idea / Wrocław, the Meeting Place

Wrocław is still Breslau

Interview with Igor Pudło

Igor Pudło from the band Skalpel, known also as Igor Boxx on the history of Wrocław, his childhood memories and his album “Breslau”.

When did you first realize you lived in a German city?

I spent the first years of my life in a dingy tenement on Ładna St. in Wrocław. The building survived WWII because it was huddled against a massive bunker. Much of the street had been torn down, but all around you could see these stumps of old buildings, which I used to scale along with the other kids. Sometimes, we would find a piece of metal in the dank bunker cellars, and our imagination was immediately transformed it into a fragment from a German soldier’s helmet. Our fantasy was stimulated by the official propaganda, which considered the war to have never ended and was still very much in pursuit of the final victory – even though it was already the 1970s. We shared an apartment with no hot running water with another family. That was pretty much the norm in that area. We lived in post-German houses, surrounded by post-German furniture and knickknacks. Of course everyone’s biggest dream was to hack them all to pieces as soon as possible and buy a wall unit. But my father still has a beer mug that belonged to the apartment’s previous owner.

You were born in Wrocław, but what about your parents?

My mom came here from Lviv in 1946, as a 8-year-old girl, and my father arrived from Tarnów as a grown man, looking for work, happiness, and new opportunities. We’re all immigrants here, as the post-1945 history of Wrocław is the unique tale of the biggest wholesale relocation of a city’s population in the 20th century.

This knowledge about our German roots seeped in gradually, and somewhat in contrast to the official propaganda. Based on history lessons in primary school, I had the impression that in 1945, the old Piast city of Wrocław was finally returned to its motherland, and that the German occupation had lasted not too much longer than the Second World War itself. But then we would take a field trip to the zoo, and learn from Antoni Gucwiński that it was founded by Germans, and quite a long time ago, too. And even though there were only Polish street names around, people spoke in hushed voices that Drukarska St. used to be Gutengerg Strasse.

But I only realized just how German my town was when I went on a field trip to Dresden. We crossed the border and entered another country, everyone around us spoke in a foreign language - but the architecture, the style of it, was just like ours. I thought to myself: so this is what “post-German” means.

How did Polish and German history overlap?

Living in the city, you had this unsettling feeling of inhabiting a parallel world, like you were in a Philip K. Dick novel. At the Olympic Stadium – formerly the Herman Goering Olympic Stadium – I saw the final stage of the Peace Race, and the league championship games of Śląsk Wrocław. I saw my first American disaster movies at the Hala Ludowa [People’s Hall – ed.] (called Hala Stulecia [Centennial Hall – ed.] during the communist period). A legend from those times claimed that the central structural element of that huge dome was a swastika concealed by white-and-red and yellow-and-red draperies. But even though Hitler gave a speech there, it had been built 20 years before his rise to power, as Hala Stulecia.

Have you ever talked to your parents about the city’s history?

No. On one hand, my parents adjusted well to socialism, and didn’t want to delve on the past, and on the other – as a teenager, I was very much into rebellion. I kind of realized where I lived, but I wasn’t interested in history. We would sometimes go to what was left of the Jewish cemetery, but it was mostly to have some wine in an unusual place, not to analyze the past. I was only interested in the future, and my interest was very specific: what will the next good punk rock album be, and is there a chance that I will be the one to record it.

It was hard to believe that Germans haven’t always been Nazis, especially in Breslau, which percentage-wise was the 2nd biggest hub of support for the NSDAP during the 1932 election. On the other hand, we were also annoyed by people ramming the idea that Wrocław was a “Piast” city down our throats. My reaction to this black-and-white sort of propaganda was naming my first band Breslau SS (the name was also inspired by the British punk rock band London SS). Only in the 1990s was it possible to start thinking about the city’s history in more relaxed terms.

What did it mean to you?

When I tried becoming a rapper, I put the lyric “I can’t tell you how/But Wrocław’s still Breslau” into my first song (the song itself was about the rampant spread of skinheads in our city). Luckily, I never made it as a rap artist. I still like the rhyme, though now I put a new spin on it and changed it to “I can’t tell you how/But Wrocław’s still kind of Breslau”. I became a DJ instead of an MC, and began my career at the “Kolor” club. It was located in a bomb shelter underneath the New Targ square, and had served as an… entertainment hotspot during the siege of Breslau as well. In his “Microcosm”, Norman Davies writes that a report from the Kletshkau prison mentioned a new category of inmates, the Bunkerliebchen - or “Bunker Girls” - who were usually convicted for prostitution. These women would put flowers in their hair and romance the front line troops who would share sharing their alcohol and food rations for brief a moment of respite.

How did “Breslau” come about?

Going into the third Skalpel record, we wanted to come up with something very original from a formal standpoint. We knew that the Polish jazz theme had run its course. After several tries, we had to admit to ourselves that we simply lacked a good enough idea. We decided to take a break from each other. After some time, I thought that maybe I should first find a subject for a musical story, and only start looking for a proper vessel once I have it. I also moved to Oporów in that period. Walking around the neighborhood, I kept discovering cemeteries: one for Polish soldiers, one for Italian ones, the Grabiszyński cemetery... There was also this sort of monument to all the Wrocław cemeteries that were destroyed after World War II: evangelical, catholic, municipal, and Jewish ones. I started pondering the history of this city; it was winter, the season when the siege of Festung Breslay began in 1945. I tried to imagine what its citizens must have felt then.

And this was the subject you were looking for?

Yes, although initially I had a much more ambitious plan – the album was to consist of two parts. The first CD would be devoted to pre-war Wrocław, and would be this idyllic, idealized image of the past: pergolas, Japanese gardens, people walking in the streets… I even found some amateur videos from that period on YouTube. But somehow it didn’t gel, I didn’t know how to translate that mood into music without it sounding kitschy. So I decided to tell the story of the Russian siege of the Wrocław fortress between February and May 1945.

The tracks on the album loosely reference subsequent stages of the siege. Let’s take “Alarm” for example: almost until the end of 1944, the people of Breslau were completely unaffected by the war. The information that their city would be turned into a stronghold must have come as a shock. Panic erupted, people were forcibly drafted into the army. “In Flames” is a snapshot of the city on fire, of smoldering ruins. “Street Fighting” – bestial fighting in the streets. “Last Party in Breslau” is the carnival, the last orgies, when people realized they had no hope left and nothing left to lose.

Did you do some research?

Not really. The record was born out of how I pictured the siege as a child and a teenager. When I was a kid, I believed that Festung Breslau was this monumental stronghold, a second Malbork: entanglements, walls, moats… Only recently did I learn that it wasn’t quite as spectacular as that. But when I was making the record, I was still drawing on that early impression, instead of historical facts. That’s why it sounds so apocalyptic at times. I started getting into the details of it all only once I had recorded the music – I bought Norman Davis’ “Microcosm”, memoirs by two officers, and other publications. But once again: “Breslau” is not historical movie soundtrack.

Weren’t you afraid people would accuse you of entering the rather suspect field of Polish historical politics?

No. I know that Lao Che had already done their Warsaw Uprising thing, there were comic books about the Battle of Grunwald...  But I made this record myself, I didn’t take money from anyone. It’s a separate story, it was born out of my need to develop some sort of roots in the place where I lived, to look at it from a perspective that wasn’t limited to my lifetime alone. It’s impossible to live only in the present here. “Breslau” isn’t another “historical project” fit to be performed at schools and during jubilees.

If it has any historical message, it’s that when it comes to the Great Cheesboard, we aren’t always players – sometimes we are simply pawns, moved around from one place to another. The history of the world isn’t limited to the history of Poland. In 1945, in Breslau, this history unfolded without our participation, and we were “issued” the city by the Great Powers as part of the division of spoils of war. Polish history isn’t of paramount importance, although at times it can be very important. Still, it’s the people and their lives that matter, regardless of their nationality.

Interview by Jacek Tomczuk
translated by Wojciech Góralczyk


"Last Party in Breslau" - courtesy of Isound Labels, the Polish distributor of Igor Boxx's album "Breslau".