Living In and Beyond History

The white horse-drawn carriages clomp on the gray stones of Old Town Krakow, circling this largest of medieval town squares in Europe. On the fringe sit restaurants with white and yellow umbrellas advertising Polish beers where residents and tourists dine on red-checked table cloths. In the center the Town Hall Tower dominates, and around the periphery old terraced houses and shops form an arcade where one can buy everything from pastries to books to clothes to shoes.

Today tourists can look out over the city from the observation deck at the top of the gothic Town Hall Tower, originally built of stone and brick at the end of the 13th century. The tower used to house the city prison with a medieval torture chamber in its cellars. Thirty miles to the west lay some of the worst torture chambers of the 20th century: the prison camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where an estimated three million people died during World War II.

This historic city of Krakow was the scene last week of “Writing Freedom”—the biennial gathering of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committees from around the world in joint symposiums with ICORN (the International Cities of Refuge Network) and the third Czeslaw Milosz Literary Festival.

Along the Vistula River writers gathered from every continent and from regions where they are now, or were in the past, under threat, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, China, Myanmar/Burma, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, Russia/Chechnya, Belarus, Mexico, El Salvador, as well as from all over Europe and North America. The more than 200 guests strategized over the challenges to freedom of writing and expression. They explored new threats such as digital surveillance, new adversaries in non state actors and new and old methods of protest and advocacy; they also heard reports of those currently on the frontlines.

While global solutions to these large questions are not easily forthcoming, answers are often found in specific acts of one writer advocating on behalf of another, of one city opening its doors to one writer at a time, of a community gathering and raising a collective voice and finding where to target that voice.

PEN, with over 100 centers worldwide, works for the release and protection of writers imprisoned, threatened and attacked for their work, and ICORN places writers at risk in cities where they can live and work for a year or two without threat.

One of Krakow’s most well-known writers and exiles was Joseph Conrad, who as a child in his school years, lived on Poselska Street here before he emigrated to England. Years later when he was a famous writer, he returned and stood at night in the “vastly empty Main Square,” where he noted, “the streets were in precisely the same condition as when I had seen them upon departure forty years previous.” But the following day World War I erupted and Conrad, a citizen of an enemy country now, again had to flee.

History moves on and regions mend as has Krakow from its brutal history under the Nazis and then under Soviet domination, but unfortunately oppression continues, as evidenced in the stories of the writers who had escaped and now lived as exiles–the Iranian writer learning Swedish or the Zimbabwean writer learning Norwegian in their new homes.