All posts by Marcin Marszalek

Horses, War and a Demi-God: And That’s Just One Painting by Wojciech Kossak

defiladaPaintings of military leaders, just like any other important persons, are easy enough to find in art museums. Wojciech Kossak, son of another great painter Juliusz Kossak, authored many paintings with military themes where horses occupied places of honor. His 1933 painting entitled Marszałek Józef Piłsudski oraz gen. dyw. Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer przyjmuje defilade kawalerii na Błoniach krakowskich (Marshall Józef Piłsudski and divisional general Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer accepts a cavalry defilade on Krakow’s Błonie). The painting reveals some themes were prevalent in Polish national identity before the Second World War.

The painting shows Marshall Piłsudski saluting a regiment of cavalry that are parading across the giant field in Kraków, Błonie. In the forefront, and taking up the most amount of space in the painting, is Gen. Gustaw-Orlicz Dreszer on a beautiful chestnut horse. A Podhale rifleman stands beside and a little behind the Marshall. In the background one can see the steeples of the Wawel Cathedral.

Even though the Marshall is not in the forefront, he stands tallest and is easily brought out by his blue uniform. Piłsudski was a peculiar man in a peculiar place. Born in Lithuania in 1867, he believed in the possibility of Poland rising from ashes and regaining independence from foreign rulers. World War I presented the perfect opportunity and through his self-taught military ability (some say genius), as well as a certain amount of daring, he was instrumental in the war, and the events of 1918 saw the Regency Council proclaim him the Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces on November 11 of that year. After the war, he stepped away from public life preferring a background role in politics but the inability of successive governments to govern persuaded him to orchestrate a (sort of a) coup in May 1926 after which he remained the de facto head of state until his death in 1935.

For many of the soldiers that served in the Polish Legions, as well as many non-military personnel (he had a great following among the peasantry), he had a near-divine status. Many referred to him affectionately as grandpa (dziadek). The cavalrymen in the painting look toward Pi?sudski most likely saluting him as they pass by. One can observe the dependence on the leadership of Piłsudski. Also, the military style of the government is underscored by this painting.

The parade itself was organized for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna in which the Polish-German forces were led by the Polish king Jan III Sobieski. (A painting of the Battle of Vienna with Sobieski in the spotlight was painted by Wojciech’s father, Juliusz Kossak.) The strategy for the battle relied heavily on King Sobieski’s courage and ability as well as on the Hussars. The “Winged Hussars” were a Polish heavy cavalry formation that charged into battle and through the enemy ranks. They tended to repeat the charge, sometimes even several times in one battle. They were the decisive factor in many battles for nearly two centuries. Due to their great esteem, the Hussars held great sway over the national consciousness and the high respect for horses and cavalry carried into the 20th century.

The Uhlans succeeded the Hussars towards the end of the 18th century as the most esteemed military formation in the Polish Armed Forces. It is the Uhlans that are seen marching by Piłsudski in Kossak’s painting. The Uhlans fought in World War I as part of the Polish Legions. They also fought with distinction in the Great Poland Uprising, the Polish-Ukrainian War as well as the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920. Due to the low quality of tanks in the east as well as the geographic makeup of the land, the Uhlans fared better than tanks. This along with the tradition of Hussars contributed to the idea that the cavalry is well-fitted for 20th century warfare.

The inclusion of the Podhale rifleman is also of interest. The riflemen were created out of volunteers from the Podhale region in the south of Poland in 1918. Their dress is very easily recognizable by the cape they wear over their left shoulder and the feather in their cap. Podhale region was traditionally very poor and agrarian. The peasants tended sheep and were mostly untouched by outside influence. The region was romanticized as being quintessentially Polish, the dialect was seen as the original Polish language and the people were seen as very religious and patriotic. The folklore of the region was also based on these themes (in many respects it still is today). Thus, the inclusion of the Podhale rifleman emphasized these themes.

Finally, the steeples of the Wawel Cathedral are seen in the background. The cathedral is a place of burial of all the greatest sons of the nation. The crypts hold the tombs of many kings including Jan III Sobieski which makes the cathedral a logical inclusion. However, I will argue that Kraków, and more specifically, Wawel, hold a symbolic meaning. Kraków is not only a place of burial of the kings; it is also the spiritual home of the nation.

Kraków was the medieval capital of Poland. The city had been a leading artistic, cultural and educational center for centuries. The Polish Golden Age which took place in the 15th and 16th centuries saw many great artists and scholars visit the city. During that time, many architectural wonders were built, including the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, and the Sigismund Bell. The Bell itself is permeated with symbolic meaning not only because it hangs in the Wawel Cathedral, but since it only tolls on national holidays and moments of great importance, it unites the nation; all the different points of view are put aside and the tolling of the bell unites Poles of all persuasions. Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of the American Revolution, started an (unsuccessful) uprising against Russia in Kraków’s Main Square. Finally, the Wawel Cathedral is the burial place of kings, Kościuszko, the National Poets (Słowacki, Norwid, and Mickiewicz) and many others. Kraków, because of its culture, history and in a sense, the crypts, took on a somewhat tangible existence and became the spiritual home of the nation.

In his painting, Kossak captured not only a moment in history, an event, a commemoration. He captured a certain vision of what it meant to be a Pole. Marshall Piłsudski’s giant stature, the horses, the Podhale rifleman and the Wawel Cathedral are not just there to witness a moment in history. They are there to create history or at least to give meaning to that history. The people, animals, and the buildings became a symbol; a uniting concept. However, parts of that image, but arguably most or all of it, were only to endure for 6 more years. The events of the Second World War destroyed the country and shifted its borders. The experience of the war forced a rethinking of the past. Piłsudski’s successors were accused of badly handling the war, the Uhlans were virtually non-existent as they were not effective, world horse population never recovered and the national identity was questioned. The ideals and myths discussed in this paper were perpetuated in part because of paintings by Kossak and others that perpetuated them and it took the Second World War to question their applicability to the modern world.

It’s Fat Thursday, Let’s Feast!

Courtesy of Eric Basile
Courtesy of Eric Basile

Tradition is sacred and who are we to disregard tradition? On Fat Thursday (T&#322usty Czwartek) the tradition dictates that we feast… on p&#261czki! Not that there needs to be a reason to eat p&#261czki but here are some interesting facts about the holiday.

Fat Thursday is a Christian feast celebrated last Thursday before Lent and since the latter marks a time of reflection, self-denial, penance, the next opportunity to feast will be Easter. That’s almost six weeks away!

In Poland, Fat Thursday is usually celebrated by eating p&#261czki or chrust (faworki, or simply; angel wings). This allowed the household to use up their stock of sugar, lard, fruit and eggs since those were forbidden during lent.

These days, p&#261czki are usually filled with rose or plum jam, and sometimes lemon, custard and other fruits covered with powdered sugar or icing. Yummy! (or if you prefer the Polish: mniam!).

For the meat lovers, it might be interesting that “back-in-the-day,” people filled p&#261czki with bacon, meat and fatback (s&#322onina) and chased them with vodka.

Krak&#243w celebrated Fat Thursday in their own way. According to folklore, there was a misogynist mayor in Krak&#243w named Comber (c=ts) who particularly mistreated (women) peddlers by beating them, swearing at them and even jailing them. When he died on Fat Thursday, people rejoiced, danced and drank saying Comber croaked: zdech&#322 Comber.

Since then, on Fat Thursday, women dressed-up (and were buzzed more often than not), entered town at dawn (buzzed at dawn?!) and carried a effigy (named Comber) representing a man. During the game, women jumped at the effigy and ripped it apart. Once they reached the main square, they chased bachelors and if they stopped a courtier in a carriage, he had to ransom himself. They demanded a kiss from the particularly handsome but the ugly and poor bachelors were tied to a large wooden block. After a few hours of hunting and torture, dancing and drinking began.

To approach p&#261czki from a different perspective: it is always wise to cut them. Why? Because in 1924, Polish mathematicians Alfred Tarski and Stefan Banach published a paper which proved that a 3-dimensional spherical object can be cut in such a way that it can be put back together to make TWO identical copies! Leave it to the Poles to create two p&#261czki out of one!

Time to feast.

21 Awesome Polish Films Made After 1987 Part 2

8. 80 Million (80 Milionów) 2011
Director: Waldemar Krzystek
Part heist thriller, part dark comedy, 80 Million is based on a true story of young Solidarity activists that decide to take out all the Solidarity’s money from a bank in Wrocław before the proclamation of Martial Law which would block the account. In other words, they steal their own money. Unlike many other films on our list, this one is delightfully light with an easy to follow good vs. evil story line. The Solidarity activists are noble freedom fighters and the security police is composed of inept officers. Throw some wily Catholic priests into the mix that work for the underground, and you’ve a movie that everyone can enjoy.

9. Three Colors 1993-1994
Director: Krzysztof Kie&#347lowski
Three Colors is actually a trilogy: Blue, White and Red. The colors represent the French flag as seen from left to right and the movies are loosely themed on the themes of the French Revolution, i.e. liberty, equality, fraternity but they go far beyond that. In the films, liberty is presented as an emotional freedom, not political or social. These films are hypnotic, challenge the imagination, the performances are brilliant, the music is nearly divine and the cinematography is absolutely incredible. It is quite possible Kie&#347lowski’s best work and is best seen and not read about.

10. Aftermath (Pokłosie) 2012
Director: Władysław Pasikowski
Aftermath is a Holocaust-themed thriller and drama, thus, another difficult yet incredible film. Inspired by (although not documenting) the events discussed in the 2001 book Neighbors by Jan Gross, it tells the story of Franciszek (who just returned from Chicago after living in emigration for some 20 years) and Józef Kalina who is shunned by the community for acquiring and displaying slabs of stone which were Jewish tombstones before the war. It is a strong drama which asks pertinent questions about history and about today’s world.

11. Pan Tadeusz 1999
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Based on the eponymous epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz it is a story of, passion, love, murder, guilt, exile, hidden identities, a family feud and perhaps most importantly, an incredible yearning patriotic yearning experienced by Poles living in exile after the 1830 insurrection. The plot of the poem can be interpreted in different ways but its setting in a manor house in Lithuania allows for beautiful imagery and the beautiful soundtrack by Wojciech Kilar (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Pianist) make this a great film to watch.

12. Big Animal (Duże Zwierzę) 2000 (yay, a comedy!)
Director: Jerzy Stuhr
One day, Zygmunt Sawicki (Stuhr) finds a camel in his garden. He is immediately drawn to the animal and adopts it. This creates a sensation in the small town where people at first find the exotic animal interesting but soon grow suspicious of the animal and slowly alienate Sawicki. The film, a modern fable, teaches the audience about individuality, loneliness and intolerance.

13. Popiełuszko: Freedom Is Within Us (Popiełuszko: Wolność jest w nas) 2009
Director: Rafał Wieczyński
A biographical drama about the life and work of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Catholic priest closely associated with the Solidarity union. He became a spiritual voice of the nation who interwove anti-Communist messages with spiritual exhortations. His critique of the system was not necessarily political or economic but humanitarian; he opposed the terror and intimidation practiced by the party.

14. Rose (Róża) 2011
Director: Wojciech Smarzowski
In a land devastated by war, Tadeusz visits Róża, a wife of a Wehrmacht soldier whose death he witnessed. She asks him to stay and the two (surprise) fall in love. The story is set against a background of postwar devastation where rule of law is non-existent and looting and rape are the order of the day. The story also deals with the tragic history of the Masurian people (never heard of them? Exactly).

21 Awesome Polish Films Made After 1987 Part 1

Martin Scorsese introduced his masterpieces of Polish cinema that tour the US with him. All the films on that list are incredible. After all, one of the most preeminent movie critics of our time handpicked them. However, the last film on that list was made in 1987 so we decided to offer a list of 21, perhaps not masterpieces, but awesome Polish films made since then.
A little disclaimer: this is a list of personal favorites that is not made by a film critic but by a historian and it reflects that. They are not high budget films with incredible special effects but they ask questions and can perhaps teach us something. We hope that you will find some of these films worth checking out!

1. Katyń (2007 Best Foreign Language Film Nominee)
Director: Andrzej Wajda
The film examines the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers, doctors, lawyers etc. in the forests of Katyń by the Soviet Union during World War II. It also explores the different ways people dealt with the tragedy and adopted to a new communist system after the war.

2. In Darkness (W Ciemności 2011) Best Foreign Language Film Nominee
Director: Agnieszka Holland
In Darkness is based on a true story of Leopold Socha, a sewage worker who hid Jews in the sewers of the city of Lwów during World War II. It tells the story of a change of heart as Leopold started helping the Jews for money and eventually continued to help them long after their money ran out and it had become ever more dangerous.

3. Ida (2013)
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Taking place in 1962, the film is about two women. Anna is a young novice who is about to take her vows to become a nun but is sent by her Mother Superior to meet her only living relative; her aunt Wanda. Wanda is a communist state prosecutor who reveals to Anna her Jewish heritage and the two women explore their past and search for their personal and national identity. Shot in beautiful black and white the film is taking the world one prize at a time with wins at festivals in Gdynia, Warsaw, London and Toronto.

4. Double Life of Veronique (1991)
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Double Life of Veronique is an art masterpiece. The film tells the story of Veronika and her double Veronique, who do not know each other yet their lives yet they share a mysterious bond that transcends language barriers. The camera work and usage of color filters gives the picture an incredible quality. The music, composed by Zbigniew Preisner, is hauntingly beautiful.

5. The Cathedral (2002 nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film)
Director: Tomek Bagiński
This is a short animated science fiction film that was nominated for an Oscar. Just watch it.

6. Time to Die (Pora umierać) 2007
Director: Dorota Kędzierzawska
Aniela grew up in interwar Poland and is now somewhat of a relic of a past long-gone. She lives in a large house that her nouveau-riche neighbors want to get from her by all means necessary with the help of her cold-hearted son. She decides to not give up so easily. The pictures are beautifully shot in black and white. Despite its reflection on old-age and loneliness, it makes you feel good without becoming banal. (Not the best trailer but the only one we found in English.)

7. Kiler (1997)
Director: Juliusz Machulski
To step away from the series themes for a bit, Kiler is a comedy that enjoyed tremendous domestic success. Jurek Kiler is a taxi driver who is mistaken for a notorious mercenary assassin by both the police and the mafia. He decides to play along and the hilarity ensues. Many phrases from the film entered into colloquial language and the success of the movie caused Hollywood to buy rights for it with the intention of adapting it for the American market but nothing came of it. Still, the film is well worth checking out even with the less-than-perfect translation.

Oh why do the Poles celebrate Vegetarian Day?

January 11 is Vegetarian Day in Poland. This creates a problem for those that want to honor it but are used to their beef and pork goł&#261bki. Polish cuisine is meat-oriented so what can we do with this problem? It seems that whatever we may eat, we’ll feel miserable. Hmmm… let’s eat misery!

There is a Polish side dish called mizeria (misery). It is a cucumber salad so it’s meatless and easy to prepare. But why is there a dish called misery anyway? Well, one story suggests that cucumbers were favorite of Queen Bona Sforza, wife of Sigismund I the Old. Since they were common in Italy, she would cry every time she saw cucumbers and hence the name of the dish. Since cucumbers were quite common in Poland since at least the middle ages, it suggests that the queen cried quite often. Poor thing.

To make the salad you’ll need:
1 cucumber
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or chive (not both)
1 or 2 tablespoon vinegar (optional, makes the author of this article miserable)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional and not for purists, the author of this article does not approve)
Lemon, (optional, the author of this article does not know, never tried it)
Slice cucumbers, add salt so it adheres to them, drain water, add sour cream and mix. Smacznego!

Kol&#281dnicy id&#261

In Poland, Christmas time is special and magical. There are myriads of customs and traditions associated with the time of year during which people celebrate the birth of Jesus. The most well known Polish traditions are the Pasterka and Wigilia. Pasterka, which could be literally translated as shepherdess but really means Shepherd’s Mass is celebrated at midnight Christmas Day. Wigilia, from Latin vigilare, means to watch, or wakefulness (and we also draw the English word vigil). Wigilia literally means eve in Polish and wieczerza wigilijna is the dinner enjoyed by the family after the first star appears on the firmament.

Another Christmas tradition celebrated to this day in Poland is Christmas caroling; kol&#281dowanie. The custom is celebrated between Christmas Day and Epiphany, i.e. January, 6th. During this time, the priest walks from one household to another with blessing and prayer. Children and teenagers also go around singing Christmas carols (and receive some money for it). People visit their friends and family and traditionally enter with a carol on their lips.

This tradition of kol&#281dowanie, evolved from an earlier, pagan-inspired holiday of Gody, or fertility. During winter solstice, the light defeats darkness (days become longer) thus people are optimistic, joyful, and full of hope. At this time, people would put hay under their tables (sounds familiar?) to foretell the future by pulling pieces of straw and appease the gods Siem and Rig&#322 who were gods of homes and fields respectively. (It is possible that this was in fact one god Siemrig&#322.) They also observed the weather over the 12 days to foretell the weather for the next 12 months.

The carolers (kol&#281dnicy) walked from house to house singing carols (kol&#281dy), which in this meaning refer to songs welcoming the new-year and wished health, benediction, good harvest etc. in the upcoming new year. When children spotted the carolers, they exclaimed: kol&#281dnicy id&#261!; the carolers are coming! The tradition of good wishing is known as winszowanie (literally, congratulate), and is done in rhyme and good cheer. It might go something like this:

Turo&#324 from the Folk Art Gallery

By the grace of our Lord May you have plenty,
In barn and in pantry,
May moles not dig up your field,
And bogeyman* in your dreams not be concealed
May you have sheep the size of horses,
And cows the size of elephants,
May you do nothing but eat, drink, and play,
But from time to time remember to pray
A coin from you, host, may we receive,
And in good cheer and happiness leave,
May God bless you.

(*note: what is translated as boogeyman, is in fact Bebok. In Polish folklore, likely inspired by a Slavic entity by the same name, Bebok (Babok, Bobok, or Bobo) was a demon that liked to make mischief, beat children and so forth. He could be appeased with gifts of food. Adults used him to scare their children if they misbehaved: “if you don’t behave, Bobok will take you”.)

This traditional troupe of carolers consisted of monsters (maszkary) and varied by region but some of the more recognizable characters are turo&#324 (auroch), wolf, bear, goat, horse, star-carrier (gwiazdorz), stork, policeman, soldier, chimneysweep, Gypsy, Jew, devil, death, and, of course, musicians.

All would dress up in their respective costumes but the person playing turo&#324 had a special role. Usually a nimble lad with a knack for tricks and pranks would be chosen and he would wear a sheepskin or an overcoat with fur lining to cover up as much of his body as possible including his head. He would carry a stick with a head of an auroch, usually made of wood so the large mouth could make noises when shut. He would sometimes be led by a chain by the leader of the troupe (star-carrier). Once the troupe entered a cottage, turo&#324 would play tricks, run around the cottage, dance, make animal noises, scare children and provide overall entertainment. An important part of the ritual was that at one point, turo&#324 fell on the floor as if dead and had to be revived, usually by massaging, magic incantations, pouring vodka into his snout, and burning hay. He would then revitalize and start his pranks again. This symbolized Slavic vegetative magic as earth was reborn and spring was heralded.