Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz described Warsaw during World War II as “the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe.” Poland’s tormented past continues to shape foreign perception of the country. On the map, Warsaw is more or less equidistant from Lisbon and the Ural Mountains, and from Catania and northern parts of Scandinavia; in other words, it is nearly in the very geographical center of Europe. As a cultural and historical entity, however, it is still viewed by many as part of Eastern Europe, one of the survivors of Soviet occupation still recovering from their troubled pasts. To Stalin, Poland may have been the beginning of the West, but to many in the West, it is still the beginning of the East.
I’ve visited Poland seven or eight times since 2008. Given the choice between returning to somewhere I’ve visited before or traveling to some place new, I nearly always prefer somewhere new, but Poland is unique for me: I was born there and lived there as a child. After leaving in 1984, I didn’t return for over two decades, but in the last two years, I’ve come back on a regular basis. Poland is no longer home, and probably never will be again, but it is not someplace foreign, either—it lingers between the antipodes of home and somewhere else.
The bulk of these photos are from Warsaw, where I lived, although some are from the countryside, too, and from other Polish cities. City and country have both (obviously) changed in the last quarter of a century. When I returned for the first time, the cab driver proudly told me that Warsaw is beautiful now. It was nearly midnight, so I had to wait until the next day to see the changes he had in mind. The city’s façade had, indeed, been altered, but the changes weren’t as striking or as widespread as I had expected. The global symbols of at least superficial integration into the global economy—McDonald’s and Starbucks—were there (incongruous amid the communist architecture), as well as other indicia of change: supercar dealerships, global hotel chains, and, less conspicuous, a Chinese food kiosk at a bus terminal with Chinese staff who spoke rudimentary Polish. There are, in other words, plenty of signs that Poland is no longer part of a self-contained, anti-Western, repressive Soviet regime. But there are many more signs of continuity with the past than there are markers of change. It is impossible to walk through Warsaw for more than half an hour without being reminded of the major themes of its past, whether it be communism, World War II, or the medieval Catholic Church. The Palace of Culture and Science, for example, the “gift” forcibly bestowed upon Poland by the USSR in the 1950s to demonstrate Soviet benevolence—in reality, a gesture more akin to cattle branding than generosity—still stands in the center of the city, a domineering architectural reminder of Soviet occupation (Poland is not alone in this: a very similar building still stands in Latvia’s capital, for example). Memorials to those who died during World War II, some of them grandiose and others mere placards on buildings, are dispersed throughout the city. Churches have a commanding presence and regular attendees, and priests and nuns walk the streets in numbers exceeded only by their brothers and sisters in Rome. And although sushi bars and Mexican restaurants are common, Polish cuisine has not been replaced by any of the newcomers: restaurants serving traditional Polish food are easy to find and are never short on patrons. In sum, the ratio of new to old favors the old, and the older aspects of the country dominate the scattered changes.
The most evident break with the past, at least the past I remember, is not in architecture at all, but in outlook and in attitude. Older folks, those who lived through World War II, are still marked by incurable seriousness and sumptuary sensibilities brought on by years of horror, suffering and deprivation. But the more distance from communism or World War II, the more lightness—joy, to adopt Ivan Ilych’s formula for quantifying happiness, seems to exist in ratio to the square of the distance from national catastrophe—and it’s very evident that the younger generations live in a happier, lighter and freer world than the world of their grandparents. Indeed, in temperament, Poland’s youth appears to have far more in common with their counterparts in other parts of the world than they do with their elders in Poland: virtually everyone speaks English and follows American trends in music, television, movies and designer clothing. And the interiors of the otherwise unyielding communist architecture have accommodated this new lifestyle; the Palace of Culture, for example, is now home to a large drinking hall, where twenty-somethings kick back with beers and good-naturedly engage in philosophic debates about a range of diverse topics (including that critical subject one would rarely discuss in the open during communist rule: politics). When I was in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, having a beer at a local bar, one of the natives told me that young people in Hong Kong like to keep their minds sharp and challenge themselves and each other. The same, I think, is true about Poland; critical thought and lively debate are wholeheartedly practiced at local pubs amid heavy swirls of second-hand smoke (at least in those bars that still allow you to smoke—Poland recently took up the anti-smoking torch along with the rest of Europe and banned indoor smoking). There is, in short, a general sense of openness and optimism, and justifiably so: via its uniquely bloodless revolution of 1989, Poland emerged from the Soviet era a success story, with a present-day growing economy (the biggest in central Europe, and the only in the EU to grow during the recent crisis), and a sense of enthusiasm about the future—including the anticipation of hosting the 2012 EUFA European Football Championship tournament in Warsaw’s brand new soccer stadium.
I’ve gone back mostly in winter and late autumn, which may seem like a perverse time to visit, given the cold and snowy weather conditions (and shorter days), but it’s precisely because the tenacious grip of winter defines life in this country for so many months out of each year that I feel most in Poland during the cold season. The first few times I returned, I was predictably overwhelmed by being back after such a long period. I retraced childhood itineraries, visited my old elementary school, and lamented the fact that an old bakery where as a child I used to buy fresh, hot bread (a habit that created a lifelong love of fresh sourdough) had been replaced by a store that carries high-end clothing lines. Over time, though, I stopped superimposing memories over the present day and started to see the country as it is now. What interests me about Poland, at least as a photographer, are the same themes that interest me in the US, or elsewhere—the people and the rich texture of daily life, manifest in individual moments, some of which are collected in this small set of photographs.
– Paul Szynol
You can see more of Paul’s work on his website, http://www.paulszynol.com/.