Jim Sack Life

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Festung Breslau

By Jim Sack

My favorite town square in Europe is in Wroclaw, Poland.  A massive gothic Rathaus sits in the center of the square the size of two football fields.  Facing onto the square are four complete sides of renaissance and classical façades of buildings rebuilt in the 50s, after the cataclysmic destruct of the Second World War.  Until early 1945 Wroclaw was known as Breslau and embodied 600 years of German culture.  For most of those years it was a provincial capital of Upper Silesia, Ober Schlesien.  The war changed all of that sweeping centuries of culture away and surplanting a new culture on the ruins.  

Zamosc Poland 1945 destruction



The same was true in Danzig, now Gdánsk, Stettin, now Szczcen, and hundreds of other cities and towns where the war raged doorway to doorway, alley to alley.

I first noticed the architectural/historic contradiction on my first trip to Poland in 1992.  In the Stare Miasto, the old town in Warsaw the corner stones read 1957, 1959, 1963, but the buildings looked authentically hundreds of years old from the era of Kopernicus and Emmanuel Kant.  A display in the royal residence in Warsaw explained it; after the Battle of Warsaw most of the old town was but an undulating sea of brick and stone, twisted iron and broken lumber.  After the war the new Polish government set about the task of rebuilding their newly inherited cities.

Breslau, called Festung Breslau, renamed Fortress Breslau by the desperate Nazis, was left smoldering by the Red Army on its way to Berlin.  In the first year after the war the surviving German residents were either shot for spite, made slaves or deported to what was left of Germany, a third of the country was taken by the Soviets, given to Poland while the eastern third of Poland was given to Belarus, Ukraine and Russian.  The Poles in those lands were forced to resettle in the German lands and to begin rebuilding, as they did.  The Russian enclave on the Baltic, Kaliningrad/Königsberg is a reminder of that moving of borders and the ensuing ethnic cleansing and resettlement.  

Warsaw Stare Miasto Reconstructed



When I was in Breslau in 2014 on my way back from the Masurian Lakes, there was a comprehensive display in the town square among the hundreds of umbrelled tables serving beer or cappuccino or dinner.  The story on those large freestanding placards told the story from the Polish perspective of the devastation of war, diminishing of the history of the town and of the German centuries.  The display reminding young poles that somewhere in the mists of unrecorded time Slavic tribes, the proto-Poles, had lived in the area thus justifying the land grab.  The winners do write the history.

The consequences of war are massive and far-reaching.  The Poles, often called the canary between two cats for their unfavorable location between Russia and and Germany, ever on the invasion route from east to west or west to east, fought over by Teutonic knights and Tsarist Russia, Napoleon and Hitler, constantly remind their people and the occasional tourist from Indiana that war is hell, and has consequences.  

Rathaus Wroclaw in the mists




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