Thursday, 19 September 2013

Gdańsk Redux

A Canadian poet read this column and told me there was a blank verse poem of about 120 lines hidden in it. He dared me to find it.

Well, I am not a poet, but I have a lot of respect for that one, so I opened the file and had a look. The poem was there, so I tried to lift it out of the article, like a skeleton from a fish.

When I got it out, I sent my poem to the poet. He said it was vivid and painful and matters, so I'm posting it here. You'll recognize some of it from a blog post.

The poem matters because the West has a blank spot in its memory when it comes to the Polish experience of the Second World War. Poland was the wounded soldier whose buddies left him behind enemy lines. We don't like to remember that the Allies did that; it tarnishes our shiny stories of heroism and grandeur and triumph over a totalitarian nightmare. That our forgotten war buddy suffered another one...Well... Hiroshima seems so much more important. And perhaps the violence of victory hurts us less that the acknowledgment that the biggest winner was Stalin.

To add insult to injury, some people in the West speak as though the Poles were at all responsible to what happened to the Jews in Poland once the Nazis were in charge. The name for this is "blood libel", and I suspect it is mixed up with fear and resentment of Poland's Catholicism. It is definitely mixed up with ignorance of Polish history and of how Poles existed as a people "without a country" for centuries.

But here is the blank verse poem that was once a column:
   
                                            In Gdańsk
                                                    by DCM


English is the lingua franca of the young of Europe;
perhaps they forget it is understood by older people, too.
Or so I thought as Marta and I walked along the Motława River
one evening behind a young foreign tourist determined
to impress upon the young man to her right
how sexually liberated she was.
Her voice was shrill; it carried.
“I don’t believe in marriage,” she bragged.
“People ask me how you can be 22 and not married, but I don’t need
marriage for sex. I have boyfriends.”
The young man, who seemed more interested
in the silent girl to his right,
asked the loud girl
in quieter tones
what she believed in.
“I believe in freedom,” she snapped and
I thought, “Oh, honey.”

Gdańsk is a city of memorials to freedom,
to Polish freedom lost
and to Polish freedom won.
There is the memorial at Westerplatte
where the German Navy opened fire
and at the Polish Post Office where
at that very hour
the SS also attacked.
There is the Gdańsk shipyard
where the Solidarity movement was born
and St. Bridget's Church
where tortured steel shows how its chaplain died.

Every child in Canada is taught that
six million Jews were killed
between Hitler's rise to power and the end of the Second World War.
But although we may be told that
three million of those Jews came from Poland
and that Auschwitz was in Poland
(Occupied Poland),
we are not usually told that 
three million Poles
mostly Catholics
were killed alongside the Jews 
and that the Nazis' ultimate plan for the Poles 
was to make them slaves.

Slaves!
Actual slaves.
To work in the fields
and in factories
and down mines
and as domestic help.

And this is why
secondary schooling
and post-secondary studies
were banned for Poles
in Occupied Poland.
And why
Polish professors
were rounded up and shot.
And why
since the Soviets were in cahoots with the Nazis
at the start of the war
22,000 Polish officers,
basically, the aristocracy,
were murdered,
most infamously but not only in Katyn Forest.

Officers, aristocrats and professors:
not only were they lousy slave material,
they were proof that the Poles had
a culture of their own,
an inconvenient truth
troublesome to both Moscow and Berlin.

That P on the shirt worn by St. Maximilian Kolbe in the icons
does not stand for "Political"
--that's the red triangle--
or "Priest."
It stands for "Pole".

The Nazis did not wish to wipe out all the Poles;
they just wanted their
beautiful and strategic country
and to use the Poles
(as mentioned above)
to till it
and mine it
and serve the German settlers the Nazis would send out there
once the war was won.
However, the Nazis did want to exterminate all the 
troublesome Poles,
even simple peasants
who would hide Jewish neighbours out of kindness,
so when a Pole was caught hiding a Jew,
the Pole and his or her entire family were
killed:
children,
grandmas
and all.


But the Poles were not enslaved long-term

not exactly

because the Nazis were defeated and

Occupied Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union

albeit in the same way the Soviet Union generally liberated countries: 

with strings attached.

Poland was run by a Communist Polish criminal gang

controlled by the Soviet Union until 1990,

when the gang ceased to be either

Communist or controlled by the Soviet Union

although, depending upon whom you talk to,

it might still be quite criminal.

History lies heavily on the city of Gdańsk,
and it was beginning to lie heavily on
me.
By the time I got to the twisted sculpture
commemorating murdered Father Popiełuszko,
I was ready to throw myself
down on the floor of Swiętej Brygidy and weep.
And this is why I was so aggrieved
the next evening
at the young lady who called her sex life
freedom.

Freedom, I wanted to tell her,
is not taking off your clothes and having sex with any guy
just because you want to.
Women have almost always been able to do that;
it’s talk about it afterwards that got you into trouble,
and not usually with the police.

Sure, people might call you names,
but that's not like not being allowed to go to high school
because you're a Pole, is it?
It's not like shutting the curtains on May Day because
if your child looks out the window at the tanks rolling past,
the police will come upstairs and beat up your husband.

But of course I didn’t say anything.
Canadians don’t do that; it’s rude.
Instead I thought about my friend beside me
who, when she was a little girl,
stood at the gates of the shipyard with her father.

Marta didn’t say anything either.

I think she was praying. 

12 comments:

Heather said...

Very nice! It works very well as poetry.

Although technically this is free verse, not blank verse... Blank verse would be in iambic pentameter.

philologia said...

Well, I cried.

Beautiful, Auntie S.

Pearlmusic said...

Oh... reading such words about dear old Gdansk in English made me weep many a sentimental tear. And of course, Heather's clarification is valid for Shakespeare and antique poetry, but in Polish modern literature blank verse and free verse are often treated as equal, so no shame :) Nevertheless, beautiful :)

Seraphic said...

(She groans.) Oh heavens. I can never remember the difference: blank...free... Most of the poetry I've read this years was either Polish or translated from Polish. (This is not bragging but excusing!) Thank you, PearlMusic!

Lauren said...

Seraphic, I've been reading your blog for about a year now and you post some really great stuff. I can't put my finger on exactly why, but parts of this poem could be read as anti-semitic (and given that Trads already have that reputation, it makes it all the more problematic).

Poles and Jewish people have a very complicated history. I strongly recommend the movie "In Darkness" that came out last year, directed by Agnieska Holland. It's a Polish film and was nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. It explores the relationship between Poles and Polish Jews before World War II in a very honest way. Another great one is the 8th of Kieslowski's Dekalog.

This comment comes from an American chapel-veil wearing lover of all things Polish who was surprised to learn about the events of Katyn and other things left out of our history books about Central and Eastern Europe. I was taught the Gospel by Polish priests. So don't get me wrong, Polish culture and history have become a big hobby of mine even though I have no Polish roots and I definitely get why you love it. But even the slightest hint of making less of the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust is unacceptable, no matter how it is meant. And I know that is not at all what you meant to do here, but nonetheless, people can walk away with the wrong impression.

Obviously you don't have to publish this comment, but I felt the need to speak up since we are sympatico on so many other issues. I'm not a regular commenter but I do read almost every post.

Seraphic said...

Really? That's interesting... I state that every Canadian schoolchild is taught that 6 million Jews perished, and indeed I do believe they did. And I mention that 3 million of them had been residents of Poland, and indeed I do believe they were. But that's all I had to say on the topic of the Jews in my poem.

I think anti-Jewish hatred is a growing problem in the Western world due to contemporary immigration patterns, and I've written about it in the Catholic Regiter. Oh, and there's a Jewish lady on the margin of my blog. So I'm surprised and curious as to how my poem could be read as anti-Semitic.

Seraphic said...

Oh, and I mentioned what could happen to Poles who tried to save Jews.

The point of course is not to diminish the sufferings of the Jews but to highlight something much less known--the sufferings of the Poles during the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Soviet nightmare that followed.

Lauren said...

Because there are some people in America who use the rhetoric of "you only hear about the Jews in the Holocaust" because they believe that the way the West educates on the Holocaust is linked to a Jewish conspiracy to control/run our culture and government. So the language jumped out at me.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive about this topic. Seeing St. Maximilian Kolbe's cell at Auschwitz was one of the most important experiences of my life, because he testified to the truth of the dignity of the human person, which is universal.

Lauren said...

Yes, and certainly Americans are very ignorant about what the countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered during the Cold War. "Black Thursday" is another great Polish film on that topic.

Seraphic said...


Well, I am not an American, and this is not an American blog.

I'm a Canadian who was brought up in heart of one of Canada's largest Jewish communities (Bathurst-and-Finch, Toronto.) In fact, four generations of my family have grown up there. My context is entirely unlike that of whatever part of the USA Holocaust deniers thrive in.

I'm from Toronto, the cultural capital of Canada, and I go to the TLM in Edinburgh, one of cultural capitals of Europe.

From things American readers tell me, I think American trads must be so, SO different from trads in Toronto and Europe. Here, for example, nobody CARES if women wear mantillas or trousers. That whole "Pants Pass" thing that Simcha Fisher jokes about? Bizarre. Doesn't happen here.

The topic of anti-Semitism in countries foreign to me is not something I think I can comment on; in Poland, where the Polish people were themselves disenfranchised for centuries, it is much too complex and mixed up with the history of Communism and Jews fleeing 19th century pogroms in Russia in huge numbers.

I have a vague picture of the outlines of anti-Jewish sentiment in Canada, and how current immigration patterns have caused new problems. I could talk about that if anyone asked me to; otherwise, it would just not be appropriate.

Seraphic said...

But thank you. I now see the context from which your worries emerge. It's the old "But Canadians are kinda just like Americans, right?" thing.

Lauren said...

The reason American Trads are so wacky is probably because American Catholics in general are so wacky... and by wacky I mean completely poisoned by moralism and obsessed with rules. That's why I am so thankful to the Polish priests who showed me a different side of the faith.