man came inside the block to sleep at the foot of the stairs on a particularly cold night, nobody told him to leave. Rather, a middle-aged woman in a bright red and blue dress guarded the visitor from the top of the stairs so nobody would come and harass him. A few others came down and left a half-loaf of bread, yogurt, and a pastry next to his sleeping form.
The train’s cabin is over-heated on this freezing night, and the people around me are sweating among colorful piles of discarded jackets, coats, scarves, hats, and gloves. I wonder how many of them are returning home after work in Kraków, and how many are on a pilgrimage, to pray for God’s intercession in their lives.
Unlike Kraków, which has become the weekend target of young Brits looking for cheap alcohol and a good time, Częstochowa does not have the reputation of a party city. On the contrary: it is the pilgrimage city. People from all over the country come here every year to crawl across the floor of an old church and pray in front of the image of the black Madonna, the Queen of Poland (black being both a metaphorical term for oppressed, rather than for any kind of ethnicity, as well as a commentary on the burnt, darkened nature of the image itself).
Catholicism in Poland has been called a resilient tradition, a harmless delusion, and a dangerous superstition. As a Polish citizen raised mainly in the United States, it is difficult for me to understand the country’s intense religiosity and the effect that Pope John Paul II had, and still has, on Poland.
Before 1989, when the church was in opposition to the Communist government, attending services was an act of political resistance. But today‘s young people saw “Our Pope” alive only in the last few years of his life – a sick old man bent low with Parkinson’s disease. The inspirational tales of him performing in World War II-era underground theaters, rousing oppressed Polish crowds with his cry of “do not be afraid”, offering thunderous calls to love, hope and freedom to those tearing down the Berlin Wall – these are tales of older people.
In this way, I am like my peers – I also don’t remember the worst of it. There are things that both they and I know only from stories.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Polish transformation from a Communist country was so fast that now people no longer remember what they wanted to change, and why. What remains is the constant attempt to reach the standards of countries that – in Polish eyes – don’t want to change at all.
The train’s headlights occasionally light up a ghost of a tree that quickly vanishes from sight. I imagine the thick Polish forests covered in the silence of snow outside of the frosty windows. These are the forests where Germans massacred thousands of people and buried them in mass graves; the clumps of trees through which people ran in order to find a safe place; the trees under which partisans ate, slept, organized, and fought.
As a child, I read many books about World War II and the Holocaust – accounts about Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, the German occupation, the people who saved others and the people who didn’t. I visited Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka at the age of ten. After having sloshed through the mud of the formidable, wooden concentration camp of Majdanek, I remember my first impression of the red brick buildings of Auschwitz: “This is so much better than the other two.” Though I myself did not experience these horrors, I grew up with the impression that the end of the world was on the underside of a playing card, waiting to be flipped.
There is a palpable history of destruction here: generations destroyed through war and then the paradoxical self-destruction of communism, where the Polish population was harnessed into working for a proposed utopian society that began with the 1940 Katyń massacres of 25,000 Polish intelligentsia in the forests of Russia, and continued with consistent mass exiles and the slaughter of national heroes after the war. In Polish history, there are very few happy endings. After the war, leaders of the AK, the Polish non-communist underground army, were put on trial for treason and many of them were given the death penalty. A strong messianic tradition and obsessive hero worship were left in order for people to try to justify their lives, despite the apparent absence of God’s justice. And so some people still tell themselves that Poland is “The Christ of Nations”, a country whose suffering is justified by the very logic of the Catholic church – there has to be one that suffers in order for the rest of the world to thrive. (Or, as a friend of mine says – “Chrystusem Narodów, i naród Chrystusów.” Poland – the Christ of Nations, and a Nation of Christs.)
Others look to the poets. Zbigniew Herbert wrote:
Go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust …
let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards
they will win …
And do not forgive
it is not in your power to forgive
for those who were betrayed at dawn.
But now, democracy has come to Poland. The country is an indelible part of the European Union. Next month, Poland will take over the EU presidency. Despite some accusations of a left-wing political conspiracy, there is not a lot of proof that elections are still rigged. There is food in the stores, and people are now legally entitled to own passports, and keep them at home. The country could not be more different than it was twenty-two years ago.
Perhaps because of this sudden flood of change, debates about what it means to be Polish are multiplying. Whereas before, the Polish identity was something that people fought for, these days, it is unclear what it means to fight for Poland. And, after centuries of aggression from Poland’s more powerful neighbors, does Poland know how to stop fighting within itself? Many prominent politicians constantly refer to purported attacks on Polish land, on the Polish lifestyle, on Polish religion, on Polish women, on Polish sexuality. Within their political rhetoric there is a constant sense of an outside threat – even from countries as close as Germany.
Since Poland joined the EU, maintaining Polish culture has become important – showing Europe that Poles are proud of themselves, of what they are, and not of the Westernized identity that Europe granted Poland with entrance into the Union. True, not everyone in Poland wanted to join the EU – this, in itself was considered a loss of self. Milk now has to be pasteurized, and soon pickled cabbage, as well as barreled pickles, both Polish staples, will be illegal – considered rotten food. Diversity, sometimes seen as the drive towards the European Union, is also conversely interpreted as the loss of the Polish soul.
And yet the Polish fascination with “the West” has not diminished, and Polish people have gone in giant waves to the UK and Ireland, where, despite heavy recession, many remain. In May, Germany opened up its borders to Polish workers, and many anticipate another wave of Polish emigrants out of the country. The trickle of people in has not yet supplanted the waves of people coming out.
I remember talking to a Polish priest who met me and my family while working for a year in Arizona many years ago. He himself studied and lived for many years in Germany. A few months ago, over coffee in a Viennese Café in Krakow, he explained:
“On average, the pay difference between Poland and Germany is like the difference between Mexico and the USA. Germany functions much more smoothly than Poland. There, it’s not wild capitalism. It’s a socialistic society. If people don’t have anything, they can go and get clothing, food, and a place to sleep. That’s why their attitude towards the unemployed is different. Here in Poland, unemployment is a tragedy.”
In Poland nothing is for sure. Everything is eternally unfinished, suffocating under overwhelming and pointless piles of bureaucracy. Life is a never-ending cycle of waiting for a tram, going to an office, asking a lot of questions, worrying about things, being exhausted. And people don’t have money. In fact, despite the brain drain on the country, many people believe that Poland cannot support a wave of immigrants.
“Luckily, they’re not coming here,” my French teacher told me. “We don’t even have enough money for ourselves.”
In the narrow aisle, a man pushes a rusty cart full of chocolate bars and instant coffee. Sometimes, old men walk around with backpacks full of beer bottles, which they sell with great profit. “Beers, Juice!” they call down the aisles. I’ve never seen anyone buy juice.
Though this kind of business is illegal, it is hard to control. In fact, despite laws against public drinking, it is normal to see people pull out beer bottles on trams and buses, or drink in front of the numerous 24-hour alcohol stores.
These days, drinking often goes hand in hand with gambling. One night, after I finished teaching in a village on the border of Kraków, I walked into a restaurant and bar in order to eat something before I caught my bus home. A couple of men sat drinking and watching a game on television. One of them stood next to a slot machine, pressing the button with one hand and holding a beer in the other. Only men. Watching a game. The face of the man at the slot machine gained intensity, and he slammed the button more and more aggressively. He was sweating and pressing his lips together in concentration, though he still shifted his attention sporadically between the television and the game. Outside, dogs howled. All other places in the village were closed. Suddenly, he whooped. One big win! His companions cheered. The tension left his face– relief. His friends chuckled and egged him on – bet more now, now you can win more. But then an unexpected string of losses, and again, the tension in his face, his lips briefly opening, the concentration, his brow furrowed, his face taking on an orgasmic quality, and finally, the last couple of thrusts from his sweaty hand before he registered the great disappointment. The man‘s face crumpled. No money left – he lost everything. He went and sat down at the table, and turned his face towards the television set. Another man got up from the table and walked up to the machine to try his luck.
Following the fall of Communism, these slot machines crept up all over Poland.
When I reach Częstochowa, it is completely dark. Outside the train station, the snow is fresh and gentle. Two nuns walk in front of me, their black and white habits contrasting the gray, shadowed and stooped buildings. I decide to walk from the train station to the Grand Hotel where I am supposed to meet ADHD, my accompanying DJ. On the way, I pass a giant statue of a woman with her hands in the air, praying to “Matka Boska Częstochowska” – the Mother of God, Queen of Poland. Next to her, a large billboard advertises: “A Red in Czestochowa? Only St. Nick! Vote on the 5th of December!” The letters emphasize their point in red, tapping into an old fear.
I meet ADHD in the lobby of the Grand Hotel. He is a well-built and warm man dressed up casually for a party – a t-shirt, jeans, and a mohawk. He compliments my shoes, and I immediately like him.
I remember the first time I went to meet my DJ in Kraków, the guy who was to be my regular musical partner, at the bar, dressed up in what I’d assumed to be appropriately loud club dress: a flowery v-neck shirt, leopard-print tights, a colorful ruffled mini skirt. At the end of the night he’d given me 150 zl, obviously impressed with my performance, but told me to dress more “feminine” and keep it elegant, and neat.
Then he asserted:
“People have to remember you. Look at me – yesterday I played in Rzeszow, and the next day people were stopping me on the street and telling me – hey, it was a great party last night. It’s because they remembered me.”
“How?” I asked.
“I had sunglasses on the whole time – yeah, I know, that seems stupid, but people’ll remember the idiot in the glasses, especially if he’s the DJ.”
The drive to be unforgettable is something I see all over Poland. Sometimes it manifests itself in the people who want to be disco stars – women whose ambition is to be the best dancer on the bar, or win the wet t-shirt contest, or to try to strip tease next to the DJ. But these are incidents that come and go – people who turn into one-night heroes, immortalized on Facebook the next day, and then steadily pushed into insignificance by the constant flow of memories from other good parties.
But there is a more sinister manifestation as well: the whole country is drowning in plaques, memorials, sites of massacres, museums of tragedy, old destroyed buildings, homes people were forced out of, homes people were forced into, homes people were robbed of, and the silence and sadness that covers it all.
Yes, Poland wants to stay unforgettable – and yes, people are coming here to remember these unforgettable things. But in their travel through time, into the darkest periods of Polish history, visitors often don’t notice the people who are still alive, who work around the memorials and the mass graves. These people want to be unforgettable because they create a good party, and not because their home was the stage for yet another massacre.
When ADHD and I arrive, the temperature outside is -5C, and there are piles of dirty snow all around. The club lies underneath a “Biedronka” – the cheapest grocery store chain in Poland. A giant lit-up ladybug, the store logo, smiles down at us. Inside the store, the lights are on. Outside, in the snow, a crowd of women in tight short skirts and men in ragged jeans waits, clamoring to be let into the building through a side door.
We push our way through the crowd and climb down a long dark staircase underneath the store. Inside, strobe lights flash and the music thunders. The real party begins at midnight, with me and ADHD. We sit down in a secluded corner of the bar, though no part of the place escapes the noise. I lean towards ADHD and ask how he got his stage name. “By accident,” he yells into my ear. Years ago, at the start of his career, a club called and asked for a stage name. He happened to glance at the television playing a program on children with learning disabilities, and without thinking said – ADHD. The name stuck.
The club owner brings us drinks and talks to ADHD. Their initially enthusiastic conversation suddenly becomes more muted in character, though not in volume. I try to listen in, but it is almost impossible to hear others speak with the music sending vibrations through my entire body. Later, I hear that the owner‘s father died that day – his car broke down in the road and he went to check on it. He walked to the other side of the car and he was hit by another car. Despite this tragedy, the owner still shows up for the party. Everyone does. ADHD seems surprised and a bit concerned, but the owner shrugs it off – the party must go on. The music makes it difficult to think too hard about anything. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is the only place to get away from yourself.
Midnight. We hop up on the stage, and the resident DJ introduces us.
“The real party starts now!” ADHD howls. “Prepare for the night of your life!” Everyone goes wild.
They are the lucky ones, the ones chosen to party inside, where life – real life – is happening. Częstochowa’s youth, starved for an experience, for an adventure – for dancing, alcohol, cigarettes. This is only the beginning of an all-night adventure and these people, whirling through this chromatic space, have passed into an alternate universe and left their homes, their memories, their lives. Everything is colorful, whirling, screaming, crying, dancing, pushing, drinking. Hands travel anonymously across butts and breasts; layers of clothing and identity are peeled off, and the stiff, formal distance maintained in a previous life turns into a desperation to touch and be touched. Borders quickly dissolve and what had been hundreds of individual dancers turns into one writhing mass. Bodies crave the heat of other bodies, their bigness and realness and concreteness in a world whose history is now and only now – a world with no past and no future, and certainly no memory.
The din, exploding underground beneath a closed discount grocery store, has the weightlessness of relief. Afterwards, we will all travel back onto the surface, and into Soviet-style apartment blocks where every noise is tracked by a disgruntled neighbor, and children are consistently cursed for being too loud: a world where enthusiasm is almost taboo.
Living in Poland, I feel myself more and more often trying to view this country from the East to the West, and not the other way around.
When I look at Poland from the West I see tragedy – a string of seemingly never-ending unfortunate events that manage to time and again play the worst of its history on a loop. From the West, I notice the cruel irony of last year’s plane crash in Smoleńsk as well as the tragic, forgotten deaths during post-WWII readjustment, when people were being chased out of their villages because Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had shifted the borders of the country, and when WWII heroes were being tried for treason by an occupying Communist government.
However, when I see Poland from the East, what strikes me is a country teeming with life: life that in spite of everything, pushes out into the world with a flamboyant intensity and almost comic inevitability. From the East, wars and massacres were the structure that life evaded and worked around – as natural as illness, bad weather, and roadside accidents. From this perspective, anger at the larger systems that thrived on massacres, disappearances, wiping out the intelligentsia, deportations, gulags, concentration camps, and terror day in and day out – this anger is both pointless and absurd.
After two hours on-stage, I’m ready to wrap it up. ADHD says he’ll stick around for another few minutes. I sit down and let my feet hang off of the stage, a rum and coke in hand.
Of all the gigs I have played, I seem to be the most popular here. Women come up to me and ask for pictures, men come up and ask for a dance. One man squeezes his way through the crowd and starts talking to me in a strange mix of Polish and English.
“Jestem Michael. Jestem Zombie, zombie, zombie…I’m Michael – I’m a zombie, zombie, zombie …”
I’m not sure what he means by that, so I just smile and nod. He proceeds to tell me his dream: he is also a musician, and he believes that we could be great together. Pressing his crotch into my leg, he tries to sell himself to me. I move away. He gestures to his right, where a mass of sweaty bodies tumbles around the spot, as if falling through a black hole.
“That’s my wife. But she doesn’t understand this music thing,” he assures me. “She’s jealous. We married when we were eighteen, and …” He says this last line as if it explains everything.
“I’m 30!” he suddenly yells into my ear.
Then he insists that if the two of us played together, we would conquer the world. I watch the strobe lights flashing across his sweaty face, and wonder: is this a dream that was born this evening, or is this story revived at every party he goes to, living through an entire lifecycle in one night? I could be great, I could be famous, I could be on that stage playing for these people, these people could be screaming for me, I could get out of this town and go somewhere where I would be happy and fulfilled. And does the dream always end in a hangover and a pissed off wife?
At this point, it’s very loud and I have a headache. Michael’s insistence on yelling into my ear and trying to get his crotch against my leg is frustrating me. In the end, I give him my number. Maybe he’ll tell me his story?
He never calls.
The party is wrapping up now. Only a few guests remain, swaying on the dance floor, unwilling to leave. Some people lie splattered across the couches in the corners of the club. The floor is sticky with soda and alcohol, and I tread carefully around the shattered glass to retrieve my coat from the behind the bar.
Outside, the freezing air bites hard into my nose. Shivering, ADHD and I catch a taxi and return to the hotel, where I lie down in a dark room on a small bed. The sun will be coming up soon.
Could that really have been it? Beneath the crumbling gray blocks of a sad city, people celebrate life and try to forget about the problems above ground. This is the real weekly ceremony, the real church, created by a young generation oblivious to the fears and anxieties of the older generation.
Do any of the people who danced in the club tonight remember the sudden shock of Marshall Law being imposed on Poland, with a military coup on December 13, 1981?
Many weeks after my night in Częstochowa, over a holiday dinner, my aunt and uncle tell me their story about being arrested that day. My uncle summarizes: “What we went through was pretend-fear – fake-fear. The whole of the 20th century was full of real fear – of Nazi concentration camps, and Soviet gulags. People were murdered, starved and worked to death – shot in the back of the head when they least expected it. But for us, on that day, fate closed her eyes and allowed us to slip by, unnoticed. We were lucky enough to avoid the real horrors of this century.” He was locked up for twelve months.
Like the thousands of people around Poland arrested at random on that day, my aunt and uncle were involved in anti-government activities. Others had friends or relatives who were somehow involved or suspicious. All of those who were arrested assumed that many thousands more had also been taken. They sat in cold jail cells and imagined being sent to gulags or concentration camps; being tortured for weeks on end or facing a sudden and quick death. Nobody knew anything.
My aunt, who was also put in jail during that time, disagrees with my uncle. The picture she paints looks like this: “It was minus twenty degrees in the cell, and we had a bucket in the corner for a toilet. When they sent priests to come talk to us and confess us, nobody believed that they were really priests. We thought we were going to get shot, or put on a transport to Siberia. Women worried about the children they left at home. One woman was taken away with a two month old baby that was then left at the police station and later thrown into a random orphanage with no name. It was a miracle – God’s miracle, even though she supposedly doesn’t believe – that a doctor who worked at this particular orphanage had seen this very baby at an emergency room a few days before, and that she remembered and recognized this child. She took the child, and the child was returned safely to the mother when she got out. Two weeks – the amount of time before we were transferred to a regular prison – was eternity. One woman left as a skeleton – I will never forget how her bony, starved hands shook when we came out … this was all real.”
Fake fear? No, the fear was real. Who cares that they all survived, that in the end they were only put in prison for a year and then (only!) blacklisted, barred from working legally. The fear of death – of hunger that eats away at your soul, and torture that dehumanizes you until you don’t recognize yourself – this fear was real. I ask my aunt if she herself was scared. She thinks for a moment, and her face lights up mischievously:
“I think I must have been created for near-death experiences. For me, all of this was not a shock. When they came for me – one soldier slightly drunk, with a machine gun, and then the whole rest of them – when I understood that the world had fallen apart and that all the rules that had governed this world earlier were no longer in effect – then I calmly took a large sack and I threw into it everything that I would need to go to Siberia. The soldier in charge let me do this, probably because he was slightly drunk. And so I threw in: a thick sweater, a coat, bread, kielbasa …“
Over that holiday table in Warsaw, listening to her calm recounting of her story, I crave this kind of courage. So that when the constantly changing rules of this world crumble yet again, I have the faith to be grateful for a drunk soldier who allows me to take a sweater and kielbasa to my death.
This is the kind of faith that is not encompassed by the rules of government or the way things are supposed to work.
Despite all of the pain and tragedy, historical trauma has also given Poland this: wisdom, courage, flexibility, and a Pope whose most memorable words still are, in the midst of an upside-down world – “Do not be afraid!”
The next day, as we drive back to Kraków, ADHD tells me: “This is a sad country – a sad country with sad people who are so sad sometimes, that they don’t want anything – and then it’s difficult to make a good party.”
But as a DJ, even I can tell that he’s amazing at building an atmosphere: he creates the party. He’s in control. All-powerful, he stands on a stage in a crowded, chaotic, smoky room, and weaves with his own fingers the very stuff that compels the sweating bodies, that causes them to believe in ecstasy. Not the Black Madonna, but this – this makes them believe. This is the party that must go on, the faith that must be kept. ADHD himself stands above the room, with earphones over his ears, and lives in his own world, where perhaps the party is even better than it is here.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador. To read about the editorial process behind this story, check out Structure, Details and Shaping a Sprawling Long Form Feature.]