Poland from the perspective of a young, goofball Brit

I dug deep into my Polish ethnic heritage during my prodigal “season” away from the Lord, which I documented here, and I like to occasionally read something about the “old country,” which recently led me to…

A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland
By Ben Aitken
Icon Books Ltd, 2019, 306 pages.

4 Stars

Few people think of Poland as a vacation destination, hence the dearth of travelogues devoted to that country. The idea for this book came about due to some unique circumstances. First, some background:

Poland and the U.K. have a unique relationship. When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded and co-partitioned Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II, the Polish government established itself in-exile, first in Paris and then in London. Polish expatriates and refugees continued to flock to England throughout the war and also afterwards when Poland was trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Poland regained its independence in 1989, but the transformation to a market economy was arduous. Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and thousands of Poles immediately began flocking to the U.K. for economic opportunities not available in their own country. There were 90,000 Poles living in the U.K. in 2004, but by 2016 the Polish immigrant population had skyrocketed to 900,000. This heavy influx of Poles sparked resentment among the Brits, contributing to demands by a sizable percentage of the citizenry for the U.K. to exit the E.U.

At the height of the controversy, young British writer, Ben Aitken, wanted to get some perspective on these Polish immigrants so he journeyed to Poland in early-2016 for a one-year stay to acquaint himself with the country and its people. His home-base was the city of Poznań, but during his stay he also made expeditionary trips to Katowice, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Oswiecim, Sopot, Łódź, Lublin, Jelenia Gora-Karpacz, Konin, Krakow, Piwniczna-Zdrój, and Ełk.

Shortly after his arrival, Aitken took an entry-level job peeling potatoes at an English-themed fish and chips restaurant in Poznań and gradually learned some basic language skills and acquired some Polish friends, including a romantic relationship that never quite got off the ground. In describing his journeys throughout Poland, the author makes many interesting observations in regards to the country’s cuisine, history, politics, geography, economy, customs, religion, language, traditions, etc., all told with a good degree of extra-dry British humor. The description of his challenging stay in the mountain town of Piwniczna-Zdrój is especially comical. One criticism is that Aitken devotes an inordinate amount of attention to his frequent visits to the local Polish pubs. While some of Aitken’s youthful antics are funny, I would have preferred a more mature perspective. Ultimately, any non-Christian worldview is going to be unsatisfying for a believer.

During the course of Aitken’s stay, the Brits voted to leave the EU and the Brexit disentanglement continues to drag on. In response to the political uncertainty of the situation, about 100,000 Poles have returned to Poland from the U.K. since this book was written.

I enjoyed “A Chip Shop in Poznań” and I’m glad I stumbled across it, but I’m hoping for a better Poland travelogue in the future.

TIP: The Google Earth app is very helpful while reading a book like this to get a bird’s-eye view of the locations that are mentioned.

 

Accommodations – (a) lodgings and (b) compromises – in Poland

Accommodations
By Wioletta Greg
Transit Books, 2019, 191 pp.

5 Stars

When I took my dumb, long prodigal journey from the Lord, I attempted to fill the gaping vacuum with something, so I immersed myself deeply into my Polish culture/heritage, which I’ve described previously (see here). I returned to the Lord six years ago, but I still like to occasionally check out Polish stuff and I recently stumbled across this new autobiographical novel from a Polish author in our library’s catalog.

Plot

It’s 1994 and Polish society is still digging out from under 44-years of Soviet domination and repression and must endure the painful transition to a market economy. Despite the new political freedoms, many Poles are still consumed with the hardships of the past. Wioletta moves from the small village of Hektary in southern Poland to the nearby city of Częstochowa to study literature in college. Unable to secure a dorm, she is forced to live at a workers’ hostel with a collection of “misfits.”  The circumstances at the hostel disintegrate into chaos and Wioletta is forced to move into a room at a nearby convent. The mother superior is slipping into dementia and confuses Wioletta with a girl from her long-ago past. In a game of accommodating self-interest, Wioletta begins playing the part and barely escapes with her life. But after securing other accommodations, life gets no easier. Throughout this three-year ordeal, Wioletta must constantly navigate through unstable relationships and challenging, difficult circumstances. Her story is an allegory for post-Soviet Poland and Poles.

Comments

I write pretty much every day for this blog, but I’m under no pretension that I am a “good” writer in the artistic/creative sense. Ms. Greg’s (nee Grzegorzewska) writing on the other hand is sheer poetic delight. Some of the credit must also go to able translator, Jennifer Croft. I don’t read much fiction, but when the writer is a gifted artist, it can be quite a ride. This is a melancholy tale, but such is the story of Poland’s struggles. Because of my prior immersion in Polish culture, I felt right at home walking the streets of Częstochowa, so ably and richly described in this novel. The imposing Roman Catholic monastery/citadel of Jasna Góra (“Bright Hill”) looms over the city (as well as the nation) and the sensibilities of its inhabitants, but it’s a false hope and deep down, the people know it.

Capture130
Above: The imposing monastery/citadel of Jasna Góra and the false gospel it represents towers over the city of Częstochowa and the Polish nation.

Postscript: This library book still sits at home. When I went to our local library branch on March 17th to return the book, a sign on the door said it was closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hunting the “Christ-killers” in Catholic Poland

We’ve seen several instances of murderous anti-Semitism here in America in the last eight months. Anti-Semitism has a very long legacy and, sadly, was perpetuated by institutional (c)hristianity for sixteen-hundred years. Also, sad to say, we see contemporary examples of people claiming to be born-again believers spewing anti-Jewish hatred. For this post, I’m going to focus on just one example of historical anti-Semitism.

Recently, brother Wally has been posting a series of devotions based on the Book of Esther. Good stuff. See here for just one example. Anyway, the series got me to thinking back about something I stumbled upon many years ago. Not to beat a dead horse, but when I become frustrated with “churchianity” back in the 90s and walked away from the Lord for a long “season,” I had to fill my spiritual vacuum with something, so I poured myself into studying Polish history and culture (I’m 50% Polish) and eventually concentrated on the controversial history of Polish-Jewish relations, which might be better referred to as Polish-Jewish “non-relations.”

We’re going to get to the Esther connection, but first, some background. Back in the Middle Ages, Jews were having a very rough time in Western Europe. They were routinely persecuted (pogroms, forced baptisms, ghetto quarantines, etc.) and even driven out of Catholic kingdoms whenever the intolerance peaked. Whereas other kingdoms had a developing merchant/burgher class, Polish society largely consisted of the nobility and the peasantry. Consequently, Polish monarchs began welcoming Jews to Poland beginning in the 13th century because of the expertise of some in the financial/merchant spheres. Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz in 1264 which granted unprecedented liberties to Jews, resulting in Jews from all over Europe flocking to Poland. Subsequent monarchs continued the relatively magnanimous treatment of Jews (it should be noted that at the beginning of World War II, half of Europe’s six-million Jews resided in Poland, making up ten percent of that nation’s population).

However, the influx of Jews into Poland was not without problems. The Polish nobility often appointed Jews as their financial middlemen (i.e., landlords, innkeepers, moneylenders, commercial agents, etc.) and the Polish peasantry increasingly resented these “foreigners” lording it over them. Stoking the resentment were the priests and prelates of the Polish Catholic church, who regularly railed against the Jewish “outsiders” as the “Christ killers.” Myths of Jews abducting Catholic children and using their blood in the manufacture of Matzah bread (aka “blood libel,” see here) were widespread and accepted as factual.

Okay, with that tense historical background in mind, we’ll cut to our Book of Esther connection. The Jewish communities in Poland regularly celebrated “Purim” (Hebrew, meaning: “lots” as in “casting lots”), a festival occurring in early-March, which commemorated the saving of the Jewish people from Haman as recorded in the Book of Esther. As part of the celebration, some Jews would reenact the story of Esther with an effigy of Haman being hung at the conclusion. The Polish Catholic clergy and peasantry did not take kindly to this reenactment. They interpreted the hanging of the Haman figure as a provocation against Gentiles and the Catholic church. In retaliation, as part of the annual Easter ritual, Poles across the kingdom would fashion a figurine with stereotypical Jewish physical features and clothing and hang it in the town square and subsequently burn it. The figure was meant to represent Judas, the betrayer of Christ, but on a broader scale, it also symbolized the hated Jewish “Christ killers.” The excitement rarely failed to whip Polish crowds into a frenzy of hatred and they would scour Jewish neighborhoods looking for victims. Polish Jews barricaded their doors and windows during the Easter celebration.

In the future, we’ll take a look at several other examples of Polish anti-Semitism, but without the lengthy historical introduction featured in this post. Below are some recent news headlines that underscore the continuing popularity of anti-Semitism in Poland, even though almost all of Poland’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust:

Polish Town Celebrates Easter with Anti-Semitic Effigy
https://www.newsweek.com/anti-semitic-judas-effigy-satans-blamed-idiotic-pseudo-religious-chutzpah-1403445

Polish Bishop Delivers Thinly-veiled anti-Semitic Sermon
https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/polish-bishop-insinuates-jews-attempted-to-divide-and-slander-the-catholic-church-1.7195027