A (Very Brief History of Poland

  • Poland’s strategic geo-political location between the East and the West has meant that Polish history is marked with wars and uprisings. Poland was once the largest country in Europe, but there was also a stage when it was totally erased from the world map for over a hundred years. The first Polish ruler recorded in history was Mieszko, about A.D. 963. In 966, Mieszko adopted Christianity, making Poland the easternmost country within the orbit of Latin culture.
  • In 1385 the Polish-Lithuanian union was formed, lasting for over 400 years, successfully defending the country against The Teutonic Order, at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
  • The 16th century was Poland’s “Golden Age”. Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), formulated the first modern heliocentric theory of the solar system. In 1596 King Zygmunt III Waza moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw, as the city was more centrally located.
  • From the mid-seventeenth century the Commonwealth entered a period of decline. The state was invaded first by Swedes and subsequently the rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria, who partitioned its territory. The country lost its last king, was briefly a republic and disappeared from the map of Europe.
  • The outbreak of World War I gave Poland the chance to regain independence and The Second Polish Republic was established in 1918. On 1st September 1939 Poland was invaded by the Nazi Germany and World War II began. When it ended Poland fell under Soviet control and the communist People’s Republic of Poland was created, as a Soviet satellite state.
  • Solidarność (Solidarity) – the trade-union-cum-freedom-movement founded by future Polish president Lech Walesa played a key role in the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, leading to today's Republic.

Is Poland in the EU?

Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004

Facts and Factoids

  • Poland is Europe's most religious country - hence all the churches
  • The Polish alphabet consists of 32 letters.
  • Pierogi, (Polish dumplings), are very tasty
  • Opened in 1275 and located in Wrocław, the “Piwnica Swidnicka” is the oldest restaurant in Europe.
  • The currency is the zloty.
  • Somewhat contentiously, the Polish claim to have invented vodka. Bison Grass is pretty good.
  • Agriculture has always been the backbone of Poland's economy. In Polish, pole means field. And this is generally a flat country. Hence, it's known as 'The Land of Fields'.

Is Poland a Safe Country to Visit?

Poland is generally considered to be a safe country to travel to. However, petty crime has also increased with the influx of tourists since it joined the EU. There are also warnings about scammers.. …

Is Poland a Poor Country?

Poland is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank and ranks 21st worldwide in terms of GDP. It is also a relatively cheap place to visit.

What is There to See and Do in Poland?

  • Warsaw is an interesting - though a very much renovated city
  • Krakow is enchanting
  • Everyone should visit Auschwitz and Birkenau once in their life to learn about man’s inhumanity to man.
  • There's plenty more too: more medieval cities, mountains (despite the flatness), castles, even beaches and wetlands, and one of the world's oldest salt mines.

Kraków

Jenny and I on our After the Wall Came Down tour. Berlin to Warsaw. Another train to Kraków, much more touristy than Warsaw, with its well-preserved medieval core. The Old Town of Kraków, with Wawel Castle, was included on the first list of World Heritage Sites, in 1978 (alongside Yellowstone National Park and the Ecuadorian capital Quito).

Kraków dates back to the seventh century, but the early town was destroyed by the Mongols and the main pace of early development of this merchant town took place in the thirteenth century.  It was the capital of Poland until 1596. It remains the second largest city in Poland, with a large suburban area (population eight million), and a leading European centre for the arts.

The Old Town is centred on the huge Rynek Glówny (Market Square), Europe's largest, with its arched promenades alongside the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, a(nother) 14th-century Gothic church with imposing towers. There's also the tenth century Church of St. Wojciech and sundry other monuments and sculptures including the 1898 Monument to Adam Mickiewicz (Poland's national poet).

Exploring Kraków

Rynek Glówny is definitely the heart of town and the place to go for people watching. There's plenty of street entertainment, both organised (concerts, dance, music) and impromptu. The downside of course, is that it can get overly crowded and hectic. But there are a whole range of shops in the arches under the Cloth Hall to wander, tempting folk to part with their tourist dollar. The level of the Market Square has risen, over the centuries and the exposed cellars (like the arches on Brighton seafront) are now converted into lines of cafes, bars, restaurants and pop up art galleries. This fascinating square could easily consume a day on its own, if you include the surrounding streets. Each hour is marked by a trumpet that is played from the highest tower of the church.

The Wawel Castle complex sits atop a limestone outcrop on the left bank of the Vistula River, 228 metres above sea level. Wawel Cathedral is also there, so the Polish monarchs could be conveniently crowned and buried next to their home. Some of Wawel's oldest stone buildings can be traced back to 970 AD, but the current castle was built in the fourteenth-century, and expanded over the centuries. Today, it's an art museum.

What else? There are remnants of the city’s medieval walls to see. Kazmierz The Former Jewish District rewards exploration. Otherwise, charming townhouses, ornate palaces and plenty more churches to visit, with numerous tea rooms  juxtaposed between them, to compensate.

Auschwitz and Birkenau

A side trip to  the town of Oświeçim. We had time to visit either the salt mines or the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps. We decided on the latter. Everyone should go at least once, if they can.

Auschwitz was the German name for Oświeçim. The concentration camp here consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labour camp for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben and dozens of subcamps, mainly near industrial plants. At least 1.1 million prisoners of the Nazis were killed by gassing with the pesticide Zyklon-B. Those not gassed were murdered via starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments. Ninety percent of the prisoners killed were Jewish, as part of Hitler's "Endlösung der Judenfrage" (the final solution to the Jewish question). The first exterminations of prisoners took place in September 1941. In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II. In 1979 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Visiting Birkenau

It is a bleak, misty morning. We arrive early at Birkenau, and while Jenny is looking for the entrance or ticket office I wander in, past the bucket toting cleaners; no-one else in view.  It is vast and flat and eerie. I follow the gruesome railway lines decanting the Jews to to the gas chambers and the ruins of the crematoria blown up by the retreating Nazis. Most of the remaining inmates were sent on a death march into Germany and/or Austria.

New arrivals to the camp were subject to 'selection'. An average of just 20% kept alive, as prisoners performing slave labour. Employed mostly in constructing new parts of the camp, or at German companies supporting the Third Reich. Or transferred on a mass scale from Auschwitz to sub-camps. German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners here. These included testing. the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device, infecting prisoners with fever for vaccination research and exposure to various poisons. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who worked with identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary disease. Mengele set them up in a kindergarten, gave them better food rations, experimented on them and then killed them.

The dilapidated wooden huts that housed those not immediately doomed and the messages painted on the hut walls ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Bleak and haunting. Then I get lost, in the foggy lands beyond all the barbed wire. and can't work out how to find my way back. A frightening and hugely emotional experience.

Auschwitz Camp

Auschwitz I, a more organised, but equally sobering experience, with a tour. This was the administration centre. The Punishment Block - flogging and torture, for the minutest offence - were the order of the day. One of the most famous of the many heart wrenching stories told of this place is that of Father Maximilian Kolbe (now canonized). He was imprisoned in Auschwitz and continuing to act as a priest, was subjected to considerable violent harassment. At the end of July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp.

So, as a deterrent to further attempts, the deputy camp commander, decided to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!" Kolbe volunteered to take his place. According to an eyewitness, an assistant janitor, Kolbe led the nine other prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards resolved the situation by giving him a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

Adjacent to the Punishment Block, the execution yard - the bullet ridden Death Wall. This was used, in the main, for Polish political prisoners.

The poignant piles of suitcases, shoes and teeth. The frailties of mankind.

Next, a train to Hungary.

(Read more about Poland here.)

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