Between Retrospective and Navel-gazing: Playground Polonia
Jacek Slaski

“When I went to Berlin, I thought, this is a great city, a European metropolis. In any event, I would get some work somewhere, earn a bit of money and find a flat to live in. And? - Nothing of the kind! I don’t have any work; we heat the oven with coal... These are small details, of course, but nevertheless.” The words of a Polish artist characterise an image of Berlin which can be disillusioning. Yet young Poles still come in droves to the city with its poor-but-sexy image. Once again, Poles are here on the look out for happiness and success. The youngsters - well educated and multilingual - are following in the footsteps of their parents’ generation which travelled back and forth to the city, carrying garish plastic bags in broken down busses whose windows were misted with vodka-tinged exhalations. Today, the rolls on the breakfast table were made in Szczecin, aural artists such as DJ Tommekk, the self-proclaimed “Polish Hit Machine”, keep the nightclubs rocking and bilingual learning is cool.

“No. No one travels to Berlin. Milan or Paris are more likely,” says Tomasz Piatek a Warsaw-based writer of the younger generation. Is the Berlin hype over? Does the city only seem exciting when one is sitting in the centre if it, while outside the old stereotypes are still alive? Of course, Berlin is dirty - at least it’s dirtier than other western European cities. And it is poorer. There are Turks, Arabs and other immigrants living here. Many Poles aren’t used to that. They expect a western metropolis to have a smoother image. But wait! Berlin is one of the most exciting cities of Europe, if not the world. Where else do you find so many galleries, cinemas and theatres, and where do so many artists live as here? Where can you live so well, so cheaply and so creatively? And the paradise of affordable apartments: where else can you find that? This is well known to the young, creative Poles who come to Berlin to immerse themselves in artistic life - or just to enjoy the parties. Even if there are a few snobs who prefer the up market boutiques of posher cities, luxury is not a characteristic of Berlin. Berlin is and will remain trash. It’s easier to spend money elsewhere. And to earn it, young Poles opt for England, Sweden or Ireland. That is where work - legal work - can be found. As there are now less and less Polish Germans moving westwards, and no more politically persecuted émigrés, students and those who would describe themselves as Bohemian have become the last significant band of immigrants to Berlin from Poland. With the rise to power of twin brothers Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, the Polish gay community has never had it so bad, so lesbians and homosexuals are now also flocking to the city.

Historical Prejudices

Berlin has always attracted Poles, as astonishing as that may sound to some. Is Berlin not the capital of Germany? and didn’t the Germans turn into the Nazis who attacked the Poles? But all that was a long time ago. There may still be a lot of resentment on both sides of the Oder, but the practicalities of life are stronger. Berlin is the best example of the Polish immigrants’ ability to integrate; coexistence between Poles and Germans works. In the years following the Second World War only a few came. The memories were still too fresh. But in the 60s and the 70s the pioneers of post-war Polish emigration began new lives in the divided city. In the 1980s, as the members of the independent trade union, “Solidarity”, were being persecuted and the snow-blind General Jaruzelski declared martial law, the emigrants were trying their luck in West Berlin. The dissidents, intellectuals and students from this period still influence “Berlin Polonia”, as the Polish émigrés call themselves. Ten years later there came the great wave of Polish-Germans. Everyone whose grandfather had been a German soldier during the war started searching for his old identity papers, and then moved west. There, an official department awaited them, providing brand new passports to the successful citizens of Kohl-Country. More than 40,000 German Poles and Polish Germans now live in Berlin, and their numbers are still growing. Even if they are not so obvious a part of the cityscape as the Turkish with their snack bars and grocery shops, they have still left their mark on the city. Across the whole of Berlin, Poles are employed in a great diversity of jobs; they have founded newspapers and publishing firms; there are Polish clubs, pubs and restaurants; a Polish School exists in Berlin, and several galleries and music studios are run by Poles.

We made it!

Poland has been in the EU, and therefore a member of the family, for some time now, despite some recurrent problems in the German-Polish relationship. Acrimony continues, for example, between a few jingoistic Poles and those Germans who can’t forget being dispelled from western Poland after World War II; and the building of a new pipeline for Russian gas to Germany is another point of contention. Fortunately, in the daily coexistence of Poles and Germans in Berlin there is little trace of these global problems. The relaxed status quo which now exists has been established largely through the efforts of those many immigrants who have understood the significance of bridging gaps between people. One of these is thirty-seven year old Basil Kerski. A stocky, dark-haired man, Kerski is editor-in-chief of the German-Polish magazine, “Dialog”, which has followed and influenced discussions and developments for nearly twenty years. Published by the German Polish Society, with a circulation of 12,000, it is the largest periodical of its kind in Germany. In its early years, Dialog played an important role with reporting that was critical of the Polish politics and its commitment to a democratic Poland. Kerski, originally from Gdansk, joined the editorial team at the end of the 90s; he is well aware of the significance of his work: “Without publications like Dialog, wouldn’t have come nearly as far in the process of understanding as we have done.”

Well informed

The state too has understood the relevance of the media for integration, starting a pioneering project with the international “Radio Multikulti” channel of the broadcaster RBB. Of course, this also involves Poles: every weekday, at 7 o’clock each evening, a half-hour programme in Polish can be heard. Jacek Tyblewski, 42, is head of the Polish department in the venerable “Broadcasting House” in Charlottenburg, western Berlin. Together with a team of freelancers, he reports on anything and everything that could interest the Poles of Berlin: if there’s a literary evening with an author from Poland, it’s highly likely that beforehand, he was already in the Multikulti studio for an interview; if a joint summer camp is being held for Polish and German youth in Mazuria, Multikulti will have the information about it. "Homo Berlinicus" is a special show. Once a month, Krzysztof Visconti - a journalist who specialises in pop culture - discusses recent trends in the Polish youth scene: it could be the electronic sound experiments of the young Warsaw groups “New Robot” or “Baaba”, or perhaps the new releases by the rock bands Kult or VooVoo. “It is particularly hard,” says Visconti, “for people here in Berlin to keep abreast of the new music and recent art of Poland. That’s why I make sure that even the small and less famous bands and artists are given a platform here at the radio.”

But it is not only media and culture which characterise life for the “Polonia”. Especially in their first years in this foreign country, many Poles are plagued by fears which derive from their unfamiliarity with the place and their lack of language skills. What do you do if you fall ill or have an accident? and how do you deal with complicated, everyday bureaucracy? Witold Kaminski, a wiry man with long, grey hair, understood the experiences faced by his countrymen and women, and he wanted to do something to help. In 1982 he formed the Polish Social Advice Bureau which supports Poles, not just in Berlin, with larger or smaller problems. If there is a question about a residence or work permit, or about legal or insurance matters, or if a Polish-speaking doctor is needed, or a lawyer, then the Advice Bureau has the proper advice and can supply the need. The Bureau has provided a particularly important service by supporting women forced into prostitution as they seek a way out of the vicious circle of pimps, illegality and their feelings shame.

After Hours

Another man who wanted to represent the Poles is Witold Marcinkiewicz, although he did it on a different level altogether. In the mid 90s Marcinkiewicz, an artist and one of the Kreuzberg Bohemians, founded the now legendary “Mysliwska” bar (“Huntsmen’s Pub”) in Schlesische Straße, in those days a rather seedy area. From the start, Mysliwska served as a first port of call for Polish artists visiting Berlin; today, the artistic set still prefers to drink its beer here and to dance till dawn on the pub’s tables. The times are long gone in which Polish immigrants would stand in amazement before the crumbling walls and then make an offer to do the renovations at a fair price. Sub-culture is indeed the field in which quiet a number of Poles have made a name for themselves. For one thing, this comes from the geographical proximity of Poland, but it is also a sign of how few opportunities there are for young, creative and alternative people in the larger Polish cities.

Starting an off-gallery or a fringe theatre group there, is much more difficult; even the organisation of concerts and readings, or the publication of a newspaper or fan magazine can fail because of the state of the infrastructure. Compared with this, Berlin offers a more colourful playground for creative individuals.

Probably the most famous site for Polish sub-culture in Berlin is the “Club for Polish Failures”, founded in 2001. A group of theatre and film people, as well as musicians and writers, have used this place as a way to manifest their feelings of vague cultural discomfort. Lopez Mausere, a dramatist and performance artist, the jazz saxophonist Adam Gusowski and the writer Leszek Hermann Oswiecimski are all amongst its founders. The club was created as a mixture of pub, living room, theatre, concert hall and Polish Embassy. Its immediate neighbour is Cafe Burger, well known in the city, and a steady flow of tourists, green politicians, artists, Kasimir the Beggar-King or sociology students visits the club to enjoy its good Polish beer alongside a concert, a reading, an exhibition, a performance or a film. And it is not necessarily just from Poland; there may be Estonian or New Zealand art as well. The art of failure is international, after all, even if the Poles are particularly good at it.

Reinventing themselves again and again

There are plenty more important, beautiful and interesting places and initiatives besides these. There’s the secret restaurant, Miedzy Nami, for example, a Berlin branch of the Warsaw pub of the same name, which is popular with the young and creative elite in the Polish capital. In stark contrast to the high-class Chopin Restaurant in elegant Zehlendorf, where Silesian specialities are served, the feminist-culinary guerrilla commando “Furia Pierogi” is a cooking and party concept, led by a crew of young, dreadlocked women, who serve up home-made pierogi at irregular intervals in bizarre places.

Then there is the “Galerie Miejsce” in Schöneberg, the German-Polish Literature Society “WIR” or the “Nike” Society of Polish Women in Business and Culture. Other centres include the Polish Cultural Institute, the Polish Embassy and the Academy of Sciences; at the busy Südstern junction in Kreuzberg there is also the Polish community’s own church. Poles are to be found in many areas of Berlin life. They have made themselves at home long ago; they speak German and participate in the day to day events of the city, while imparting bits of their own Polish identity to it. As an urban space where untold opportunity mixes strangely with a lack of money, Berlin still offers them the possibility of doing things they have perhaps never dreamed of at home.

Jacek Slaski has lived for over 20 years in Berlin, became a German citizen, and feels to be fully integrated member of German society. He is currently working in the editorial team of tip, a Berlin program magazine. He was previously active as author of radio features for the WDR, NDR, and DeutschlandRadio. For years he has been actively engaged in German-Polish culture projects in the areas of literature, music, and art. Together with the architect and artist Anna Krenz, he runs the ZERO project, a platform for young artists and culture from Poland.
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