The market square of Rzeszow
One of the few compensations of growing older is the sense of historical perspective that age can offer. I thought of that last week when I was in eastern Poland researching my next project. I’ve been going to Poland for work for twenty years and the changes I’ve seen during that time have been astonishing. When I first went to Poland the place had only just escaped Communism. Compared to Western Europe it was poor, depressing and lackluster.
(Mind you, it was as nothing compared to the Soviet Union – I visited Moscow in the late eighties and it was a truly desperate place. It’s almost as if Poland was always a half-way house between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. There was real truth in that old joke that used to be told when both Poland and Russia were communist. Someone travels from Paris to Moscow and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Moscow, and says ‘My God Communism is appalling!’. Whilst a communist travels from Moscow to Paris and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Paris, and says ‘My God isn’t capitalism wonderful!’.)
Today, with its communist past just a terrible memory, Poland is thriving – the transformation quite incredible. Take a city like Rzeszow in eastern Poland, for example. I bet most people in the west have never heard of it – the city’s always had to live in the shadow of its neighbour, the immense cultural stronghold of Krakow. I was in Rzeszow last week and it’s a joyous place. The old town centre has been beautifully restored and the suburbs are rich and thriving. (And whilst I continue to sound like a representative of the Polish tourist board, I’d also remark that Ryanair now fly to Rzeszow direct from London).
But I also felt sad. That’s because not only of the appalling suffering endured by the inhabitants of Rzeszow during the war – the Nazis wiped out the thousands of Jews who lived here, and then those Poles who wanted to retain a truly independent Poland were persecuted by the Soviets when the Red Army ‘liberated’ the city in 1944 – but because of the wasted lives of those who lived under communism here until 1989. Wasted not least because they never even had the chance to express themselves freely. In a very real sense the Second World War did not end for the inhabitants of a city like Rzeszow until the fall of communism in 1989.