Category Archives: famous Poles

Polska? Tak!

This first post after a long break is a rather impressive video produced by the Public and Diplomacy Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland.

It features a whole host of Hollywood A-listers and other celebs – from Natalie Portman to Russell Crowe, from Robert Redford and Tom Hanks to Daniel Radcliffe and Linda Evangelista – talking about one subject. Poland.

Whether it’s their families, their impressions of Poland, architecture, co-workers or the “crazy” things those Poles do (yes, Russell Crowe, I’m looking at you) – everyone has a Polish story to share in this promotional video the Ministry posted on YouTube.

A lot of that is archive material, but you’ll be surprised how many people have some sort of family or other connection with Poland. Unless you already knew that, in which case this will only reinforce your suspicions ;)

Pretty impressive stuff in any case.

Henryk Górecki dies

Sad news this morning – Polish composer, Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, best known for his “Third Symphony”, died in Poland at the age of 76.

Born in Silesia, he spent most of his life working and teaching in Katowice, the heart of the most industrialised region in Poland. Until early 1990s he remained largerly unknown, even in Poland. But his “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, also known as the “Third Symphony”, composed in the late 70s and released in 1992 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, made his name famous in Poland and abroad.

Here is how the New York Times described the symphony’s – and Gorecki’s – rise to fame in 1994:

As Communism in Poland crumbled during 1989, so Gorecki’s music spread. By 1990, Symphony No. 3 was being premiered with big orchestras from Brooklyn to Sydney, and several recordings were made. But not until the smooth voice of the soprano Dawn Upshaw, combined with the full sound of the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman on the Elektra Nonesuch label did all the fuss start.

Released in May 1992, the 52-minute recording moved the symphony from a respected piece in the modern repertory to a universally popular work. The recording held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s classical chart for 37 weeks and has sat in the top 25 for 93 weeks. It peaked at No. 6 on the British pop chart. Worldwide sales of the Nonesuch recording were over 600,000 by the end of the year. Orchestras rushed to perform the work as a way of keeping up with their audiences. Naturally, this renown didn’t escape the movie makers. The director Peter Weir chose the first movement of the symphony for the climactic scene in his movie “Fearless.”

Another great Polish composer is gone. But his music, inspired by the beauty and the soul of the Tatra Mountains remains:

Lukas Podolski and the history of Upper Silesia

podolski wyborcza screengrab

If you watched the World Cup last month, and the matches where Germany played in particular, you probably noticed a German player called Lukas Podolski. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the name sounds Polish and that he might in fact be Polish.

He is, well, he was. He was born as Łukasz Podolski  in Gliwice, Upper Silesia, where his family still lives. I know that as a Polish paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, got very excited last week as the 25-year old visited his Gran in Gliwice.

They followed him with a camera and took some pictures of him in his old neighbourhood. As you do.

But when you read his Wikipedia entry, that’s when it gets interesting. It would seem the history of his family – very similar to those of thousands of other Upper Silesian families – reflects the complexities of life on a territory with a strongly defined identity, but extremely turbulent and at times violent history.

In 1987, when Łukasz Podolski was two years old, his family emigrated from Poland to West Germany and was given Aussiedler status as a result of his paternal grandparents having German citizenship prior to WWII (Gliwice had until 1945 been a part of Germany as Gleiwitz).[4] Podolski grew up in Bergheim, North Rhine-Westphalia, and later in Pulheim, both near Cologne.

Many people who were born and grew up in Upper Silesia took advantage of the fact they were entitled to another citizenship and left Poland at the height of the crisis in the 80s to settle in Germany (and beyond). Many did that in the 70s too, but after the martial law period of the early 80s many families simply didn’t see their future in a politically and economically unstable country.

There have been many heartbreaking stories of people abandoning their entire houses, flats, cars, whetever – and going on “one-way trips”. For most people these “trips” ended in temporary immigration camps in Germany, where they learned their new language, acquired some new skills and started new lives.

In most cases, these people eventually settled down and started new, happier lives. Even though in many cases it took ages to bring the entire family to Germany and get accepted in the new environment.

There have been many tragic stories too: people returning to Poland with absolutely nothing; young people unable to find themselves in the new reality, removed from their friends and unable to make new ones, drinking themselves to death; families torn by unfulfilled expectations etc.

Now many of those who left return to Upper Silesia to visit their relatives and friends, some decide to settle in Poland again or spend their retirement there.

Many however despair looking at how this once thriving and rich part of Poland struggles to catch up with the rest of the country now that the heavy industry – and a big chunk of its population -  is gone.

I wonder what Lukas made of his trip.

Poland in mourning

This is undoubtedly the biggest tragedy Poland has endured since the end of the Second World War. This morning the presidential plane, en route to Smolensk in eastern Russia, crashed in thick fog as it came to landing.

The initial reports were unclear and confusing, but now we know that Poland has lost its current President, Lech Kaczynski. This morning’s crash wiped out a large part of Poland’s political elite as, apart from the President and his wife, there were 94 other high-ranking dignitaries onboard the plane.

Among those who tragically died in the accident were the former London-based President of Poland in Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, deputy heads of both chambers of the Polish parliament: Krzysztof Putra, Jerzy Szmajdzinski and Krystyna Bochenek, the head of the Polish National Security Office, Aleksander Szczyglo, the head of the Polish National Bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, several MPs, top army leaders, church leaders and numerous members of the late President’s entourage.

The painfully ironic, if the word is appropriate here at all, aspect of the tragedy is the fact they were en route to Katyn near Smolensk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre. Seventy years ago Soviets killed over twenty thousand Polish prisoners of war. By murdering top intellectuals, military personel, public servants etc. they wiped out the Polish elite. For decades, until 1990, Moscow denied any involvement, blaming Nazi Germany for it.

The fact that this tragedy mirrors the events of March 1940 is a very cruel twist of history and a massive blow to a country which in recent years has been emerging from decades of humiliation and suffering. And that’s regardless of what whoever thinks about the President, whose conservative policies and controversial comments often polarised the society.

Poland will need to brace itself for a very difficult period of rebuilding its power structures. Questions will be asked about the incident, about security policies, about the next steps. But I just hope this time Poland will take a more mature, less divisive approach to these issues.

The former Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, referring to today’s tragedy in the forest outside Smolensk and the Katyn Massacre of 1940 said: “This place is damned.”

It’s very difficult to disagree with him.

Dear Santa….

I just want one CD for Christmas. I know it’s almost a year old, but I’ve only just been told about it. (Yeah, thanks, ‘friends’ for keeping me up to date). And I instantly fell in love with it.

Mieczyslaw Fogg was a very famous Polish crooner, whose career spanned half a century. He first started singing before the war and kept performing well into the 1980s. Always well-groomed, well-mannered, he appealed to the melancholic middle-aged ladies, who always dreamed of having a husband like him.

Needless to say, when I was a teenager it wasn’t particularly cool to listen to him. Actually, it wasn’t cool at all.

Fast forward twenty-odd years to 2008 and Fogg is back in fashion, but this time among the hip, twenty-something crowd.

Several young Polish artists re-recorded or remixed some of his old songs and released an album called Cafe Fogg. If you’re familiar with the Verve Remixed series, Cafe Fogg is in many ways very similar to that.

Here’s my absolute favourite, Bo to sie tak zwykle zaczyna (That’s the way it usually begins). The original song was remixed by The Bumelants and I love it:

Here’s another one I like – a song called Kiedy będziesz zakochany (When you’re in love), re-recorded by Novika:

Dear Santa! Got it?!

More from Cultural Beast

Celebrate Frederic Chopin’s birthday

Frederic Chopin statue in Warsaw © Patrick F via Flickr

This one is for music lovers planning a trip to Warsaw.

To mark the bicentennial of Frederic Chopin’s birth (yes, he was Polish), the Polish capital has published a Chopin audio city guide.

Available in eight languages, the guide will take tourists to some key locations related to the great pianist.

You can download the audio guide from Warsaw City Hall’s website (in English and other languages) or you can get in while walking through the capital as there will be several ‘music banks’ with special codes, which you can scan using your mobile – and get the audio files this way.

If you are a Chopin fan, you’ll be pleased to know that next year over 2,000 evens are planned across the globe to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth – and over half of them will take place various cities across Poland.

Just remember that – as Chopin was born to a French father and Polish mother – his name will often be spelt in two different ways in Poland. Frederic Chopin is the internationally recognised spelling of course, but Poles will refer to him as Fryderyk Szopen. The pronunciation is similar, just swap the French accent for a Polish one ;)

So, if you haven’t been yet, it looks like 2010 might be a good year to visit Poland at last!

Frederic Chopin Statue in Warsaw – image © Patrick F via Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence