palace of culture and learning
We arrived two years ago in Warsaw shortly after the third of May, which Poland still celebrates, because on May 3, 1791, Poland was the first country to model their constitution on that of the United States. Tadeusz Kusciuszko was a famous Polish hero who served as a colonel in the American Revolutionary War. From then Poland was divided by other powers and remained under domination by various other countries for nearly 200 years. Russia, Prussia and Austria, later Germany and the Soviet Union until 1989. Russia, the Soviet Union and later Germany attempted to erase all Polishness from the Polish people. Their religion, culture, daring resolve, however, enabled them to shed Soviet domination.
In Warsaw the Palace of Culture and Learning is an important symbol of both the past and the present. It’s a huge, heavy, monolithic structure with temple like off shoots at the corners which visually plant the building in the city forever. This largest building in the country was a “gift” to Poland from the Soviet Union. Letters over the main entrance honored Stalin. They are now simply covered up with red letters, saying “PALACE OF CULTURE AND LEARNING”, (or it could be translated as “PALACE OF CULTURE AND SCIENCE”). In front of that entrance was a huge square where parades were held. It was a place were at least 100 venues for exhibitions, performances, sports, workshops, lectures, readings could be held with the intention that all this exposure to “knowledge” could be controlled and prescribed according to Communist doctrine and values. My cousin Monica and my nephew, her son, Tomasz (descendants of my grandfather’s sister, really), took us there. Tomasz seemed very proud of the structure. I wondered why.
How could such a gift from the Soviets be so well appreciated by the Polish, as it seemed like a Soviet ploy to “buy” off the people? The social realist statues in front of the building make it clear what was being imposed. One example portrayed in a simplified Greek idealistic form a figure, not nude, just shirtless, but clothed in overalls and boots. His hands and feet were larger in proportion to the body, indicating strength and tying him to the earth or the factory and work in general–working for the State.
The answer came, not from my relatives, but from Joanna, a friend of my daughter, Rachel, who invited us for breakfast one morning and knows English fluently. She is involved heavily with theater and works with foundations to support young artists internationally in ways that help theater in general, but also theater in Poland. She told me that artists and playwrights used the Palace of Culture and Learning to communicate ideas to large Polish audiences, which slipped through censors’ awareness. I had previously read of claims that the theater was responsible for inspiring the labor unions to eventually strike, and they did so right under the noses of the secret police who did not know how to “decode” the meanings of the plays. The language of Polish is quite subtle and relies on inference, rather than literal meaning, which makes it difficult to learn.
My relatives came from farming communities northwest of Warsaw. Monica’s father was a blacksmith. We entered the Tower of Culture and Learning with her. The entrance was a grand hall with very tall ceilings and doors leading to various places. We took an elevator up to the thirtieth floor, with its deck that overlooks all of Warsaw. At this point Monica was so happy. She cried out, “Warsaw, my city!” She thanked us profusely, because she would have never had this experience (coming to the top of the Palace of Culture) without Amy and me coming to see them in Warsaw or she might never have found her grandparents’ or great grandparents’ graves.
So we walked around the deck, viewing the city of Warsaw from all sides. Monica pointed out various landmarks, including the Chopin airport, and a block of some of the original Warsaw buildings that the Germans didn’t have time to destroy as the Soviets were approaching. She pointed toward where Constacjia had lived and where she and her husband started their married life across the Vistula. When we returned to the first side, which was shielded from the wind, the three of us had a long conversation about living as a Pole in Poland, about dreaming to buy a home in the country side, about having her own car, to replace the one her husband took when he left her. All these ideas of hers are mere dreams, because the reality was that these things could never happen because she does not earn enough money.
I asked her if she missed Communism. She said that the only good thing about Communism is that when she and her husband got married, the government provided a small house to start out their lives together. “That was the only good thing. It gave us a start. Nothing else.”
Under Capitalism, however, young people are finding it difficult to get work and have a good start. They don’t think about families, or having children. They go from one partner to another. That worried her. Many come into town to work, then go back to the country side where it is cheaper to live.
Because she mentioned so many problems with capitalism, I asked her if she wanted to go back to communism. Emphatically, she said, “No! It was terrible. They wanted to know everything about you, what you were doing every minute.. Life was like…” and she pointed to the concrete railing of the deck we were on, ”…this. grey, no color. It was horrible.”
She even felt that people in the country side would not like communism, despite the jobless situation in the country side and the inability for small farms to make a living. It’s a big problem, but never would they return to communism.
In my former teaching, when I would see my class disinterested or lazy, I would ask them when they were going to be an artist. I would tell them that art was a form of war-not with guns, but with ideas, with beauty and with truth. The Palace of Culture and Learning in Warsaw is the most tangible symbol I can think of that proves that point.