The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

rozumiesz?Posted on 20th July, 2011.

She came from Silesia. On one side of her family, her Grandfather was German. He ran away from the Wehrmacht and stayed on the other side of the border when the war came to an end. He lost his citizenship because of this and could not go back. In these corners of Europe, where the muddled roots of Poles, German, Czechs and Austro-Hungarians might be found, nothing is simple. Old enmities and traditions linger. She told us she went to German studies in Krakow and all her friends there in that city said to her, Why do you want to learn German, you’re a Pole aren’t you? She told us, But Silesia is different. In Silesia they don’t feel Polish or German. They’re Silesian and it’s specific. She explained it’s more like the feeling of being a Basque or being a Catalan. She lives in Berlin now. I have a German boyfriend too. Who knows what those friends will make of this? They’ll say to me, Are you mad? You want a German baby?

I was reminded of a book by Olga Tokarczuk, which is set in Nowa Ruda, in Lower Silesia. ‘House of Day, House of Night’ is a series of interlinked stories about the inhabitants of this place, in the present and the past, their mysteries and mythologies, dreams and hopes, those Germans who were expelled from this area at the end of World War Two and the displaced Poles who arrive to take over the farms and cottages.

She writes: “The Poles eyed the Germans’ habits with suspicion – how strangely they ate! For breakfast they had a sort of milky soup, for dinner jacket potatoes and some cheese and butter, and on Sundays they killed a rabbit or some pigeons and made barley soup. For their second course they inevitably had noodles, then stewed fruit. The men went to the barns to inspect the Germans’ farm machines, but they didn’t know what they were for or how they worked. They’d squat outside arguing about it and drinking their home-made vodka – that usually went on until evening. Finally someone would fetch an accordion, the women would come and the dancing would begin. They turned that first summer into one long Polish holiday. Some of them were never sober. They just felt glad they had survived and had reached a destination somewhere, anywhere.”

Our land, our territory, our home, our identity examined through these gently undulating and overlapping tales – here you will meet a monk who finds himself undergoing a strange transformation as he investigates the life of a potential saint, or an old woman picking camomile who believes that ‘people are like the ground they live on, whether they like it or not, whether they are aware of it or not’. There is another character who foresees and patiently waits for the end of the world, a classics scholar who turns into a werewolf and our narrator, who shares dreams collected on the internet.

Thinking of this, I pulled out and old interview with a member of the Anglo-Polish Society who had arrived in Britain (coming from Holland) in 1950. Her abiding memory of England at that time was that it was dirty, black and bleak and all she ate for weeks was greasy sausage rolls. She came to work in a carpet factory in Inskip, Lancashire, alongside Italian girls. Then she was sent to work in Wolverhampton, where there were Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and Ukrainians, all waiting for the borders of Europe to be reassembled to determine where their ‘home’ might be.

Here are some of her words: Where I come from, in the Bohemia forest, we have been displaced according to the Yalta agreement. We had to move – because I come from inside of Czechoslovakia, which used to be Austria-Hungary on the border. So we were just these people who was just cut off and who were shifted to the other side. On the continent the frontiers were very elastic you know, they go backwards and forwards. So somehow they didn’t know what to do with us really. I mean the older people they just stuck somewhere with some farmer or somewhere near the border. But with the young people they didn’t know what to do with them. I mean especially my age – we were just teenagers and during the whole, after the war it was only in the 1950 when the whole thing started to get better.

My husband was Polish. We met here in England. Absolutely unbelievable! You wouldn’t have thought we had anything in common would you? But where my husband came from was near Kraków and that used to be Austrian crown colony too. The great-grandfathers of my children were both in the First World War fighting for the Austrians.  My grandfather died in Sarajevo at the beginning of that war. What have we got in common is that culture we grew up in, the houses were more or less the same and the equipment in those years gone by. But they don’t know quite how to take me, you know. Because I am not Polish, because I speak German. I can’t say that I am Polish so there’s no use I am saying that I am Polish. I wouldn’t want to be Polish anyway, if I had a choice you know. I get on well with Polish people – very well – but you must know them and understand the way they feel. Let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t want them to tread on my toes and I don’t tread and theirs.

goodbye, golden autumnPosted on 2nd October, 2009.


The rain that started in the mountains has moved west. The fabled golden Polish autumn is fast disappearing into winter twilight. People move from their tables on the sidewalk. The waitress seems a little bored and sharp. Yes, what do you want!

Death of a virgin, I suggest, which I saw scrawled on a blackboard earlier in the day. That’s a mix of vodka,  peach liqueur,  lemon juice, orange juice and 7up. Originally price: 17 zlotis, but now on offer for 14.

A rickety train from Katowice brought us here, to Gliwice. “Please, the visual boards are not working so please pay attention to the announcements.” That is the only clear announcement, the others are lost in static and feedback. Is it such a problem to put in proper speakers, so you can hear what is said? I assure her that we have the same speakers on railway stations in England. The passengers ask each other if this is the correct train on the correct platform. We nod at each other nervously and get on board.

This part of Silesia has much in common with the industrial West Midlands of yesteryear, large empty red brick factories, old mines and some still working. Coal and steel, mines and mills, dirty and stained concrete train stations, overloaded with graffiti. At the station in Katowice, there are billboards which declare forthcoming improvements, and indeed the area around the rail terminal needs particular improvement. On the platform, pasted in random places are several sheets of photocopied notices for missing people with basic information and a photo: 38 year old male, 31 year old male, 19 year old male. One has no photo, and minimal information – simply the name, then Female, height 160 cm, fair hair and the date she was last seen. It seems infinitely sad and hopeless.

Elsewhere, there are new shopping malls – some with large cracks, as a taxi driver tells us, What did they expect? Everything around here subsides! They didn’t pour enough concrete, he says, they built it on the cheap. It’s always the same. There are green spaces and old plazas with Soviet war memorials surrounded by high rises in poor condition. Katowice lies in the centre of the largest conurbation in Poland and is one of the largest in the European Union, with a population of 2.7 million. So far, I have seen more drunkards here and street beggars than anywhere else in Poland.


In 1953 Katowice was renamed Stalinogród, but this was never popular, and the historic name was restored in 1956. One building that you can’t help but notice is the Spodek concert hall, dating from 1971, built in a flying saucer shape. I have lost track of the number of times people have told me that they saw Depeche Mode here. It seems the city is re-orientating itself through festivals and events. This summer, Katowice hosted the Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival, in the grounds of a former coal mine, within walking distance of the town centre. There are blues festivals, metal festivals and beer festivals.


In Gliwice, one of the adjacent cities, there are a lot of alcohol shops, pretty Austro-Hungarian era buildings, many large and empty, small parks and a well-kept rynek. On the pavement, a man turns cobs of sweetcorn in a frying pan on a gas stove, offering it for sale. Wander a little way from this centre and you will find unkempt but impressive buildings, old wooden doors ajar with dusty corridors with metal staircases, geometric patterns cut out of each step, casting curious shadows along the hallway. Smoky dark exteriors, leading to abandoned courtyards, but the windows and window frames are sparkling clean. This is a feature of Silesia, she tells me, because of the coal dust in the air, they keep their windows clean. It is a source of pride.


Tonight, I feel I should be listening to Pola Negri (who was born with the equally wonderful name of Apolonia Chałupiec) singing Ich Hab an Dich Gedacht, but instead in this bar they play Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo, followed by Pink Floyd. Ah, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, she tells me, My Dad played them all the time. He had a wooden ruler from school that he’d kept with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin inked into it. A generation later, she went to see Roger Waters solo concert in Warsaw, but in her opinion he murdered his own songs. She also went to see Madonna, whose first Polish concert was in August – on the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. She was unperturbed by the protests from conservative Catholics, some of whom claimed the singer was a ‘crypto-Satanist’ while others held prayers to stop the concert. But God help anyone who inks her name into a ruler.

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.…)