Haaretz SEPTEMBER 19, 2011 - by Avner Shapira


A recent culture meet in Poland examined the cross-pollination of influences in contemporary society.

The three bronze dwarf sculptures that greet visitors to the museum of the city of Wroclaw, Poland are a relatively new reminder of the city's turbulent history. If the dwarf statues scattered across the city perpetuate the Orange Alternative opposition movement that was founded there in the 1980s and daubed graffiti of dwarfs in public spaces to protest the authoritarianism of the country's communist regime, demanding among other things "a revolution of dwarfs," the museum offers a broader perspective.

It is located in the Gothic city hall building in the heart of the market square, surveys the history of Wroclaw and the influences of German, Polish, Czech and Jewish culture, and does not forget to leave room for the giants: several dozen of the city's most famous sons, in a display of busts at the museum's entrance.

Veteran Israeli pop star Zvika Pik, who was born in Wroclaw and took his first steps as a musician there, has yet to be honoured in this way. But among the statues on display are two other prominent persons of Jewish descent, both of them born in the city when it was called Breslau (and was part of Prussia and later on Germany ) and both converted: chemist Fritz Haber, who developed the synthesis of ammonia and was known as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I; and the philosopher Edith Stein, who converted to Christianity and became a Carmelite nun but was deemed Jewish by the Nazis and sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and was later canonised a saint by the Catholic Church. The few metres separating the statues of Haber and Stein are the space in which the sorrowful and ironic voice of the goddess of history resonates.

Other echoes of irony were heard at the opening of the European Culture Congress held in Wroclaw at the beginning of the month. The opening lecture was delivered by Professor Zygmunt Bauman, the renowned and influential Polish-Jewish sociologist and philosopher, who was driven out of his position as head of the University of Warsaw's sociology department and forced to leave Poland in 1968 in the wake of a communist government engineered anti-Semitic campaign. After finding temporary refuge in Israel, he moved to Britain.

Now, in a sort of historical closing of the circle, the Polish government invited Bauman, eighty-five, to address the opening of the large conference it organised as part of the country's term as the rotating head of the European Union, which began in July. At the invitation of the Polish minister of culture, Bauman also wrote a book ahead of the conference, "Culture in a Liquid Modern World," which was published in Polish and English.

Before an audience of some three thousand who had gathered in the Centennial Hall, a fortified concrete architectural gem built in Wroclaw in 1913 by architect Max Berg that was declared a World Heritage site, Bauman discussed the central role of culture in Europe today, in light of the challenges presented by globalisation and mass migration. Before our eyes, said Bauman, Europe is being transformed into a mosaic of exiled communities, or more precisely, a collection of ethnic archipelagos, bisected by a network of parallel and intersecting lines. In Europe, he noted, "'Another' always lived very close, within sight or within touching... Here 'Another' is the closest neighbour."

At the lecture, which was laced with quotes from the works of the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas, Bauman stressed it is incumbent on Europe to absorb the immigrants who settled in it and use them to develop its culture. According to him, "the main task facing Europe today is not of a military or economic nature, but rather a spiritual and intellectual one. 'The sacredness of the smallest details' is how William Blake would have called the spirit of Europe. It often turns out that in the matter of diversity of language, culture and society, very small distance - in the order of twenty kilometres - divides two completely different worlds ... Europe will perish if it does not fight for its languages, local traditions and social autonomy."

The task of living regularly with others is achieved in the ability to learn from the other and in the ability of communities to enrich other, Bauman said, citing an example from the country he immigrated to: The Polish exile community in Britain has become British and at the same it is also "Polanizing" Britain. He called for an expansion of the equality of "the others" in Europe, argued that the future of the continent hinges on increasing its cultural openness and warned that without tolerance for those who come from beyond its borders, European civilisation would not survive.


Some three hundred intellectuals and artists attended a variety of events during the four-day congress in Wroclaw, whose main goal was to consider how culture and art can help affect education, social and political changes in Europe and beyond as well. The congress, which was extensively covered by the European press, hosted among others, the playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Polish film director Andrzej Wajda; Italian author and writer Umberto Eco; Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic; Belgian artist Jan Fabre and the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. British musician Brian Eno's multimedia presentation on display in the pond near the Centennial Hall and Polish artist Miroslaw Balka's installation generated unusual interest.

One interesting discussion focused on the role of culture in political revolutions, such as those that occurred in Eastern European communist countries during the People's Fall in 1989, or the Arab Spring revolutions of the past year. Ganzeer, an Egyptian street artist, talked about the role of graffiti in the revolution in his country, and Professor Rachida Triki, a curator and a professor of aesthetics and philosophy of art at Tunis University, surveyed the difficulties Tunisian artists had to content with until the Jasmine Revolution in the country.

Artists who did not find favor in the regime's eyes had a hard time developing and distributing their works, Triki said. Even though a certain artistic freedom was maintained (mostly in the disciplines of film and the plastic arts ), there was also official censorship, and no less importantly, self-censorship. On several occasions, artists waived the right of freedom of expression due to fear of the authorities. Now Tunisian art is proceeding hand in hand with the revolution, and artists have begun to create for the public space. After many years of waiting for it, there is no longer any official governmental cultural policy, and the civil society has started to organize, with art assuming an important place in this process, she noted.

Professor Guy Sorman, a French expert in economics and philosophy, estimated that the revolutions in the Arab countries would have long-term effects on Europe. According to him, since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, Europe was inclined to view Arabs as "the others," "the barbarians" based on an Orientalist approach - that is, the Europeans supported Arab dictatorships based on a cultural explanation, claiming that dictatorship fitted the Arab mentality. Ostensibly out of respect for the "other" and cultural diversity, they opened the door to tyranny.

As in the People's Fall in Eastern Europe, so too with the Arab Spring revolutions, the ruling ideology was exposed with all its flaws: The revolutions put an end to the Orientalist ideology also adopted by European leaders, Sorman noted. However, he pointed to the main difference between the contemporary revolutions and those that took place in Eastern European countries: In the Arab countries there was no supporting ideology such as Marxism and no superpower that all the countries were obligated to, as was the case with the Soviet Union and the communist bloc.


Wroclaw, which is bisected by five rivers spanned by over two hundred bridges and includes twelve islands, is well suited to serve as a cultural bridge across turbulent waters: For generations since its founding in the tenth century, it was under different rulers and many cultures and languages streamed into it. The city, which was part of Germany, moved to Polish hands at the end of World War II and most of its German residents had to leave. The Culture Congress celebrated, among other things, Wroclaw's designation as the European Culture Capital in 2016.

For the Polish organisers, the congress was also an opportunity to restore to public consciousness the popular revolution in that country toward the end of the communist era, which started with the establishment of the Solidarity movement in 1980 and ended with the establishment of democracy there in 1989. Thus, film students took part in a film competition devoted to commemorating the birth of Solidarity at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk.

The question of how to adapt the legacy of Solidarity to our era was also raised at a discussion on recycling ideas in the world of culture. Aneta Szylak, head of the Wyspa Institute of Art located on the grounds of what was once the Gdansk shipyard, argued that art can help instill political concepts and transform history into myth.

"We connect the shipyard's past with its current status, after it was privatised and the part that still functions is in private hands," said Szylak. She related that at the site there is an alternative art festival, guest artists programs and guided tours led by people who worked at the shipyards in the 1980s, and all of these seek to revive the concepts of Solidarity by recycling materials and not less importantly, through the participation of people from the shipyard.

Another participant in that same discussion was Santiago Cirugeda, a Spanish architect trying to find alternative housing solutions for the urban expanse who maintains that temporary architecture, which can be dismantled and relocated, offers a cheap alternative to expensive housing in large cities. "I recycle the ideas of an architect who worked in Barcelona in the 1950s and turned different expanses into residential spaces, based on the guiding principle of using places the police could not evacuate, places that officially did not belong to anyone," said Cirugeda. "On the urban level, it is possible to do a lot, even without money. For example, building a house on tree branches is legal as long as the tree is not harmed and in that case, the police are not permitted to evacuate the residents."

In quite a few instances, he intentionally used an artistic argument based on the realisation that frequently the survival chances of a residential project defined in advance as a work of art are greater. "Such projects sparked criticism that I have an ugly concept of aesthetics," he said. "But that doesn't bother me. Beauty isn't everything: After all, we all have ugly friends and still we love them."

Cirugeda adds that there is no point in clinging to the authenticity of contemporary art and it is better to fashion new clothes for existing ideas, "just like when you fall in love for the first time, it is certainly new, even if it's not original."