Dispatches from Olsztyn: Olga Tokarczuk’s Chair

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year Marcel has been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September he is living there, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to his official translator a.k.a. Marcel’s Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But he has also been writing some  irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog: 

In an interview with the Calvert Journal last year, writer Olga Tokarczuk expressed her shock about the age of the furniture that she discovered on an old Scottish estate where she stayed for a writers’ scholarship, some of it dating back as far as the 16th century. “We don’t have such a stable reality,” she said. “Poland is in the central corridor of Europe.”

This is a notion I concur with, living on an island. While Ireland has and had its fair share of violence and tragedy over the centuries, it often feels as if more objects and places have been given longevity, by fate or coincidence. On my street in Dundalk I have the bell tower of a Franciscan abbey built around 1240 AD, and the last time the building has seen targeted violence was around 1315 AD, when invading Scots under Edward the Bruce burned it and killed 23 monks. There are Victorian post boxes strewn around town that were erected in the second half of the 19th century and are still in use, the royal insignia clearly visible under the Republican green paint applied after 1921. There are plenty of hundred-year old tables and chairs still in use in households across town that are not in a museum.

It is different in Olsztyn. Here the tragedies and invasions feel more numerous, the past more unstable. Last week I walked around Park Jakubowo with radio journalist Alicja Kulik, and we talked about melancholy and what Olga Tokarczuk said in the interview. For me, the park provided an almost perfect cross section of the horrors that have visited the city, and I didn’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find them. The park was first established in 1862 as part of the expansion of Olsztyn from a small provincial town to one of the main cities of the area thanks to Prussian railways and army barracks, and over the following years saw the erection of a panorama restaurant, a dance hall and tennis courts. 

Today it is a pleasant place to wander around in, with a small lake, playgrounds and tall trees providing shade in summer – the oldest tree here is an oak tree, 28 metres high. But even here the currents of history are visible, mostly through the buildings and memorials. The large green area across the street from the park used to be a Protestant cemetery that was closed in 1973 and turned into a park. The small neo-Gothic red-brick chapel that stands there was built in 1904 and is today the Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Mother of God. Right next to it is the memorial to Bogumił Linka (1865 -1920), a social and nationalist activist who campaigned for Warmia and Olsztyn to join the newly created Poland at the Versailles conference, and who was killed by a German militia during the 1920 East Prussian plebiscite. The memorial was created by sculptress Balbina Świtycz-Widacka and erected in 1975. Maybe fittingly so: back across the road, in 1928 the citizens of Allenstein erected the so-called Abstimmungsdenkmal, the memorial to the result of the plebiscite where the majority of the inhabitants voted for remaining in East Prussia and the German Reich. Together with a similar memorial in Malbork and the Tannenbergdenkmal Olsztynek it was one of the main nationalist memorial sites in East Prussia.

Across the street from it is a remainder of what extreme nationalism can result in: here lie those killed by the Nazis. Some of the people buried here were patients of the sanatorium in Kortau (location of the university today) and killed by the Nazis as part of their euthanasia programme, some were killed in sub-camps of the concentration camps across East Prussia. The remaining patients, staff and refugees that had gathered at Kortau were massacred in 1945 by the Red Army.

Back in the park, the Abstimmungsdenkmal was replaced by another memorial in 1972, a monumental slab commemorating the ‚Warmian-Masurian Heroes of the National and Social Liberation‘ created by local sculptor Bolesław Marschall. Down the road from the park, at the end of nearby Sybiraków street is a memorial to those Poles taken to work at the GULAG and forced labour camps all across the Soviet Union. It lists the places the people were sent to, among them Sverdlovsk in the Urals (Yekaterinburg today), where my granny was also sent from her farm on the outskirts of town.

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All these tragedies and horrors, and some people always trying to claim them for political gains. But I think there is a better use for the past and what it leaves from the people that were here before us. As Alicja and I continued on through the park, we walked past one of the playgrounds were a group of young children were playing noisily, the sun was shining and the park was beautiful. We stopped next to what looked like an old unused fountain, a stone bowl now empty of water but still looking beautiful. Alicja said that ‘maybe this is our version of Olga Tokarczuk’s chair’, and I think she was right. This then, perhaps, is a better way to look at the past. Regardless of who created it, we should be able to share the good things, without jealousy and hatred. A German or Jewish or Polish or Russian sculptor might have created the fountain, but I don’t know if this is relevant. It’s a beautiful old fountain in a nice park.

Dispatches from Olsztyn: The House that Erich Built

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog.

Erich Mendelsohn had a skewed relationship with his hometown. The man who would become one of Germany's most prominent inter-war architects was born into a Jewish family in Allenstein in 1887, as the fifth of six children of Emma Esther (née Jaruslawsky), a hatmaker and David Mendelsohn, a shopkeeper. The family home was situated in the old town (just one bloc down from where I'm living at the moment), and Erich went to the nearby humanist gymnasium. But from there he went to Berlin and Munich to train as a merchant and study national economics, but soon switched allegiance to architecture and began studying his profession at the Technical University of Munich in 1906.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the  Creative Commons   Attribution 3.0 Unported  license.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

From there, he went on to a stellar career as one of the most visionary architects of Germany: first working as an independent architect in Munich, then after the First World War opening his practise in Berlin which employed 40 people thanks to such iconic buildings like the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, the Schaubühne in Berlin or the hat factory in Luckenwalde. He even designed whole neighbourhoods like the WOGA-complex at Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius founded the influential progressive and humanist architecture group The Ring. Erich also travelled extensively, often with his wife Luise: to Palestine (where Erich built a hydroelectric power station), the Soviet Union, the US.

He did rarely return to his hometown. What he did do here however was to realise his first ever project: the Tahara house of the Jewish community. Commissioned when Erich was still studying in Munich and completed in 1913, the Bet Tahara (a place where the Jewish deceased are prepared for burial) was built as a component of the Jewish cemetery of Olsztyn and also came with a second building designed as the residency for the cemetery's caretaker. The building showed many of the organic-looking characteristics that made his later buildings stand out, and came with a fine tiled cupola, while simplified geometric elements around the main hall and specially designed lamps showed the influence of Art Nouveau and expressionism.

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

After 1933, Erich and his family emigrated to Palestine, London and subsequently the US. He died in San Francisco in 1953.

Many other Jews from Allenstein did not survive the war: in the summer 1942 the Germans deported them to the Minsk Ghetto and the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The Jewish community ceased to exist, but the cemetery and Erich's building remained. After the war, it was used by the new Polish administration as a magazine for the municipal archive, the headstones for building materials and the cemetery slowly turned into an unofficial park used by the neighbours (my own grand-cousin, who lived in Olsztyn until 1961, remembers using it as a shortcut often).

Today, Olsztyn is rightfully proud of its famous son, also because his building is accessible again: in 2005, the Borussia Foundation (Fundacja Borussia) initiated the reconstruction of the building. Borussia is a group of local writers, artists and teachers founded in 1990 and dedicated to the research of East Prussian heritage and cultural dialogue (and one of my main partners in the city). The restoration project was realised with the support of European Founds, and the building and the adjacent cemetery were acquired by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Since 21 March 2013, the 126th anniversary of the Mendelsohn's birth, the building has been used as a center for intercultural dialogue by Borussia Foundation and was named Mendelsohn House (Dom Mendelsohna) in memory of Erich.

There is however another instance that might symbolise Erich's skewered relationship with his hometown: in 1943 he collaborated with the U.S. Air Force to build a "German Village", a set of replicas of typical German working-class housing estates and other building types, where the effects of incendiary and other bomb types could be tested. In this way, Erich contributed to the Allied war effort in the way he knew best. And even though Allenstein was never bombed during World War 2, I wonder if he thought about his hometown and its fate when he designed the buildings to be bombed, and about the first house he had built there.


Dispatches from Olsztyn - Practitioners

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe, and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog. As an amuse gueule, here is one of my first pieces for the Stadtschreiber blog, about a wander along the local river.

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“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I like walking. This seems to be an odd statement, given that anyone does that on a daily basis. But I think we don’t walk enough these days, and not consciously enough. Or, as writer and editor Paul Sullivan writes in his essay Walking the City:

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

So during my first week in Olsztyn I did what I always do when I want to learn about a place: I went for a walk. I actually went on a walk every day, though some days I cheated by taking a bus or the tram. I first drew circles in and around the old town with my feet, exploring the main thoroughfares and shopping centres, but also the back alleys, laneways and suburbs of the city.

For me, someone who is now living in a central location and without a car, Olsztyn really is a city that lends itself to walking. The new parks along the Łyna river (the German Alle) are pleasant places to stroll and to linger, and on Friday afternoon there where students and teenagers sitting under bridges or on the wooden steps that lead down to the water, swigging from beer cans and smoking; office workers on their lunch break sat on benches and licked ice cream, parents leisurely pushed buggies along the pathways left and right of the river.

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From the parks, I then walked northwards, past the castle from 1346 and the Warmia brewery from in a former mill building from 1868, and finally under the railway viaducts from 1871 and 1893 and the newer road bridges into the city forest proper. Every time I see the viaducts I’m reminded of Robert Budzinki’s tongue-in-cheek travel book 'Die Entdeckung Ostpreußens' (The Discovery of East Prussia).

Budzinski (1874 -1955) was a painter, graphic artist and author, and – even though he himself was born in East Prussia in Klein-Schläfken (Sławka Mała today) – in 1913 published his 'travel book' which is not only full of wonderful woodcuts, but also sardonically talks about East Prussia as the proverbial distant eastern province. He also records the often exotic-sounding East Prussian place names, before they were 'Germanised' by the Nazis 20 years later:

During my wanderings I continuously discovered places with not very known but quite illustrious names; so that I often thought I was roving about in a magical landscape. One day I took the train from Groß-Aschnaggern to Liegentrocken, Willpischken, Pusperschkallen and Katrinigkeiten, breakfasted in Karkeln, arrived in Pissanitzen, Bammeln, Babbeln, and had dinner in Pschintschikowsken while aiming to overnight in Karßamupchen.

The book remains in print until today, which I think is a testament to his enduring humour and skill as an artist. From under the bridges then I made my way into the city forest proper, with the Łyna growing wider to my right and only the occasional biker disturbing my solitude. I like to be out, walking, slightly removed from the noise of the world. Or, as Walter Benjamin writes in 'Berlin Childhood around 1900', 'Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.' The beauty of Olsztyn is that the forest proper is never far – so I can train to get lost both here and in the city. The lady walking her dog just that came towards me on the forest path did not seem to agree with my Waldeinsamkeit: the look she gave me over the rim of her sunglasses seemed to suggest that only idiots stand in the middle of a forest and scribble in notebooks.

I continued for another 30 minutes before I decided to leave the Łyna valley and loop back to the city centre. I walked up the wooden slope right of the river and came across the Leśny Stadium, now almost completely reclaimed by grass and trees, where athlete Józef Szmidt (the so-called 'Silesian Kangaroo', born in 1935 and an honorary citizen of Olsztyn today) broke the world record for triple jump in 1960 with a length of 17.03 metres. I wonder if the soft peat soil here had something to do with that. Further on, I came across a graffiti of three knights on a wall, maybe a harmless reflection of the Teutonic Knights that haunted these woods long ago.

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A not so harmless reminder of the violent past was just up the road – two cemeteries of honour, one a German one with dead from both World Wars that was restored and is looked after by the German Minority Association of Olsztyn, with men who died in 1914 lying next to men who were born in 1914; and the other a small Russian plot, with no headstones left but a German memorial set up in 1914 that reads:

Here rest Russian soldiers who followed the orders of their ruler, found their death fighting against the liberators of East Prussia and are now buried far from their home

It seems a futile honourable gesture, something that would have surely not been set up following the industrialised mass murder of the Somme and Verdun and during the Brussilov offensive, which surely eradicated all humanity left then.

When I walked back from the cemeteries, my head full of somber thoughts, chance and sunlight and the city cheered me up: a pizza taxi stopped near the forest entrance and two teenage girls emerged from the woods, inexplicably wearing white plastic antennae and white plastic fairy wings. They paid for the pizza and skipped back into the woods, to what I can only imagine must have been the first fairy pizza picnic of spring in Olsztyn this year.