Park Strzelecki i Józefa Bema 14/08/2010Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures, Leçons Culturelles.
Tags: history, józef bem, park strzelecki, poland, sekler gate, tarnów, travel, walks
Children once played in the shadow of this water tower, or more likely cowered from its alien bulk. Call me naive but the massive edifice clawing free from the trees and shrubs to loom above could only have been devised by a Soviet architect. Exterior walkways are perfect observation posts from which all actions below were revealed. The bulbous head looked like an arena where trade-unionists and Catholic priests would fend off lions or Mel Gibson or Cossacks.
Empty swing-sets and monkey bars, primary colors chipping from the metal, creaked in the wind. Grass, unchallenged by blade or hoe, was encroaching on the dirt paths joining concrete blocks. Benches squared off with vacancy, waiting for the solitary drunks who would keep them warm. Nobody lingered. No music or laughter or smoke from BBQs drifted across the square, just grey clouds overhead. Some company had wrapped the tower in their corporate calling card where once Stalin or Lenin might have been. This didn’t seem to change anything.
We walked towards town, down stairs and along pavement prepared for masses who never arrived. Generic commercial properties suitable for a dry-cleaner’s, bank branch or liquor store sat empty. Few cars roamed the streets this deep in the apartment complexes overlooking Tarnów. Janice led me through the outskirts of a rec center where a couple people batted a tennis ball around. No crowds outside the bowling alley or attached bar, just a couple kids sitting in silence drinking Mountain Dew and staring at their feet. I stared at the distant smokestacks venting a chemical factory, the city’s largest employer, held over from communist times.
Suburban sprawl ends abruptly. Bulldozers rumble around sifting dirt, looking to expand the reach of malls, while across the street trees block out the sun. People strolled along paths and sat on benches, watching water’s endless journey through the pipes of a fountain. Kids ran ahead of their parents while young couples floated aimlessly.
Park Strzelecki had been founded in the 1860’s on old farmland. Local gun enthusiasts were granted a range and clubhouse where they could sip hot chocolate and tell tall-tales. Stone walls coated in spray-paint and grime remained from the heady days of local gentry, struggling against stillborn renovation work preparing this former landmark for tourist dollars or other untold horrors.
One lasting focal point stands in a carefully manicured pond tended by a flock of swans and ducks. There’s a stone sarcophagus sitting atop pillars, the final resting place of Józef Bem. Trying to understand why his ashes are collected in this glorified urn presents a major problem as I remain woefully uneducated in regards to Eastern European history, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
Bem was born in Tarnów at the end of the 18th century. Poland was partitioned between the Russian, Prussian and Hapsburg empires thanks to the Swedish inspired collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After Napoleon’s rampages created the Duchy of Warsaw the Bems moved to Krakow where young Józef attended military school. He graduated and traveled east as the French utterly failed to invade Russia, which Bem probably meant as a proxy jab against his oppressors.
Poland reverted to partitioned control and Bem was imprisoned for conspiring to wrest freedom from the Russians. He moved to L’viv, in present day Ukraine, but ran off to Warsaw when the Poles rose up to gain independence. They didn’t get it and Bem fled to Paris where he taught math and wrote about the Poles not getting independence. For reasons completely unclear to me journeyed to Portugal and fought in their civil war, then to Vienna to fight against the Austrians (who held part of Poland) on behalf of the Hungarians. Distinctions were garnered due to his efforts in the Carpathians but the Russians came to the defense of their allies and crushed the rebellion which drove Bem to the Ottomans who were longstanding allies with the Poles and hated both the Russians and Austrians.
There he died in what is now Syria. Now you might have some idea as to why I can’t understand Eastern European history.
Józef Bem’s cremated remains were repatriated from Turkey in 1929 and placed in a stone sarcophagus above a pond in Park Strzelecki. The city of Tarnów is littered with monuments to him, including one presented to the city ten years ago by Hungarians. Alternately known as The Sekler Gate, this carved wooden arch remains open “for both the happy and unhappy.” The park hidden behind was full of solitary drunks staring at their shoes.