In a recent excursion with my program we went to Kraków, Poland. During my stay I didn’t venture that for from the town center, which is actually at least a mile long from the north to the south end. The space is packed with tourists, some locals, food shops, history, old churches and architecture.
When I first got to the city, I was a bit worried about the recent face of Nationalism that has publicly risen, and how that might exist in everyday life. I have this thought process a lot more now than I did before I started college (at a very non-traditional age), that is, thinking about how the color of my skin may dictate how an environment moves around me.
In November 2017, sixty thousand people marched in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. It was a Nationalist march. Many of those people were calling for ethnic cleansing and purity and the need for white Nationalism. Sixty-thousand people marching for something like this, to my knowledge, has not happened in U.S.. It may exist on a subversive level in U.S., but to be honest, I’m a bit more fretful of the people who are blatantly calling for ethnic cleansing. And so, when I entered Kraków, I had these things on my mind.
It’s that double conscious thing that maybe some people talk about and some people don’t. Here is what it looks like for me. I’ll say to myself as I am walking down the street in Poland, in a fairly homogeneous country of white people in a country I have never been before until today: “Oh, that mother/father is with a kid. I wonder if that kid will stare at me because he might have not seen a black person before? Maybe the kid has? Maybe not. What does the mom think of my existence in her society? Is she racist or is she cool with dark people?” Then I think, “Maybe they are OK with black people. But, I probably shouldn’t look in their direction, don’t want to scare them…be uninterested.” I would call this (and I am open to comments on everything) a form of racial paranoia coupled with, um, I would say, the thought of those sixty-thousand people affiliated with and or calling for ethnic cleansing in their country (which means, I believe, anybody not pure white in this case, and I would fall into this category).
Sometimes I tell this consciousness to bugger(expletive) off, and sometimes it gets all up in my head. When I went to this cooperative and nonprofit organization called Ogniwo near the heart of Kraków, I immediately found a comfortable place. I saw stickers like “Stop Hate,” “Stand up to Racism,” and “Love Wins.” Before that I was walking around Kraków wondering what people thought about the color of my skin, even though it is a tourist city and all. It’s odd really, it’s like, first I knew that there were a lot of people somewhere in the country aren’t down with people that aren’t the same as them, and in Ogniwo, it reminded me that people can have different stances in the same place. I feel like it sounds silly, but it’s true. I recognized this retrospectively after leaving Poland.
When I went to restaurants, bars, and met artists, activists, waiters, bartenders, and some people who were a part of the community of Kraków, I felt good. They felt good and open and it’s like all the thoughts of the Nationalists’ movement separated from my head and I started to become fond of the city. Very fond actually. I don’t know if that is because I really liked the people (partly for sure), perhaps how locals treated me, and or if it was how far my thoughts had divulged from something so disconcerting. I really liked this city.
Simultaneously during my time, a few of my classmates, who are Jewish, had a different experience. They delved into what’s little to none left of the Jewish community. Auschwitz, one of if not the most deadly concentration camp is only thirty miles from Kraków. Over one million people were killed in Auschwitz, and this, in a different era acted as an ethnic cleansing. We all visited the concentration camp at different points in our stay. I will say, the intensity and gravity of this is something that I did not consider when I entered Kraków at first, especially in relationship to Auschwitz. Some of it I could feel when I saw the groups of young adults at Auschwitz with Israeli flags tied around their backs, worn like capes. Some, or a lot, I felt the most when I walked through the different parts of the concentration camp. The expression of emotion is not something that can be explained or that I want to explain, mine, or anyone else’s.
Back in Kraków, the Jewish community was erased from Kraków and people are walking around as tourists. I feel like the two experiences are not mutually exclusive experiences, but, the problem is, not only has a community been lost, not many people in the present are trying to remember, or do anything to remember. The modern day facets of the Jewish voice, the history of the region, and the visit to Auschwitz, affected my classmates in their identity greatly.
How does a city remember atrocities that occured in it? How can a country ignore it’s past so blatantly? How can culture be preserved and or restored? How does this look when we visit countries that are not our own?
I think of how much irony is involved in the experience I had in Kraków, a week after I left, then I think of my classmates’ experiences and frustrations. We were all affected by our own identities, but then, how do we see and listen to each other in places where we are all trying to exist? How do we listen? How do we understand each others’ identities in this foreign land or in the one we know?
In this program, we are learning how art can incite social change, to bring society somewhere more harmonious. A question was raised today in a class by a curator named Zuzana Štefková, “Is all art political art?” We examined what Political art may be and what Activist art may be. We talked about who can speak for whom and where identity make have a stake in making a statement. She touched on the complexities and ethical dilemmas in with these thoughts and it created more questions for me. What needs to be said? Who is saying it? Who can say it? How do we really understand what the purpose of a piece of art is? How do we know or understand each others identities? Is art a part of this? All of the following art is in Kraków.