Wroclaw, Poland: 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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