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International Visegrad Fund

Think Visegrad


Where is the City that Does Not Exist?

by Kamil Kruszewski

I invite you to visit a city which does not exist. Let us start, honestly, from the market square: a modernist fountain in the centre - currently not working anyway; on the right side, a red-brick, neo-Gothic town hall. Let's admit: quite pretty. Some way off, contemporary apartment buildings adorned with satellite dishes; on the other side, 19th-century tenement houses displaying a moving mixture of classicistic and art-nouveau elements... One more thing: a mechanical clock on the town-hall tower strikes a full hour, but when we glance sideways towards the gable of another eclectic building, we will find an electronic clock there, mounted for the convenience of the inhabitants and the tourists, on which we can check the current date and temperature...

Why is this city nonexistent? After all, you can taste the dust in your mouth, hear the bell from the church tower, while the noise of talking blends with the patter of feet on the paved square. The pigeons do not matter - they will stay here forever. So what is missing from this place? The residential areas of prominent townspeople, squalor in the backyards of old, dilapidated houses, dogs with moulted coat and excrement on the pavements - that means you don't need to be very perceptive to be familiar with all the shapes of a city. There is also smoke from the factory chimney stacks and the irritating odour of chemicals, which are phenomena that local authorities fail to link. There is a love-driven suicide's grave sheltered in a back corner of the graveyard, while the police records show a fresh entry about a man who, in broad daylight of the streets of this very city, shot dead his wife and then himself. For even here you will find a man healing his memories of a dead son by pulling other people's kids out of the abyss of a fatal illness. Which means everything is all right, as everywhere else, just as in any other city.

And yet this city does not exist. Maybe it simply hasn't come into being yet. Anyway, this city does not exist as a close-knit body formed by the fabric of houses and streets, or the souls of dwellers bound together by the spirit of imponderables. The old spirit is now gone, a new one has not been born yet, while the soul and the body pass each other indifferently.

There are still inscriptions left on the walls and the last signs of evidence of an alien civilisation emerge from hidden places in attics. The earth releases from its bowels old coins, buttons, badges, pots, and weapons. You are not sure if she wants to rid herself of the burden of the past or whether she tries to prove she actually belongs to somebody else. We remember our parents' stories about wonders, trinkets, mysterious objects... Our grandparents dumped them in the trash and burned them in stoves aided by fine-bound books with print resembling script carved in stone. Oaken cupboards passed, at best for next to nothing, into the hands of smart dealers. Still, it wasn't yet the end of the final chapter of that world. The end came on the day when the right crews levelled with the ground the remnants of old graveyards, including their tombstones and rust-eaten iron crosses. After all, nobody had looked after them, burned candles here, or laid flowers. The only thing is that the bones are what remains.

They say that the neutron bomb causes little physical damage as compared with considerable losses in human life. Something similar has just occurred here and that didn't involve sophisticated technologies of killing. It was also the beginning of the end and death throes of the city. On a winter morning, the sowers of wind trembled not so much from cold as from fear of the irrevocable. They had to reap the whirlwind whose rumble inexorably grew stronger: a little Armageddon of the sort of which there were many in that epoch. Hastily marshalled forces were to hold the city as one more fortress. To the last soldier. Meanwhile, at the railway station and on the roads, the chaos grew deeper and panic was gripping people as if they had found themselves aboard a sinking ship. Nobody believed the assurances given by the authorities who said that the fortifications and the brave army would ensure security for the terror-stricken populace. So many times can you allow yourself to be cheated! Outside the city, there stood concrete bunkers which at that time were the newest component of city architecture. Their time had come and mocked them. Their rampart casemates were silent. The onslaught of the charging troops was so fierce and the defenders' will to survive so strong that the resistance collapsed in a few hours. Under the cover of the night, the last remaining soldiers left the city. The conquerors were not merciful towards the city or its citizens.

The victors soon went away and were replaced by new arrivals bent on creating a new place for themselves and a new city. Removing the traces of the former culture from the area went on methodically and was often ruthless. The first to leave had to be the people, then any traces remaining in their dwellings were erased. However, the new townspeople, too, had experienced the extinction of their towns and villages, frequently in a double sense. Their life was being destroyed by the sons of fathers who had built the seized houses and of mothers who had filled the pantries. They were now to live in the houses of those people, which gave them a sense of satisfaction, but the taste of it was bitter. After all, the conquerors of the city or its liberators, if you will, had earlier deprived the new inhabitants of their homes on patrimonial land. You just have to keep on living, though the victory wasn't meant to be this way.
That was the end, but what had come earlier? Nothing special, yet it was sufficient to have tamed and given names to nature, shaping her so as to make her yield crops and provide a sense of belonging to the place. The organic form of the city grew and evolved through pangs of change. The foundation charter, a sort of its birth certificate, has been lost - there have been ample opportunities for that to happen over the space of seven centuries. A Slavic prince conferred German civic rights on the city which joined Slavic fishermen living on a nearby lake with German settlers. The market square, the town hall, houses and workshops, the rampart and the moat, as well as, lastly, the starost's castle - all these original ingredients of the city landscape can easily be spotted by a seasoned eye. The rhythm of festivals and fairs, of daily life, was interrupted, time after time, by fires, floods, plagues, and those worst disasters caused by man: wars. Robbers' assaults, on both private and state instigation, passages of troops leading to tributes and plunder... The city was spared neither the small wars of medieval margraviates, principalities, and individual knights, nor the big wars of modern monarchies. The Thirty Years' War brought in diseases which killed most of the townspeople, while the Seven Years' War depopulated the city so severely as to leave only several dozens of survivors unable to escape, and then Napoleon's Great Army marched across the area there and back. Nevertheless, continuity did exist.
Apparently, almost everything has had time to change - the half-timbered wall was superseded by bricks, the Catholic monks abandoned their monastery on the outskirts of the city and started disseminating Luther's teachings, while the Slavic princes were supplanted by a Prussian Elector. The surnames, however, remained as well as their holders who, with each successive generation, imbued the earth, water, and homes with their destinies and spirit. That pervading influence consisted, for instance, in that specific moments in time and places in space tended to have their own immemorial names and inherent stories. The latter mixed pagan rites, local legends, and universal folk tales. "On that night, beware of human souls spellbound in animals... ice breaks on the lake there, since a big water serpent once lived in that place... and on that old monastery hill the apparition of a monk looms up amid the ignis fatuus..." We didn't know those tales. Our angels and demons, bandits and knights, arrived with us, yet their existence became even more ethereal than before. Tales suspended between the memories of settlers and the remote places of our birth could not and still cannot take root firmly here. Maybe one day they will, provided that anybody still remembers them.
There appears to exist a certain thread of connection between the phantom city which is no longer here and the one which is still to come. It is the same voice that has reverberated for centuries or at least since the railway network linked the city, for better or worse, to the rest of the world. "There isn't nor has ever been a future here, nor will there probably be any" - that thought has kept making the successive generations break free to the big cities or even farther away, beyond the boundaries of not only the patrimonial land but also their Motherland. Although the number of the inhabitants gradually increased, that occurred at the expense of neighbouring villages relentlessly deprived of dwellers. However, as early as during the next generation, those "rural" townspeople treated their birthplace as a springboard to a world of new, unlimited opportunities. Therefore, those who remained had to more strongly emphasize the value of their place on the earth: hence attention to the sophisticated park, postcards inviting visitors for recreation in the "pearl city", advertising slogans like "the carnival lasts all the year round in our place". So why did people still keep leaving? Or maybe the big rush towards modernity must perforce and eventually leave such places behind?
This is another moment where continuity prevails over change. When an elderly gentleman - for during the whole day you most often meet elderly persons here - starts talking to you, he will immediately begin to air his grievances against those in power (from the mayor to the king or president), the economy ("That inflation will ruin us!" - "Couldn't they just print more money?"), the young ("They won't go to church!" - "And they even play with those cellphones during Mass!"). The list of grievances would have been quite similar a hundred years ago as compared to now, but the conclusion of the confession might have been somewhat different. The one who is no longer alive would have finished his discourse with a declaration of attachment to the city, while quite a number of his descendants, exile-settlers, would seek their lost paradise in the city of their birth, uglier perhaps or kept in a worse condition, nevertheless embedded in the fabric of the flesh and memory.
Can this movement be stopped now that a new reality of the city ought to take shape? After all, casual tourists took advantage of the little town's attractions bringing benefit to general culture. A certain composer, while strolling around the city in the evening, saw (or heard?), in the reflections of the setting sun, the anxiety and trepidation felt by Daphne desiring to escape the adamant Apollo. The other sons and daughters of the city discovered remote planets, portrayed heads of state, or paved the way to fame for geniuses. Kant would perhaps have been merely a Königsberg artisan, one of many, had it not been for a professor of theology, a son of the city's mayor, who has vanished by now. There resides some power here, probably not specific to only this particular place, yet proving also that it has not been arbitrarily condemned to dreary existence or decline. It cannot be that this place is recorded in history solely as one in which neighbourly hatred revealed itself, which shrewd political devils tried to stir up and exploit for the sake of their shady idea. Whereas witch-burning was turned by former inhabitants into an element of urban folklore, they are reluctant to remember the twice-committed burning of a synagogue. In our turn, we are loath to recall the stopping of trains loaded with the displaced and having robbed them of their last pieces of property saved from the conflagration.
One more thing may cause dismay. The new ones got houses, appliances, and quite a number of them had never even seen amenities like those used by their banished predecessors. In order to fully harness those possessions, only a fraction of effort would have been needed - the city hadn't sustained excessive losses upon the passage of the fighting armies. Then the work of the settlers would have become the starting point of a founding myth from which a new genius of the place would be born. However, it hasn't happened that way. The fact that the elderly keep silent about the horrors of the war and the painful experiences is not surprising, but it is more astonishing to see the reticence about the creation of new life in a new place. History has separated dreams from reality with armour glass. There was the building and the reconstruction, however droll and dubious this may sound today - a solid chunk of hard work. However, work didn't suppress a sense of defeat, the memory of an abandoned home, even if the latter had been turned into ashes. New housing estates, roads, and parks promptly began to grow old, their novelty having been exhausted through remote-controlled enthusiasm, coercion, thoughts and feelings struggling with the ambivalence of the system. Supposedly, one can hear everywhere that it all looks bright and beautiful already, and that things will work out even better, or that previously the matters were hopelessly wrong. Still, that "previously" which allegedly ought to be discarded and denounced means simply the youth of the settlers. Believe it or not believe? And even if one should believe in those catchwords, what can be done about their incompatibility with things? An illusory world of lofty ideas proclaimed in all places all the more repelled people from the city and made them lock themselves inside their own homes. Many words resounded from loudspeakers on May Day, but if you wanted to say something, you should have been on your guard... First, foreign speech on shreds of newspapers extracted while doing a floor repair found its way to the trash, then the same course of events affected a paper couched in the familiar language, albeit stuffed with false, hence empty words.
As a result, the white memory and the black memory now blend into each other, dissolve into the incredibility of transmission and the mistrust acquired over the years. The vital fibre of the city is reduced to pieces, which is why its spirit, dispersed into the space occupied by both the old and the new dwellers, passes from the ruins of the former culture to the slums and unfinished building sites of personal remembrance and collective tradition. The spirit of the city does not haunt anybody; it would wish only to have its own proper place returned, so that it can find an abode on its familiar ground, for then it will surrender to the custody of its new townspeople and will spin tales for them, merging legends old and new. Otherwise, another genius will take its place and people, when asked about how long they have lived here, will say that they have been living here from time immemorial and they will surely be able to prove it.

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