Wroclaw, Dwarfs and the Orange Alternative

Continuing my Cornish Bird’s travel adventures!

They do let me out of the county sometimes!

Wroclaw has been described, like so many other watery places, as the Venice of Poland. With 130 bridges connecting its twelve islands the city does seem afloat. The river Oder encircles the buoyant old town and it was its powerful course that created those little islets on which the historic centre now balances.

I spotted my first one standing jauntily on a side street, umbrella in hand. Not understanding why he was there I was immediately curious. His cheeky expression gave nothing away and it seemed silly to ask. However like so many mythical creatures once your eyes have been opened to their presence you suddenly start seeing them everywhere. Little people laugh at you from window sills, they pop up unexpectedly in alleyways or on street corners, you almost expect to look down and find one tugging at your trouser leg.

“What’s with all the Gnomes?”

When I ask the lady in the tourist information office she shrugs “Well, Wroclaw didn’t have anything, no real symbol, so in 2005 the tourist board decided to have gnomes.”

wroclaw gnomes

She is straight faced and serious with the air of someone slightly disinterested in what she is saying. I try not to laugh as I step back out into the early evening bustle of historic town square. I am surrounded by pastel coloured Renaissance style mansions and the warm autumn sunlight is bouncing off their high windows making spotlights on the cobbles.

It is my first trip to Eastern Europe and I am suddenly aware how little I know about this area of the world. The language with its Slavic routes is unfamiliar in a way that German or Spanish never was. The food is pretty odd too at times and the drinking culture impressively enthusiastic for a Tuesday night. And then I discovered that this city has its own miniature secret army.

All over Wroclaw it is estimated that as many 400 dwarfs are hiding.[1] Mysterious, illusive, they lurk in the shadows watching as packs of selfie-stick wielding tourists hurry past in search of the perfect Polish Paczki.[2] No more than 8” high these brass gnomes have become the unlikely symbol of a sensible university town that has also produced cosmonauts, composers, philosophers and chess masters.

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Although they often have their little pointy hats rubbed for luck the gnomes are not found on the streets of Wroclaw because of any magical or talismanic powers. They are, believe it or not, somewhat improbable symbols of freedom and revolution.

As the helpful assistant in the Tourist Information suggested the first five dwarfs were designed at the request of the Tourist Board and the mayor. In August 2005 Tomasz Moczek, a graduate of The Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław, lovingly made each one and found them their various hiding places around the city. Then Wroclaw fell in love.

Since then hundreds more have appeared. Some dwarfs are sponsored by small businesses, perhaps hoping to attract trade from all the passing gnome hunters, and others by wealthy individuals, presumably just gnome fans.

Although to the untrained eye they appear very similar each dwarf is an individual with its own name, (Dlugi, Kowal and Rogalik etc) and its own personal story.

The dwarfs of Wroclaw are not your regular ‘lazing-by-the-pond-grinning-like-a-fool’ British gnomes. They are very busy. You will find them engaged in all kinds of activities from playing musical instruments to fire-fighting and riding hippos. There’s even a site-seeing dwarf with a camera taking a photograph of an even smaller dwarf. But don’t be deceived, these are actually their twilight years, their retirement in fact, because in the past they had a much more serious and important mission.

The dwarfs or krasnoludki[3] of Wroclaw started appearing in the city in the 1980s. They were graffitied on walls as the tag of an underground surrealist movement known as the Orange Alternative.

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Dwarf graffiti during Martial Law in Poland, CREDIT: Tomasz Sikorski

The group, led by artists Waldemar Fydrych[4] and Wieslaw Cupala[5], was trying to find a way to peacefully protest against their government’s censorship and oppression. Armed only with spray cans the Orange Alternative sought to undermine communism through gentle, subversive humour and their main weapon against government propaganda was surrealist street art.

Each time the authorities painted over any anti-communist graffiti they inadvertently provided the activists with a fresh canvas and a dwarf would appear.

The first dwarfs with their distinctive orange pointy hats were painted by Fydrych and Cupala on the night of 30/31st August 1982. One on the wall of a residential building in the Biskupin district of Wroclaw and then another on an electricity transformer station in the Sepolno area. The Orange Alternative’s motto became “There is no freedom without dwarfs.”

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Dwarf graffiti during Martial Law in Poland, CREDIT: Tomasz Sikorski

“Why a dwarf?” Cupala considers my question nearly 35 years later, “That’s a long story. It is not easy to explain. This is connected with Slavic mythology and Polish tales for children.”

Poland has a deeply rooted tradition of children’s poems, stories and fairy tales, many coming from Slavic myths and legends, and many containing dwarfs. Although unfamiliar to us, as very few have ever been translated into English, they continue to be read to Polish children even today. The most famous O krasnoludkach i sierotce Marysi or The Dwarfs and Orphan Mary is still known by every child in Poland.

 

Its author was Maria Konopnicka, a Polish writer and poet born in 1842. An activist for women’s rights and Polish independence, Maria organising protests against the repression of ethnic Poles under Prussia rule. Much of her work, often written initially to entertain her 8 children, expresses a deep patriotism, a nostalgic love of the Polish countryside and a longing for independence.

In the book, which has been made into a musical and an animated film, the helpful but playful dwarfs visit the poor, like Orphan Mary, and give them practical help with their problems.[6]

“In Polish tradition dwarfs are caring spirits for the home and family, they are wild and funny,” says Cupala, “but dwarfs can [also] be perverse and have malice.”

wroclaw gnomes

With such a long and chequered history of invasion and occupation Polish writers and artists have always found plenty to inspire them. Poland’s location in the centre of Europe has meant it has been invaded numerous times, by the Romans, the Mongol Army, the Teutonic Knights, Germany, Russia and many others. It was not uncommon for one set of invaders to be immediately replaced by another. Historically this is a nation of ‘little’ people repeatedly doing battle with a bigger invading power.

When Martial Law was introduced in Poland in December 1981 it was a very uncertain and frightening time. Ordinary people could be arrested without warning and many just disappeared. As the authoritarian communist government tried to crust any political opposition thousands of soldiers appeared on the streets and pro-democracy movements were banned overnight. A curfew was imposed, borders and airports closed, telephones disconnected and school and universities suspended. The economic crisis that followed resulted in terrible poverty and crippling rationing. Thousands were jailed and at least 91 people killed in the first few weeks.

It was during this claustrophobic climate of fear that students were roaming the streets in the dead of night painting gnomes on walls. When I ask Cupala whether there was one defining moment that made him and Fydrych want to take action he responses rather thoughtfully. “This is not an easy answer. In the grey reality, orange was the only solution for me.”

The dwarfs quickly gathered support. Gnomes started appearing across the city and then in neighbouring cities. In a Poland that was characterised by censorship and empty supermarket shelves the orange humour gave people hope and a way to express themselves without breaking the law. The activities of the group, which included members dressing up as dwarves complete with orange pointy hats, were intended to communicate not only the desire for freedom and change but also that the oppressive system itself was surreal.

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Revolution of Dwarves, 1 June 1988, CREDIT: Rewolucja Krasnoludków

Fydrych and Cupala didn’t stop at dwarfs, they went on to stage numerous events around Wroclaw. They called these subtle, seditious protests ‘Happenings’ and their intention was to undermine the regime without directly challenging its authority.

When basic hygiene products ran low because of rationing the Orange Alternative gathered in the town square and began handing out single sheets of toilet paper to passers-by proclaiming “Let justice and socialism begin with toilet paper.” During a referendum on social policy the Orange Alternative publically called for the people of Wroclaw to register a 200% voter turnout using the slogan ‘Vote Yes Twice’. At the rallies that followed the Police couldn’t distinguish who was a nonconformist and who was a genuine voter and consequently didn’t know who to arrest.

On another occasion the people marched through the streets shouting “We love Lenin”. The irony of the Happenings wasn’t lost on the government but they were in many ways powerless to act. Authorities could hardly be seen arresting people for their support or for an illegal dwarf gathering.

The intentionally non-aggressive activities challenged the government in a way that hostile or violent protest never could and the surrealist tactics of the Orange Alternative were surprisingly effective. Their ideas resonated not only with the Polish people but abroad too. In the late 80s, The New York Times wrote: “Solzhenitsyn destroyed Communism morally, Kołakowski philosophically and the Orange Alternative aesthetically.” While Surrealism – 50 Works of Art You Should Know listed Frydrych alongside Picasso, Duchamp and Dali.

The Gothic St Elizabeth Minor Basilica in the centre of Wroclaw has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. From the heights of the church’s tower you can look down on the famous historic square with its medieval town hall, the winding grey river and the steeply pitched red-tiled roofs of the old city. Below you in the tangle of cobbled streets and alleyways the people seem like tiny and animated creatures, busying themselves with their daily lives. The dwarfs, smaller still, are entirely lost in the maze of streets but in June 1988 Wroclaw was overrun with them.

That summer 10,000 people marched through the city wearing orange pointy hats. They shouted the slogan “there is no freedom without dwarfs”, the message to the authorities obscure but unflinchingly clear. However puerile it may have appeared the Happenings and the dwarfs were also a show of strength and unity. The sea of people in gnome hats all knew exactly what they were really calling for and so did the government.

Free elections were finally help in Poland in June 1989. The part that the Orange Alternative playing in bringing about that political change was commemorate in 2001. A single gnome was placed on the corner of Swidnicka Street near the subway where many Orange Alternative demonstrations took place. Known as Papa Gnome, I decided that I couldn’t leave the city without paying him a visit. It is dark by the time I found him standing with his back to the busy crossroads.

Papa Gnome is much bigger than the other dwarfs, partly because he is standing on a large rock shaped lump of bronze and partly I suspect because of an enthusiasm for packzi. Chubby, with knobbly knees he has a mischievous little smirk on his lips.

These days the dwarfs’ freedom fighting past is all but forgotten and their hiding places exposed now that you can buy a laminated map of Wroclaw with the most popular dwarfs’ locations marked on it.

But Papa Gnome, hands clasped behind his back, knows what he and his kind achieved. I pat his bronze cap in gratitude before walking back towards the town square to play hide and seek with his smaller, cheekier progeny.

For more travel stories try: Stalin’s Boots: Momento Park, Hungary

[1] It should be noted at this point that it seems that the terms ‘gnomes’ and ‘dwarfs’ are interchangeable in terms of this discussion. Although I understand that there is an entomological and mythological difference between the two creatures in this context it should be taken to mean a fabled ‘little person’.

[2] Polish Doughnut, [pohnchkee] they are all perfect.

[3] Krasnoludki: dwarf. Polish translation – Krasny: red, colourful, good; Ludki: little person

[4] The leader of the movement Frydrych is still an activist and artist. He ran for mayor of Warsaw twice.

[5] Cupala was a Professor of Mathematics at Wroclaw University until retirement, he now runs a blog called Freedom and Peace.

[6] Illustrations from the original book showing red hatted little folk were released as a set of commemorative stamps in 1962.

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