Always in the first place

On the walk. Willy Aastrup, Anna Wandzel, Malgorzata Perdeus, Ireneusz Bialek

A student is a student

A small aircraft of the Scandinavian airline SAS landed at the Cracow airport. Planes would not touch down frequently back then and there were not that many visitors. When you appeared in the  terminal building with your legendary coat hung over your shoulder, you had no difficulties in recognising us. Two youngsters and Ajzik the dog with whom you met immediately. How many times did we laughed later that there were just us, you, the dog and several soldiers at the airport.

That was the reality of that year 1999. We were proud of Polish achievements made over the decade following the regaining of independence after communist rule yet we also knew how much still remained to be done. We, fresh university graduates with no money, wanted to remove inequalities and exclusion, youthfully naive and wishing to move mountains. You, in the prime of life and hugely experienced, with a brilliant mind, good stature and contacts, decided to help us achieve just that.

That evening, and maybe the following one, you invited us to a Corsican restaurant. Never before had we been to such an eatery. I remember us eating chips with garlic, some refined meat and that strange apple pie served hot whose French name I had heard for the first time back then. And we were drinking very good wine.

You were an adviser to the Danish government then while all we had were our romantic visions. You told us that to have a vision was a lot. I thought you were joking. Now I obviously know you were right.

Those words must have been spoken exactly during our first meeting ever. You asked what the duty of a university student was and we were wondering how to provide you with a neat answer. You were prompting us trying to mislead us: to be nice to your teachers (indeed), to have fun (obviously), to meet some cool people (fair enough), yet the key duty of each student, including those with disabilities, was to have good results and pass examinations. And then there was the other part of the question: ‘What is the obligation of the university? To ensure conditions for those students to take examinations on an equal footing with others, to be fair in assessing them, not to allow any negative – but equally positive – discrimination as well as to do everything in its power so that they can achieve increasingly good results which in the labour market will not make them any different from other graduates,’ you were saying.

How many times, over that period of twenty years, in various locations in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, have we recounted that ‘a student is a student’ story and quoted your questions? How many times have our audiences been surprised that such students also deserve equal treatment? It was seemingly simple yet you will remember how frustrated I was when things were going slowly. When eighteen years later we were on a raft on the River Dunajec, we concluded, however, that the plan, once sketched out in a Corsican restaurant and based on a youthful romantic vision, had been actually implemented.

For a dollar

Maybe I asked you that question back then in Aarhus, when were sitting with your people and a group of Poles I had gathered from various universities who were keen to learn something from you. Maybe then and maybe on some other occasion, yet the story about one dollar surely made the whole Polish delegation laugh to tears. They had heard it for the first time, I – far from it – yet I just always loved it.

The 1960s. A group of Danish students set off for summer holidays wondering where to go. ‘We have been to France, Spain as well, and in Germany we are frequently,’ they debated, ‘but we have not yet been to Poland.’ ‘Yes, but Poland is a country behind the Iron Curtain,’ some were expressing their fears. The bravest, obviously including Willy Aastrup, were excited about the prospect and managed to push the trip trough. Despite some travel difficulties and their ignorance of the local language, the holidays in Poland proved highly interesting for the group of friends.

‘We did not have lots of money, yet enough to have good fun in Poland. We were always received with kindness and great hospitality. I remember fantastic dinners. What we ate was very tasty and homemade. They offered us Russian bubbly at one place and Polish home-brewed booze at another. I would then produce a dollar and ask whether that was a decent payment. It was always enough and the hosts were thrilled.’

To conclude, you used to frequently add: ‘Can you just imagine that, to get all that for a single dollar?’ and the Polish listeners would burst with laughter. When we had finally learnt to tell that story together, I would say the memorable closing words: ‘Forget it, Willy. You will not get anything for a dollar in this country any more, best not to come here without a thick wallet.’

And so in 1999 you wanted to be reminded what this strange country lying on the Vistula looked like after the systemic transformation as you remembered it with fondness from your student years. I have always told you that your advice given to me cost a dollar. I then need to thank my fellow countrymen of the sixties for preparing the ground for it.

Parchment made of embryos

The Vistula and San Rivers, the Polish Jura, the Karkonosze and Bieszczady mountains and the River Dunajec: you developed a liking for that Polish nature although you did not always expressed it with burning emotions. Well, that is how Scandinavians are. Yet when we were sitting at a bonfire in Wetlina tasting local cheeses and looking at the Milky Way you were describing to me, I clearly sensed that fascination. It was probably then that we discussed how to talk to blind persons about stars, the horizon and the Milky Way. Do you remember how we made a stop at the Pod Małą Rawką mountain hut from where we were looking at mountain peaks enthusing about them? I found funny your somewhat fearful question whether Ukraine was truly lying over there. Bieszczady-related themes kept recurring in our memories for many years.

When at the Jagiellonian Library we were provided with very old books to look at, you told me that I had probably been the first person to have touched them with their own hands after two hundred years. It did not matter that there were cotton gloves on those hands of mine. The atmosphere became elevated, as it happens in that noble Library. Yet everyone laughed at the words you had spoken. Those were truly extraordinary books. Their parchment pages had been made centuries before of embryos of lambs, maybe just like those that grew to become their sisters living in Bieszczady. Thanks to their milk, we were able to eat delicious sheep milk cheese in Wetlina. We discussed cheeses, books and many other things at the main Market Square in Cracow in the evening, over your favourite coffee. You would light your pipe that oozed a tempting aroma, we opened a good wine and talked late into the night. Then we would take a walk along the lanes of the Old Town ending up in Poselska Street, where you liked to stay.

A blind surgeon

A seminar, another one and yet one more. You ask serious university people whether Mr Białek sitting here could be a surgeon; to general bafflement, although everyone knows he could not yet will not say that out loud. You say that in the case of that particular profession and that particular disability it is impossible but people with some other disabilities could become surgeons and should not be discriminated against. You give another example: women are medical students nowadays but a century before no one could imagine that and they could study fine arts at best. Consequently, we must accept that what was impossible some time ago due to the stage of development and mentality is a social norm now and not stunning anyone. It is a reasonable example yet you are taken for a radical as you claim publicly what everyone quietly considers to be obvious: as a blind man, Mr Białek cannot be a surgeon. People who on a daily basis do not necessarily make Mr Białek’s life easier protest at your words – that Aastrup goes slightly too far – they say, and I reply to them that as someone directly affected I think exactly like that radical from Denmark.

‘You do not let me be a surgeon, Willy,’ we are laughing in the evening over Ripasso. It is thanks to you that I know good Ripasso. Poor Willy, considered a cool-headed rationalist by romantics and an incorrigible romantic to rationalists.

‘Let us give it up,’ I said to you then, ‘no one understands us. You have been in business, maybe we could think of something together?’

‘You inhabit a certain sine curve, Irek. Once at the bottom, then at the top, yet one day you will glide high,’ you said, puffing away on your pipe.

Yes, I know

When I take my iPhone in my hand and look at the contact list, you are in the first place. Well, your surname starts with a double a, so it is only natural. Yet even if it started with a z – yes, I know, you would still be in the first place.

I have grown very much used to activating that double a by voice and then I learn about your assessment of my place on the sine curve, after which we talk about everything, lately much about music.

Penderecki, Lutosławski – you stress how much appreciated they are in Scandinavia, and Polish jazz players, obviously. I would like to reach for something more relatable and local, but there is more play on words there – potentially ambiguous and vague – while you have always liked to have a full understanding of things. Maybe it does not matter that much now?

Yes, I know that we are not going to take photos again.

Yes, I know that your legendary coat will not brush against me in Gołębia Street any more.

Yes, I know that the period of twenty years after university studies is sufficiently long for a youngster to become a mature man who does need to hold your arm.

Yes, I know that now it is I who should give other people an arm to hold on to.

Yes, I know it all. Still, I would like to be able to double-touch that icon with the double a and hear on the other side a pipe being puffed on and your words: ‘Hello Irek, this is Willy. How are things going on?’

Myslovitz & Marek Grechuta ‘Kraków’

That Evening’s Poetry

It is raining as I write this and there was a storm before. When I learned about the artist’s ultimate departure, it was raining and there had been a storm before. The moment I want to talk about began with a storm and then it was raining.
To Touch Culture stands for intimate concerts where anyone who so wishes can establish some, if fleeting, contact with the artist performing in a given year’s edition of the event at the courtyard of the Collegium Maius. That is a special scenery indeed and when good music sounds there, one can be easily transported skywards. Back then, in 2013 many claimed to be in heaven.
The concert was beginning at 20:00 hours. The courtyard in question is not protected against the elements and although the weather in June is typically good, it can sometimes deteriorate. Such is the beauty of the climate we live in. Ten minutes before eight, heavy clouds gathered over Kraków. A few minutes later, I was in the artist’s dressing room. I asked whether the start of the gig should not be delayed so that the rain could end.
– Such great weather throughout the day and now the rain. It must be this evening’s poetry then. Let’s go – said Tomasz Stańko casually picking up his legendary trumpet.
The first notes of his album Wisława were still played against a backdrop of thunders. Later, in regular rain, the music travelled far, also thanks to Dominik Wania’s piano accompanying Tomasz that evening.
When thunders were striking, I was not yet sure whether the performance would go on but just a while later I realised that nature offered us something additional, something unusual that does not happen on a daily basis. I understood that was the poetry of the evening. Today, I wish to recall that moment grateful to my destiny that I was able to make my humble contribution to its existence, there and then. I know that emotions triggered by that music will stay with me forever and probably with many others in the audience present at that memorable concert.
Snippets from Tomasz Stańko and Dominik Wania’s concert at the courtyard of the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Maius held as part of the To Touch Culture event featuring in video footage entitled ‘The Elusive Target’, June 2013

A banner, clouds of smoke

It was three years ago. I was lying on a beach in Portugal. My wife was wading at will somewhere in the sea yet at a certain distance from me. My eyes were closed, I was listening to the swoosh of the ocean and birdsong. Suddenly, I felt a kiss on my cheek, but somehow cold. What is happening? She is relatively far away, so this must be someone else, it crossed my mind. I opened my eyes, yet that did not solve the puzzle as I was unable to see anyone. And no-one spoke to me, either. A moment later, an unknown woman came up to me, regretting the behaviour of her Labrador bitch that had poked me with that cold nose of her – Sorry, this is my dog, my Lab, she said.

Dog lovers know very well that a dog’s kiss is pleasant, an encouragement to start an adventure, game or play, yet if offered out of a sudden it seems merely wet and cold and one does not know what is happening. If one is blind, that effect intensifies and may lead to major astonishment, initially not necessarily pleasant. Joy, warmth and desire to play come somewhat later.

This is a good metaphor for a sequence of powerful life experiences. Losing sight surprised me, chilled me like that cold kiss, only aggravated by multiple failures and being humiliated, a result of unequal treatment on grounds of disability. This has happened and continues to happen in all aspects of life. Nevertheless, the place I am in now, the success of inclusive education at the Jagiellonian University, the development of the notion of the Manager of the Future as well as the impact I can make on social innovations as part of Ashoka represent the other side: warmth, joy and a great adventure. Still, people often ask me about my experience of disability as something absolutely critical, something that has shaped me and had a major influence upon my life. Certainly, that impact has been major, yet even considerable disability is never the only factor shaping a person. What else has it been then?

I was born and raised in Krakow’s working-class district of Nowa Huta. Not all Krakow residents liked it and it possibly remains the case, yet it was just there that the Solidarity movement took solid roots. A movement embracing millions of ordinary people to whom Jon Anderson dedicated an unforgettable piece entitled Polonaise. My childhood came during the “Solidarity carnival” period as well as, regrettably, Marshal Law which followed. On the one hand, I have seen true solidarity, assistance offered to others, cooperation in very difficult and sometimes extreme situations, and on the other hand street violence and the totalitarian state’s attempt to destroy all that was good and what the movement had sown among the people. “A picture like from Wajda’s film: a banner, clouds of smoke,” the bard Jacek Kaczmarski once sang and such were exactly the images that fed my daily experience back then. Teargas stinging the eyes was an integral part of it. When I recall it, I immediately see before my eyes a huge crowd of people holding a white-and-red flag extended across the width of the street with a slogan Solidarność written on it in a characteristic font. The crowd starts off at the church and a line of riot militiamen armed up to the teeth brandishing long white truncheons can be seen on the horizon. Wherever one looks, to the left and to the right, there are paddy wagons, water cannons and armed vehicles. The crowd is moving in that direction. With Mum, we are walking along the lay-by yet and a child’s mind is working intensively: what is going to happen? And just when it seemed that a confrontation was unavoidable, the militiamen got an order to withdraw, they are running and getting into the cars. A confrontation did come, multiplied, yet at that particular junction violence lost. That beautiful image remains in my memory, as I was worried then about those people and that banner.

And then it was 1986, when the retina became detached on my left eye, and the right one a year later. After the surgery, I woke up with patches on my eyes and the head tied with a bandage. In a famous clinic in Katowice, another boy was lying somewhere nearby after the same treatment. We both had been told that we would regain sight, imperfect but still, because the hospital was good and had the best equipment in the country and the doctors were talented.

Soon after regaining consciousness, I still heard a conversation between nurses:

– Bartek has had a great surgery. Professor is very happy. The boy is going to see.

– And Irek? – the other one asked.


And then I understood in just few seconds that my life was changing very much. I also sensed the helplessness of those who wanted to help me yet medicine failed. Still, those nurses were first to somehow intuitively offer me great assistance. For hours on end, I would talk to them in their office and then over the phone once out of hospital. It is indeed hard to believe today that there was no clinical psychologist on hand who could talk to me about that massive change I was experiencing. That role was played by sisters Ola, Renata and others. Since then, I have met at least one such Ola, Renata, Agnieszka or Gosia. I am truly very lucky to have been able to meet them all.

Since the time of that chitchat in nurses’ rooms, I have also had a slight weakness for a 1980s musical style known as Italo disco, something real connoisseurs always hold against me. Yet it was the music that accompanied my long conversations with the nurses, laughing girls with whom I shared jokes but also possibly first plans concerning my changed life. One of my dreams I held on to was to learn. That was not easy a year before the fall of communism in Poland. The poor country faced many problems that needed to be resolved. I was granted individualised tuition and then attended a special school for blind and partially sighted persons in Krakow. It was not a dream place for me, though. I wanted to attend an ordinary school and return to a normal life. I also had another dream – to work in the radio. Everybody laughed that off.

– You will be a piano tuner, they would say. But I love music and feel no vocation to tune instruments.

– You will be a masseur. It pays well. People like to use the services of blind masseurs. I like getting massage indeed but do not feel like massaging other people. I want to work in the radio. I am into music and social transformation.

In 1989, a new government was appointed, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in East-Central Europe after the Second World War. This is the year when I decided to return to an ordinary school and began education in the Comprehensive Secondary School no 11 in Nowa Huta, right next to the junction where a few years earlier riot militiamen had tried to block the passage of a marching crowd carrying the banner with “Solidarność” written on it. Further change came soon, too: systemic, social and economic.

While studying at the School no 11, I got a foothold in a local radio station and began to play music there. That was youthful and inexperienced journalism, yet at least some people stopped laughing. Then I changed to another, now inexistent, private station where we played lots of what we now call golden hits and from time to time also the immortal Italo disco.

After secondary school completion, I started my dream journalistic studies. I would meet people from groups affected by the system change. There were too many of them. Yet I still believed the direction of the reforms was right, as was the implementation of market economy principles. I tried to collect material related to those who were excluded from being part of growth and development, more vulnerable, marginalised. The radio was the first place when I felt that it was possible that I, in turn, could show solidarity with others by making their problems heard. After my studies, I initiated cooperation with the Reportage and Documentary Studio of the Polish Radio and made a number of reportage footage focusing on social issues.

I used my personal experiences from the period of my studies and the newly acquired knowledge when creating an innovative university unit dealing with educational support for persons excluded from education as such, including higher education. That was a very difficult task. It may suffice to say that years ago one of my superiors at the university called it “invasive”, meaning destroying mainstream thinking about what the university should be about. In this context, it is only fitting to quote my friend who at the same time was doing the same in Denmark. Willy has always said that “Although the university is not for everybody, as it is for the best, when you are disabled and despite your disability you are good, then the university is also for you and it must adjust to your specific needs.” That is a university I wanted to build with like-minded people. Over time, it seemed that also those who resented that “invasion” got used to that vision.

I am glad that after nearly two decades of building it, we can now offer support even in most difficult situations, for instance to a student who is bed-bound at home and dependent on life-supporting appliances. In the circumstances, they pursue their studies in distance-learning format.

That was exactly the case of Jacek. Because of his ill health, other universities refused to have him as a student. His key dream was to be able to learn. I then thought it was back to the past for me.

One had to hold examinations at the student’s home and come up with how to take lecture notes for him and make it possible to transfer them. He also required assistance when establishing contact with those deciding about his affairs as a university student. All this ended successfully on the part of Jacek, his institute and the entire university. We were proud of that student’s achievement as well as the solidarity-based cooperation he inspired in his teachers and various university units. Now persons unable to leave home do indeed study on the basis of the same operational model which can be called standard. I am glad that together with my team I have been able to help Jacek make his dream come true, thus reducing the number of cold kisses life would constantly give him and others who have been – and are – breaking through the barricades of the Polish educational system in order to be able to fully participate in it.

The experiences related to the implementation of inclusive education at Poland’s oldest university were decidedly a very important aspect as I was going through the long and difficult verification process to be selected a Polish Ashoka Fellow in 2017. Along the way, I was supported by my close collaborators and people I had met relatively recently seeking to develop the idea of the Manager of the Future with them. I felt solidarity from others yet again. And so on the occasion I recalled fondly that banner from the early 1980s. The slogan put on it is no political motto to me, and even less the name of a trade union: it is an internal imperative, a calling for acting with others and for others. This is also, I think, one of the values on which sustainable social development should be based. No matter where I am abroad and talk about Poland, nearly everybody associates it with just “Solidarity” and the name of its legendary leader. This is our trademark. What is more, during many interesting conferences I hear about solidarity as social cement that today’s capitalism needs in order to mitigate the differences it causes. Discussants are either heavyweight professors from eminent universities or important managers arguing that the corporations they lead must operate on the basis of true values.

When as a child I walked with Mum along the streets of Nowa Huta, when the unfurled banner was moving in the clouds of smoke, when teargas was biting my eyes with vengeance and the streets were full of militiamen, I could not have imagined that one day I would be given the opportunity to stand before the leaders of that great social movement and shake their hands. When I think about it, I remember the lyrics of yet another song by Jacek Kaczmarski about sentimental Miss S.: “And she was carried on the shoulders of her new young friends who worshipped her like an old star, not falling but suddenly rising instead.”


This text includes excerpts from my speech on the occasion of a membership in Ashoka, an international network of social innovators. It was delivered at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw on 20 October 2017.

For those of you who are interested, songs mentioned in the text:

John Anderson „Polonaise”:

Jacek Kaczmarski „Świadectwo”:

Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki