A visit at “Ogniwo”, Krakow – A free space that links together what belongs together


Im Frühjahr 2016 besuchten FreundInnen des Social Center Leipzig (facebook.com/SocialCenterLeipzig/) das Spółdzielnia "Ogniwo" Kraków (facebook.com/ogniwokrakow/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE) und führten ein Interview über das Projekt.

A visit at “Ogniwo”, Krakow – A free space that links together what belongs together

For more than half a year, more precisely since September 2015, one may find a Social Center for All! in Krakow, a place called “Ogniwo”. It is located in the old Jewish quarter called Kazimierz near the river Weichsel.

Entering an ancient looking building the signs lead upstairs to the first floor. Entering the place, a wide and open almost loft-like room opens. Centered is an elevation which could be something like a stage but with differently colored beanbags, tables and chairs on it. To the right you find couches. Left hand you will find a bar. As well you find a large number of shelves filled with books. Some people are reading, working on their laptops or are just chatting. In another room a group is sitting together and obviously having a plenum.
We approach the bar, the three person standing behind it are serving fair trade coffee which they purchase from the Zapatista. Or you may choose between a variety of local beers and sodas. At the bar we meet our hosts Katharina, Jan and Joanna. They are all part of the cooperative “Ogniwo”. Originally they invited us to have a presentation but we took the opportunity and talked them into having an interview with us. So we sat together and started talking about their project.


Interview „Ogniwo“


SC4A: Who are you and what does Ogniwo mean?

Jan: We are a group of 14 people who started organizing the work of this cooperative in January 2014. Since we opened the place nine month ago our main work is managing this place “Ogniwo” which is mostly a bookstore and a café, cooperatively managed and owned.

Katharina: The idea to open up such a place emerged out of this group after we organized different political actions together for example the referendum against the application for the Olympic Summer Games by the City of Krakow. We recognized that we share the same goals and that there is a terrible need for a place in Krakow where we could organize political debates and meetings. All the other place offering such space were too small. We were dreaming about a huge space in which we could connect many activities like a Social Center for formal and informal groups and to have debates and meetings.

J: Right, and also concerts and movie screenings...

K: And Exhibitions. That was the idea! By the way “Ogniwo” means “Chain Link”.

SC4A: This café is huge. You have this main room with the café and lounge. But as well there are more rooms for example the one with the exhibition/cinema room and other discussion rooms in the back. How did you chose this place and established the structures?
K: Well, the place we are having now belongs to the Jewish community and is a former bath house where the women did their traditional washings. Beneath this stage, for example, is a swimming pool.
J: This place actually was the first place we looked at. But it took us six month and we reviewed around 20 other place before we chose this one, the first one we looked at. One main problem we had with this place is that is not on the ground floor and doesn ́t have an elevator so that it is not barrier-free. This was a decision we had to make when we choose this place over others.

K: That is true. We are still thinking of possibilities to make this place accessible for everyone. Again this place was in very bad condition. It had not been used for more than two years before we rented it. It took us nine month to renovate it. Most of the work we did ourselves but as well we received help from anarchist construction workers. Some of the interior was donated to us by private people, some we bought very cheap on the internet like those couches we are sitting on. People love those couches (Laughs). Well, after we decided that this would be our place, we had to choose how we would organize ourselves.
J: We decided that we didn ́t want to be an NGO but rather try to form a cooperative (Genossenschaft). We were curious if this concept which has a long tradition in Poland would work in nowadays. It took us some months to finish the paper work and then we founded the first worker cooperative in Krakow since 1989.


SC4A: It sounds and it definitely looks like you put a lot of effort in opening up this place. Why did you think such a place is necessary in Krakow? What does it stand for? What is the idea?
K: Krakow is a very conservative city and didn ́t have a place like this where left initiatives could meet and organize. With  ́left initiatives` I refer to people who are vegetarians, people riding a bike, Queer-Guy-Lesbian-Transsexual-Groups or political grassroots movements. Now they have a free space to organize.
J: Although we have a political aim one goal for us as part of this cooperative was to earn money in running this place and make a living out of it. Until now we could not achieve this goal but we are working on it. People starting to understand that although we use the chain as symbol we are not a bike store...
K: Yes, no bike store. But we love bikes and dogs... So, bring them.
J: ... and more and more alternative movements are starting to use this place as the free space we were thinking of. They are building an “audience”, not like an audience that listens and consumes but as people start a dialogue of some kind. They create their own space and change it somehow while they are influencing it with their own ideas.
K: The process started some kind of synergy effect because many different people from different environments are meeting at our place. That way “Ogniwo” is connecting different people and opens spaces for ideas how the people could help each other. For example, shortly after we opened up “Ogniwo” the new and rising leftist party “Razem” (Engl.: “Together”) founded its Krakow Chapter here. Some of our cooperative members support this party and became members. We feel that this was necessary since the other political parties, like the polish greens, have a quite frustrating political program. So it was time. And we couldn ́t imagine that it would grow that big that fast!
J: And as well, we want to share our own ideas. That ́s why we are selling books and have open readings, organize other political and cultural events and sell special kinds of coffee and soda.


SC4A: During our presentation but not only then we recognized that quite different people (age, background etc.) are using this place.
J: Yes. We are trying to be open for all kinds of people with one big failure I already mentioned. And those people are using it.


SC4A: Besides the idea of offering a free space and networking opportunities what ideas do you want to share?
J: We chose the cooperative as structure because for us it was the only way to have a business with a real democratic structure and as well act flexible to other people who want to take part in this project. As well we take our decisions collectively and in consensus.
K: There exist some structures we are legally bound to have but in practice we have big meetings on a regular basis and discuss different issues. For our decision making process we use different online tools which makes it much easier. They help us to stay in contact and connect us.


SC4A: You are trying to establish alternative structures in a mainly conservative city, as you said. What is your relation to the city institutions and its administration?
K: Right now, under the present political circumstances we are happy that we are not depending on the city and/or their money because otherwise it could be difficult work. But right now there is no contact to officials.
J: The idea of being a cooperative was to maintain our independence and not to relay on donations or other support. Right now, we don ́t know if this was a good idea (Laughs) but we are trying.
K: It is a good thing to keep our independence!


SC4A: You achieved a lot in the past month and “Ogniwo” is making good progress. But political organization never stops. It is never ending resistence. What would be your personal vision for “Ogniwo” ́?
K: My dream is simple. I want to stay at this place we worked so hard for. Therefore we need to prolong the rent agreement. As well I would love to have more events at our place, for example book premiers and so on.
J: That is my dream too. Right now we have an event about every second day. I would love to host events every day. That will be hard to organize but that ́s the way we chose.
Joanna: My dream would be that the people who worked so hard for this project can live of it and don ́t have to work another job to survive. My second dream is that we can adjust this place for people with disabilities.


SC4A: Thank you for this interview and for having us. Good Luck!!!
(Red.: Max, Simon)


Questions or Comments: Social-center-leipzig [at] posteo.org; spoldzielniaogniwo [at] gmail.com