The Cheeky Gnomes who raised a Nation

It’s hard enough to raise a nation the first time. But the second or fifth or tenth time can be even more difficult.  For such times come when a horrible turn of historical events has hidden, punished or suppressed the very spirit that bound the people into a nation in the first place.  Negative historical waves  are such events as invasion, occupation, colonization,  ideological domination, forced migration, racial or cultural genocide, famine, epidemic and so on.  Such burdens only weigh the heavier for resulting  from actions of fellow human beings. What follows here is a fictionalized account that (remotely) resembles the true story of how one nation got its spirit back.

There was a country, not so long ago, that had been invaded by a sadness so severe as to cause the people to become passive.  Day after day they trudged along from work to home to work to home to work again the next day.  Then one day a tired figure, waiting sadly for a bus, noticed a small gnome drawn with chalk on a brick in the dirty wall right beside him.  The little gnome had a conical hat, big nose, short legs and long feet. An ordinary gnome, but this one was winking.  One eye was round; the other squeezed shut. As the bus pulled up, the man wearily climbed aboard, but not before winking back.

Gnomes began to pop up in the strangest places.  Down near the sidewalk.  Up on a lamppost.  Inside a phone booth.  On the side of a ticket machine.  They were mostly worker gnomes: baking bread, sweeping the street, mending a fishnet. After a while, those cheeky gnomes began to appear not just in chalk but in full color paint.  Supporters among the people of this country began to side with the gnomes and occasionally appeared in public, at a café or lining up for supplies, wearing conical hats.

A major break-through came when the first gnome dared to appear as a metal statue.  Tiny. Quirky.  Minding its own business.  It went about its work repairing a shoe.  But being made of metal and bolted to a bridge meant this worker-gnome was here to stay.  Police who tried to remove them appeared ridiculous and were teased in a brotherly way by passersby.  Anonymous signs began to appear on the street.  Protect our gnomes.  Equal rights for gnomes.  Gnomes united.  That last was the key; clearly the way forward.

At this time of growing awareness, a quintessential gnome statue appeared showing two little fellows on either side of a bowling ball (this one in granite).  One was leaning his back against it, trying with all his might to get the ball rolling eastward; while exactly opposite, on the other side, a second gnome had planted two hands on the ball and was pushing with all his might to get the ball rolling westward.  The message was clear:  opposed to each other we are at a stalemate; united we can move this ball (our country, our culture) anywhere.  The image, as they say nowadays, went viral.  Eventually, crowds of weekend strollers and dog walkers (all wearing conical hats) turned into mass demonstrations playfully promoting a better life for  gnomes.  It was silly, terrifying, outrageous, courageous, desperate, delightful, memorable, and historic.  The country was Poland; the time was the 1980’s after invasions, occupations and ideological domination.  Through these cheeky gnomes, the spirit awoke; and a nation came back.
For a more accurate telling of the tale, see Eliot Stein’s full article in the edition of 18 October 2017 to be found at:


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