Pride and disgust

11 August 2011
Only in en
Provincial life is typically seen in Polish literature as the antithesis of culture. Paradoxically, writes Malgorzata Litwinowicz, the Polish magic realist tradition derives precisely from the small town and the image of the shtetl as centre of the universe.

There’s nothing worse than living in a small provincial town, especially for an intellectual. We consume and internalize this warning during most of our schooling, as Stefan Zeromski explains in Silaczka (1895): “It’s well known that a man of culture, thrown by the centrifugal economy of necessity from the centres of intellectual life to Klów, Kurozweki or – like Dr Obarecki – to Obrzydlówek, tends to turn into a creature that absorbs too many bottles of beer and is attacked by boredom that brings him nearly to nausea. With the passing of time, autumn rains, a lack of transportation, and the inability to speak during whole seasons, he slowly swallows small-town boredom without even noticing – just like the hare swallows eggs of tapeworms spread by dogs on the grass. The moment ‘I don’t give a damn’ bubbles up in your soul, the process of slowly dying begins…”.

Understanding the dynamics of symbolic space, any cultured young Pole will think twice about hanging around Klwów, Kurozweki, or Obrzydlówki. In short, it’s impossible to live in small towns – you can only die of boredom, which is like a nasty parasite or worse. Boleslaw Prus warns us against x-town, while Eliza Orzeszkowa bemoans the mud of Ongrod (a sad place that can’t be left for greener pastures). Mr Illmannered is one of the standard characters of such places. They spoil the air and social structure, not only in provincial towns (which are bad to begin with), but also in the calm and otherwise joyful Polish village. Elzbieta Kaczynska, in her book Urban landscape with the Backwater in the Background, gives a title to one of her chapters that sounds like a diagnosis: “The outskirts of modernization: Polish towns”. During a workshop devoted to cultural activism in local communities (led by the Institute of Polish Culture), participants were asked to present themselves at the first meeting. “I’m from Grodzisk” – said one of the students, immediately bursting into tears. To be honest, it’s not a surprise. Giving such intimate evidence in public, when you’re a student of at the university of the capital, can be like confessing an embarrassing secret.

The aversion to small towns at work in Polish culture is grounded in ambivalence about urban culture itself. If there were an encyclopaedia of “Abominations in Polish Culture” (and perhaps one should be written) an entire volume would have to be dedicated to small towns, as so much abuse and accumulated bad feelings have been heaped on them. Small towns are dirty, neglected, cramped, dreadfully similar and “provincial” – in all the worst possible meanings of this word. In the collective imagination, these towns are not places to live. They are places where one “aspires”. You don’t create in such places, you simply “seek”. And you can’t possibly be enlightened – you’re simply a reflection of the big city lights (which don’t shine too brightly in Poland). You never go to the small town or return there of your own free will – you land there by accident or by force. You’re stuck there and that’s where you’ll finish. Most importantly, we’re not from there.

While all this is well known, I still find myself surprised by the depressing and even terrifying pictures of provincial life that can be found in certain periods of Polish literature. The most forceful of these periods belongs to the time when Yiddish literature was just emerging. This was the moment when the mythology of small towns was being constructed, and the conjunction of these two developments is in the image of the shtetl, a peripheral space, which becomes the centre of the universe. “A strange thing: Why is it that Kasrylevka sympathizes with all the pains of the whole world and no one in the world sympathizes with the pains of Kasrylevka?” Sholem Alejchem was five years older than Stefan Zeromski. Icchak Lejb Perec was four years younger than Prus, and even ten years younger than Eliza Orzeszkowa.

“The world is full of wonders and mysteries, and man covers them with his small hand – that’s the way Szlemiel thinks. Szlemiel migrated from one Chelm to another, or was it the opposite?” This way of storytelling, where everyday small town life faintly obscures mystery and simple activities are full of metaphysical feelings: this is the real character of this literature. “In the middle of March, the snow began to melt, filling the streets with mud that disappeared with the late April sun. The inhabitants of the district breathed a sigh of relief that the tough and long winter had passed. Along with dusty roads, you could see carriages led by horses and whips crashing through the air. Bagel sellers used to walk along the streets with their willow baskets full of bread, shouting: ‘Fresh bagels! Small Passover breads!'” (Symcha Symchowicz, Stepson at Vistula River). This was the universe in miniature: “Nachum wasn’t even five years old and didn’t attend cheder yet, when he started to discover part of Swiderska street outside father’s garage”. Amazing: the mud is blissful and blessed, it comes with the spring light, and the street becomes the place of discoveries. This story about a small town is rooted in time and space. The word of this story has grown within the world, and is still present in this world, which means: it exists and cannot be used to judge. In every dimension, this story is fed by sensuality, and the “part of the street” being discovered becomes the show grounds for all the dimensions of life, including eros and death.

Defying the literary convention of “sentimental memories from childhood”, Mayer Kirschenblatt’s They Called Me Mayer July. Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust is a series of paintings and stories that draw on his childhood in Apt/Opatow. The one-room flat where his brother was born, where he witnessed death and funeral preparations and experienced the pangs of growing up – aging, defecating, and becoming a sexual being. These stories are not constructing a retrospective utopia, but trying to remake the world from the beginning of time. Undoing it. What makes the work effective is not the act of recalling or recollecting, but substantive and vibrant narration that is woven together with the fabric of small town life. “The dance of the story”: this Hassidic formula is not simply about the shape of the narrative. Jewish stories dance on the streets of small towns. They dance with life and death.

After all, it’s from this trend of linking narration and experience that the “magical realism of Polish literature” grows – from the time and space of the small town: “In the lower drawer of his large desk, my father kept a beautiful old map of our city. It was a whole folio of parchment pages, originally held together by strips of linen, forming an enormous wall map from a bird’s eye panorama. From this waning distance at the periphery, the city rose and grew towards the centre, beginning as an undifferentiated mass, in dense blocks and houses, cut by the ravines of the streets, becoming a group of single houses, etched with the sharp clarity of a view through binoculars. In this foreground, the engraver focused on the whole confusion and collision of streets and alleys, the sharp lines of cornices, architraves, archivolts and pilasters, all lit by the dark gold of a cloudy afternoon, which plunged all the corners and recesses into the deep shadow of sepia. Prisms of this shadow honeycombed the ravines of streets, flooding in warmth half a street here, a gap between houses there. They dramatized and organized this architectural polyphony in a gloomy romanticism of shadows. In the style of baroque panoramas, the map made the surroundings of the Crocodile Street shine with the whiteness that is usually known to Polar Regions or lands not yet explored.”

Here we see the difference between two Berdyczóws. The first (“write to me in Berdyczów”), locates itself nowhere, and no post ever reached its destination (the historical meaning of this saying – as we all know, is different. But since the times of Juliusz Slowacki, Berdyczów means nowhere). The other town – from the famous rubber stamp found by Abraham Joshua Heschel (“Association of woodcutters for studying Mishnah in Berdyczów”) – is in the centre of the world. There are people leaning over the book, they commune with the Word and they do not need a centre or any Berdyczów to do this.

What does this continuum of difference mean? The question of the origins of this divide is one thing, but I’m looking rather for its consequences.

The Jewish history of small towns (especially those on the former territory of the Kingdom of Poland and Galicia, which is the map that partially agrees with the map from the “Hassidic Stories”) is still lacking, but this is changing, albeit very slowly.

Why? I’ve tried to answer this question myself, while taking care of Jewish Piaseczno for instance, and having workshops in Sokolów Podlaski, Chelm or Klimontów. Because it’s fair and decent – this is the why. “Are you Jewish?”, young people from Tel-Aviv used to ask me, as we wandered along in Jewish Piaseczno, which is hardly noticed. “No.” “So why do you care? Do you feel personally guilty for the Holocaust?” “No”, I answered. So “Why?” Why do you care about the tzadik from Piaseczno Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, and the owner of the Icchek Flint sparkling water factory, or the teahouse of the illiterate Fajga Flint? I have to admit that the shadow of this suspicion has always accompanied me. Isn’t all this interest only a illustration of the precedent set by the King of Spain in his letter to a Count from Ostra: “Our Dearest Cousin, please come and bring your tailor with you, Pinchas, a rarity, a Jew. Our Lord let us love our enemies, but we expelled all our Jews and we have none to love. Bring Pinchas then, this rarity, so we can love him and thus save our souls through this love”.

It’s generally good if our actions are shadowed by the awareness that we’re acting on our own behalf. But of course, it’s not always about saving souls.

I was once invited to take part in a Brunonalia Festival (in Klimontów) by the Association of Fans of Brunon Jasienski’s Poetry (founded by individuals from Warsaw and Klimontów). The festival has been organized since 2002, and each gathering depends on securing various grants. Futuristic poetry is not exactly what we associate with the “little homeland” or “local community”. In our country, celebrations of locality tend to be associated with pre-modern ideas and unstable links between folk and popular culture.

It wouldn’t be possible to construct a narrative about Klimontów appealing to the idea of a multicultural Atlantis, the “good old times” where Poles and Jews, in one house and under one roof (you know how the story goes)… But there are shocking post-war reports from Mordechaj Pencziner and Lejb Zylberberg about this small town1 In short, the Brunonalia Festival is certainly not a festival of easy consolation, but it’s also not a project of reckoning – in any sense of this word.

During the festival, residents sit in the market place and watch Klimontów TV. They watch, chat, and look around. Brunon Jasienski does not evoke sublime feelings or make people shout with enthusiasm. Show me a small town in Poland, far from tourist paths, where people sit together and the windows are not blue from TV screens in the evening. Perhaps there are some, but the list isn’t long. What I saw at Klimontów market was not a festival. It was everyday life – what’s so odd was the use of that public space for people. The perversity is that to capture the everyday life of small town you have to make a festival. And it has to be the Brunon Jasinski festival.

What’s the conclusion?

Recalling Jewish voices, motives, people and stories is the only possibility for narrating the province. It’s the only story we have that can transgress those characterizations of small towns as “disgusting” and hopelessness, summarized in the biographical declaration: “He achieved something in life, even though he came from provinces.” We need these stories like a fish needs water, we appropriate them and we rush home with these wonderful discoveries – narrations that bring our voices back. They transform the groan of the weak man sentenced to the provincial life into a fairytale, which, though not necessarily affirmative, orders and defines the frames of individual and collective memory. This collective heritage, and its permanent capacity to foretell and restore, is not connected with “the obligation of repairing the world” (in which we would take on the role of “redeemers”) but with saving ourselves. We don’t have any other narration. If the Polish province is supposed to speak, it can only tell the stories of others (it also refers, although the analogy is not that simple, to those territories previously dominated by German culture). But first it must listen. The search for this narration and its consolidation, the search for what may be source of our own credibility – this, what gives us right to recall these stories today. These stories save us. If we do not understand them the only thing that will remain is the shameful confession: “I’m from Grójec.”

  1. See: www.archiwumetnograficzne.edu.pl, translated by Aleksandra Geller.

Published 11 August 2011

Original in English
First published in Res Publica Nowa 14 (2011)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa
© Malgorzata Litwinowicz Eurozine

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