Central European dialogue. Interview with Danuta Glondys

01.04.2017 | By Danuta Glondys and Jan Kłapa

Our meeting is taking place in the Łaski House nearby the Villa Decius, a Renaissance residence which used to belong to the royal secretary, Justus Decius. We are sitting at a round table in the middle of the modestly decorated office of Dr. Danuta Glondys, Plenipotentiary of the Villa Decius Board for international cooperation.

Q: Could you please tell me more about the beginnings of the institution, which has been headed by you for over 15 years?

A: The origins date back to the 1990s and the activities of Dr. Albrecht Lempp who laid the foundations of an independent Villa . The association itself was founded in 1995 with the support of the international intellectual circles who wanted the Villa Decius to be restored for Europe as the centre of humanism and dialogue. The main roles in the process were played by Wisława Szymborska and Karl Dedecius. It all started on the day when Wisława Szymborska took Professor Dedecius for a walk in the Wola Justowska district and showed him the villa, the view of which was “breathtakingly dramatic.” A little later, during the CSCE (1991) conference, Prof. Dedecius presented the idea of ​​renovating the Villa Decius and establishing in it the European Academy, which would serve the people of culture and science. Consequently, the renovation works funded by the City of Krakow and Polish government were carried out (now SKOZK takes care of the Villa). Our first programs were run thanks to the funds received from the Federal Republic of Germany and the support of commercial sponsors. The association was founded on the initiative of prominent Polish artists, politicians, researchers, scientists and former dissidents. They constantly emphasised the idea that the villa has to be an independent place of dialogue, a meeting of science and culture, and that its heritage should be a particular concern. The concept was great, but after years of managing the Villa, I would prefer the conditions for its functioning to be different. In 1995, in the state euphoria when everything seemed to be possible, it was decided that it would be a self-financing institution (the owner of the palace and park is the City of Krakow). This public-private partnership worked out for many years, but due to the fact that all over the city, a number of hotels and conference centres have been opened, we are experiencing problems with renting our premises. Without our own hotel and with the conference rooms of moderate size it has been hard for us to compete on the market of conference centres.

Q: Villa Decius Association is undertaking a series of initiatives focused on deepening the dialogue within the V4 – the Visegrad Group countries. Among them are the Visegrad Summer School, Visegrad Academy of Cultural Management and the Visegrad Literary Residences Programme. So – the question may be posed here – whether and how the integration of Central Europe is possible? 

A: I am very glad that you mentioned the Visegrad Literary Residences Programme, which was our original program included in the offer of the International Visegrad Fund (IVF) and which we run on behalf of the IVF in collaboration with three national cultural institutions from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. This aim of this program, however, is not only granting 32 residence scholarship for writers, poets and translators from the Visegrad Group, but also enhancing their cooperation, which is initiated by the host institutions and fellows themselves. Coming back to your question, the answer should start with the clarification of the meaning of the word ‘integration’. This is sometimes an ambiguous word, especially in international relations. I prefer to use the word ‘cooperation’. Running our programs, we don’t focus on integration, we prefer to make people get to know one another, begin to work together and understand and respect the points of view other than their own. Such an understanding and such a cooperation are possible. The ties between people are not built by politicians who decide about various policies, economic and institutional cooperation and manage the development of international cooperation, also by means of “a budget”. In Central Europe, there is a sense of cultural community and also the awareness of the fact that we face common challenges, and these are the cultural values to which we refer in our programmes. And if you asked to whom such programs should be addressed, I would say that first of all to young people, students and artists who retain sensitivity, openness and freshness of mind are not afraid of experiments and keep searching for the answers. We want to build the future and not the past and in order to do this, we should focus on young people. Should we impose our ideas on them? Never! We can only suggest something or invite them to an experiment, which will not be based on the ex-cathedra approach, but on the constant search for answers, respect, sensitivity and knowledge. This is the only way in which we can all succeed. No one would deny that history divides rather than unites us that ‘they’ and ‘we’ are not without guilt. Looking at the past evokes something which I once called ‘the revenge of memory’ which is paralyzing and results in freezing of one’s attitude, enclosing oneself in one’s cultural world. If we focus on the painful experiences of the past, the cooperation will not led to anything good, and certainly in this way we will not build a common future.

Q: But in a place like Villa Decius, filled with references to the common past, often seen not through the present, the national prism ….

A: Yes, but our perspective is different. During the Visegrad School students learn about historical phenomena, which primarily unite and not divide us, that shaped us and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. You would be probably the first person who would leave the room if I started to build a dialogue on the issues such as guilt, fighting and martyrdom. Our dialogue must be based on the admission that we all have developed similarly and had similar contributions in the creation of the cultural space of the continent and that sometimes our interests clashed which lead to conflicts. Why cannot we respect our achievements and the achievements of our neighbours? Do we Poles always have to be better? Highlighting our merits testifies only to our weakness.

Q: And how would you explain your interest in the Central European issues?

A: Villa Decius undertakes initiatives in many areas, though not always with success. An example of such an unsuccessful action is Weimar Triangle, the political project which is virtually dead as it is devoid both of cultural cooperation and emotions. Much has been done since the 1990s in the field of Polish-German dialogue. The last decades were the time when intense youth exchange programs were organised, which resulted in a change in the attitudes in bilateral relations. In our Association from the beginning we have had such a “German path” – first great Karl Dedecius, then the first director of the Villa, Dr. Albrecht Lempp, a wonderful man, a Slavist and a translator who created the Villa from scratch! In the years 2002-2003 we organized twice the conference of Weimar Triangle and Ukraine trying to introduce the subject of cooperation and civic self-government to the political agenda. With no effect. And now … well I am in the Programme Council of the Genschagen Foundation and together with the German colleague we are calling for launching the cultural and artistic programs in the situation when there is the lack of political will and financial resources for such cooperation. Speaking about poor European cultural cooperation, however, the main mistake was that European Union ignored Europe’s cultural ethos and uniting values which could be promoted and shaped by the cooperation of EU citizens. This led to a situation where less than 1 Euro per capita is spent in the field of culture by the EU, not to mention procedures of applying for a grant. What can be done with so little money? Nothing, and we are where we are. Lack of knowledge, lack of a sense of cultural belonging, lack of shared values ​​mean that if a crisis occurs there are no common reference points apart from the purely economic ones. Such cultural understanding and community sharing the same values ​​could work out. Now, I’m afraid it’s too late. In The Visegrad Group – fortunately – the situation is better. Four governments managed to create the International Visegrad Fund, which is to facilitate and promote cooperation in many fields. Since the Fund started to operate in 2001, it has slowly, then increasingly developed “bottom-up” cooperation between the citizens – not managed by the politicians, but by the people of our countries who have begun to interact and who are trying to create interesting projects together. This is a phenomenon on a European scale.

Q: With an emphasis on ‘people to interact’…?

A: Yes, and it’s really happening automatically! I can see it in the activities of our former students, grantees, partners. I can see how many contacts and initiatives took on a life of its own. I think that organizations such as yours or mine should act as stimulators of dialogue, the place of learning.

Q: So institutionalization is not necessary?

A: The institutionalization, meaning administrative institutionalisation – in my opinion – can be an obstacle in the cooperation, as it imposes administrative control and may impose political goals. True dialogue, the result of curiosity and the need of the heart, comes from the people. There are plenty of initiatives that have arisen as a result of implementation of our projects or which were based on the solutions which we have developed. What is more, in Hungary, a copy of our project was established i.e. the Visegrad Summer School in Budapest …. quite surprising not only for us. 15 years is a significant period of time. Our students are now teachers, cultural animators, journalists, professors, deans, work in the European Union or in their governments. But it was in the Villa Decius where they gained a broad, trans-national outlook and learned from the most eminent experts from across Europe. This experience enriched them intellectually and when they left, they “took” with them a group of friends whom they had made here and contacts with European experts. We have over 700 Alumni and the page of Visegrad Summer School is visited by 11,000 Internet users monthly.

Q: Therefore, please tell me if something is missing in the Central European dialogue?

What is certainly missing are programs in the area of ​​capacity building and developing professional skills that would allow for the development of individual young professionals. Programs that refer to the theoretical knowledge should be complemented by European practice and experience. Programs that could create the leaders of change and support the transformation and development.

Q: Is Central European identity visible in the way that the participants of your programmes approach various issues?

A: Let me tell you about the identity. During the implementation of the Visegrad Summer School, each year, the first few hours are devoted to integration workshops, because just after arrival, students naturally and obviously prefer to meet in their national groups where they feel safer. Integration workshops break this division. The next day lectures and debates start, and the afternoon workshops begin. After a couple of days, the national divisions disappear, debates become deeper and more difficult topics are on the agenda and discussed with a European perspective and respect for colleagues coming from various countries. And then …. If one tries to “attack” one country – let’s say, Russia and speaks critically about Putin and discusses the quality of democracy in Russia, many students start to defend their colleague from Russia and the country that s/he loves. We manage to get rid of stereotypes and build relationships based not on social position, wealth of the country but on the respect for every human being. Solidarity which is being established among young people is a unique phenomenon, and they do not have to compromise, do not have to pretend. What is shared by young people is certainly a sensitivity to others. And perhaps for us, also a curiosity to know each other. I think this curiosity distinguishes us from young people from countries with well-established democracy, where the standard of living is very high. I think that the Central European youth is much less pragmatic than the average young people their own age in the west. Maybe this curiosity, this idealism is the result of poverty, inequality and striving to realize the dream? These values ​​are not assigned to any political or religious systems – they are universal.

Q: And why was Krakow chosen ? Why is this the place where dialogue succeeds?

A: I know that you want me to answer (laughter), that Krakow is the only place in the world where St. Sebastian Street crosses Rabi Meisels Street. Without mythologizing, we can say that throughout the centuries, Krakow was the royal town, and therefore open, non-isolated, hospitable. German settlers, including the citizens expelled from Alsace Wissembourg were welcome in Krakow. Justus Decius was one of them. Jagiellonian Poland was an open country, where the presence of strangers, their origin or religion did not bother anyone. And besides, Krakow possesses certain magic, and Villa Decius and the House of Laski are spaces which were and are witnesses to history, and carry memories. Apparently, they also have something to say …

Q: And why not Jagiellonian spirit for example. Habsburgian spirit?

A: I do not practice “historical policy” or any promotional activities for anyone. But the Jagiellons, Włodkowic, Stanislaw of Skalbmierz – the contribution of the Central European intellectuals to the development of the continent as well as their exceptional spirit of tolerance are a great value. Thinking about the past, we cannot refer only to bad memories, constantly reminding about Auschwitz, Volyn, Jedwabne or other atrocities. What is good in the historical and cultural heritage is the work and achievements of scientists and artists. They give strength and courage. If we see that before us there were such outstanding people, why cannot we try? My former student, Abel Korzeniowski composes great music in Hollywood, and he was once so shy… Young people need support so that they can build their lives on dreams and humanistic values. We are not surrounded merely by consumerism and financial success is not the only goal. Regardless of their origin or social position – a refugee, immigrant or foreign investor should be treated with the same respect and has the right to success.

Q: Until recently it was thought the Visegrad Group is dead, however at the moment we observe a propitious political situation and the strengthening of cooperation in Visegrad format. Do you think this a temporary direction or rather a more permanent trend of deepening regional integration?

A: This is a complex question and there are a few answers. Let’s start with the issue of whether Visegrad Group was a dead. It started with the cooperation of experts in the framework of CEFTA in 1992. In 2000 the International Visegrad Fund was founded and cooperation acquired the civil dimension which resulted in the creation of several thousands of projects every year. So, was it really dead? Since 2000, in the Visegrad Group the civic spirit has prevailed over politics, despite the fact that political activities have been carried out simultaneously especially towards the EU. I believe that the deepening of integration and political cooperation in the region should focus on tasks that neither civil society nor the local governments are able to carry out, tasks in the area of transport infrastructure, security, communication, improved mobility. Why don’t we have a train or road connection to Slovakia until today?

Q: You maintain close relations with the elites, students and societies of Central Europe. Are we getting closer to one another? What do we think about one another?

A: Over the last 15-16 years the situation has been changing. At first, the level of mutual confidence was really low. Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian in one room – and what are they supposed to do together? (Laughs) Then we entered the European Union together, emotions and prejudices started to disappear and mutual respect grew. There was even a time when the Czechs – according to opinion polls – were the second most positively perceived Polish neighbour. In recent times, unfortunately, we have had to deal with some regression, we lose mutual trust, the level of uncertainty rises and prejudices reappear. Well, it seems therefore that our work never ends.

Q: Thank you for this passionate relation. I hope that your zeal and enthusiasm for building positive relations in our part of Europe will remain as strong as it has been for the last years.

Interviewee: Dr. Danuta Glondys, Plenipotentiary of the Villa Decius Board for international cooperation in Kraków (Poland)

Interviewer: Jan Kłapa, The Jagiellonian Club (Poland)