For those of you who, like me, have found themselves wondering whether the world was always this strange, I have bittersweet news for you: people in 1960s communist Poland certainly thought so.
Having been born two years after the first free democratic elections in Poland, I’ve only ever seen the remnants and heard the stories about the communist period that so heavily shaped my native country for over four decades. Even so, I like to think that I am capable of understanding some of what the legendary Polish singer Czeslaw Niemen felt in July 1967 when he walked up onto a live stage and performed his iconic song Dziwny jest ten świat (“this is a strange world” or “strange is this world”).
The reason I feel like I’m able to understand some of what Niemen felt then is not because of how much I know about the realities of the Polish People’s Republic, it’s because I know that if my pipes were even half as capable as his, I would be singing songs with a similar sentiment today in Washington, D.C.
What Czeslaw Niemen was yelling about
You don’t need to understand the words of Dziwny jest ten świat to understand that Niemen was feeling quite a bit of something when he performed his song at a festival in Opole in 1967.
But for somebody who doesn’t understand the language and the context, it may be even more powerful to hear the crowd’s reaction that followed, with the chants and cheers of the audience lasting almost as long as the song itself.
Fortunately for Czeslaw Niemen, Polish communists at the time seemed not to understand Polish or the context very well either. They may also not have initially realized that there’s more than one way to say, “I hate the status quo” (they would later get better at it).
Whatever the reason, Niemen’s song passed the censors unscathed, which may be more surprising after reading through my translation of the lyrics.
Dziwny jest ten świat, This is a strange world,
gdzie jeszcze wciąż Where there is still,
mieści się wiele zła. …so much evil contained within.
I dziwne jest to, And it is strange,
że od tylu lat That for so many years,
człowiekiem gardzi człowiek. Man has despised man.
Dziwny ten świat, Strange is this world,
świat ludzkich spraw, The world of human affairs,
czasem aż wstyd przyznać się. Sometimes it’s even embarrassing to admit,
A jednak często jest, But it is often so,
że ktoś słowem złym That someone with evil words,
zabija tak, jak nożem. Can kill as with a knife.
Lecz ludzi dobrej woli jest więcej Yet there are more people of good will,
i mocno wierzę w to, And I strongly believe that,
że ten świat This world,
nie zginie nigdy dzięki nim. Will not perish thanks to them.
Nie! Nie! Nie! Nie! No! No! No! No!
Przyszedł już czas, The time has come!
najwyższy czas, About time,
nienawiść zniszczyć w sobie. To destroy the hatred within.
Na kogo pan krzyczy? i.e. Whom Niemen was yelling at
Not only did Dziwny jest ten świat become one of the most famous Polish “protest songs,” it was also one of the first.
Later rock songs with more subtle lyrics were censored all the time, but what may have saved Niemen’s song was that the communists simply didn’t yet understand why he and others would be so mad.
The general incredulity with Niemen’s protest music from the people satisfied with the status quo was encapsulated back then in an exchange he had with journalist and music critic Andrzej Ibis Wróblewski. Below is my translation of a famous exchange between them.
Wróblewski: Na kogo pan tak krzyczy? Who are you yelling at like that sir?
Niemen: Na pana. At you sir.
Wróblewski: Dlaczego? Why?
Niemen: Żeby w końcu do pana dotarło. So that it finally gets through to you sir.
As protest music grew more popular, those satisfied with the status quo were forced to admit that it wasn’t only Czeslaw Niemen who wanted to yell at them. And as this resentment became clearer, the authorities were forced to react with increasing censorship. Of course, this only fueled further resentment among the people, while also letting them know that they weren’t the only ones who were pissed.
Ultimately, it is no exaggeration to say that the influence of rock music contributed to the downfall of the communist regime. For more on how rock music contributed to the downfall of communism in Poland, I highly recommend the documentary Beats of Freedom – Zew wolnosci:
Remembering to save our voices to yell another day
Having always been a fan of old-school Polish rock, I’ve found it especially cathartic to listen to communist-era protest songs lately (see my post on Przeżyj to sam).
As a bit of an idealist, I feel confident in saying that I am as incredulous about the status quo in today’s America as Czesław Niemen was at the status quo in communist Poland. That may sound harsh to some, but it’s not 1967 anymore, and I also tend to have higher standards for the heterogenous society of my adopted country than the largely homogenous society of my native one.
What does give me a little peace of mind is to remind myself that all of us have been trying to figure this out for a long time and, of course, that goes for everybody, regardless of who agrees with me and regardless of whether they are Polish, American, Iranian, blue, red, purple, or orange…
Though I think it’s safe to say that we are still a ways away from getting to where we want to be, maybe our children’s children will get there someday.
As for us humans alive today, we have quite a bit more yelling to do and people to get through to, but that’s exactly why it’s good to sometimes step back and enjoy our journey through this strange world and all that comes with it.
At least we have some cool tunes to enjoy along the way.
I prefer the Polish version of Niemen’s famous song for obvious reasons (it’s better), but for those who are curious to hear Niemen in a language they understand, above is a drastically different English-language version of his song entitled Strange is this world which was recorded in 1972.
Check out more KafkaTunes from Central Europe: