A Canary Between Two Cats

By Jim Sack

Rebuilt center of Warsaw

Poland in one of those countries that has come and gone and come again in history. Over the centuries it was the as powerful Muscovy and Berlin, then trampled by armies moving east then west, it was once the larges state in Europe, then was  erased from the map of Europe only to rise again someone hundred years later.  Its position at the heart of Europe has been a blessing and a source of great tragedies, it’s topography is perfect for tank assault.  It has suffered under despotic rulers, weakened herself through the nearly anarchic liberum veto, suffered under Prussia, Austria and Russia, was dead and buried, but arose from The grave to become one of the great countries of inter war Europe, only to be again carved up between Stalin and Hitler, blitzed by the Luftwaffe, betrayed by the red Army, and spit out of the horrors of World War II as new country in both body and mind.

The sobriquet, a canary between two cats, spoke to the sense in Polish history of impending doom.

I’ve been to Poland five times for a month each visit to look at the history and sniff the political air, and visit villages and towns in today’s Poland that had been 600 years German, and to visit places from where some of my friends in The Fort Wayne German community had to come as postwar refugees.

Breslau in Silesia is it gorgeous city in the foothills of the Tatras.  The Masurian Lakes are remote and peaceful.  Plock (prounounced Pwask) is our sister city perched on the plateau overlooking the main artery of Poland, the Visla River.   In the southeast Zamosc rose from rubble after the war to showcase one of the finest renaissance squares in Europe, a painters palette of pastel façades.  On the north coast is the ancient Hanseatic city, Danzig, and a string of Teutonic knight castles face the Baltic.  In the middle is Warszawa, the resurrected capital of Poland and to the south is Krakow with its historic and splendid architecture, in close proximity to hell, Aushwitz.  Poland is up to at neck in historic places, and is a new member of NATO her defenses now are backed buy one of those cats as she faces the other.

My first visit to Poland was in the mid 1900 1990s was in the mid 1990s on my way to the Ukraine on an overnight train.   When I arrived was cold, gray and rainy.   I took a bus from the airport what I thought would be the center of the old town and  marveled at the reconstructed, but well-weathered buildings what was once a conglomeration of 16th, 17th and the 18th century buildings not far from the imperial castle.  Instead, the cornerstones read from between 1952 and 1960.  Inside the royal castle, now a museum, a rambling display of vintage photos with captions in three languages explain in detail how Warsaw have been raised to the ground in 1944 by the Nazis as they fought the Polish Home Army block by block and through the sewers as the Soviet Red Army lounged comfortable just across the Visla with a front row seat to the death and destruction.  Nearby, in Saxon Park, just north of the center, I read an inscription that said around 800,000 inhabitants of the city had been killed in those final battles.   Warsaw, steeped in its Catholic faith was every bit the story of crucifixion and resurrection. The same holds true for almost every town and village in Poland. Danzig  was rebuilt. The Teutonic knights fortresses on the Baltic were all rebuilt. Marienberg was renamed Malbork.  Festung Breslau was rebuilt and renamed Wroclaw.  Zamosc, Krakow, and the German villages overrun by the Red Army were all rebuilt, some faithful to their pre-war architecture, some in the Stalinist style, Brutalism.  It is aptly named. Only in the Masurian Lakes, where Hitler’s East Front command bunkers gather moss, where white birch grow among the collapsed wars is the deterioration allowed to proceed as if nature and time will purge Poland of the tragic remnants of her invaders.  As Hitlerism is purge slowly, too, are the memorials and statures the communists left behind.  The canary defies the cats.

Poland’s recent accession to NATO membership means that one of those cats, Germany, is now among her strongest protectors.  Together with Germany’s ancient rival, France, they face the other cat, Russia.  The thousands of war memorials, including great cities and towns remind Poles of betrayal, invasion, death, distraction, and resurrection.  In NATO they have one of those cats at bay.

Zamosc after the war