Hunting for history in Poland

Taking advantage of seemingly weekly public holidays here in Germany, my host family visited Poland this weekend.

We went to a city called Wroclaw, which is Poland’s fourth largest city and also a university town. The reason for the trip was to visit the home that the children’s grandmother was born in, as her family fled Poland as refugees at the end of the war and she has never returned since. It was an incredible weekend, because I saw so many new and different things, and it was so much more interesting because I hadn’t seen pictures online of the place before we went.

On Friday afternoon the journey started well, with sunshine, pretzels and a front seat in the car for me (the record for the kids throwing up stands at 10 times on a trip to Italy). After pacing down the Autobahn with such a speed I thought the car might take off, we reached the border after a couple of hours. Gripping my passport, I squinted to try and spot checkpoints ahead, expecting at least a blaze of brake lights. A few seconds later we did slow down, but for another reason entirely. I quickly forgot my visions of grumpy Polish people demanding our passports and started looking around at the interesting selection of grey, concrete, derelict buildings on the side of the motorway. The next thing we knew, the road became bumpy. To be honest, bumpy doesn’t do it justice, this road was rough. Looking ahead I could see big holes, sharp cracks and the signposted speed limit was 60kmh. I’m told, and I truly hope this isn’t a nightmarish blonde moment, that this was the same road that Hitler built and that no one has bothered to replace it yet. It’s believable enough for me. To shock me further, I noticed that the exit lanes were built of cobbles and the speed limit for the exit was 40kmh. Now I was really laughing! What was this? You’d only find such a slow speed limit during school zone times in Sydney, not even on residential streets!

Evenutally we arrived in Wroclaw (Breslau) and went to collect the keys for the apartment. After much confusion and walking up and down stairs for two hours it emerged we’d been given two apartments in two separate buildings…fast forward to me having an apartment to myself in this place where I couldn’t even pronounce the signposts, let alone hazard a guess at their meaning. It was so scary on the first night!

On the Saturday we met with the Auntie and Grandparents and walked round the town, taking in the sights. There was a huge main square, with all these bright buildings and two fantastic town halls with really intricate decorations. It was hard to photograph the buildings because you were standing so close, but they were just awesome! It was also evident that Poland is a very religious country, usually where you see one or two big churches in a town of this size, there must have been almost ten cathedral-esque churches. Polish was so obviously Slavic, I couldn’t understand a thing whatsoever. Whilst you usually understand most signs in Western European countries, it was hopeless there. Strangely I did see one Tesco, one M&S and one Costa Coffee shop!

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Salt Market Place
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Old Town Hall

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View across the Oder
On the Sunday we drove for around an hour to a tiny village near the river Oder. When we arrived the grandparents were speaking to a villager, who luckily spoke some good German. This woman took all eight of us along the one street of the village and introduced us to several people and explained what we were looking for. Miraculously, we found the house we were looking for! It was just incredible and such an emotional moment for everyone. Then, to our surprise, we were invited inside the house and the grandma got to look around the kitchen. Everyone was very taken aback, as the plan was really to visit the village and no one had expected to even find the same house.

Further along the street an 80 year old woman came out onto her balcony. The story was explained again and names were given and this woman, incredibly, said that yes she remembered the grandma’s family. Then she said ‘you were the girl with trouble with her legs!’. It was so amazing, I felt so privileged to witness the moment. It was like being on Who Do You Think You Are, but better. You could not have got closer to history if you tried. This area belonged to Germany until the border changes at the end of the Second World War and between 1945 and 1949, Germans had to flee the Red Army soldiers. I found out that many families had to flee from one day to the next, carrying very little. I got told other stories about how people hid behind their front doors but were then tragically killed when soldiers shot at the doors.

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Błota, Poleskie

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The house. Renovated somewhat because of the flood of the river Oder in July 1997. 3m high waters for a month.
On Sunday the village was a very quiet and isolated place and I just tried to imagine what it might have been like to have lived through such events. My host family said that this is why Germany has accepted so many refugees as so many Germans were refugees themselves. To our astonishment we were invited inside by this 80 year old woman to have something to drink and eat. It was lunchtime on a Sunday holiday day and there were already guests there, yet space was made for us and the coffee, cake and vodka passed round. It was so kind and welcoming. Only one of the Polish family spoke English and through her we were all able to listen to what the villagers had to tell her.

I sat there quietly observing but with a huge smile on my face and thought about what a special moment it was for everyone who was there. Those people couldn’t have expected to meet a big bunch of Germans that day and my host family couldn’t even have begun to wish for such an outcome!

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Town Hall at night
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One of about 300 dwarves around Breslau

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Cool graffiti

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An 8/10 apartment block compared to others I saw

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Away from the town centre
The trip was great although very tiring because the days were long and it we were all together. I would visit the Wroclaw again in a heartbeat. It was very fascinating to see such a different way of life and to have an insight into a much poorer country. Sure, the old town centre is picturesque, but other places were grim and it was clear that Poland is a world apart. If I’d have grown up there my life would’ve been completely different.

So the weekend taught me a lot of things and shone a light on lots of other things. I’m very grateful for the experience!

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