The small train from the Czech Republic came rattling through cool Sudeten mountain forests of silver birch into Poland, and then descended to the plains. When I was at school back in the 1970s I had a mental picture of (then Communist) Poland as a flat industrial land under grey skies over which trains passed on their way from the Soviet Union to Berlin. Take away the Soviets and add some trees, and, as the train grinds its way through Silesia, factories and disused factories and grim apartment blocks for what seems like hundreds of kilometres around Katowice, that is what I am seeing. I wonder if this the saddest part of (free) Europe?
First stop was Wrocław, founded by Bohemians, taken over by Poles, and then for centuries a German city: Breslau. 100 years ago it was 98% German; now, a similar percentage Polish. A reminder that I am now (again) entering that part of Europe into which a vast Russian tsunami thundered in 1944-45, thousands of kilometres from the Urals into the heart of Germany, and which drowned the land for 45 years before messily receding, but with the landscape altered forever: a flood of doublethink and “jerkish” (to use the Czech writer Ivan Klima’s term for their propaganda language) and apartment blocks like these:
and, surreal but also all too real, mass deportations and enforced migrations. Stalin wanted the Polish city of Lvov for the Ukraine, so he simply (with little resistance from Roosevelt or Churchill, who realised they were powerless in the matter) redrew the borders, and forced the people of Lvov to move wholescale to Breslau in German Silesia, naming it once again Wrocław and transferring it to Poland. What was left of the Germans of Breslau were booted on westward to what was left of what had been their Reich (they had given Hitler one of his biggest turnouts in the last election before he abolished such things). One set of people moved out of what was left of the houses, the shops, the offices, the churches, and another set moved in. Even the city’s current big cultural landmark and tourist draw, the Racławice panorama, depicting a glorious Polish victory over the Russians in 1794, was created in Lvov and transported here in 1945 (though not installed until the 1980s). This violently fluid relationship between people and land is a bit of a shocker to this Englishman: we have Offa’s Dyke and the Cheviots, and (give or take the dodgy matter of Cornwall) there is no question what is “ours” and what is not…
So Wrocław, like its namesake Bratislava, now in Slovakia, is a city built by one people and lived in by another. Unlike Bratislava, though, it doesn’t feel uneasy in its own skin. Its big churches are old enough to date from the first period when the city was Polish, and some of the old city centre dates back that far too. The main square is full of people strolling and eating; buskers with guitars and accordions move from restaurant to summer restaurant. And the black humour, I guess, is Polish too:
One of the metal bridges that spans two of the older districts is festooned with padlocks inscribed with the names of lovers (if you look closely you may be able to see the one installed by Adam and Eva):
I wonder how many of these couples are still together today? Do the exes come out in the night with bolt cutters?