The Polish Institute in Budapest is one of the world’s oldest Polish Institutes and one of the oldest foreign institutes in Hungary. Director Arkadiusz Bernas talks about the present, the past and the future of the institution.
“Pole, Hungarian, two good brothers, both with the saber, and with the glass, both are brave, both are men of action, let God bless them!” The short form of the popular proverbial rhyme, known in both countries, about the historical friendship of the Polish and the Hungarian people could be a motto of the Polish Institute in Budapest. “Good relations between the two nations date back to the 14th century with Hungary and Poland being linked by personal union multiple times,” agrees Arkadiusz Bernas, director of the Budapest Polish Institute. The emotional link has not been broken even during extreme political conditions. “During WWII, Hungary received more than 100,000 Polish refugees after the German invasion and even established schools for Polish children,” the director, who’s been leading the institution since 2009, notes. “Before WWII, the Institute’s main field of activity included promotion of the Polish science, culture and language. After “that September 1,” the Institute was allocated new tasks,” Bernas explains, adding that the Institute assisted in preparing refugees for university exams. “Some 500 people graduated this way.
Scarcity or lack of publications was a driving force behind publishing major works of the Polish literature. Works of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Zeromski, Wyspianski and other writers were published in the institute’s book series, entitled the Polish Library, comprising over 80 volumes. The institute became an unofficial editorial office. During Communism, the institute served, again, as a loophole for representatives of the Polish and Hungarian literature, culture and art.” Centrally located on the corner of Andrássy and Nagymezõ streets, with exhibition windows facing the ‘Budapest Broadway’, the institute contributes to the vibrant cultural life of Budapest, organizing up to 130 different programs each year. “Our aim is to provide up-to-date information about Polish culture, science, education and cultural events,” Bernas says. He points out that the institution intends to work with Hungarian partners and organize programs, participating in the most popular domestic program series such as the Budapest Spring Festival, Budapest Autumn Festival, Sziget Fesztival, Mediawave, Liszt Year and, of course, the closing Hungarian and opening Polish EU presidency. “We believe the Hungarian authorities and agencies know best the Hungarian audience interests,” the director explains. “We also attempt to bring the most unique, sometimes provoking contemporary arts and artists to Budapest, performances that divide even the Polish audience,” he continues. The most recent exhibition of Emese Benczúr, entitled ‘Don’t just look, see,’ showcased at the institution’s Platán Gallery is one great example.
“Art is and should be a binary exchange between the artist and the audience,” the director states. His strategy surely works, as over 30,000 people pass the institute’s doorway annually, and even more participate in those programs organized in cooperation with other cultural organizations, all over Hungary. Bernas says he is extremely proud of last year’s large scale Chopin Year. The bicentennial programs, commemorating the 200th birth anniversary of one of the most influential composers of the Romanticism, Fryderyk Chopin, included traveling exhibitions, concerts, book presentations, public art projects and renovating-unveiling the Chopin monument in Gödöllõ. “Very few people knew that one of the most interesting Chopin-memoirs was, in fact, written by Ferenc Liszt, himself. At an auction, we have managed to dig up an original version of this long-forgotten book, printed in 1873, and reprinted it. As this year Hungary celebrates the author, I guess this was a win-win project.” Grasping the opportunities offered by its location, the institution even involved the Andrássy Street to the Chopin Year 2010 project, transforming a crosswalk into a keyboard.
Currently, the Polish Institute is busy running a great number of cultural programs in connection with the Polish EU presidency. “We are organizing a Polish-Hungarian linguistic round table discussion at Europa Pont. We are also involved in the ‘Art on the Lake’ project, we brought the contemporary folk group Dagadana to the Danube Party or Õszibarack (the world translates to peach in Hungarian, however, this electro band has no relation whatsoever to Hungary – they just loved the name) to the VOLT Festival and Zöld Pardon. The library of the Polish Institute Budapest features 15,000 books and a huge collection of films, also offering a rich Polish video collection, partly fictions, partly documents about culture, tourism, economy, politics, art events, monographic films, etc. “For a few years now, we're continuously enriching our CD collection,” the director says. “In our activity, the photo set-ups made by the best Polish artists in over 100 topics, as history, geography, ethnography, politics or culture, are extremely useful.” According to Bernas, these materials are mostly used by Polish department university students. “Uniquely in Europe, there are three universities in Hungary (in Budapest, Piliscsaba and Debrecen) that run Polish language departments. Vice-versa, independent Hungarian language departments run at three Polish universities, including Krakow, Warsaw and Poznan.”
On Oct 21, 1934 an agreement on cultural cooperation between Poland and Hungary was signed in Warsaw on the occasion of a visit paid by the Hungarian Prime Minister. Four years after the signing ceremony, a Polish language lecturer at the Peter Pazmany Royal University in Budapest was appointed as the Director of the Polish Institute. The Institute commenced its activity in January 1939. In its current head office, the Institute has run its activity since 1964.