Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reflections on Wrocław, Poland

I returned "home" to Wrocław (pronounced, Vratswaf), Poland this past week for the first time in eight years. Actually, it's my wife's hometown, but when we were first married, and until our kids got to high-school age, we came here every summer for three to twelve weeks.

I actually made my first trip to Wrocław in December of 1988, shortly before I met my wife, and a dreary place it seemed then. But it blossomed quickly after the fall of communism. Each year positive changes where evident. First, air quality and infrastructure began to improve; streets were less dusty, and the shops were better stocked with goods. Then, I began to notice people driving newer model cars, and shopping malls sprouting up around town. This time, the changes are even more shocking and impressive because it's been so long between visits. While much of Europe has been in recession since 2008, Poland has not (in part because it is not part of the Euro Zone), and it shows in Wrocław, where a development boom has been going nonstop in the midst of economic busts elsewhere.

Sitting in the very heart of Europe (situated about halfway between Warsaw and Prague), Wrocław has been a truly international city since it was first chronicled (as Wrotislava) in the 11th century. Founded as a Bohemian enclave, it subsequently came under first Polish, then German control. For 700 years, the city's official name was the Germanic "Breslau." But as the historian Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse chronicle in their excellent 2002 book, Mircocosm: A Portrait of a Central European City , the city was long inhabited by a mixed population, including Czechs, Poles, Jews, Slovaks, and various smaller minority groups.

At the end of World War II, when Allied leaders at Yalta redrew the map of Europe, they moved Poland's eastern and western borders to the West. Consequently, cities that were officially Polish before the war, such as Lwów and Wilno, became Lviv, Ukraine and Vilnius, Lithuania, respectively. On the other hand, what had been Breslau, Germany became Wrocław, Poland. Only now it was an almost exclusively Polish city, as the entire Jewish population had been murdered by the Nazis or driven into exile, and its German population forcibly repatriated beyond Poland's new border with (East) Germany. The Germans were replaced not just by local Poles but by others forcibly relocated from formerly Polish cities in the East. My mother-in-law's family, for example, came from Wilno.

Here is how much of the city looked at the end of Second World War:

second world war 0009 PAP B 14398 3 Downtown Wroclaw, Poland in 1945.

As with Warsaw and other decimated Polish cities, the People's Republic of Poland rebuilt Wrocław after the war, but unlike in Warsaw, Wroclaw's architects didn't hew so closely to the old plans and photos. They wanted to "de-Germanize" the city as they rebuilt it. Regardless, like most other cities under communism, Wrocław hardly flourished. At the end of the communist period, when I first saw it with my own eyes (December 1988), it was a pretty dreary place (and not just because it was winter). Here is an image from 1988 of the Plac Solny, near City Hall. The architecture looks to have quality, but those are really just facades (like Hollywood sets) erected in front of basic concrete block buildings, which appear drab and grey.

Below is basically the same view (a little closer up) 25 years later, and 24 years after the fall of communism. The buildings have been renovated and updated, and the facades appear much more colorful.

The same kinds of changes are evident in the Rynek (the main old-town square adjoining the Plac Solny), Plac Grunwaldzki, Dworzec Główny (the main train station), and all over town.

Below is a photo of Wrocław's new airport terminal (named for Nicholas Copernicus, who lived in the city for some time):

It takes less than an hour to fly to Wrocław on Lufthansa from Munich:

And here's the city's newest skyscraper, the "Sky Tower," which is the tallest building in all of Poland.

The new developments are not detracting from Wrocław's old-world charm. As new buildings go up, old ones are being carefully renovated. The job is not yet complete, but the pace of (re-)development (including cycling paths all over town) is awesome.

Unlike Kraków, which is maintained virtually as a museum, Wrocław is a living and breathing city, full of young people (many of whom attend one of several universities in the city). This evening, as on most Saturdays during the summer, thousands of people massed in the old town square, shopping, eating, and listening to live music performed in the Rynek, at the newly renovated Opera, at a festival in a park north of old town, and in Ostrow Tumski (the oldest part of the city, with churches dating back to the 12th century). Here is pretty much how crowded the Rynek was yesterday (although it's not a photo from yesterday):

My 16-year-old son love it. He was wondering around on his own, checking out the concerts and the young female population of Wrocław. He later said that if he lived here, he and his friends would only hang around the Rynek and the various parks around town. It would be nice if that could happen. My wife and I would very much like to spend more time here, as we did when we were first married. It really is an attractive place to visit and to live.

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