Text and photos by Helena Zukowski
It is sometimes said that the greatest beauty arises out of the greatest pain. The case could certainly be made for Poland, a Phoenix country whose history is a litany of sorrows interlaced with moments of intense beauty and awesome heroism.
Events like the recent plane crash near Katyn thrust Poland into the news but despite the headlines the country remains relatively unknown. While its predominant geography is a vast fertile pole (“field” in Polish), there is diversity as well, such as the Tatra Mountains in the extreme south, the highest range in Central Europe. In the east, the Mazurian Land of a Thousand Lakes District draws sailors and canoeists, country western enthusiasts (who come for the annual “cowboy” festival) and Second World War history buffs who visit Wolf’s Lair, the huge underground complex from which Hitler directed the war on the Eastern Front. There are primeval forests in Bialowieza, national parks where buffalo roam, some of the best sandy beaches in Central Europe on the Baltic coast and marshes on the Biebrza River that host rare species of birds and plants.
Throughout history however, with few natural barriers in Poland’s heart, invaders had no hills or mountains to circumvent so they could easily swallow up vast areas threatening the country’s culture and language. When the Swedes invaded in 1655, they marched all the way to Poland’s shrine in Czestochowa in the south unimpeded. In 1795 after the Third Partition of Poland by Austria, Prussia and Russia, the country lost its statehood for more than a hundred years.
So many of the monuments that draw visitors to Poland are linked to historical angst. They make pilgrimages to Czestochowa where the Swedish invasion was stopped at the very walls of the country’s most important shrine, the monastery of Jasna Gora west of Krakow. The monastery houses the Black Madonna to which miraculous powers are attached – walls inside are a mass of crutches and other testaments to the Virgin’s powers of healing and Poles claim it was the Madonna’s powers that inspired the Poles to rise up and repel the invaders.
Another monument that inspired the Poles (and started the demise of Soviet occupation) is in Gdansk, the authentically restored Hanseatic city in the north. Here a simple monument of steel crosses commemorates the workers killed during the 1970 shipyard riots, which led first to the formation of Solidarity, the famous strikes at the Lenin Shipyards and ultimately to the whirlwind all across Europe that toppled the Soviet Empire. Gdansk, a place of great art whose history stretches back a thousand years, was also where the first shots of the Second World War were fired. Almost totally destroyed in that war, today Gdansk, along with its nearby sister cities of Gdynia and the sea bathing centre of Sopot, draws people to its classic Hanseatic architecture, its 14th-century medieval mills, cranes, bridges and churches.
From the outbreak of the Second World War, the Nazis launched a systematic bombing of Poland’s capital, Warsaw, and then a plan of annihilation through the rounding up, ghettoization, execution and deportation of the city’s Jews. The Ghetto Uprising of 1943 was followed by a general Warsaw uprising in 1944, both of which so infuriated Hitler that he ordered a block-by-block destruction of the city. With the war’s end, almost 85 per cent of Warsaw was like Hiroshima, totally in ruins with two-thirds of the city’s population dead or missing. The reconstruction was an undertaking unprecedented in Europe. It took 10 years, but the Poles rebuilt the Baroque palaces, castles and cathedrals just as they were before the war using old blueprints, drawings and paintings by artists like Canaletto. Today Warsaw is a vibrant city filled with sidewalk cafes and modern life. Monuments mark key historic sites like where the ghetto was and Chopin’s country villa was – sad and happy monuments.
There are a number of theories on why the royal city of Krakow miraculously escaped destruction. Some say that the Soviet troops arrived before the explosives laid by the Nazis could be detonated; others claim it was a Nazi commander who loved history and disobeyed orders to destroy Krakow. For whatever reason, Krakow today has a multitude of authentic historic treasures such as the 14th-century Jagellonian University with its exceptional museum. Inside you can find original astronomical instruments used by Copernicus (a student at the university) and the first globe ever to show America. In the main market square (Rynek Glowny), there’s a striking Renaissance market hall, a tower from the former Gothic city hall and the Church of St. Mary with its uneven spires and multitude of legends. On the hour in one of the spires, a bugler blows a particular melody that ends abruptly – this performance has been going on for centuries to commemorate the 13th-century sentry whose warning alarm was cut short by a Tartar arrow that pierced his throat.
Krakow was one of the first places chosen for UNESCO’s world heritage list; another was Wieliczka, a salt mine 15 kilometres south of Krakow. From the time salt was found in the 11th century, miners carved deeper and deeper warrens into the earth creating a network of caverns and tunnels. Visitors here descend into a strange world of salt with rooms filled with historic and bizarre carvings in white, grey, pink and green crystals. The star attraction is Blessed Kinga’s Chapel where everything in this ornate 50-meter-long chapel is made of salt including stairs, banisters, an alter and chandeliers. The chapel has amazing acoustics and has been used as a concert hall.
Further south, the geography of Poland changes totally as the high Tatras rise to form a barrier with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This is Poland’s famous ski resort in the winter; in the summer visitors can take rides through the limestone gorges on rafts that are poled by Poles in a local costume that makes them resemble Swiss mountaineers.
One of the most tragic monuments and another World Heritage List site is also here in Southern Poland – the concentration camp Auschwitz. Visitors walk through a gate that reads: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes free) through prison blocks showing the grim living conditions, past gas chambers and crematoria and through labs where medical experiments were performed on inmates. A large museum has rooms full of human hair, suitcases, eyeglasses, artificial limbs and enlargements of photos of the prisoners in their striped uniforms. Between a million and 1.5 million Poles and Jews died here and no one leaves this museum unmoved.
With all the historical tragedies, the Polish people are certainly the biggest monument – they love to laugh, dance, sing and enjoy excellent food. They are hospitable to a fault and love their country with a passion. As Pierre-Auguste Renoir said: “The pain passes but the beauty remains.”