“My chains fell off”: Nowa Huta & the Push for Polish Freedom

One of my earliest political memories is the falling of the Berlin Wall and my parents trying to explain that a divided continent was coming back together. In this series, I’m offering reflections and tips for travelers to the former East.   Having seen the physical scars in Berlin, I will soon turn to Prague and Budapest but in this post I visit Krakow and find evidence in a lesser known suburb of some of the key influences on the fall of communism in that country. 

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Nowa Huta in snow

It was snowing as we arrived in this outer suburb of Krakow.  The map just didn’t seem to match anything like the roads on the ground.  I was in the middle of one of those high rise housing estates which aren’t an obvious holiday destination.   And the locals were looking suspiciously at my hire car slipping around their roads.  Despite the unpromising start, this is one of the best places to visit in order to understand Poland since the 1970s and how the shackles of communism fell off.

Rather than getting lost in some edge-of-city housing estate, most people visiting Krakow spend time at the castle and cathedral.  Rightly so, as the place where royals were crowned is beautiful and surprisingly intimate.  It also shows how religion and politics have always been interlinked in Krakow with monarchs, politicians and the church all using one to gain power over the other.  The castle illustrates the wealth and influence these lands had for centuries before for communism came to Poland.

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Krakow castle district

A visit to the suburb of Nowa Huta, however, provided me with an understanding of the more recent social, political and religious history of Krakow and Poland.  The buildings and architecture show how, in the middle of the 20th Century, the ancient order was challenged by the communist regime.  When building Nowa Huta, the communist authorities wanted to build the perfect estate which embodied Social Realist values [1].  Today you can see the resulting rows of straight, concrete blocks providing functional housing along wide roads with shared communal space.  There was seemingly successful industry to provide jobs.  Through its buildings, the communist rulers were trying to create a dream to challenge the old regime, including its faith.   Therefore, if the new religion was to be communism, then no churches were constructed for the old Catholic faith.

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Statue of John Paul II outside Arka Pana

However, between the functional buildings, churches can now be spotted and many of these hint at how the communist plans started to crumble in the 1970s and 80s.  Following local pressure from worshipers, priests and bishops, one of the first churches to open was the Arka Pana.  Outside is a statue of John Paul II who, as Archbishop of Krakow, supported the building of churches in this area [2].  His later appointment as Pope boosted national morale and his interventions helped the lifting of trade sanctions by the US [3].  The flowers and candles at the foot of the stature remind you how proud Krakow’s residents remain of one of its most famous sons.

Just as the Catholic church was trying to say something different to this communist world, so the architecture of the Arka Pana church building is symbolically different to those around.   It is shaped like an ark as if to carry its people to safety.  Between the blocks of straight-lined concrete apartments, the church stands out with its rounded, circular corners.  A world of concrete is contrasted by the wood and stone of the church.  The church building was showing the cultural change the institution of the church can bring.  Inside, the light, the materials and the images are beautiful.

Faith remains strong here, as seen in the construction of this building 40 years ago and in its continued use today.  As I entered in the mid-afternoon sunshine, I was scowled at as a tourist disturbing the dozen people who had popped in for a moment’s prayer.  Just as the ancient Cathedral in the centre of Krakow has stood for centuries, so will this church as a powerful symbol of hope.

Through grass-roots activity, the church challenged the authority by gradually building churches and communities which diminished the influence of the political leadership [4] and the Arka Pana is physical evidence of that shift.  This influence continues to this day, despite evidence that not all priests opposed the communist leadership, instead chosing to be informants [5].

But it wasn’t just the church which was pressing for change in Poland.  You can spot empty wastelands and shells of factory buildings in Nowa Huta.  Economic change also drove the political change, as the economy stagnated, foreign investment from the Polish Diaspora encouraged reforn [6].  The rise of Solidarity, the trade union movement, led to a political alternative emerging across Poland [7], including in Krakow.   As you visit Nowa Huta, the resulting move away from heavy industry can be seen but a new economy can also be seen emerging with retail and office parks popping up.

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My Chains Fell Off at St Maximilian Kolbe

But how did my snowy hunt finish up in the middle of the housing estate?  Eventually, among the concrete tower blocks, the church of St Maximilian Kolbe appeared, a white beacon on the edge of the hill.  That was, of course, the intention behind the design of this church – that it symbolised hope for change to the community around it.  Inside, a rather camp looking Jesus stands there with His chains broken which seems to emphasise the freedoms offered by the church both spiritually and politically.  By touring the churches and buildings of a lesser-known suburb of Krakow, I saw evidence of the social, economic and religious influences which resulted in change and, eventually, for “chains fall off” the people of Poland.

 

References

[1] Lebow, K. (2001).  Public Works, Private Lives: Youth Brigades in Nowa Huta in the 1950s.  Contemporary European History, 10(2), pp.199-219.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20081786

[2] Website: Parish of St Maximilian Kolbe, Parish History.  http://www.mistrzejowice.net/Historia,ke/Historia-Parafii,acb.html Accessed: 31/08/16.

[3] Andrzej, F. The Solidarity Movement – Freedom for Europe.  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

[4] Philpott, D. (2004).  The Christian Wave. Journal of Democracy, 15(2), pp.32-46.   https://muse.jhu.edu/article/54678/summary

[5] Dragostinova, T. (2009) 1989 Twenty Years On: the End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe.  Origins. 3(3), URL: https://origins.osu.edu/print/64

[6] Antoni, D. The Year 1989 – The End of Communism in Poland.  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

[7] Stenning, A. (2003), Shaping the Economic Landscapes of Postsocialism? Labour, Workplace and Community in Nowa Huta, Poland. Antipode, 35, pp.761–780. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/doi/10.1046/j.1467-8330.2003.00349.x/epdf

 

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