My tips for three must reads and two must sees for anyone wanting to get to grips with this country. Debate will be very happily entered into!
The Polish House. An Intimate History of Poland, Radek Sikorski (1997). Sikorski (now Poland’s Foreign Minister) recounts virtually the entire history of Poland through various anecdotes involving him and his family. The realities of life under communism are brought to life through stories about childhood trips smuggling pictures of Pope John Paul the Second to the then USSR, and Polish crystal to Bulgaria. Surviving the war – and how some never recovered – are played out in the story of his great Uncle Roman, who was interned in a concentration camp. The background story of Poland’s accession to NATO is told from his perspective as former Defence Minister. All along, Sikorski asks, ‘what does it mean to be Polish?’ as he buys and restores his ‘Polish House’ – a small manor near Bydgoszcz. An excellently told story full of cultural, social, historial and political insights.
In My Father’s Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1962). ‘Every single street in Warsaw used to be an independent town’ once wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer, and In My Father’s Court is a collection of Singer’s short stories, almost entirely revolving around his early years on one of these streets, Krochmalna. His life at no. 10, with his father, the local Rabbi, is described from the perspective of Isaac as a young boy. This collection is not only a wonderful introduction to Isaac Bashevis Singer and his huge body of work, but also a peek inside a Warsaw that is now, sadly, no more.
The Girl in the Red Coat, Roma Ligocka (2002). As a Jewish girl living in Krakow in 1939, Ligocka’s normal, happy childhood almost overnight became one of uncertainty, fear and terror. Roma and her mother survived. But for the rest of her life, she was left dealing with the after-effects; fractured relationships, panic attacks, and a deep and abiding unhappiness resulting in a prescription drug dependence. Ultimately, it’s a story of triumph, and of how she manages to overcome all of this and find peace in herself. However, it reminds us that the suffering of the Holocaust, for many, continued long after the war ended.
Czas Honoru (A Time of Honour): The action in this mini-series revolves around the members of a Polish underground cell who, having trained in England, are parachuted back into occupied Warsaw to carry out assigned missions in the fight for freedom. While the characters face daily tests of their bravery, character and honour, they also face more practical challenges – like falling in love, and trying to get bread for the Easter meal. The result is dramatic viewing with broad appeal, at once both a cracking good story revolving around universal themes, and at the same time a unique window on wartime Warsaw. Original archival footage is spliced in to remind us that while the plots are fictional, unfortunately they’re very much based on true stories.
Miś, (1980). It’s possible to enjoy Stanisław Bareja’s Miś (Teddy Bear) as just a funny, tounge-in-cheek take on life in communist Poland, where knives and forks are chained to the tables of milk bars so customers can’t steal them, the best place to get meat (but not shampoo) is the local chemist, and the man who’s in charge of keeping you out of the airport without a ticket is also the one who sells you the counterfeit ticket you need to get in. Its more serious side – hidden just far enough under the surface to avoid the censors – depicts communist Poland as a place where everything and everyone can be bought, like sausages from under the counter. Where loyalties are as fake and forced as the actors that dress up as rabbits because they can’t get real ones. Where everyone plays along with the absurd ruses of everyday life, while secretly plotting their own way out – at any cost. Miś is a Polish cult classic, that for foreigners is both a window on a way of living that – thankfully – is no more, and a commentary on what survival under The System was all about.