“Upper Silesia – Here Is Where We Meet” Documentary 70 Min.
Conversation with Michael Majerski, Silesian director and documentary film-maker („Nowiny Rybnik“ from 16th October, 2013)
Why is it that the war in Silesia hasn’t stopped yet, and why do people look at each other with hostility? Is that the question which people ask you when they see your new film “Upper-Silesia: Here Is Where We Meet”?
After the screening in Chorzow, no one was in the position to comment on this film – no one asked a single question. People returned to their houses in silence. I think that the film was a shock for many people. They saw that Silesia is a diseased place – a place in which it will be difficult to live as long as no one heals the climate here. The Pandora’s box, the box containing memories of the painful past, was buried for a long time – now it’s been opened. We are being confronted with a painful reality. I had to make this film because I wanted to start a discussion about the dramas which happened here. And it’s not just about the Silesians who have been living here the whole time. This is also about those who were expelled from former Polish areas and came here, and about those who came here for work. We are all sitting in the same train. Everyone who lives here belongs here, belongs to Silesia, no matter where they came from. If we don’t all learn to speak the same language and to label ourselves as Silesians, then we’re not going to go very far.
The people who are affected by your films are giving you a lot of recognition. One can see that you are touching a wound which has been open for years.
People are deeply touched – they are sending me thank-you notes… but that’s not what it’s about. Silesia is a diseased region in which there aren’t any cultural connections; no connections with the past. If that doesn’t get healed, then this cultural region has only to expect an even greater catastrophe.
What caused you to initially become interested in the topic of Silesia?
I’m an Upper-Silesian myself, but that didn’t mean anything to me until recently. It was quite a while ago that I left Silesia for Lodz to study, and then I moved elsewhere in the world. I lived abroad and I didn’t think at all about my own roots. But the door to the past was open the whole time. Upper-Silesia was waiting for me for a relatively long time – until I asked myself the question: Why am I not doing anything for myself and my family ?
Who were your parents?
My mother and her family spoke both German and Silesian. My father never understood either of these languages – he only spoke Polish. I grew up in a situation in which you just didn’t ask questions about your roots and ancestry. No one asked: What is Silesia? But then in school I saw the differences – one kid came from here, another from there. Four years ago, I traveled back to Silesia for the first time in many years and I made a documentary film called “Upper Silesia – Streuselkuchen from Home” about people who live between Poland and Germany. When I spoke to the people, I learned things that I had no idea about. In school, I learned history from the communists. Unfortunately, I see that to this day nothing is being taught about the history of the country. Still today, the Polish are strongly prejudiced against the Germans.
How can your two last films be differentiated from each other?
In the first film, I found people who told stories and I listened to them. In the new film, I used a different tactic – I began to ask provocative questions in order to shake the people awake. I think that the time has come to not just concentrate on what was in the past, but rather to open our eyes to what is happening now. Already in the first film I saw that there are people living in Silesia who have very different and broken histories. All these people who are carrying around an inherited hatred from the war are
confronting each other here, and they’re also trying to live next to each other as neighbors.
I started to ask why such a huge drama is governing life here in such a way that people don’t even talk to each other. Why is this place so diseased? Why is Silesia in such ruin? Why is there such poverty here?
Is it really that bad?
It’s really bad because people are still carrying a feeling of injustice that they have yet to process. Silesia is like a hole in the earth through which a cloud of smoke is escaping. This used to be a multilingual region in which many complementary cultures lived.
Polish men from central Poland who didn’t know or understand this land came in place of the men who hadn’t returned after the war or who were chased away. They created their own little home which was limited to the small space between their apartment buildings and the coal mines. From whom was I supposed to learn where I was living when I was a child? My father had no idea and the school that was under the watchful eye of the communist party did not teach me that. Under such living conditions it was not possible for families to function or for people to develop any kind of feeling of community – that’s why we have so many pathologies in Silesia nowadays. This dysfunctional situation is going to last until everyone who lives here says: “I am also a Silesian”
Do you think that Silesia has a chance to survive and finally develop in a harmonious way?
I think that it’s not too late for Silesia because there are still people living here who remember a lot about the past and can talk about it. Silesia is not the only region in Europe which was dominated by a foreign culture, but the difference from other regions is that people have stayed here – autochthons – “the last Indians” as I call them, who have managed to survive and not be slaughtered or chased away.
For modern politicians, these people function like a bad conscience; their existence continually reminds politicians that it’s really about understanding one another so that another war doesn’t happen.
What’s the most important thing? The most pressing issue?
More than anything, people in Silesia need to radically change the school system and be finished with the post-communist school program. To this day there are no school books about Silesian history. It has to be clear: This is the history, period. People have also got to stop the meaningless practice of blaming each other for what their grandparents did – that one person’s grandfather was in the armed forces and another person’s grandfather was part of the Polish Security Police. That doesn’t mean anything anymore. I always ask the question why diversity is being destroyed in Silesia. Such pogroms have a long tradition – for example, as the Nazis came into power in Germany. We all know which consequences that had. If the diversity is continually destroyed in Silesia under the name of political correctness, it can only end tragically.
The conversation was led by Isa Salomon.
My films are intended to be warning cries about Silesia
By Josef Krzyk
„Gazeta Wyborcza“ from October 11th, 2013
Michal Majerski has worked in Germany since the end of 1970 and is a Silesian living in Berlin and Stettin, graduate of the film academy in Lodz. He has shown himself to be a specialist for topics which others to go great lengths to avoid.
In “My Motherland” and “My Father’s House”, he told us about Polish people who settled West Pommeria after the Second World War because they were being chased away from their home by Stalin, and also about the Germans who were exiled as a result of this and had to find another place to live. But he also speaks about the German women, who, despite everything, ventured to stay among their new, foreign neighbors. Through telling these stories, Majerski did not try to moralize or teach to his audience; he just documents the drama of the one and the other; the uprooted who were lost in a world turned unfamiliar. Majerski was able to bring the protagonists to talk about their own histories; the stories they remained silent about for decades.
He was also able to create a similar work of art in his Silesian documentary films: “Upper Silesia – Streuselkuchen from Home” three years ago and in the film recently shown in Chorzow, called “Upper Silesia – Here Is Where We Meet” (thanks to Krzysztof Karwat, who presented the film at the “Rozrywki” Theater within the context of the cycle of films entitled “Upper Silesia – Our Little Homeland”).
If the film before last was a kind of nostalgic trip through Upper Silesia, enriched by conversations with Silesians who had emigrated and found a new home on the Rhine, then the new film from Majerski – the result of two years of solid work – is a warning cry to save Silesia from a catastrophe. A warning cry – highlighted with pictures of blown-up shaft towers and lifeless landscapes.
Majerski has shown the sides of Silesia that no one who lives here wants to see. He has filmed a world of old, decrepit workers’ settlements inhabited by impoverished people. The only good looking place in his movie is a newly built roundabout in a small town which serves as the backdrop of a somber history. Right under the surface of the newly built street, skeletons of young German gymnasts are buried. In the last days of the war, some unknown crazed official ordered these gymnasts to don soldier uniforms and march unarmed directly in front of the machine guns of the approaching red army soldiers.
In the small Silesian town that this happened in, many people know about the history, but only one – Majerski shows him – is mourning it. This man has only been living there since the war ended and is not a Silesian. However, he has a similar history to tell about his grandfather, who was buried in a pile of trash by the Polish security services of the Mielec police district in the years after the war.
Similarly gloomy is the scene in which Majerski shows the compound of the former encampment of the NKWD in Tost. Just a short while ago, it was transformed into a coal yard. The family members of the people who were tortured to death there can’t even lay flowers for them because they aren’t allowed to pass through the gate.
The Inheritors of Hate
Majerski’s film is, however, not a reckoning with post-war stories of Silesia, although many of his protagonists tell of its injustice.
Majerski places value on the idea that through his film it will become visible how little the residents of Silesia know about each other. The director believes that the fact that they all live side by side in completely separate worlds and without real contacts is a result of the ever-increasing Silesian catastrophe: “it’s not the lack of money, but the lack of will that is the reason why Upper Silesia does not resemble the Ruhr area of Germany”.
Majerski begins his film with a motto, a warning: “we are the inheritors of hate”. Unconsciously, some of his protagonists also confirm this. For more than 60 years, they have lived out of packed suitcases and they think about the fate of their long-dead parents and grandparents – and Majerski believes that this trauma is then passed down to the next generations.
Politics – Now It’s Your Turn
The filmmaker thinks that escaping the vicious cycle is only possible through approaching it from all social circles in Silesia and, most importantly, through an exhaustive reform of the public education system. He himself gave a very first lesson about this during his work on the film – the school children of the Slowacki Lyzeum in Chorzow found out that their school used to have a different name.
This film – Majerski said – is meant for young people, so that they may open their eyes to the world in which they live. However, it would also be good if politicians watched the film “Upper Silesia – Here Is Where We Meet” — Majerski, who avoids politics, has managed to touch upon a reality which is not going to change if the Politicians continue to ignore it. Unfortunately, we don’t know where and when his films can be watched again, as they are only seldom shown.
A Conversation with Michael Majerski
Josef Krzyk: Why did you choose to show Upper Silesia in such a gloomy light – are we really like this?
Michael Majerski: That is only a result of the topic of the film; it came from the people who I met there. When I started filming, I didn’t have a finished screen play; I didn’t know in which direction I would go. If I had met other people, then I would have shown another Silesia in the film.
Sometimes I had the impression that this is a film about the last Silesians. Were you trying to show that?
My film is a warning cry because I have a very emotional relationship to Silesia. I’m originally from here and I see that the remains of our culture are disappearing. Maybe that is a natural order of events, but it still hurts.
You haven’t stopped feeling like a Silesian although you haven’t lived here for 30 years?
I was born in Polanica (Altheide Bad), where my mother had received a job statement. It’s there that she met my Polish father. I grew up in Gliwice – in the part of the city that’s called “The Bermuda Triangle”. That’s a district where everything has been falling apart – the Czeslawa and the Francizkanska Streets.
In Gliwice there are definitely much nicer areas. Couldn’t you have filmed there instead?
Decrepit settlements are not only in the „Bermuda Triangle“. When I filmed this movie, I didn’t think about whether I was in Gliwice, Bytom, or Zabrze. Bytom, which is sinking into the ground because of mining damage – that’s a drama of horrendous proportions. My dream would be to make an opera about it.
The heavy industry which was once a blessing for Silesia has now turned into a curse?
There isn’t another place in Poland in which there are so many obsolete heavy industry factories. This industry needs to be completely revitalized; Silesia and the Silesians cannot achieve this alone.
What do you believe should be done?
If there wasn’t this anti-German attitude, then people could start by getting in a train and riding to the Ruhr area of Germany and seeing how the problem was addressed there.
You’re joking! Billions were spent there. That’s not going to happen in Poland
Money is not the problem –most importantly, it’s the missing ideas and decisions. When someone makes the excuse that there’s not enough money, I don’t believe it. First, someone has to be convinced by something and stand up for it; organize people together. Then the money will turn up.
This can even be achieved in such ruins like the ones you showed in this film?
If Upper Silesia had, for example, art galleries, investors would also come here to invest their capital. It would then be clear: here are people who can look beyond the horizon line and who will be able to safeguard our projects and investments.
Who should be the ones to do that if the people who can be seen in the films, even those who have lived here for a long time, still feel like they don’t belong in Silesia
I don’t want to be misunderstood, but I’m thinking about the associations of expellees. The people who are organized there often only live in the past instead of thinking about how they could shape life today. I understand these people well because they are sunken into their traumas and no one is helping them. There’s this Polish phrase that a person cannot pull themselves out of the dirt by their own hair. Polish expellees from the former Polish areas are too hermetic. I mean: why couldn’t Frau Skalska and Frau Steinbach just sit together at a table and talk about solutions for Silesia?
Maybe both of them would rather talk about their own problems more than the other person wants to listen to them?
I am aware which dangers such a meeting would bring with it, but I still think that an attempt would be worth it. That’s definitely better than constantly complaining.
The rest of Poland doesn’t want to listen to the constant bickering in Upper Silesia. How could they be convinced to change their minds?
This is not about the exaggerated entitlements of Silesians. When I drive through Poland, I see staggering bureaucracy and the huge dachas in Masuria. The rest of Poland should feel jointly responsible for the poverty in Silesia.
Are you in favor of Silesian autonomy?
It doesn’t matter what you call it – but the decision-makers should accept that this region is completely different than the others; that you can’t just treat it the same way as it has been treated in the past because that doesn’t work. I don’t have any patent remedies, but I know that there are too few natives living in Upper Silesia right now and they cannot rescue Silesia from its collapse alone.
Silesia was always multicultural and it that’s how it should stay. My dream would be for Frau Skalsa and other Polish expellees to say: we are also Silesians; multilingual Silesian ethnicities. Silesia is our homeland, for which we will take responsibility and whose fate lies in our hearts.
You’re a fantasist.
You have to start somewhere, even when it’s only small steps. The film allowed something to start moving. After I drove to Tost with the camera to show what was happening on the grounds of the former NKWD camp, a church service was held by bishops. And the schools that I filmed in invited me to show my movie there.