The City of Ruins

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67 years ago the Warsaw Uprising ended.

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Undo

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A man finds a book about his own life and tries to change it. Will changing the book affect his life?

Undo, a short film by Marcin Waśko

Some additional questions that come to my mind:

How much in our life is determined by things that happened earlier, and how many of those things are imaginary, a kind of fiction we built but in our heads (or someone else did it for us propaganda-style) that influenced our decisions and actions?

Flying University at Ravensbrück

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Poles were the largest group at Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women, followed by Germans, Jews and Russians. The four national groups combined made for 3/4 of all the inmates. The remainder were women of over 15 nationalities, including Belgians, French, Italians, Czech, and even two Americans among others.

Jack Gaylord Morrison described the Flying University organized there in his book Ravensbrück: everyday life in a women’s concentration camp, 1939-45. However, he doesn’t seem to be aware that this kind of education provided there by Polish women was a part of a larger system. He also happens to think that the large number of Polish female teachers in the camp was a coincidence rather than a regular demographic pattern of the Polish resistance movement. In other words, he describes what he learnt about the particular courses there without knowing the larger background. Still, it’s a good example of the Flying University in action:

Educational Programs

“The eagerness with which women prisoners pursued culture and learning seems to have been almost as intense as their zeal to discuss food. Examples abound: Belgian prisoners had their own chorus, readings of literature, and even organized language courses. Almost all the other national groups acted similarly, frequently having readings or discussions of important works in their own language. As a group, the Communists do not seem to have been as culturally active as some others, but they had different priorities. They had discussions of Marxist theory, and for a time they held readings of War and Peace in their barracks.

“The learning of languages was pursued relentlessly. In nearly every barracks there was instruction in the German language, although this no doubt had as much to do with the survival instinct as with a love of learning. There was quite a lot of English instruction as well. In the elite blocks, where conditions were more conducive to learning, Gemma Gluck taught both a basic English course and an advanced conversation class. Rita Sprengel, who already knew English, French, and German and worked as an interpreter in the camp, took advantage of the opportunity and learned a fourth language, Russian. Textbooks and little dictionaries, all of them handwritten and small enough to be easily hidden during work, were passed around and copied hundreds of times. Eugenia Kocwa, who gave English lessons, wrote her own textbook on 80 sheets of toilet paper.

“In none of the blocks was education and learning pursued with more vigor than in the Polish blocks. Isa Vermehren, mercilessly objective when it came to discussing nationalities, including her fellow Germans (whom she mostly despised), judged that the Poles had an intellectual level unmatched by any other group in the camp. The fact that the earliest transports from Poland were composed of many teachers undoubtedly contributed to this. They set a tone and a standard which were never relinquished or surpassed.

“What distinguished the Polish educational effort from that of the other national groups was not only its scope and breadth, but also the fact that it was a system, not just a random offering of talks. Systems need organization and leadership, and this was provided early on by Helena Salska, an experienced educator, a Master (Magister) in history. Salska taught, but more important, she gave the program a sense of direction.

“Lists are generally boring, but take a quick look at the list of subject areas taught (and the wide range of instructors) in the Polish underground educational system:

  • Polish Language and Literature: Wińska, Bromowicz, Panakówna, Świebodzianka, Szartowska
  • Chemistry: Chorążna, Dydyńska
  • Physics: Tyrankiewicz, Sierakowska
  • Geography: Peretjatkowicz, Mazurek
  • Mathematics and Astronomy: Prof. Milewska, Modzelewska, Babińska-Dobrowolska
  • Anatomy: Dr. Mączka
  • European History: Salska
  • Cultural History, Education: Lanckorońska
  • Ancient History: Panenkowa
  • German Language: Karier-Westfalowa
  • French Language: Jordan, Krasicka
  • English Language: Kocwa
  • Latin: Madlerowa, Zawadzka

“The people who taught in these areas were well qualified, in many cases experienced teachers. In the winter of 1942, every morning between roll call and work call, a group of women met for half an hour in a corner of Block 15. There Urszula Wińska, a trained specialist in Polish studies, offered a course in Polish literature. At first, there were six participants, later twenty. Irena Panenkowa’s lecture on Socrates was so well received that she was asked to repeat it, and ended up giving it on five different occasions.

“Polish teachers conducted lessons from memory, sometimes using sticks and dirt in place of chalk and blackboards. They held discussions and study sessions. They granted no diplomas or degrees, but after the war Stanisława Czajkowska was given credit for her second, third, and fourth classes in the Gymnasium (college preparatory high school) for the academic work she did at Ravensbrück. More significantly, these programs helped to give the Polish women a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and an awareness of their self-worth that was vital to their survival.”

Jack Gaylord Morrison, Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-45

I’ll add that it’s a very good book that everyone interested in Gender Studies and/or the history of Holocaust and WWII should read. Morrison describes women’s hell and the various ways in which they coped with it. While touching upon difficult subjects it’s nonetheless uplifting thanks to the detailed discussion of women’s activities. They were brave and resourceful.

Flying University in WWII

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From the start of WWII (and even earlier in the case of the Soviets) both the Nazis and Communists had a joint objective: to murder the Polish intelligentsia. Due to Poland’s troubled history only educated people felt Poles. It means that a peasant living near Białystok didn’t necessarily have any national identity. Such people were seen as fair game by both the Soviets and the Nazis to either enslave or brainwash (and both regimes wanted to steal the peasants’ land and use them as cheap source of work). However, a Polish intelligent posed the threat of “infecting” the peasant and his family with “Polish ideas” which could cause all kinds of troubles, like building up a strong resistance movement. Therefore, the intelligentsia had to die, and it was the first priority of both regimes.

Naturally, I know that Jews were the greatest victims of the Nazis, but it’s what we know because we know the history. From 1939 to 1941 the Nazis weren’t yet decided about the fate of Jews. They knew though, that they didn’t want the Polish intelligentsia around. In a short time thousands of teachers and university professors were either killed or thrown to concentration camps. Measures were taken to prevent people from learning. One could die for carrying Polish textbooks. In the Soviet Union, the “Polish action” began yet in 1937 on the territories with a significant Polish minority. The Soviets killed about 200 thousand of Poles yet before WWII had began.

In the meantime, the remnants of the Polish intelligentsia who evaded deportation did exactly what the regimes feared: educated another generation of Poles. All the kids who fought in the Warsaw Rising 1944 were students of the Flying University.

Clandestine Lessons

Clandestine Lessons

Students of the Flying University

Students of the Flying University

The idea of the Flying University goes back to the 19th century when Poland was partitioned. Back then the university provided the only forum for scholarly exchange of ideas that were banned under the official regime of the tsarist Russia. It was also the only place where women could study (thousands of them graduated from the Flying University). When WWII broke out the Flying University returned, clandestinely educating tens of thousands of young people.

Come back on Thursday for a post about the Government in Exile.

Constitutional Peasants

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Monty Python’s story about boosting their sales by creating a YouTube account where they upload their clips for free is one more example of how internet changes our world. They sell by asking users who watch their vids to buy their DVDs at Amazon. You can do so here too, by clicking on the pic on the left.

I’ve been browsing their channel today, and found this video both hilarious and very fitting for this blog:

Constitutional Peasants

Fallen Art

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I have a pleasure to show you the Fallen Art. It is one of many offerings from Platige Image, written, directed and produced by Tomek Bagiński.

From the company’s press kit:

On an old, forgotten military base in the Pacific, soldiers who have lost their minds due to the hardships of war have been gathered to complete one final mission.

There, far away from civilization, Sergeant Al cultivates his love for the brave soldiers, Dr. Friedrich cultivates his talent for photography, and the mentally lost General A creates his art.
But, General A does not use paper nor canvas, he attempts something completely different.

Characters according to the Fallen Art website:

Britney the FrogCompany’s mascot

The frog accidentally got into the Atoll base with the transport of frozen goods. She stayed there as she had nothing better to do. No storms, fresh ocean breeze, a piece of grass.

What more could an amphibian want from life?

The base is the frog’s heaven.

Private 0A-7691Private

The army’s mass-produced cannon fodder. 0A series. Good parameters. Normalized height, weight and character. Never negates the orders, doesn’t surprise with individuality, self-sustaining instinct reduced to minimum. A born volunteer. Easily exchangeable, entirely or in parts.

Doctor Johann FriedriechA company’s doctor

Born too late for World War II, too early for the present conflicts. He regrets that very much. Always unhappy.

His main occupation is the analysis of pain.

Advanced rheumatism, from which he suffers since childhood, makes the pain unbearable, even during sleep. And so he learns how to feel pleasure out of pain – no matter if his or someone else’s. Besides that, photography is his hobby.

Sergeant AlRecruits’ keeper

A coarse sense of humour and narcissism he has taken after his uncle. An impressive body after his mother.

He loves his subordinates. Very much. They, due to the lack of alternatives, love him. The love blossoms in the barracks, especially in the evenings.

However, Al loves the army he serves much more. When the army calls, he is able to send the troops to their death without hesitation. He cries out of emotion after the fact.

Well, nobody’s heart is made of stone.

General AGeneral

The chief of the unit by assignation, the artist by choice.

The soldiers call him “master”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fallen Art:

Google Voice vs Open Source

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I love my Gmail account. When I recall the various problems I had with Microsoft Outlook on the one hand and spammed free online accounts on the other, Gmail means freedom and security.

Today, the Contacts list popped up with a new feature (not available outside of the US yet): Google Voice. That’s a kind of Skype in your Gmail. The pricing looks encouraging and I should be ecstatic while waiting for Google to launch the feature in Poland. Why am I not?

The other day I read a post by someone whose Google account got deleted. The post is now deleted too, and I don’t know if it means the problem was solved or it was a hoax. Still, I think the problem remains. What if we move all of our online data, contacts, emails, docs, ebook purchases and more over to Google, and then Google decides to delete our account?

Yesterday, over at the Polish wordpress.org forum someone said they had a problem with their blog. It turned out someone in Poland began offering free blogs operating on WordPress. Nothing wrong with that, but they failed to provide sufficient support and the user ended up asking for help at the .org site. Since there was nothing we could do for him, he downloaded his posts and deleted the account, saying he’d give up blogging entirely. I suggested he should open an account with wordpress.com, which he did and said he was very happy with the result.

Well, that was easy. Something that might have been frustrating and discourage a blogger for good, ended up winning another happy user to WordPress.

But that’s the issue. WordPress, thanks to its Open Source policy, is universal. There are millions of sites operating on WordPress and they’re all compatible. Nothing can be done on one site that a series of plugins couldn’t do on another. Thanks to that our data is safe and truly ours. Matt Mullenweg compares wordpress.org to owning a house and wordpress.com to renting an apartment. But I’d say the most important thing is that with WordPress you’re never homeless.

With time, we’ll be moving our life more and more into the internet. I mean, why on earth should I still keep all those dusted books when I can just view a file? But it also means that our life achievements may disappear over night without prior notice. And if we are notified we still won’t know where to take our stuff.

There is free (as in without costs) and there is free (as in freedom). Google gives us the first, but how to secure the second?

P.S. I now read that the Google account cancellation had its follow up. Glad it ended up well for the user. Sorry it’s still a problem for so many others.

The Fighting Age

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Why were the soldiers of Armia Krajowa (AK, i.e. Home Army) so young?

Poland made the fourth largest contribution to WWII in Europe, after the US, UK and USSR. Greater than the much larger France for example. And yet Poland was only a 35 million nation. That is to say, the number of Polish soldiers, just like the number of Poles, was limited. Only ca 65% of Polish citizens considered themselves Poles, and some of them, like the large (15%) Ukrainian and (5%) German minorities, were more likely to join the Nazis than the Poles. Jews (10%) were cut off early in the war when the Nazis closed them in the ghettoes, and they were killed in the Holocaust by the time of the uprising (although there were Jews in the Polish Army, and those Jews who hid on the “Aryan” side in Warsaw joined the uprising). The ethnic division already shrinks the number of Poles to 23 million or so.

After the ill fated September Campaign 1939 the Polish Army fought all over the world, but not in Poland. When the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland in 1939 both took POWs, but also both took as many civilians at the fighting age as they could. The Nazis organized łapanki (street roundups) targeted first of all (though not exclusively) at males aged 16-40 who were sent to the concentration camps or the slave labour in the Reich. And the Soviets targeted soldiers’ families. A great number of Poles living in the Eastern Poland were soldiers to begin with. They received land as a form of payment for their fighting in the Polish-Bolshevik War 1920 (the newly created Polish State was too poor to pay them salary). Now, Soviets arrested their families as the most likely to put resistance. They sent them to Gulags, the concentration camps in Siberia.

Łapanka (roundup)

Łapanka (roundup)

In other words, from the beginning of the war, Soviets and Nazis joined their forces to exile or kill millions of Poles in the fighting age. If you were 15 in 1939 (too young to be taken seriously by the Nazis) you were the eldest boy in your neighbourhood. By 1944 you were 20, old enough to become a Home Army officer.

Early in the war the Polish Government in Exile sent 300 well trained and trusted soldiers to organize resistance. Those were the adults.

The Warsaw Uprising generation were kids of the war. The youngest of them hardly remembered what the world before the war looked like. They wanted to fight. Like all kids all over the world they wanted to become free and make a difference.

Soldiers, Warsaw Uprising 1944

Soldiers, Warsaw Uprising 1944

The young age of the soldiers is one of the reasons why the uprising remains a hotly disputed event in Poland. It’s difficult to compromise the need to put resistance with the evil of sending children (boys and girls) to death.

Come back on Monday to read about the Flying University in WWII.

The W Hour

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At 5 o’Clock, 67 years from today, the Warsaw Rising 1944 broke out. It was the single largest civilian struggle against the Nazi Germany in occupied Europe.

Among the most striking aspects of the event there are the young soldiers (mostly teenagers) and their great organizational skills. For 63 days kids, many aged roughly 10-20, took over the capital of Poland. They had to defend the town against the Nazis, but also provide food and water to the civilians, and organize hospitals and fire fighting squads. Likewise, the entire war propaganda and various channels of communication were in their hands.

Warsaw Uprising

Naturally, we call them soldiers and they receive all the distinctions of soldiers from the Polish government, but it's good to remember how young they were. Girls and boys of the Warsaw Rising 1944.

I decided to write a short series, starting today, that will highlight those of their achievements that weren’t directly linked to combat. This blog is meant to demonstrate the importance of open society, freedom of speech and information (including internet platforms such as WordPress, YouTube or Twitter) to democracy and individual freedoms.

Many, many people all over the world still may want to learn from the insurgents to establish free channels providing information and support to people in their regions.

I also hope to help empower all those people who feel powerless in the face of oppression. The example of so young people being able to do so much may bring hope and strength to many others. I know it helped Poles, in many ways, to struggle through the era of Communism.

Look out for the next post on Thursday.