The Polish Figures in Vienna’s Art Scene

Polish artists bring Vienna’s streets, stages and dance floors to life

by Anna Huemer & Magdalena Korecka

“Language and culture are what keeps our nation together,” wrote the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose epic magnum opus Pan Tadeusz is revered like the Bible in many Polish homes. Mickiewicz himself was forced to emigrate, first to Rome and then to Paris, and spent the rest of his life longing for his homeland and expressing it in some of the most beloved poetry in the Polish language.

The Polish diaspora in Austria, too can be proud of its artists – top-notch musicians, classical and modern singers, painters, photographers and actors as well as the long-standing associations that support the arts. The following portraits of three women and three cultural institutions introduce some of the torchbearers of Polish culture in Vienna.

(C)Magdalena Marszałkowska/Verein XYZ

A Lady of the Theater

Magdalena Marszałkowska would be hard to overlook, from her signature girlish hairstyle and her biting wit to her laser-sharp intellect and huge talent. She is a playwright, a stage director, and an experienced journalist.

Marszałkowska’s theatrical debut was with the autumn 2013 premiere of The Window to the World (in Polish with German subtitles) about a lonely, middle-aged widow, stepping into a fantasy world of telenovelas and converting the exaggerated dramas into her own reality, to replace the gray day-to-day of her existence. A sophisticated, highly amusing stage play, its jokes were enhanced by parody and a brilliant performance by Polish opera singer Halina Grasser.

Other plays such as Egg Shell and We Were Here Before You! received rave reviews, as did Masculinarium – a satire about three men and their worldview, that premiered in 2017. In Silent Night, Marszałkowska used elaborate Christmas traditions to expose the hypocrisy of an average Polish family gathered around the holiday table.

While she is fluent in German, Marszałkowska prefers to write in Polish: “It is the language I most enjoy playing with, and our audiences love to laugh at comic situations in their native tongue.” Humor lives in a culture and its language and is often impossible to translate.

Marszałkowska’s fans are devoted: They do not say, “I am going to the theater.” They say, “I am going to see Marszałkowska!” and tickets for her opening nights sell out quickly. It’s a parallel society of pure theater magic!

(C) Alicja Zell

A Scholar of Folklore

Dance instructor Alicja Zell radiates beauty and positive energy. A specialist in Slavica Dance (fitness inspired by folk dance), she runs a blog related to folklore and travel and keeps a beloved tradition alive for Vienna’s Polish community.

“Having danced in folklore groups all our lives, my friend and I decided to form one in Vienna,” she says. The Mazurki Ensemble launched in February 2019. Now in September 2020, the ensemble has started its fourth semester of folk dance classes, with two children’s groups and one adult group, teaching the traditions of dance and Polish folklore. Zell’s goal is to create a dance network and an active, folk-oriented lifestyle in Vienna. She also loves to present Polish traditional culture to international groups as a way of promoting a positive image of Poles in Austria.

“The integration of the Viennese Polish diaspora through the universal language of folklore and dance is very important to us,” Zell says. So beginning this autumn, they are also offering folk dance courses in German, and Slavica Dance fitness classes in English.

To join the network, please contact the association by email, at [email protected]

The Lady of the Ball

Maria Buczak is a well-known name in the Polish community in Vienna and beyond. Arriving in Vienna almost 40 years ago as a refugee from communist Poland, she and her husband founded a successful renovation company, while she raised a family, founded the Polish-Austrian cultural association TAKT in 2003, and organized 18 Viennese balls for Polish charities.

The goal of TAKT is to bring Poles and Austrians together through the appreciation of Polish culture and customs. The multicultural goals determine the wide range of events, from rock concerts and children’s theater, to sung poetry and cabaret, classical music concerts and theater performances. Her hope is to have something for everyone.

The priority is the annual Polish Spring Ball, which, she says, is “the biggest Polish charity event in Austria.” It took place in February 2020 for the 18th time. The ball is like a child to her, Buczak laughs. “We host around 300 guests every year,” she says proudly, “with many famous Polish artists, groups, celebrities, politicians and business people among them.” Attendees came not only from Poland and Austria, but also from the USA, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Russia.

This year, TAKT has become involved in a new project called Born in Galicia – a documentary about 10 courageous 19th & 20th century women in Poland and Ukraine, whom Buczak considers “too important to be forgotten.” The film will premiere later this year in selected theaters in Gdańsk, Warsaw, Katowice, Bielsko-Biała and Wrocław, as well as Vienna.

Bring Some Poland into Your Life!

PAN – Polish Academy of Sciences

Upon setting foot in the beautiful Altbau in the 3rd district and lifting a heavy latch of the massive, ornamental iron door, a plaque reads, “Polska Akademia Nauk” – Polish Academy of Sciences. Here, research is underway on the lives of influential Polish aristocrats such as Karol Lanckoroński, who played a vital role in Habsburg Vienna at the end of the 19th century. The popular humanist was known for his close connection to Austro-Hungary as well as for talking nonstop, which even Hugo von Hoffmansthal acknowledged. On some days, one might hear classical music of Chopin and others floating through the halls, accompanying the work on Austro-Polish history and relations, examined in papers, conferences, exhibitions and lectures – just a few of the many cultural events that regularly take place here and are
open to the public.

The Polish Institute

Black and white, penetrating, full of life, but at the same time still – these are Tadeusz Rolke’s photographs of Warsaw and its people, currently shown through November 26 at the gallery of the Polish Institute in Vienna’s 1st district. Fashionistas, famous artists and actors such as Ewa Demarczyk or Zbigniew Cybulski, and sections of the city in ruins all became the objects of Rolke’s lens in post-war ’50s and ’60s-Warsaw. The institute hosts gallery openings, history lectures, jazz evenings, classical concerts and language courses, along with an in-house library with more than 16,000 publications on offer to maintain the vitality of Polish culture and spark Polish-Austrian dialogue. Created by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the range of cultural events allows conversational spaces between cultures and peoples.

The Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)

“As long as you’re thinking you can’t be wrong,” Krzysztof Michalski (1948-2013) allegedly once told a student at Boston University. Those words live on today at Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), which he founded together with fellow philosophers, the priest Józef Tischner, supported German literary critic Hans-Georg Gadamer. The institute in Vienna’s 9th district was launched to bridge the knowledge gap between Eastern and Western Europe in the 1980s. Today, its research projects like “Europe’s Past and Futures” follow an interdisciplinary approach. US historian Timothy Snyder, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and British economist Timothy Garton Ash are permanent fellows at the institute, all based on Michalski’s belief that the value in our endeavors begins with the quality of our thought.

Anna Huemer
Anna Huemer
Anna is a Human Resource Manager specializing in training and education project design. Married to an Austrian and a mother of two, she has been an active member of the Polish community in Vienna for 19 years. In her free time, she teaches Zumba, writes novels under the pen name “Anna Koliber” and attends as many operas as possible!

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