October 2012. I stood in the Bibliothèque Polonaise on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris, looking at the works of Andrzej Kreütz-Majewski. Captivated. Unsettled. His images haunted me and I had to find out more about him.
An operatic and theatrical scenery designer, and professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Kreütz-Majewski was born in the mid-1930s. He had grown up and thrived in the most difficult circumstances of World War II and Communist Poland.
Agnieszka Koecher-Hensel writes of his art:
Wartime experiences, images from childhood and youth contained in enduring fears and dreams, an oppressive claustrophobic obsession, all processed creatively, are reflected in enclosed spaces: walls, parks, walls without doors or windows, planes suspended overhead……
Yet this is no safe asylum that protects one from the world outside. Rather, it is imprisonment without possibility of escape…..
We don’t fully realize the power of art until it touches our primal emotions. Seeing the art of Kreütz-Majewski in this context of the Polish library in Paris made me reflect on my ancestral roots which I admit I’ve always downplayed.
My parents came to the US as children in the early 1900s, in the waves of immigration to America from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Poland as a nation state didn’t exist at that time, obliterated and erased from the map by three major powers.
My father attended a few years of Polish grade school in a Pennsylvania Mining Company town, worked as an adolescent in the mines, and couldn’t get further schooling or the vocational training he wanted.
He and his father sometimes walked through the woods to avoid the stones thrown at them. He saw burning crosses to intimidate foreigners and Catholics, the usual terrorist threat by the Ku Klux Klan for African Americans.
Eventually, the family moved to Ohio, bought land, kept a cow and chickens, and cultivated a garden like the other immigrants. Life was better. And became better still—thanks to work in factories and foundries, and eventually in starting their own businesses.
For years I thought immigration officials changed the family name. But I later learned my father changed the name in 1942. Such was the pressure of the melting pot, removing traces of being the other, a foreigner.
When I was a child, my parents sometimes spoke this secret language. I never learned Polish, but I remember talking to my grandmother—she in Polish and I, in English—and we somehow understood each other. I regret that in those early years I didn’t learn Polish.
President FDR and Churchill signed the Yalta agreement in 1945, giving Russia control over Poland and the rest of eastern Europe. Stalinist Russia sadly continued the same Nazi killing and enslavement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans. We lost contact with our relatives in Poland.
I was informed later that Stalinist deportations took our relatives to Siberia, but recently my sister found relatives who survived in the mountains of southern Poland.
In the US, demeaning Polish jokes were standard entertainment. As we integrated into American life, prejudice against Catholics continued for years. A quote from Wikipedia:
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. characterized prejudice against the Catholics as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Conservative writer Peter Viereck once commented that (in 1960) “Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.” Historian John Higham described anti-Catholicism as “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history”.
The Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced an Inquisition by Protestant ministers—as a Catholic, could he be trusted with the presidency?
Why was being Catholic so important to me? Maybe, the prevailing hostility to Catholicism spawned a unifying fortress mentality. Memories live on. Memories of a time when nuns walked through the downtown in their strange gowns and veils. As an adult, I felt pride in a Polish pope and the Solidarity movement bringing down communist dictatorship in Poland. But we’re all complicated and multifaceted. This Polish pope disappointed me when he unraveled some reforms of Vatican Council II and suppressed the liberation theology movement in Latin America.
Then as now we can think of many other immigrant groups besides Polacks and papists. Prejudice is still alive and well in America. Many others are seen as the “other,” as targets for hate groups. We are building a much bigger wall to keep out Hispanics. We separate and deport some members of their families. Giving food and aid to the victims of natural disasters–more Hispanics–in US Puerto Rico is severely hampered. We restrict immigration of Arabs and Muslims. We had successfully killed off most of the native American population. They were too foreign, too much the other.