Swimming Against the Stream

Candles and Cannons: Part 1

This is a chapter for a book that was never written about my journey in search of European Puppetry that would eventually become the beginning of my Gravity From Above project. This is the first part of a long chapter on Poland that initially has little to do with puppetry and everything to do with history and travel. It’s worth a read. More to come!

April 4– 8, 2005

Poznan and Warsaw, Poland

Entering the Labyrinth

Mourning for Pope John-Paul II in Poznan, Poland

The Pope had just died and I was entering Poland by train.

By the time we crossed the Polish border the train from Berlin to Warsaw seemed to be filled almost exclusively with Poles. My good friend Millay back in Germany had told me that traveling to Poland is not much of a preoccupation in her Berlin circles. She said it’s a bit like Los Angelinos visiting Mexico. It’s there. It’s not far. But what’s the point. And that’s odd because Germans are among the most peripatetic tourists in the world. Yet I suppose I can understand it. Given the crater left by World War II in that part of Europe there’s no way that the sites of can Poland be a simple vacation trip on a par with say Thailand or California. Polen brings almost as many questions to the Germanic mind as the Jews do. And it would raise scores of hidden questions within me as well before I passed beyond its frontiers.

Poland is more than a country, it is a state of existence. It is the thing held in the vice yet somehow retaining its shape, its essence. Caught between Russia and Germany it has had the privilege of being completely erased from the map of Europe for over a hundred years during the Nineteenth Century and for a spell in the Twentieth. And during the Twentieth it has known war, devastation and oppression to a degree incomprehensible to countries in Western Europe, and absolutely unimaginable in the United States of America. World War Two turned Poland into a vicious charnel house of genocide and slaughter. In Europe only Ukraine and Belarus have been crushed more severely during the Twentieth Century, these two being the primary bleeding grounds of the old Soviet Union as they fought back against the Nazis. Russia of course suffered horrendously, but always had the land east of the Urals for recuperation. But Poland, trapped in the vice, suffered from both sides at once. Statistics might squeak out a bit of evidence here. How many people died there during the Second World War? Let’s see, 200,000 people died in Warsaw alone in the final failed uprising against the Nazis as the Red Army watched nonchalantly from the sidelines. Most statisticians put the estimate over six million, 6,000,000, with more than half being victims of the extermination camps. That’s nearly 20% of the entire prewar population. That’s one person out of five. That’s nearly every Jew. And I don’t want to exculpate the ambiguous Polish relationship to the Jews during the war. Many were the sad betrayals fueled by a native anti-Semitism. While there were countless acts of individual courage, on the whole under the Nazi boot, the Poles stood by. Though they did finally draw upon the strength of the very few Jews who did fight back during the hopeless Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 to create their own heroic, and just as doomed, Warsaw Uprising in 1944. And then Soviets came to town bringing more oppression and more questions; questions upon questions. Poland just seems to inspire questioning, questions about good and evil, questions about courage, and with the Pope’s passing, questions about faith, even questions about the nature of existence itself. And for me Poland also raised a tangled mysterious knot of questions about my own identity.

I am at least a quarter Polish by birth though I must confess I don’t speak much more than a handful of words in the language. For years I thought that I was half-Polish until a glimpse at my mother’s birth certificate produced a strange question that my mom couldn’t answer. Where did you say your mother was from? I asked. The document said the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A quick piecing together of a few vague scraps of information produced a very different answer than the one my own mother had grown up believing. Her mother, who had died when she was fifteen years old, was actually from the other side of the border of what was now Ukraine. Upon discovering this, my mother said, “My father always used to accuse her of speaking with a Russian accent.” But that still left my grandfather John Knutkowski with the Polish bloodlines. Born into a family of recent Polish immigrants, he had journeyed from Chicago via Canada to Seattle – where no one but our family seemed to speak Polish. But where was his family from in Poland? I hadn’t a clue. Nor have I ever met anyone who did. Yet from somewhere out in this land my ancestors had come.

After the Polish customs officials had added that crucial new stamp to my passport the train continued through the flat Wielkopolska landscape. The light was hazy brightness. Trees increased innumerably compared with industrial Germany. Small farms, roads and shacks occasionally caught my eyes amid the blurring of field and wood. The light brown sandy soil was plowed up in places awaiting the spring plantings. I was bound for the city of Poznan, another blank of uncertainty on my itinerary. All I knew was that there was a puppet theatre called Teatr Animacji (The Animation Theatre) that seemed like it would make an interesting two-day stop between Berlin and Warsaw. I would be there a couple of hours after crossing the border. Poznan would therefore be my first impression of Poland.

We arrived at the Poznan Glowny (pronounced ‘gwuvny’, train station) in the early afternoon. I had gleaned a vague description of the Hotel Topaz and where it was in relationship to the glowny from the hotel’s website. My Polish guidebook did not have a map detailed enough to tell me exactly where Przemyslowa street was located. But it did have a map and I put the two pieces of information together while setting out from the station. But which way was the glowny facing? I slung my weight across my back and carried my other bundle with my good wrist. My coat was held in the weaker. I walked through the rather dingy station without siting a map. The signs were fairly incomprehensible to me. Words like wyjscie stared down at me. I don’t know if I was pleased or disappointed upon seeing a KFC sign as a culinary concession, the first of that particular fast food chain that I had seen in Europe. I was certainly bemused. With the colonel smiling down on me, reassuring me that home was not too far away, I sought for a larger map, but didn’t find one. Out in the warm muggy Polish day I found myself trudging up a very long flight of cement stairs to an overpass. The guidebook map still seemed vague to me. It couldn’t tell me whether I had arrived from the north or the south. And I wasn’t sure what the name the overpass was. I decided to turn left. I came to an intersection after a while. And now I was faced with a dilemma unlike any I had yet encountered. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read the street names, it’s that I had arrived at a busy intersection and there were none. I craned my head about looking high and low. Nope, nothing, nada, not a thing hanging above me on poles, nothing on the buildings, no sign anywhere, zip. So where was I? I crossed the street to get a better view of the buildings there. I scrutinized the side of a wall attached to a building that seemed like some sort of institute, scanning for the usual europeanly obscure street plaque. Maybe I should have traveled with a microscope. I sat my bulk down and pulled out the guidebook to give it a fresh look. After reconnoitering my dense brain cottoned to the realization that I was going the wrong way and that the name of the overpass must be Towarowa. If I crossed back over it I should eventually find Przemyslowa not too far across the other side. And so I did just that looking down on the glowny as I wandered towards the street with the nearly unpronounceable name.

By the way, my Lonely Planet guidebook, which generally gets high marks, says, and I quote, “Most Polish consonants are pronounced as in English. However, there are some very fine distinctions between certain consonants in Polish which English speakers may find difficult to produce.” The first sentence is there to lull you into a warm gushy globalized sense of security. “Oh yes in a few quick lessons I can speak Polish!” The second sentence is the understatement of all understatements. Let’s just put a red warning sign above the Polish language right now for all English speakers and other non-Slavs. This is not going to be a jaunt through the park. Just trying to pronounce Polish is work, work, work! This isn’t Spanish folks. While everything seems to follow the logic of its basic rules, unlike dear old English, I can’t think of another language that mashes consonants together in such “awful looking clusters” (the Lonely Planet phrase for ‘szcz’), nay downright fearsome consonantal aggregations, like this one does. The guidebook then list twenty consonants and clusters how they should be pronounced before then listing when b is voiced as p, d as t, g as k, w as f and so forth. And they don’t even mention the collision that occurs in the dental palate when these consonant clusters join forces. All the way over the Towarowa overpass I’m trying to pronounce the word Przemyslowa, repeating it over and over to myself so that I can say it and look lost, breeding what I hope would be a sufficient degree of helplessness to be universally recognized. By the way Przemyslowa is said something like this, ‘P-zhem-is-wova’.

Though I had unloaded a weighty box of freight back in Berlin the pack in my left hand was becoming quite cumbersome to me the further I walked. Part of this had to do with my inability to shift my gear from hand to hand due to the weakness of my recovering wrist. The sidewalk seemed gritty below me, like fine dusty sand, as I scraped my way across it. Coming at last to the bottom of the long busy overpass I passed a small side street that, naturally, had no name. I was guessing that the next road would be Przemyslowa. I would turn there. I passed a row of small wooden shacks that were being used as stands for various types of merchants; food vendors, cigarettes, a few groceries and the like. I followed the street till it turned left and I with it. No street signs yet. After another interminable block, Polish blocks on average thus far seemed at lot longer than French or Dutch blocks, I came to a real city street with gray buildings and a track running down the middle of it. I looked up at the corners of the buildings where the street names would be, should be, weren’t. The farther I proceeded the more I could sense my left hand was reverting to more simian dimensions. I walked a bit further, stopped in front of a bank and consulted the guidebook again. It was hard to tell exactly where I was without a street name. I rested for a moment. As I looked down this street I began to notice the flags hanging out of windows and draped from ledges, many, many flags, hundreds of flags on this street alone. There were kilometers of small red and white Polish flags. Each one had a piece of black ribbon tied around the shaft above the flag. Mixed with the red and the white there were yellow and white Papal flags, also bearing the black mourning ribbons. I would see thousands more of these before the day was done. I knew I was close to Przemyslowa Street but I hadn’t felt enough desperation to utter the word in all helplessness yet. Besides I would also have to speak the words for please and thank you as well: prosze and dziekuje. I had seen a gas station a block away back at the left turn. I walked over to it. I then spoke two of my first three Polish words to an attendant. He spoke rapidly pointing back to where I had come. I gave him the third word and hefted my way back to the bank. Then I saw a sign pointing down another block near the bank saying Hotel Topaz. I walked that way. I still hadn’t seen one street sign yet. I turned to the left and walked a little in the direction opposite the overpass. I noticed an incidental name somewhere in the address of a commercial establishment. I sighed with relief. Finally I had found Przemyslowa. And there half a block away was the hotel. Truthfully it all took a few more twists and turns than this but by this time I’m sure you get the idea. This was actually that first unnamed little street that I passed back on Towarowa.

A friendly Polish girl greeted me at the hotel, in fact a single storied motel, gave me a map of Poznan, showed me to my room in another building and explained that breakfast was free. A heavy whiff of deodorizer or air freshener greeted me from the bathroom. I flipped on the television as I removed my gear. The Pope was the only thing on any Polish television channel except for one stricken station that simply displayed a black screen with a white serif font saying something to the effect that we will return after the memorial for the Pope is finished. There were a few German channels containing nary a word about the Pope, natürlich. And CNN, Poland was possibly not a BBC country, broadcast much Papal news as well as the happenings in Iraq and the usual more trivial American news. But the Polish stations covered the only event that mattered at this moment in the nation of Polska, the life and death of Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla.

To be continued…

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

November 27th 2020

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2 responses

  1. john@reallyusefulconsultancy.co.uk

    thank you for a lovely post!!

    November 27, 2020 at 4:18 AM

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