Wroclaw: Exploring this Diverse City

Wroclaw’s (Breslau, Germany, before 1945) stunning medieval Market Square dates from the 13th century and is one of the largest in Europe. The commanding Gothic City Hall, which took over 200 years to build, is surrounded by exquisite period houses. By the end of World War II half the city was in ruins. Major reconstruction brought much of Old Town back to its glory days. I always made sure a daily stroll through the lively plaza was on my agenda.

Recent history of the Polish people in Wroclaw began in 1945.  As a result of the *Potsdam Conference, under pressure from Russia, it was agreed that the southern Polish-German boundary be moved west, putting Breslau within the borders of Poland instead of Germany.  The German population was subsequently evacuated.  Hundreds of thousands of Poles were evacuated from western Ukraine at the same time due to a similar border change.  A large portion settled in Wroclaw. This forced migration of both Germans and Poles happened during a brutal winter, resulting in misery and death to tens of thousands.

One afternoon my **Servas Host Joanna invited me to lunch at the home of her Mother Bogusia. With Joanna acting as interpreter, Bogusia related the heartbreaking story of her family being evacuated in a cattle car from the old Capital city of Lviv, Ukraine, following the war. New Polish arrivals in Warsaw occupied deserted flats furnished with items left behind by evacuated Germans. Her family was one of them.

The Legacy of the Communist Era

The legacy of the communist-era government is apparent around Wroclaw in different forms – especially in the form of bronze statues and architecture.

A Polish anti-communist group in the 80’s started what has become a trendy placement of bronze dwarfs around town. I often passed delighted children posing beside them while families took photos.

The rather austere New Market Square encircled with communist era block buildings at first appeared to me like an empty shell waiting to be filled in. I came to realize the current state of New Market Square was an excellent example of communist era architecture. One of my **Servas Host Tomasz told me the government is talking about making the square a historical site, to protect it as such. Near the end of World War II the square was a scene of heavy Russian bombardment because the Nazi’s had ammunition there which they used against the Russians. As a result the historic plaza and surrounding period buildings were totally destroyed.

The Monument Passage, an eye-catching piece of street art in Wroclaw, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the declaration of martial law during the Soviet era. Seven bronze life-size pedestrians appear to be swallowed into the pavement only to reemerge on the other side of the street. The artist’s work left me spellbound momentarily, as I felt the resilience and determination of the people who lived through this time.

It’s Market Time!

A popular Sunday flea market in Wroclaw surrounded the old train station among rusty hulks of derelict trains and along what appear to be unused train tracks. The second-hand items for sale in this setting created an atmosphere of old world, former East Bloc, activity.

In contrast, the lively indoor old Market Hall (Hala Targowa) which I visited regularly, seldom failed to entice me to buy something. While there I ate traditional food at a milk bar, bought fresh fruit, and sampled fresh baked goods at a bakery.

Whenever I wandered through an outdoor flea market, or through a colorful indoor market hall, I always found it to be an adventure and entertaining at the same time.

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*Potsdam Conference – Stalin, Churchill and Truman gathered in Potsdam, occupied Germany, in 1945, with the main goal of how to administer the defeated Nazi Germany .(as per Wikipedia)

**Servas is an International non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Wroclaw & the District of Mutual Respect

Wroclaw, (formerly Breslau, Germany) sits at the crossroads of Europe in western Poland. Its diverse religions, cultural and architectural makeup over the centuries has been formed by Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Austrians, and Jews.

While in Wroclaw when not staying at the home of a *Servas Host, I stayed in a guesthouse in a historic building in the area called the “District of Mutual Respect.”  This area was so named because of the fact that churches of three denominations, Lutheran, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, and a Jewish synagogue, are all in close proximity to each other in this neighborhood.  It is also known as the Old Jewish Quarter.  It is along former defensive fortifications of the city which were demolished by Napoleon.

The beautifully-restored White Stork Synagogue lined one side of the courtyard of the building where I was staying. It was the second largest in Germany before WWII. What stopped the German Nazis from torching the White Stork Synagogue on Krystallnacht in 1938, as they did the New Synagogue, the largest in Breslau (built 1865-1872), was because of its close proximity to other buildings and the fire hazard that might create.

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A brief synopsis of Wroclaw’s German past, which spanned centuries:

Breslau (now Wroclaw) was part of the Kingdom of Prussia (German) starting in 1742.  It became part of the German Empire in 1871, then the Weimar Republic (German inter-war period), and then Nazi Germany in 1933. When Breslau, Germany, became part of Poland in 1945 as a result of border changes following World War II, the name of the city was changed to Wroclaw, Poland.

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Often I looked out my window late at night at the floodlit courtyard and pondered the types of activity that must have taken place there over the centuries starting with the construction of the huge synagogue in 1829. I visualized the crowds of Jews gathered before and after a service up until it’s destruction during Krystallnacht. Soon thereafter Jews who had been rounded up in the neighborhood were brought here before being taken to a concentration camp. Then some years after the war, renovation of the courtyard took place by a sheik who purchased some of the buildings in it.And now, even during cold winter evenings, life hums under my window with a few customers in the outdoor cafes.

Somehow I always felt secure knowing I was staying in such close proximity to this synagogue, which I noticed had good security. I realized at the time that this may have been a false notion, given the history of the Jews in Poland and Europe, in general.

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Architectural diversity, centuries apart, exists side-by-side in Old Town

*Servas is an International non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Impressions of Gdansk – Part II

The historic Market Hall (Hala Targowa) in a lovely 19th century building, was where I stopped daily for oranges. I felt I was entering a colorful old railway station each time. The Polish bakeries there were hard to pass up.

The dramatic Monument to Shipyard Workers Fallen in 1970 is located in front of the Solidarity Museum at the shipyard where it all happened. A 45-minute walk along the waterfront took me from the pristine, reconstructed Main Town to the industrialized area of the old Gdansk Shipyard. Solidarity became the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country in the 1980’s, and led to the peaceful fall of communism in Poland in 1989. The views of the current and former shipyard (now a wasteland) from the top of the museum, helped me grasp how extensive the shipyard had been in the past when the Lech Walesa led thousands of workers on strike in 1980.

The Gdansk Opera House, where I attended an opera with *Servas Host Wojtek one evening, was elegant. Our trolley stop was announced over a loud speaker by the melodic voice of a tenor. I felt under-dressed that night wearing my finest tourist attire among the “gentry.” The performance was superb.

The New Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in Gdansk, dates from 1929. A man wearing a kippah (skull cap) who greeted me when I rang the doorbell directed me to a display which told, in part, the moving story of the Jews in Gdansk over the centuries. Because of the Nazi influence early in the 1930’s, most of Gdansk’s pre-war Jewish population had time to escape to avoid the Holocaust.

Later I found the former location of the Old Synagogue which had been demolished by the Nazi-dominated government in 1939. It was the largest synagogue in the city dating from 1885. In its place was a dramatic, windowless Shakespeare Theater. The severity of this building seemed appropriate, given the history of its location.

The World War II Museum which traces the fate of Poland during the war, rises majestically out of what used to be wasteland on the outskirts of town. The design of the modern building with its leaning tower and glass facade and ceiling is full of symbolism of the past, present, and future. The impressive presentations raised many questions for me. This prompted me to do some online research about the war at my guesthouse that evening, followed by sending several emails to a friend in the USA to help me with answers.

The lovely new Philharmonic Hall was my destination one evening with Ellen, a Norwegian woman from my guesthouse. We walked over the river a beautifully-lit ultra-modern footbridge to get there. The concert goers were dressed to-the-nines, making people-watching that night superb. The acoustics in the theatre were exceptional.

Ellen is enjoying being a tourist in between her dental appointments in Gdansk. She said that the dentists that specialize in “dental tourism” for foreigners in Gdansk charge half the price for the same procedures in Norway and are equally qualified. I found this particularly interesting given I will be experiencing a similar situation in Costa Rica in a couple of months when I plan to get some dental work done there. Both of us got a good chuckle about this coincidence. Dental tourism on a world-wide scale is here to stay, I thought.

Children frolicking and playing with swans along the Baltic coast warmed my heart on a cold, clear day. * Servas Host Wojtek and I took a half hour bus ride one Sunday from Gdansk to the Baltic coast. The sand was fine; the cold wind coming in from the sea was brutal; snow was on the ground. Joggers and families with baby carriages jostled for space along the icy boardwalk. Everyone we encountered that day seemed oblivious to the frigid weather; we were not.

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*Servas is an International non-profit organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Impressions of Poland’s Port City of Gdansk – Part I

Often when I sat at the desk in my charming guesthouse in Gdansk while enjoying my room-with-a-view overlooking a small river, impressions of Gdansk flooded my mind. So I wrote them down.

Poland’s historic port city of Gdansk straddles the Motlawa River, which eventually empties into the Baltic Sea.

Impressions of Gdansk….

A monument depicting children with suitcases in front of the train station was my first thought-provoking image of Gdansk as I departed from the train station on arrival from Warsaw. The Monument to the Evacuated Children is in memory of the Jewish children of Gdansk who were evacuated from Gdansk to Britian (1938-1939) in what became known as “kindertransport” The man responsible for this monument, sculptor Frank Meisler, was one of those children.

Neptune Fountain on the promenade of the old Royal Way in the Main Town demanded my attention every time I passed it. This road with its centuries-old architecture, was resurrected from the ruins of World War II. The Royal Way stretched for 500 meters from the commanding Green Gate on the waterfront to the equally grand Upland Gate at the other end. I tried never to miss a daily stroll here. Old Town, without defenses, was the poorer part of town over the centuries and was occupied mainly by the Polish people. The richer part of town was the Main Town with its defenses and was more “German”

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The history of Gdansk diverted from the path of the rest of Poland periodically. Gdansk has been an international trading center for centuries with a local German-Polish population. 1920-1939 (Inter-war period) the city was a semi-independent state known as the Free City of Danzig with a German majority. In 1945 Gdansk was a battle ground between Germany and Russia, leaving much of the city in ruin. After the war Gdansk became part of Poland again. German civilians fled and the city was then occupied by Poles mostly coming from territories eastward that had been lost to the Soviet Union.

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The Gdansk Crane (Zuraw), a massive medieval structure looms high over a section of the Moltawa River in the Main Town. The views of the riverfront and beyond were captivating from the top (no elevator!). Built in 1442, it was used to transfer cargo, hoist up masts on ships, and also served as a fortified gate to the city.

Whenever I found myself disoriented in the waterfront area, the sight of the Zuraw helped orient me. Invariably I would then make a detour down a narrow, picturesque street nearby with its rows of porches and assorted display cases of amber jewelry and shops.

The waterfront promenade along the Motlawa River was usually full of local families and tourists enjoying the cafes, restaurants, and shops. Sailing and ocean-going vessels, old and new straddled the river. I visited the National Maritime Museum on the promenade then took the small, historic Motlawa ferry to the rest of the museum (one minute ride to an island). It is believed that since 1687 there has been a ferry plying the waters between the city and the island. The ride on this unique boat alone was worth the ticket of admission to the museum.

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Warsaw: The Former Jewish District and the Right Bank

   I had the privilege of exploring the expansive former Jewish district of Warsaw with a local *Servas host who had an intimate knowledge of the area, having lived there most of his life. Most of the territory we visited, which had been turned into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and then destroyed during the war, was now rebuilt, much of it with communist era block buildings.

I met Mirek one afternoon at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was a final act of defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto of the Jewish resistance against German-occupied Poland. The monument was located in the former Warsaw Ghetto just outside the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a dramatic postmodern structure of glass and concrete.

After a short trolly ride we arrived in a lively area. Cast iron plates set in the pavement which marked the boundaries of the ghetto seemed to appear out of nowhere. We passed monuments and plaques commemorating events that happened in the vicinity, some of which were gruesome reminders of WWII, others that were simply intriguing. Cartoons painted on a couple of walls depicted Jewish entertainment when the area was in its prime just before WWII. It made me want to experience the vitality of the era.

We paused in front of a communist era building where Mirek raised his family in a small flat. Eventually he managed to buy a larger one in another part of town where he lives today.

Following the evacuation of Warsaw in 1945 Mirek’s family lived in a three room apartment with three other families in Praga, a district of Warsaw just over the river (the right bank) from the Old Town. Praga managed to escape the major destruction inflicted on other parts of Warsaw at the end of WWII because of its location. Many families that had been evacuated from destroyed Warsaw ended up moving into flats in Praga after the war, at least temporarily. Gradually two of the families moved out of the apartment where Mirek was living. He lived there for years.

As we parted, Mirek directed me to a historic food hall in the old Jewish district. The colorful flower market in the 19th century marketplace was bursting with activity. I changed some money at a good rate there.

Praga is a rather bohemian part of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula River and is gradually becoming gentrified. I could feel the energy when I alighted from the new underground subway station at a bustling corner which was at the entrance to a gleaming new mall. A beautiful multi-domed Russian Orthodox Church across the street demonstrated Soviet presence from the past. Pre World War II buildings pock-marked with bullet holes were nearby. Graffiti with a message adorned various old exposed walls. It was an area filled with contrasts, which is what made Praga so interesting.

 

 

 

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* Servas is an international non profit peace organization of hosts and travelers http://www.USServas.org

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Warsaw: The Old Town, The Royal Route, and Stalin’s Legacy

My first introduction to enigmatic city of Warsaw, which straddles the banks of the Vistula River, was at dusk while I was walking to my reserved accommodations after alighting from a trolley. I had just arrived by train from Krakow after a comfortable three-hour ride. I suddenly came face-to-face with the looming dark granite monument called Warsaw Rising.

It was in honor of the Polish uprising against occupying German forces in 1944. Beside the monument was an inviting granite bench which, when I pushed a button, played a few bars of one of Chopin’s compositions. For a few moments I lost myself in his heavenly music and forgot about the inhospitable elements of snow, ice and bitter cold which I was dealing with.

Such was my introduction to the neighborhood where I was planning on staying for a week.

My accommodations were located just outside the Barbicon, a semi-circular fortified outpost of the old walled city. I threw my backpack on my bed, put on one more layer of clothing, and took off to explore. The Barbicon was lit with a glow that was magical in the crisp night air. A musician played a guitar in a brick alcove, adding to the atmosphere. The Old Town Market Square which is the center and oldest part of Old Town, was just ahead. Ice skaters were gliding – some gracefully, others not – around an ice rink in the middle of the square. Multi-colored lights fanned out overhead. Colorful merchants’ houses from the 17th and 18th centuries encircled the square.

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A brief synopsis of Warsaw’s World War II and reconstruction history –

By the time World War II began in 1939, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million. 380,000 of them were Jews.  Soon after Poland fell a Jewish ghetto was built in a major part of the city. In a retaliatory effort by the Germans following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, they systematically destroyed the city. Soon after the communists came into power in 1945, it was decided to reconstruct the historic Old Town making it look like it did before the war. This resulted in Old Town being selected to be on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.

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The meeting place for a *free Old Town walking tour was in Castle Square just outside the Old Town Market Square at Sigismund’s Column. This statue commemorates King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Sandra, our walking tour guide, covered Warsaw’s history in depth as our group of international tourists strolled the back streets of the Old Town. 

Strolling along the Royal Route which connects the Royal Castle with former royal residences, was one of my favorite past-times.  Piano concerts featuring Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s compositions, which I attended several times, were performed in intimate surroundings along the Royal Route. Each performance with internationally acclaimed artists was superb.

Stalin’s commanding Palace of Culture, a symbol of the country’s communist past, dominates Warsaw’s skyline. At the Visitor Information Center there they suggested I visit the nearby historic Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw. The irony of this suggestion, considering Stalin’s policy of atheism, didn’t escape me.

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*www.FreeWalkingTour.com

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Servas in Krakow and the Communist Era

Several of the *Servas Hosts I had the pleasure of meeting during my visit in Krakow I would describe as minimalists, in the best sense of the word. They all lived in Poland during the communist era following WWII when the doctrine of socialist realism was in force (1949 to 1956). The idea was to build as much housing as possible in the least amount of time for the least price possible. Concrete block housing containing small flats became the norm in Poland.

One evening while I was dining with Servas Hosts Andrzej and his wife Ewa in their three room flat in a ten-story housing block in Krakow, Andrzej proudly proclaimed that he was a minimalist. They raised two children here. They both said this flat, which they own, suits them perfectly; they wouldn’t want want anything larger. I loved their frankness.

Krystyn, a single Servas Host with whom I stayed two days, lives in a small flat in a similar housing block in Krakow. She has been teaching free-lance English there for years. In the evenings we strolled the major pedestrian street in the Old Town and dined in interesting establishments.

I will never forget the evening she introduced me to a milk bar (“bar meleczny”). A hold-over from the communist era, milk bars are no-frills, self-serve, cafeteria-style dining. They have good food at a great price, my favorite being pierogi, traditional Polish dumplings. People from all walks of Polish life dine in these places along with tourists looking for a genuine Polish experience. The norm is for menus to be posted boldly on a wall in Polish and the food hidden from view in the kitchen. Finding milk bars and learning how to order in Polish became an intriguing part of my current travel adventure from that day on.

It was cozy staying in Krystyn’s small flat. She once lived with her Mother in the planned socialist community in the outskirts of Krakow known as Nowa Huta.

I decided to visit historic Nova Huta, curious about what a planned utopian city built by the communists was like.

Nowa Huta (literally The New Steel Mill) which houses about 200,000 people, was a planned a utopian city, built in the early 1950’s by the communists. The atmosphere around the stone grey block buildings which lined the broad avenues felt very heavy and austere. A couple of restaurants and a few shops broke up the monotony of the main square where Lenin’s giant bronze statue once stood.

Another Servas Host I met named Anna had also lived in Nova Huta at one time. Her elderly Mother whom she cares for still lives there. Anna lives in a small flat with her husband in another part of town. 

Anna teaches business English at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the oldest university in the country, dating from 1364. On day she invited me to speak in one of her classes about how I developed my guesthouse business in America.  Eventually a discussion ensued in English about the hopes and dreams of the students in the area of business. We discussed Poland’s recent entry into the Economic Community (EU) and how their knowledge of English will help them take advantage of the opportunity that is on their doorstep. Their enthusiasm was heartwarming.

The Servas Hosts I met in Krakow were sincere, gracious people.  I found it moving how content they were with their unique, minimal housing situation as described above. Apparently the huge apartment buildings the communists built following WWII are still serving the needs of people today.

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* Servas is a non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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