free zone / NGO zone

Lublin: How to Change the World Locally

Institute of Reportage

Jacek Kuroń used to say: "Don't burn the committees: set up your own" . Piotr Choroś followed this advice. Olimpia Wolf (Polish School of Reportage) writes about him and the Homo Faber association in Lublin.

1 train car, 2 bathroom, 1 ladder, 12 participants, 1 guard, 1800 km.

Day 1, Lublin: we're travelling in the same passenger car, already past the city of Pilawa. The stress of preparations is gone. I'm falling asleep.

Day 3, Warsaw: I visited Ośrodek KARTA. We have scanned fragments from Jacek Kuroń's "Logbook" concerning Lublin.

Day 6, Poznań: Last two days were taken straight from the "Big Brother". Everyone wanted to see how we live, wash, eat.

Day 9, Szczecin: We obtained the recording of Marian Jurczyk's speech given at the signing of the Szczecin Shipyard agreement in 1980.

Day 22, Kielce: in a milkbar, after ordering a vegetarian dish, I was offered chicken.

Day 26, Gdańsk: I'm standing in Juta's parents apartment, holding a "Solidarity" badge bought at the first congress, flicking through underground press from the 80's. Outside the window is Hala Olivia - the famous sports and concert hall. That moment is pure magic.

1980. 46-years-old Jacek Kuroń does not participate in the August strike in Gdańsk Shipyard. He's been arrested. Amnesty for political prisoners is one of the demands of the workers on strike. After being released in September 1980 Kuroń immediately becomes "Solidarity" advisor. The same month Piotr Choroś is born: the first child of Jolanta, a clerk, and Jerzy, a driver. They live in Lipsk.

2004. In June 70 year old Jacek Kuroń is buried at the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw. In July 24 year old Piotr Choroś and 15 of his friends set up Homo Faber association in Lublin.

MATTER OF CHANCE

In high school he used to be an anarchist, believer in the idea of social self-organisation. He became a community worker by chance. On the first day of classes at the political sciences department his friend persuaded him to attend an Amnesty International meeting. Piotr expected a posh social function with elegant old men, but to his surprise he saw young people. One of the members was borrowing a vegetarian cook book from the other. - That's how they got me - Piotr remembers cheerfully.

In 2004 Piotr and his friends from Amnesty obtain their academic degrees. They are thinking about the future. Piotr: - We were inspired by the work of Jacek Kuroń, Daria Kuroń, and other people connected with the Common University in Teremiski.

Where did the fascination with Kuroń come from? Couple of quotes should answer that question.

"Whether the struggle was about the independence of Poland, human rights, or socialism, the people were always most important. The people I liked, whom I remembered, whom I helped".

"The man who is growing should rebel against the existing order, as this order are always in stark contrast to the ideals that are instilled in children during bringing up. The alternative to the rebellion is adaptation, followed by obedience and imitation. Yet, every man and woman, especially young, wants to be the subject of his or her own life.

"Thinking man's duty is to oppose all forms of intolerance and to sympathize with those who are affected by intolerance."

And of course: "Don't burn the committees: set up your own ".

Piotr and his friends meet the first students of the Common University, an informal college, which aim is not exclusively to impart knowledge, but also to teach how to apply it in social, cultural, and political life.

The classes are organised in Warsaw or in Teremiski, in an adapted wooden school building. Adam Wajrak and his animals live on the neighbouring plot. There classes are of course free of charge.
Piotr Skrzypczak: - We were delighted. And we envied the founders of the university. We started to talk about maybe someday creating a similar place.

They put the words into actions. That summer they decide to establish Homo Faber association. They want to promote the ideals of civil society and defend human rights. Before they managed to put the plans to practical use, they were "abducted" by Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, head of Brama Grodzka Centre - Teatr NN.

Piotr: - For four years of cooperation Homo Faber practically merged with the Centre. We carried out projects under a third name: Akademia Obywatelska. (Civil Academy)

THE FIRST CHALLENGE

Pietrasiewicz made the Homo Faber team jump in at the deep end: they have six months to carry out a project commemorating the 25th anniversary of August 1980 strikes. The project culminates is a journey around 17 cities in a parlour-car.

Gazeta Wyborcza, Opole: "12 artists from Lublin chose the vehicle on purpose. The city remembers the strike of local railroad workers in July 1980 and the alleged story about the locomotive welded to the tracks".

project commemorating
the 25th anniversary
of August 1980 strikes

fot. Anna Dąbrowska

In each city they stop they talk about the strike in Lublin, while collecting information and keepsakes.

Piotr: - People used to come to see us, watch and cry. It was only then I started to understand, that "Solidarity" was not only about the politics, but also emotions.
Peter wrote about his journey - starting in Lublin, ending in Gdańsk - on his blog.

THE FIRST TRAUMA

In 2006, while implementing another project, Piotr and his friends visit Jewish towns of Lubelszczyzna region. A mythical world they knew from the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer. They gather information about the past. All of the sudden the myth is gone. People don't welcome them with open arms. In one of the towns some kids yell: "Get the fuck out of here, kikes." Adults hide from their sight.

The next day somebody tells them that during the war the local mayor struck a deal with the Germans. They allowed him to carry a gun, and he used to walk around town and shoot every Jew he saw. Was the account real, or was it another myth?

A former Home Army soldier told them that after the war the mayor, whom he tried to eliminate two times, built a cowshed using matzevas (tombstones) from the local Jewish cemetery.

COMMUNIST SYSTEM

– Following two years of voluntary work we got two permanent posts with a salary of 1000 PLN. The group consisted of over a dozen members, so from then on we had to introduce a "communist rules" - Piotr recounts half-jokingly - whatever we earn, we share among the whole group. We were poor, but we didn't need all that much. We managed to get by: sometimes to buy bread I had to sell used bottles. We hitch-hiked or simply walked between the towns.

I'm curious: - Did you look for a regular job?

- Sometimes I worked as a anti discrimination policy coach, I was also unloading packages of advertising leaflets from the trucks. I didn’t want to work in some dull office. All that mattered were things we did with Homo Faber.

Piotr Skrzypczak: – I love those alarm calls. Piotr is on the phone telling us that something happened and that we have to immediately do something about it.

- That's when we start to meet, talk all night, make plans. After the "operation" is finished I still feel the adrenaline rush, but we can already have a beer and celebrate: we did it again!

Take the trips to and from Israel. Homo Faber wanted to change the most common scenario - young Jews travel to Poland to see and commemorate the signs of Holocaust and go back to their homeland having no contact with Polish people their age. All they leave with are stereotypes. In 2008 Homo Faber organised workshops in cooperation with a youth group from Rishon LeZion (Lublin's sister city). 13 students from Israel and a group of Polish youth learned about multicultural past of the Lubelszczyzna region.

INDEPENDENCE

According to Piotr Brama Grodzka Centre was an incubator for their association, a place to gain experience. In 2008 they left, more experienced and mature, to move forward with Homo Faber. There were seven members: Piotr Choroś, Anna Dąbrowska, Aleksandra Gulińska, Magdalena Kawa, Alicja Kawka, Piotr Skrzypczak, Joanna Stachyra-Galant.

Piotr: - We wanted to be independent. Concentrate on the human rights, while Brama Grodzka's statutory activity concerned the remembrance of Polish Jews.

While working in the Centre they learned how to plan and execute projects. The next step was to earn money for the first time.

LET ME WHISPER YOU A STORY

"Hello, my name is Kazimierz Malinowski, I would like to tell you about what happened 20 years ago. We're in the famous spot under the baobab tree at Plac Litewski. If you turn around to face Piłsudski's figure, you will see…"

Malinowski's account, as well as stories told by other "Solidarity" members who took part in the election of June 1989, can be downloaded to a cell phone from the site www.szeptany.lublin.pl. Then, if you visit Lublin, just stand under the baobab and push play. "Whispered Lublin" is the idea of Piotr Skrzypczak, one of the Homo Faber members, to guide visitors around the city.

Piotr talks about another project: - We show children that Warszawa or Gdańsk are not the only destinations. You can see fascinating things just 20 km from home. Homo Faber and Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, member of the European Parliament, organised "trans-cultural" trips. Kids travel to see mizar - Tatar cemetery in Zastawek outside of Terespol, they meet Eastern Orthodox Church monks in a monastery in Jabłeczna and firemen from "Stołpno" depot in Międzyrzec Podlaski, who look after Jewish graves. They visit Kock and tzadik Menachem Mendel Morgenstern's house, clay models of which they are later sculpting. They also see a model of the city of Kock, constructed by the local youth in during the project carried out with Homo Faber.

Anna Dąbrowska: – It's not only about sightseeing. We want to make sure that during every trip students engage in something, do or learn something, for example: how to sing with a traditional "śpiewokrzyk" technique.

Piotr: - It's one of our most satisfying activities. Kids each time come back charged with positive energy, their teachers are very greatful.

Other projects? Here you go. Homo Faber runs a web portal www.hello.lublin.pl for foreign students, mainly from USA, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Belarus. It provides information about the city. They also publish a calendar, "Kapownik", a guide about events, festivals and institutions in Lublin. Regular "culture lessons" and Polish courses, cross-cultural workshops and anti-discrimination training for city guards and policemen all take place in Homo Faber's headquarters.

If necessary, members of the association accompany foreigners who have to visit police stations or city offices.

FALL ING LOVE WITH LUBLIN

Piotr dreams about Lublin as the European Capital of Culture.

He argues: - We are able to prepare a interesting cultural program for 2016. We will show Lublin's history, it’s present, dilemmas facing the city, the opportunities. Not only that, as we look at the whole region, the Eastern part of Poland. We cooperate with Lviv, try to get involved some Belarusian cities. Efforts to obtain the European Capital of Culture title have become led to significant work on the city's identity. The changes are implemented not only in the culture sector. The whole structure of managing a city as community of citizens is changing. I cannot hide my enthusiasm, and yet I don't even live here - adds Piotr, who moved to Nasutów, a small village on the outskirts of Lublin.

In december 2010 Choroś started to cooperate with the citizens affairs department in the City Office of the Municipality of Lublin

- An anarchist in the city hall?
- A former anarchist - Piotr corrects me with a slight sense of regret.

- Anarchistic ideals are still close to my heart, but I can see, especially while implementing the anti-discrimination policy, that we need the state, as it provides and enforces legal norms that prevent discrimination. The effective state also educates the citizens to stop the development of stereotype and prejudice.

Piotr's duties concern Lublin's effort to become the European Capital of Culture. In 2007 the City Hall and Homo Faber created the web portal dedicated to this cause: www.lublin2016.pl. It provides information about all cultural events in the city.

Renata Kiełbińska from "Skarpa" community centre: - Piotr stubbornly denies he has nothing to do with culture. I keep repeating him that all his work is just that: culture.

SET UP YOUR OWN COMMITTEES

Homo Faber's office is located at Krakowskie Przedmieście, nearby Lublin Old Town. The six room, 212 square meters apartment is full of books, leaflets, posters. There are bikes standing by two desks. The association currently has 13 members, Piotr Choroś, Justyna Choroś and Piotr Skrzypczak are the only ones left from the original founders. Anna Dąbrowska is the chairwoman of the association. Piotr used to be the chairman from 2006 to 2008, now he is a member of the board.

For Piotr Homo Faber is the way to change the world. To change it locally, in the Lubelszczyzna region.

Choroś thinks that change is important: - The world is constantly moving. By doing nothing we in fact moving back. That's why he repeats after Kuroń: "Don't burn the committees: set up your own".

Piotr Zieniuk, chairman of the Kultura Enter foundation: - Piotr is a great organiser and animator, he is really good with people.

Alicja Kawka, Homo Faber: – People are drawn to him, because he not only listens, but also understands them. He will help selflessly, will fight for important causes. He is always alert and knowledgeable.

Ania Dąbrowska: - A litter-lout, irritates easily, a workaholic. Extremely well-read, modest, has a great sense of humor. Hates pathos, his favorite cure for stress: punk rock gigs.

Piotr Choroś

fot. Anna Dąbrowska

A WALK AROUND CULTURE

- Lublin is changing. I will prove it by showing you two cool cultural places. Piotr takes me to a huge, almost empty hall with an arched ceiling.

Rafał „Koza” Koziński, director of the program department of Warsztaty Kultury: - It was built in the 1950s as a tank maintenance building. Now we took over. There was no adequate exhibition space in Lublin. Three years ago city's vice-president called me: You have to see this. I almost went crazy over this place: a modernistic hall with natural light. I decided that we were moving in.
Warsztaty Kultury (Workshops of Culture) are open for non-commercial cultural events, such as the Night of Culture or Jarmark Jagielloński (the Jagiellonian Fair). The centre, financed by the municipality, also organises exhibitions and stages theatre plays.

Koziński: - As a person with a background in the alternative, non-subsidized, politically engaged culture I was assigned to a specific task. City officials set up a concert bowl for 1000 viewers in Ogród Saski, but they had no idea what to do with it. So of course they called me. Nobody believed that theatres can perform there. However, now every year at least two foreign theatres stage their plays in the bowl. Nobody believed we can set up a movie screen in there. Now we're screening classic movies and independent films.

- What's in it for me? Satisfaction. My father always told me to become a priest, so this must be the way I'm fulfilling my missionary vocation - Koza adds jokingly.

The next stop is Tektura, really "indie" spot.

Ania Marcinek, "Tektura" collective (more formally: Creative Initiative Space TEKTURA): - Sometimes we don't know whether we make this place function or is it another way around.

"Tektura" is situated in a building from the 1920s. It's basically a squat with couple of rooms, basement with a rehearsal space. It was opened in 2006. Many concerts, exhibitions, evenings with slam poetry, events, off-cinema screenings and social work events have taken place here. "Tektura" prefers non-commercial, alternative activities.

Michał Wolny, another member of the collective: – Every year we organise 200 cultural events, almost 80 of them are concerts, mainly by independent bands. The genres include hardcore punk, post punk, jazz, blues, reggae and acoustic music. The best thing about Tektura is that it resembles us and reflects who we are.

We have to go, because members of the collective are finishing the soup which they will offer to homeless people in the Old Town - like they've been doing for the last six years as a part of Food, Not Bombs movement.

MULTIPLE LEVELS

Piotr: - When we started the most difficult thing was finding the name. We were inspired by the Teremiski university, to be exact by a quote from Jacek Kuroń's "Republic for My Grandchildren": "The new order would encourage the birth of the man: homo faber (man the maker). It will free the great amounts of creativity that was often stifled by the previous model of education."

Piotr: - We identify with the name on multiple levels. Firstly, we all that Jacek Kuroń did and wrote was very important to us. Secondly, we don't have to be artists, being a good craftsman is enough. Thirdly, many people associate Homo Faber with sexual minorities. We fight against discrimination and so this "homo" label suits us perfectly and does not bother us.

Piotr Choroś never met Jacek Kuroń.


Olimpia Wolf
Translated by Krzysztof Heymer

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.