Ewa’s mountain idyll and the peace of the whole village has been destroyed by the arrival of Expressway S69, a four lane motorway, stretching from Katowice to the Slovak border, where it will connect with the Slovakian motorway D3.
She and her neighbours woke up one day to find they were living alongside the S69 and D3 sections of the Trans European Transport Corridor No VI.
From early in the morning you hear the noise of construction and men in orange vests swearing and shouting. Look out of the window across what used to be gardens and acres of allotments with fruit trees and you now see a rigid barrier of concrete on squat giant legs.
This new “pan European transport corridor,” now hurtles below her garden balcony. It’s so close that you could reach out from the balcony and almost touch the concrete.
It’s being built closer to domestic dwellings than any new road would be in the UK. EU law, at least in Poland allows a distance of 40 metres but here the distance is 37 at most.
She says she wants to invite reporters from the BBC to come and sit there with her and have tea, and watch how their cups and saucers rattle to the sound of high powered drills.
“My house is like a watchtower overlooking the road,” she says. “Perhaps when the cars come I could stand on my balcony with a billboard, advertising something and get paid for it.”
That’s about the only joke we’ve found in the situation so far. The cars haven’t arrived yet but it’s already ferociously noisy and fills the air with dust. There is some vague plan to put up giant screens as noise barriers to shield the houses, and schools which are just an alarming eighteen metres away.
These will have to be painted somehow stop a massacre of birds, so the future will certainly be different in Bielsko-Biała; one of triple glazing, staying in doors instead of sitting in the garden or looking at the view, and smog masks.
In the 1970s there were about 500,000 cars on the road in Poland, now there are about 20 million. The roads are in bad shape. In Bielsko very little is down to repair the small local roads, which break up badly in the winter frosts.
The government’s response to this, using EU money, is to build motorways, and to run down the Polish railways,(PKP) which were privatised quickly just before Poland entered the EU.
Early this year the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk announced that 4.8 billion PLN (1 billion GBP) which had been allocated for expenditure on Polish rail was being diverted to the road budget.
Like good old British Rail, has not been improved one jot by being sold off, at least not as far as the “customers,” are concerned. Poles now experience the kind of Christmas chaos which we enjoy so much in the west. Ticket prices have soared and passenger numbers fallen. Trains lines that I used regularly in the 1970s, for instance from Katowice to Oswiecim, to my surprise no longer exist.
The Polish government is now subsidising cars not trains. Currently, due to an EU directive, three major motorways spanning the entire country are being built. Many sections are under construction, due to be finished by mid-2012.
What is so alarming about all this is the lack of any consultation with the public.
A couple of years ago I wrote a letter of protest about Ewa’s plight, to the European department dealing with Polish roads. They sent back a thick document written in dense jargon, saying that full consultation had taken place. A terrible lie as neither Ewa nor her neighbours had any say in the matter. Local people suggested running the new high-way along a route proposed years ago, skirting the town, or putting some of it into a tunnel, but those ideas were dismissed without comment.
I tried to fathom out Polish local democracy a bit – who is there MP or equivalent? No one is sure. There is a list of men, chosen by different parties by proportional representation, in a multi-party system, with sixteen regional governments, who send a representative to the Sejm in Warsaw.
This is confusing to say the least and not one of the men appointed locally was interested in the residents concerns. When Ewa went to the local town hall and met a councillor he said, “Well what can I do? I am only one man.”
Available land was quickly sold by the county council and even the church, so the road quickly seemed to locals like a fait accomplis.
The key man apparently who wanted it is the mayor, Jacek Krywult, 70, a career politician who even had a good career under the communists, and has continuously been re- elected “President” of Bielsko since 2002.
Despite being “vice-president for traffic safety,” he is not worried by having two schools bang up against a major motorway, or 37 metres from the local church steps.
Where is Swampy when you really need him? Apparently there are no knotty headed tree protestors or groups of determined middle-class road protestors in Poland. According to Ewa protestors are taken away, put in hospital and given drugs.
“Like in Soviet times,” a phrase which is sometimes a dark joke between us.
One of her neighbours, called by Ewa, “the bravest,” who refused to move out when ordered, had her 19th century house knocked down anyway. She was offered help to pack if she got out on the appointed date, but she stayed defiantly inside until police arrived and turfed her out. There is still a great fear of the police in Poland, “just like in…”
The woman received compensation and built a new, smaller house nearby. No one can sell their once fine houses so there is no chance of moving away to a quiet, less polluted place.
It was disappointing to me to think than no local press reported her situation and there were certainly no TV cameras recording any discontent. When this sort of thing happens in Beijing and people are forced by their government to quit their homes, you do see reports of it in the world’s press. When it happens in Poland, the new EU, no one seems to bother.
A beautiful country town is now scarred, raddled by road builders as blind to the environment as our planners were in the 1960s.
The people I spoke of spoke of a new “Red Bourgeoisie,” former communists now living on the fat of EU money, happy with advanced capitalism.
This sometimes has its darkly comic side – in the mountain town of Zywiec an old factory with a tall chimney, has been turned into a TESCO, which has its logo vertically on the chimney stack. It looks ominously like a crematorium.
In Auschwitz itself, always a boldly unembarrassed little town, all the supermarkets apart from Carrefore are German; Lidl, Kaufland and Biedronka. There was an objection when Kaufland wanted to put up signed advertising itself with the initials: KL, once famous for Konzentrationslager.
After the wedding we had a couple of days sight seeing, visiting churches old and brand new. There was obviously a building boom going on. Detached houses are springing up everywhere, among them a few old grey concrete boxes, patterned with asbestos tiles, and flat roofs from communist times when pitched roofs were forbidden as they used too much material.
Ewa knew someone who made enough money cleaning in Dublin to return home and build a house. The Polish Zloty is low in value, so it’s possible to get rich abroad. A kind of Polish fiscal miracle.
“It is a mystery everyone talks about,” said Ewa. “There are no jobs in Poland, yet everyone is building country houses.”
It was interesting to see Bielsko town again. It was dreary and run down under the comms but now looks like a clean Alpine holiday resort, with good bars and night-clubs.
We visited Łodygowice village with its baroque wooden church, and up to Zywiec to visit the old brewery where they still produce 1,464 bottles of the amber nectar every four minutes, that is 2,108,160 bottles a day.
They now have an interactive museum, taking visitors on a time travel from the time of the Hapsburgs to the Soviets. This included a flickering black and white film made in the 1920, free Poland between the wars, with well dressed people gathering at race-tracks, travelling in sports cars and gliders, the Poland that never was.
Not being a beer drinker, the best part of Zywiec for me was sitting on the grass, eating a fresh yeast roll, in the old Habsburg park, in front of its Palace. In an act of extraordinary and unlikely kindness the Polish government have allowed Duchess Marie-Christine von Habsburg, 87, to return and live in a two room flat in her former home.
There is a short film about her life in the Zywiec museum. She is a grand old girl. Perhaps she has been allowed back because her father was tortured by the Gestapo and her mother, an Austrian, joined the Armia Krajowa, AK, the valiant Polish underground army.
We took a cable car up Zar, or “hot” mountain, and sat in the sun looking down on Tresna Dam, and Bielsko’s lush enfolding scenery. I hadn’t realised until then that Ewa now lives in a major tourist spot.
“Over there, behind that hill is Oswiecim,” (Auschwitz) said Kazik.
“I can see that you’d like to visit it,” she said.
At one time every blade of grass, every stone in there was fascinating to me, but we had decided not to go there this time. I’d come to a wedding and it wasn’t appropriate, besides she finds the tragedy of it has got worse in her mind over the years, not better.
Her grandfather moved the family from northern Poland down to Oswiecim after the first world war. He looked at the map and decided that it looked like a quiet, rural place where nothing much would ever happen. Her father was taken to the death camp to work as a slave, aged sixteen. As soon as he arrived his teeth were punched out. I know other Poles whose relations had the same treatment. It was obviously company policy. Gruesome to think of people walking about with smashed up jaws and no medical help.
There were a lot worse things going on in there of course. That was the luxury end of the itinerary. I was fascinated by it on one level, as a factory of death; such a completely in-human, un-human idea.
Before it became properly known, some Jews called it “Pitchipoi,” a distant destination. The artist Charlotte Salomon said the name, “resounded like an eternal curse.” The German painter, Felix Nussbaum painted it quite accurately, on the basis of this hearsay.
When I first went there in 1978 it seemed oddly still, like an extinct volcano. You pick over the old lava, climb up small hills of moraine, walk carefully over the cracks in the ground, not sure that it isn’t all going to ignite again at any moment. It still has a devouring presence.
Part of this feeling of torpor came from the poor quality of the museum in those day, ruled over by communists who used it for partly for propaganda purposes. On my first visit, the Jewish bunker was shut. I saw a youth who’d come all the way from LA sitting on the ground outside the locked door, really distressed. In those days there was no one to appeal to. If something was shut that was it.
After the comms went, the same people were left in charge. They opened a “Jewish reading room,” but I never saw a Jew in there. I was given a signed first edition of his book, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman. I gave it to the archive and they were very pleased to have it, but I did wonder why they didn’t just go to Warsaw and ask him for a copy themselves. They didn’t go in for collecting oral history, what was there when the Russians arrived was it.
Apparently the museum has got better now, even providing visitors with i-pod commentaries. I wonder if they all leave them in a heap when they go home.
It’s very difficult to know how exactly to view the place. I was at Machu Picchu in Peru recently. Like Auschwitz it is also a “World Heritage Site,” a place where you can pay respect to a race and their culture which was systematically exterminated. It doesn’t have that kind of impact of course, a lot of tourists find the place rather cute. That is due simply because of the passing of time.
Wondering whether to go there again was like talking about an old acquaintance, someone we didn’t know anymore.
Kazik suggested going past it briefly on our way back to the airport on my way home.
We stopped for a moment outside KL One, before driving along the wall of the old Austrian barracks. It could be any old wall, yet the other side of it forms the end of a court-yard and is painted black. Hundreds of Poles stood there naked, facing it, waiting to be shot.
Up the road, reaching Birkenau, you immediately see the broad, black camp watch-towers which look as fragile as charcoal when you get close. We parked in front of the famous entrance, like the open mouth of hell in a mediaeval painting, with the strips of metal rail feeding in.
Ewa’s younger son remained very quietly in the car, perhaps wondering what people were doing, having photos taken but not smiling into the camera, staring through barbed wire at expanses of rolling nothingness, bending their eyes on vacancy, putting their hands down flat on railway lines as if they were to tops of sacred tombs.
On the plane back from Krakow I was surprised to find that most of the passengers were young Jews. When I was last in Poland ten years ago I didn’t see any. Visitor numbers started increasing after the release of the film Schindler’s List.
spoke to a couple of the young women. They seemed angry and agitated by what they’d seen.
“It will definitely be my last visit,” said one, sounding disgusted with the world. I wondered where all that rage will be directed, perhaps towards support for the state of Israel, which means that Hitler’s work of destruction will go on.