Poland was so extensively devastated during World War II that it can seem a 65-year-old visitor to the country is nearly the oldest thing standing, particularly in the “Old Towns” of Warsaw and Wroclaw where meticulously faithful replicas of flattened buildings stand in place of lost originals.
Warsaw’s Old Town is so true to the original that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site as “… an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.”
Similar restorations in Wroclaw, in southwestern Poland, brighten the city, although, as in Warsaw, much more of Wroclaw’s cityscape is defined by nondescript, decaying apartment blocks. It’s tempting, from a distance, to dismiss the monotony of concrete housing behemoths as remnants of Communist Era architectural mind-control. That too easily ignores, though, the utilitarian necessity of the time to build as much housing as possible as quickly as possible. Entire cities had been destroyed. Millions of people needed shelter. A restive public was a threat.
Beyond the monotony of the apartment blocks, Wroclaw is a hodgepodge of contrasts reflecting its long history of conflict, the legacy of 50 years of Communism, emergence from Soviet domination and entry into the European Union.
A smokestack towers over a coal-burning power plant — coal is one of Poland’s most abundant natural resources — and provides the height needed to mount modern communications transmitters, as street-level worker pulls fibre-optic lines from under cobbled streets.
Contemporary trollies ply overgrown tracks. The city’s New Jewish Cemetery is a graveyard for gravestones, slowly being reclaimed, and the Old Jewish Cemetery is a remembrance of things past, while just a few blocks away a spray-painted swastika is a reminder that some current-day residents would like to revive the past.
On a hot summer afternoon, the past seems quite distant as parents watch their kids jump on trampolines and splash in a water slide.
(To see more photos of Wroclaw, please go to stuseidel.tumblr.com.)