A humble shrine

Krakow has its share of tragedy in its history. Auschwitz, after all, is only 50 kilometers from here. This town was the site of one of the five Jewish ghettos created during the Nazi occupation of Poland, where 15,000 people were crammed into a space that formerly held only 3,000, and the  gradually starved, shot, or deported to death camps.

But unlike Warsaw, the city was not systematically razed by the Germans. The buildings in the old town market square are mostly original. Krakow is the original capital of Poland, the home town of John Paul II, and, on the tourist information sites, seems quite a party town.

Pump with Memorial Plaque to Walenty Badylak

So when we wandered around the pristine Old Town Market Square to orient ourselves this afternoon, under a beautiful wintry blue sky, I was not expecting a reminder of tragedy. But this being Poland, Callum and I managed to find one in a humble water pump.

In 1980, Poland was under communist control, and had been ever since the Soviets took control post WWII. The people of Poland were sick of queuing for every little thing, of not having enough to eat, and the suppression of any parts of their history which didn’t suit the Soviet narrative of communist struggle in Poland.

On the 21st of March 1980, a baker named¬†Walenty Badylak chained himself to a water pump in Krakow’s main square to protest the communist denial of the WWII Katyn massacres of around 25,000 Polish army officers, professionals and leaders of Polish society. Then he set fire to himself. The humble pump became a surreptitious shrine, with locals leaving flowers under cover of darkness each night, which were removed by the authorities by day.

Now it has two memorial plaques, but is still apparently, a working pump. I wouldn’t let Callum try it out this afternoon, without understanding its significance. Now that we know who the memorials are for, I think we should go back and light a candle, and try out the pump at the same time, to remember that even if Polish Communism had another nine years of suppression to go, there were people standing up to the regime every step of the way.

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