A voyage to a land of history and deep meaning
By Mark Wegierski
I still have distinct memories of my trip to Poland during the summer of 2004, ten years ago. Poland had just joined the European Union, on May 1, 2004.
I recall that I flew into Warsaw from Toronto on a direct flight from Polish Airlines LOT on the night of June 4, 2004. The flight left Toronto airport at about 10:30 P.M. Toronto time, and reached Warsaw by about 1:30 P.M. Warsaw time on June 5 (in the afternoon). My female relative was waiting with a compact but elegant Peugeot 206 to take me directly to Ciechocinek.
Ciechocinek lies about 200 kilometers north-west of Warsaw, near Torun, the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, in the Kujawy-Pomorze (Kuyavia-Pomerania) region or voivodeship (wojewodztwo). It is a spa and resort town of about 14,000 permanent residents, known for its unique titration towers – large wooden structures with thick layers of bramble, through which water from the salt springs is filtered, producing a healthy microclimate which approximates that of sea-air.
We drove from the airport through most of Warsaw, again a beautiful city, despite the depredations of World War II. Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed by the German occupiers, in the wake of the tragic Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Over 240,000 Poles perished in the Uprising, and the remaining population was deported to concentration camps. In contrast to the doomed-from-the-outset Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 -- when the Soviet front was hundreds of miles away, and all of Poland was being ground down under German occupation -- the Soviet armies had actually reached the east bank of the Vistula (the main city of Warsaw is on the west side) in August 1944. At Stalin's orders, the Soviet forces simply stood by, allowing the heavily-armed Germans to crush the Uprising over more than two nightmarish months. The Germans methodically reduced the city to rubble, beginning with the venerable, several-centuries-old Royal Castle.
The city was painstakingly rebuilt after the war, brick by brick. In fact, the Royal Castle was rebuilt from old plans and fragments only in the 1970s. The rebuilding of the Royal Castle was one of the high points of pride of Poland under Communist Party chief Edward Gierek, when it seemed that greater prosperity was in the offing for the country. Nevertheless, the comparatively sunny Gierek period was followed by the arising of the Solidarity independent trade union movement, when all of Poland hungered for freedom, truth, as well as improved economic and working conditions.
As I left Warsaw's Okecie airport, the first thing that caught my eye as we went along a wide boulevard, were the "sexy" European-style billboard advertisements, as well as the campaign posters for the Euro-Parliament elections, being held on June 13, 2004. Poland had joined the European Union in that year. We then followed a highway, whipping by occasional Baroque palaces and churches, 1920s and 1930s Neoclassical buildings, 1950s "socialist-realist" office-buildings, and a series of brand new major corporate towers. Then, driving through a massive new tunnel constructed with large turbo-fans to disperse the gas-fumes, we reached the Vistula Highway (Wislostrada), which is located alongside the Vistula River, with the rebuilt city of Warsaw to the west. The well-known landmarks of Warsaw – the Royal Castle, the Old Town (Starowka), the so-called New Town (dating from the eighteenth century), appeared in succession as we drove by.
One also still sees very prominently in the skyline, the huge Palace of Culture and Arts, built in the early 1950s on the orders of Stalin, in the "socialist-realist" quasi-Neoclassical style. Poles understand very well that architecture is the most political of the arts, and that the building of the Palace of Culture in the early 1950s was meant to emphasize that Poland was a satrapy of the Soviet Union. Varsovians have grown somewhat more comfortable with the monumental building, now that the Soviet empire is no more.
Quickly reaching the city outskirts, we saw a series of small factories and warehouse stores as we moved deeper into the verdant Polish countryside. My relative is an excellent driver, and we quickly passed through a series of small towns and villages with tongue-twister names.
I recall passing along the huge bridges near Modlin, which was a major fort and point of desperate resistance in September 1939. Poland was attacked by virtually the entire German army and air force. The isolated and under-equipped Polish armed forces, actually held out against the German avalanche almost as long as the Great Power of France in 1940. Subsequent to defeat in the field, the Poles would organize one of the bravest and most active Resistance movements in Europe, in conditions of one of the most savage, inhuman occupations in history. Nazi Germany aimed at the annihilation of the Polish state, nation, and culture, planning to exterminate all the more educated and cultured people, destroy or plunder physical representations of Polish culture such as art, book, or archival collections, and reduce whatever population remained to abject, brutal, slave-labour.
We eventually reached Plock, seeing its finely-preserved Old Town in the distance, crossing the Vistula River on a large bridge at one of the river's widest points. The ecological situation of the Vistula has markedly improved in the post-Communist period. As we drove further the four-lane highway narrowed to a two-lane highway with a wide paved shoulder – which requires a skillful driver to pass by slower-moving vehicles.
Eventually, after a hard drive of about three hours, we reached Nieszawa, a picturesque small town on the Vistula, where my relative lives. Despite its small size (about 2,200 people), the town has a very long history, stretching back to the fifteenth century. My relative quickly fixed supper, which consisted of pork medallions, a salad with fine dressing, and excellent, new potatoes from Polish farmer's fields.
She then drove me to Ciechocinek, which is about 10 kilometers away, leaving me at the spa called
I had previously visited Ciechocinek on earlier trips to Poland, so I was quite familiar with the town, and the rhythm of life in the spa, which is determined by the "curative procedures" ("zabiegi") one undergoes. I choose a program of individualized exercise, automated hydromassage, and dry massage – each single procedure costing (at that time) about 20 zlotys (about CAN$8). The stay at the spa (including excellent meals served buffet style) cost about 180 zlotys a day (about CAN$75). However, it should be noted that visitors to "international" hotels in Warsaw and other big cities are certainly charged much higher, "world" rates.
(An earlier version of this article has appeared in Polonez: Canadian-Polish News (1-15 September 2007), p. 11.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.