One of its most illustrious natives called it “a distant land” even though it is not that far away from any country in Europe. John Paul II must have had something else in mind when he made that statement soon after being elected pope – the first non-Italian pontiff in 400 years – on October 16, 1978.
John Paul – Karol Wojtyla to many of his compatriots – suddenly got all the eyes of the world focusing on Poland.
Such was the Polish prelate’s imprint on the Catholic Church that his death had hardly been formally announced that calls poured in from across the globe to fast-track his sainthood. “Santo subito,” the faithful assembled in prayer for the ailing pope at St Peter’s Square, in Rome chanted.
“John Paul’s ‘miracle’ brought people together in Communist Europe. It showed us that we, the new generation, did not experience fear,” Jacek Purchla, founder and director of the International Cultural Centre in Krakow, proudly exclaims.
A specialist in cultural heritage and the history of cities, the humanities professor hates describing Poland as being in eastern Europe. “We are part of Central Europe. It is our identity,” he insists.
“It is obvious that the struggle of the nationals of Central Europe against Soviet domination, which ended in victory in 1989, was not only a struggle against the Communist system but also just as much of a struggle for a return to the Atlantic civilisation,” he wrote in his book Cracow in the European core.
“Krakow,” he says as he looks outside the window of his office with a commanding view of the majestic city of which Wojtyla was archbishop, “belongs to that category of central European cities where the past is still decisive for the present and the future in terms of its position in the map of Europe”.
The professor recalls the days when, still a young scholar, he used to come across Woytyla almost every day on his way to the university.
Visiting Krakow you will soon realise that the former pontiff never really left the city, not even after his death. His presence can be felt all over and guides and inhabitants alike ensure you still ‘see’ him there.
For the professor, Krakow is “the symbol of Poland, it’s heart”.
Rightly deserving the title of European City of Culture, the centre of Krakow – the most visited city in Poland – was included in the first Unesco World Cultural Heritage list in 1978.
The city retains many of its unique buildings and what is claimed to be the largest medieval market square in Europe.
Unfortunately, most of what were once powerful medieval fortifications no longer stand, though a stretch of 200 metres remain, together with a gate and three towers.
One of the world’s oldest academic institutions can also be found in Krakow. The Jagiellonian University knows its origins to the 14th century when King Casimir the Great had set up the Academy of Krakow, which changed its name in 1400.
Krakow - its beauty, its history, its culture, its celebration of humanity – literally pales in the distance in all senses as a 90-minute drive takes you to a different world. At Auschwitz Birkenau Museum, human nature loses all the dignity the Creator willed it should have.
The sign on the main gate of Auschwitz concentration camp reads Arbeit macht frei.
The young Polish guide who showed me around told me it meant work makes one free. I stopped there thinking: it was death – whether by the Zyklon B cyanide-based pesticide, starvation, exhaustion, diseases, execution or medical experiments – that ‘freed’ most of those who walked through the gate during the war.
“Sir, shall we proceed,” I heard a voice ask. I opened my watery eyes and saw the tall Polish guide gesturing for me to walk on. I had other similar moments during my tour of Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, particularly near the so-called death wall where the Nazi soldiers would shoot prisoners and, especially, as I stood outside the cell where St Maximilian Kolbe was kept, his captors thinking he would die of dehydration and starvation.
In fact, he lived and, to free up the cell, he was given a lethal injection.
Entrance to the concentration camp is free because the people who run it do not want it to be a tourist ‘attraction’. They, therefore, depend on donations and have set up the Auschwitz Foundation, to which a number of countries, including Malta, contribute.
There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself… and that is if the world forgets there was such a place
It is a place one can never enjoy visiting though it should be a must in every itinerary. The more we can think of it, the better the chances of not repeating the atrocities committed there. The sentiment expressed by survivor Henry Appell is telling: “There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself… and that is if the world forgets there was such a place.”
The sort of work that truly led to freedom was that done by dockers at Gdansk Shipyard, in the northernmost part of Poland.
Led by Lech Walesa, an electrician, 17,000 shipyard workers went on strike, which led to Solidarnosc (Solidarity) being recognised as the first non-Communist trade union in the Soviet bloc. Its contribution proved vital in the movement that eventually led to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, with the blessing of Pope John Paul II, many insist.
The shipyard has lost its lustre though its Gate No 2, that had been the theatre of many strikes but also celebrations, continues to attract many visitors.
The city itself, situated on the Baltic coast, is considered to be an industrial centre, which, is not really a new experience to Gdansk that used to be a main seaport and a shipbuilding Mecca.
Its old town and the many outlets – including restaurants and wine bars – lining the river still have an aura of days gone by.
Between Gdansk and Krakow lies the capital, Warsaw, which has won a few accolades: one of the most liveable cities in central Europe; ‘Alpha’ global city; Eastern Europe’s “chic cultural capital” and, of course, a Unesco World Heritage Site, mainly because of its historic centre and the old town, just to mention a few.
Because of the many high-rise buildings, Warsaw is also mentioned as being among the EU cities having the biggest number of skyscrapers. They are there, of course, but, speaking personally, at least, they are not as prominent as they appear in, say, Frankfurt or London.
Practically every European architectural style can be noticed in the city, which, it ought to be borne in mind, was very badly damaged in World War II.
In November 1940, Warsaw had also been honoured with the country’s highest military decoration for heroism during the 1939 invasion by the Germany army.
The city’s motto is most appropriate: it defies the storms (Contemnit procellas) in Latin. Indeed, Warsaw has also been described as Phoenix City, having risen from the ashes of so many wars and conflicts.
A fine example of this is the aftermath of the so-called Warsaw Uprising, or Warsaw Rising, against the Nazi occupiers between August and October 1944. It failed and Adolf Hitler ordered that the city should be razed to the ground. People were evacuated and buildings were either set on fire or dynamited but the Varsovians were back the next year and Warsaw’s former glory was restored, with many streets, churches and buildings rising again as they had been before.
Ten years later, on May 14, 1955, the Warsaw Pact was signed in the Polish capital at the behest of the Soviet Union after West Germany joined Nato.
As history would have it, Poles – among them, of course, Woytyla and Walesa – had their fair share in leading to the pact’s dismantling as anti-communist movements grew and Soviet influence waned. The Soviet Union itself is no more and, again, the Polish contribution proved to be significant.
The Warsaw Pact and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics are now only found in history books and risk being forgotten by time. Not so Warsaw and Poland.
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