This is the approximate translation of a previous post: “Breslavia, 20 de febrero de 2010“, originally written in Spanish.
Some weeks ago, the tragedy of the Polish presidential plane crashing in Smolensk made me think about Katyn again, and also about that war and the idea of Poland and Polish identity. Some time ago the similarity between Poland and Korea occurred to me and how strange it is that both countries have survived sandwiched by such large empires or cultures. To be honest the simil is nothing but the typical nationalist deformation of history but it is not exempt of interest. Poland between Germany (Austria-Prussia) and Russia; Korea between China and Japan.
Actually, there are ways to imagine Poland inside the Russian Empire as Catalonia is inside Spain today. They would have been Catholic Slavs, one more nationality withing the Great Russian Motherland. Even more in a 19th century in which Eastern Europe was all about cultural and ethnic diversity. However, the story is what it was and if 19th century was the century of nationalisms, the wars of the 20th century and the population movements in its aftermath would consolidate them. The stones of our Breslau-Wrocław know well.
When I first read about Katyn I denied the facts. The Nazis had to be the perpetrators. I even believed , for a long time, that the pact Molotov-von Ribbentrop was a necessary wrong for the expansion of socialism. The story of the Polish-Russian relations is a complex one. It’s true that Stalinism assessinated more that twenty thousand Poles at Katyn, but the Soviet Union also won a country for Poland, or for a certain Poland, or to grab what today is Western Ukraine. Anyway, without the participation of the USSR Wrocław would still be a German city.
The exiled Polish Government in London (whose last president also died in Kaczynsky’s plane) was prepared to return to the 1939 borders. However, the new Polish communist government wanted and should annexionate Silesia and Pomerania. They needed that space to fit the “repatriated” from the Kresy. They called the conquered territories “recovered”, based on the borders of the territories of the Piast dinasty in the 12th century. Hardly a word in a Slavic language had been heard West of in the last two centuries. The population of the whole of the Lower Silesia and Oppeln (Polish: Opole) was German and mixed in Upper Silesia. That fact contributed to the expulsion of almost all of the Lower Silesians whereas in Oppeln and Upper Silesia some Polonizable were left. That’s the origin of the German minority that still exists in Poland, that sometimes defines itslef as “Silesian” and had to go through a process of Degermanization during the four decades of Communist regime.
The denazaification policies were also policies of degermanization. Wrocław’s last German school closed in 1963. Nowadays advertising for bilingual schools can be seen around. It is complicated to find vestiges of German culture. Old signs, memorials. In most places cemeteries graves were destroyed. Some old plaques can be found at St Elizabeth. Searching this legacy is as much of an interesting passtime as the photographic safari of dwarfs and gnomes.
The Rynek is a good place to start the passtime. For example, the statue of the writer Alexander Fedro is in the same pace as the previous occupiers’ Kaiser Wilhelm. Under the City Hall, which nowadys is a Ratusz and it was a Rathaus in the past, there is a famous restaurant, one of the oldest in Europe, as we were told. It is Świdnica’s cellar (Piwnica Świdnica), called in German Sweidnitz Keller, named after the city which rivalled Breslau in days of yore.
Not everything is about nacionalization. That’s maybe a process which is exhausted by its own success. Other processes are at work today: multiculturalism, globalization. A walk around the Rynek gives us the chance to see fast-food and sushi restaurants, and a salsa den named -in Spanish- La Casa de la Música. This is globalization working at its best. It first arrives to capital cities and then to cities with airports. Border areas are the first ones to receive the influx of funds and cultural influences.
That’s how pizzerias, hotel chains, rent-a-car companies and dealers of cars and foreign brands which fight for a niche in the market fill the landscape and the vocabulary with strangely spelled words. All of it mixed with the local roots and the history of the place. In the North side of the Rynek there is a bar called pod Zlotym Jeleniem (the golden deer) and the Schubert jeweller’s, some antiques shops, the aforementioned Casa de la Música and a Taverna Española (with a v, but in Spanish the word must be written with a b: Taberna).
Then we left the Rynek towards the Northwest and passed by one of the most damaged areas of the city during the war. That’s why the houses have been substituted by Soviet-style concrete blocks. It is easy to criticize their ugliness, but it is likely that they saved the lives of many in years in which life allowed for very few embellishments. Wita Stwosza, close to the church of St Mary Magdalene.
Following that street you can reach a Gallery Dominikanska, where one can see a Germanic invasion through commercial brands and shop chains. A functional building, converted into a capitalist temple. Twenty years back, one of these would have seemed impossible. We head to another temple, this one about the identity of the country and the city, which is also very intersesting in order to understand how it has been built: the Panorama Racławice.
The Panorama Racławice is a masterpiece worth seeing. Actually is a picture. Several canvasses in circular sucession giving form to the landscape in which the Battle of Racławice was fought. This battle saw Russian and Polish troops facing each other in 1794. The space between the platform from which the observers admire the work of art and the picture itself is covered by earth, vegetation, war spoils and other atrezzo elements that highlight the feeling of authenticity.
So far, nothing special except artistic greatness. The point is that the picture used to be exhibited in de city of Lvov (Polish: Lwów), now in the Ukraine, but pertaining to Poland before WWII. Apparently, most of those who repopulated Wrocław during and after the expulsion of the Germans came from Lwóv and around and they brought along their masterpiece. The problem was that the piece represented the victory of the 18th-century Poles against the Russians, then their enemies, but allied in the communist block one and a half centuries later. The panorama could not be exhibited for more than forty years. In the socialist Republic of Poland, Polish nationalism was a key element of political direction as far as it was anti-German, but it could never appear as anti-Russian. For the sake of the relations with the Soviet Union, proletarian internationalism and panslavic brotherhood could be taken out of the Marxist resources library. Hence the big lie of Katyn and others which live to this day.
I have the impression that Poles look at their history with a certain victimism and from outside it. Today it is very easy to criticize the Soviet Union and boast about anticommunism. It is hard to find a communist Pole or an openly francoist Spaniard, but it would be very difficult to explain how those regimes could last forty years which such a meagre social base. I admit that the sample of the people I talk to must be quite biased, as I have never ever found and Italian who admitted having voted for Berlusconi. In general, Poles have spoken to me about Communists using the past tense and the third person in plural, as if they were aliens. Regarding Russia, in spite of the slight improvement after the joint commemoration of Katyn y and the tragedy of Smolesk, the love-hate relationship between both Slavic brothers is a thorny one. I’d guess the Lower Silesians know the USSR won the war and this Silesian country for them.
From outside the building of Panorama the Cathedral can be seen, across the Oder (Polish: Odra). Before being there I had seen some short footage filmed in the city in en 1938 which starts with the same take. The fact that it was filmed in colour, infrequent in the 1930s, called my attention. Some sights of the city can be seen. A German military officer and his son go to the Polish border, that back then was quite far away.
Citing Goethe, Singer or Zymborska may be more appropriate but when I think in this city, the extermination of its Jews and the Jews of all of Central and Eastern Europe, or when I think in that German Breslau which does not exist anymore and other exteinct universes I understood Machado’s “yo amo los mundos sutiles, ingrávidos y gentiles como pompas de jabón” (I love the subtle worlds / weightless and charming / worlds like soap-bubbles).
Then we went to see the cathedral. A walk among the bridges. This is the oldest area of the city in which the first pre-historic settlements happened. I stopped to observe the cross in whose base the image of Saint John Nepomucene being thrown to the Moldau in Prague was sculpted. Then I had the occasion to see a similar image in Świdnica. Saint John’s cult was very popular in Bohemia and Silesia. Saint Hedwig (Polish: Jadwiga) is the local female saint.
A brief stopover in Hala Targowa market, which is a market as any other. More attractive outside than inside, where its looks can’t escape the concrete ugliness. In front of it, quite old, ramshackle tramways still pass by.
Then we head to the university, where the Aula Leopoldina can be visited. We didn’t like it as we found it to baroque and overelaborate, even if its style causes a certain impression. There is an interesting exhibition on the Nobel prizes who were part of the institution. It is said that Wrocław is the Easternmost city of Poland, as its post-war population comes from the Ukrainian border. The Universitas Wroclawiensis has been called University of Lwów in Wrocław, as its after-the-war organizers came from there. There are several other exhibitions. The meridian 17 goes through the building and it is marked on the floor. The best ending for the visit is the city views from the attic.
The morning flew away after all this. We went for lunch to the Świdnica cellar, inside the City Hall. Some special pierogys helped us to get warm. Then we had time for some gnome photographs and to go down the Świdnica street (before equally called Schweidnitzstrasse) to do the walk around the wall, close to the Hotel Metropol, and then return to the city centre and Rynek through the Salt Square.
February in Wrocław and me being unfair, thinking of cold and war and the past of the city that was.