The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

A walk around the former GhettoPosted on 28th September, 2009.


A little way along Sienna Street, we stop at a locked gate and with the help of a passing resident, are let through into a private courtyard. It must be accessible sometimes, as there is a tourist information office down some steps in the basement (which is closed). The stretch of ghetto wall – one of two remaining fragments – stands between the backs of two pre-war buildings. It doesn’t seem particularly high or sturdy, today just an old wall in an old courtyard, but it was a sturdy enough concept then to enclose and entrap over 400,000 Jews. The red bricks are crumbling and some have been removed to provide a shelf for candles. Above the wall, a few minutes walk away, stands the ever present Palace of Culture.

But let’s start at Plac Grzybowski…
We began our walk at Menora, a Jewish restaurant on the corner of Plac Grzybowski, with a traditional lunch, waiting for the rainstorm to pass. We also start with ‘Jankielówka’ – which is a mixture of wódka Soplica, miód, sok cytrynowy and anyż.

On one side of Plac Grzybowski is Teatr Żydowski, a Jewish theatre, and on the other, All Saints’ Church. In the cellar of the church there was, until quite recently, a bookstore which sold anti-Semitic and nationalist literature. The patch of grass between the church and the theatre was intended to be the site of a monument of the victims of the Volhynia massacres (Poles who were murdered by the Ukrainians in 1942-1944). In this space last year, an artist created a very different kind of sculpture. Joanna Rajkowska created an artificial pond here, which generated a cloud of oxygen enriched air  – literally, a breathing space. Dotleniacz (Oxygenator) was planned for one summer, and dismantled, but due to popular demand from local residents may become a permanent feature in the redevelopment of the area.


Nearby Próżna Street has some of the original buildings, and gives a sense of what it was like pre-war. Mostly the windows are boarded up, and images of former inhabitants have been hung on the wall. Closer to the main road, Marszałkowska, they are inhabited, and you will find popular café, Próżna.

Looking at a map, which shows the extent of the wall, we consider some of the facts. In November 1940, the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was sealed off with this barrier, constructed in a few months, using forced labour, by the firm Schmidt & Münstermann – who also helped build the Treblinka death camp. The Jewish community were then charged for its construction. The ghetto wall was 3 – 3.5 metres high, topped by glass and barbed wire.


The Nazis didn’t call it a ghetto, they called it the Jewish quarter – Jüdischer Wohnbezirk. To establish the quarter, around 113,000 Poles had to vacate their homes, with the first 138,000 Jews taking their place. Some 30% of the population of Warsaw was squeezed into 2.4% of the city’s area. Many thousands of other Jews were brought here, taking the Ghetto population over 400,000. Over 100,000 of these died from hunger and disease, even before the Nazis began to send them to the death camps.

The former border of the Ghetto is partly marked out by bronze strips in the ground, tracing lost enclosed streets. There is one in the pavement outside the eastern façade of the Palace of Culture, or in the grass on the edge of Krasińskich Garden, a trace of the lost enclosed streets.

Take a tram along Aleja Jana Pawła II to Stawki Street, and walk in an easterly direction…
We pass a long line of white hand painted letters on one concrete wall which says: Every weekend 3000 drunken drivers, 50 of them go to God. We come to the Umschlagplatz memorial, a stone monument resembling an open freight car. On the northern boundary of the Ghetto, it was created in 1988 by architect Hanna Szmalenberg and sculptor Władysław Klamerus, and marks the point at which Jews were sent by train to Treblinka for extermination – a quarter of a million between July and September 1942. Across the road is a building which was the headquarters of the SS in control of the deportations. It is now part of Warsaw University, housing the Psychology Faculty.

Walk beyond this, and turn right down Stanisława Dubois street, past the post-war housing blocks… You will see one or two granite blocks with plaques in Polish and Hebrew, these are part of a Path of Remembrance commemorating various individuals from the Ghetto  – soon you will come to an open patch of ground, on the corner of Miła street, with a small raised mound. This is the remains of the Żob (Jewish Combat Organisation) command bunker during the Ghetto Uprising. ‘It is the place of rest of over one hundred fighters, only some of whom are known by name. Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.’


For some, this part of Warsaw has a peculiar spectral quality, with these not-quite-forgotten traces of the city lying beneath these wide streets and large apartment blocks built upon the ruins after the war. On Lewartowskiego Street, between the site of the bunker and the 1948 Ghetto Heroes monument, one friend attended primary school here in the 80’s.

I excelled in Biology, she said. On the wall, there were two cabinets full of jars of specimens and there were two skulls. One was artificially made for sure, all white and polished but the other one was beige with darkish grey stains. This one had been dug out of the school grounds long after the war. As the best pupil in Biology, I was asked to take out this skull from the cabinet and parade it to the other pupils, so they could have a closer look. I thought it was deeply wrong to keep it here, but no-one else seemed bothered.  When I told my Mom, she was not shocked. She just said, ‘Oh we used to play with such things all the time. We’d find things like that all the time round here.’ It seemed normal to her.

The Ghetto Heroes monument was built from blocks ordered by Hitler to be imported from Sweden to construct a victory monument. The work of Natan Rappaport (1911-1977), it was sculpted in Paris, where he was living at that time, on the one side shows heroic figures on the other a line of dejected deportees, an implicit criticism of those who did not resist. It was unveiled on the fifth anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, amidst the ruins. The open space here is designated for a new museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews, scheduled for completion in 2013, after more than a decade of fundraising and argument.

At the monument, she told me, there were always old people sitting enjoying the sunshine (as they are today). All the conversations seemed to be about the idea that the Jews were going to come back and take the land and we’ll all be evicted. This was always the conversation, that we are living on borrowed land, and so the idea of the construction of a Jewish Memorial Museum here was not popular. ‘If we give them the museum, then they will come back and want more,’ that’s what their view was. It is impossible to think differently if you live in Muranów. My family came from across the river, they were peasants, but rich enough as they had land where the national stadium is now. These apartments were part of a socialist construction project, built for factory workers, on the rubble of the Ghetto, quickly after the end of the war. My Grandfather worked for FSO (Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych – Factory of Passenger Cars) in Żerań, and so he got a flat here.

The old people still sit around the monument in the fading autumn sun. The open space is surrounded by building hoardings, which mark the extent of the future five-storey building. There was a ground-breaking ceremony in June, and the serious work is about to begin. A tourist bus arrives and a crowd disembark to take photographs. There is a stall selling souvenirs, books and information about the Ghetto and the history of Warsaw. There is, I notice, a snow globe which contains, in crude miniature, the ever present Palace of Culture.

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

I have been to Kraków several times. There always seems to be an event of some kind. Once a splendid Corpus Christi procession, another time a small fascist march and an anarchist demonstration in response, or a huge folk festival in the Rynek with most people in traditional costumes of the Tatra mountains.


I was also there on the memorable night of the Champions League final in Istanbul, when Liverpool played Milan, though finding a bar with live coverage was surprisingly difficult. In Warsaw this would not be a problem. Undoubtably there are fans in Kraków, supporters of Wisła or their arch rivals Cracovia, yet this city’s inhabitants perhaps see themselves as more urbane and sophisticated. By half time we found a bar with coverage of the match, but the exodus of English told us to not bother. It’s all over mate, they said, Forget it, they’re dead in the water. Milan are 3 up. So we went to a different bar and drank more vodka and forgot about it. Back at the hotel I switched on the TV to see how many goals Liverpool actually lost by, to find they had actually won the Cup on penalties after extra time. It was a Polish Match of the Day programme, and on the studio couch were a range of guests including Jerzy Dudek’s Mom (or maybe his Aunt), proudly wearing a Liverpool shirt, and they spent the next hour talking about how great Jerzy was. I hoped to see a replay of the goals, but all I saw were various images of our hero smiling, grimacing, sweating, shouting instructions, waving his hands, making a drop kick, throwing the ball, wobbling his knees, making the vital penalty saves – but never actually picking the ball out of his own net five times. The programme ended with a montage of these images to the soundtrack of the Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’.

I resisted the charms of Kraków for a long time. Everyone said, Yes, yes, you must go to beautiful Kraków, all the English do! I really try to avoid those notorious English binge drinkers but this weekend there are surprisingly few in evidence. I can now say I have taken in the views from Wawel Hill, and stood under the Pope’s window, and looked at the art nouveau murals and stained glass windows by Stanisław Wyspiański in the Franciszkanów Church, watched live re-enactments medieval knighthood in the Barbican fortification, ate passable tourist food on the Rynek, whiled a pleasant hour or two away at Cafe Camelot on ul. św. Tomasza (which has its own photo-gallery). I even considered taken a Crazy Communist Tour. I have also got lost in Galeria Krakowska, the huge new shopping complex (123,000-sq-metres) by the railway station.

The new shopping centre, seemingly open all hours, is a popular attraction, as some random comments posted on the Kraków Life web site reveal:

Conor, Ireland: I travelled to Poland recently and stay in the beautiful city of Krakow. Myself and my Polish girlfriend, Ilona, decided to shop in the Galeria and it was an amazing experience. Everything imaginable was there and even when I got tired (as men do) and Ilona had the energy to keep on shopping, I could relax in one of its bars, chill out and have a drink. This is a must for every shopping centre, specially for the guys.

Mariamii, Georgia: “I’m lovinnn it!!! it was great,everyone can find his/her Eldorado at Krakowskaaaa:x:x:x:x”


Tonight, after sushi and before the rain, we walk to the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, on the south side of the city centre. The thunderstorms rolled over the city,  a tremendous downpour that will last till morning. We sit quietly, with an espresso and vodka or two, in Alchemia again, a popular bar on a small square, warm, candlelit, atmospheric. A young woman floats through, selling roses. While it may be a good night for romance, no-one is buying from her. When eventually we leave, the rain is heavily tumbling down. Round the corner, on the next side street, a brightly lit new bar offers temporary protection. It’s like stepping into someone’s living room. We order some tea and a non-alcoholic mint cocktail.

The rain isn’t going to stop, but the air is balmy and we decide to walk across town. The gutters are overflowing with rainwater, our shoes are full of water, our clothes are soaked through. Her mascara ran, but her heart was warmed by her introduction to Wiśniówka cherry vodka. Walking on these outskirts of the sodden old town, in tree-lined lanes, there is no-one about. No trams and very few taxis. Silence except for the dripping rain. The walls of the old Barbican stand forlorn in the yellow sodium light, devoid of tourists.

Sunday in Nowa HutaPosted on 11th September, 2009.

This is the second only ark in the world, he said. He explained the symbolism, the seven entrances and seven steps, related to the seven sacraments and seven blessings of the Holy Spirit. The floor is dark,
green and black, like the turbulent waters of the flood. See how the altar
is shaped like an outstretched hand?
He shrugged, If the priest does not
use his hands it is not a mass, it is only a performance
. The outer wall of
the church is a huge curve, made from small stones, 2 million or more carried here by the people to help build this ark.

Here are the stones which lay on the river bed for thousands of years, he says. Brought her a handful at a time. This church is a contemporary ark
to protect the people from the flood of immorality. I was there at the beginning. I wrote a book about the building of the church. I am sorry
but there are no copies left in English. There may be some copies available in German somewhere.


When he approached me, I was looking at the mural painting of the Stations of the Cross, which stretches along an entire wall. It also represents the story of the Polish nation from the 19th century, from the time the country was partitioned between three powers and through to the wars of the 20th century. I was paying close attention to a peasant figure fallen down in a stupor, not in shock from the cruelties being heaped upon Christ as he passes, but because of too much vodka.  People from all over the world donated items to the church, he said. There is a crystal of rutile in the Tabernacle, brought from the Moon to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, and the statue of Mary is made from bullets removed from wounded Polish soldiers at the Battle of Monte Cassino.


In 1949, the Soviets decided to build a new town on the outskirts of Krakow. It would be called Nowa Huta, literally New Foundry, filled with huge apartment complexes and metalworks.  The inhabitants would be as metalożercy (metal-eaters), who would help transform Poland’s feudal and peasant culture into a Marxist and proletarian utopia, of which iron and steel were the vital ingredients. It was also to be a city without God – no churches were to be built here. But after years of protest, officials finally gave a permission to build a church, with the proviso that no machines and tools would be given to construct it. So, in 1967 building of the Arka Pana Church began by hand. It took ten years, the river stones for the front elevation, pieces of wood joined without nails, even jewellery donated to guild the crown on the cross. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła consecrated the church in 1977, but it remained a contested site. During Martial Law, it was the focus of many protests and civil disturbances.


The tram travelled from the centre of Krakow through the eastern suburbs of the city towards Nowa Huta.  We passed some crumbling concrete blocks, next to some newer ones which had the incongruous addition of fairy-tale turrets. These have practical purpose – open to the air, there are lines of washing drying in the high breeze.

As we approach Nowa Huta, I have a memory – almost a folk memory it seems so long ago – of an old decaying, blackened foundry in Moxley in the West Midlands of England. Johnny Russell and me sometimes walked up to the foundry to take lunch to his Father (lunch being a little after 10.30 am). We carried a package of cheese and pickled onion sandwiches on white bread, a bottle of beer and a bottle of dandelion and burdock.  Sometimes we took bread and dripping. Our next door neighbours, Mr Russell was one of many generations of tough hard men who laboured there by day and night, producing iron and steel.  We would wait for him to emerge from a darkened entrance, a figure of Herculean proportions, sweating, stripped to the waist. You could taste metal in the air. Even the air outside the foundry was overheated, surging from the melting-pots of the furnaces within.

Elihu Burritt, writing in 1868 of the industrialisation of the landscape he saw in the Black Country, said that nature was ‘scourged with cat-o’-nine tails of red-hot wire, and marred and scarred and fretted and smoked half to death day and night, year and year, even on Sundays’. One noticeable thing about Nowa Huta, despite the colossal steelworks, is the wide open views of the country from Central Square, and the number of parks and open spaces.


The Vladimir Lenin steelworks here was the largest in Poland, employing nearly 40,000 workers. Once a source of indiscriminate environmental pollution as well as a bastion of anti-communist dissent, the works operate today on a reduced scale, with 9,000 workers. It sits now within the warm embrace of global capitalism, as part of the ArcelorMittal group.

The blocks of Nowa Huta were simply designated as C-3, B-3, A-4 and so on, though inhabitants created their own nicknames. The statue of Lenin has long gone, avenues have been renamed after Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan and General Władysław Anders. Outside the local cultural centre is a free-standing exhibition of black and white photographs chronicling this story of Nowa Huta. On this lazy Sunday morning, the sun shining, the wind blowing, the trams rattling by, and no-one else looking at this old history.

September 1st, 1939Posted on 1st September, 2009.

Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering a world war. From the beginning, the conflict introduced an indiscriminate form of industrialised warfare, targeting military and civilians alike. In Warsaw, a huge banner adorns the façade of the Palace of Culture facing the Gallerie Centrum shopping centre. It features a painted image of a 1939 Polish soldier in heroic profile, with one blood red word above his head – HONOR. Red drips are splattered down the image.

National flags fly from the bumpers of trams and buses as they criss-cross the city. Large red and white banners are draped from tall buildings. Flags hang limply from the corners of many buildings. Only at Filtry waterworks, at the top of a redbrick tower, can you can see a flag fully catching the wind.

Outside the entrance to the central Metro, where there was recently a temporary shrine to Michael Jackson, men have worked through the night hours to weld together a structure for a temporary exhibition, large scale photographs and text with multimedia panels that chronicle those first weeks of the ‘blitzkreig’ on Polish soil, and the bravery of the defending soldiers. A stage managed attack by Nazi troops disguised as ‘Silesian rebels’ on a German radio station at Gliwice, a few kilometres from the then existing Polish border, gave Hitler the pretext to launch his attack. The radio station in Gliwice, which became part of Poland in 1945, is something of a tourist attraction. It is the only wooden radio tower left in the world (made of larch) and at 110 metres, is also said to be the tallest remaining wooden construction in the world.

The views and prejudices of my fathers’ generation were shaped by this single event. His older brother went into the British Army and fought in North Africa. He was left behind, in a Staffordshire coal-mining village with a younger sister and infirm mother to look after. He left school and worked in a shoe shop, and joined the Air Training Corps in preparation for what may come. He didn’t like the Germans and he didn’t like the Americans, though he was enamoured with both the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the films of John Ford. On the BBC, he liked to watch Dad’s Army, a 1960’s sitcom about the Home Guard and ‘Allo ‘Allo, a 1980’s comedy parody about the French Resistance. He collected hundreds and hundreds of books about the Second World War, and admired the romanticism and gallantry of the Polish airmen who helped win the Battle of Britain. In many ways, for him life became fixed at this point. There was little of interest afterwards.

Though long associated with the Anglo-Polish Society of the West Midlands, he never visited Poland, and I doubt he would like the heat of this day, with only a dull intermittent breeze drawing breath. Though he would enjoy looking at the tanks from the time period, on display up outside the Presidential Palace, and no doubt would pose for a photograph on this spot as many other people are. Then he would walk over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, where his views of Polish heroism and stoicism in the face of impossible odds would be reinforced. And I expect he would have a vodka, which was always his drink of choice.

(More musings on Anglo-Polish connections in this short essay, We are not Polishdownloadable from this link.…)