Understanding Poland: A Country’s Primer

August 15, 2012

We are now in Zdiar, Slovakia, population 1,400. This village is located in the Tatra Mountains, which separates Poland from Slovakia. We arrived here after spending a week in Poland, visiting Gdansk in the north and Krakow in the south.

Our reasons for visiting Poland were two-fold. First, we wanted to learn more about this country’s culture and its turbulent history. In just the last two hundred years, Poland was partitioned between the Russian Empire, Austria and the Kingdom of Prussia, regained its independence for a short time and then was under Nazi Germany and Soviet Union rule. It was also greatly affected by the events of World War II. In addition, we wanted to see the natural features of this country, the 9th largest in Europe and the size of the U.S. state of New Mexico. Viewing the countryside was our main motivation for traveling from the top to bottom of Poland by train and bus.

To reach Poland we took an overnight ferry from Scandinavia. We felt right away that we had gotten off the beaten path upon leaving Copenhagen, Denmark. From there we took a 3 1/2 hour train trip to Karlskrona, Sweden, located in the southeast corner of the country. Upon arriving at the train station in Karlskrona, we knew we needed to take a public bus to the ferry terminal, which was still about 6 miles (10 kilometers) away. We tried to ask for directions to the bus stop, but could not get very far because of the lack of English spoken. We finally got an arm gesture in a general direction and then used Sandy’s iPhone to pinpoint the exact bus stop location in Google Maps. The bus showed up about 10 minutes later and we were soon at the ferry terminal.

After a 10-hour crossing we arrived in the Polish port of Gdynia, about 14 miles (22 kilometers) northwest of Gdansk. We took a public bus to the train station and then boarded a commuter train to Gdansk. This city is famous for being the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, which played a major role in bringing an end to Communism in the 1980’s and in Poland becoming an independent nation in 1989. When we checked into our hotel, the receptionist audibly gasped when we gave her our American passports. She told us that we were only the second Americans she had seen this entire year.

A major Baltic Sea port, Gdansk was founded in the 10th century. What surprised us about our visit there was the extensive and beautiful old town section of the city. Gdansk suffered significant destruction during World War II and when it was reconstructed, the rebuilding focused on the returning the buildings to an 18th century state (prior to the occupations of the past two hundred years), rather than their appearance just prior to the war. We walked along the Ulica Dluga (or Long Street) and Dlugi Targ (Long Market), which are beautiful pedestrian areas surrounded by the reconstructed buildings.

Just outside of Gdansk is the location of the Battle of Westerplatte, which took place on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II began. We took a canal cruise to this location and then walked 10 minutes to an open-air museum and monument to the battle, in which the heavily out-numbered Polish soldiers, numbering less than 200, held out for seven days before being defeated. The number of foreign tourists were significantly outnumbered by the Polish families who were also there visiting the site.

A nine-hour train journey brought us south to Krakow, the second largest city in Poland. Along the way, we passed several small towns with beautiful towers and castles. We also saw many farms. In fact, Poland has about two million private farms throughout the country and approximately half its total land is used for agriculture. About 29% of the country is forested and the train made its way in and out of patches of tall, dense trees. After passing the capital city of Warsaw, about six hours into the trip, the train reached speeds of about 93 miles / 150 kilometers per hour as we continued to Krakow. While relatively flat the entire way, we began to see rolling hills as we got closer to our destination.

Considered Poland’s academic, artistic and cultural capital, Krakow is also significant because it suffered very little structural damage during World War II. Our train arrived at about 7:00pm, and, as we walked out of the station, the sun cast a magical glow on the buildings around us. We decided that we liked Krakow right away and that feeling only grew in the three days that we spent there. One day we walked all over the city. We visited the historic Old Town, Wawel Castle and Kazimierz (Jewish quarter) areas. These three areas were included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. We enjoyed having dinner in the Old Town Main Square, crowded with tourists from around the world.

Another day was spent understanding the horror and hope of humanity. During World War II, up to six million Polish citizens died, representing as much as 20% of Poland’s population. Over 90% of these deaths were non-military. To reflect on this, we took a trip a few miles out of Krakow to the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) Concentration Camps. The weather was cold and rainy, a perfect mirror of our mood as we made our way through the camps. It was encouraging to see so many other nationalities visiting both places, remembering what happened there.

Back in Krakow, we contrasted our concentration camp visits with a trip to the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum. Opened just two years ago in the former factory building, this place celebrates the efforts of Oskar Schindler, who saved an estimated 1,200 Jews from death by employing them in his factory during World War II. The room that was his former office contains a display of the ‘list’ of people employed by him. This was made famous in the movie “Schindler’s List”.

Most of the museum focuses on the Nazi occupation of Krakow between 1939 and 1945. We learned more about the terrible conditions of the occupation but also saw exhibits highlighting the resistance efforts which also took place among the Polish people. Some estimate that Poles represented the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. The total number of Jews saved is estimated to be as high as 450,000. It was uplifting to see this commitment of hope in helping others in the face of despair.

Leaving Krakow the next day, we took a public bus high into the Tatra Mountains, crossing the border into Slovakia. The Tatras are the highest range in the Carpathian Mountains, with peaks up to 8,710 feet / 2,655 meters tall. After a few days enjoying the mountain scenery in Slovakia we will continue through the Czech Republic to the cities of Dresden and Bamberg in Germany.

In Bamberg we will be meeting our two daughters and Sandy’s parents for a few days, which roughly marks the halfway point of our total 14-month journey. After leaving Germany, we are looking forward to visiting seven more countries in Eastern Europe over the next few weeks.

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One thought on “Understanding Poland: A Country’s Primer

  1. Sharon Johnson Reply

    I was wondering why you would want to go to Sweden after leaving Copenhagen to take a ferry to Gdansk. Looking at a map it makes perfect sense.

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