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Saturday, 11 July 2015

Poland. Resilient and Proud. I have a lot to learn.

Palace of Culture and Learning (Pałac Kultury i Nauki)

On arrival in Warsaw I asked Mat how long Warsaw had been the capital. He couldn’t answer (I was sort of expecting this) because a country that has so often been occupied by others, dominated and restructured (read – pulled into pieces and put back together again according to the wills (whims?) of other dominating nations, during frequent periods of war and – in particular – when obliterated by the Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1940.

Some Indication of Changes in Poland over time

One might think that Poland might be a country with an identity crisis, having been subjugated so many times; that it would have lost its personality and its people would have no common features to characterise them as a nation. The opposite of this is the alternative: to cling faithfully to certain features of Polish heritage, and it seems that Poland opted for the latter. If Poland is God’s Playground, then throughout all of the games Poland is resilient and persistent in her will to survive. (And however much I satirised aspects of Poland in a previous post, it is this resilience and survival which stands out as Poland’s most imposing feature.)

St Paul's Cathedral, London. (Rebuilt at least twice, with different designs
in contrast with the Polish reconstructions of their lost cities

In Britain I consider we have a great number of beautiful buildings with truly artisanal architecture. The mighty ones: St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, Salisbury Cathedral, the great castles of Wales and Scotland. And the humble: Cotswold cottages, dry stone walls throughout the Peak District, alms houses, which can be found throughout the country, and so on.

Warsaw Old Square

The Poles also have their many, many beautiful buildings – the presidents’ residences in Warsaw are impressive, so too the Opera house and the stone apartment blocks (kamienice) and beautiful, colourful buildings flanking the town square. But what sets Poland apart from Britain is that all the buildings I have just mentioned are reconstructions of buildings which were destroyed in the mass assault on Warsaw by Nazi Germany (you’ll also find this in Budapest and much of previously Nazi occupied Europe). The photographs of the (then) devastated city show shells of buildings, their insides brutally excavated and the once orderly, majestic buildings a crematoria and necropolis of shelled ruins, stone rubble in mounds throughout the few surviving partial structures. Would we really have rebuilt all of our structures – rebuilt our history – if our structures and surroundings were wiped out or tried again and again?

Poland in Ruins

Poland is often referred to as God’s Playground because of the enormous struggles it has been through as a country. Mat and I have been meaning to visit for years, since he taught in one of the university cities, Toruń, for a year and loves Poland.

Warsaw's Old Square, by night

Today, visiting Warsaw’s main ‘old square’ there is no evidence of this destruction, apart from the many stone and metal commemorative plaques to be found frequently at the sides of buildings. After the Second World War, a war in which 1/5 of the Polish population died, I considered whether there was enough left of Poland or the old ‘Poland’ to move forward without losing the history of the place, and its defining features. I considered this, but realised it could not be true. The stunning historical buildings of the town square that were shelled to the ground now stand again. The cornices and details of the architecture have been re-built, the gold and colourful paintings on the buildings have been replaced, the cobbles re-laid. From what I have seen – Kraków and Warsaw - Poland is a phoenix, rising again and again from the ashes of its persecution.

Kraków view from the castle

If I can see anything that can be called ‘positive’ in some way emerging from such horrors as Poland has suffered throughout its entire existence, it is in this resilience and refusal to be maimed by its misfortunes. I have both insufficient room here and certainly insufficient expertise, here, to cover Poland’s many, many struggles; suffice to say that I have now visited the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, Schindler’s Factory in Kraków and the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, and I need a few years of reading purely Polish history to have a hope of understanding to any full extent the multitude of troubles this country has undergone. But the Poles got up and rebuilt their cities. They applied and have passed on their master craftsmanship to enable them to build the elaborate homes, churches, synagogues, municipal buildings, statue and the furniture and interiors to accompany them.

Warsaw Old Town Wall

I wouldn’t have the first idea whom to ask in Britain to build me a 19th century style stone colonnade, but I’m guessing there would be many master craftsmen in Poland who could undertake this. Craftsmen in the true sense of that word still thrive in Poland. I guess I have been trying over the last year to rebuild myself; I'm not even doing well at that! I might still be here and look alright on the outside, but I could blow over like a stalk of corn in the wind...


Mass consumerism is visible everywhere, more present (Mat tells me) today than ten or twenty years ago and there is a culture of hard work (i.e. that work isn't always fun or the ideal) where people take the jobs which are available to support themselves, unlike many Britons who apparently would prefer welfare than a job which appears to them to be degrading or distasteful. Of course, I visited as a tourist, and only saw two of Poland’s major cities rather than rural areas or smaller towns. It's striking and impressive that Poland is carries on, despite its challenges.

Kraków Old Town Square

Some recommended places we visited on our trip are listed below, which you may want to look into if you’re planning a trip to Poland. However, although so many things were fascinating, beautiful and delicious, my main takeaway from Poland is to be impressed by the resilience and ability to be flexible in the face of so very many challenges, and to be regenerating and yet maintaining its chequered history. How many of us could be so resilient and maintain an identity as a culture or as a family, or as individuals? I think not many. I have a lot to learn from Poland.

Museums to visit:
  • The Jewish Museum, Warsaw. Allow at least three hours for your visit, wear very comfortable shoes, and plan to do this historical / educational activity as your only one for the day of your visit, as there is so much to absorb in this multi-media, imaginative presentation of the history of Judaism in Poland from the earliest origins to the present day.
  • The Uprising Museum, Warsaw. We didn’t get to this, but again, as above, there is much to learn of the role of Warsaw in fighting against the Nazi invasion.
  • Auschwitz and Birkenau (two camps, which you visit as part of a single guided tour). You will need almost a full day for this (you'll leave around 9 and return for the late afternoon). I have read and learned a lot of this period in history, and of Auschwitz before. Following so many tourists around the site de-sensitised me to the impact of this place, now not a place where 'work makes you free' but where everyone is free to come and go as they wish. I'm privileged to have been able to visit it. 
  • Schindler’s Factory, Kraków. Allow two hours at least for your visit, again, wear comfortable shoes and make this your one educational activity for the day. There is a carefully plotted chronological journey through Kraków’s experience of occupation and persecution and a good documentary film about the factory itself, featuring a handful of survivors who worked there during WWII. I didn’t find there was enough information about Schindler and the factory – I expected much more emphasis on this – but it was still a very interesting museum. There is less translation of various aspects of the exhibits into English, so if possible a guide or audio guide would assist if you want to absorb absolutely everything.

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