Lights – and darkness. An encounter with Poland

A ferocious wind blew us in to Wroclaw* airport, the landing earning our pilot a well-deserved round of applause.

Eager to start our adventure (and the promised hotel shuttle bus proving to be an illusion) we took a taxi.

We sped past northern woods. Past car showrooms so new they sparkled.

Then, as we neared the city, came soulless blocks of concrete, home to the masses.

Women in headscarves, men in caps, packed in old blue-and-white trams.

The communist aesthetic surviving.

Our driver was a good guide. Points of local interest pointed out. Personal details slipped in along the way. A post-World-War-II baby, he’d seen plenty. And his face – like a thinner Lech Walesa – spoke the volumes he hadn’t time to relate.

By now our first day was already waning and after a quick check-in we set out onto the darkening streets.

The dismal-looking suburbs had made me apprehensive, but as we ventured into the wintry old town, the magic began to happen.

A vast tower loomed over a red brick church, its eerie windows reaching out into the street.

A chill inside was not merely physical. The icy fingers of tragedy reached out from the side chapels to touch our human hearts.

A memorial window dedicated to Katyn 1940. No words can speak of that.

The disturbing image of many heads and faces. A grey crowd, marching where? And why? I still don’t know. Tried to find out, to no avail.

There are some things that Wroclaw doesn’t seem to want to share.

And Pope John Paul XXII. A son of the city. A beacon of hope for those in despair, like the Madonnas and their offerings of amber, pearls and gold.

 

 

 

This was my first impression.

Cold churches and sad, haunted faces kneeling to pray, lighting candles in the darkness.

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But, striding onwards, jewel-rich Christmas lights revealed a gingerbread house come to life.  Streets bustling with people, hatted and coated, mittened and booted. Going places or nowhere, seeing things or rushing home.

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We missed the Christmas market, but the city remained beautiful in celebration as Wraclow’s year as European Capital of Culture drew to an end

lightsWe found a place to eat. With some difficulty. Despite a full hand of street maps to help us on our way.

I always rely on the expeditionary man to navigate my way round strange places. If you ask us both which way to go, then always, always, trust his answer, that’s my advice.

But something went wrong with his sixth sense in Wroclaw.

It took two days to work out why.

It was simple. He needed to know which way the north lay.

I tried drawing an arbitrary north on one of the better maps we’d acquired.

He sniffed the air, like a beagle seeking the trail – and sighed.

‘The shadows are falling the wrong way.’

We found our way, after that, when he recognised it for himself. But as for the rest of our wanderings – I’m going to let pictures and captions do most of the telling. I can’t do any better with words.

It was both a magical and a disturbing experience.

A swashbuckling history of heroic resistance – or dreadful inhumanity – depending on your sympathies.

From the tenth century onwards, this place has been tossed – or offered itself – from nation to nation, ruler to ruler, warlord to warlord – like some chip in a high-stakes gambling den.

Poland, Germany, Prussia, Bohemia, France, Sweden and – of course – the USSR. Before the states and princes, the Tartars’ galloping hordes.

Its recent past is one the liberal west warms to – the rise of Solidarity, the election of 1989, the victory of Lech Walesa in the presidential election of 1990.

The transition to a post-communist state. The entry into the EU.

And this beautiful old city is a monument to resurrection. A phoenix-like community, rising from its own ashes, again and again.

In the case of its Jewish inhabitants, literally so.

The citizens of Breslau (as Wroclaw was in its German days) welcomed the National Socialists.

An old photograph of the synagogue that was destroyed by fire in 1938, in an exhibition in the White Stork Synagogue

An old photograph of the synagogue that was destroyed by fire in 1938, in an exhibition in the White Stork Synagogue

On Kristallnacht in 1938, the grand old synagogue was burned to the ground.

White Stork synagogue

White Stork synagogue

Now, The White Stork Synagogue is resplendent in its calm façade. But it enshrines yet more tragedy. Individuals. Families. Masses.

Innocent lives lost to fear of the other, to intolerance, cruelty and genocide.

Most chilling of all was realising that the last (let’s hope) state-inspired exodus of Jewish people from the city happened as recently as 1968.

 

There are all sorts of reasons the why the guide books might be reticent about certain things.

Perhaps the omissions are accidental – or perhaps the pain is too deep. Or the shame.

Or, possibly, pride gets in the way.

I don’t know and don’t purport to know.

I do know we saw a host of poignant, breath-taking, glorious, quirky things in Wroclaw.

This ancient university city has espoused learning, embraced beauty, championed the new and cherished the old. Its rebuilt city a monument to its own belief in itself.

Yes, the city casts long shadows. But here’s the thing about shadows – if you listen to what they’re saying, they help you find your way.


 

I have assembled some of my pictures into collages (below) – they get more lighthearted towards the end …


One picture of the damage inflictedon Cathedral Island in World War II; a bust of Edith Stein, also known as St Teresa of the Cross, in Wroclaw town hall - born in Breslau, now Wroclaw, into the Jewish faith. later becoming atheist and finally converting to Catholicisim, Edith was a philosopher, she became a nun eventually and the Nazis took her from her convent in the Netherlands to Auschwitrz where she died in 1942 in the gas chamber; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, native of Breslau, was a Lutheran pastor and theologian and active in the resistance in World War II who has had a profound impact on the Christian church- he too died at the hand of the Nazis, being executed at Flossenburg in April 1845.

At the top left a picture of the damage inflicted on Cathedral Island in World War II; right, a bust of Edith Stein, also known as St Teresa of the Cross, in Wroclaw town hall. She was born in Breslau, now Wroclaw, into the Jewish faith and later became first an atheist then converted to Catholicisim. Edith was a philosopher and she eventually became a nun. The Nazis took her from her convent in the Netherlands to Auschwitz where she died in 1942 in the gas chamber. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also a native of Breslau, was a Lutheran pastor and theologian active in the resistance in World War II who has had a profound impact on the Christian church- he too died at the hand of the Nazis, being executed at Flossenburg in April 1845.

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All around the old town you’ll find these little dwarfs but, cute as some of them are, there’s a deeper meaning behind their presence. The first dwarf was painted on a wall in 1982 and was a symbol of the resistance to the Communist regime.

Rising above the city streets are the restored (after over 50% being destroyed in WWII) towers of St Mary Magdalene, founded in 1359. A bridge links the towers and many steps lead to it – I have vertigo but had to do it. Note the characteristic red and green roof.

Rising above the city streets are the restored (after over 50% being destroyed in WWII) towers of St Mary Magdalene, founded in 1359. A bridge links the towers and many steps lead to it – I have vertigo but had to do it. Note the characteristic red and green roof.

Views from the top (more steps) of the Mathematical Tower atop one of the university’s buildings which is famous for its baroque art

Views from the top (more steps) of the Mathematical Tower atop one of the university’s buildings which is famous for its baroque art

University architecture and art – I have learned I really don’t like baroque style but it is impressive

University architecture and art – I have learned I really don’t like baroque style but it is impressive

All from the old town centre except the top right image from Cathedral island. The narrow blue building was our drinking spot, Academicus bar. The tower is of St Elisabeth’s church – the place I found most spiritually evocative – sparse decoration and severe windows and side chapels but a very beautiful altar. Couldn’t find out what the black figures on the corner building were all about.

All from the old town centre except the top right image from Cathedral island. The narrow blue building was our drinking spot, Academicus bar. The tower is of St Elisabeth’s church – the place I found most spiritually evocative – sparse decoration and severe windows and side chapels but a very beautiful altar. Couldn’t find out what the black figures on the corner building were all about.

Cathedral island. The twin-turreted cathedral itself left me unmoved despite the heroic endeavour of its rebuilding after WWII. All the other places I wanted to see where shut. The river Oder was looking very beautiful though. The red brick building linked by a kind of bridge has a legend attached – the ‘dumpling gate’. I’ve run out of steam or I would share it!

Cathedral island. The twin-turreted cathedral itself left me unmoved despite the heroic endeavour of its rebuilding after WWII. All the other places I wanted to see where shut. The river Oder was looking very beautiful though. The red brick building linked by a kind of bridge has a legend attached – the ‘dumpling gate’. I’ve run out of steam or I would share it!

Odds and ends - a window display in a lingerie shop, memorials form St Mary Magdalene church, an owl fresco from the city hall, Madonna from St Elisabeth’s, amazing flower arrangements at the market (how come flower arrangements speak a different language too?), a depiction of a trader sitting on a basket under an umbrella before the market building was theirs, the Polish Meridian line from 1791, a handle on a church door and a tram

Odds and ends – a window display in a lingerie shop, memorials form St Mary Magdalene church, an owl fresco from the city hall, Madonna from St Elisabeth’s, amazing flower arrangements at the market (how come flower arrangements speak a different language too?), a depiction of a trader sitting on a basket under an umbrella before the market building was theirs, the Polish Meridian line from 1791, a handle on a church door and a tram

The decor of Mama Manousch restaurant - so stylish and the best ever food - wild boar fillet and foamy things, white truffle paste wiht the bread I causally asked for... oh man! - and very reasonable ; elsewhere, pork chop with plums, fondant potatoes and sauerkraut, plus smoked cheese and cranberries in something green and tasty and a good view of the brick wall and associated floating fella; baguette with fresh blackcurrant confit at Vincents; John Lemon at the city museum; a very big pretzel at the Academicus bar (glass of Polish red wine lurking in the background

The decor of Mama Manousch restaurant – soooo stylish and the best ever food – wild boar fillet and foamy things, white truffle paste with the bread I causally asked for… oh man! – and very reasonable ; elsewhere, pork chop with plums, fondant potatoes and sauerkraut, plus smoked cheese and cranberries in something green and tasty and a good view of the brick wall and associated floating fella; baguette with fresh blackcurrant confit at Vincents; John Lemon at the city museum; a very big pretzel at the Academicus bar (glass of Polish red wine lurking in the background

I had to include this, taken somewhat surreptitiously I must admit, I felt guilty, in the Church of the Blessed Virgin on the way to Cathedral Island, In a side chapel is a massive nativity display - the Rocking Crib (there is one) - a display of lights, animations (old fashioned) and dolls/toys - very touching and very popular but imagine dusting it.

I had to include this, taken somewhat surreptitiously I must admit, I felt guilty, in the Church of the Blessed Virgin on the way to Cathedral Island, In a side chapel is a massive nativity display – the Rocking Crib (there is one) – a display of lights, animations (old fashioned) and dolls/toys – very touching and very popular but imagine dusting it.

And finally! Check out the guy with the hose pipe trained on the dust rising from the demolitions - what a job! It was freezing. Thought he deserved recognition ;-)

And finally! Check out the guy with the hose pipe trained on the dust rising from the demolitions – what a job! It was freezing. Thought he deserved recognition 😉

*[Wroclaw is the capital of Lower Silesia in Poland and is a nightmare to pronounce – think of it as Roteslaf – that’s not anywhere near accurate – but it’s better than rocklaw]

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10 Responses to Lights – and darkness. An encounter with Poland

  1. Alison Parry says:

    Thanks; very evocative! I do think your ‘travel writing’ is brilliant and tonnes better than the stuff I read in the travel supplements. Were you there for any academic meetings or for a pure holiday! ?
    Thanks for sharing such an interesting city! I’ve heard Gdansk is similarly fascinating and I know of a guide for the city married to a Londoner if you ever wish to travel there. Alison x

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    • Happy new year Alison! Thanks so much for your kind comments – we may well do Gdansk one day but I think next up might be Denmark – but who knows where the wind of whim will blow us? No, no business this time, pure fancy. Mx

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  2. So much to see /absorb in this post. Appreciate all your time composing it – and your impressions/observations. There is magic – and sadness. I love architecture – even the “ordinary” buildings. (but Baroque is a bit overwhelming) That nativity scene so lovely and extensive, but as you say, the dusting must be time consuming . But the stories told with it over the years – would be so interesting to be able to be a fly on those walls listening.
    Your travel post is much better than so many – Cool!

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    • Thanks so much – I did begin to regret taking quite so many pictures but the picmonkey collage function saved the day! I realise, now you mention it, I actually had some ‘ordinary’ pictures set aside but failed to add them – communist concrete blocks degenerating, cobbled streets and tram lines, graffiti … but never mind. Can’t do it all. And I also felt that poor old Wroclaw deserved a bit of a focus on light and beauty too! The Christmas lights overheard conversations thing – yes, great idea… off you go! (Or can I steal it?)

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  3. Christa says:

    Really interesting blog, makes me want to drop everything and visit. We went to Krakow a few years ago, and found a similarly evocative (and tragic) past history, together with some beautiful architecture – and good food! Lovely photos too – your new camera I take it!

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    • Yep, new camera – just a point and shoot but seems pretty good given the poor workwoman who normally blames her tools! I’ll have to ration myself in future, this took waaaay too long to put together. But thank you for helping make it seem worthwhile! 🙂

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  4. Thel says:

    I loved the little dwarves, especially the one with the tiny knitted cape and booties! What a complicated and fascinating part of the world. Thanks for sharing your trip.

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  5. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Thank you for writing this . This is such good background material for me, as I’m writing about Poland (even though my novel does not go to Wroclaw). Didn’t know Bonhoffer was a native or about Wroclaw’s participation in Kristallnight.

    We visited in 2008, staying in Szczecin, Gdansk, Czechostowa, Bielsko-Biała and Krakow. What I do remember, from when we visited, were the German wording on railway stations and the like, especially in Bielsko-Biała. The receptionist at the hotel in Gdansk warned us not to go to Bielsko-Biała, that it wasn’t a nice place to go, but then he was presiding over an establishment whereby (in our room anyway) you had to climb over the toilet to reach the wash basin. Over the road (in a private house) an armchair was being displayed in a glass showcase, several feet off the ground. And when we visited Westerplatte (where the Nazis first landed, thereby precipating WW2), the sound system on our ferry was playing The Spinners in Polish.

    I found the churches chaotic, in a good way, because they were being used, rather than being museums (as some of our cathedrals tend to be).

    We really want to go back to Poland, but keep going to other places instead. (We’re going to India in exactly two weeks time.)

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    • Fortuitous timing – and glad to be of use 😉 I’m fascinated by what you say about the armchair (and other things too but I have a clear image of the display chair in my head). It’s a country that obviously has a lot of undercurrents – some not so under. An old college friend of mine told me in response to this that her next door neighbour here in the UK is from Wroclaw but rather than have to explain it tells people she’s from Austria. In the context of 20th c history I do find that odd. Yes, I agree about the churches – I loved the ‘real’ churches we went into, there was a rawness about them, the emotion very near the surface. And well used. In one a priest was vacuuming the side aisle and signed to my husband to take off his hat (it was so cold he bought a furry hat). The rocking crib scenes were really touching, so old fashioned but a real and massive labour of love – and plainly much loved by families who were flocking in to see it. I did feel a bit of shame at being there as a tourist. I’d like to go to other places now – and also the the parks where the bison and wolves live. Have a wonderful time in India. Stay well.

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