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In Search of Gods: A Short Walk in Nowa Huta

Chris Pinney describes his recent visit to the town of Nowa Huta, Krakow, Poland. Through photos of the landscape and architecture he traces the tumultuous history of this formerly Social Realist town that has been the site of Stalinism, the Polish Solidarity Movement and now the regeneration of Catholicism through new churches. This painful history seems embodied in the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, whose scars elongate with the suffering of her nation.

MLA citation format:
Pinney, Christopher.
“In Search of Gods: A Short Walk in Nowa Huta”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 23 September 2015. [date of access]

I returned for holiday purposes, in August 2015, to the Socialist Realist township of Nowa Huta (literally the New Steel Mill). My visit was brief, but it reawakened the memory I have from May last year of a wonderful tour under the tutelage of Monika Golonka-Czajkowska of Jagiellonian University and author of the recently published Nowe Miasto, Nowych Ludzi: Mitologie Nowohuckie(Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellonskiego, 2013).

Nowa Huta was the Communist regime’s response to Krakow’s defiant anti-communist vote in 1946. The regime decided that this medieval city with its vibrant intellectual and aesthetic presence throughout the 19th and 20th century required “proletarianizing” through the creation of a nearby steel works (Huta Lenin) and associated township. It was believed that this “city without god” would act as a counterweight to Krakow’s intransigence. Work started in 1949 and was largely complete by the mid-1950s.

Figure 1: Plac Centraly im Ronaldo Reagana. Photo by author.

The central square, our point of arrival, has been renamed Plac Centraly im Ronalda Reagana [Figure 1] after the figure who for many Poles remains the hero of their most recent liberation. In Ronald Reagan Square there is a striking monument to Solidarity, the movement led by Lech Walesa in the Gdansk shipyards which stakes a claim to what Golonka-Czajkowska sees as a central local historical identity, namely that Nowa Huta workers were pioneers in the movement to free it of Soviet domination. A striking V-shaped white stone monument with steel plaques traces a historical trajectory from left to right. First we see riot police gathered under a large cross [Figure 2], then an image of Pope John-Paul II, then a plaque commemorating the Gdansk struggles of 1970-80, and finally the insignia of the Nowa Huta branch of Solidarity in which the “NH” of Nowa Huta have become churches [Figure 3]. Golonka-Czajkowska pointed out that the memorial is made with steel from the former Lenin steelworks.

Figure 2: Workers under cross in a monument to Solidarity. Photo by author.
Figure 3: Image of a church in the monument. Photo by author.
The sinister batons of the riot police in the first plaque refer to a foundational struggle for a church in the “city without God” starting in 1957 and culminating in a battle with mass arrests in 1960. The site of that battle is presided over by a large statue of John Paul II. Bishop Karol Wotija, as he then was, was a key player in many of these events and his presence hangs over the town as a retrospective figure of legitimation. But first we go to see a Basilica and traditional wooden church [Figure 4] on the edge of the township, evidence, Monika Golonka-Czajkowska suggests, that this was never really a town without God. The Basilica (now also colonized by a regulation large statue of John-Paul II) was originally a private institution for monks but was forced as early as 1951 to open its doors to the public and held as many as 10 masses each Sunday for God-deprived steelworkers of the Polish People’s Republic [Figure 5].
Figure 4: Wooden exterior of church. Photo by author.
Figure 5: View of Basilica. Photo by author.

Then we head to the earliest buildings: villas surrounded by trees where a large contingent of Roma were housed, elegant blocks built around courtyards (of the kind which I previously seen and admired in Warsaw), and a kindergarten, serene in the early summer greenery, lacking only the hearty cries of joyous socialist children to complete the illusion of arcadia [Figure 6]. The green spaces (of which there are many) seem to be reverting to meadowland and forest. We stop at the very earliest block, in a square until recently named after a Stackhanovite steelworker whose renovation in 2006 caused much debate about the desirability of preserving the “heritage” of a township now suffering from high un-employment and escalating crime.

Figure 6: ‘Arcadia’. Photo by author.

We travel to the gates of the steelworks, now renamed (as late as 2006) the Huta im T. Sendzimira after a Polish metallurgist (Tadeusz Sendzimir) who worked for most of his life in the USA. An impressive sculpted steel logo announces the name on a vast scale [Figure 7]. Lenin seems to have been simply deleted to be replaced by a more national hero. Arcelor Mittal’s ownership of the plant is announced only by a small plastic sign below and a tiny fluttering flag. They have reduced the workforce from 30,000 to 6,000 and the casual viewer might easily get the impression that they don’t want to waste money on rebranding in case they sell-up. By the central management offices (Socialist Realist but with a series of curlicues along the roof battlement echoing the finials of the cloth market in the medieval central Krakow square) there is a noticeboard announcing recent deaths in the area. It was strategically located to be visible to the whole township as it entered and left work: now it seems like a fragment of a larger ruin [Figure 8].

Figure 7: Entrance to steel mill. Photo by author.
Figure 8: Notice of deaths. Photo by author.

We pass a supermarket in one of the Socialist Realist arcades which used to house an international workers’ club where steelworkers gathered to discuss international affairs, we admire the preserved interiors of a couple of shops in which 1950s pendulous ceramic chandeliers hang strangely low, and enter a restaurant designed to cater to the needs of Orientalist tourists in search of “ostalgia” and a communism that has been safely buried. The café is opposite the former location of a huge sculpture of Lenin, now in a Swedish theme park. It sports an image of Lenin in the window [Figure 9], and small busts of Lenin on tables inside [Figure 10]. I try to persuade Monika to have lunch there but without success. Her preferred option, a local “bar” with a completely anonymous façade and extraordinary minimal interior furniture, has attracted a huge queue of customers.

Figure 9: View of restaurant window. Photo by author.
Figure 10: Interior of restaurant. Photo by author.

Finally a trio of churches, two of which have now made Nowa Huta famous. Firstly the site of the battle “under the cross” [Figure 11], then the first of two modern edifices of considerable architectural interest. The first celebrates Our Lady of Czestochawa, a Madonna who has become Queen of Poland, heroically suffering (and surviving) Swedish, Nazi and Soviet depredations, the two scars on her right cheek “elongating” in sympathy with national suffering [Figure 12]. The geometrical roof structure is striking, a sanctified “constructivism”, a kind of meccano saturated with godliness.

Figure 11: Site of battle. Photo by author.
Figure 12: Our Lady of Czestochowa. Photo by author.

Last, the truly remarkable“Holy Ark” (Arka Pana), a conical structure with a boat on top, complete with anchor. Inside is a truly revolutionary space, completely devoid of any hieratic directionality. The cone is studded with millions of pebbles brought by local inhabitant at the request of the architect [Figure 13]. Golonka-Czajkowska met many people in her research who could locate “their pebble”, identifying with the atomic structure of this transcendent object [Figure 14]. The Catholic Church, it turned out knew how to mobilise the people much better than the communists, the architecture of Gods resonating more powerfully than the architecture of the state.

Figure 13: View of the Holy Ark. Photo from Wikicommons.
Figure 14: External wall of the Ark. Photo by author.


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