Surprises in Poland

by Berry Friesen (April 29, 2017)

Along with Sharon (my wife) and our London-based daughter and her family, I have been traveling in Poland over the past nine days.  All branches of my ancestors lived in northern Poland for around 250 years.  Thus, this trip gave me the opportunity to see places that shaped my families of origin and—in some sense—me.  It was a dream-come-true.

Like any traveler, I had coached myself in advance to expect the unexpected. Nevertheless, I experienced genuine surprises along the way.

1.  At our first stop—the Gdansk airport—I learned I was not permitted to drive the rental car because I did not have an international driver’s license.  Ouch!  Such a license is apparently not difficult to obtain, but does require a bit of preparation.  All you travelers, be forewarned.

2. Gdansk became a thriving international city-state 500 years ago—in the 16th century—as a hub of trade between the central and eastern European cities of the Hanseatic League and the booming ports of Amsterdam and Antwerp.  Dutch influence was especially strong, shaping Gdansk’s architecture and culture.  US bombing and Russian artillery destroyed much of the city in 1945.

Here is the surprise:  starting in 1948 and continuing for the next 40 years, Communist Poland restored the grandeur of 16th century Danzig (as it was then known) in modern-day Gdansk. That’s right; today the historic center of Gdansk looks much like Danzig in 1939 before the war started.  Polish Communist leaders enabled this to happen.

3.  Between Gdansk on the west and Elblag on the east, south of the Baltic Sea and along both sides of the Vistula River south to Torun, my ancestors lived as farmers. Their remarkable achievement was to lower the water table and thereby claim the land—30 percent of which was below sea level— for productive uses.

During our day on the Delta, we saw vistas of spring green, an early stage of what over the summer will become acres of grain.  Countless drainage canals and ditches crisscross the green, taking the water into rivers and on to the Baltic.  The surprise? Few people live on the Delta and hardly any farm animals. We saw widely scattered farm building sites, but nearly all were old and decrepit.  The roads are awful and seem slated for use only by farm equipment.   The land of the Delta remains productive, but apparently no longer supports a vibrant human community.  Industrial agriculture prevails.

4.  Sunday evening, Sharon and I attended the 7:00 mass at a Catholic church on the main square in Torun. It was cold inside the large space, dark and not particularly attractive.  As we sat at the far back and waited for the worship service to begin, the benches of the sanctuary filled with people.  Near where we sat, a long line stretched around the corner of the sanctuary, people waiting for an opportunity to confess sins to a priest.  Many of the worshippers—including those in line for the confessional—were young adults.  Slowly, it dawned on us:  religious faith is vital and strong in Poland.

5.  Monday we visited Czestochowa, site of Jasna Gora, the “bright hill” overlooking the city.  It is the site of the Black Madonna, an ancient painting of unknown origin that is one of Poland’s most important religious and cultural treasures.  Also part of the huge complex at Jasna Gora is a basilica with an alter that includes perhaps two dozen sculpted figures rendered in the baroque style.

What first surprised me was the emotion I felt in the depiction of what I took to be the glorification of Jesus (i.e., the resurrection).  There was such beauty, such joyous triumph and celebration over Jesus’ vindication.  The emotion drew me to my knees with the words of Ephesians running through my mind . . . “raised him from the dead and seated him in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come . . . head over everything” (1:20-22)

Alas, my second surprise of the afternoon soon followed as I drew closer and knelt at the communion rail. The glorified figure at the center of the alter tableau was Mary, mother of Jesus.

6.  The fourth and final city we visited was Krakow, second-largest city of Poland. During the German occupation of Poland (1939-1945), the Nazis made Krakow the administrative and regulatory capital of the governing unit imposed on Eastern Europe.   It also is the historical setting for and filming location of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the movie about a German factory owner who saved the lives of Jews by putting them to work and inflating the number of people in his employ.  All of this opened the way for a more nuanced account of that horrible era, a subject I will discuss in my next post.

7.   During the 45 years of Communist rule (1945-90), the Polish people defeated the Nazis; rebuilt cities, towns and infrastructure shattered by the war; revived their economy; and educated two generations of youth.  As we passed through four Polish cities in the course of our travels, I looked for historical markers celebrating those important accomplishments, but saw nothing.  Curiosity aroused, I did some digging and discovered nearly 500 statues and markers related to the Communist era had been removed during the early '90s from public view.  Now in storage, those statues and markers remain controversial; Poland’s parliament reportedly enacted legislation on April 21 to destroy them.

Really?  Simply because the ruling Polish government was Communist, it is necessary to purge from memory the achievements of two generations of Polish people?  I find this surprising and disturbing. For some reason or another (is it politics?), Poland’s current rulers have decided to tell the country’s history as a morality tale.  As a result, I expect Poland will be less equipped to deal with today’s challenges.  It’s a pity; Poland has many accomplishments to be proud of, including those that occurred during years of Communist rule.