Tuesday, 29 September 2015
What sets the Poles apart? Poland's heartbreaking and heroic history revealed
When German troops shelled Gdansk in 1939, Britain and France declared war.
Forty years later, in defiance of post-war Soviet control, Lech Walesa joined striking shipworkers there – and Solidarity was born. The trade union marked the first fissures in East European communism.
Two more turns on the wheel of Poland’s troubled history. Her position in the centre of Europe means that over the centuries Turks, Swedes, Germans and Russians have shaped her to their own ends.
Krakow is home to the Rynek, one of the largest medieval squares in Europe
Holy hero: A statue of Pope John Paul II in Krakow
We were on a tour of Poland with a group of Americans, many of Polish origin, and set off from Warsaw’s Old Town, Stare Miasto, which was created in the 13th Century.
The adjacent New Town dates from the 15th Century, and to the west lies the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Once home to the biggest Jewish community in the world, by the end of the Second World War only 300 people remained.
An impressive Museum Of The History Of Polish Jews occupies the site now.
Poland holds you close. The composer Chopin, born and raised in Warsaw, moved to France, hoping the climate would help his health.
But when he was dying of TB, aged 39, he missed his homeland so much he asked his sister to smuggle his heart back to Warsaw, where it rests in the Church of the Holy Cross. A statue celebrates him in Lazienki park, which hosts concerts of his music.
Our next stop, Krakow, is beautiful, and home to the Rynek, one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. The huge Cloth Hall was probably the world’s first shopping mall. In the Podgorze district, an excellent museum on the site of Schindler’s enamel factory tells the harrowing story of Nazi-occupied Krakow.
Gdansk waterfront is packed with restaurants. You’ll find pirogi (potato- filled dumplings), barszcz (beetroot soup), bigos (a stew with sausage and cabbage) and nalesniki (pancakes).
In vibrant Poznan, as you drink your coffee, you can watch two billy-goats emerging from the clock tower to mark each hour by locking horns.
But few things illustrate Poland’s confusing history more clearly than the changing name of Wroclaw. Under German influence it was known as Breslau, under the Soviets it became Lwow – and now it’s Wroclaw. Called the ‘Venice of Poland’, there are more bridges here than anywhere else in central Europe.
Goat time: In Poznan you will see two goats emerge from the clock tower to mark each hour by locking horns
Auschwitz, a dismal railway town in southern Poland, housed the biggest death camp in the world. Over a million people, mostly Jews and Polish political prisoners, were exterminated there. You enter the camp by walking under the chilling sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – ‘Work sets you free’.
There’s no panic on the face of the inmates photographed. After all, they were going to be ‘resettled’ or to ‘take a shower’. Suitcases plundered by the Nazis, hair and children’s clothes are a reminder of the atrocities.
But Auschwitz was referred to as a ‘hotel’ in comparison with the Birkenau camp nearby.
The majority of executions took place at Birkenau. The numbed feeling you get is best expressed by the Polish composer Gorecki, in his Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs.
But the Poles are resilient. A devout nation, their hero is Pope John Paul II, former Archbishop of Krakow. He was the first Pope in 600 years to be chosen from outside Italy.
His church, Wawel Cathedral, was the only one in the communist world not to be suppressed by the Soviets. For 90 per cent of people, their Catholic faith sees them through.
Czestochowa is Poland’s spiritual capital. Every year more than five million pilgrims journey to pay their respects to the Black Madonna, a painting said to be by St Luke and housed in the Jasna Gora monastery. A kind of Polish Lourdes, the chapel is packed with people praying.
Copernicus was born in Torun, a pretty university town. A doctor, mathematician and architect, he proved the Earth went round the Sun, but couldn’t publish his heretical theories for fear of being beheaded.
They’re acceptable now and a Copernicus Museum has pride of place.
Nearby a ‘punishment donkey’, a golden model of an ass with a sharp spine, astride which dishonest traders were forced to sit, reminded citizens that salesmen as well as scientists had to toe the line.
Poland shares a border with Ukraine and has increased her defence budget by 18 per cent. Hopefully, her fragile beauty will continue to blossom.