Type
Essay
Category
Politics

101 Tin drums

Entering the Gdańsk shipyards is more difficult than entering Europe. AñA and I knock on the security guard’s door, give him our names, then huddle out of the rain while he phones through to Grzegorz Klaman. The temperature has dropped to ten degrees. Over us towers a monument of three 42-metre-high crosses commemorating the workers killed in the 1970 protest. Ten years later, the shipyards would seethe again with the strike that announced the arrival of Solidarity as a serious political force. There are fresh wreaths at the base of the monument and a quote from a Miłosz poem. Ubiquitous ex-pope Jan Paweł II features as well.

Klaman pulls up in his battered Volvo. The security guard unlocks the gate and lets us through. A communist relic. Klaman laughs at him.

We drive down the road through a weedy wilderness. We reach warehouses, some functioning, others empty. Over the port, steel cranes scratch at a steely sky. The shipyards is an enormous complex; it has been here for centuries and in communist times employed
22 000 workers. By 1991 there were only 8500. Now there are less than half that, almost all working for private companies, many Scandinavian. Solidarity’s triumph and tragedy was that the revolution it created cost the workers their jobs, such was the extent of communism’s false economy. Klaman mocks the monument at the gates but I like it, its melodrama typical for Poland. Klaman, a gruff man in work clothes with cropped hair and small mischievous eyes, runs an art institute funded by various private sponsors, including his family’s printing business.

He shows us through the old warehouse that houses the institute. There are spacious offices with screens running in front of the windows. A state-of-the-art minimalist renovation, yet utterly unpretentious, down to the lack of heating. Poland had a long hard winter, with temperatures as low as minus twenty degrees during the day and snow banked up for months. It is May, yet even inside, our breath is visible. We follow Klaman up to a cavernous space on the first floor, daylight pressing against the wall of pearled windows. A man on a ladder is putting the finishing touches to a paint job. Beside him, protruding from the ceiling is a statue of Jan Paweł II. Cut off at the waist, the statue faces the wall, its face painted black. Klaman winks and announces in crisp English: JP Two!

Klaman takes us over to Modelarnia where we are to perform Arterial on Saturday night at an event called Night of European Museums. senVoodoo, AñA and my performance troupe, debuted Arterial ten days ago at Interakcje (Art Action Festival) in Piotrków Trybunalski, a town in central Poland. It is a bleeding performance about loss and mourning. We are clothed head to foot in white translucent robes and shrouds, our extended hands the only flesh visible. We bleed from shunts inserted in the wrists. We walk slowly towards one another on a white path, our movements almost imperceptible. There is the drip of blood on paper; there is the smell.

For seven years, senVoodoo has performed in cabarets, parties, theatres and galleries, evolving with the times to more considered and sober work. We thought the intense subject matter and aesthetic of Arterial ideal for Poland, with its bloody history, and edgy theatre and performance art traditions. Physical risk and pain are intrinsic to our work, partly because of our need to push personal boundaries, but also for the energy field these actions create with an audience. Bleeding is not painful, but it does test endurance. Presenting Arterial subsequently in Łódź and Jelenia Góra adds a cumulative aspect to the endurance, like volumes in a body of work. Although Australian born, AñA lived in Poland for ten years during communism and martial law. As most of that decade was spent in Gdańsk, and AñA hasn’t been back since 1986, our tour is also a pilgrimage to her second home.

Modelarnia is the old workshop where ship models were once made. A couple of small work spaces precede an enormous room with exposed beams and a tiled floor, dense with the sound of thrumming rain. Over the entrance is a neon by Klaman. An exact replica of the sign over the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Klaman’s says Kunst Macht Frei. (The sign at Auschwitz-Birkenau says Albreicht Macht Frei - ‘Work Frees Us’. Kunst means art.) On the door are posters of past art events. Sheets of black plastic are draped beneath holes in the roof, the rain coming through here and there. On the first floor are artists’ studios. Tools and work tables are scattered around the place, a curtain runs across the back. There is a frisson in here; we are excited about performing. It’s going to be tricky finding ten rain-free metres along which to lay our paper path, let alone leaving it to dry amidst an event that will turn into a late night party. An artist comes in from her studio and we all drink tea on the bursting couches. The artist and Klaman grumble about the impending development of the shipyards. Whilst the art institute will stay, Modelarnia will probably go.

Like AñA, Klaman went to Gdańsk Fine Art Academy. For several years he ran the academy gallery, Wyspa, until an incident in 2002 which resulted in his dismissal and the gallery’s closure. In a group exhibition at Wyspa, artist Dorota Nieznalska created an installation called Pasja (the Passion) using video and a crucifix. The video played imagery of a man working out, and on the crucifix was superimposed a photograph of flaccid genitals. Alerted by television coverage, MPs from the ultra-Right party, League of Polish Families, visited the gallery several days after the exhibition had closed. By threat of physical force, they demanded to see the artwork and subsequently reported the artist to the public prosecutor’s office. Nieznalska was charged with ‘offending religious beliefs’, sentenced to six months community work and forbidden to leave the country. Her scholarship and subsidies were cut off.

The Catholic Church is the new oppressor, Klaman says with cheerful Polish pessimism.

Klaman’s satirical flags have been exhibited across Europe. A perspex box on the wall is filled with pills half red, half white, mimicking the Polish flag. The name of the piece is Pol-End. Fluttering over the entrance to the art institute is a take on the European Union flag, the circle of yellow stars broken and scattered across the blue. There is another version of the Polish flag with a black stripe across the top, symbolising the oppressive power of the church.

As we leave, I wonder whereabouts in this vast and crumbling complex Lech Wałesa worked. On our way here this morning we passed the housing estate where he used to live, a long undulation of buildings twelve storeys tall, once grey, now painted happy colours and bearing huge advertisements. Inside the shipyards, so many of the buildings have been pulled down that it is likely Wałesa’s old workstation is now rubble and weeds. I have encountered no romance about Solidarity in Poland. A sacred cow, say the Poles, with typical deprecation.

After the cataclysmic 1990 elections in which Wałesa was elected president, Solidarity gradually imploded: at the centre of the in-fighting were the Kaczyński twins, who now run the country. Solidarity is history. It is a flashpoint. It is the theme of a museum we pass near the entrance for which Klaman sculpted gates with angular slabs of rusty metal. The aperture is uncomfortably narrow. And they whinged about that, Klaman says. Because I didn’t include any crosses.

The security guard lets us out and we stop at the kiosk which sells Solidarność T-shirts, the word in forceful red lettering, flag flying from the l. The label is ‘American T-Shirt’ with a picture of the stars and stripes. I buy one. I think it will look good with the label cut out and stitched across the word Solidarność.

AñA remembers looking out the window of the art academy. A woman with shopping was crossing the deserted space, a car park then as it is now. The militia arrived in a convoy of armoured vehicles with water cannons. The woman stood in front of a vehicle and began to shout. The vehicle inched forward. The woman stepped back and continued shouting. The students watching her from the window couldn’t hear what she was saying. The vehicle moved forward again and hit her. Her knees buckled and she fell. The vehicle drove on. The strike had just finished and martial law had been declared.

The students’ strike in Gdańsk was one of many which dominoed after Wałesa and Solidarity took their stand at the shipyards. It was also occupational and organised in tandem with the technical college and university. At the art academy the demands were simple: twenty-four-hour access to the studios (normally open 10 am to 2 pm, after which the babcia cleaners would come through with their ruthless brooms), and any children conceived during the strike to gain automatic entry to the academy. No teachers joined, but they did come to talk with the students. Negotiations were convivial.

The students slept in the assembly hall in sleeping bags on the floor. Food donations came in from the West – processed cheese and so on – and were distributed by the church. The students spent their days painting murals through the academy’s drab communist interiors. (Another demand was that the murals be preserved.) At night a violinist came to play in a room just off the assembly hall that led to Jacka Tower, a vaulted space with superb acoustics. The students went to sleep to Bach, ragtime, Paganini. As in the shipyards, graffiti proliferated: Leninist slogans against the communist regime.

Below the academy was a shopping centre which had been there since before the war, the same shopping centre where Oskar from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum bought his instrument. Below it again was a labyrinth of Gothic cellars to which the students procured the keys. The cellars were crammed with rubbish including a stash of soc-realist plaster statues made in the 1950s and 60s, some with name tags still attached. The students had fun identifying the juvenilia of their predecessors, many of whom had become their teachers.

They decided to stage some interventions. They hauled about fifty statues out of the cellar and assembled them in the foyer. In the dead of night they took them out to the deserted car park and arranged them into various configurations in the snow. A queue to the shops, ignoring a dead figure on the ground beside them. Three figures conferring in a circle. A fat naked woman on a bench at the taxi stand, her replica in miniature seated beside her.

Each night the installations would be changed.

Oskar, screaming trapped psychotic Oskar, beating his drum in protest at the grotesqueries of the world during the rise of Nazism, became the students’ mascot. A little guy with a shaved head and little round glasses decided to make a tin drum. On the third day of the strike, he marched into the square beating it. Students with pots of paint filed behind him, splashing the white statues with colour.

The students at the technical college had rigged up a radio to listen in on the militia. One night they sent word to the art students that the academy was to be raided. The militia were coming to bust the statues for disturbing the peace and causing obstruction. After some deliberation, the art students cleared the car park and in half an hour the foyer was once again crowded with gesturing plaster people, now in colour. Through the windows the students watched the militia arrive and descend from their vehicles to search for dissident statues.

A group of thirteen students planned a finale. In a working bee that lasted a week and a half, with the materials found in the cellar, they made 101 miniature tin drums, exact replicas of Oskar’s, each including a wax seal with a pegasus stamp and a pair of hand-whittled drumsticks. A ladder was set up in the assembly hall and on top of it stood Oskar in his red and white sash. Drapes around the ladder created a giant skirt, in the folds of which clustered the drums. The violinist entered and Oskar beat his drum then released the skirt so the drums tumbled out across the floor. Students in red and white sashes collected and distributed them to the strikers. Everyone picked up their sticks and the assembly hall filled with the thundering cacophony of 101 tin drums.

The strike ended on Thursday 11 December. The students were promised their demands would be met. On Saturday 13, martial law was declared and the militia took over the streets with gusto. They threw tear gas canisters at people on tram stops, or into the subways full of Christmas shoppers, just for the sake of intimidation. This was 1981. In 1982 Solidarity was banned.

Gazeta Wyborcza was launched during the Round Table talks of 1989 by Adam Michnik and Helena Łuczywo. Both had been active in the underground for decades, Michnik in particular already a legendary figure by the time komuna fell. Michnik was very close to Wałesa. He had been his advisor – ironically, the success of Solidarity was based on the Marxist ideal of intellectuals and workers joining forces.

Gazeta immediately embraced the ideal of an independent, unbiased media and was therefore democratic in its criticisms. Wałesa objected to unflattering articles about his new government. Michnik wouldn’t capitulate, and the two fell out.

Like the French newspaper Libération, born out of the 1968 protests, Gazeta rose to become one of the most popular Polish dailies.

After three weeks here we realise how close the country is to another era of repression, if not already inside it. Lech Kaczyński was elected president on a platform of family values and anti-corruption; he has a great ally in the Catholic Church, whose dissidence under the communist regime is now a distant memory. Next to the anodyne news reports we see on television, Gazeta‘s feisty political analysis feels transgressive. It is interesting to note how much opposition to the far Right comes from Poles of Jewish heritage, from the editors of Gazeta through to artists such as Klaman, their disinterest in ethnic self-identification notwithstanding. It is a continuation of a very long tradition in Poland, that predates the war, of a dissident multicultural intelligentsia fomented by centuries of oppression. But Gazeta conforms with other Polish media in its scant coverage of Iraq and the Middle East in general.

Controversy over the new Education Minister, Roman Giertych, is heating up. Sixty thousand people, including leading artists and intellectuals, have signed a petition asking for his resignation. Thirty-five-year-old Giertych has no experience in education and is linked to the shadowy All Polish Youth. He wants the family to have more control. His plans for compulsory religious instruction in schools are so draconian that there is concern evolutionary theory will no longer be taught.

“There will be no homosexual propaganda in schools,” he says.

Kaczyński concurs: “In the school curriculum the main things to address are drugs, violence, teaching standards and patriotic upbringing.”

Giertych is the leader of League of Polish Families, with whom Kaczyński’s PiS (Law and Justice) party formed a coalition government. In 1989 Giertych revived All Polish Youth, a 1930s militant youth wing of the National Party (SN) which used Nazi symbols such as the sieg heil salute. Giertych’s reaction to the petition against him is to blame homosexuals, all of whom, he claims, are paedophiles.

Well, replies filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, one of the many signatories who is married with children, what does that make me?

Jurek’s apartment is in a row of new townhouses on the edge of Sopot, the second of the towns that form the tri-city of Gdańsk. It is a small building with pale render and an exact little garden out the front. Jurek bought it with one month’s earnings. Immediately after the fall of communism there was a huge economic boom and Jurek, who had the biggest advertising agency in the Baltic, made a killing. Small, boyish, with bright blue eyes and the old world charm common to many Polish men, he has a talent for pantomime which comes in handy for communication. Despite his love of fine things, Jurek’s apartment is sparse. Some time in the 90s he was extorted by his business partner and the boom times have not returned. His Rover remains broken in the garage. He tells us that Poland’s private debt is one of the highest in the EU. Recently diagnosed with MS, he is on a strict macrobiotic diet; in the mornings we tiptoe around him doing tai chi in the living room. His espresso machine sits in the corner unused. More than thirty years ago Jurek moved to Gdańsk to study, and is just about the only one of AñA’s art academy gang left here. In certain seasons, large cracks appear in the walls and floor of his apartment. Jurek is keen to sell and move to the country but must wait for the cracks to disappear again.

Jurek has had success as an exhibiting artist; he pulls out his work for us. He is a master of miniatures and subversive humour. There is a postage stamp series – actual stamps painted over, often in a repetitive rhythm, disrupted here and there with something bizarre. There is a series of nudes, surreal and saucy, and a series of breasts. Priests, devils and nuns are everywhere, each as wicked and funny as the next. The later work is more sombre, the figures more isolated, the colours subdued.

Jurek takes us to Spatif, an actors’ restaurant in the main street of Sopot. It has a bohemian speakeasy feel with its closed door – a slot through which the doorman checks you out – its worn couches and caricatures of cabaret artists and musicians that cover the walls. It is a big, comfortable room full of regulars, with a long bar and bow-tied waiters. Jurek tells us Spatif used to be a lot wilder, people dancing on tables and so on. He says that many of the locals are afraid of the goings-on here: it’s too way out.

Sadly, we don’t see any wild behaviour, but another night a nine-piece band takes to the stage. They are all in black, with two accordions, clarinet and soprano sax, and a trumpet. The vocalist in dark glasses, snappy red socks and tartan cap is singing about contemporary Warsaw. This is Warsaw street music, an urban working-class mix of regional folk, klezmer and jazz. The band sets a cracking pace and, listening to the flow of various ethnic currents, I’m reminded how much early twentieth-century jazz owes to Eastern Europe and Yiddish music. Small wonder the Poles took up jazz with such gusto after the war and became its leading proponents in Europe. Many of the songlines they knew already. Not to mention the blues.

We walk down to the sea at Sopot. There is an old café where you can get beer and fish and the usual Polish fare of barszcz (beetroot soup) and pierogi (dumplings). These last days of spring feel like autumn. Everybody is complaining about the weather and blaming global warming. The famous Polish strawberries are late. We walk along a sandy path to a row of old wooden boat sheds. Hel Peninsula is hidden in the mist. In a smokehouse at the end we buy freshly smoked salmon and eat it immediately, trying not to think of Oskar’s mother gorging on the raw fish she detests, locking herself in the toilet to commit suicide. The smoked salmon is delicious.

Brighton, Venice, Sopot. This seaside town emanates the spectral melancholy of a resort that has seen better days. From the shoreline to the main road are street after street of faded pastel villas built in the 1800s by German industrialists, many of whom were making a killing in Łódź. Alongside the pathway are grand hotels, some dilapidated, some newly opened for business. Others have probably never been closed and bear their corrosion with weary dignity. Further toward the centre of Sopot is a large complex offering Chinese massage and a sushi bar, a strange addition to a place whose tourists come almost exclusively from Germany and Northern Europe. The Molo pier, longest in Europe, extends into the leaden bay.

Sunlight a day or so later and we go to the small markets near Jurek’s. The produce is seasonal – radishes, potatoes, spinach and cabbage. Dill, parsley, chives. The stalls are staffed by local growers, sunburnt dark as Arabs. There are the last winter apples and, finally, the first strawberries. AñA is looking for an old baba to buy homemade curd cheese from. But all the dairy stalls are generic. No doubt new health and safety regulations have killed off this cottage industry.

We hire bikes and cycle along the path into Sopot. The long, low Hel Peninsula appears out to sea. We cycle past the Chinese complex and the Molo pier, and further north beyond the town we cycle into a forest. Every so often there are bars and huts, but mostly it is the cool green of birch foliage. We glide through the leafy quiet, protected from passing showers by the canopy. A delicate light fills the forest. We are heading north to visit an old friend of AñA’s, following the same path that AñA used when she lived here, but suddenly the path peters out on a beach. The sand has completely swallowed it. The sea has risen to the forest’s edge and we can see no way of reaching our destination.

Where have the old baba gone? Where is the path? What happened here while I was away?

With Maya, one of the artists from Interakcje, we go to a milk bar in the old town and order chłodnik, a cold beetroot soup with boiled eggs and potatoes chopped into it. It costs two złoty, or about ninety cents. The milk bars are another communist relic. Begun as workers’ cafés and subsidised to provide cheap food for the masses, they are still everywhere and anyone eats in them. In the corner is a businessman and beside him two students. Next to us are four homeless people eating mashed potato and discreetly purloining leftovers from other tables. The first thing AñA noticed on pulling into Gdańsk was a McDonald’s. We notice the commercialisation of the entire train station with its KFC, cinema complex and shopping mall playing the same bad muzak you hear at any shopping mall in the world. But the Poles don’t seem to eat much fast food. Why would you pay four złoty for a Big Mac when you can get good chłodnik for half that? Maya says they’re trying to phase out bar mleczny as they aren’t making enough money. No doubt once the price of chłodnik goes up, Big Macs will become popular.

Maya’s family are in Gdynia, the third town in the tri-city. Her father is an artist who left in the 1970s to make his fortune in the US. He made little impact on the American art world and returned to Poland after the fall of communism. Born just after his arrival in the US, Maya is spending her second consecutive summer in Poland and wants to make a habit of it. Tall, gentle, with an upturned nose and chestnut freckles, Maya has the inner steeliness I see in so many Poles. She says her family doesn’t care about Poland’s involvement in Iraq. They don’t have to queue for food any more, they have a telephone, everything is fine. Maya complains about the chauvinism of Polish men, telling us a story of a famous octogenarian performance artist making passes at her. We can’t help laughing. I found it really conservative at first, says Maya. But then I realised that maybe you can do much more here artistically.

We are walking up the back of Gdańsk, beyond villas grey with dirt that once housed bourgeois families like the Schopenhauers. At the foot of the hill in an overgrown nook, a statue of the philosopher declaims to a semi-circle of stone benches, the whole configuration sinking into the forest. From the top of the hill, shipyard cranes dominate the skyline, like praying mantises poised to strike. Further, we pass AñA’s old house, on a steep road above the town. From the street we can see ancient fruit trees in the backyard, thick with blossom. It was good living up here, says AñA. We had so much fresh food, we survived rationing fine. And when martial law was declared we could get away. Except once when an armoured vehicle came up to arrest a Solidarity man at the end of the road.

How do you find it now? she asks our taxi driver later that afternoon. Is it better?

Of course! he gestures. Look at all the cars on the road.

I quite liked how few cars there were when I lived here, AñA remarks.

But cars are great! the driver says forcefully. People have more money, so now they can drive.

We are making our way to Łaznia, a contemporary art space in a defunct bath-house. We cross the old town, the medieval crane a hulking square on the waterfront, along which clusters a string of amber shops. Opposite the crane is the island; a skeletal set of brick walls is all that remains of the granary buildings. Like almost all of Poland, 90 per cent of Gdańsk was destroyed in the war but here most the bombing was done by the Soviets as opposed to the Nazis. The taxi driver is right, there are so many cars on the road that progress is slow. By the time we reach the bridge, the traffic has come to a standstill. The rain intensifies to a downpour but we are late so we get out of the cab and run the remaining blocks to Łaznia, an enormous building with bullet strafing up the side. The exhibition, an international multimedia show called Artists and Arms, is about war.

We are walking towards one another, bleeding. Our prayers have been answered and the rain has stopped: our path gleams dry beneath the spotlights. The room is packed, full of energy. There is a problem with the soundtrack that I’m trying to ignore. I can feel the build-up of blood on the soles of my feet, the sticky shuffle as I slowly approach AñA. I travel the world in these twelve minutes. I see the room misted by gauze, I see the white path, the blur of audience. It is over in a second and it seems to last forever. We crumple in the centre of the path and lie there till the soundtrack fades. The performance is a success.

Our nurse is waiting backstage. She removes the shunts then bandages our wrists, chatting excitedly about how difficult it was for her to watch us bleeding and not rush, as she has been trained to do, to stop the flow. I’m not really into art, she told us a few days ago, with a warning tone. But now her eyes are shining. I’ve never had a job like this before! She is smartly dressed in that glossy Eastern style; she has had her hair done. We have paid her far more handsomely than the hospital does.

The crowd is a mixture of alternative art sceners and middle-class museum goers. Night of European Museums takes place, as its name suggests, across all of Europe. Museums stay open till midnight and feature special events, bussing punters from venue to venue. Modelarnia’s inclusion is testament to Klaman’s chutzpah in that the participants are mostly traditional institutions. Many of the regulars at Modelarnia are Scandinavian, German and a scattering of Balts. There is a family feel to the crowd.

We go over to watch films screening in the art institute and are disconcerted to find the statue of the ex-pope has been removed from the ceiling. We wonder if this was Klaman’s necessary compromise. Back in Modelarnia there are installations, CD-ROMs, videos on a huge screen, a jazz trio and performances. I linger with Jurek in a small room filled with pot plants. On the back wall is a video of people doing tai chi in a park. It is an ethereal installation, refreshing in the Baltic darkness.

Its artist is one of a crew from Wrocław who set up with us earlier today then retired to the couches with alcohol while we dutifully stuck to our Gatorade and water. Now they welcome us back into their circle, three men, and a woman in tailored leather. The tall thin man in charge of the vodka is fulminating against the art establishment and its growing commercialisation. Łaznia, he snorts, is finished. It is over. Another artist who performed at Interakcje runs up to us with his hand on his wrist, then on his heart.

A Dane and his Polish friend want a full run-down of the performance; they stand over the bloodpath, scrutinising earnestly. Klaman is dispensing vodka shots at the bar. Nearby I notice two men kissing. It is a shock of cool water in a drought, and I realise how quickly I have become accustomed to a society in which homosexuality is invisible, even in the art scene, its traditional refuge. An absurdist video is playing of a dancing man with a loaf of black bread for a face. The vodka-sodden Wrocław artist is dancing vigorously nearby, crashing into everyone. I’m in a huddle of strangers shouting over the music. What is the point of this performance? one of them suddenly asks me.

I’m used to this, but tonight it surprises me. Why? we are often asked in Australia, why do you do this? At a symposium in Sydney a senior performance artist looked me up and down and remarked, so you like having these things done to yourself, hey? At a festival in Victoria a woman followed us around saying, why? then sent us a long emotional email with photos of herself posing nude for life drawing classes. Another woman at the same event grumbled, they could have left that in their bedroom, couldn’t they? We were costumed in formal attire, performing Dressing for Pleasure, a durational work about the ‘beauty myth’.

I generally have the time to engage with this why?, issued so often with the belligerence of a challenge, because it signals to me that the work itself is challenging, which can only be a good thing. I’m not sure where the guy in Modelarnia is from, but I sense his phrasing has more to do with his grasp of English than his attitude. I’m surprised by his question because no-one in Poland seems fazed by what we do. I’m beginning to realise the enormous freedom in this lack of sensationalism. Maya was right – in spite of the antiquated sexual mores, you can do more here artistically.

I tell the guy about Arterial. Well, he declares with an ingenuous flourish, this performance has left a stain on my soul.

The dancing man in the video has picked up a breadknife and is cutting a mouth into his face. The dancing Wrocław artist lands in our circle, scattering us.

The next day we return to Modelarnia to collect our props. We try to visit the Solidarity Museum but it is closed. We continue through the shipyards to an outdoor photographic exhibition of the 1980 strike. Beneath a stormy sky, we walk down a corridor of life-size black and white prints mounted in rusty frames. In a logical conclusion of the path from communism to capitalism, the photographer has made quite a bit of money from these pictures. How heroic the workers look, massed at the gates in their overalls, on their knees praying at an outdoor mass. But there is one photo that unnerves us. It depicts a priest addressing the workers, and somebody has scratched his eyes out.

It is Lech Wałesa’s priest, Jankowski, one of the founders of Right-wing Catholic radio station Radio Marja which wields great power in Poland. Radio Marja’s vocal support of the Kaczyńskis is considered crucial to their success. A notorious anti-Semite and homophobe, Jankowski has become rich since the fall of communism, owning several luxury cars and a helicopter. Rain starts bucketing down and we rush to Modelarnia.

Six months later I will read from Australia about the resignation of the Archbishop of Warsaw. Appointed by Pope Benedict in December 2006, Stanisław Wielgus was hounded for the month preceding his swearing-in with allegations of informing for the communist regime. Finally he has confessed, and resigned.

It was like one of those stories where everybody turns up to a wedding only to find it is a funeral. In the packed cathedral, when Wielgus delivered his resignation from the pulpit, the congregation rose up in protest. Nie nie nie!! Their voices filled the vaults.

Another two months on, the Kaczyński government passed a Vetting Law which obliges all people in positions of authority to sign affidavits declaring themselves innocent of collaboration during communism. If found guilty, they will be barred from working for ten years. The law is being criticised by many as casting the net too wide. The number of teachers, lawyers, public officials, journalists, clergy and so on targeted runs into the hundreds of thousands. The IPN (Institute for National Remembrance, charged with the investigation) has admitted it may take up to ten years to process the paperwork. The documents the IPN used for the investigations are themselves suspect, having been written by spies who often falsely accused people. Gazeta Wyborcza journalists have announced they will be boycotting the Vetting Law.

The Kaczyński government will be defined in the history books for this McCarthy-like purge, but witnessing the mayhem among the congregation in Warsaw cathedral, one wonders if it’s possible they are now going too far even for their staunchest supporters. The path from communism to capitalism resembles more a circle than a line – the snake eating its tail – of the same old cycles of oppression and revenge. But now the Poles have no-one else to blame. Now it is not them, but us.

I think of that photo in the Gdańsk shipyards of Jankowski with his eyes scratched out. The spirit of dissidence, also, is alive and well.

Fiona McGregor is a Steele Rudd award winner who has published three books of fiction. Her most recent novel Chemical Palace was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Awards, and her novel Indelible Ink will be published by Scribe in 2008. With artist AñA Wojak she founded senVoodoo performance troupe. They toured Poland in 2006, and their video work has been screened internationally. ‘101 Tin Drums’ is part of a book about Poland and performance called Strange Museums.
© Fiona McGregor
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 30-37

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Fiona McGregor has published five books, the most recent of which Indelible Ink won Age Book of the Year. She has shown her performance art internationally. She is an active volunteer for Unharm, an organisation devoted to drug law reform.   fionamcgregor.com

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