In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d like to post this journey to Poland, which shows how the youth commemorate times they don’t remember.
Advertising ‘Wild Times in the Eastern Bloc,’ self-styled ‘Crazy Guides’ in Cracow are well-known throughout Poland for their stag parties and Communism Tours.
Perhaps it’s macabre to make light of a system during which millions of people disappeared under Stalinism and tens of thousands went to jail during Martial Law in 1981. Or perhaps – it’s sweet revenge. Whatever the case, ‘Crazy Guide’ Mike, pictured in sunglasses and puffing at a cigar inside the front flap of one English-language brochure, established a booming capitalist company for all things Communist.
Because my own father escaped from Poland during the 1960’s and I remember visiting the country while it was still behind the Iron Curtain, I felt intensely curious about these tours. So I asked the receptionist at my hotel to call and make a reservation for me. Several hours later, Kaska, wearing jeans and a money pack around her waist, arrived in the hotel lobby. She’d just finished a tour before me.
She escorted me down the street to where she’d illegally parked an East German Trabant, one of several cars purchased by owner, Crazy Mike, over the internet for 1,000 zlotys (or $330.00).
While Kaska drove me to the steelworks suburb town of Nowa Huta, I shamelessly asked her age.
She answered, “Twenty-two.”
“So you don’t remember Communist times?”
Kaska snapped back, “Tour guides at the Wawel Castle didn’t live through the medieval era either.”
The Trabant stopped in the center of Nowa Huta where Kaska took me to “Café Styl,” an old Communist-style restaurant from the 1970’s. The only vestiges of Communism here appeared to be in the red color of the freshly painted walls. Kaska sat down at a table, ordered us drinks, and brought over a small statue of Lenin along with a ‘Crazy Guide’ picture book.
She explained that Nowa Huta was built in 1949 as Stalin’s answer to squelching the bourgeoisie in the adjacent cultural capital of Cracow. Over a ten-year period, socialist planners created broad boulevards that both heralded the success of the revolution and allowed tanks to easily pass through.
Kaska turned the page and pointed to the ‘Huta im. Lenin’ factory from the 1960’s, once the largest steelworks in Poland. The picture displayed smoke stacks belching coal soot into the sky.
During those days Nowa Huta was infamous for its pollution. It was said that when a person walked down the street in a white shirt, he would return home wearing black.
We walked up the road from the restaurant into the center of the city where Communist party members lived in more exclusive socialist blocs. From here, five broad streets still fanned out from a roundabout, the street names changed from the likes of “Cuban Revolution Street” and “Lenin Street” to “Pope John Paul II” and “Wladyslaw Anders” (the Polish commander of the Home Army during WWII). The square itself was recently been renamed “Ronald Reagan Central Square,” inciting resistence from the residents who still refer to it as “Plac Centralny” from the olden days. A grand Lenin monument once stood here, but residents toppled it down in 1989. An eccentric Swedish businessman bought the statue and took it out of the country.
Sputtering in our Trabant, the clutch often crunching into gear, we drove down former Lenin Street that today inhabitant refer to as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. A cynical reference to the famous Paris street leading to the Arc de Triomphe, a socialist realist ‘castle’ façade adorns the end of the street. It’s the steelworks factory, still blackened. The two smoke stacks, now dormant, hide behind the gates manned by security guards.
An Indian businessman bought this steelworks factory and paired down the 40,000 strong workforce to a paltry 4,000 people. He also replaced the use of coal with natural gas. The factory no longer allows visitors, except in September when the company holds a large rock concert inside. Three orange and white flags out front read ‘transforming tomorrow’ in English. Kaska has retained a bit of the Communist generation’s cynicism when she says, “Transforming tomorrow… but not today.”
Kaska next took me to an apartment block where we walked up four flights of stairs (no elevator) to what used to be a Communist apartment. Never mind that people still lived there.
The two-bedroom apartment touted Communist things like a record player, a cassette player, and a plastic rotary phone. After Kaska demonstrated how to use the meat grinder in the kitchen, she escorted me to the living room where an old television set played a twelve-minute propaganda film about happy Polish workers building a socialist world. Once over, Kasia brought out a shot of vodka with several pickles. The tour continued in the second bedroom filled with Communist posters on the walls, including a man pointing his finger and asking: “What have you done for the realization of the plan?”
She picked up a Communist bottle of orange juice and pointed to old condom wrappers. A T-shirt on the couch announced the ‘legendary’ Mr. Vieslav who, she laughed, worked at the steelworks factory once.
“But actually it’s not true. The tourists like him because he tells a lot of stories.”
When I asked why they couldn’t find an actual factory worker to take part in the tour, Kaska turned stern: “We would never ask someone to do that.”
After two and a half hours, Kaska dropped me off at my hotel. Along the way, she explained that still today Nowa Hutans consider themselves separate from Cracow. Some even claim that Nowa Hutans have a distinct Polish accent. Certainly, they pride themselves on being residents of this city, but Kaska can’t say why. Unemployment is higher here than in Cracow and alcoholism remains an acute problem.
Parking in an alley across the street from our hotel, I shelled out 129 zlotys, (about $40) and recalled the days when zlotys could buy nothing, while on the black market dollars could get just about anything – except for a tour of Communism. Kaska took the zlotys, pulled out a Marlboro light, and brummed away in the Trabant. I then looked to my right and left, realizing that nowadays I only needed to check for on-coming traffic.