Wroclaw By Any Other Name

Cathedral Island, as seen from central Wroclaw.

Beyond “To-may-toe, To- mah-toe”

“This is a great city:  beautiful – gorgeous! — clean, organized, up and coming – but they’ve got to change their name to something pronounceable!”  So proclaimed my husband on our first day in Wroclaw.  We’d just discovered the city’s name is not pronounced “roe-claw,” as we’d been saying for weeks leading up to our visit, but “vrots-wauf” – or something close.  I finally managed a facsimile after the first 24 hours, but Michael is still lost in phonetic translation.

The problem is, Wroclaw has changed its name several times over the centuries, usually under duress, and the city has no intention now of going back to any of “the other” names.  (Although we did hear several tourists refer to this fair ville as “Breslau,” its most recent, previous name while under Prussian/German rule for the better part of 200 years.)  In fact, the city-sponsored tourist guide notes: “the national status of Wroclaw has changed more often than any other city in Europe.”

Regardless of what its name is or how pronounced, Wroclaw is a pleasant, beautiful city in western Poland of about 633,000 people.  It sits primarily on the Odra River, but sprawls over several small islands and four smaller rivers, and has plenty of green space and river walks.  Wroclaw claims to be fourth in Europe for the number of bridges in a city, following after Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.

Park along side the River Odra

Isles on the River Odra

Heavily damaged in WWII, the city chose to restore and recreate as many of their old buildings as possible, so its “historic” sections, including the market square, are mostly re-creations of Wroclaw prior to 1945. As in most European cities rebuilding after the war, salvaged materials were used whenever possible in the reconstruction, but the results are architecturally authentic in detail.   However, there is more to Wroclaw than the historic reconstructions.  The city has been undergoing a facelift as well as new construction in preparation for the Europe Cup 2012 (in football aka soccer), with new buildings, a new stadium, and a complete renovation and expansion of its central train station.  Wroclaw has also been selected as the European Culture Capital for 2016.

The Heart of Wroclaw

The market square, or Rynek, has been the heart of Wroclaw since 1241, serving as the city’s business, civic, cultural, and social center.  It is also one of the largest market squares in Europe The Rynek is somewhat unusual in that there are buildings smack in the middle of the square, including the original town hall or Ratusz (referred to as “original” because it sustained only about 10% damage).  There are arched passageways through the ground level of several of these centered buildings, so pedestrians can cut through the square if they choose.  Rebuilt or not, if you can squint past the modern cafés lining the periphery and the occasional chain store, you can easily envision the square as it looked a few hundred years ago.

Re-created facades on the market square.

Town Hall (Rathusz) facade.

Rathusz from the side

One charming architectural detail included replicating former gold symbols on building fronts.  These gold symbols, usually of an animal, served as addresses of sorts.  For example, the house or store with a gold dog on its facade was known as “Under the Gold Dog” instead of having a numerical address.

House Under the Golden Dog

House Under the Golden Stag, now a Starbucks franchise. (The stag is lying, legs curled, at the top right of the awning.)

Gnomes and Bears, Oh No!

Another interesting touch that distinguishes Wroclaw from other cities is the city’s fascination with gnomes.  Purportedly there are about 180 diminutive sculptures of gnomes scattered about the city, mimicking the full-sized denizens in a full range of behavior from laughing, drinking, pissing, to drudge-work, and even one using a diminutive ATM.

A trio of gnomes.  Any guesses as to what they’re doing?

Drunken Gnomes

According to the city brochure, the gnomes were started as a prank in the 70s by the Orange Alternative to annoy the authorities, more or less at the time, the Soviets.  The movement claimed to be anti-establishment and not ideologically motivated, but since the vast majority of targets were related to the Soviet-backed regime, one begs the question.  Less than amused, the government would paint over the graffiti, so, come nightfall, the naughty Oranges would sneak out and paint cartoons of gnomes over the redacted graffiti.  Images of gnomes and Big People in gnomish costumes began to appear in protest marches and rallies, and by the time Communism fell, the city had embraced these pint-sized symbols.  The first “modern” incarnation of a gnome sculpture was commissioned in 2001, whereupon the City Council and local businessmen leapt in to commission additional statues.  These wee folk have become so popular that the tourist Office now sells a map showing the location of about 30 of the gnomes.

Another cultural icon is the bear on a stump, aka “The Breslau Bear.”  The  hunched bronze bear perches on a tree stump, long tongue hanging from its mouth, looking as if it had just lapped up some water. Several tourist guides I consulted simply referred to the bear as “a strange sculpture” but gave no background.  Not satisfied with a sufficient explanation, I did an internet search and found the story.

Breslau Bear

The original bear had actually been a public drinking fountain near the Town Hall since 1904.  Passersby would tug on his collar, and potable water poured from the bear’s nostrils.  People also would rub its tongue for good luck.  An American lecturing in (then) Breslau in 1930 was enthralled with the bear, found the still-living sculptor, arranged for a casting of a duplicate statue, and presented Bear #2 to his alma mater, Brown University, where it remains today. During or after the chaos of WWII, the original Bear #1, was lost, stolen, or blown up – no one knows or will confess to this day.

Meanwhile, the denizens of Wroclaw missed their bronze bruin, so in 1998 a local sculptor re-created the sculpture (Bear #3), which has since stood next to the Town Hall.  And while this poseur may not spurt water, people still rub his tongue for good luck.  (For more details, go to:  http://today.brown.edu/articles/2008/06/bearone)

Alexander Fredro, 19th c. comedic writer

Not far from the bear sits Count Alexander Fredro, an early 19th writer of social comedies satirizing the Polish nobility.  Like many of the fixtures in the Market Square, his statue did not originally stand here.  His bronze visage is a relatively new face, as it has stood here since 1956 when the statue was removed from Lviv (now in the Ukraine) and brought to Wroclaw to replace the site’s former inhabitant, a statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm.  Preceding all these sculpted political statements, this area of the square once served as the fish market, as well featured “the mad men’s shed,” a cage in which miscreants were tossed and displayed.  The city’s records reveal that while the incarcerated were usually drunks, other temporary inhabitants included homosexuals, a cross-dressing woman, and two gamblers caught playing cards during a Sunday sermon.

Memorial to Slaughtered Animals

At times Wroclaw’s penchance for odd statues seemed a bit stretched.  To point:  the “Memorial to Slaughtered Animals” on Stare Jatki, the alley which once housed the butcher stalls in the city.  The cast iron figures – a goat, pig, goose, hog, rabbit, rooster — were commissioned by the city and have been displayed here since the 90s.

Former Butchers’ Alley with its cast iron sculptures of farm animals, as a “Memorial to Slaughtered Animals.” The former meat stalls now house tony art studios.

The rooster, part of the memorial, stands a bit further away from the others, perhaps because it was commissioned separately from the other farm animal sculptures.

It Can Happen Anywhere

Wroclaw’s denizens and sculptures were indeed delightful, but one incident left us less than amused.  After one late breakfast in an open air café, we strolled the few feet from our sidewalk table into the market square.  A disheveled man approached me, seeking a handout.  I shook my head — while holding my breath — as he reeked.  But I kept my eye on him as he approached Michael, who was leaving some zlotys as a tip on the table.  As Michael turned away, the beggar reached over the flower boxes into the café and snatched the coins from the saucer.  I called a warning to Michael, who immediately accosted the drunk as he attempted to run away.  Both of us were shouting in English, the drunk in Polish, but it was pretty clear what was going on.  Some young guys who’d been sitting behind us in the café started yelling for the waiter, and at least one of the guys got up and headed in our direction to help.  But Michael managed to literally shake the coins loose from the man’s grip before releasing him.  The drunk stumbled off, no doubt mumbling in Polish about us, and the young guys and waiter applauded.   What a start to the day.

This incident certainly wasn’t enough to put us off, as we ended up spending an extra day and night in Wroclaw.

Ostrow Tumski

Cathedral Island, as seen from left to right: the Church of the Holy Cross/St, Bartholomew’s; the Archbishop of Wroclaw’s Residence, Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and the beginnings of the Botanical Gardens

The oldest part of the city sits on an island, Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island), on the Odra River.  One of the oldest bridges – and the main bridge to Ostrow Tumski — is fast becoming a “lovers’ bridge,” as evidenced by the hundreds of locks affixed to the stanchions and rails.

Tumski Bridge and Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Bridges adorned with lovers’ locks are sprouting all over Europe.  I think they are symbolically quite charming, but I can’t help but wonder how many fish have died from swallowing all those keys tossed off the bridges.  Perhaps Europe’s lovers are becoming more ecologically conscious about this fad; for the first time I noticed several combination locks in addition to the keyed locks.  However, the point of this exercise in forever-love-swearing is to “lock” your love then throw away the key, because then your love will last forever.

Inscribed locks on Tumski Bridge

Ostrow Tumski has several churches soaring above the roof tops.  The two most striking are the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the dual-level Church of the Holy Cross (upper) and St. Bartholomew’s (lower).  One of the spires of the cathedral has stairs and an elevator to a viewing area at the top but we were unable to find the entrance so we missed the panoramic views.

The interior of this gothic cathedral is stunning, with some of the prettiest colors in its stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.  As most landmarks in Wroclaw, the cathedral, begun in 1244, was heavily damaged in WWII and had to be rebuilt.  But as the archdiocesan seat for Wroclaw, it was a priority to reconstruct the cathedral to its original, sumptuous form.  The archbishop’s residence, about twenty meters away, was likewise destroyed and rebuilt.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Archbishop’s residence

The lovely detail on the gate to the Archbishop’s residence caught my eye.  Absolutely lovely.

We were unable to go into the dual church, which would have been interesting to see, as there are very few of these two-level churches in Europe.  But St. Bartholomew’s (lower) is closed to visitors and Holy Cross (upper) is open only at mass.  So we did what we like best:  sit at an outdoor café for a beer and a snack and enjoyed the view, including the church.

Church of the Holy Cross (top) and St. Bartholomew’s (lower)

Wroclaw University

On the other side of the Odra River sits Wroclaw University.  Founded in 1670 by the Jesuits, the now-secular university has 40,000 enrolled students, and has produced nine Nobel Laureates.   While the main buildings are open to tourists, we discovered the university too late in the day to gain entrance.  Another time.

Wroclaw University

An Unplanned Visit Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing

We’d not planned in spending more than a few waking hours and a one-night rest stop in Wroclaw.  We were so enchanted by the market square our first evening, we haphazardly changed our travel plans and finagled to stay an extra 24 hours.  Consequently, we did little more than walk and gawk our one full day there.

We made it to only one museum, the Raclawice Panorama, but have a laundry list for the next visit.  The panorama was interesting and rather unique, as the 360° art form is long past its heyday.  The 140 meter canvas depicts the Polish victory over the Russian Army in 1794.  Although the ragtag Poles won the battle, they lost their war of rebellion.  Nevertheless, this painting is revered by the Polish as a symbol of unity, bravery and victory – if however temporary.  The description of the battle is narrated overhead in Polish, but audio guides in multiple translations are available.

Another sight we missed was the White Stork Synagogue (built 1829), the only synagogue in Wroclaw (then Breslau, Germany) which escaped total destruction on Kristallnacht  in 1938.  Much of the interior and the precious Torah scrolls were destroyed that night.  A few years later, the White Stork’s courtyard was where the city’s Jews were gathered by the Nazis for transportation to the death camps.  The battered synagogue exchanged hands numerous times until 1996 when the city’s Jewish community was able to finally begin restorations.  In May 2010, after 70 years, the synagogue was rededicated; there are plans to eventually turn the synagogue into a museum.

So, more museums, the synagogue, and definitely a river cruise are on my list for “next time.”  But there are less serious activities I’d like to accomplish.  Like find all 180 of those cute little gnomes!



File:Wawel z mostu Debnickiego (2007).jpg

Wawel Castle in Krakow, from across the Vistula River (Wikipedia image)

Up until a few years ago, my husband had believed general family lore that his bi-lateral genealogical roots were primarily Russian-Jewish.  Two events changed this perspective.  First, the Soviet Union collapsed, and territories formerly engulfed by the communist maw emerged as resurrected countries.  As cities like Minsk and Kiev turned up in new-old countries, it appeared that most of his family harkened from Belarus and the Ukraine, not Russia. As for the rest, he just assumed they were from somewhere in Russia (must have been that innate love of his for potatoes and vodka).

The second discovery was that his paternal name was Polish.  I’m not sure whether this was good or bad news; he’d held this “Russian” image for all these years.  Nor was he certain as to what part of Poland his father’s family had emigrated from over 100 years ago.  I noted that given Poland’s history of being conquered, carved up and appropriated by other nations over the centuries, it really was a moot point what nationality his paternal great-grandparents had claimed at the time they left the old country.  (Besides, I pointed out, Poles loved potatoes and vodka, too, as did almost everybody from that part of the world.)  Bottom line:  we both decided that on this trip we should visit Poland and learn a bit more about the land of his roots.

The map below gives you a fairly good idea of the geopolitical situation Poland was in for about 150 years:  carved up.  With the end of WWII and then the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland regained its (more or less) “traditional” boundaries which encompass most of the colored areas below:

We chose Krakow as our first stop, largely  because our readings of   guides and postings gave the city enthusiastic write-ups.  Since Krakow sustained relatively little damage during WWII, the city was purported to reflect “medieval” Poland.  For two people in search of history, we definitely wanted to see what “old Poland” looked like.  Warsaw had pretty much been leveled by the Germans, as well as post-war become heavily industrialized and rebuilt in the mode moderne, so it was lower in the running.  Besides, Krakow historically if not consistently had had a significant Jewish population; prior to WWII, 64,000 Jews lived in Krakow, comprising one fourth of the city’s population.  Two other drawing points:  Oskar Schindler’s famous factory was in Krakow, and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps an hour away.

Part of the main square in Krakow. It is one of the largest in Europe.

Krakow today is an interesting city, a combination of mostly late 19th – 20th century architecture, an ancient and huge castle complex (Wawel Castle), and the former Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, which showcases a number of now largely unused synagogues.   The city’s population boasts over 700,000, with 1.3 million in the metro area.  The city has one of the oldest, nicest and largest market squares in Europe, some beautiful churches and parks, and clearly is bustling and on the muscle.  However, although our hotel was great and many of the city’s denizens polite, if not friendly, neither one of us found Krakow a particularly inviting city.  Part of the dissonance was clearly built-up expectations versus perceived reality; I was expecting an older, more sedate, historical city, perhaps closer in appearance to Budapest.   Certainly, Krakow is steeped in history, but much of that history, especially for Jews, is not pleasant, so perhaps our perception of Krakow is skewed.  Nevertheless, Krakow clearly is up and coming and has a lot to offer, as well as much history to ponder.

Schindler’s Factory

We began by touring Oskar Schindler’s enamel-ware factory made famous in the 1993 movie, Schindler’s List.  Now a branch of the Krakow Museum of History, much of the original factory has been converted into exhibit space focusing on Krakow under Nazi rule from 1939-1945.  The brutal life before and during this period for Poles of all faiths and backgrounds is preserved and retold; special, temporary exhibits and a fascinating film provides in-depth histories of the lives of and interviews with many individuals – both Jewish and non-Jewish – whose lives were saved because of Oskar Schindler.  We spent over two hours at the museum, fascinated and appalled by what we learned.

A somber exhibit struck both of us:  one dimly lit wall was plastered with what appeared to be arrest rolls, with hundreds of names and addresses listed.  Scattered among the names were several dozen photographs of hangings.  We gathered enough from the Polish words for “partisan” and “anti-Nazi” and others that the arrests and hangings had been of local partisans or other counter-insurgents of the Nazi regime in Krakow.

One of five mentions of “Rolnik” among a list of people to be arrested. Relatives?

The most unsettling aspect of this wall of infamy was seeing five mentions of my husband’s family name inscribed among the arrested.  Unfortunately, this was one of the few exhibits that did not have an English translation.  But seeing “Rolnik” written several times with different addresses shook us up a bit: a generation ago, did five of Michael’s relatives die on the gallows in Krakow?  Were other relatives rounded up and sent to Auschwitz as were most of Krakow’s Jews?  I doubt we’ll ever know.

Our questions and assumptions are based in history. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Krakow became the seat of the “General Government” in the country.   As part of the Nazis’ attempt to make Krakow a model “clean” city, thousands of Jews were deported to labor camps, synagogues plundered and closed;  many Jews were rounded up and murdered for no other reason than who they were.  In 1940, 48,000 of Krakow’s Jews were forced to relocate to surrounding rural areas.  Another 15,000 Jews were relocated in early 1941 from the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz to south of the Vistula River to a newly walled area, the Krakow Ghetto.

One of the guarded entrances to the Krakow Ghetto.  Today, only a few sections of the walls remain.

In May, 1942 more deportations began, sending thousands of Jews to the death camps.  In March, 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Krakow Ghetto, herding almost all the remaining inhabitants into the main square, Pod Zgody (now called Plac Bohaterow Getta).  There the fit were separated and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or other camps for slave labor or extermination.  The unfit, the sick, the old and small children  — approximately 2,000 — were murdered on the spot.

Today the renamed square is a memorial, with large empty chairs signifying the thousands of people who had died here or been deported to the death camps.  It is a sobering sight.

The memorial in Plac Bohaterow Getta for the more than 2,000 Jews murdered here by the Nazis.

Somewhere between 3,000-5,000 Krakow Jews survived the war and the camps; most left the area following liberation.  Today, less than a thousand Jews live in Krakow.  Of the seven synagogues in Kazimierz, only one is still in active use.  Walking through the Jewish Quarter seeing empty synagogues amidst overflowing, laughter-filled cafés and bars was unsettling.

The Reform Synagogue

The “wailing wall” of the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow.  The wall was built from fragments of tombstones deteriorated over time or broken apart by Nazis in WWII.  

A Less Somber Side of Krakow

We also spent quite of bit of time as more mainstream tourists in Krakow:  a snack and drink on the lovely market square, touring St. Mary’s Basilica, gawking at the hordes of school groups and tourists engulfing the square, seeing Wawel Castle.

St. Mary’s, beautiful and ornate, was resplendent and mind-boggling awash with gilt and stained glass.  With all the tributes to Pope John Paul II both within and outside the church (and the overload of JPII memorabilia for sale at every turn), we assumed this had been “his” church when he was bishop of Krakow before ascending the papal throne.  We only discovered the next day, in our tour of the castle complex, that the Wawel Cathedral holds the honor as the bishopric of Krakow – as it has for about one thousand years – although the majority of the present edifice dates to the 14th century C.E.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Main Square, Krakow

The interior of St. Mary’s

Wawel Castle

An aerial view of the immense castle complex

Wawel Castle, sprawling, beautiful, and stately, dominates the western end of the old city of Krakow.  Some of the best views of Wawel Castle are from the opposite banks of the Vistula River, as Krakow’s more recent growth obscures views from many city vantages.  The rocky hilltop has been inhabited for a hundred thousand years, but the beginnings of a major church and residence of regional rulers seem to date from the 9th to 10th centuries.  Around the mid-11th century C.E. Krakow became the capital and royal residence of Poland.  Almost all Polish monarchs have been crowned and buried in the cathedral since.  The castle’s cathedral is also the bishopric seat for Krakow, and  as a young priest, the future pope John Paul II offered his first mass there in 1946.

Cathedral of Wawel Castle complex. The interior courtyards, or rather a series of courtyards, are immense. The palace buildings are to the right and behind the cathedral.

We toured parts of the castle complex, or tried to.  The ticketing process is unnecessarily complex and confusing, and separate tickets must be purchased for the dozen or so areas open to visitors.  Guided tours are only offered in two or three areas of the castle and cathedral; in the rest, you are dependent on a very small (2’x 18”), bi-lingual plaque (Polish and English) in each room to provide any information as to the contents.   As it was, virtually each plaque simply identified the title and artist of some of the pieces of art or period furniture in the room.  Almost nothing was given about the function of the room or history of the period, the section of the castle, etc., except perhaps some vague dates or occasionally the names of the rooms.  We’d purchased an English guide to the castle and cathedral prior to entering the buildings, but it was of little more help:  the route in the guide did not always match the arrow-pointing signs “guiding” the route in the castle.

In our travels, we try not to make comparisons or judge, just accept places and styles as they are, but it was extremely difficult not to get frustrated in this case.  This beautiful castle is a national museum run by the Polish government, and I would have expected a great deal more national pride and information in presentation, particularly in touting what is one of Poland’s most treasured national landmarks.  Since most foreign visitors do not have a great grasp on the country’s rich yet convoluted and sometimes tragic history, the lack of information provided was extremely disappointing.  In fact, wanting to learn is why most people go to museums.  In conclusion, I strongly recommend that serious visitors who want to understand the history and what they are seeing at Wawel, not just “gawk and walk,” arrange to have a private tour guide.  I wish we’d had time or warning.  Poland could take some lessons in museum curatorship from Slovenia.

In all, we were glad we had visited Krakow.  The city has a wealth of history and beauty to offer tourists of every ilk.  I only regret we had only three days.