Who is responsible for perception of Poland?

Every time I drive trough Helensburgh I see the sign at the city limits saying „Welcome to Helensburgh – Birthplace of John Logie Baird, inventor of television”. I wonder how it is, that the world follows Anglo-American version of events. Yes, the British once ruled half of the world and their version was taught in schools, but surely this cannot be the only reason? So why is that while Britons like to brag about themselves being pioneers in nearly everything, nobody remembers about pioneers from our part of the world?

Remaining frames of the first Polish movie dated 1894–1896
Frames from Prószyński’ pre-1896 movie 

Why is the Scotsman widely considered as a father of television? Was he first to invent it? Surely not, as there were many before him. Amongst them was Polish inventor Jan Szczepanik, who was awarded British patent for his telectroscope, an apparatus to transmit colour moving pictures with sounds at distance in 1897.

So maybe Baird’s was a father of the television we know today? Not really… His system based on rotating circles had very limited capabilities, and while early transmissions of the BBC were using his system, it soon became obsolete and replaced by the electronic television, developed in about the same time by Hungarian Kálmán Tihanyi  (it is significant that he had troubles to obtain a patent in Great Britain that was already using Baird’s television system). But even early Szczepanik’s device was closer to the television we know today, as it was working by the principle of dividing the picture into pixels by cutting it with vertical and horizontal lines…

Although calling Baird’s an “inventor of television” might be a bit over the top, he deserves a place in history for his work, as he was a significant figure in development of the television. But so was Jan Szczepanik, who apart of his telectroscope invented also a colour film that was widely used before Technicolor, a colour photography film, popularized later by Kodak and Agfa and various electronic scanners used for copying fabric patterns at the industrial scale as well as 3D objects. Yet while Baird’s name is known widely across the world, Szczepanik is little known even in Poland. But who is to blame for it?

Poland has a long tradition of not making it easy for it’s brightest minds. Probably the most notable example is Jacek Karpiński, a computer genius who’s 1971 microcomputer K-202 possibilities were beaten only with the arrival of IBM PC a decade later. Jacek Karpiński’s career was broken as he was repeatedly told by party decidents that “if what he says he invented was possible, Americans would do it years ago”. So it is a little surprise that the world not believes in us, if we don’t believe in ourselves. But then, even if a Polish inventor is successful, when he wants to go to the wider world, he might be crushed by the biggest powers. Czech readers might remember the case of Hans Ledwinka and his Tatra V570 that became VW Beetle and all credit was given to mr Porsche… Similar was a fate of Kazimierz Prószyński, an inventor of cinema, to whom even Lumiare brothers admitted, that he was first. But when they realized that he also succeeded in eliminating annoying flickering, they used their financial advantage to constantly sue him until he agreed to sell the patent to them (his invention is still used in all cinema projectors). Prószyński never given up and was continuing with future inventions such as first hand-held camera or sound movies and who knows what else he would invent, if he has not died in KL Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp.

And here is another interesting fact: while Polish achievements are widely forgotten, other nations seem to be particularly keen to unjustly associate Poland with some atrocities. The example of commonly used phrase “Polish concentration camp” can serve as a model example. Similarly while the Polish recapture of Tesinsko in 1938 is relatively well known fact in the West, it is often portrayed as an example of Polish cooperation with Nazis because it happened just after Munchen conference. I never heard that anyone using Czechoslovakia’s annexation of the same area 20 years before being used as an example of Czechoslovakian cooperation with Bolshevik Russia despite that Czechoslovakia made that move when Poland was fighting at it’s Eastern front. Also Slovak invasion and occupation of Poland in 1939, which is a plain example of cooperation with Hitler, seems to be almost completely unknown to the general public.

The weak position of Poland in the historiographic picture is probably our own fault. Poles, as a nation, seems to take delight in sadistically celebrating our national defeats and the archetypic national hero is someone, who fell in fight for the homeland, for example kid-soldiers from Warsaw Uprising. This is so imprinted in Polish mentality that even simply asking question if going ahead with Warsaw Uprising was a wise decision is considered to be nearly a treason by many. As a result, for many Poles celebrations of national holidays are associated with laying flowers at the war graves, not with a joyful celebrations that are common amongst other nations.

This is reflected in Polish cinematography. Only recently we had two significant movies about Warsaw Uprising. There is also very strong trend of questioning less glorious cards of our history such as treatment of Germans that stayed in Poland after 1945 (Famous “Róża” by Smarzowski) or Polish atrocities against Jews during last war (“Pokłosie” by Pasikowski). Even highly acclaimed, oscar awarded “Ida” by Paweł Pawlikowski touches the latter topic. Some circles in Poland already called those movies “anti-Polish” and the conspiracy theories are falling on fertile ground, suggesting that those movies are sponsored by Jews to support Jewish financial claims against Polish state, or by Germans in order to whitewash German responsiblity for the Holocaust. Those are further fueled up by constant use of the “Polish concentration camps” term in Western media or by German productions such as TV drama “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” in which Poles are shown as raging anti-semitists while Germans were shown as victims of Nazism…

Yes, the world is not black and white, and Poles were also committing atrocities during the war but if we mostly focus on our own flaws while the other nations do everything to show themselves in the best light possible, we are loosing this historiographic war as if we were playing football and committing only to try score an own goal… Because it is not that we have nothing to be proud of. The situations shown in Hřebejk’s “Musíme si pomáhat” was after all an everyday reality of 1000’s of Poles, for which trees in Yad Vashem can vouch. Irena Sendlerowa herself saved twice as much Jews as famous Oskar Schindler. How is it then that Oskar Schindler has his own museum in Kraków and Irena Sendlerowa has none?

Irena Sendlerowa’s story is not the only one that would make it into a good movie. Czech pilots who fought in Royal Air Force are already celebrated in Sverak’s “Tmavonebeski Svet”, their Polish much more numerous counterparts still await their cinematographic tribute, despite that Polish Kościuszko Fighter Squadron 303 was the highest scoring of all in Battle of Britain. If the submarine “Orzeł” was American or British, new movie celebrating it’s heroic adventures would be released every few years. But since it was Polish, it was filmed only once, 65 years ago. No wonder that if we give up with walk-over, the people’s minds are imprinted with popular culture vision of history as written in the other countries. And if in the British-American movie “Enigma” the only Polish character was a traitor, it is no surprise that most of people are not aware that it was Marian Rejewski and his cryptologic team who broke Enigma code and the whole success of Alan Turing and Bletchley Park was based on their work.

So this is why we, Poles, are loosing that historiographic match with other nations. And we have only ourselves to blame. While “Ida” and “Róża” are very good pieces of cinematography, it’s time to stop this self-flagellation and try to brag about our own achievements for a change. We can’t expect others to do it for us, since they are rather keen to blame us for their own bad, as in a recent case when Austrian paper asked Poland to take responsibility for it’s role in a Holocaust. Look who’s talking…

I am not saying, of course, that we should try to push some of our own blame at others. None of this sorts, we just should try to show ourselves in good light without getting involved in any unnecessary discussion with others. And to achieve that, we could look up at Czechs as a role model. After all, they even made a movie about Jara Cimrman, their national hero that never really existed. Surely if Poles played a significant role in the birth of cinema and television, their successors could at least try to make a biographic movie about Jan Szczepanik or Kazimierz Prószyński?


This article was published in Britské Listy

Picture: “Ślizgawka film Pleograf” autorstwa Kazimierz Prószyński (1875-1945) from Władysław Jewsiewicki, “Kazimierz Prószyński”  Interpress, Warszawa 1974.
Licenced under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.