Spirit of resilience

Historic Sites

From the 18th century to the mid-20th century, Poland was battered by waves of invasions from Russia, Sweden, France and Germany. The Nazis created the worst havoc, reducing Warsaw to a heap of smouldering rubble.

When General Eisenhower visited Warsaw after the Second World War, he was so moved that he said: “I have seen many towns destroyed by war, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction.”

In December 1970, West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt’s explanation of his spontaneous kniefall in front of Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was: “Under the weight of German history, and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.”

A commemorative monument was built in honour of Brandt and the square in which it is placed has been named after him. These two widely publicised actions were largely responsible for assuaging the anguish of the Poles and helped create a better East-West European relationship. We spot signs of Nazi occupation in many places, but we also see the efforts made to renovate Polish buildings, keeping the original look in mind.

Of legends

In Warsaw’s New Town, the tourist attractions are the Royal Palace, Old Town Square, Charles de Gaulle Monument (He was a resident of Warsaw in 1920 and the structure is a tribute to him for having fought against the Bolshevik forces), Barbican, Lazienki Park, Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto (some of the scenes in Polanski’s The Pianist were shot in the Warsaw Ghetto), Chopin Monument, Copernicus Monument, the Palace of Culture and Science, the Royal Castle where Polish kings had resided since King Zigmunt III Vase moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596.

The two-storey building was constructed in the shape of a pentagon. Totally destroyed during World War II, it took over thirty years to rebuild it, two-time Nobel Laureate Marie Curie’s house, and Wilanow Palace (the Polish Versailles, the residence of King Sobeiski, victor of Vienna.)

The Old Town was raised from rubble and rebuilt at great cost using pre-war sketches, paintings and photos — a process that continued till 1962. The statue of Zigmunt II is the oldest monument in Poland. It was erected in 1644 by Zigmunt III’s son, Wladyslaw the IV. Local legend has it that Zygmunt II rattles his sabre whenever Warsaw is in trouble!

The Barbican is a set of defence walls that protected the city in the old days and now serves as a bridge between the Old and New Towns. The Old Town Square is picturesque and offers unlimited scope to squander money in tourist junk stores and souvenir shops. In the centre of the Old Town Square is the statue of the mermaid, the symbol of Warsaw. Legend has it that king Kazimierz got lost while he was on a hunting trip. A mermaid arose from the marshes and guided him safely home.

Krakow, the old capital of Poland has traditionally been a scientific, cultural and artistic centre. It is situated on the Vistula River. In the Royal Wawel Castle lived the country’s rulers from the 11th to the 16th century. During the reign of king Krak, the city’s founder, a dragon lived in a cave under Wawel Hill. Every month, it had to be fed a young maiden or it would wreak havoc. All the girls in the country were sacrificed except the king’s daughter. The king proclaimed that the slayer of the dragon would marry his daughter.

The only one to succeed was a cobbler who stuffed sheep skin with sulphur and left it outside the dragon’s lair. The dragon ate it and became very thirsty and drank so much water from the Vistula River that he burst. In one version of the story, the cobbler marries the princess while in the other, he doesn’t as he considers himself too humble for the princess. The dragon is a common motif in Krakow.

One can’t miss the famous St Mary’s Church in Krakow. According to popular lore, Tartar warriors invaded the city. A guard on St Mary’s Church tower raised an alarm by blowing his bugle. He was spied and shot by an arrow. Commemorating this event, every hour, a guard steps out of the tower as a bugle call is played to the four quarters of the world, in turn.

The carnage and the atrocities of the Nazis in the form of the Final Solution against the Jews, were carried out at Auschwitz and Birkanau. Six and a half decades haven’t diminished the horror of those concentration camps.

World heritage sites

A healing touch is provided by Waldowice — Pope John Paul II’s home town. He lived in the Archbishop’s Palace, his last residence before leaving for the Vatican in 1978. The Papal Window was where Pope John Paul II used to appear to chat and chant with the youth of Krakow. A tour of Kazimierz, the district where Schindler’s List was filmed, became a haven for diverse groups of Jewish refugees from all over Europe.

It is named after the king who invited Jews to Poland in the 14th century. While in Krakow, a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must. It is an underground city and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. One is amazed at the devotion that drove miners to carve figures, monuments and altar pieces into the walls of an 800-year-old salt mine.

I was fortunate enough to go to Malbork in northern Poland. It has a castle and museum included in UNESCO's World Heritage sites. Called the ‘the largest heap of bricks north of the Alps’, Malbork is very quaint. Malbork Castle consists of three castles in one — high, middle and low — separated by moats and towers. I have very fond memories of my stay there.

While in Poland, do try the pierogi (dumplings) and soup in a bread bowl. And get some amber, something that the country is famous for.

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