In many ways, America and Poland could not be more different. America is situated between two oceans, while Poland is strategically located between Western and Eastern Europe. Oceans have kept wars and conflict away from American soil, but the nations surrounding Poland have brought the unimaginable horrors of war repeatedly throughout Poland’s history. America is 240 years old, and Poland over 1,000 years old.
To some extent, both countries are melting pots as a result of their rich, though sometimes difficult, histories. What remains most striking to me about Poland is its great diversity between its cities as a result of its history. Wrocław, Poland’s 4th largest city, is heavily influenced by its Austrian and Prussian occupations of the past. The architecture, food, and atmosphere feel Germanic and Western. A noticeable business presence offsets the city’s historic districts. Wrocław locals describe a similar dichotomy in themselves, sometimes admitting that they feel politically progressive as compared to Krakow and Warsaw. Nonetheless, this city has a wonderful charm which defines Western Poland.
Krakow, in comparison, has a dynamic Polish history. Whereas Wrocław and Warsaw were largely destroyed in WWII and then rebuilt, Krakow was mostly saved from destruction. Krakow was the seat of Polish monarchs for centuries, and King Casimir the Great was responsible for establishing much of what remains in Krakow today. Notably, he welcomed Jewish immigrants from around Europe when much of the continent rejected them. Though predominantly Catholic, Poland was one of the first countries in history to establish religious freedom for its citizens. St. John Paul II was from Krakow, and as pope, he was instrumental in supporting Solidarity and ending Communist rule in Poland. Located in the south of the country, Krakow feels entirely Slavic and Eastern, drawing from its close proximity to the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia. There is age, beauty, and pride in Krakow, and it’s people are not afraid to be honest about the past and look to the future.
Warsaw is the capital and Poland’s largest, most cosmopolitan city. I could sense the enormity of the city compared to the other two immediately. The city is a mix of old and new. WWII leveled Warsaw, and the Stalinist regime rebuilt the city. Parts of the Old Town were reconstructed as close to the original as possible, but a majority of the city was rebuilt in the new Communist vein. The most prominent of those is the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a gift from Stalin to Poland demonstrating his commitment to rebuilding the country. It remains Polands tallest building. The city has skyscrapers and modern buildings as well. This unique fusion of rebuilt history, Communist presence, and modern striving make Warsaw a truly fascinating city. Indeed, there is still unrest politically as the country continues to forge ahead with its young democracy following the fall of Communism. Warsaw is a diverse city with people from all over the world coming to study, work, and live. It is a true melting pot of Polish history and European influence.
This year’s GCP theme is heritage, and having Polish heritage myself, I felt an inexplicable connection to this country. Riding a train through the Polish countryside, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be Polish and additionally an American. One of our tour guides suggested that culture, history, language, and religion define the Polish people. (I would add food to that list, but perhaps I’m biased.) Experiencing Polish culture, learning about Poland’s history, speaking the language with the Poles, and even worshipping on Sunday in Polish churches drew me closer to that heritage. Our group, representing Shenandoah and America, explored one of Europe’s great countries. We, children of the American melting pot, gleaned what we could from Poland’s historic melting pot. At some point, the human experience breaks down – melts – into one global and universal story.