This was our first trip to Poland, and Krackow, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our first stop. Krackow dates back to a little Stone Age settlement.
It’s is remarkably well preserved for a city that has stood for over a thousand years, and survived the hell that was World War II.
Even the McDonalds there is deeply rooted in Poland’s ancient history.
Literally! During its construction, medieval foundations were discovered and incorporated into the restaurant design. We bought a cup of coffee so we could go downstairs to check out the McVault in the basement, and it was like nothing you’ve ever seen in The House That Ronald Built.
Krackow suffered under the Nazis, but Warsaw got pounded. At the Warsaw Uprising Museum we watched a movie that gave us an aerial view of post-war Warsaw. Of that bustling metropolis, only miles and miles of rubble and ruins remained. The scale of destruction was unimaginable.
When the Poles defended themselves against the German invasion, the Nazis response was to destroy hospitals, schools, churches, universities, and commit mass murder upon both Jew and Gentile. When finally forced to retreat, out of spite the Nazis blew up anything still standing.
The Peugot Building was built where the old synagogue once stood. The Jewish Historical Institute is next door, in a reconstructed building that housed the Jewish Library.
Between the Nazis and the Soviets, over 400,000 Warsovians were murdered in the war. Those lives and all their promise can never be replaced. But the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city, brick by brick. Canaletto’s 18th century paintings were used as visual references to recreate beloved heritage sites. All along The Royal Way that artwork is displayed…
…in front of the structures that were rebuilt using them as guides.
You can’t say they don’t make ’em like they used to.
The Warsovians resurrected the Old Town Square too.
Some say it’s like Disneyland, too perfect, but I thought it was beautiful, and I loved all the cool details.
The royal palace in Warsaw…
…was also destroyed and reconstructed.
Some furniture and other treasures were spirited away before the Luftwaffe bombings, but the throne room and the banner with its royal eagles were destroyed.
Only one of the original eagles survived, and somehow found its way to the United States. It was used a model to replicate the original design.
The clock in the Knight’s Hall, featuring the god of time, is forever stopped at 11:15, a moment never to be forgotten– the exact time the Nazis bombed the palace.
Poland’s history is harsh and fascinating, colorful and complicated.
Reminders of its painful past are everywhere–like the memorial to the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews killed in this bunker by the Nazis.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, which was called Hitler Platz when occupied by the Germans.
We saw statues honoring the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising…
…and one honoring the children who worked for the resistance, although their roles involved carrying messages more often than guns.
There was the memorial to the 15,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Soviet army at Katyn.
There were even teenage street musicians in uniform, singing war songs.
On a street corner we glanced down and realized we were standing on what used to be the Ghetto Wall.
So much suffering. So many stories, most of which can never be told.
After living under the jackboot of the Nazis, like so many other countries of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured further decades of Soviet oppression. But each new rebellion brought them closer to independence.
The success of the Solidarity movement was a long time coming, a difficult struggle that was as much for freedom as for bread.
It is all inextricably woven into the fabric of their nation’s past.
I wondered how it had affected the people…
…and how much of it was passed from one generation to the next.
After centuries of oppression and foreign rule…
…Poland is now a prosperous and independent Democracy.
I saw joy there, most often in stolen glimpses.
But wherever we went we felt safe. People were always polite and helpful….
…although rarely quick to smile.
I’ve heard that Europeans believe Americans smile too much and too easily, and perhaps we do.
But in Gdansk…
…an old woman caught me watching her. I could either avert my eyes and hurry on, or smile and give a little wave, which I did. And when I did, she smiled back with such unexpected warmth that I couldn’t help myself–I blew her a kiss.
That was Poland in a nutshell.
All words and photos copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Texture.
Thank you for this visual tour! I must share it with Steve, as his grandfather emigrated from Poland to Canada to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
When did his grandfather come over? Is Steve a Yooper? My sister still lives in Sault St. Marie. There was a HUGE Polish population in Detroit and Hamtramck, MI. It’s interesting that he should have gone north. I’d love to hear more of the story!
Thanks so much for the visit, Scilla!
We don’t know much since grandfather died before Steve was born, but apparently he was a miner who came to the UP with his brothers, and then moved south to Milwaukee. There are no immigration records through the US, so he might have come to Canada first.
It makes a lot of sense that they would have gone to the UP. Copper mining was big there, and it also attracted a lot of tin miners from Cornwall (which is why Cornish pasty stands are almost as common as hamburger joints in the UP).
A thoughtful and beautifully constructed trip, Naomi. By the way, was that huge Solidarity poster an advertising hoarding?
It was a huge poster on the front lawn of a government building. They had chosen Gary Cooper in a photo from High Noon as a symbol for a celebration of Solidarity.
Thanks for the visit, Meredith. I hope you are well!
I thought it looked like High Noon, Naomi – I’m just thinking it’s a bit strange … and not very Polish?
I’m ok dear – just a few resettlement issues and the unaccustomed cold! 🙂
I was very surprised to see it, and it was such a funny contrast next to the Polish guy on his horse! I always have lemon tea with honey for a cold–don’t know if it really helps, except hydration is always good–but I hope you are feeling better soon!
Great photos and descriptions – I loved the tour! My husband’s family is obviously of Polish descent, but they have no idea when they came over or where they came from, which is too bad. You did a great job of showing us what you saw, something I always love about looking at your posts. You put a lot of time into these and they are wonderful.
Loved the old woman smiling at you – what a great photo!
Thank you so much for you visit, and for your very kind words. I knew very little about Poland until going over there, and while I traveled I read James Michener’s ‘Poland’ which explained so much. It is a very complicated history, and I can certainly understand why they might have left to start over in the US.
Three times Poland was divvied up among its more powerful neighbors, Prussia, Russia, and Austria simply because they could get away with it. For a time Poland didn’t exist, because it had been completely swallowed up by these three powerful empires, and the conquerors forbade the name Poland to be spoken. But the people held onto their culture and traditions and identity, and after WWI, when boundaries in Europe were reset, Poland was once again free and independent–until WWII, when the Nazis and Soviets occupied it.
It would be interesting to know when your husband’s family came over.
I’ll take a Naomi nutshell anytime! And now I want to visit Poland….
So night to hear from you! I hope you get there one day. It is packed with history–we learned so much!
Thank you for sharing pictures of historic Poland Naomi. What I knew of the place were from history books on WWII. Poland is lovely.
Thank you for the visit, and for taking a moment to share your comments. Poland is ancient and charming, and packed with history. I read Michener’s book, Poland, while I was there, and it really helped me understand the history better.
Thanks for the tour of Poland in a nutshell. Sad but hopeful, and so interesting. There must be endless stories to hear about. I have to ask, though; Is there a story behind the blanket wrapped around the tree?
So nice to hear from you! There is a phenomenon called ‘yarnbombing,’ in which people will yarnbomb, or secretly dress up trees, sometimes statues, in knitted outfits such as in that photo. During a particularly cold snap in Seattle, I once saw a particularly wonderful yarnbombing that featured a whole avenue of trees all dressed up in their winter sweaters.
After all the years of destructive bombing that the Warsovians endured, I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a warm, colorful, and benevolent yarnbombing, which was a nice contrast to the other kind.
I love that! Thanks for explaining. 🙂
What a beautifully told story. And what a testament to the human spirit. Thanks Naomi. Hope to get to Poland myself one day.
Thank you, Alison! I’m sure you will get there one day soon. Traveling there is a breeze compared to the far away exotic places you have been to. And when you go, I will be enjoying reading about it on your blog.
Your view and expression of Warsaw and Krakow focused on more recent history than mine did during my visit back in 1992, I believe it was. Fascinating cities either way.
The history of Poland is fascinating and unique, no matter how far back you go. We also went to some of the castles and a national park in search of ice age bison (which takes us WAY back into pre-history), and I might get around to blogging about that. But the Nazi and Soviet bootprint was so visible and ubiquitous that it was hard not to focus on that. It helped to be reading Michener’s Poland at the time, for the overview and a learned interpretation of Polish history. 1992 must have been a rather exciting time to go–a time when all of Eastern Europe was on the cusp of big changes.
What an amazing detailed and informative blog post – congratulations – brilliantly inspiring
Thanks so much for the visit, and for taking the time to leave your very generous comments. I enjoyed my visit to your blog, and I hope my readers will too–it is excellent.
I’ve only been to Kraków, but we absolutely loved it!! So much character, delicious food/wine, and beautiful friendly peeps! I loved the part in your story about blowing the woman a kiss. I’d rather be guilty of smiling too much than scowling and day of the week!! Thank you for sharing this wonderful adventure. 😘
Thank you so much for a very kind and thoughtful comment! Karackow was a charming city. And, yes, I think I’d rather smile too much than too little. I appreciate your stopping by and sharing some of your story.
Best blog. I especially love the pic of the old guys on bench and the three street musicians. Fascinating places.
Thanks so much for the visit and for taking the time to share your response to this post. It’s always good to hear from you, Cousin!
We smile in Ireland but I had noticed that on a trip to the Czech republic last year just how dour and silent the people were(not in Prague, though) and I really wondered, just as you have in Poland, about all of the suffering they have had and how it that pain sifts down through the generations.
Pain is common to all our tribes, of course, but for some it’s more recent than others, so I am curious as to whether there is a pattern of adjustment with each generation.
Fantastic pictures, Naomi! You have taken me there and now, I want to see it for myself.
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment! You raise some very interesting questions about the pattern of adjustment. I do think that some of it is simply cultural, but I think that there must be something to the idea that pain, relatively recent and raw, is bound to leave scars that, I hope, would heal in time. But for that kind of damage, it would most definitely take generations. In this country I think there are still open wounds or at least painful scarring from our Civil War, and that ended in 1865.
I hadn’t thought of the effect of the Civil War still lingering in the US and indeed, it makes sense to me that it would. The trouble with deep pain is that it often is never spoken about and the unspoken tends to leave deeper scars than that which is brought out to the light.
You are so right!
Thank you Naomi for showing my Country to your friends. I had tears in my eyes when I read your comments and saw your great photographs. Thank you for your warm and thoughtful comments about Polish past and present. I was lucky to be born 13 years after WW II but this part of Polish history seats very deep in my heart and consciousness.
I was in Poland last year and discovered that it changed a lot since I left it 22 years ago. It’s not much left from the former socialistic country. It became more like many other countries in Western Europe. It’s definitely good for people who live there right now but I can’t help thinking with nostalgia that some charm of hardship is gone. People were more together and material things didn’t matter so much then. Even the ugliness of those times had some meaning. We wanted to get rid of it at the time but once it disappeared it’s missed as something that can never be experienced again, no matter what.
The Solidarity poster puzzles me a lot. Whoever designed it made a very bad choice or was in love with Gary Cooper. I would expect to have a shipyard worker on it. There were dozens of them killed by Polish soldiers during protests against the government in 1970. They were asked on Sunday to end the strike and come back to work in the Gdansk and Gdynia Shipyards on Monday. When they were leaving the train to go to work the very next day soldiers waited for them and opened fire killing many. My father worked in the Gdansk Shipyard at the time. The Solidarity movement officially started in Gdansk Shipyard in 1980.
Smile or not to smile. When I lived in Poland and traveled to Western Europe I was always amazed by how many people smiled on the streets. I guess we don’t smile in Poland a lot even now. I wonder why.
I’ve saved up many questions for you, and I thought of you the whole time we were there, wondering how it had been for you growing up there, and what might have changed since that time.
I thought it was interesting that they chose Gary Cooper as a symbol for the Solidarity poster. But if you think about it, the sheriff that he played in the movie High Noon was the underdog, who was taking on a whole gang of dangerous thugs and bullies and miraculously, through sheer strength of conviction, he won. It took guts for the shipyard workers to defy the Soviets, and many of them paid the price in blood. Maybe Gary Cooper’s small town sheriff isn’t such an odd choice after all.
I remember talking to an old man in Bosham, England who spoke about WWII with, not exactly nostalgia, but he was looking back wistfully at a time when the class system took a back seat to the camaraderie he felt when all British shared the common goal of winning the war. He said he and his working class friends all thought the world would change, that British society would continue with everyone on equal footing. But he said he was disappointed because the class system went right back to what it had been before the war.
To smile or not to smile! I don’t think it is my imagination, because quite a few people, including some Polish people, have said the same thing. But they also said that once you won the confidence and trust of a Polish person the smiles came easily.
This is the best post in the sphere, Naomi. I always knew it was a stunning country, but your pictures do it more justice than I have seen in photo albums before today. You have captured the essence of Poland. I especially love your story about smiling at the woman and blowing her a kiss. ❤
My parent's visited there in the early 70's at which time my father met his mother-in-law for the first time. I really should make an effort to visit.
Thank you so much for your visit, and for sharing your story. I think it would have been fascinating to have taken a peek into 1970s Poland! Being of Polish descent, you might find it especially interesting. After traveling in China, you would find Poland a breeze!
Indeed, and I wouldn’t need an interpreter. 😀
Tess, do you speak Polish?
fantastic photos and history Naomi. I loved the McVault and your portraits of a people so stoic-and the wonderful tree blanket!!
Thanks so much for your visit, and for sharing your very generous response. It is always fun to know which photos or fun facts appeal most to people.
Poland’s history is long and complicated and complex. Much suffering in it. One thing I rarely pause to remember is the many Polish heroes involved in America’s own history. Heroes and villains and the mix that is most of us — the burden of history is a heavy one, and yet, what is the alternative?
Your family are excellent ambassadors.
Yes, Polish history is very complicated–something I never quite understood until I did the reading and then went there and visited the museums to better learn and understand it all. Thank you for your visit, and for sharing such a thoughtful and generous response.
This has to be your best blog post yet, Naomi. I was spellbound by your wonderful photos and narrative. What a sad history this country has had, and the people have suffered so much hardship. The woman’s smile is really precious, and I’m so glad you captured it with your camera. The little chap feeding the pigeons is just adorable. Thank you for the unforgettable tour. xx 🙂
You are always so welcome. Thanks again for your very generous response–you have a big soul and a warm heart!
Loved this post Naomi. Reminded me very much of a trip we made to Budapest, Vienna and Prague. The war is everywhere, especially in the memorials. Sadly there is still anti-semetism there even after everything that’s happened. Have read so many books about it; such a horror. It’s wonderful tho to see the buildings rebuilt and the people living in freedom. Now if the Middle East could just settle down we could all go about our daily lives without fear.
Yes, it is very sad. I wasn’t sure how or whether I should include that in this post. The anti-semitism was especially bad during the years leading up to the war and during the war itself. A great many Polish Jews were turned over to the Nazis by their neighbors and those few Jews who survived the concentration camps and went home were sometimes chased away or even murdered by neighbors who had moved into their property and didn’t want to surrender it. What a sad fate to meet after suffering through and surviving the war.
There were also many righteous gentiles among the Poles who fed and protected them. I was planning to address the topic when writing about a gentile pharmacist in Krackow who refused to leave his shop, even though it was in the Jewish Ghetto, and he used to smuggle letters and money in and out of the Ghetto and took care of his Jewish friends and neighbors.
I am just sick about what’s happening in the Middle East. Desperately hoping for peace.
I read this post with such envy. I was supposed to go to Poland this summer but didn’t. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t make it happen. I must go — soon! So much to see!
Poland will be waiting for you next summer! I really really hope you can get there. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get around there, and to get by with our rudimentary French and English. We had to rent a car to get to the national park, but everywhere else we just walked, walked, walked and it was great. We had to take a long distance bus to get to Lithuania from Poland, and it’s the first time I ever came upon a bus that had a free coffee machine and free video games for its passengers.
I’m curious, though. Not that many people choose Poland as a destination. Are you of Polish heritage?
A wonderfully worked tribute Naomi. It’s difficult to face up to the awful truths of the not-so-distant past, but we can be proud that the world fought back and eventually destroyed those responsible. I hope the few surviving Nazis never know a minute’s peace.
We have a settled and well thought of Polish community here, many coming from the Krakow area.
Thank you for your generous response. Having been to your little island, with no small thanks to you for your generous escort and guidance (not to mention having read your truly informative novel Tess about that very subject), I was able to see the terrible effect of war on Jersey. I was unprepared, in spite of all I had learned from books, to see for myself the horrific effect of war on Poland, where the brutality was unimaginable for the Polish, and especially for the Polish Jews.
In Ireland I was surprised to find a whole section in the grocery store dedicated to imported Polish products for the Polish community that had relocated to Ireland, I didn’t know about the Polish community on Jersey.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts–you always have something interesting and thought-provoking to add to the conversation.
Warsaw is on the list of places I’ll be going. Krakow might be on the cards for spring, but I’m uncertain as it’s another friend (a semi polish one) who’ll be planning and arranging that?
I’m flying to Vienna. I really want to go to Ljubljana. The plan is to be somewhere between Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, maybe a little Croatia?
The beginning and the end are planned, but I’m leaving some space in the middle to just explore, especially places I’ve not yet heard of en-route.
There will most certainly be a whole series of blog posts, although they’ll probably be written and published on my return (but based on my notebook written (and doodled) while I’m there).
This sounds like an amazing trip! I hope you get to Croatia. I’ve never been here, but have heard it’s a beautiful and interesting place to visit. I loved Prague–they call it a symphony written in stone.
Best wishes for a wonderful trip and a safe journey home!
Prague is beautiful. I went with my parents when I was younger. It’s the only place on my list I’ve previously visited. I remember being given a hot chocolate by a street vendor which was certainly not just hot chocolate.
If I don’t get to Croatia this visit it will just mean I do another. Europe is only a short hop away. 🙂
You are so fortunate to have so many different countries just a hp away! If I lived there, I would want to be traveling every weekend!
The resourcefulness and determination is amazing, isn’t it, Naomi? As one of my nieces said to me ‘We don’t smile and talk to strangers. We’re not a very friendly people’. Perhaps they have good cause, but if you’re family or become a friend it all changes. I never met with more warmth or generosity.
I loved the reconstruction of Stare Miasto in Warsaw, and I loved your post. 🙂
This is so very interesting! I am glad that you wrote to tell me that it is not my imagination! My dear friend Dorota, who is from Gdansk, also said that Polish people are not quick to smile, but she and I smile and laugh often when we are together, so you’re right–you just have to make friends and the smiles will follow.
Thanks so much for your generous response and for an insider’s point of view!
McVault…haha! I’ve never been to Poland, but I had a friend from Krakow.
Munich has also been called “Disneyland” as so much of the city was destroyed then rebuilt as an enormous replica of its former beauty. Interesting how Berlin took a completely different approach and decided not to rebuild the old and instead to move on with the new. I do like the artwork that is displayed before the structures…that’s a lovely touch.
You’re the best for blowing that kiss to the smiling woman. I would have done the same. : )
I didn’t know that about Munich–I just passed thorugh it years ago on the train. I was in Berlin this summer, and saw a few key lmonuments that were rebuilt after the war. But with its history, I think Berlin made a good choice to move forward into a new world, and they have done a good job of it too.
Naomi, you write so beautifully. The story is so complicated. My friend Elane was four when they took her with her family from Poland to the camps. She and four other family members survived. She did not go back to Poland until about three or four years ago. Yours is a story of hope. To see the picture of total destruction, and realize how much work it was to rebuild, and yet they did just that is amazing. The picture of the woman smiling at you was the most precious picture there. I love how you wove the visual of the knitting into the story. What was the significance of the sweatered tree?
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, and for sharing your friend’s story. I don’t think I could have returned to Poland after the war either.
The act of covering a tree like that is called ‘yarnbombing’ and I thought it was a fitting transition from the destructive bombing suffered during the war to a different kind of bombing that was an act of beauty and creativity.
It is beautiful, and I love the reflection of yarn picture as a teaser. I wondered, “Why is this picture here? It sure is a cool picture.” Then you had the close up of the knitting, and finally the tree. Very wonderful article. 🙂
This is just a hugely incredible post that held me in absolute awe.
And now I know why Polish people living in the UK are incredibly polite but don’t usually smile on first meeting a new person. Now I know not to get paranoid as there are a lot Polish people living and working in the seaside town where I live.
Thank you so much for the visit, for your very kind response, and for adding your astute perception to the conversation. I do not like to stereotype and generalization can be both foolish and even dangerous, but accepting the fact that people are all individuals, there are historical and cultural differences that simply must affect the national character. It seems to me that some of Poland’s unique history must have woven itself into its national character.
Thank you for the wonderful tour, Naomi! It looks like so much to see to learn about. I like the photos of the architecture.
Thanks, Amy. It has some really beautiful architecture, both old and new.
Such a rich, vibrant, and tragic history. This is one of the places I want to see.
Thank you for the visit. I know you are a traveler and I hope you get there. In Vilnius we met a couple from Manchester who had a free weekend and just decided to go somewhere they had never been before. If I lived on that side of the pond…
I hope your holiday is going well!
Great photography Naomi 🙂
Thank you, Jake. So nice of you to stop by! I am enjoying your posts. So glad to have you back!
Naomi, this is a wonderful post, full of compassion. We were there last fall and came away with same positive impression of the people of Poland. I’m so glad that you mentioned the rresponse to smiles – I just love the reaction you got from the woman on the bench. Priceless! 🙂 I really enjoyed your photos and explanations … and I had NO idea that’s what the basement of McDonald’s looked like! ~Terri
It’s great to hear from you–thanks for stopping by. I love to hear someone else’s impressions of a place I have visited.
Walking down a street in the old town is a little like looking out onto the ocean and just seeing the surface of the water, with no awareness of the fish, the corals, the currents beneath the waves. Just think how many layers of history are hidden from view in a one thousand year old city, lurking even beneath the Golden Arches!
I was lucky enough to visit Poland when I was younger. Beautiful country.
Yes, it is. Were you visiting family over there? I loved the countryside best of all.
I lived there when I was younger, one of the few advantages of being an army brat! I saw the wall before it fell.
Again….you take us with you. Thank you, Naomi, for sharing this history, your experience, and the touching photos. I love that you chose to be yourself in a more reserved world….and that you blew her a kiss. She will forever remember you. Way to represent! The colorful yarnbombing is simply beautiful! I have seen this in Arkansas….and wondered what the history is on it.
Love, love, love! Be safe ♥ huggles
What a really sweet message to find in my inbox. Thank you for brightening my day, Paula.
Love to you too!
Nice post Naomi. We visited Poland recently, and Krakow was one of our stops. The historic center is beautiful, and the central square is one of the best places to people-watch on the planet. Being sandwiched between belligerent neighbors like Russia and Germany has made their history turbulent and their lives hard. ~James
Poland was the buffer zone between three world powers, until they carved it up between them, right out of existence. It does seem that things are now settling down and they are becoming more prosperous. They have earned a quiet and peaceful existence!
Thanks so much for the visit and for a very thoughtful comment.
And a really good nut of a tour that was, Naomi.
So good to hear from you. Thanks so much for the lovely comment!
I thought the artwork displayed in front of each reconstructed building was a wonderful idea. I understand opposition to deliberate Disneyfication (?). I don’t see how reconstruction should cause anyone grief. Marvelously narrated Naomi. Enjoyed every single word and image 🙂
You have articulated a very important distinction. I thought it was wonderful to see the Old Town rise form the ashes.
Thanks so much for the visit, and for sharing your perspective.
Super post, Naomi. My grandparents emigrated from Poland, and it’s on my list to visit!
That’s so interesting! Did they come in the aftermath of WWII? Do you know where in Poland they came from? I do hope you get there sometime. It is actually easier than you might think to get around. We took the train to most places and stayed in the old town centers so that we could walk everywhere we needed to go, except for a few ventures off the beaten path in a rental car.
Thanks so much for the visit, and sharing a bit of your story. I’d love to hear more!
What a beautiful explosion of color, and fun to see the places that we discussed in the past days, Naomi. It looks as though we might be passing through Poland in the coming days, so our conversation has been timely. 🙂
Yes, I really enjoyed our conversation. Do you know where you might visit in Poland? I wish you exciting travels and a safe return home.
Amazing, the transformation and rebuilding of their nation. Truly an amazing people. I’m glad you chose to smile and wave. 🙂
I think most places you go, goodwill is usually met with goodwill. I try not to be too shy to express it.
THanks so much for the visit, and for sharing your response. Poland certainly has one of the more complicated histories of all the places I have ever been to!