On the trail of Wroclaw’s past

Wrocław has about 640,000 inhabitants and is the fourth largest city in Poland. The capital of the Dolny Śląsk voivodeship (Lower Silesia) won the title, in 2016, of European Capital of Culture, and still nowadays Wroclaw is one of the most important cultural cities in the country and, at least for the next year, it is going to be our home. Therefore it is also worthy to learn something about the history of this city, right? For me it is even more important, because my family is from Opole, a city about 100 km west of Wrocław. Same as Wrocław, Opole was until 1945 a german city. After the end of the Second World War both cities became polish and my family lived in Poland from then on. I was born in Germany, but, since my parents never taught me Polish, I decided in September 2019 to move to Wrocław to learn Polish and to get to know my family’s homeland better. So, I would like to take with you a look back at the history and at the trails of the past that we can find in Wroclaw today.

The city, built around the Oder river, is more than 1000 years old. In early history, Wroclaw had been under the rule of the polish Piast Dynasty, but already in the 13th century the German settlers were the strongest group in the region. In the following centuries Wroclaw continued to grow, alternately under Bohemian and Austrian rule. In 1741 Frederick II conquered it and officially named it Breslau, although the Germanic name had been in use for a long time before. During the next 200 years, the city became increasingly German, but only in the years after the Nazi takeover an aggressive germanisation was pursued. By 1938, the entire polish population had been expelled from the city, as well two thirds of the Jews. During World War II, a new, bloody chapter was opened. After the Soviet Army approached the city in February 1945, Wrocław was declared a “Festung“ (fortress). After almost 3 months of fighting, the “Breslau Fortress” surrendered on the 6th May 1945. The city was at this time no more than a gigantic ruin: over 70% were destroyed, especially the southern and western districts. Tens of thousand of people defending the city, as well as other residents who remained in the city, lost their lives or were injured.  

Immediately after the 2nd World War the polish border moved several hundred kilometers to the West. It might sound a little confusing at first, but it is actually a quite simple dynamic: former polish cities like Wilno (Vilnius) and Lvov (Lviv) were assigned to the Soviet Union; Poland, in return, was given a part of german territory in its west. As a result, the few Germans still living in the region were expelled and resettled in Germany. Thousands of Polish refugees from the present ukrainian region of Lviv settled in the now polish areas. And, of course, Wroclaw got its old Polish name back. Everything, in the deserted and decayed city, reminded the newcomers of the Nazis and their reign of terror: the german street names, the monuments, the inscriptions and street signs. All of this made the situation in Wroclaw immediately after the Second World War not easy.In the following years, reconstruction work was carried out. A lot of time and effort was invested to make Wroclaw a Polish city; a lot of money was spent to de-germanise Wroclaw, meaning the removal of all German signs and inscriptions. Afterwards, the reconstruction of the marvellous buildings from the 13th century began. After all of this, Wroclaw now can appear again as a proud and beautiful Polish city.

When the city was taken over by Poland, of course, the aim was to disrupt all the traces of the former enemy. This task has been completed quite successfully. Nevertheless, the past is now getting a new visibility. Wind and weather are bringing back the german past: today, the color of some buildings is fading away and old forgotten German characters are appearing again. As these events took place around 75 years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that the paint used at the time has not been able to permanently hide the inscriptions over the decades.  

There is not, in the whole world, a single city where there was a complete exchange of population like this one: it is certainly possible to speak of a phenomenon which happened, in this form and intensity, only here in Wroclaw.

Especially in the district Nadodrze (formerly Odertor) traces of this can be seen very clearly, because in the north of the city many of the old tenement houses survived the war, keeping a german architecture style. Therefore, famous directors like Steven Spielberg chose to use the streets of Nadodrze as film scenery for Berlin in the 40’s or 50’s. One of the most well-known films with location Wroclaw-Nadodrze is “Bridge of Spies – The negotiator”. One of the streets which were used as a location for this film is also Kurkowa. Here, in Kurkowa 31, you can find an old german sign, which is in a pretty bad condition and hard to read. At the end it says “…eibung”. If you have an idea what this might be, let me know. Just a few hundred meters further, at Paulińska 10, there is a well-preserved sign of the past era. In german, it refers to a “atelier for modern footwear” (Werkstatt für moderne Fußbekleidung).

Aren’t you curious about how the shop windows looked like a hundred years ago?

Another interesting topic is certainly nowadays’ perception of German history. Many of the buildings with the old german inscriptions are not in good condition, but restoration programs are often being implemented. And what about how to deal with the old signs? Here, there are two options: keep them or paint them over. In many of the houses, it can actually be observed that the signs have been restored. Though, sometimes it does not work out as it should. In Władysława Łokietka 2 you can see a sign from the brand new category “resored, but unfortunately wrong”. It was supposed to be written “Eisenhandel” (Iron sector), but it turned out into something different. Ending our little tour through Nadodrze let’s take a look on the train station “Dworzec Nadodrze” (formerly Bahnhof Odertor), which was opened in 1868: inside you can still hear a real “clacking” of the information board. 

Today Germans represent the third largest group of tourists in Wrocław next to Polish and Ukrainian visitors. Many of the German visitors love the little dwarf sculptures around the city which are spread all over the city and have their origin in an uprising against the communist regime (so the activist could avoid getting arrested). To find the location of the dwarfs, there is a map provided by the tourist information centre. Often German visitors coming to Wroclaw are looking for small traces of the past, their own past, in Wroclaw – like me. 

Maybe, in the future, a hunt for the old German signs could also develop? 

Written by Laura Dombek

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