A fascinating tale of Nowa Huta and its inhabitants
Urszula always went to Arkadia in stilettos. Even when it was freezing. That’s what she told me, carefully watching to check whether I believe her. Arkadia was the chicest restaurant in Nowa Huta, it was heaven on earth, and Urszula couldn’t imagine going to heaven other than in stilettos. And a hat. She sent her photo in that hat to the Worker Poets anthology and caused a scandal, because the editor had a different idea of a gantry crane poet from Nowa Huta, simply a different one, definitely not in a black hat with a softly drooping brim, worn at an angle.
In Nowa Huta Urszula lived in cafés. That’s what she said. That is, yes, she did have a room at the workers’ hostel, but cafés suited her more than hostels. She told me that she’d dance, light as a butterfly, with the handsomest men, and when the clock struck the time for the night shift, she’d spring up to leave.
‘You’re delightful,’ she’d cry, ‘but I’m off to the conglomerate!’
‘And what’s your position there, at that conglomerate?’ the men would shout after her.
‘The top one, sir, the top position!’ she’d shout back.
She’d jump onto a tram and rush to the steelworks, climb the gantry crane in high heels to write opera librettos, ballads and poems, and load ore and magnesite too. As she climbed the ladder, all the moulders would only have eyes for her long legs. That’s what she said and it was a superb story.
* * *
Gigant was the first. Gigant was grand.
You went there up the steps, to the first floor, passing two newsagents and an ice-cream place, and marble pillars covered with light blue tiles towered above you. There were palm trees and lounge chairs in the foyers, and further on the main room opened up: shiny floors, mirrors on the walls, stuccoes on the ceiling and square tables at which even 600 people at a time could dine or drink.
Gigant was the first elegant restaurant in Nowa Huta. It was situated at the Department Store at the A-1 estate, and from the start it was obvious that its “aesthetically pleasing and costly furnishings” will have to be protected from “the excesses of unpredictable hooligans”. It opened its doors on July 4th, 1952 (in Nowa Huta everything was opened on the July or the October anniversary), so that – following the example of the Soviet Union – the liberation of women from their “kitchen slavery” could begin. At least that was the plan: women will leave pots and pans behind and take up bricks, drive steam engines, eat in canteens and restaurants, wash clothes in laundries and hand their children over to nurseries and kindergartens. At last, they’ll have the time to build socialism.
But Helena Pietrzykowska didn’t, for some reason, think about building socialism. She wanted to get out.
Recruiters brought her to Nowa Huta on Friday 13th. It was September 1953, mud and dust, and meadows and fields were still stretching away towards the horizon. She got her first job at the construction site of the conglomerate, her first place to live – at the workers’ hostel. She escaped it very soon, lodged with an old lady. She was raring to work. She carried bricks and laid them, but also for a short while, just two weeks. An engineer immediately started hanging around her, a married one, had a crush. When he got too persistent, Helena quit and went straight to Gigant.
Excerpts translated by Marta Dziurosz
A fascinating tale of Nowa Huta and its inhabitants
The history of Nowa Huta began after World War II, when the communist authorities decided to build an enormous metallurgical conglomerate near the bourgeois city of Cracow – for centuries an important centre of the country’s religious, cultural and scientific life, and hence a potential hub of resistance against the regime. Next to it a city for workers was built from the ground up. Carefully planned and constructed within just a few years, today it is considered a gem of urban development. This is because it combines the ideological and aesthetic tenets of Social Realism, Renaissance inspirations and the solid know-how of eminent pre-war Polish architects. Even though not all their plans were completed, even today tourists visit Nowa Huta – now a district of Cracow – to see the famous layout of buildings and streets, and its inhabitants appreciate its well-thought-out infrastructure and greenery.
The book The Women of Nowa Huta. Bricks, Gems and Firecrackers introduces us to a range of very different women who have, over the years, built the area, lived there, worked and fought the communist regime. Girls such as Zofia or Helena, who arrived from villages and towns to join the gangs of bricklayers erecting the first of Nowa Huta’s buildings, are examples of the post-war process of emancipation, with its bright (the social advance of women from disadvantaged families) and dark sides (the brutal displacement of farmers from villages which were razed to the ground so that the district could be built). The life of Jadwiga Beaupré, a representative of the intelligentsia, evokes admiration for the fortitude of a woman for whom the war meant the loss of her husband (murdered in Auschwitz), but also of her son and wealth; however, she still constantly strove to benefit others. As a doctor she worked at a hospital and at a labour camp, and as a conspirator she fought in the Polish resistance. She was the one who established Nowa Huta’s first maternity unit and promoted the idea of childbirth without pain at a time when barely anyone heard about antenatal classes. Other figures in the book include an architect, a director, a bricklayer, a barmaid… The book is enhanced by archival photographs of locations and people.
By collecting all these stories, the highly regarded reporter Katarzyna Kobylarczyk presents both the fascinating tale of the place and a huge part of Poland’s history, while at the same time foregrounding the individual and her universal tribulations.
Translated by Marta Dziurosz
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