In the house of my daughter

Article published on June 19, 2006
Article published on June 19, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

In a War Veterans Retirement Home in Warsaw, from among the relics of the past, people are building a present free of a future

It was a strange vision of the world to come. A small cluster of buildings set amid the grey blocks that form much of Warsaw. Mundane, repetitive, functional – the legacy of a city destroyed during World War II and rebuilt by the Soviets. Only now gleaming goods jut from shops concealed on greying street corners and the green space outside the War Veterans Retirement Home is reminiscent of Los Angeles.

On the short concrete path to the entrance, old couples move infitessimally slowly past a war memorial, while groups sit talking on stone benches. Welcome to the new world. Europe is getting old; the UN estimates that by 2050 35% of the population will be over 65. This is not just a question of pensions. It is a question of what we understand life to be; it means being detached from a whole system which was concerned with reproduction and the prolongation of a lineage.

The old are the new young

Poland is not an exception to the European trend. The WHO estimates that by 2050 30% of the population will be over 65, while the population as a whole will have shrunk by 15%. In an attempt to stave off the economic crisis this would produce, 1999 saw Poland introduce an innovative new pensions system.

The people living at the retirement home will be untouched by these reforms; for anyone born before 1949, benefits will continue to be received under the old system. It was this same Soviet system that built the war veterans home twenty five years ago. Some 130 people work there, caring for a population of 200 or so pensioners. Despite the stained green lift and close humid corridors, it seems a good place to live; clean and well ordered. As we learned later, it is one of the better retirement homes in Warsaw.

The house of memory/the memory of a house

The rooms were not small, but they were full. As we entered one, on all sides faces emerged; photographs of loved ones long departed; medals and dolls – everything shining and clean. Listening to Irena Putkiewicz in this room, one listened to the difficult history of Poland in the twentieth century. Born in 1934, her lined face wore the story of surviving a concentration camp, being hunted by the Germans for her participation in the Warsaw uprising, and then being a political prisoner under the communist regime. Objects, relics of memory, alight her story as she tells of being forced to leave her family house and the heritage of two professor parents; part of the destruction of the intelligentsia during WWII. A letter from Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation seems out of place here, speechless next to her stories. Then, a physical relic, a moment of history accumulated in the body – she leans forward and shows us the war wound that makes her eligible to be here.

Others, she says, are not so eligible. She has spent 16 years here, and by now there is a huge waiting list. However, if you pay, you can skip the list – many people here are not veterans, she claims. “Everyone today is corrupt,” she complains, “the workers steal the food, the medicine never arrives.” “I campaigned to have a car so we could move people around. Now we have a car; but only the director’s wife uses it, and the chauffeur sleeps in the home.”

She laments the changes that came after the Second World War. Warsaw destroyed, the intelligentsia massacred; power was taken by “country people, who put on a suit and think they are somebody.” Now communism is gone, but the culture of corruption and thinking about oneself continues unabated. “Everything is about money today, there is no more respect.”

Relenting, Irena admits she is also culpable. “Once I had to go to hospital. When I got there they just left me alone, until my family arrived and slipped the doctor an envelope. But what else can we do? How else can we get treatment?”

As she speaks, a dong sounds outside, heralding the arrival of the afternoon meal: a small bowl of soup, a couple of sausages – not much to go on. “You see?” Irena gestures. Yet the small portion of food seems incongruous against the bowls of strawberries and piles of cake that she has set out to welcome us.

Keeping busy

Thanks to her husband, who was a pilot, she received 200% of the normal pension, and can afford a few extra things. Normally the home takes 75% of your pension, leaving you little left. For those on a smaller pension, a friend of Irena tells us, life is very difficult. She voted for Lech Kaczynski, leader of the conservative Law and Justice Party, but now she feels betrayed. “They do nothing for us, with each leader comes the same promises and the same corruption.”

Despite this, Irena seems busy. She wakes every day at six, and works with an association of retired pilots. We also met painters and sculptors at the retirement home. Freed from the demands of society, these Polish pensioners seem to be genuinely producing something, rather than engaging in the catch-up capitalism of pensioner’s holiday breaks.

Even the small chapel on the second floor seems busy – a hundred people attend the Sunday services, and a few years ago it saw a marriage: between a man of one hundred and a fifty year old woman. The other pensioners we spoke to seemed happy, both Rajmund and Magorzata, 82 and 96 respectively, enjoyed living in this strange building at the end of history. As we left, looking at them wander slowly back to the house, arms laden with the new strawberries of spring, we couldn’t help but think we saw a little bit of the future.