Buried bayonets, rising Phoenix

Updated on Feb 15, 2008 09:32 PM IST
In Warsaw, minds are breaking free, from organising public musicals to legalising pornography, writes Aditya Ghosh.
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Hindustan Times | ByUrban Gypsy | Aditya Ghosh

The past is dead, the future (un)imaginable” and now “they want to meet in the place where there is no darkness.” A little change in George Orwell’s lines in 1984 perhaps best describes this phoenix. Warsaw.

Vouches 38-year-old Jan Muranti (pronounced Yan), a music composer by training. With Chopin (the great Polish composer) in his heart, young Muranti had to become a tour guide after graduating in 1987. Because music had to be for the ears of the ‘Big Brother’ only.
Today, Warsaw has got its music back and playing it with vigour. In the backdrop of a charred history, devastation, tales of human spirit and endurance; healing memories of a generation wiped out in the Second World War. Followed by 40 years of living Orwell’s 1984, the city seems determined to repair the damage – to its culture and its skylines.

Ironical for a country which introduced democracy to Europe – in 1573 – when it polled to elect their king. So disgusted are the Poles with the ‘communist’ regime that their travel literature does not even mention the ‘Palace of Culture and Science,’ an imposing building at the heart of Warsaw, tallest in the country. Because it was a gift from Joseph Stalin to the city in 1955. “We have removed the name of Stalin from the building and statues of Lenin have also been removed,” explains Muranti.

In Warsaw, minds are breaking free, from organising public musicals to legalising pornography

World War II took its heaviest toll on Warsaw, countless people were massacred, and the city was reduced to rubble. A plaything in the hands of Russia and Germany, third parties decided its borders — millions of Polish homes suddenly found themselves in the USSR. Almost every Polish family today has a tale of war victims, soldiers, missing members, estranged families, something that influenced Spielberg to shoot entire Schindler’s List in Poland.

As Krzysztof Byrksi, a former Polish ambassador, puts it: “Between 1914 and 1949 we virtually had no Poland, torn between savagery, gas chambers and ethnic cleansing.”

Best epitomised in the Museum of Uprising, narrating a chilling story through films, interviews, monuments, documents and photos how Polish soldiers freed the city before being destroyed by the Germans. Today, Warsaw is staging another uprising — to offer a perfect blend of contrasts to the world — old and new, tragedy and hope, destruction and development.

The country always represented the world intelligentsia with Nicholas Copernicus, Chopin, Madam Curie, Roman Polanski, Samuel Wilder and Andrez Wajda and the first expression of this newfound renaissance came through Krzysztof Zanussi’s film CWAL or In Full Gallop.
Important geopolitical events followed, Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Warsaw’s development surpassed $5 billion in 2007. Now, the holocaust memorial and the burnt crosses on a railway track commemorating people killed by the Russians share their frames with swank, multi-storeyed hotels.

They no longer want to be only known for Auschwitz, the cruellest and biggest concentration camp in Nazi Germany, but as a vibrant cultural confluence between east and west Europe.

Looking ahead

Growth is evident, as one walks down the narrow, dreamy, old-world cobblestone lanes in the old city, beside river Vistula.
A vibrant old town square outlined by nostalgic old buildings housing restaurants in their ground floors or dungeons. Guarded by heavy wooden doors and staircases guiding through decorations of brass, bronze and wooden furniture. Started over the past decade, they serve sumptuous Polish dishes, like zurek, a rye-flour soup with mushrooms, potatoes, diced sausages and boiled egg or pierogi (dumpling with mincemeat), mushroom, brined cabbage stuffing, Kaczka na jablkach, apple roast duck (braised with rosemary and marjoram) and of course, Kielbasa, the famous Polish sausages.

The communist quarters look utterly incongruous. The Jewish ghetto, bullet-ridden buildings that have not been repaired deliberately, jostle with modern highrises and underground rail projects to welcome investors and tourists.

Announced Artur Dabkowaski, head, bilateral economic cooperation department: “In three years, we will be dealing in Euro.” Added Joanna Lupinska, manager, Foreign Investment, “We are aggressive about FDI.”

But 292 km down south, Patrycja Przybysz has no such concerns, showcasing one of the oldest and richest treasures of European civilisation. Krakow is a delight for those who love to walk down history lane and have an ear for stories. Because this town has plenty of them — a castle by the river, the oldest cathedral in east Europe and a 640-year-old Jagiellonian University where Copernicus studied the universe. Dating back to 1364, the university has oldest Indology department in Europe after Oxford.

Patrycja is a rower and works in the Municipality. Walking down the Market square with shops selling swords studded with Balkan sea Amber, she points out to three men playing accordion. “Many east European musicians come here to earn their livelihood,” she said.

Now, minds are breaking free – from organising public musical euphoria to legalising pornography. By reviving Jewish Culture Festival and the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra to promote young composers, forming the “Stalowa Wola generation.”

No wonder Muranti’s wife, who teaches violin in Warsaw Music School, now finds herself ever-so-busy. At 10 in the evening, Muranti bids the final goodbye before leaving to pick her up, “She is from Ukraine, but decided to settle here with me,” Muranti said with a coy smile, adding, “I could not pursue music, at least she is.”

Muranti was right. Warsaw has got its music back.

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