By Charles Bjork
View of Wroclaw from the tower of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
When I started my first job as an FCIL librarian three and half years ago, I remember thinking to myself that maybe this new position would provide me with an opportunity to attend the World Library and Information Congress sponsored by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) at some point in the not-too-distant future. With so many other conferences – AALL, IALL, and ASIL, among others – competing for my professional development funds, the IFLA conference kept getting pushed to the back burner.
Then last year, while I was attending the annual business meeting of the FCIL-SIS at the AALL conference in Chicago, my ears perked up when Sally Holterhoff mentioned that IFLA was planning to hold the 2017 World Library and Information Congress in Wrocław, Poland. I knew, right then and there, that if I was ever going to cross the IFLA conference off of my bucket list, 2017 would be the year and Wrocław would be the venue. Why Wrocław, a city that most Americans have never heard of, and one whose name is almost unpronounceable, even for those who have heard of it? (For the record, it’s VROTS-wahf.)
Twenty years ago, my brother Jim, who is now a history professor at King’s College, London, was researching his doctoral dissertation on the role of the Catholic Church in the formation of national identity in Upper Silesia, a region in southwestern and south central Poland that was once part of Germany. Altogether, Jim spent about 18 months in Poland conducting research in various municipal and church archives. Although he was based in Katowice, the administrative capital of Upper Silesia and the center of Poland’s largest industrial conurbation, Jim made several extended forays to the archdiocesan and university archives in Wrocław, the capital of Lower Silesia, 200 kilometers to the northwest. Of all the places where Jim conducted his research, Wrocław was his favorite.
My parents and I visited Jim about halfway through his sojourn in Poland. Starting in Warsaw, we traveled by train to Kraków, took a side trip to Zakopane, a resort in the Tatra Mountains near the Polish-Slovakian border, and then visited Katowice and nearby Oświęcim (Auschwitz) before continuing on to Prague. We never made it to Wrocław. For the past 20 years, every time I mentioned the possibility of visiting Poland again, Jim insisted that Wrocław be included on the itinerary. Needless to say, he was delighted when I informed him that I would be attending a week-long library conference in Wrocław. It didn’t require much effort to persuade Jim to accompany me during the opening weekend of the conference and act as tour guide.
To fully appreciate Wrocław, it helps to have some historical context. The city was founded on a series of islands in the Oder River by Slavic tribes more than a thousand years ago. Borders in central Europe were fluid, and the city changed hands many times over the centuries. It was ruled by the medieval kingdoms of Poland and Bohemia, and later the Habsburg Empire, before being annexed by Prussia in 1741. For the next 200 years, the city was known by its German name, Breslau, and the population became predominantly, though not exclusively, German. The city prospered and grew rapidly during the industrial revolution. When Germany unified under Prussian leadership in 1871 it became the third largest city in the German Empire, after Berlin and Hamburg.
Breslau survived World War I unscathed, but the Second World War was much less kind. Far removed from the front lines during the early years of the war, the city became a safe haven for civilian refugees from other parts of Germany. As the tide turned against the Nazi regime, the entire city was converted into a fortified compound – “Fortress Breslau” – to be defended at all costs. After withstanding a three-month siege by the Red Army, which killed 30 percent of the population and reduced half its buildings to rubble, the city finally capitulated on May 6, 1945. Almost all of the remaining Germans were expelled after the war ended, as Poland’s borders shifted westward. Both Lower and Upper Silesia were ceded to Poland as compensation for Polish territories in the east that had been annexed by the Soviet Union. Wrocław reverted to its Polish name and was resettled largely by Poles from the eastern city of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). What had been a mostly German city for two centuries was, within a matter of months, Polish once again.
Wrocław’s rynek (market square). Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
Jim and I arrived in Wrocław by train from Dresden, another city devastated by the Second World War. After settling in to our Airbnb apartment on the southern end of the Old Town, we decided to take a walk to get oriented. We headed straight for the Rynek (market square), a remarkably inviting public space made all the more attractive by being completely pedestrianized and traffic-free. It’s every bit as impressive as the market square in Kraków (which survived the war with minimal damage) or the Grand Place in Brussels, lined on all four sides by a surprisingly harmonious jumble of beautifully restored or, in many cases, entirely rebuilt Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque facades. In the center of it all is the Ratusz (city hall), which was built in stages over the course of two centuries and incorporates different architectural styles on each side. With dozens of cafes and restaurants offering outdoor seating, the Rynek is a magnet for locals and tourists alike. In the evenings and on weekends it’s packed with couples, families, and groups of teenagers and young adults strolling and soaking up the atmosphere.
Wrocław’s Ratusz (City Hall). Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
Just beyond the northwest corner of the Rynek, stands the Gothic Church of St. Elizabeth, whose bulky, fortress-like tower looms over the center of the city. Like many of the other historic churches in Wroclaw, its red brick exterior would not look out of place in northern Germany or Scandinavia. The Baroque altarpieces and statuary inside confirm that it is a Roman Catholic church. Silesia was an early hotbed of the Reformation, and it remained predominantly Protestant until German rule ended. In the churchyard opposite the tower is one of the more poignant reminders of the city’s Protestant past: a memorial to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the dissident Lutheran theologian, who was executed by the Nazis a month before the war ended. Bonhoeffer was born in what was then Breslau in 1906.
Wrocław’s Church of St. Elizabeth. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
To the north of St. Elizabeth’s is the warren of narrow streets that comprise the University Quarter. It’s a lively mixture of specialty shops, bookstores, and bars that provides a welcome contrast to the grandeur of the Rynek. Affordable ethnic restaurants attract students and tourists alike. Not just Ukrainian dumpling shops, but Thai takeaways, Sushi bars, and even an Indian restaurant. This was quite a contrast from my first visit to Poland 20 years ago, when McDonald’s was still a novelty.
Wrocław University was founded by the Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation, when the city was under Habsburg Rule, but was secularized by the Prussians in the 19th century. The historic core of the University is a magnificent Baroque edifice entered through a blue and gold Rococo gate, which befits its Habsburg origins. The interior is equally impressive, if a bit over-the-top in places, as is the adjacent cherub-filled Church of the Blessed Name of Jesus. Immediately to the north, facing the south bank of the Oder River, is another outstanding Baroque complex, the Ossolineum, which houses the University’s most valuable collections of rare books and archival materials, including manuscripts by Copernicus and Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, and drawings by Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer. The bulk of the collection was relocated to Wrocław from Lwów after World War II.
The ceremonial entrance to Wrocław University. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
Wrocław advertises itself as the “city of bridges,” and the reason why became apparent as we left the University Quarter and headed north toward the grouping of small islands in the middle of the Oder, which are connected to each other, and to the north and south banks of the river, by a series of bridges. Each bridge has its own unique design and character. Many are pedestrian-only, making this area of the city an inviting place to wonder on foot. The most eye-catching is the Most Piaskowy (Sand Bridge), a lovely iron bridge from the mid-19th century painted fire engine red. It carries trams, passenger vehicles, and pedestrians to the Sand Island, home to another of the city’s Gothic red brick churches, Our Lady on the Sand, and a branch of the University Library, where my brother conducted some of his dissertation research. On the north bank of the Sand Island stands the recently erected statue of Cardinal Bolesław Kominek, the former Archbishop of Wrocław. He was an early proponent of post-war reconciliation between Germans and Poles and is one of the subjects of my brother’s forthcoming book.
Most Piaskowy (Sand Bridge). Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
Just a few yards to the east, the Most Tumski (Cathedral Bridge) links the Sand Island to the Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island), where Wrocław was founded in the 7th or 8th century at the intersection of two major trade routes. It’s no longer an island, as the channel that used to separate it from the north bank of the river was filled in during the 19th century to prevent recurrent flooding, but the name persists. In addition to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, with its landmark twin spires, this part of the city is home to a dozen or more beautifully restored ecclesiastical buildings connected by a series of traffic-free cobblestone lanes. They are still lit by gas lamps, making this quarter especially atmospheric at dusk and during the evening hours. We even caught a glimpse of the lamplighter making his rounds while were eating dinner outside on the patio of the Lwia Brama (Lion’s Gate) restaurant — pricey by Polish standards, but worth the extra cost for the stunning view of the cathedral.
The center of Wrocław is dotted with little bronze statuettes of dwarves, which have been installed as a tribute to the Orange Alternative, a protest movement that arose during the early 1980s in tandem with the Solidarity trade union movement. Its leaders employed absurdist tactics, such as holding a demonstration in support of dwarves, to enable ordinary citizens to obliquely express their disdain for the humorless communist authorities while minimizing the risk of being arrested. The first five bronze dwarves were unveiled in 2005. Since then, dozens more have been installed, and they’ve started to become a tourist attraction in their own right. The city’s tourist bureau even distributes a dwarf map and encourage visitors to go “hunting for dwarves.” You really do have to hunt for them. At only six to ten inches in height, they don’t jump out at you. Once you’ve found one, it’s hard to resist the urge to track down more.
Motorcycle Dwarf. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
After providing me with a thorough introduction to Wrocław’s Old Town, Jim decided to accompany me to the conference venue the next day, since it was being held in a part of the city he had never visited before. We took tram No. 10 on a 15-minute journey east of the center to the Hala Stulecia (Centennial Hall), which is situated in a large park opposite the Wrocław Zoo. The building was designed by the German architect Max Berg as a multipurpose structure for hosting exhibitions, concerts, and sporting events. It opened in 1913, a year before the First World War began, and somehow managed to avoid serious structural damage during the Second World War. (The name commemorates the centenary of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig.) Though not the most aesthetically pleasing building, the Centennial Hall is nonetheless considered to be an architectural landmark for its pioneering use of reinforced concrete and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006.
With the conference underway and Jim heading back home, I didn’t have too much time to explore other parts of the city. However, I did make the effort to visit the White Stork Synagogue, another reminder of Wrocław’s fascinating but often tragic past. Constructed during the 1820s on the site of an old coaching inn, from which the synagogue takes its name, it was the smaller of the Jewish community’s two houses of worship prior to World War II. (The larger one was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht.) Roughly one-third of the 30,000 Jews who lived in Breslau at the time Hitler came to power managed to emigrate before the war started. Of those who remained, only a handful survived the war. Heavily damaged, but structurally intact, the synagogue was left to decay for decades. The local Jewish community finally regained ownership of the building in 1996. In 2010 it reopened and now serves as a house of worship, education center, and concert venue.
White Stork Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
The free museum inside the synagogue does an excellent job of tracing the history of Wrocław’s Jewish community, which dates from the 12th century, making it one of the oldest in Poland. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story is the fact that the Jewish population of Silesia increased dramatically shortly after the Second World War ended. Once the native German population had been expelled, it seemed like the obvious place to resettle displaced Jews from the east, including many from the Soviet Union. The problem was that the Jewish refugee population was disproportionately young and male. The dearth of women of child-bearing age, coupled with the hostility of the newly installed communist regime and the wariness of many Poles, most of whom also had been recently uprooted from their ancestral homelands, convinced the vast majority of the Jewish refugees that they would be better off emigrating to Israel. By 1950, almost all of them had done so.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the Jewish community in Wrocław gradually rebounded, and there are now about a thousand Jews living in the city. The narrow alleyways and courtyards in the immediate vicinity of the restored synagogue, just a few blocks south of the Old Town, are some of the most tranquil and atmospheric in the city center. In addition to the synagogue and museum, the neighborhood is home to a newly opened Jewish Information Center and even a small kosher deli. The diverse selection of cafés and restaurants, which are frequented mainly by locals, make this area a less touristy option for a leisurely lunch or dinner.
The final day of the conference was devoted to library tours. Although I was tempted to sign up for a tour of the city’s academic and research libraries, I decided to join a tour of public libraries in some of the outlying parts of Lower Silesia instead. The latter tour included a stop in Świdnica, a small city of 59,000 that boasts a UNESCO World Heritage site with an international law connection. Under the Peace of Westphalia, the landmark series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics in 1648, adherents of the Lutheran faith in Lower Silesia were allowed to build three churches, even though the province was ruled by the Roman Catholic Habsburgs. The churches had to be built entirely of wood, without any steeples or church bells, and construction was limited to one year. Despite these constraints, three churches, known collectively as the Churches of Peace, were erected in Świdnica, Jawor, and Głogów. The one in Głogów burned down in 1758, but the other two survived and received their World Heritage site designation in 2001.
Świdnica’s church, one of the Churches of Peace. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
The Świdnica church was the first stop on our tour, and it proved to be the highlight. Laid out in the shape of a Greek cross, it is the largest timber-framed church in Europe and has remained structurally unaltered since its completion in 1657 – a remarkable survival for a large wooden building that was lit by candlelight for most of its existence. The interior is surprisingly light and airy, with a brightly painted ceiling and galleries, and an original pipe organ, still in working order, installed in 1666. The Baroque altar and pulpit date from the early 18th century.
Baroque pulpit inside the Świdnica church. Photo courtesy of Charles H. Bjork.
Our next stop was the public library in Świdnica, housed in a creatively converted 18th century monastery a few blocks from the market square. This was followed by a tour of the public library in Wałbrzych, a former coal mining center that is still struggling to diversify its economy. We finished the day in Czarny Bór, a village of 2,000 inhabitants nestled in the Sudeten Hills near the Czech border. The mayor and other local dignitaries were excited to show off their brand new library and cultural center, strategically located next to the local public school to provide easy access for students. At each stop, the local librarians had tea, coffee, cake, and cookies waiting for us. Before leaving Czarny Bór, our tour group was unexpectedly treated to a late afternoon meal consisting of a delicious dill-flavored cream soup, followed by platters of pierogis, all served in a banqueting room with an arched ceiling housed in a converted 18th century stone barn. It was a wonderful way to conclude a very full day of sightseeing.
Wrocław is no longer off the beaten path for European tourists, especially Germans, but it remains largely undiscovered by Americans. For those who don’t relish the prospect of constantly hearing American accents while visiting more popular destinations like Prague or even Budapest, Wrocław makes for refreshing alternative. Poland is not as dirt cheap a destination as it was 20 years ago, but prices are still significantly lower than in most Western European countries – more on a par with prices in Portugal. Accommodations, restaurants and other amenities have improved dramatically over the past 20 years. LOT, the Polish national airline offers connecting flights to Wrocław from Warsaw. The newly renovated and expanded airport is also served by several European discount airlines, which offer flights to many destinations in Western Europe.