2009 — Spring / Commentary

Sensing My Childhood – Crossing the Oder River

WARSAW, Poland — “Where are you from?” It’s a question often heard when meeting someone for the first time, especially in an international environment. “I’m Polish”. I love the look on their faces – surprised, smiling nervously, not sure whether I’m joking. Usually my friends hasten to add: “Oh, come on! This is not the whole truth.” Sometimes I myself feel the duty to be more precise and to explain that I actually grew up in Germany. “How long did you stay there?” I reply: “20 years.” Now everything seems to be clear and you can hear a breath of relief. “Aha, so you’re German,” they cry out in triumph. Well, not exactly. But my interlocutor is satisfied because he is now able to place me on the right shelf.


In 1987 my family moved to West Germany. I was six at that time. The only German words I spoke were eins, zwei, drei. I’m sure I wasn’t able to understand what we were doing. I know, however, that I was excited. I remember the first moment I saw Germany, from the plane window looking down on the red roof houses. “The houses are different here, aren’t they?”, my mother whispered while looking over my shoulder. Yes, indeed, they were different: so perfect, so unreal. What struck me repeatedly throughout the years to come was the fact that Polish houses were built without roofs. I hated those ugly houses that looked like grey boxes. But this is the way people saved money on taxes: from a legal point of view, their buildings were not considered as finished. Aesthetic issues did not play a role here. This type of architecture was a product of its time, of a cleverness that has been a virtue for such a long period since it allowed people to survive foreign rule and socialist dictatorship. As the law was not made for people it was important to question it, to evade it. Today, however, the same pattern of behaviour is inhibiting the democratic consolidation of the state. We have to rethink; we need to learn to trust the state again, to trust one another.


I love the smell of wet soil. In the evening hours of spring and autumn, the football pitch had this particular smell. It was the place where I spent so many hours of my childhood; the greatest times of my childhood. I remember this moment as if it was yesterday. “Do you want to do sports in a club?” my mom asked. I was caught by surprise, and did not really know what to answer. “Maybe you would like to play football, or ping pong, or would you prefer swimming?” I hesitated. “Maybe football,” I answered.

The next day my mom took me to the sports field to give me the chance to see how my peers practiced. I fell in love. From then on football has always been more than just a sport to me. I was seven at that time.

In Germany, every single town hosts several sports clubs. From the age of four, children start playing in football leagues. Some will become professionals; few will become stars. But more importantly, most of them will profit from the experience of competing with each other within the boundaries of certain rules; they will learn what it takes to win, experience what it means to lose, explore their limits, and shape their characters. Too many Poles do not have this opportunity. There is a lack of training facilities, staff, sponsors, and others kids could identify with. Under these conditions, it is not surprising at all that Polish sportsmen often do not succeed in international competitions. Polish society is used to defeats; those few victories are celebrated with the right pathos.

Sports play an essential social function; not only because the achievements of our idols are so impressive. Doing sports allows to get focused on the result, it teaches that this result can’t be achieved without the right communication and cooperation with other people, it gives the opportunity to test your skills, and to compare them with others. It is commonplace that human beings are social beings; it is not only that we need the others’ attention and warmth; we can’t live without comparing themselves with others; our genes our programmed to fight against potential rivals. Today we know better means to solve conflicts. Yet it is important to give people the right forum to get rid of their aggression, and in addition to that to give them some meaning.


I’m eight years old and at a music lesson. Mrs. Mueller plays the piano and we’re singing. The songs are joyful, melodic and funny. We’ve never sung the German anthem or other patriotic songs. The purpose of the lesson is to enjoy and discover the beauty of music. I picture my Polish compatriots standing at the same time upright in a similar classroom, singing traditional, serious songs.

Polish schools are still very much concentrated on conveying patriotism as a key value. Kids are supposed to know the kings’ names, the dates of glorious battles and tragic uprisings. There is little room for uncomfortable questions since history is often perceived as a good means to better a nation’s self-esteem: we were heroes or victims. This way of thinking allows us to feel better or to justify our failures. Will it give enough food for thought?


Suddenly, I feel her tongue in my mouth. I’m absolutely shocked. Just a moment ago, I was explaining some French grammar rules. It feels good; I cannot get enough. I would have never made the first step, I’m not even sure whether my emotions for her are strong enough, but this is not the appropriate moment to think. It’s the beginning of a four-year-long relationship; a serious relationship, full of empathy and curiosity from both sides.

“Traitor!” my grandma uttered one day. She was old at that time and totally detached from this fast-moving, ever closer world community. Germany is still something she associates with oppression, destruction, death. It’s an automatic, almost biological reaction. I feel that I can’t blame her for that. After all, she didn’t have experiences with Germans that could have compensated for the bad ones. And if she had had positive experiences, how strong would they have to be?

Yet, can a terrible past serve as a justification for people’s resentment? Isn’t my grandma narrow-minded? What sense does it make to relate the representatives of today’s Germans with those of Nazi-Germany? Aren’t we thus proving that we have not learnt anything from history? After all, the one thing that we should have definitely figured out is that collective stigmatization is wrong. But this is rational. In everyday life, however, we tend to be guided by emotions that are rooted in the deepest recess of our soul.


The taste of my mom’s żurek or bigos is unforgettable. Sure, pizza is good, but this is poetry. For my mom, it has always been of great importance to create a genuine family atmosphere; a family zone that would serve as a platform to talk and to listen to each other. Thus, whenever it was possible, my family would meet at the table to enjoy our meals together. I believe the good old traditional Polish food could be a metaphor for what my parents had to offer to me. I’ve never had to rebel against them since they’ve always had too much to give. While my school friends were discovering the world of cigarettes, alcohol and the opposite sex, I took my time to become Polish.

I’ve always been a fully integrated member of German society: I played in a football league and was member of a tennis club, attended a normal German school, watched German TV and had German friends, too. Nevertheless, I’ve spent a considerable part of my childhood at home, in “Little Poland” – a house full of Polish words, Polish books, Polish music, Polish films, Polish politics, Polish food. This explains my strong emotional attachment to Poland, why I have always considered myself Polish, why I’ve always missed Poland so much.


Now that I live in Poland, I feel that I’m different from many compatriots who have spent their entire lives in their home country. I feel I’m less attached to traditional concepts and collective truths, more open to new ideas, more curious of others, and more confident of the future. Now that I live in Poland, I don’t need it as desperately as before. The decision to come back here was conscious. I like this country, a place where everything is in motion, where taboos are collapsing, where barriers are falling, where people are discovering all the colours and tunes of life. But my decision is not final for soon I’ll be leaving. You could say that I had to become more Polish to become less Polish.
So, am I Polish? Well, yes, but not only. Oh, and by the way: who cares?!



356 Day 83” by pimpexexposure on creativecommons.org

Krzysztof Rutkowski
Krzysztof Rutkowski graduated from the University of Mannheim where he studied Business Administration. He then completed the post-graduate interdisciplinary European studies programme at the College of Europe in Warsaw, specialising in European Neighbourhood Policy. Because he split his childhood between Poland and Germany, he is keen on crossing borders. His greatest passions are sports, jazz and philosophy. Krzysztof is currently working at the PR agency Hill & Knowlton in Warsaw. He wants to be an engineer … in building bridges over the abysses dividing people.
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