Don's Diary

December 26, 1997

Friday

Evening arrival at Katowice for a teaching visit. Met by genial Polish colleague and a slap in the face from biting cold. Pleasant evening helped by choice of Silesian bar-restaurant in preference to "English" pub. Dumplings, giant sausage. Excellent borsch.

Saturday Host inquires into preferences for visits. Hesitantly suggest the worst place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Host readily agrees. Walk into museum entrance: blast of warm air and coffee smells emerge from welcoming snack bar. Postcards for sale. Toilets immaculately clean. All seems incongruous. Then outside: bitterly cold despite winter wear. Quickly encounter and pass under obscene gate-arch with its infamous injunction that "Arbeit Macht Frei", with the "Macht" in its jolly loop. Attach ourselves to English-speaking guide.

A series of rooms. The first full of spectacle frames, another of suitcases, one of shoes and then the one filled with tonnes of women''s hair, much in plaits. Apparently to be used in place of harder-to-obtain horse hair. Chest heaves and tears roll when confronted by huge photographs of children, some smiling shyly as they start their innocent walk into oblivion. Why did I come?

Worse is to follow - Birkenau, the extermination camp which stretches to the horizon. Wooden accommodation huts have long gone, exposing hundreds of erect brick chimneys standing bare across the freezing plain. Guide explains that heating was necessary to keep inmates alive long enough to work. Non-workers straight to the gas chambers located at the ends of the camp. Beside the crematorium stands the memorial to the dead. A few wilted flowers and old candles surround the Hebrew inscription. At last we leave. A final glance back into hell and then on to a pleasant village. Conversation is resumed haltingly and the cold-induced urge to drink and eat returns. Meet local university staff for pleasant meal and sombre discussion. Excellent borsch.

Sunday

Taken for day to medieval city of Krakow. Exquisitely preserved castles, churches and narrow cobbled streets unfold. An early dusk and to Kazimierz, the pre-war centre of Jewish life and culture in Krakow. Jewish population before the war, 70,000. Current Jewish population, 100. But there is movement among the ruins. Rescued from dereliction by Unesco and by Steven Spielberg through the film Schindler's List, life - Jewish life - is returning to Kazimierz. Taken for meal in heart of old Jewish area. Ancient cafe, wonderful food. Youthful trio of Klezmer musicians play traditional Yiddish music in a vibrant and contemporary style. Feel stirrings of long dormant identity as some sort of hope returns after despair of yesterday.

Monday

Spend morning over final preparation of lectures. Quick lunch, then my first encounter with Katowice students. Talk for about 90 minutes followed by enjoyable discussion with very enthusiastic and well-informed students about prospects for employment relations in the newly liberalised Polish economy. Looks as though life is going to be tough for the workplace unions. Invited back by host for pizza bought from newly opened and exceptionally well-patronised Pizza Hut in Katowice.

Tuesday

Lecture to postgraduates and to staff whose numbers are depleted owing to heavy teaching schedules. For many academics teaching starts at 8am and finishes for undergraduates at 6pm. Part-time postgraduate students have lectures in the evenings and at weekends until Sunday lunch time. Academics are not well paid. Many lecturers have other jobs or operate as self-employed consultants. Shortages of books, journals and technology compound their problems. Can only admire their energy, enthusiasm and commitment.

Wednesday

To the management school located in an old army camp in a town on the outskirts of Katowice. Lecture to about 50 management students who show considerable interest in comparing recent Polish experience with patterns of Western European employee relations. Lunch in a miners' welfare restaurant. Excellent borsch. Complete formal aspects of visit with lengthy discussion about prospects for developing research links between Strathclyde and Katowice.

Thursday

Free in Krakow. Visit museum and have totally unimpeded view of a Leonardo and a Rembrandt. Few other visitors. Revisit Kazimierz in daylight and have rare distinction of being ejected from renovated old synagogue for not putting sufficient dosh into collection hat. As hat was previously empty and I was only a visitor, this action showed an admirably cavalier approach to the principles of free market exchange. Jewish dignity somewhat dented but soon restored by warm welcome in cafe. Excellent chicken soup.

Jeff Hyman

Senior lecturer in industrial relations at the University of Strathclyde. He is on sabbatical at the International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva.

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