Letters from Abroad

Passport to Poland

From April 11-16, the Dickinson in Bremen year-long students had the great opportunity to be invited by the Copernicus Society on a trip to Poland.  This trip is typically taken by the Dickinson in Bologna year-long program students, and, as in past years, we were fortunate enough to join along.  Overall, I found Poland to be one of the most understated and surprisingly wonderful places I have been.  On that note, it is also a country with a history so complex, that at times it can be hard to piece together one idea of Poland as a place.

We began the trip in Warsaw.  This city has so many distinct areas that it was quite difficult to conceptualize as being just one city in itself.  Divided by the Vistula River and also very much by class, this city has a lot of separate parts to absorb.  From East Praha, where grey, concrete-slab buildings straight out of the Communist era form an industrial hub, to the restored old town made to resemble what was lost in the war.  It is a city where the skyline is dominated by Stalin’s “gift” to the city, a constant reminder of Soviet power and influence in the country, and where walking through the former Jewish ghetto offers an eerie reminder that almost no Jewish citizens remain – nearly all were exterminated in the Holocaust.  In this city, the economy still struggles:  Stalin ensured that Poland would not be included in the Marshall Plan, and the Zloty is used instead of the Euro: the effect is a noticeable gap in wealth.  And yet, despite all these hardships, Warsaw is in the constant process of change in a positive direction.  This is not to say that Warsaw is becoming westernized – by no means.  But, citizens of this city do their best to attempt to revive a history and culture which was lost to a certain extent after two wars: the explicit war of street shootings and mass extermination, and the quieter war of totalitarian oppression and the constant fear of observation.  In the old town, a daily market sells traditional Polish goods, and Polish folk music plays in the background.  Though this could be seen as a ploy to pull in tourists, it also brings an authentic life to the city and its people.  In a city almost overwhelmed with monuments commemorating so much loss and destruction, the vibrancy and humor of Polish culture offers a welcome reprieve.

Krakow, on the other hand, has a completely different feel to it.   The city was not destroyed during World War II, and as such the buildings are almost all completely original.  Likewise, the influence of communism seems to have been completely lost over the years.  In other words, the city is gorgeous, though it helps to take a step back and remember the conditions which allow for it to retain such a beautiful state.  In stark contrast to the city center, the area of Kazimierz (the Jewish quarter of the city) reminds us very clearly that this area was not only completely eliminated of all residents, but also totally destroyed during the war.  But, similarly to residents in Warsaw, residents in Krakow have taken something sombre and revived life into it: this area is incredibly popular among students of the University, and is bustling with energy.

If I had to use one word to describe Poland, it would be unexpected; and if I had to describe the Polish people, I would use the word resilient.  The citizens of Warsaw and Krakow were some of the most openly warm and welcoming people I have met, and were both curious and insightful about current issues affecting both of our countries.  There is a certain unspoken pride for how far the country has come in moving forward from its difficult past, and the sense of absurdist, dry humor that pervades the culture is a pleasure to hear.  In the end, Poland does not need to be defined as one place.  It is one country made up of diverse cities with distinctly rich, cultural backgrounds, and one shared history to both commemorate and to progress from.  Poland is many places and also one place.  After over 100 years of non-existence, to many more years of hostile control, it is now coming into its own sense of self: as what it was, is, and will continue to be.