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.
There are some things that Wroclaw doesn’t seem to want to share.
This was my first impression.
Cold churches and sad, haunted faces kneeling to pray, lighting candles in the darkness.
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.
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.
On Kristallnacht in 1938, the grand old synagogue was burned to the ground.
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 …
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.
*[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]