Warsaw airport is ofﬁcially called Chopina airport, which is scarcely in itself surprising. Many cities call their airports after celebrated citizens, Charles de Gaulle, Leonardo Da Vinci or, in Britain, John Len-non and George Best, but there is a special tone of assertiveness to the choice made by the Polish authorities. It is a reminder that the composer Frédéric François Chopin, as the name appears in encyclopedias, was actually Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, Polish by birth, culture, language and even by enduring affection. In his will, he decreed that his heart should be taken back to War-saw, where it is interred in the church of the Holy Cross.
The problem is, as I was told by a student at the University, ‘The French stole him, the same way they stole Marie Curie, who was also Polish.’ The French do have the habit of kidnapping distinguished ﬁgures. It is a surprise to them to be reminded that Samuel Beckett was actually Irish, that Eugène Ionesco was born Eugen Ionescu in Romania, and that the playwright Fernando Arrabal was Spanish. Poland has suffered a double depredation at the hands of France. There was annoyance in the country a couple of years ago when a French magazine ran a poll which gave Marie Curie the position of the second most important French woman of all time. She is buried in Paris among the greats of French history in the Pantheon, but was christened Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw. It seemed wiser at that point in the discussion not to mention the case of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, known in English as the novelist Joseph Conrad.
I am in Warsaw at the invitation of the University to teach British or Scottish cultural studies in the strangely named Institute of Culturology and Anthropocentric Linguistics. The academic world enjoys grandiose names, but the word ‘culturology’ does not exist in any language, and it is not clear what other kind of linguistics there could be. Zoological linguistics? However, the Polish students are alert and bright, and emerge from their education system with a level of knowledge and cultural awareness well beyond anything expected by ministerial educationalists of their counterparts in Scotland.
There is an unexpected keenness on the part of Poles to demand of visitors opinions on Polish life and culture. Their food is not likely to be numbered among the great cuisines of Europe. The way to insult a Belgian is to speak slightingly of their beer, since Belgian nationalism is centred on native beer, and the way to upset a Pole is to cast aspersions on pierogi, commonly translated as dumplings but more precisely larger versions of Italian ravioli but with less ﬂavour and without the range of accompanying sauces. Every restaurant has them, every Pole will press them on you and every Pole will react with disbelief at any suggestion that they are less than the food of the gods.
It is not that the Poles are unduly prickly but the element of self-doubt can be surprising. Cuisine is only one aspect of culture, and any attempt to grapple with the culture of another country is bedevilled by what could be called the ‘rosebud factor,’ a name I take from the search undertaken by the protagonist of Citizen Kane to explain Kane’s life in terms of the last word he spoke. The rosebud turned out to be no more than a sledge used in boyhood and taken from him at a signiﬁ-cant moment in his life, but the assumption that there is one key to a life, or a culture, is a persistent one. The search for a comparable element which will provide access to Polishness or Scottishness is futile, and is likely to end up with an external searcher wrenching one random element from a complex of similar facts and endowing it with unjustiﬁed weight. Still, there are some rosebuds to be plucked, and not only in Poland.
At the foot of Jerusalem Avenue in Warsaw, the artist Joanna Rajkowska has planted an artiﬁcial palm tree. The explanation for this act is couched in the higher twaddle that today passes for art criticism, with an invitation to look at the tree as a ‘monument-event’ or an ‘object-situation,’ but the site itself is signiﬁcant. There is no need to labour the overtones of Jerusalem, but the tree stands between the faceless, tasteless, concrete building that was once the HQ of the Polish Workers’ Party and is now a ﬁnancial centre – and there’s symbolism galore – and the Branicki palace, an 18th century aristocratic residence which later housed the British embassy until it was burned down after the outbreak of war. It is a place, says Ms Rajkowska, to provoke discussion on ‘tradition, history or politics.’
Tradition, history and identity politics are keenly debated in Europe today, mainly among smaller nations who live cheek by jowl with larger powers, whether it be Fin-land with Russia, Holland with Germany, Catalonia with Castile or Scotland with Eng-land. Poland is neither a stateless nation nor a small power, as its leaders remind their counterparts at EU gatherings, but it is a nation whose selfhood has been periodically under threat and which once disappeared from the map of Europe for a period of 123 years. It has also had to live within changing frontiers, always squeezed between Russia and Germany. It is hard to forget this past in Warsaw.
Finding one’s way around the city is easy because one building, visible from most points, cuts into the skyline and acts as a landmark. This is the huge, monstrous, grotesque Palace of Culture and Science, a gift made by that generous philanthropist, Joseph Stalin. Apparently, the Poles were offered either a subway or the Palace, but it was made known that Stalin’s preference was for the Palace. The joke at the time was that Stalin acted like God when he created Adam and Eve. God told Adam that he could have any woman he wanted. Adam pointed out there was only one, and God beamed benignly. And so did Stalin. The ‘choice’ fell on the Palace.
The response to other buildings which are merely ugly, like the monument in Rome to Vittorio Emanuele, is tempered by time and toned down by familiarity, but the Palace of Culture and Science remains forever an offence. The central tower stretches upwards, tapering at the top to a mast with a ﬂashing, red warning light, while around it are clustered smaller versions of itself. But what is the warning? The architects were Soviet and seemingly incorporated into the design some elements of all previous architectural styles, but the result is a glowering, threatening reminder of the reality of brute power. When the communist regime ended, there were debates over whether the thing should be hauled down, like the statues of Lenin all over eastern Europe, but the grudging decision was that seeing it was there, it should be used to provide studios, workshops, art centres or anything. It is now losing its grand isolation as high-rise ofﬁce blocks, shopping malls and hotels from American chains spring up around it. But it is always horrendous.
There are no problems with contemporary Germans, but reminders of the past power of Germany are visible not merely in museums and plaques on walls, but in the very fabric of the city. Poland regards itself as a nation wounded by history, and War-saw’s many monuments and plaques convey a vision of a race of heroes and martyrs, all from times when Poland’s nationhood was under threat. The most moving monuments refer to the two Warsaw Uprisings against the Nazi occupiers, the revolt by the Jews in the ghetto in 1943 and the rising by the city itself in 1944. Virtually nothing remains of the ghetto as it was, since the people were killed or deported and the buildings destroyed one by one by the Germans. A tiny part of the wall built by the Nazis round the ghetto area is still standing with the obligatory plaque. The boundaries of the ghetto were tightened as the Germans restricted the area available to the Jews and made the food rations lower. After the war the ghetto area was used for the house-building programme, but the city authorities are now moving to commemorate the Jewish presence which may have amounted to 30% of the pre-war population. One street, Prozna Street, somehow survived and is now being restored and nearby a museum to Jewish Poland is under construction.
When a year later, the city rose against the Nazi occupiers, the Soviet army was already in the Praga suburb, but they declined to move across the river to the aid of the insurgents, allowing the Nazis to do the work of eliminating all sources of opposition. Perhaps the rising was really as much against the Russians as against the Germans, since there was no willingness to move from Nazi to Soviet domination. The young historian Piotr Podemski puts it neatly by saying it ‘was militarily against the Germans and politically against the Soviets’.
The ﬁghting was expected to last a couple of days before the Soviets arrived, but lasted instead almost two months. In reprisal, the Germans destroyed the city, with the result was that perhaps 90 per cent of the city was left in ruins. After the war the Polish authorities took one of the most astonishing of all decisions, to rebuild the Warsaw as it had been. They even used the urban scenes painted by Bernardo Bellotto, the 18th century Venetian painter at the royal court, to ensure total ﬁdelity. Ryszard Stemplowski, a man of deep culture and malicious wit as well as ﬁrst Polish ambassador to London after the restoration of democracy, savours the paradox that it was the communist PM, Edward Gierek, who oversaw the rebuilding of the Royal Castle.
The rebuilding programme means that the visitor to the gothic cathedral, to neoclassical halls in the University, to baroque churches or even to the 19th century church of St Michael the Archangel, itself built as an early protest against the Russiﬁcation of the country and the spread of Orthodox churches, are not seeing the originals but carefully planned reconstructions. The philosophy behind this project was that the history in stone should not be lost lest a sense of national identity be damaged. That rosebud is more than Polish.