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The demand for childhood. A journey into the past

We didn’t pay attention to the fact that there was mud and dust around, and everything rough and ready, that the toys were clumsy, that the few-minute cartoon with Huckleberry was on only twice a week, and if someone was late, they had to wait two days for the next one.

The demand for childhood is huge. At the opening of an exhibition on games, toys and childhood in the Communist Poland (“Trzepaki, Reksio, Atari”, “Światowid” cinema, Nowa Huta branch of the Kraków Museum), the crowd was so large that museum staff asked those invited who had made the mistake of arriving on time to walk around the neighbourhood for the time being and return when the official part was over. This made a lot of sense because, as befits Kraków, the speeches lasted a whopping three quarters of an hour. For, let me tell you, childhood is childhood, but tradition obliges and no one can say that the opening was not solemn. It was.

The next day, the exhibitor reassured on his Facebook profile that the exhibition would last another year and that there was no reason to visit immediately, as the crowd, eager to return to childhood, had already stormed in the morning and queues had to be formed. The queues! Just like during the communist era. Not only that! A book on childhood in the Communist Poland (Elżbieta Sitek-Wasiak, “Sweet and Bitter: Childhood in the People’s Republic of Poland”, Znak 2021), published less than two years ago, has already been sold out.

We also have as many as three toy and games museums in the country, which continually organise exhibitions: in Kielce, Karpacz and Kraków (the latter, incidentally, is a partner of the Nowa Huta exhibition). This is probably an unmistakable sign that we miss our childhood and the demand for a breather, even if only for a short time, in the land of old toys and playthings is overwhelming. And if, on top of that, you can show your own children that their parents and grandparents used to play too, that’s an added bonus that has the potential to connect the generations and strengthen relationships.

Perhaps this overwhelming demand for childhood stems from a sense of its transience. After all, how long does our real childhood last? The one we remember, starting when we are six or so, and which inevitably ends somewhere around the age of thirteen; sometimes later, sometimes earlier.

Walking along the window displays of the largest toy shop to have opened in Nowa Huta, we have an overwhelming desire to go back to those few short years when we were aware enough to decide something and make our first serious mistakes, but when these mistakes did not leave such an irreversible imprint on us as they did in later youth. To those years when we were able to do crazy things spontaneously, without calculating and without being aware that someone might make a wrong assumption about us.

Unfortunately, things are not quite so simple, and not quite so carefree: anyone who has read Niziurski’s stories knows that childhood is a serious matter. Anyone who has lived through childhood knows this. Older children look down on younger children with a somewhat patronising air of superiority: what can you know about the difficulties of childhood?

Our childhood was fraught with difficulties! After all, we had to cope with… and this is where the term “difficulties” is used to describe the kind of troubles that external conditions bestowed on us over and above the usual harassment from parents, school and friends. Viewed in this way, childhood gets easier with each decade, that much is probably clear. The deeper we go into history, however, the worse and more difficult it becomes.

The children of the present have the easiest, facilitated, even over-facilitated childhood. These are the children of prosperity. Somewhat overshadowed by the pandemic, but prosperity nonetheless. After all, they have everything. And even too much. At least according to children who have grown up a bit. Those, let’s say, from a decade ago, i.e. already born in the times of the internet, so also dissolved by modernity, as they are indulgently perceived by even older children – children of the transformation, i.e. victims of Balcerowicz, who, as we know, was dreaded not only by the working class.

Retracing our steps in search of an increasingly difficult childhood, we then come to the children of General Jaruzelski’s period, who were, after all, unjustly deprived of “Teleranek” (a children’s television programme taken off the air during the day of the introduction of martial law in Poland), and then to the children of Gierek’s decade, who did taste Coca and Pepsi Cola, but only had two programmes on their televisions.

Even more disadvantaged were the children of the Gomułka era, who not only had just one programme, but also a black-and-white television set and, moreover, neighbours who might have preferred to watch speeches by the leaders leading the way towards socialism rather than cartoons. It was around this time that journalists coined the term “our little ones” [“nasi milusińscy”], which finally puts the final nail in the coffin of those terrible times for the younger generation.

There were also post-war and wartime children, but this brings us to a time when the desire to make fun of “difficult childhoods” is passing. Therefore, let us turn back. The target of our exploration is the Communist Poland, but not the one at its worst, but one that is a little more child-friendly, somewhere from the late 1950s onwards.

Looking at the exhibits gathered at the Nowa Huta exhibition, at the toys, objects and photographs, one becomes convinced that an awareness of the difficulties of one’s own childhood appears in our consciousness, as it were, ex post. It is as if we try to imagine our strenuous childhood (otherwise really crushed by boring gentlemen in suits who spoke endlessly, arousing the impatience of adults waiting for the next “Kloss” episode) as both worse and better than it was. Better because, after all, it is childhood, which is always associated with easefulness, and worse because it is good to put on a frowning face towards the slightly younger ones and raise one’s head proudly, as the “good old school” does, in order to suggest to them that their own experiences are nothing, because our childhood was exceptional…

At the same time, one senses in this exhibition some enormous power of childhood. A power that absorbs all the problems and adversities, cancelling out poverty, deprivation, the rigidity of official life, the coarseness and unattractiveness all around us. The pictures show boys splashing around in an overflowing puddle at a construction site in Nowa Huta, right next to a digger at work, good girls sitting carefree on rubbish bins, the smell of which we can only guess at, little builders damming up a gutter, little brats are using dams to cross the gutter and watch the boats made of flower petals float down it, tired little urchins are resting on the granite kerbs that have been dropped in a messy manner during the construction of a pavement, a bunch of ten-year olds with their cheeky faces are busy conquering the world at the big break.

Read the whole article here.

–Robert Bogdanski
–Translated by jz

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