This is the fourth installment in Joris van Casteren’s series on New Towns across Europe. In this article from the summer issue of Hollands Diep, Van Casteren explores this Polish New Town and the people that call it home. Nowa Huta was also the subject of a recent INTI research trip.
These days, Nowa Huta in Poland, originally founded by Stalin as a socialist realistic model town, is inhabited by hooligans, unemployed and retired people. But even today the architect is proud of the symmetry in the town plan.
It’s Sunday evening and I’m standing in Nowa Huta on Ronald Reagan Square, formerly Plac Centralny (Central Square). A man in a faded jacket starts to speak to me in Polish. I tell him in English that I don’t understand him. ‘Me no English,’ he shouts.
He takes my blocnote out of my hands and writes with an unstable hand ‘Zdzisław Kepa’. ‘Me Zdzisław Kepa,’ he says, and strikes himself on the chest. From the inside pocket of the faded jacket appears a small bottle of cherry vodka. He takes a draught, I decline politely.
Kepa continues talking in Polish. He pulls my arm and I follow him through a broad street. In front of a crowded tram stop he stumbles over a loose paving stone. We walk through a passageway beneath a building and arrive in a small street with apartment buildings. At one of the doors he stops and rings the bell. An angry voice of a woman sounds through the intercom. Kepa points at his wedding ring and makes a desperate gesture.
The next morning I’m introduced to my interpreter. His name is Robert Sochanski and he is a student from Krakow. ‘I’m ashamed of Poland in general and of Nowa Huta in particular,’ Sochanski says. He is 23 years old and smokes thin menthol cigarettes.
In a cafe with a communist era interior I explain my plans to him. ‘We are going to look for people who built Nowa Huta. And for young people, to get an impression of today’s life.’
Sochanski asks how we’re going to make contact with them. ‘We talk with people on the street, or we ring a doorbell,’ I say. ‘That is not done in Poland,’ Sochanski says. In his opinion, Poles are suspicious and impolite. ‘That’s why I want to emigrate to America.’ He already applied for a scholarship at a university in New York.
I point to a place on the map where I want to go. ‘That’s where a female student was raped last month,’ Sochanski says. The story goes that she was dragged out of the bus by skinheads, nobody intervening. When I point to another neighbourhood, Sochanski says that place is ruled by Hutniks, fanatic supporters of the local football club.
In 1949, ten kilometres east of Krakow farmers were driven off their lands. Buses arrived full of veterans, criminals and unemployed from all parts of Poland. While singing battle songs they built a city for two hundred thousand people, with a large steel plant next to it. The city was to be named Nowa Huta.
Stalin insisted on the building of Nowa Huta, because there was no proletariat in Poland. With Nowa Huta, this proletariat could be created. The steel plant would provide labourers, who would live comfortably in the brand new city.
Stalin gave a large bag of money to his subjects of the Polish People’s party. Nowa Huta had to become an imposing new town, it had to become better than those casual new towns in the West, where you could never be sure if the citizens would put into practice the dreamt ideals.
Nowa Huta was to be realized close to Krakow. For Krakow was an awkward, mundane city full of intellectuals and students. First, Nowa Huta would proletarize Krakow, followed by the rest of Poland.
The architects worked according to the bombastic and easy to understand principles of socialist realism. They drew five perpendicular lanes, starting from the central square and as a fan dispersing toward the edges of the town. Between those lanes stood severe residential blocs with classical ornaments. By the construction of streets intersecting the lanes they created quarters, which they marked A-0 till D-31. Many labourers came from the countryside. In their modern houses they continued their rural traditions. They kept pigs in the kitchen and made fires in the living room. Several groups clashed with each other. Women had to build too, there was no time to look after children. In a nearby river, as well as in some foundations, there were found remains of dead baby bodies.
The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) wrote his first report in Nowa Huta. ‘A nightmare’, he called it. ‘A total hunger among the labourers, dirt and drunkenness.’
Mid 1950s, by the time the city was finished and the steel plant was up and running, it became more peaceful in Nowa Huta. Every morning labourers marched from their house to the plant. There was no unemployment and crime was reduced. There were schools, day nurseries and shops. Everybody had the possibility to go on holiday once a year. Delegations from countries of the Warsaw pact arrived to see the miracle of Nowa Huta.
Socialist model town
At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Stalin laid claim to Poland and installed the People’s Republic of Poland. In order to lead Poland on to the socialist path, he ordered the building in 1949 of Nowa Huta (‘New Steel Mill’), near Krakow, with an immense steel plant next to it. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Nowa Huta lost its identity as a socialist-realist model town. Parts of the steel plant were closed, 90 percent of the labourers became unemployed. In the 1990s, the city developed into the centre of the Polish skinhead movement. For the last few years efforts are undertaken to promote Nowa Huta as a tourist attraction. Because of the many parks and the large apartments, Nowa Huta, currently inhabited by 230,000 people, is gradually becoming more attractive for young families.
Together with Sochanski I walk past quarter B-31 to the Ratuszowy-park, the meeting point for Nowa Huta’s retired. Three men are sitting on a bench. ‘Ask them if they worked in the plant,’ I say to Sochanski. When Sochanski tells them that I am a journalist, two of the old men rise and go.
The third, Zygmunt (81), is prepared to talk. His nose and mouth twist in a strange way. ‘He thinks it’s due to chemicals he breathed in when he worked at the plant,’ Sochanski explains.
Zygmunt tells us he was set to work in Germany during the war. After liberation he returned to Poland penniless. Together with thousands of others he was sent to Nowa Huta in 1948. He had to dig ditches and lay bricks. When the town was finished he found a job in the plant. He had to put small metal objects into boxes.
Zygmunt got married to a woman who also worked in the plant. They moved into an apartment in one of the residential blocks. Inside, the apartments were all furnished identically, with goods that could be obtained from a central warehouse.
The architects placed the residential blocks in such a way that there was always a view to another block. ‘This way everybody could keep an eye on everybody,’ Zygmunt says. He didn’t plan to stay long in Nowa Huta. ‘I wanted to save some money and buy a cottage in the country.’ But there was not much to save, because the wages were low. In order to make more money you had to become a member of the People’s Party, the only way to get promotion. Zygmunt didn’t want that.
He had two children, a son and a daughter. Every month he put aside some money for their studies later on. When his son turned eighteen, Zygmunt wanted to forward his savings to the university of Krakow. ‘They told us he wouldn’t be accepted, because I was not a member of the Party.’ His son became an electrician, his daughter a cook. Both still live in Nowa Huta, now each in their own flats.
Last year Zygmunts wife died, leaving him behind in the apartment. If the weather is nice, he goes to the park. If the weather is bad, he repairs radios and TV’s for other retired plant workers, who, like himself, have to make ends meet with less than two hundred euro a month.
- the master plan of Nowa Huta
Sochanski and I go to B-2, the quarter where the female student had been dragged out of the bus. Earlier I was told by the local historian Maciej Miezian, that block 21 in B-2 is the oldest residential block of Nowa Huta. After searching for a while we find number 21, a rectangular complex with a brown-grey facade made of shotcrete.
‘Let’s ring the doorbell,’ I say. ‘I’m afraid,’ Sochanski says. The central front door opens and a man with a pram appears. Hesitating, Sochanski addresses the man. ‘I don’t know anything about it,’ the man says. He shouts something into the stairwell and his mother-in-law comes down.
The mother-in-law’s hair is dyed red with a grey outgrow. ‘This is certainly not the oldest block,’ she says. ‘Maciej Miezian told me,’ I say. ‘Maciej Miezian talks nonsense.’ She recounts that he is regularly found standing in front of number 21 with his tour groups. ‘He knows that the oldest block is in A-0. But he finds it too far to walk.’
In 1946 the mother-in-law was born in a small village in Silesia. The communist authorities sent her family in 1949 to Nowa Huta. Her father had to bake bricks. ‘Horrible,’ says Sochanski. ‘Not at all,’ the mother-in-law says. ‘We received a house for free and a job for life.’
Back in those days, life in Nowa Huta was ideal. ‘It was reigned by order and discipline, everybody knew his place.’
‘Ask her if she was a member of the communist party,’ I say to Sochanski. ‘Are you mad?’ Sochanski says. I have to insist a long time before he asks. The mother-in-law nods.
Her husband held a leading position in the plant. They lived in the prominent quarter number C-32, exclusively inhabited by party members. After the free elections in August 1989, they lost their privileged position and were forced to move to the small flat in block 21. ‘Nowa Huta is impoverished, it is ruled by scoundrels.’
By the end of the 1960s, the citizens of Nowa Huta wished to build a church. But the communists were against religion and didn’t allow them. The people built a wooden cross and held open-air services. The military police intervened violently.
In the seventies, confidence in the authorities further declined. The permanent layer of thick smoke laid over the city by the 125 chimneys of the steel plant, they asserted, was not poisonous. But citizens died young of strange diseases, and many mutated babies were born.
By the start of the eighties, the steel labourers of Nowa Huta massively joined the actions of Lech Walęsa’s illegal trade union Solidarity, which originated and spread from the city of Gdańsk. They organised protest marches from the plant to the city’s central square. Again, the riot police intervened with violence, and people were killed.
Nowhere in Poland the labourers fought against the communist regime as fearless as in Nowa Huta, the city that had to become an example for the rest of the country. The socialist-realistic residential blocks were ideal fortresses from where the rioters launched surprise attacks at the police.
After the 1989 revolution there were plans to destroy Nowa Huta completely. When eventually this didn’t happen, everybody who could afford it started leaving the city, which embodied an unhappy era. Low educated, unemployed and retired people stayed behind. Of the forty thousand labourers the plant employed in its heyday, four thousand remained.
The sun is setting when we ring the bell of Zdzisław Kepa’s apartment. I hear his voice through the intercom. At first, Kepa says he doesn’t know me. Then he tells us he has another appointment. Eventually he says he will come out with his dog after one hour.
- Café Stylowa
- photo: Hans van der Meer
One hour later he appears as he said, with his dog. We walk to the cafe with the communist interior and Kepa ties the dog to a lamp pole. Inside he tells me that I am the very image of his childhood friend, who drank himself to death. ‘That’s why he wanted to take you home,’ Sochanski says. ‘His wife didn’t think it a good idea.’
Kepa (56) grew up in Nowa Huta. At school he had to learn the Russian language and history. The teachers told their pupils it was a privilege to be a resident of Nowa Huta. ‘I knew they were lies,’ Kepa says. In various ways the city tried to force an artificial identity upon him. Sometimes he and his classmates had to parade with a flag on the central square. ‘On such occasions I used to hide in the wardrobe together with the flag.’
After school he started to work at a building company connected to the steel plant. Employees of this company could be set to work in other Warsaw Pact countries. ‘That way I got a passport. I tried to travel as much as possible.’
He met his wife and got married. In the eighties he fought together with the rebels of Solidarity against the military police. Kepa thinks Nowa Huta should have been flattened by bulldozers after the revolution.
Nowadays Nowa Huta is the scene of the so-called ‘communism tours’, an idea of young entrepreneurs from Krakow. Tourists and party groups can have themselves transported through the socrealistic model town by a trabant or an authentic soviet tank. ‘As a resident of Nowa Huta you are a pitiable background actor in an open air museum,’ Kepa says.
He still works at the building company. But the company is almost bankrupt and orders have ceased to come. ‘All day I sit inside with my wife.’ In the evenings he escapes in order to empty a bottle of cherry vodka.
The next day I go with Sochanski to quarter number A-25 to look for the Hutniks. On the parking lot we find three. They have shaved heads, are wearing a bomber jack and they are drinking beer.
Sochanski approaches them. ‘They will talk if you give them beer,’ he says. Together we walk to the football supporters’ cafe next to the stadium of their club, Sportowy Hutniks, quarter no. A-25.
In the cafe Jakub (25), Marcin (21) and Rafa (29) tell that they drink beer from early morning till late at night. In the weekend they go to the stadium for a fight with the riot police and the hooligans of the enemy. ‘We are degraded to division two, but that doesn’t count for fighting,’ Marcin says.
Marcin tells that they hate negroes, Jews and Arabs. ‘Unfortunately there are no negroes, Jews or Arabs in Nowa Huta.’ Now and then there are gypsies though. ‘When we see them we chase them out of the city,’ Jakub says.
Last year, Jakub was stabbed in his back on the street. In hospital they had to remove part of his lungs. He doesn’t know who did it. ‘I would like to meet him, I will kill him when I do.’
All three of them were born in Nowa Huta. Their grandparents moved to Nowa Huta from villages around Krakow. Their parents worked at the plant. All three of them had a technical education, but once they had their diplomas, there was no work. And still there is no work. Now and then they can do some construction work in Germany for a few months. ‘After that we drink away our money.’ Marcin sometimes knows a healthier period, when he visits the sport club.
Marcin and Jakub live with their parents, Rafa with his mother. ‘My father is not alive anymore, he drank himself to death.’ He himself has just been released from hospital, where he was treated for liver damage.
About Nowa Huta’s history they don’t know much. ‘My parents have told me much about it, but I’m not interested,’ Jakub says. ‘My father used to fight with the police. I found that quite cool,’ Marcin says. Rafa remembers vaguely how the statue of Lenin was removed from the central square. ‘My parents always complain about me being lazy, and that it was so different in their days,’ Jakub says. ‘I can’t stand that nagging,’ Marcin says. Some of their classmates went to university. They never saw them back.
On the map of Nowa Huta they point out where the territory of the Hutniks ends, and where starts the territory of the hooligans of the other Krakow football clubs, Wisła Krakow and Cracovia. If they cross one of the boundary streets, their lives are at stake.
‘I would like to have a cottage in the country,’ Marcin says. I wouldn’t like to bring up my children in Nowa Huta. Here people kill each other for no reason. Jakub and Rafa also wouldn’t like to bring up their children in Nowa Huta. But for the present they have no children. And no girlfriend either. ‘Women don’t seem very interested in us,’ Jakub says.
At an institute for architecture in Krakow I meet Stanisław Juchnowicz (84), one of the architects who designed Nowa Huta. ‘I’m still proud of the symmetry of the town plan,’ Juchnowicz says. The team of architects, he says, searched for maximal freedom within the limited possibilities offered by the socialist-realistic doctrine, in order to make life for the residents as pleasant as possible. ‘I think the residents of Nowa Huta were happier than those of an average new town.’
Juchnowicz believes that the humane concept made the residents develop a humane view upon reality. For the same reason he thinks Solidarity had the chance to become as strong as it did in Nowa Huta.
There were colleagues who blamed him for offering his services to the regime. He had no doubts himself. ‘I have only one life. In that one life you can only design one town.’
Opponents accused him and other Nowa Huta architects of collaboration with the regime. ‘As if we were going to design Auschwitz,’ Juchnowicz cries out. ‘If we hadn’t designed Nowa Huta, it might have become much worse.’