Interviewprojekt „75 Jahre Frieden – wie wir Europäer wurden“
In Vorbereitung auf das Austauschprojekt des LJO Berlin mit dem Orchester des Konservatoriums Versailles-Grand Parc sowie dem Chor der Technischen Universität Westpommern in Stettin im Oktober 2021 wurde ein generationsübergreifendes Interviewprojekt ins Leben gerufen. Jugendliche der jeweiligen Länder interviewten Großeltern aus anderen Ländern und unterhielten sich mit ihnen über die Rolle und Zukunft von Europa. Diese Interviews waren Grundlage einer Video-Dokumentation, die mit der HdPK Berlin entwickelt wurde.
Die Interviews wurde in der jeweiligen Landessprache geführt, teils mithilfe von Übersetzerinnen bzw. Übersetzern. Zugunsten der Verständlichkeit auf allen Seiten wurden sie ins Englische transkribiert.
- Philippe Cupper, Klarinettist an der Pariser Oper, im Gespräch mit Magdalena Szczepaniec aus Szczecin
- Mieczysław Podsiadło, Konzertagent und Jazz-Schlagzeuger aus Szczecin, im Gespräch mit Charlotte Piotrowski aus Berlin
- Jacques Bellier, ehem. Bürgermeister von Jouy-en-Josas (Yvelines), im Gespräch mit Balthasar Wilzopolski aus Berlin
Philippe Cupper, Klarinettist an der Pariser Oper
Bonjour. Ah, Szczecin! So maybe we are going to see each other in October, for the concert. I sing alto and in my free time I paint paintings. And I am also a ski instructor. Well I play the clarinet as a professional musician at the opera in Paris. For a very long time. It was a teenage dream that I could realise. And i just i was born in France, obviously, in the north of France, where there were a lot of people who came from Poland. Who came after the first World War. Who came to work and my grandparents were Polish. So they came to settle and… well, they were Polish from a territory that we called Poland in 1919. But in fact my grandfather was half Ukrainian half Polish, my grandmother was Polish and this region where they were born has changed a lot when it comes to borders. My father was born in France, but he was born Polish, because as his parents were Polish and he was not yet naturalised, my grandfather and the children of my grandparents, so my father, was born in France but with Polish nationality. And when the war broke out in 1939 my grandparents were naturalised French. And their children, my father, was naturalised when he was 10 years old. So I am from Polish descent. At least partly, because my mother was completely French. So I always lived in this double culture, because when I went to my grandmother, we ate pierogi, borchtch, golabki. We ate polish things and concerning my mother and her family, we ate French. So I had like two cultures. Although, I don’t speak Polish except for a few words. But it always touched me a lot and it moved me, because my grandmother and my grandfather often spoke to me about their country. And my grandmother returned every year to see her family that she had left there. And my grandfather, on the other hand, never returned. He left Poland in 1923-24 and never went back to Poland. But my grandmother did. And me, I went there often, so somehow I was already of European culture and European nationality. And my name – Cuper originally in Polish – Cuper, is probably originally a Dutch or German name. I don’t know the origin of the name exactly, but my name is also not really French, not really Polish. So this culture of belonging to several countries at the same time or to a European community. This is what I can tell you to talk about my private life and my origins. My uncle escaped during the War to Lyon and he walked by foot, following the stars.
Really? Ah, ok, I understand. Do you come from a family with music tradition?
As far as I know, no, not professionally. There were no professional musicians in my family. In my immediate family, I am the only one. But my mother learned to play the saxophone, when she was a teenager, but very little. But we listened to a lot of popular music. Polish folklore, popular singers like Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and so on. So we didn’t listen to classical music at home. We listen to popular music, really of quality, and nobody played music, but my brothers and sisters have played some music, but very little. One or two years. So I’m the only one. My father always told me that my grandfather had a violin, which was attached to the wall, but he never heard him play the violin. So I don’t know. Maybe, but I do not know. On the other hand, to return to my Polish family, know I have a distant cousin, who lives in Szczecin. I have some family in Szczecin that I do not know, but with whom I corresponded by letter. So when I come to Szczecin in October with Versailles, maybe I could meet that part of my family.
Did you decide by your own to play an instrument?
It has always been a pleasure from the start and it’s still a pleasure today. It’s a bit of a coincidence. A small school of music was opened in the city where I lived in the north of France near Lille, at Marcq-en-Baroeul, a small town, three kilometres from Lille. And the music school opened and it was for free, very inexpensive for families, so children could attend the school and learn music. My parents asked me if I was interested and I said yes, why not? In fact I first learned the music theory. Where you read notes, the theory, and so on. I have not played an instrument right away and I wasn’t very interested in the theoretical part of the music. I was 9 years old and I was more interested in socker. But, I went looking for a friend during his clarinet class, and I really liked the teacher. I was impressed. I „flashed“ as we say. The clarinet teacher, wow. Like a magician. He did a magic trick and I said I want to work with this teacher. It’s not the clarinet that got me interested, it is the teacher. It was a great musician, I was very lucky. That’s how it started.
Did you use to sing – in the choir or on your own?
Very little. I prefer leave that to the great singers. My voice was maybe not enough. But at the opera, every night, I hear great singers. So I’m very happy to accompany them in the orchestra. It suits me very well like that. But, no, I sang once in a choir, but very little. To each his own. Me, I liked the clarinet thanks to this teacher and I will continue like this and my dream was to enter the Paris Opera. That’s where I could listen to the greats singers, so I really like the vocals, that’s for sure, it’s the most beautiful instrument.
How many times did you play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in concert?
I don’t know, maybe 50 times. Quite often, yes, about 50 times I think. I played symphonies by Beethoven but i played a lot of opera and I still play many operas, so the ninth of Beethoven sometimes. I played more often Tosca by Puccini or Faust by Gounod. Or La Bohème by Puccini or Turandot. The 9th sometimes, but I played Tosca more often.
And did you maybe play in Poland?
Yes, a little bit, I played for ten years every year at the festival of clarinet in Krakow. So I was playing with the symphony of Kraków or other orchestras. I really like the city of Krakow. It’s beautiful, a very pretty city. I have friends there and I’m going back this summer. Besides, I go to Nowy Sacz, I don’t know how we pronounce it. It’s to the south-east of Krakow. I go there to play and teach the clarinet this summer in August. But I played in Warsaw twice, I played near Bydgoszcz, and I also played in Oswiecim with a children’s choir. It was a concert in tribute to the people, who had been murdered in the camp of Auschwitz. And I visited Poland as a tourist of course, because I love this country a lot and I went to see the village where my grand parents were born. Next to Rzeszow, in the region between Rzeszow and Lwow, the border to Ukraine, where my family comes from, but I haven’t played over there.
What does it mean to be a European musician?
Oh it’s quite easy because for me, the music is international. Music has no borders, it’s the same global, it’s not just European. There are great composers in Europe, but also elsewhere in the world, in North America, in South America. So apart from the European community, there is a lot of great music. Therefore, the notion of European music, for me it’s more open. It’s not complicated, you know, when we play music, we play music with friends from all over the world. Moreover, even in Paris, at the Paris opera orchestra, there are musicians, there are at least twenty or twenty-five musicians of different nationalities. We have the Polish. There were two Polish musicians, musicians from Finland, from the United States, from Albania, from Asia, from Japan, from Korea, from Taiwan. There are musicians coming from many countries. Bulgaria, too, and Poland, yes, we have two musicians from Poland.
Can music be an inspiration for peace?
Yes, ideally, yes, that’s what we hope, that music can abolish borders. When we see all the problems in the world and all the efforts that a lot of people make and also artists to try to bring people together and to have peace everywhere, yes, but it is not easy, it’s not easy. I tell myself, I hope that it can fix things, that music can bring people together. I have friends in many countries, and for me, we are friends, and we don’t think we’re Albanian, we are Polish, we are we here, we are friends, we are musicians, we are beings who belong to planet earth. For me that’s it. And the borders, there is a notion in the word “borders” that bothers me. I like it, because we get to know a bit where each one comes from, but at the same time, we can very quickly fall into ideas that are a bit nationalist and that are sometimes dangerous. We have our history that showed us all this. For example, France had three wars in less of a century with his neighbour and friend today – Germany. And I have a lot of friends in Germany and everyone was unhappy. I didn’t experience these wars, luckily, but you know, the music or the artists were not enough, the idealists were not able to stop wars. And when we see what happens between Palestine and Israel or elsewhere, in Korea, it’s not easy, it’s not easy, but ideally I think we need to have dreams and continue to believe, even if we sometimes takes artists for people, which are a little in the sky and in the clouds and who are not realistic. But I believe that we can be realistic when we are an artist and that we can go beyond problems that are often economic or political.
Does someone from your family remember the war?
Yes, obviously, my parents experienced this, my grandparents. My parents told me about it often, because they had to leave their house and go to the center of France to escape the soldiers invading the French territory, so it was difficult. They gave up everything and then they have lived a few years elsewhere and when they returned to their house, it was empty, pillaged. My mother often told me and my father also told me they had been very hungry during the war. Therefore, when we were children and we didn’t want to finish our plate, my parents were saying „but you know, us during the war, we didn’t have a lot of things to eat. It was difficult, and in other countries there are children who have nothing to eat because of war.“ So they made us think. They suffered from the war. On the other hand, the family, who was in Poland, I don’t know how they experienced the war. They also suffered a lot and some of my ancestors were soldiers, who fought on the opposite party, the opposing party, since the territories of Poland were shared between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia. And my ancestors lived in this part there, so inevitably, they fought with French people. But I think it exists in many families, this kind of problem.
How did France change after the war?
I was not born yet, obviously. I have not experienced that. I was born much later, I just have the memories that my family transferred to me and then what I learned from history. A war is never good for anybody. Everyone is losing. No-one wins. There are very unfortunate people, a lot of sadness and misery. So France, like other countries like Germany like Poland and many other countries that have suffered from war, has been in misery. The economy was was completely collapsed. People no longer had a home. Many did not have a roof over their heads. They did not have much to eat. They didn’t have much money. It is an eternal problem when war and misery meet. So I think your families know all that even if we are lucky not having experienced that and I hope that we – fingers crossed as we say – we hope that it will never happen to us, but when we turn on the television and see everything that happens in the world for political reasons, religious or others, when we make war it is like that. It is always very sad. In fact, everyone must do it in his own corner so that the wars don’t happen ever again. But there have always been wars. It’s difficult, because we are sometimes ruled by madmen, by people who only want evil. Sometimes it’s the devil who is in power, as some countries have experienced. So it’s up to us to go and vote and to be interested in politics in order not to put mad people in power and that’s not easy.
And what kind of relation do young French people have today regarding the events of the war?
I’m not young anymore, my youth is over, I am older, but I have children, who are also adults now, so for them, it seems to be quite far away, the second world war. For them, they know what we can tell them or what they hear on television. Obviously everyone is shocked every time when we see what happened with certain communities that have been murdered. I told you about Auschwitz. When we see these images Oswiecim during the war, of course, we don’t want this kind of things to happen again and we are for the religious freedom or neutral freedom. That it does not happen again, so we try to teach that to our students, to our friends, to our children, but we have the duty of memory, so that the youth does not forget that these things have existed, because today, we read sometimes the newspapers, or we see shows on television where they tell us that it didn’t exist. There is negationism as we say in French and that’s dangerous. We must not forget that these things can come back. We see it, we see it in the whole world and things like that, which are very dangerous, in all countries. We put ideas of hatred in the minds of people by saying that the person on the other side of the border is a foreigner, that this person is the enemy. It’s this person, who steals work from others, who is there to hurt others and we must not think like that. We should think that we are all on the same planet, that we must live together. And that we all should make real efforts. This idea of the European Union, symbolically, is beautiful. It is obviously beautiful. What bothers some people is the economy, because there are richer countries, poorer countries and we will always have richer ones next to us. So there is jealousy, a bit of all that or there are real problems like unemployment. There are people, who don’t have a job, who are hungry, who must feed their family and these are issues that exist everywhere. So we must be aware of that. There are people who escape their country, because it is war in their country. When we see what is happening in Syria for example, we understand that people want to leave Syria and want to come to Europe. As our ancestors wanted to leave their region, because they didn’t have work, they could not feed their family, could not eat they could not live in peace, so these are ideas that we understand. I understand them perfectly. But I also understand that each country… I sometimes hear around me reflections that say „yes, but we can not welcome all the misery in the world.“ Maybe. But everyone has to do an effort and to try – with what we can do – to help our neighbour, who comes from afar and who is poor and who is unhappy. So all this is theory But I think we can do something. There are associations that exist, we can bring our own stone and our well-being, we can share with others.
What do you think, when could we really feel that it’s peace in Europe?
Right now, we have been at peace since 1945. Even if there were episodes like in Yugoslavia fifteen years ago, where we saw our Serbian Croatian friends, Slovenian Bosnians go to war against each other and everyone was very sad. I had friends in all these countries, so war may return and ideas of hatred and nationalism can return very quickly. We had it in Europe. That’s recent, but this idea of peace must stay in us. These balances and stabilities are precarious to preserve. It’s not easy to preserve peace if there are tensions. I was talking about Palestine and Israel. At the moment there are tensions in Ukraine and Russia in the Donbass and that is Europe, too. I am unhappy for my Ukrainian and Russian friends. Because we wouldn’t want that to happen elsewhere and we don’t want it to happen to them either. We want that they find compromises and that is to say yes to peace. But peace is never definite. In France we had wars. I haven’t experienced that. But the old French colonies, whether in Africa or Asia, when there was decolonisation it was not easy for everyone. There were tensions, there have been wars, there have been awful crimes that have been committed by each side. And nobody wants that. Everyone is for peace. It’s normal I think. Or you have to be crazy, I think you have to be crazy when you want war. You know I’m not a politician. I’m an artist. I’m not a specialist in the history of economics, politics, and I say things like they come from the bottom of my heart, but afterwards, we may not agree. I understand.
And what, according to you, symbolises peace in Europe?
There are many symbols of peace. Already that people talk to each other and people travel. Because if we stay within our borders, and we can see very well with the health problems at the moment all borders are closed, everyone is confined with the mask and we are all unhappy. Today, in France, it starts to open a little, but the problems of intolerance start here. It is necessary to travel a lot to see what is happening with our neighbours, in Germany, in Poland, in Russia in England and we understand when we see people living there that they are like we are. It’s true that we were able to travel a lot. With my job as a musician I had the chance to travel often for free, to meet artists in many countries. It’s true that this opens our heads. We are a little less closed. At least I hope for me that I am a little less closed than I used to be when I was younger. So S think that traveling forms the youth. There is this French saying that when we travel, we learn. It’s part of education, so these ideas of Erasmus exchange is great. I didn’t have that as a student, but I find it great. It helps people to understand each other. So being able to travel freely, to have the chance to travel, because it is expensive sometimes to travel, it quickly became a very good thing. Art, fine arts, literature, painting also help us a lot to understand people, who live abroad. So it’s part of one of the ways to connect people. So people tell you maybe religion, to each his own philosophy, I don’t take sides, but the word „religion“ comes from „relier“, which means „to connect“ actually, so it connects the human beings, so why not? But we can always say “yes, but look at all the wars in the name of religion that exist in the world.” Yes, it’s true it’s true. Religion can… When it comes to arts, they are maybe more neutral. The arts, the fine arts, the literature, music. That is eternal and it can connect people. I talk about what I know, there are of course other things that can connect people.
How do you see Europe today, being aware of the fact that back in the days Europe was disunited?
I did not experience war myself. I seem old, haha. It’s difficult to answer you. An experience, for example, which is one of the consequences from the Second World War: the iron curtain. You understand what the iron curtain means. That is to say when Stalin arrived and released… also to set an end to the war, together, with the allies the Americans on the other side, the English and all Allies, Poland, France and others, when Stalin put the iron curtain in 1945 and separated families and territories, in west Germany and east Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, that was the communist bloc. I experienced this, because I was going to see one of my aunts, the sister of my grandmother, who lived in Silesia. She lived next to Opole, not far from Breslau, Wroclaw. I had family there and I went there. But it was before the political change, in the 80s. I could see a little how we people lived in the communist bloc, how my aunt used to live, and I could compare a little with what I knew at home in France. I hadn’t traveled much yet, but I had sone points of comparison. By traveling, I saw the consequences of the Second World War. For some countries, and Poland in particular, and I didn’t criticise, but I could see by example my aunt had trouble finding for example coffee, to find groceries. She had to queue in stores. We didn’t experience that. In 1980, in France, we didn’t know that anymore, but I was sad to see that it still existed. In the land of my ancestors. that made me a bit unhappy for my aunt, who was old already, so every time I came, I brought her coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, pasta, things that she had trouble finding sometimes in Poland. so I experienced that, because I lived with her for some time, and on the opposite, I found that there were great things in Poland. The hospital was for free, there was a lot of public service that was completely free of charge, whereas in France we had social security, we had things of course, but there were a lot of interesting elements and it reminded me of my youth, when I was a high school student. It reminded me of a philosophy teacher I had and who made us study at the same time the manifesto of the communist party by Karl Marx and the bible. We studied both at the same time and we… we didn’t make comparisons, because it’s not comparable, but but the idea, which germinates in these theories is the well-being of mankind. In theory obviously, all that is theory. And the difference is that large sometimes between what people want to apply of this theory and the result. Being able to travel and to compare made me open my head a bit. And personally, it taught me a lot and it got me educated, too, I think. I don’t know if this really answers your question, but these are all consequences from the Second World War.
And what do you think of the European integration?
Yes on paper it exists, yes, in the arts it has always existed I think. Even more today, when we see for example an orchestra. I see that at the opera of Paris, there are nationalities from different corners of the world or if we see for example the Philharmonic orchestra of Berlin today, where about 60% of the musicians are not German. I find that symbolism very strong. It’s no longer a German orchestra, but I don’t care, personally. It is still a beautiful orchestra with great qualities, and we have that in many countries. There are large orchestras with musicians, who bring their qualities from outside. Their culture. So some might say „yes, but you know, we will lose the French sonority or the German sonority.“ The music is above that, I think. I think these are small criteria and I learned a lot with foreign musicians, a lot. They brought me their differences and I hope I could also bring a few words from my difference and that’s how we can live together. So the symbolism is very strong in the music of these orchestral mixes. I also participated personally, at the Lucerne festival, Berlin as well, where there are musicians, who come from everywhere and it’s great. And these orchestras of young people, when I was 20 years old, I participated in the world orchestra of musical youth. We were three French and 100 other musicians from all over the world, Venezuela, Brazil, United States, Poland, Russia, Japan. It was great. Music brings us together, so we got together. We are a small planet, but we can communicate through music. We have a strong bond, it’s true that today the main problem when talking about integration, immediately, we think different culture, different religion so necessarily it will generate problems for some people. Integration is not always easy, but in the fine arts and in art, for art and music, that’s no problem I assure you, you must not close the borders, we must not fall into nationalism. In art, we must not. For example at the opera in Paris, when we recruit, when we do a competition to recruit a new musician, the competition is anonymous, that is to say that there is a curtain, a screen and the jury, who listens to the artists does not know, who they are. Therefore, what we judge, is the quality. We are looking for a good artist, great artist, who will bring us his quality and I believe it is the most important. You will take me for an idealist, but I think the world should be like that. We shouldn’t ask people where they are coming from, we should take them for what they are and we are very happy today to find nurses, doctors of medicine, in some regions of the world, we don’t ask them if they are Syrian, if they are Polish if they are French, if they are African, we simply ask them to be competent in their field and we are happy to find a doctor or nurse to work, and help, for a better health for populations, who suffer. But hey it’s an example, like any other, but it is an important example, I think. It’s like speaking. If I stay in my corner, you are in a room, in your corner, we don’t talk to each other, it starts there. You have your ideas, I have mine and we can’t move forward and I think these ideas of borders, they can bring the idea of war, so I don’t say that we must abolish borders, because there are too many problems, cultural, economic differences, which can appear too quickly, but the earth belongs to everybody. I think it’s a nice idea like this language that my grandparents learned, the „Esperanto“, it’s my grandmother, who learned Esperanto. She strongly believed in it, you have to have idealistic people. People who believe in chimeras, ideas that will never be possible. I think there are some possible ideas today. Today we find ourselves on certain grounds, which concern the whole world. Ecology, for example, the melting of the glaciers, hunger in the world. We manage to find common grounds, of course, we cannot deny its origins. I am very proud of the culture that I have that I got from my family of my ancestors. Whether it’s the artistic culture, culinary or literary culture. it enriched me. But it is necessary not that I lock myself in. I think it is necessary that I am interested in what is happening elsewhere. Otherwise, exchange is not possible anymore and I think my culture is the biggest of the world and I get crazy ideas. like in some countries recently. We say „this country first.“ I won’t name the country, but we had such presidents that are no longer in power, who had very nationalist ideas and that symbolism is not very beautiful. I can understand, we shouldn’t deny our culture, one must not deny the origins. But they must be shared with others, who will maybe be happy to receive our difference as we can also learn and enrich ourselves on all levels. t’s true that there are extremists everywhere, there are mad people everywhere, people, who think they have the whole truth. Some religions think that they have the whole truth. Nobody has the whole truth, that does not exist. Everyone owns the earth, the land of our ancestors, but nothing must be denied. It is a balance to be found and it’s not easy, you see, it’s not easy. I know but it’s everyday that we build life. Life is built every day, it’s not a thing fixed, that we always have. You saw for example Europe, when there were wars, the borders moved a lot, because there have always been invasions, for example from Mongolia, there were the Romans who went everywhere, there was Napoleon, who did it his way, after we had Hitler, Stalin, Everyone wanted to move the borders and therefore it is always in movement. I think, it’s still in movement. We will learn every day and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know, but we must protect our planet, we have to enrich each other, when I say „enrich“, I don’t think of money. I think of exchanges of contact. Also by young people. You have to educate people. Studies, fine arts, traveling, all that trains the youth of tomorrow and teaches them a lot. I hope that they will also continue to defend their ideas, that’s my way of thinking. I do not think that it is necessarily the best, but it’s my way of seeing things. I don’t deny my origins either.
What would you tell our generation in order to preserve peace?
You know I have no power I am a human being like the others, like you, I have no power, my power is my brain, my way of thinking. I can do few things, but if I could, I would have brought a little dust to the world. But that’s very pretentious to say. I can’t bring anything, I don’t have the power, neither political, nor economic, nothing to change things. In addition to being a musician, I am a music teacher. With my students, I transmit to them my way to love music, what I could receive from my family, from my teachers, what I was given, what made me be me, so I can share that at my little level at the conservatory. I welcome students from everywhere. I am very happy about that. I have students, who come from Taiwan, China, Russia, United States, Venezuela, France obviously, and we make music together, so we learn to be tolerant, we learn to educate ourselves mutually. So that’s my job. What can I do? Pass on some ideas to my family, to my children, my descendants, but themselves they will go their way, they have their paths, their history. So I think everyone can bring a little bit of well-being. I will no longer be there, so there you go. I hope I will have left a good memory on this planet, I hope one will think good things, but what can I do? Like others: Bring my little stone, like that in the education of people, that I rub shoulders, that’s all and I think for a lot of people that’s it but I still believe in the power of the spirit let’s say. I think we can, there are many things that cannot be explained by words, but transmitted by sound, attitude, by the example that we can set, like me, I could see around me people I admire and that I love and that have taught me things even sometimes without talking about great teachers that I had, who had very beautiful ideas, who transmitted their power. I think that’s it, a power of the mind. I think we can shine like that, we can contribute things that way. By our attitude and our way of being. so maybe you will take me for an idealist or crazy one, I don’t know, but I don’t care. It was a pleasure, I am very happy to discuss with you and especially with Poland that is dear to me to my heart. It is a country that I adore and even if you also go through experiences that are not always easy, I know, but it is a country that connects my family to me. That always moves me. Always very happy to be able to come back, I will come twice to Poland in 2021. So here I am very very happy. It has been a longtime that I haven’t visited Poland. I’d be happy to see some friends, eating Polish food that I love, visit maybe parts of Poland that I do not know yet. Thank you for inviting me. I am very happy to know you and then I hope we stay in touch and we might meet in Szczecin or elsewhere, because of this concert project in October. So here I hope we will see each other I hope I can come, because I have to supervise the young people of the orchestra, which will be international. So I like it a lot. Maybe we’ll see you there or maybe in France or maybe elsewhere.
Mieczysław Podsiadło, Konzertagent und Jazz-Schlagzeuger aus Szczecin
Das Interview führte Charlotte Piotrowski, Geigerin im Landesjugendorchester Berlin.
Ok, so first of all I want to ask you how to pronounce your name so that I get it correctly.
My name is very Polish sounding, probably difficult to pronounce for people from abroad. My name is Mieczysław Podsiadło. But everyone calls me Mietek – more easily, so you can call me that.
Thanks, very good. Now to start, please tell us about yourself.
Good morning. My name is Mieczysław Podsiadło and I am currently living in Szczecin, although I was born in a small town near Piła. This is the town of Złotów. I still have very sentimental memories of my birthplace. I have lived in Szczecin for over 40 years and I got into this project through the Academic Choir named after Professor Jan Szerocki of the West Pomeranian University of Technology in Szczecin. I’m 65 years old. I’m officially retired now, but I’m still working. I run an art agency, I look after a few artists mainly jazz, but as I said for over forty, over 45 years, I’ve been singing in the same choir at the West Pomeranian University of Technology. As for instruments, I play drums, but jazz. This has always been my hobby and for a long time also my profession. That is, I organise concerts, take care of artists, I am with them every day, I work with them every day.
So, in your life, music plays an important role?
In my life music is very important and in fact, it has accompanied me from the beginning, since I think… I was born. I can say that because my grandfather was a violinist, he played in various orchestras. My mother and my father sang in choirs. Consequently, music has accompanied me all my life.
Did you choose music as a career, then?
Actually professionally as a musician, no. It was always just a hobby because both playing my favourite instrument, the drums, were amateur activities. And to this day I still try to play somewhere, but in amateur groups, and singing in a choir is an amateur choir, so it has always been treated amateurishly as far as the occupation is concerned, but professionally as far as quality is concerned. Okay, und… I sure do. My first encounters with European music were actually with jazz because I started to be interested in this kind of music very early on. Apart from singing in a choir, of course, because at school you always had to participate in choir classes, but I ended up at a jazz workshop in Chodzież, which was probably one of the most important jazz workshops, and that’s where I started playing drums under the guidance of the best drummers at the time. I even thought about going into this professionally, but I guess the ’70s, the end of the ’60s, the ’70s were not the best time to go in this direction. I decided to go for a normal, serious study of economics. And it stayed that way. And the music stayed only in me, in my soul. But but as a hobby, as an amateur activity.
Was there a musical experience in your childhood that you associate with Europe?
Music, as I said, has always been in my soul . And my first European experience, I can say, was at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies when I came to the jazz workshop in Chodzież. This is a town in Wielkopolska where probably the most important workshops for jazz musicians take place every year. There I started playing drums under the guidance of the best drummers at that time in Poland, and also guests from Europe. I was even thinking about going in that direction and playing professionally, but it was probably not the best time to make such a decision, in terms of all economic reasons . I decided to go to a normal serious economic studies in Szczecin, I became an economist … Music has stayed in my heart, both choral music, because I’ve been singing in a choir since primary school, and in Szczecin since the beginning of my studies. Jazz also, because for many years I’ve been vice-president of the West Pomeranian Jazz Association. So my music experiences are of dual nature. For many years I have also been organising jazz concerts and for a dozen or so years I have been running my own artistic agency where I deal with music, but from an organisational point of view. But my first musical experience with Europe was, of course, European and world music, because it always surrounded me. It was my first trip to Europe in 1977, already with the choir, then still at the Szczecin Polytechnic. We went on such a long tour where we visited Germany, West Berlin, then West Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, and we came back through Czechoslovakia. Unforgettable impressions, lots of friendships that last to this day. The difference between this West, western countries and our, then still very closed, East convinced me enough that it was worth it. It is worthwhile to deal with music because it brings people together, „it tenders customs“ as the Polish proverb says. And friendships formed during these musical experiences remain for many, many years.
You told us that you travelled through Europe. Would you conceive of yourself as a European citizen?
Probably not in the same sense as at the moment, as an inhabitant, citizen of the European Union, but I never had such negative feelings… that I am not European, that I am of an inferior class. I don’t know how to call it… Fortunately, my school gave me the opportunity to learn several foreign languages. I was already quite comfortable in French, English. And therefore I had no communication problems. I think I was also quite open to interacting with people. I met very different people, of course, because there are such people in general. But I took this stay very positively. My first stay in western Europe at the time and I felt very comfortable there. Therefore I didn’t feel not-European.
Do you recall any feelings from your childhood concerning Germany or Frane especially?
Difficult question, or actually a difficult answer to this question, because my ties to both countries are very close. Because both in Germany and France I have quite a close family, from both the side of my mom and dad. We still keep in touch. Some of my family from my mother’s side emigrated to Germany in the seventies and they still live there. Some of them emigrated to France, and some of them came back to Poland. So these connections are very strong. Of course when it comes to France, because I’ll start with that, my relation to France or my feelings towards France have always been very close and very positive. Also because of school, because I was learning French in high school and the teachers who were teaching it inn fact, today you could call them Francophiles, which means they were strongly in love with France and they have probably instilled and passed on this love to us. Therefore, I still perceive France very positively. As far as Germany is concerned, of course, the issue of the whole 1000 years of Polish and German history has been weighing down. But above all the issue of the partitions and the Second World War. Because, as I said, I was born in Złotów. It is a small town which before the war was on the Polish-German border. Exactly 9 kilometres from the Polish border. There lived a lot of Poles, who also had unpleasant experiences to say the least when it came to the time of Prussia and later the Third Reich. And the experiences of World War II were also very tragic in my family and I think that this has strongly influenced the way we perceive Germany. Of course these feelings were strongly verified by contacts with Germans and Austrians already in the times when one could contact them, when one could go to Germany. I managed to do it, I did it somewhere from the 70s, then regularly with the choir mainly, but I regularly travelled to the West, so there were a lot of contacts. And as I said, I also made a lot of such personal friendships where political issues were often also discussed and I know how. …what differences we have in our perceptions of these times.
You told us that you have close relatioships with both countries, and musically as well. What did you think when you learned about his project?
I mean I am … I have very close contacts with France and Germany. Anyway, until today I visit quite often, well, in the last year a bit less, but quite often I visit both France and Germany. But when I heard about this project I was very happy. Although … I. …I’ll have to say, I was pleased with the project, but at the same time I thought, why such a project? After all, we already have everything explained. I think everybody knows what it was like during the war, what it was like after the war, and the letter of the Polish bishops to the German bishops, and all these talks which … Perhaps they also have very subjective feelings, but these talks that I already had with Germans, Austrians and the French about the Second World War and what happened. Also about explaining the history of my family as far as the Second World War is concerned. Because, of course, this often ended with a story of what my thoughts were, what the history of my mother, above all, was during the war. Well, I guess it’s all explained now. What else is it about? But when I actually talked to the young people from our choir, who also joined this project, I found out that it’s probably not quite like that. In Poland too, young people don’t quite … I mean. History is taught very superficially in school, especially the Second World War I think. Not everything is explained. A lot depends on the teachers, of course, and many young people do not know the history of the Second World War at all. They do not understand the mutual relations between the French, Germans, and Poles. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t all have to be that heavy necessarily . But it’s worth it. But I decided that it is worthwhile for young people from all three countries to learn a little bit more about history and realise why we perceive each other differently and sometimes why this does not always result in full openness, oh yes. I don’t know I explained it well enough, in the sense of clearly enough.
You spoke about your family and also about a book on your parents‘ experience. How did that come about?
I am in the process of writing. I am in the process of writing. I decided that I would finally write down the memories of my mother who survived the war very tragically. And before all, these were very complicated experiences which, in my opinion, could be used as a screenplay for a film, such a historical horror film with a positive ending. And … my mother told her story to all of us for many years, even boring us with these memories. However, at some point I decided that it is not boring, it is very interesting. These events were not at all obvious. The experiences were very tragic and mum came close to death several times. That being said, it’s worth preserving because my mom is 97 this year. Unfortunately, health doesn’t allow her, or in fact, memory does not allow her to talk about those times. But fortunately, a few years ago, when my mother was able to recall the facts, I wrote them down and even recorded a few interviews with my mother to put them on paper. I found it to be an unusual enough story, especially concerning my mother, the closest person to me. Therefore, I decided that it is worth writing it. Unfortunately, I’m already struggling with it for the second year. It’s hard for me, because I’m a very busy man, and I do it, so to speak, only in my free time, but I think … Because I have people here in Szczecin who are cheering me on. I think. …this year I will finally finish the book. It will be able to be published as my mother’s memoirs.
Would you like to share anything from those stories – as long as it’s not too personal to tell?
Well, that would be quite a long story. If I had to tell you everything … I can only tell you some keywords or short stories. .. When the war started my mother was 15 years old. She had just finished elementary school and… At that time she lived in a small village near Bełchatów. It is a town near Łódź. Of course, this town made it to General. … no, it wasn’t General Gubernia, but it was incorporated into the Reich. And because of that, at the beginning or in the middle of the 1940s, there was a pacification of this village, because it was decided that the village would be occupied by people of German origin. All the residents were evicted and my mom after verification… There was a special commission that was taking place in Łódź. A special commission qualified her as an Aryan race and she was destined to, as they say … in Polish, to be Germanised, but I don’t know how to call it more gently, to become a German. To say the least … She was blonde, slim, pretty. In connection with this, a committee, a verification committee, stated that she was fit for the Aryan race and to be Germanised. After a short training, including learning German, she was sent to her family in Austria. She was supposed to work normally on the farm, because it was a family living in the countryside. The family was supposed to adopt mom, because the sons, two sons the other couple had, left for the front. And mom was supposed to help on the farm as almost a daughter. The contacts of my family, my mother’s side, were already at that time quite close with the Germans because my mother was the youngest in the family and one of the older sisters, probably 18 years older if I remember correctly, she had married a German before the war. It was quite popular at that time that young people went to work in Germany, from poor areas, because who was the poor area near Łódź, they went to work in Germany, for the season. My mother’s sister met a German there. It was just near Anklam. She met a German and married him before the war, in the early thirties, because she was a much older sister than mum. And there were some relations. Anyway, now I’m going back to this Austria … My mother went to live with the family there, but she was treated very badly there. She still spoke poor German because the training in Łódź was very short and she didn’t understand everything. This lady, who was the landlady in this house, treated mum very badly. Badly enough that… It wasn’t only mum, because there were probably several other people there. She was beaten regularly even very brutally. She was not … She was not allowed to leave the farm at all. Working basically 24 hours a day seven days a week. Very bad, very bad treatment was given to all the people who ended up there on that farm. In spite of that… There were more people in the village who were sent to work in Austria in this village. There were some contacts between these people despite all. In any case, the people from these neighbouring farms, also Poles, who were sent there for work, well they said that they couldn’t be like that, no one could be treated like that. And they reported the matter to the Austrian police. And the police came to this farm and said that what this landlady was doing was simply reprehensible. They only threatened her with a fine, but nothing more happened. So all those who worked on that farm were beaten even more severely. Mom then decided to run away from that farm and the only direction was to her sister who lived near Anklam. Imagine the distance between the small town near Wiener Neustadt, that is in Austria, and Anklam. I don’t know if it is not about 800 kilometres. I never checked but quite a few. The forty-first year, because it was already the 41st year. Germany is already known to be a heavily policed country because it was the middle of the war. Mom, with the help of some friends from a neighbouring farm, escapes and packs a small suitcase that she had. These friends took the suitcase away at night and hid it somewhere in the bushes. The next night, when the landlady was sleeping, mom sneaked out the window and escaped. And without any documents, because she didn’t have any. The Kennkarte was in the hands of the landlady. Without any documents she gets on the train. And she also had some money from these friends to buy a ticket. She got on the train and with many changes of trains, including a change in Berlin, somewhere in Vienna, in Berlin, she reached her sister in Anklam, actually in a small town near Anklam, because it was a farm, too, where my mother’s brother-in-law was the manager of the farm. And at first mum secretly lived at her sister’s place and worked, so that… She worked on the farm because the owner of the farm was not very interested in the documents. It was important that the work was done, so somehow she got away with not having any documents. Well, but at some point the owner of the estate, a very rich estate by the way, with a huge palace that still stands today, I visited the palace, and he decided to increase the number of servants in the palace. And he just happened to like mum, that pretty, young girl, so she would also come to serve in the palace. But at that point, documents were requested. There was some small lie that the documents had been lost, something there, something there … Mom already spoke perfect German, so she explained herself somehow, but if she needs documents, we will try, she just has to get a birth certificate. And she sent a letter to her mother near, there near Bełchatów, for her mother to send her the birth certificate. And after some time, I don’t remember anymore, I have it written down somewhere, after some time instead of a return letter the Gestapo comes to the farm and of course arrests mum. It turns out that this letter that mum sent in the first place went to, I don’t know if it was to the Gestapo or the police, and it turned out that… Because mum had obviously been wanted for some time. Why did she run away from that farm? From that first farm to Austria, in Austria. The Germans could not find her because she was hiding near Anklam. But this letter was traced. And instead of the certificate the Gestapo came to the farm and arrested mum. She sat in several prisons in Anklam, in Szczecin, in Gdansk, back to Łódź. But since mom already spoke excellent German, she was able to explain everything somehow. In fact a document was found from this village in Austria, that there had been such cases, that there had been strong harassment, beatings, in fact torture of these workers. It was decided that this was some kind of mitigating cause. And in connection with this it was decided that there would be no other punishment except that mother received some kind of prison sentence, which she later still received in Vienna, because she was sent to prison in Vienna. I would have to revise… Because I don’t remember anymore, but she spent a month or three months in prison and was sent again to work for another Austrian family near Wiener Neustadt and she worked there until the end of the war. In the second family she was treated almost like a daughter. She was adopted by these people officially. She was treated like a daughter. Again there were two sons who went to the front, and one of them didn’t come back from the front at all. So there was a big tragedy in the family. But mom stayed there until the end of the war. Anyway, they wanted to keep mum after the war. But, of course, family ties and the desire to return to Poland were stronger. Together with some workers from the same farm, they decided to return to Poland. By the way, there were also workers from Ukraine, I think there was also a Hungarian, workers from Ukraine, from Poland. And together they decided that they would go back to their countries. They didn’t travel long, because right after Vienna the Soviet army took the horse away from them and they returned, almost all the way on foot, through Bratislava and the Czech Republic, then right to Poland. This whole pelegrination lasted over a month. Where in the summer, I think it was July or early August, ’45 mom came home. At the same time, nobody expected mum to come back at all, because there had been no contact for a while, of course. The front went through Poland and then there was fighting in Germany and Austria, there was no contact and it lasted for many months. The family thought that mum wouldn’t come back. It was actually the most emotional memory of my mother, when she finally goes through the village and the children, who were already there, run earlier to the house of my parents, that is my grandparents, and announce that “Hela is coming home” . So … Because my mother’s name is Helena. The joy in the house was incredible. Mom just tells us that when she left, she came home, the first thing she did was kneel down and kiss the threshold. That’s just briefly, of course there are many different events along the way, both those events in Austria and those events here in the Anklam vicinity and they’re very detailed, because mom told me all this in quite a lot of detail, to the extent that I think it’s a story that’s worth telling. And most of all, I’ve told it all rather gently now. But there were more tragic events, for example when the Gestapo came to the farm near Anklam. Well, basically mom thought that they would shoot her on the spot, because that’s what it looked like. That’s also what she had. After all, those Gestapo policemen said that they would shoot her on the spot. Because that’s no way for a German woman to run away from her family, because she was then considered German. Such were the various stories. I don’t know if Przemyslaw would be able to translate what I said…
Of course, the book will have a more detailed account.
I hope so… I will say that when I heard about this project… Because as I say it’s hard for me to write, I only do it in my spare time. But when I heard about this „75 Years of Peace“ project, I figured there was no better time to actually sit down to it in earnest. This is… Here I thank you for this project because this is one of the reasons that will probably motivate me to finish the book, to describe everything that happened with my mother during the war.
We have now talked about your parents, about your mother. Back when you were a child, did you experience any consequences from the War?
I mean. Material consequences for a long time because I was born in 55… The buildings in Złotów, where i was born, that had not been rebuilt, could still be seen for a very long time such demolished buildings, which nobody was able to renovate which had not yet been completely dismantled, and bullet marks on the plaster were quite common. In ’74 I came to study in Szczecin, where at that time there were still many traces of World War II such as the unreconstructed st. jacob’s cathedral, which looks beautiful today but then it still had a destroyed tower and unreconstructed roof there were also a lot of such traces, still visible material ones. Anyway, in Szczecin, let’s just say that the empty spaces left by demolished tenement houses are now mostly covered with new buildings but as I say, somewhere back in the mid-1970s, there were still quite a few such places and it was known that there used to be a tenement house there, during the war. Anyway Szczecin was destroyed in 70 percent during allied air raids and also during capturing of Szczecin by eastern front by the soviet army and partly by the polish army was heavily destroyed. The shipyard, the port, almost a hundred percent, and the centre with the old town, with the beautiful old town 70 percent. Therefore it was difficult to level these traces at once. Szczecin looks completely different after the war, because it was impossible to rebuild it because nobody had the will to rebuild it as it was before the war. And because I also fell in love with Szczecin as a city, I am very interested in the history of Szczecin and to this day I feel sorry when I look at old pre-war photos of what a beautiful city it was. I hope I don’t offend Hamburgers or people from Lübeck, but Szczecin was much nicer. And I feel sorry for the city that it hasn’t remained that way. However, when it comes to such immaterial memories in my family, for sure the war memories were always present, very strong, both from the western side, that is from the German side, and some wrongs and experiences which were shared by my family, because in fact there was no one who did not experience something during the war or just after it. Uncle was a soldier during the Invasion of Poland and was heavily wounded. In fact, he didn’t heal for the rest of his life he was a lancer, he was wounded. One of mom’s brothers was killed during the war. During the war, my father fought in the partisans in the Janów forests in the Kielce voivodship. Because of this, such references to Germany have functioned all the time. I think that they are still present somewhere in the older generation. But there are also references to the other side, that is, to the Russian or Soviet occupation of Poland, as it is now called in Poland, during the entire Communist period. Because we also suffered many injustices here and this story is also quite strong in my family and still relevant. I would not like to say that the Poles are somehow … I mean, they are certainly experienced, they were negatively affected by both these totalitarian systems. But I hope it doesn’t affect our openness towards other people, towards other nations.
As a child, how did that experience affect you? Were there perhaps hopeful aspects to it as well?
As a child, I can say that, in principle, we did not talk about war times at all in my family. I suspect that it was such a traumatic experience that both mum and dad preferred not to talk about it with the children, certainly not with the children. We learned about it, because there are four of us at home, basically at the time when we were almost all adults. It wasn’t until then, we were at least those 18 years old, it wasn’t until then that we started to take an interest in it. Let’s say because of the history lessons in school. So we just started asking our parents and what was in our family. And only then did these different things come out, but as a child, these topics were not discussed at all at home. Therefore we lived in hope. We were young, cheerful, we wanted to have fun. Even if there were some material problems, because I think there were all over Europe, also in Germany. Let’s say the 50’s it wasn’t cheerful either when it came to material matters because I know this because I’ve had many conversations with my German friends. Nobody associated this even with the Second World War, at least not us as children. We treated this as normal, that this was normal, that this was how people lived, probably somewhere better somewhere worse, but we were young, full of hope, full of vigour, we wanted to live, we wanted to do something we liked most in life. I was attracted to music and so it has remained like that until today.
How did you experience reconstruction, materially as well as concerning relationships between Poland, France, and Germany?
You mean these days, right?
Yes, how it developed from back then until today.
It has certainly changed a lot since the time when there was such a great possibility of exchanging people, opinions, possibilities, of traveling, visiting each other and conversations. Such conversations, not official ones, because such things also happened to me. Somewhere I even happened to translate some official speeches in France or Germany. On the other hand, it is about such individual conversations with people. My experience, my contacts are mainly with my family who stayed after the war in Germany or always lived there, because as I said, my aunt’s family were Germans and they stayed in Germany. Some of them in the GDR, some not in West Germany. So they were Germans, but we had contacts with them and these contacts were not bad and nobody had any bad relations. On the other hand, the official teaching of history, I would say, taught us that the past is there and we should remember it. But with the people you meet, after all, they are new… What are they to blame for the Second World War, as they are people who were born long after the war and have nothing to do with it? Therefore they are very willing to … They and many Germans are also very willing to talk about this. They know that I’m interested in it because history is one of my hobbies. I am the head of the Regional Centre for International Debate, which is an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the promotion of Polish foreign policy, but of course, history is also strongly included in this foreign policy. Therefore I have a lot of contacts here in Poland with historians, some historians from Germany, because we invite them to our debates. And Germans are very eager to talk about this subject, at least I feel so. And during these conversations, a lot of things can be clarified for each other. As I said, I have family in Germany, I also have many friends in Germany, in different regions of Germany, and very often I talked about historical issues. I think this is the best way to explain history to ourselves. And I will not say forgetting, because history must not be forgotten, just as someone there said that a nation without history has no future. Therefore, history must not be forgotten, but it must be properly understood. And to think forward first and foremost, to think about working together, about living together. Well, because we all live together in Europe. But as far as France is concerned, some of the family on my dad’s side lives there. My father’s sister, who was sent to work in Alsace after the war, stayed there, met a Frenchman, married him and stayed in France and from there this part of the family lives in France in Alsace. And here Polish-French relations have always been very positive since the times of Napoleon. I’ve been to France many times, I’ve met with a very nice reception and just as Polish-German relations can be often perceived badly by people, I think that Polish-French relations are rather not, rather not. Anyway, I have the same feeling about the Russians. I used to visit Russia very often during Soviet times and now after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For some time I also ran a company in Ukraine. That being said, I lived with these people on a regular basis and I don’t. … During communism, most of these people had nothing to do with it. They are just ordinary people like me who just wanted to live. The conditions were what they were. One could, of course, try to fight this system. I’m talking about communism here. Which just happened to work out. In a way, I tried it too. And now we are all in Europe, so I am just happy. And the fact that I can now go to my friends or family in France, Germany, Denmark or Austria, because I have very close friends in various countries. This is an undeniable value to me.
About Polish-German friendship, has there been a difference between West and East Germany?
Well, I have to say, yes. I have to say, yes. I’m a man of many hobbies, so to speak. One of them, for instance, is playing football. Well, maybe a bit less now, but there was a time when I worked for a company, still state-owned at that time, where there was a football team and, among other things, it was partly my idea to set up an international company football league. In Szczecin, there was a football company league, and there were companies that formed football teams and competed against each other. And such, and such a league was also in Rostock in the GDR. And we got in touch and there was an international football competition, once a month. Teams from the GDR, that is from Rostock, would come to Szczecin. And once a month we would go to … The following month we would also go to Rostock to play some matches there. And I will say that my experience, because at that time I already had, of course, because it was the 1980s, this football, I already had the experience of meeting Germans from West Germany. It was young Germans from the GDR who were very unsympathetic towards us Poles. I’ll say this. Yeah, from the east. They were unsympathetic to us young Poles, just like German girls, excuse me, girls from Germany, often sympathetic. There was no such negative reference, it was on the football pitch where I sometimes noticed too much fierceness. And later even during some meetings, because such matches usually ended with a common dinner. It was a project. … It was a project to bring together both nations, i.e. the GDR and Poland, and I say GDR on purpose. But it didn’t work out. It didn’t work out well. Although let’s say there my German is not so perfect but let’s say I can get along. This attempt to talk to young boys, let’s say young men from the GDR was usually very unsympathetic, yes. That has been my experience in this regard and as far as… Perhaps football has … Football brings together other, different people than choral singing. „Music soothes the mores“ and maybe that’s why the people I met as part of the choral activity had a completely different way of talking to each other. And maybe in order not to transfer it to nations let’s leave it that football is aggressive and choral music is gentle.
Concerning the relationship between Poland and Germany: Did reunification in 1990 change anything?
In the sense … In the sense of perceiving Germany as such, yes, I mean for me the division into East Germany and West Germany was an artificial division resulting only from the desire of communism to take over Europe and I have never accepted it. For me, it was strange, to say the least. And when the German unification happened I took it as a quite natural thing that sooner or later had to happen. Good thing it happened sooner rather than later. Anyway, maybe a little-known fact, but Poland contributed a lot to it. The times of Solidarity were precisely the period when and aid for the GDR from Poland and the positive attitude towards the unification of the two parts of Germany. I think it helped with that connection. And my, as I say, reference to it was that it needs to happen. And it’s very good that it happened. On the other hand… Let’s put it this way, after the reunification of Germany our contacts with East Germany almost ceased. Still very good… As far as the choir is concerned we have very good contacts with various choirs or orchestras from Germany and we are often invited or we invite choirs to Poland and we are invited to Germany for various concerts. However, in the whole history of the last 30 years, I remember one trip to Frankfurt/Oder for a concert, and then it just disappeared completely. I don’t treat Berlin as the GDR at the moment, because we used to go to Berlin quite often as a choir, but exactly to this western part to the Berlin Philharmonic where we often performed. Here I have to boast that for many years we were the choir that opened the new year in the Berlin Philharmonic. We sang the 9th symphony on the first of January as the first concert of the new year in Berlin. We Poles sang the ninth symphony in Germany with the Berlin Philharmonic. We sang the Ninth Symphony for the Germans. It also gave a lot of food for thought and I think a lot of positive feelings as well.
On that very day, did you feel that others felt the same thing, for example your German audience?
I think that … ’89 and the end of communism in Poland had a very positive influence on the attitude of Germans towards Poles. Earlier … Sometimes … Not everywhere because it also depends on people, as I say. Sometimes we were treated not as an inferior sort of person but we were seen as this poor… I don’t know a poor neighbour. The Germans were rich and we came … We were poor, no doubt about it, we were poor. We just didn’t want to be treated that way. And it happened sometimes. I don’t know how to say this so as not to offend anyone but… We were treated as such poor neighbours “ they came here, they can be treated a little bit worse“. But it was a short impression, mostly, passing shortly after the first contracts, first conversations. I think that for Germans it was also a big surprise that they have people coming to them who speak their languages, who behave normally, who can talk about various topics. I do not hide what I said at the beginning, that it was exactly how the choir was perceived as working, our choir of the Szczecin Polytechnic. A few years ago it was transformed into the West Pomeranian University of Technology … West Pomeranian University of Technology – a very difficult name, even for Poles. I think that the Germans have also changed their opinion of us, that we are not some poor, intimidated nation, some people who know nothing. I think that for Germans it was also a big surprise, and most of all when we stood on the stage and performed a piece, be it a cappella, and we always have a wonderful programme prepared for every trip, be it an oratorio or a symphony, Beethoven’s 9th symphony for example, or all the other major pieces like Mozart’s Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem, because we have it in our repertoire, it completely changed the way they treated us, and this applied to … all the countries, not only Germany but also France, England, Spain, Italy, and everywhere we went. We were proud that we could represent that poor communist Poland in such a way that we could show our artistry and our ability to perform music, and that in this way we could also change attitudes towards Poland, because very often in conversations this also came up. I’m already talking about even such exotic places as the Philippines or Chile. Or Japan where also people after hearing someone came there from some poor Poland turns out not… This is a group of people who can perform music very well and at the same time they are not, to use another word, they are not stupid people but they are normal European people. That’s how I would like to end.
How would you characterise the Polish-German relationship nowadays? Is there still room for improvement, or is it just fine?
It’s never the case that everything works perfectly. I don’t know if these things are emphasised, but unfortunately there are some things that we Poles are very sensitive to, such as the name „Polish concentration camps“… And unfortunately this happens in the German, American and other media. And we still do not want to agree with it and … I think that there is still a lot to be worked out here on the German side, because I know that such… Because I happen to work at the moment in a company that deals with such things, the news reaches me that it happens both on German television and in the press, and in the most important ones, be it Allgemeine Frankfurter Zeitung or CDF… Such things happened, and then, with apologies for such terms, the media did not hurry too much. And here I think there are still many things to work on, but on the German side. Apart from that, I also sometimes notice the dilution of German guilt for WWII and even more the question of the participation of the Austrians in WWII, who seem to have erased from their memory, this part of their history, which was probably not very laudable. And here for sure on the German and Austrian side a lot of discussions would still have to be held. However, what is the relationship between the German and French I will not comment on because I do not know too much about it. However, as far as France is concerned, I have also considered it many times … And I have also talked to the French about it. The French seem to have a superiority complex towards Poles very often. They consider themselves to be … Anyways, the French has that in reference to many nations, but to the Poles too. They consider themselves to be more educated, more cultured, more eloquent people and before you start talking and explaining many things then they can show their superiority. Somewhere in there, as I say from high school, I still have the ability to communicate in French, so I often caught French people… Because they did not know that e.g. I know how to speak French, because I often started a conversation in English and caught them saying some things … Then they were sorry, they apologized, but also on the French side something like that works, but I think that it doesn’t only concern Poles, because they have the same feelings towards Englishmen, because I talked to Englishmen that they have such grudges against Frenchmen. Such are my subjective feelings about the Polish-French-German reference.
What would be your wish concerning our generation? How would you like us to treat this?
History should be remembered, because, as I think Piłsudski said, “A nation without history has no future.” Therefore, history should be remembered but not necessarily lived, because people who live in the past have no future. Also, you have to be able to balance everything. And I value openness in young people above all. I still feel young despite my age, because I sing with students all the time. And in our choir, of course, it’s such a not entirely Polish custom that we’re all on a first-name basis. In Poland, you have to know someone quite well in order to be on a first-name basis. And I think, above all, I wish the young generation to remember history, but not to live it. Live the future.
Is there anything you would like to add as a final thought concerning this project, or anything you would like to get off your chest?
As I said before, I was very happy that such a project was created, because I thought everyone knew the history and how to relate to it. Of course they have their own subjective opinion on the subject, but at least they know. It turned out that this is not quite the case. I am very interested in history, especially of the twentieth century and this… I’m also trying to pass these stories on to my children so that they know them and I was very pleased with this project. And here I also said earlier that the project also in some sense, at least at the moment, mobilises me to finish the book about my mum’s history. These are two positive aspects of the project. Above all, I hope that the project will turn into further personal contacts, that this nasty period of the pandemic will finally pass, that we will be able to meet, visit each other and make a lot of very good music together… To our and the audience’s satisfaction.
Many, many thanks for the interview! It was very interesting to me, I feel I’ve learned so much. My best wishes for your completing your book, which I hope I will be able to read some day soon.
The book is written in Polish, so whether it will be translated into any other language… I completely don’t know. But because I was still talking… There was a question to me earlier. Other than this interview or this conversation, I don’t know of anyone else who could give such an interview. As I said no my mother is unfortunately not suitable for interview at the moment due to old age. I have a cousin who is older than me, because she was born before the war, but who of course remembers the war very well. She also remembers the Polish-German issues before the war. The association of Poles in Germany and priest Domański were very active in Złotów. He is such a significant figure of this association, from the period before the Second World War. And she also remembers the issues, because she was already big enough, grown-up enough, to experience it herself the entry of the Soviet Army into the German territory. Złotów was the first conquered German town in this part of Germany, apart from East Prussia. It was the first city captured by the Soviet Army and what happened then. She remembers it very well, however she lives over 200 kilometres from me and completely … Computer for her is black magic. I would have to persuade her to do an interview, and then go with the computer connect etc. I don’t know if she’ll agree to that. She speaks excellent German, because she graduated from a German school. She finished school during German times. It would be possible to do an interview directly, but I would have to try hard, try hard to ask her to agree to this trip, to this interview, because she is really reluctant to talk about it. I also think that it is a matter of some, let’s say, not denial, but of traumatic experiences that she would not necessarily like to talk about. If there’s strong interest then I’ll just try to press on.
Jacques Bellier, ehem. Bürgermeister der Gemeinde Jouy-en-Josas (Yvelines)
I’m Balthasar Wilzopolski, I am from Berlin and I am 19 years old. I’m a trombonist. I am going to study jazz trombone in Autumn and am really looking forward to that.
I was born in 1941. Can you imagine, 1941 in Paris, and studied civil engineering before taking up positions in public works of engineers in public works in France and abroad. So my family lived in Paris for quite some time, they lived in different French provinces. And then my family came back to Paris when I was a teenager. In my professional life I was active until 2008 and in 2008 I was elected mayor of Jouy-en-Josas, the city where I currently live, until last year and last year I passed the baton to my successor at the town hall of Jouy-en-Josas.
My family is a middle class family I’d say. My father was also an engineer and he worked at the SNCF public railways. During the war, my father was taken prisoner for several months, before being called back to the national railway company to run the trains until the end of the war. So I only experienced war for a very short time, because I was 4 when it ended. I have some flash memories, but very little, however, I can begin to testify about the evolution of things from around 1950 on.
Which historical circumstances had an impact on your life from 1950 onward?
I was too young to witness the Liberation. The first events, which marked me, were the war of Algeria, the arrival of the General de Gaulle, the end of the war in Algeria and the installation of what is called the fifth Republic in France. And then all the events that took place in France, in Europe, the gradual construction of Europe, which marked me a lot and in general, I would say that the facts that marked me are mainly meetings. Meetings with people, meetings with books, meetings with foreign countries that I have been able to visiting during my professional life. My children and my wife were also a constructive meeting of my personality. I would summarise this saying that these meetings, in my opinion, contributed to build the personality that I have today.
What does your wife do as a profession?
My wife is a teacher and researcher. She has been a teacher in secondary school for a long time, especially, when we lived abroad and after returning to France, she became a researcher in social sciences and specialised on subjects, which referred to the last country, where we lived, in the last region we worked, which was the Middle East – Iran and the Middle East.
Even if you were quite young back then, what impact did the war have on your life? What was post-war life like for you?
I was four years old, let’s say at an age younger than ten years old, we evolve every day. The Second World War, I repeat, was a little far away. I just remember the life we had. My father was called to work, I repeat, for the railway and my mother was a refugee, if we can say that, at her uncles and aunts place in the provinces, where I lived with my brother and my three sisters until the end of the war.
Would you conceive of yourself as a European?
What strikes me in this period from the war until now, is that precisely my parents‘ view of Germany changed dramatically. When i was little, I remember that when we spoke of Germans, my parents used terms that were not contemptuous at all, but terms of fear and hostility. I don’t know if you know the vocabulary that was used – we spoke of the „boches“ and these were pejorative terms.
And the summary that I can give of these 75 years of peace, is that they made us, French, have a totally different vision of Germany today. The Germans, who were our threatening, dangerous neighbours, with whom we had waged three successive wars, have become close cousins, with whom we share a lot of common values. Values of democracy, cultural values which are very similar. I could tell you about the twinning of the town of Jouy-en-Josas with a German town, about exchanges between students with the Erasmus program for example. So there is a complete change of perspective during these 75 years of peace between the collective vision that we had of Germans and the vision we have today. The best name that I can use to qualify the Germans today, I repeat, is a close cousin. One does not always understand his cousins, but one has an affinity with cousins. We have a kind of tenderness or affection that makes us walk together in the same direction.
When did your perception start to change?
Gradually, I would say that it is a generational change. In fact, when we have started, us children, to tell our parents about the vision we had of Germany, which was a positive vision, neighbourhood, coexistence etc, our parents, who were very open people, also adapted their language and admitted that their neighbours, who were once threatening could become neighbours with whom it was interesting to build a common future. To answer the last question you asked me about the construction of Europe, finally, that change of perspective, this new vision that we had of our neighbours – not only German, but certainly German – accompanied the progressive construction of Europe which I experienced, starting from around 1950, 55, 60. That was the approach by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer etc etc. And this progressive construction of Europe, which involved a very good vision that the fathers of Europe had, very clearly allowed us to change our image of our European neighbours whether Italian, German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, with whom we used to have conflicts.
Did this have an impact on your own behaviour? Did you act differently in any concrete way?
Yes, but not necessarily vis-à-vis the Germans, I will not repeat what I said earlier, which was a paradigm shift that was significant, this completely different vision, let’s say, between two neighbouring countries. But it is also that all the problems that shake the world today, I see them now through the European prism. And I consider, for example, that Europe is not present enough, when it comes to the major problems the world is facing. The problems of climate change, the rivalry between the Palestinians and Israelis, the various conflicts that unfortunately cross the planet. So my tendency is not to see these conflicts from the French angle anymore, but to look at them from the European angle.
So for me Europe becomes like my mother country, while France is the region where I am from. That took place in a very gradual way. The first very strong event was the coal and steel treaty, so the pooling of coal and steel production that cut the grass under the feed of those who wanted to re-develop antagonist armies, since we put all together the material of weaponry. That was the first step and then my feeling and my openness to Europe developed gradually.
Europe has given itself the means and bodies of additional sovereignty. I’m very frustrated, because I think it should go much further. But as to the feeling of community, I felt it very early, very early.
When did you start to feel the significance of Europe developing as such a strong community?
From the 60s on, for me, Europe was already our community. Balthasar wasn’t born yet in 1960. I make a comparison with what I experienced as mayor of Jouy-en-Josas. We have been invited to get closer to neighbouring municipalities, to build city communities. And what was decided by law, was to pool a certain number of competences, the municipalities remaining autonomous in their management and keeping the basic structures of these community constructions. I think Europe could do it the same way. It is important that Europe does not necessarily get involved in everything from the start, but that Europe builds up gradually by pooling a certain number of skills and by working on these skills to become very productive and convincing.
and that these skills gradually expand to perhaps one day allow us to build the united states of Europe – what I personally wish for. But I think that if we want to get there, we have to do it in a very gradual way, by being selective in the skills that we put together. I think we can put a European army together. I think we can have interconnected energy productions.
I think we can put a number of policies that are already in place, together, in particular farming. But I think that Europe should not get involved in details, such as refrigeration temperature in stores, for example. From my point of view, Europe goes into too much detail and I think it should better focus on very solid skills and above all, work very strongly on its unified, unique presence on the international scene.
As I said earlier, my big wish is that Europe speaks about the big international problems with one voice, with courage. Europe is democratic and Europe has a lot of wealth. It can motivate other countries to follow its example on a number of levels. That seems desirable to me.
Do you believe that the European community and European integration still are projects worthwhile following today?
Yes, in so far as this integration respects the personality of each member state and that this integration is clear on the competences that are transferred. So why am I in favour of this integration? I will answer Balthasar’s last question. First, because I think that each country is too small, even Germany is too small, to face the challenge of today’s world, too small, you have to weigh the world stage and Europe with 500 million inhabitants will weigh more than any single country. We are much stronger together.
Do you have any further suggestions for younger people?
I said earlier that we share the same culture, the same will to live in democracy, and god knows if democracy today is threatened by various more or less authoritarian regimes, and if Balthazar asks me to complete my speech on Europe, I would say that my fears for the future of Europe lie essentially in the selfishness of the member states. Everyone tries to – in French we say “to pull the cover to him” – without having a community reaction. I also fear the development of populism. In Hungary, also in Poland, populism that rejects the differences and builds walls against foreign countries. I also fear that Europe lacks the will of determination to use its power and be present on the global scale. This is how I complete what I said earlier about my vision of Europe. A very strong hope for my children and my grandchildren is that Europe is strong and helps them to defend a lifestyle and openness to others that I appreciate. My fears are that Europe may one day be swept away by an assault of populism as we experienced, as we unfortunately still experience in several countries including the United States.
This European identity you just mentioned, which is now developing and which can have such positive effects – do you believe that we can retain it alongside national traditions and values and national pride?
Yes. Yes, yes and yes.
Let me explain myself. The key to this identity is meeting each other. Balthasar has to meet Jacques Bellier. We see each other and appreciate each other. So the key is to meet each other.
If I express my wishes for Europe to strengthen itself, it is through exchanges between states that we will achieve this strengthening of the European personality. So these are cultural exchanges, touristic exchanges. When I say „cultural“ I mean for example this concert, this European orchestra with which I assisted two years ago and I believe that you are going to reproduce in October 2021. It’s touristic exchanges. It is students exchanges, such as the Erasmus exchange. It is work exchange. I have friends, who work in Germany and are very happy, they will come back to work in France after.
I think knowing each other is the key to a strong community, because knowing each other it is learning to appreciate the differences and it is learning to appreciate what each can contribute to the community. And then obviously that requires that we become aware that in today’s world, egoism is something suicidal and that if we want to ensure the survival of humanity in a world which becomes more and more agitated, difficult, climate change, it is necessary that we are able to pull all in the same direction and not to shoot each other like we did in three wars.
Now as to peace in Europe: In your perception, when did the modern era of peace take hold in Europe – by the end of the Second World War, or by the fall of the Berlin wall? Or was this rather one continual process?
My testimony is that peace settled in Europe, when we made the first steps of a European community, on coal and steel, I think I remember that it was in 1950. That was the premise of peace and personally I was very young. Therefore, I actually felt at peace and not threatened as my parents could have, by a resumption of war that they experienced. My grandparents twice and my parents in 1939. So personally, I was born in 41, for me, the peace in Europe started not right away at the end of the second world war, because we were still in a state of risk, with the cold war, with the threat of Russia, the presumed threat of Russia on Europe, the peace of Europe has started in the 50s. And then it was strengthened with to the collapse of the soviet empire, that is to say in 1989, which marked a withdrawal of Russia, and a real rapprochement of the two parts of Germany including the Chancellor who was in power at that time. I have a lot of admiration for the chancellor. Was it Adenauer? It was who at the time? It was Kohl I think, who decided one day that the Ostmark becomes Westmark and therefore accelerated this merge of the two parts of Germany. So, in summary, for me, peace in Europe starts in the 50s with the constitution of the first two institutions, common community between six countries and then this peace has been consolidated over the years as time went by, with an important milestone, the fall of the Berlin wall. And at the same time of the [collapse of the] soviet union in 1989.
Having been living in peace now for six or seven decades, what, in your view, are the gains of this peace? What impact did it have on Europe as well as on the world?
What did peace bring us? I almost want to say everything, the opposite of what war would have brought us. This peace brought us the fact that one can feel at peace in a territory larger than the national territory. This peace gave us the impression of a much deeper and more stable peace than if it had only been a peace between two neighboring countries. We owe these 75 years of peace to – I testify what concerns me personally – to have been able to grow up, having been able to enjoy life, having been able for most of us to be happy, without having the permanent fear of a resumption of war, as it was the case during the first five years after WWII. So I would say these 75 years of peace allowed us to live normally, which is unfortunately a rare privilege in today’s world.
Let’s now talk a little about music. What did music mean to you when you were my age? What kind of music did you listen to?
It meant a lot. In my family, boys didn’t play music. They were rather supposed to do sports. And the girls played music. So my three sisters played music. There must have been a flute and two pianos. It is thus rather my sisters, the girls who played music. That didn’t prevent prevent me from appreciating or loving music right from the start, from an early age on.
My own parents listened to a lot of music, especially to classical music and then my field of fields of interest widened to more varied music, to music in other parts of the world, when I was on professional mission. So my relationship with music is that for me, it is an important element, constitutive of a personality, nourishing, in the same way as literature, cinema – these arts nourished me. Music built me in a certain way. I regret that I never played an instrument and I was very proud to be nonetheless vice president in charge of music in the community structure that I was speaking of earlier, in Versailles, which enabled me to come with Christine Palau, you maybe know her, to this international concert in October 2019  and my question, I return to Balthasar, was he a trombonist at the concert that time?
What exactly were your duties in that position? What genres of music were involved?
An elected official is often associated with a territorial official. In this case, it was Christine Palau, who was the director of music for the entire community of the 19 communes of 19 towns, and I was the elected one. The decisions were taken at the council of mayors – never by the civil servants, it is always the elected officials, who take the final decision – and so I was the relay between the council of mayors and Christine Palau and it is with her that I discussed a number of decisions regarding the development of musical culture within this community of cities. We were dealing with different types of music, classical instrumental music, there was jazz music, there was even pop music, techno, we had a festival of techno, which still exists. So the musical field was and still is very wide.
I listen to live music as well as to recorded music. Live music can also be live on the radio. I have a lot of records. I often listen to music on the radio on “France Musique” or “TSF jazz” for example so it depends. And then, on the other hand, when CoVID allows us, when the pandemic allows us, we go with pleasure to concerts indeed.
What kind of music do you prefer yourself?
That varies, not to brag, but simply because I like a lot of music. In classical music, Schubert and Bach, I really like Indonesian music, which is percussion music, I like jazz. These are the three musical genres. I like modern music a little less, the same for techno music. But it’s more or less these three genres that are at the top of the pile for me. I am unable to tell you. Because when I listen to jazz, I listen to jazz, I hear the names, but I don’t write them down. And it’s more the good opportunities that allow me to listen to jazz music. I am not able to tell you a preference and I am not a fanatic able to tell you names in preference to others. Désolé, Balthasar. [in English] I am sorry.
Please, no problem!
Many thanks for all your answers, many thanks for being so frank with me. I found it all very interesting, especially to get the perspective of a former mayor, on Europe as well as on music. I hope I posed the right questions – this was the first interview I have conducted.
I reassure you, Balthasar, the questions were very relevant and very well asked, thanks to you also, apparently, Maria [the interpreter] I was very happy to participate in this exchange. It’s still an exchange.
Can I ask you two questions, Balthasar? Firstly, did you play in the concert we have organised between Germany, Poland and France in 2019 [recte: 2018]? Secondly, will he be part of the concert that will be organised in October 2021? And then, your parents, very briefly, if I asked them the same questions you asked me, what would they answer?
As to the first question: I did not participate in 2019 , and I’m afraid I didn’t make it through the audition for the project this year. Primarily, I am a jazz trombonist, and in terms of playing technique as well as musical approach, that’s another matter entirely as compared to classical music. But I am already looking forward to try again next time.
Thank you, thank you, Balthasar, for this interview and good luck in all your studies, music and then normal studies. What would you like to do later on as a profession?
I study to be a jazz trombonist.
Bravo, good luck to achieve this goal, we will all profit from European musicians.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!