Polin, Polin…you sound like a nice place to live.

There’s no such song yet the tune about Polin has been circling in my head since February. What do you do with the kids on a 5th day of your trip to wintery Warsaw? Visit a Museum of course! It is impossible to be in the capital and avoid a talk of Second World War, it is equally hard to talk about history of Poland without a mention of Jews.

Before the war, it is said, 80 per cent of the world Jews lived here. The coexistence, as legend has it, started in a forest where those fleeing the West due to persecutions (yes, this is not a typo) heard a voice saying ‘Po’ – (Hebrew for rest) and ‘lin’ (here). And thus the millennium long settlement began, or at least that’s what the Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews will tell you on their welcome page.

Generally, my kids only endure visits to museums to make me happy and I don’t know how long that will last as they progress into teenagehood. But Polin was far from an ‘enforced education’. Despite the utterly thorough security searches of bags and bodies for any weapons on the entrance, everything kind of changed by stepping into the ‘Dark Ages’. It was really this first interactive themed tour that enabled them to understand that European travelogues in those days were written by Arab scholars and realise that trade was made of spice jars and pelts of fur travelling thousands of miles on foot.

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On the giant screens and displays they saw Central European lands and cities changing names, kings, borders and people mingling from every direction. We saw cunning bishops using Jewish merchants as go-betweens, striking deals that were prohibited to Christian clergy, yet they benefited from them greatly. All kinds of myths have been exposed, most importantly, the fact that Jews hadn’t developed a ghettoed existence through choice but were forced to do so by rulers passing edicts about where they should live and what they should wear.

The moving screens and interactive quizzes showed my children more history than perhaps all the other museums we have visited in the past. The vividly painted Jewish altar salvaged from a Ukrainian synagogue will be well remembered for years to come.

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We were a larger group and those with smaller children took rest in a cafe after a couple of hours whilst my teenage daughter bravely continued into the 20th century. Listening to the audio guide, she cut me short when I approached her with no doubt a serious look on my face signalling ‘HOLOCAUST’. ‘Don’t worry Mum, I know what this is about’.

The Holocaust exhibition (if such a term can even be used) is the only part of the Museum which I still haven’t processed. And this is despite the fact that I was growing up with the father an amateur historian who befriended Alfred Wetzler, the man who escaped from Auswitz by digging an underground tunnel. There was a local connection, of course, we lived in Svaty Jur (Saint Georgen) and it was here, in the catholic church, where Alfred Wetzler reported the attrocities taking place in Auswitz to the Pope’s envoy.

And yes, Alfred Wetzler’s story was amongst the exhibits, albeit reduced to a single photo and an A4 sheet. Stories of others who had waited for their deaths in queues and cattle trucks were also reduced to a series of moving quotes, quirky facts and memorabilia capturing the inner thoughts of those approaching the Final Solution. It was at this point where making photos with your mobile just seemed perverse.

The most haunting moment though for me was a walk through the Ghetto bridge leading onto the simulated tramway journey where one could sit and observe, from its windows, a Police round up of up Jewish families. Elderly, vulnerable and children being questioned, herded and lined up with a pitiful amount of baggage whilst the passers-by were sitting inside. Would you look away? Would you get off and challenge in the occupied city where one could be shot for smuggling a loaf of bread?

It is not difficult to understand why the Ghetto Judenrat leader Adam Czerniakow committed suicide shortly after he realised that he was instrumental in supplying the Nazis with ‘healthy workforce’ heading to death camps. Perhaps he had hoped, in those first months of the Ghetto self-government, that being a good leader meant appeasement and cooperation with Nazis for the good of all. I am yet to read his diaries.

Zygmund Baumann, himself a Holocaust survivor, said ‘madness is no longer madness when shared’. And it must have been a mad bureaucratic system that created jobs for many people who thought it normal to play their role in identification, categorisation and annihilation of whole groups of human beings. Something to be always cautious about when working for any kind of large bureaucracy or corporation!

But do not be put off by my serious description of the Holocaust exhibition. If you are not in a mood for serious contemplation or choose to take your family and children through a particular tour, there’s plenty more to see and do with the kids, including fantastic examples of arts, prints and souvenirs or just having a great meal at the kosher bar.

Escape From Hell: The True Story Of The Auschwitz Protocol

http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/11187/Auschwitz-prisoner-who-escaped-to-help-save-120-000-Jews

http://www.polin.pl/pl

Blankets

Mustard and berry red,

washed out,
with a hole.

Wrapped around his torso,
broadcasted
to the world.

A beautiful face,
lethargic and
small.

His foot stirs,
the eyes are still,
his mouth makes no words.

The blanket’s on camera,
The subtitle’s CHOLERA.

Meanwhile, a tiger print in Aleppo. ..
Fluffier than the other one
its corners’ are lifted
with a bundle inside.
The tiger’s head scream –
two feet appear.

Somewhere else, a blanket like mine –
Chinese and acrylic.
There’s a woman inside.
Is she still alive?

The blankets call to each other
from house to house.
Rasp into rubbled streets,
out to chicken yards.

A symphony of blankets
green, brown and blue,
disguising the bones,
blood, vomit and dirt.

From TV to TV.
Hear them, see them,
Build a wigwam from them.

At 7.40am, here in Erdington,
when the kettle cooled and breakfast is done,
the TV is switched off and the blankets are gone.

Dancing passports

Two passports are bouncing off the sea bed,

touching each other.
In silent tango with lifted arms
the two are whirling, then stalling.
Border stamps fade in salty water,
pages saturated with hope and grief
forever opening and closing.

Meanwhile, 5 kilometres away
a woman is feeling her side pocket
looking at a man from the Sea Rescue.
He phones his wife:
“stuffed cabbage leaves gone cold”
but never mind.

Seagulls, wooden puppets
on invisible strings
circle the coast counting inflated arm bands.

Still, down below, bunches of sea weed
are resurrected.
Like spoilt teenagers,
their tentacles shimmer,
even in time of death they seek entertainment.

The storm is gone and Sun
casts a life line to the Sea…
but it’s too late.

Warsaw – from the ashes and bones to a beautiful skyline

Capital Art Apartments sounds like one of those companies that could be building luxurious flats in any metropolis. Not every metropolis had, however, managed to rise from the ashes quite like Warsaw after the Second World War.

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At the end of February 2017, I was about to become God-Mother for the second time, marvelling at tiny hands and feet of my sister’s second child. High up on the 17th floor of the spacious flat beautifully crafted by the Capital Art Apartments it is easy to forget that its kitchen, overseeing the neon-lit skyline, was once a ‘ window’ to one of the biggest massacres in modern history.

It was here in the district of Wola where the clouds overcast the intensive killing of about 50 thousand civilians by German forces. Wola was the epicentre of the Warsaw Uprising and every civilian was seen as a collaborator. In the end, only the St Augustine Church survived  – after all, it was an important logistical building for the German Army that happened to also store many Jewish valuables confiscated from the nearby ghetto.

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On the shelf stood a thick hardback book showing photos of Warsaw through the decades. When the kids went to sleep, I flicked through these, back and forth with no particular purpose other than feeling emotional and intrigued. My sister, who is not originally from Poland, admits that she knew very little about the district’s history until they moved into the area. When I probed a bit deeper she was reluctant to elaborate on the disturbing visions and dreams she experienced initially. Acutely aware of the local practice of house blessing, they too used their local Catholic priest to perform the ritual in the flat. Apparently for decades after the war, Wola was seen as a ghost town, not suitable for raising families.

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But times move on, people’s memories fade and sadly, not everyone really stops and reads all the war memorials that are dotted around Warsaw. The church where we Christened our little cousin was spacious and newly built not far from a wall where dozens of people were shot and died all those years ago. I remember the number of times I was reminded to put on an extra layer before going to church as a child but I still did not learn, surrounded by cold marble I was shivering my way towards the end of the baptism rite.

Quick February snow shower and then some brief rays of sunshine accompanied us back into the Capital Art complex, past a sushi bar, wine shop and a take-away where wide-shouldered women kneaded pierogi dough. A young woman speaking half-Polish and half-Ukrainian lost the keys to the apartment she was meant to clean and was now pleading the Security guard for help. Life in the modern city went on, in its own way, with hopes and dreams creating its own human fabric above the ashes and bones of the past.

Only our children were jumping carelessly about the baby pram, wanting to purposely wake up the 4 months’ old before the snow thawed. “Look, look it was snowing”, they chanted. “Just a well”, I thought, “they do not yet need to be reminded of the lessons from the history”.

Photos: courtesy of Gerald Nowak on bowshrine.com

 

At fog’s feet

Like snow that won’t thaw is your love

An iceberg I climb with my eyes
A distant land on TV
Just silence, silence, no subtitles.

A berry that carry blood is your kiss
Seeping into my lips and collar undone
Stopping at neck choking words
Kind, unkind, desperate words.

Future abandoned is our flat
A bare foundation on the fifth floor
With no windows or doors
But matts, plenty of dirty matts.

At fogs’ feet…
Heavy fog water clogs cemetery ground,
The tomb stones are forward facing
and she drives past asking her son to say timetable of six.

The author of ‘Liquid love’ Z. Bauman died aged 91

Feona Attwood, Professor in Cultural Studies, Communication and Media in the School of Media and Performing Arts, shares her interview with influential sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. Zygmunt Bauman, who has died, aged 91, is best known for his analyses of globalization, power and inequality and for his notion of ‘liquid modernity’: the contemporary state […]

via An interview with influential sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — Middlesex Minds

The lightness of being is truly unbearable

On 31 of January a man was nearly run over in a car park. He could not speak English, but lucky for him, a senior manager of a certain Black Country town cared enough to make sure he was ok. The manager fetched me quickly – the Russian speaking member of his team  -and pleaded anxiously- “tell him I am sorry and ask him if he needs anything”

From that moment onwards, Vladimir’s and my lives intertwined. He spoke to me about his political activity in Russia, how he used to be a good friend with late Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian anti-establishment journalist whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He spoke to me of the 1990s, the years full of hope, when he set up an independent newspaper in St. Petersburg, of his acquaintance with Vaclav Havel and Milos Zeman and many other dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe.

He drunk black tea and ate some toasts (he had to stay off cakes being recently diagnosed with diabetes). I helped him to polish his asylum case – which he found so difficult to put together as his English was very weak. I heard all about his substandard accommodation provided by G4S and of his unpleasant flatmates and of the humble £37 he gets very week to support himself of which he attempts to make some ‘savings’.

He told me of his time in exile in Germany, halted by Angela Merkel’s deal with Putin which meant repatriation of all political asylum-seekers back to Russia only recently. And of his difficult return to his homeland which brought nothing else but suspicion and stigma, followed by systematic persecution and bullying by local authorities, Police and courts, denying him pension and citizenship rights. I wondered, what it must take for someone to immigrate again, so late in life – in their 70s. How desperate one has to feel to fight for dignity and freedom after having failed so many times before.

It was another cold snap in Black Country, the Northerly wind was blowing, as they say on the news, with the dandruff type of snow falling all Friday. Vladimir spent the whole morning in a library and then came to see me. He asked if I could call his solicitor . It’s not my job – I could say, but he insisted. He had another appointment at Immigration Office, Leeds and wanted to make sure his paperwork was in order. He wanted his solicitor to accompany him.

I looked at him and he was not his usual self, I could tell, although I only knew him for a while. “You look a bit different”, I said, “your eyes are yellow and so is your face”. He complained of his stomach pain and lack of sleep, profuse sweating and many other ailments. But after a while, we brushed all this under the carpet, being concerned only with his case…we threw ourselves in further paperwork, considering his options.

Until about 4 o’clock when his state has deteriorated and I suggested to take him into an A&E. He resisted it and now I know it was because deep down he must have known. We reported at the reception and luckily the waiting room was relatively empty. The receptionist agreed with me that he was  “very jaundiced” and they took us in shortly. There were some women outside laughing – maybe because their suspected diagnoses turned out not to be so detrimental or they simply felt good about the Friday afternoon. We will never know….

The truth is…I had to leave Vladimir there on that Friday evening, barely managing to explain to the medics that he was suffering from a long list of digestive complaints, constipation including. After all, I had to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the highly acclaimed 7 Acts of Mercy, never mind I could barely perform only one of them…???

As my weekend progressed and I visited the Swan Theatre in Stratford, my first visit to a theatre in 10 years – my mind was wandering to Vladimir and that little corner in Manor Hospital where they took his bloods ( missing his vein entirely and making a proper mess of it).

Later on in the weekend, after the Sunday roast was cleaned up, the ironing was done and we even managed to talk to our relatives on Skype I had a phone call: “It’s pancreatic cancer”, Vladimir said with repeated hiccups. They said there was nothing they could do. I am kaput”, he concluded. “Could you just bring me the slippers and a laptop from my flat so I can at least watch some Russian movies”.

Silence…followed by silence and then some words of encouragement, instructing him to ask as many questions as possible, not to give up, query the diagnosis, consider the chemo or any other experimental treatment, further investigation, invite an Orthodox priest, contact his family and all the other things we hold on to when someone is faced with a terminal diagnosis.

The clock is ticking and I am wondering whether there are any Russian books in the Walsall Central library. If I should bring him some of mine – Dr. Zhivago may be a bit cliche but what about the Tolstoi’s autobiography I have? Would that be too boring? Or the Quite flows the Don – he may be fed up with all these classics. What movies does he want to see before he dies? Is there anything we can do for him not to die?

There’s some time left – one wonders what to make of it, how to wrap up an unfinished story that seeks justification. How to make sense of this ‘stranger, ‘a wondering soul’ that I have known for so short yet have known so deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A veiled woman

My veil with silver threads is lighting up my way

Not a migrant

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.

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A veiled woman

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.

The White, the non-White and the voiceless on Brexit

When you have just finished work, picked up your kids and gave instructions for homework, travelling to Digbeth on the tail of M38 traffic does not seem attractive. It was January 26th, the coldest day of the year so far, and ghost factories of inner city Birmingham felt unwelcoming until I reached the Impact Hub with its bright and optimistic spaces.

I must admit, it has been a while since I have attended an academic debate, there’s not been many in the last 10 years raising two children. Understanding Brexit – Inequality, Inclusion and Social Justice was worth it, I thought, after all, Brexit is what keeps me awake at night, worries my friends and clients and I am not even going to mention the Trump-effect. It’s the end of the world as we know it – at least since 1989.

I came a bit late and decided to camp on the carpet by the door as the room was completely packed. The Panel were already discussing the reasons why majority of people voted for Brexit whilst we (the audience that is) all know that Brexit could never possibly solve them. They discussed the migration statistics and various half-truths and lies told by the Brexiters. They went into a lot of depth explaining structural inequalities entrenched in racism since colonisation. They also talked about the rise of fascism, nationalism, xenophobia and white supremacy across the world. We were told by Kehinde Andrews that Britain has always pursued the ‘whiter the better’ model of citizenship.

I am looking around the room – and I wonder, whether I am the only one who thought the debate should also touch on social injustice and exclusion faced by newly settled migrants from very diverse communities – white and non-white who are all EU citizens (some old and some new) and who are having to reconsider their life chances in this country. Many of these people did not have an easy ride – coming from both rural and urban communities devastated by the fall of Soviet Block, austerity or possibly war refugees from around the world who happen to have Italian, French of Dutch citizenship. Worse still, if you are a Roma hated by your neighbourhood with that sneaky feeling you thought you’d never have – that actually, you had it better during the communist era….at least the hate attacks were not as widespread and there was regular work.

These people took a gamble, learnt languages, uprooted their families, kissed good-bye their relatives (whilst still supporting them financially)- and obediently paid taxes for decades in this country, some say, to prop up the generous British welfare system. And it still was hard – their kids were queueing up for school places (waiting for months and years),  their genuine intentions (to work and contribute) were constantly questioned, their housing infested, their workers’ rights undermined but that they still kept their loyalties. Of course, it could be worse – they could have been ‘enslaved’…or ‘sexually exploited’ like some of their less fortunate friends. So they persevered.

It troubles me is these people have little voice in debates such is the one hosted by the Impact Hub. They do not know or relate well to the current debates of inequality, discrimination or racism. The old concept of working classes and proletariat versus ‘evil imperialists’ pushed so aggressively during the era of Eastern and Central European socialism is obsolete and unhelpful. The left across Europe is generally going though difficult times, searching new identities and answers.

Yet, we are becoming more and more unequal societies, where migrant workers are on the bottom of food chains and I am afraid that racism discourse – mainly focusing on visible ethnic minorities, does not offer any practical answers. After all, many migrants are voiceless, their contribution invisible and they are resented by all different colours of the spectrum – for taking jobs, marrying for passports and money, for drinking in the street, or sleeping in the park…or just speaking their mother tongue.

So – where does this leave us? I believe that anti-racism movement shouldn’t shy away from exploring different perceptions of racism experienced by people who are officially described as Other White but their culture is portrayed as base, alien, mistrustful, cheating, hugely anti-social and generally inferior regularly by Daily Mail and other media.

The word xenophobia does not always cut it. If one understands European history (East versus West) and even – Euro-Asian history – one finds many shades of racism dividing the continent to Aryans and non-Aryans, Ottomans and Europeans, Slavs versus Germans, Roma versus non-Roma, Jews and non-Jews , commies versus capitalists and Hungarians versus everybody else in Central Europe.

One only needs to look at development of 20th century fascism to realise that many European administrative procedures were racial-ised at one time or other. If one goes further into history and etymology, soon discovers that the word ‘slave’ was inspired by the ethnic label for Slavs who used to be hunted and sold into slavery via Ottoman Empire and Muslim Spain. And yes, I do need to address one wicked problem – as many people assume  -that European migrants are themselves racist and therefore have very little understanding 0f ‘the struggle’.

Since I came to UK, I wanted to join several black and minority ethnic networks and my ‘whiteness’ was somehow in the way – ‘this is about visible differences that lead to discrimination‘ I was told. And not long after, the employee network changed its name into  a Black Workers’ Group – which made the point absolutely clear.

But I accept – these are valid arguments and we mustn’t ignore the accumulated disadvantage and colonial legacies. And I can’t deny that Eastern Europe has its own horrific issues with racism. But that does not justify the stereotyping, hatred, mistreatment and direct discrimination, perceived as racism, by the victims who happen to be Polish, Moldovan, Italian-Pakistani, Russian, Slovakian or Roma.

We all carry prejudices based on information our brain has been fed (particularly in our early development). It’s a fact now observable through neuroscience experiments. We can be Asian and affluent and have a particularly negative view of Eastern Europeans (the label, by the way, that chucks half the continents’ diverse population into one basket). Or we can be poor and White and have dual heritage kids as our best friends.

So, I disagree that the European project is simply built around the idea of White ‘fortress Europe’ that purposely excludes non-White populations and this is why ethnic minorities voted for Brexit. European countries, like the rest of the world, are experiencing squeeze on resources, squeeze on middle class. Social mobility of our children is threatened. This represents struggle for resources at every level, be it access to education, a decent library, a GP surgery or relatively safe neighbourhood.

Coming out of poverty is extremely hard for those who aren’t able to pull on these resources and public resources are becoming very scarce. The fear is felt mainly by those who think they have a mandate to talk about Britain’s future – White or non-White as opposed to the newcomers who clearly do not have it. Not only do they not have a vote but they also, by their own admission, do not claim any space for any voice because they have tried, for all these years, to keep their head down and be ‘invisible’.

With so many different  languages, cultures, political heritages, previous conflicts and wars, Europe has no chance to survive without close cooperation. Europe needs to allow its citizens to move freely to test their stamina, to thrive, to help out poorer regions, to become multilingual, to compete, to try survive. And yes, Europe should reform and become more democratic and reassess many things that have gone wrong.

And every continent should have their own European Union that tries to find the best way to live with their neighbours. Let’s have a multipolar world, where different transnational structures negotiate between themselves to find the best deals for their citizens.

It is a shame that Britain has never fully embraced this concept and is now ‘feeling in the dark’ for some kind of a narrative – of greatness and strength that can hardly ever come from  isolating itself from your nearest neighbours.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/21/eu-migrant-uk-referendum-politicians-press

http://balkanist.net/an-open-letter-to-the-editors-of-the-monkey-cage-blog-of-the-washington-post-online-edition/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301743/How-invasion-immigrants-corner-England-mockery-PMs-promise-close-door.html#ixzz49WXxDQei

http://discoversociety.org/2016/06/01/racism-in-post-communist-central-europe/

http://wp.me/p7z1pV-4