City of Many Names

Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Western Poland,
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mary's Impressions:
I have visited Poland many times over my life, each visit leaving an impression I can never forget. My first time coming to Poland was when I was a young child coming here with my Mom to visit my Grandmother.  Poland was ruled by a Communist government taking direction from the Soviet Union and conditions at the time were tough.  I remember not liking how life was for the average Pole – food shortages, queues to buy anything, the fear always the fear that you couldn't trust anyone for fear of being arrested.  I did come back a few times later with my Mom as I wanted to visit other parts of Poland – life for Poles didn’t get any better as food shortages seemed to get worse.  At one point, I remember telling my uncle how angry I was that I’m able to purchase food and goods made in Poland in Canada and yet I couldn’t find these same things in Poland (I didn’t realize that this was due to badly implemented policies by the Communist government to try to gain some hard currency).  The next time I came back to Poland, this time alone was when the country was in the midst of Martial Law (1981 when the Polish Communist backed military imposed Martial Law and Solidarity activists were arrested and imprisoned).  This was probably the bleakest time as the store shelves were empty and people were required to make their purchases with ration cards.  One of our friends laughed that I had foreign money which was useless in Poland as I needed ration cards to survive.  My last visit to Poland was about 15 years ago when I came to Poland with Jeff.  I wanted to introduce Jeff to my family on my Mom’s side and show him the country of my ancestry.

I have mixed feelings whenever I come to Poland.  Like for most Poles, the war took a heavy toll on my parents.  My Dad lost most of his family either through the Nazis or the Soviets aggression – he never had any desire to come back to Poland as everything he knew and love was lost.  My Mom only came back to visit with my Grandmother.  Once my Grandmother passed away, my Mom stopped coming as there was nothing in Poland for her as well.  Despite all of this, there is still an attachment to this country, a sense of home for me.  I wanted to include Poland as part of our travels to see how the country and its people have evolved since my last visit.  I have lots of hope for Poland as the Polish spirit is strong and determined.

Our first stop on our visit to Poland was to the town of Wrocław.  Wrocław is a city that has seen its national status change more often than any other city in Europe.  A city that was originally part of Poland (1000-1335), it was then subsequently controlled by the Kingdom of Bohemia (1335-1526), Austrian Hapsburgs (1526-1741), Kingdom of Prussia (1741-1871), German Empire and Third Reich (1871-1945) and back to Poland (1945 to present).  The city has had a collection of people all making contributions to the city (Poles, Germans, Bohemians, Austrians and Jews).  It’s why Wrocław has many names that have been used over the years such as Vratislava, Wrotizia, Wretslaw, Vraclav, Vretslav, Prezlav, Presslaw and Breslau.

A bit of historical background on the city - during WWII, being a German city and under the command of the Third Reich, persecution of its minorities (Poles and Jews) was carried out and those people who did not escape were either killed or sent to concentration or forced labour camps.  In Aug. 1944 with the Soviets approaching, the Nazi Commander Karl Hanke declared that the city would be held at all costs.  The Siege of Breslau occurred whereby the Germans fought against the Soviets until the city finally surrendered on May 6th, 1945 (the last German city to fall, outlasting Berlin by 4 days and the war in Europe ended only 2 days after Breslau’s defeat).  Due to the terms of the Potsdam Conference, Lower Silesia that included Wrocław was given to Poland whereby the eastern part of Poland was incorporated into the USSR.  Due to these terms, forced deportations of Poles from Eastern Polish lands annexed by the Soviets and the forced expulsion of Wrocław’s German population took place simultaneously.  Wrocław was now Polish however the Poles who arrived came to a city of debris and ruins.  The people began rebuilding the city and de-Germanizing the city (re: monuments and inscriptions were removed and relabeled).  During this period Sovietisation also occurred (re: businesses were nationalized, Polish political and religious leaders were imprisoned, rigged elections, etc.).  It wasn’t until 1989 when Wałęsa became Poland’s first freely elected president since WWII that things really started changing for the good for Poland.

One of the more obvious signs of freedom and changes that exist today was when we checked into our hotel – we were greeted by staff who were completely fluent in English (This was unheard of in my past visits as people were required to learn Russian and then German as their alternative foreign languages.  English was never an option).  Knowing that the city was destroyed due to WWII (50% of Old Town was in ruins) I was curious to see how the city was able to rebuild itself –we headed out to the Old Town Square (Rynek) for a walk.  The Old Town has indeed been remarkably restored to its former glory with Black and White photos posted on buildings showing how the area looked after WWII (see photos).  The focus of restoring and rebuilding the city was reserved for the historical sections of the city found in and around the Old Town.  Unfortunately mixed into some of these buildings, you will still find Communist style block tenements.  It’s doubtful that these buildings will be torn down in the immediate future due to the costs involved however people have made an attempt to pretty up their space with flowers and painting over the ugly, grey stucco surface (there is hope!!).

In our walkabouts I learned a lot more of Polish history and culture.  The one visit that I especially enjoyed was the Racławice Panaroma.  The circular painting that was brought to Wrocław when Polish citizens moved to the city after WWII depicts the victorious Battle of Racławice.  This is the battle where soldiers and peasant volunteers under the direction of General Tadeusz Kościuszko fought against the Russian forces for Poland’s independence.  The Poles won the battle but Poland unfortunately ceased to exist being partitioned later to Russia and Prussia.  This heroic battle however is very important to Poles as it is a source of inspiration for the bravery that these people showed in their quest for Poland’s independence.

One of the more humourous attractions associated with Wrocław are the tiny gnomes (Krasnoludek in Polish) that are scattered throughout the city.  Gnomes have always been a traditional character in Polish folklore however the gnome became a calling card of the Orange Alternative movement in the 1980s.  The Orange Alternative was an underground movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful yet subversive protests against Communism.  The first gnome appeared in Wrocław in 2001 near the subway where the majority of demonstrations occurred.  From there the gnomes multiplied and now are a favourite of locals and tourists.  I took a few photos of the ones I came across in our walks.

Coming back to Poland, the one thing Jeff and I were looking forward to, was to sample many of the Polish specialties we so love.  Polish food is simple and filling – perhaps too filling sometimes as we waddle our way out the door after a meal but it’s the type of food you just can’t resist.  We happily came across a great place at the University of Wrocław where for 2.49 złoty (less than a $1 CDN) per 100g we could select a variety of Polish dishes (I loved the selection of salads – colour at last!!).  We devoured our lunches (the bigger meal in the day for Poles) content that we wouldn’t need to eat again until the next day (or so we thought).  We couldn’t resist however having a lody (ice cream) as Poles are crazy for their lody.  In the Communist era – only soft ice cream was available but it was still a treat for most Poles to go out and have a lody as part of their day.  Today in addition to the soft ice creams there is also a vast selection of gelatos to choose from (always being served a healthy portion – yummm!!!).

Our time in Wrocław was a good introduction to the Poland of today as we walked, visited the sights, learned more about the Polish culture and tasted the foods.  We look forward to our next stop – Krakow.

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