My first serious brush with Poland was A-level nineteenth and twentieth century European history. At one time, the raw youth was probably capable of giving an account of the various partitions without being much the wiser. And then there was Westerplatte and the laughing German soldiers pushing aside the gate to the Versailles border.
We went our separate ways until 1972 when I rolled eastwards on an evening train from GDR Berlin with my then girlfriend from Ecuador. Intending to hitch-hike, we jumped off at the first Polish station, went down the nearby stairs and out into the village, where we sat dozing on a seat in a small square, untroubled by border checks or other formalia. And then follows the confused travel of youth, unprepared, too far, too fast. Wroclaw, a fine empty hostel in a park, probably not officially open to westerners. By train to Zielona Gora and up in the hills to the Czech border where a puzzled border guard let us out after wondering how we got into the country.
By 1974, I’d moved to Sweden and took the ferry from Ystad to Swinousjce and down on the sleeper to Cracow. Travel skills had improved and I have memories of the Cloth Hall and the castle and that bulki means breadroll. Rather less than a decade later, in Szczezin to organize a meeting, I was discreet and stayed mostly invisible in my hotel room although I do remember the splendid Brama Portawa, although only much later did I know that it meant Harbour Gate. I saw Polanski’s Tess but knew already then that it wasn’t Marnhull, the historic home of the paternal line of my family that was being portrayed but somewhere in France. And then a long journey into the suburbs, doubling back to make sure I wasn’t being followed, flashing a photograph quickly ushered into a flat where I was fed and got rid of various packages of alcohol and other treats stowed about my person.
Dormant for a long, long time, our relationship revived this century when I flew from Skavsta to Gdansk to catch a plane to Doncaster. Easily mocked, it was in fact highly convenient and I had a full day in Gdansk to explore the historic sights and see children in their Sunday best being rewarded by a post-service ice cream. Another trip to Gdynia followed when I learnt the meaning of Pomerania (at or by the sea), a longer trip to Gdansk and a couple of trips to Szczezin.
And now I’ve seen the interior, two days in Poznan and three in Warsaw. Poznan was a treat with its fine reconstructed buildings, Warsaw stimulating but more of a challenge. I knew of course about Hitler’s order to destroy the city after the uprising. But not that the instruction also included killing the people. I’ve now read Alexandra Richie’s book “Warsaw 1944. Hitler, Himmler and the Crushing of a City”. Harrowing reading as the SS, including the infamous troops led by Dirlewanger looted and raped their way through the city burning district after district and killing the inhabitants, regardless of age and sex.
Richie describes the background well, how the insurgents hoped to emulate the citizens of Paris in liberating the city, believing incorrectly that it would change the outcome if they were in control of the city when the Soviets entered. Uncoordinated with the movements of the Soviet army, they misinterpreted shooting from a temporarily successful German counterattack as the Red Army driving the Nazis out.
I am aware, of course, that economic exploitation has led to other horrific abuses by, for example, the Belgians in the Congo, against the indigenous populations of America and by the British in India. But it will take time for the images in Richie’s book to fade. I would prefer to look away and not to think about it but I don’t think we should stop trying to understand the broader background which creates scope for these events to happen.
But there was more to Warsaw than horrific episodes in its history. And I’m glad that my familiar Europe has definitively moved eastwards and that Poland, its language, culture and politics will be an increasing interest.