The small Polish town of Wielun makes a pleasant impression on a visitor. The buildings are well maintained and the town centre is surrounded by a green belt whose main part is the municipal park. One can walk around the town centre among trees and flowers, where there were once defensive walls, towers and a moat. In Spring, the park blossoms in many colours.
The most prominent historic building in Wielun is the Cracow Gate (below).
Restored defensive walls and the Torture Tower
The municipal park
The main square of the town
A small street in the centre of the town
One of the principal streets
The town hall
Poland is a Catholic country and this is evident in the architecture of the town – there is a Catholic church every few hundred metres. The oldest church is the Corpus Christi Collegiate.
Other churches include the St Nicolas church and cloister of Bernardine nuns, with Baroque interior…
another Baroque church, St Joseph’s …
… and yet another, of Franciscans, with a ceiling covered with religious imagery.
Baroque illusionism is used here quite skilfully. One can easily imagine oneself being in Italy. Such a feeling would be perfectly justified as Poland belongs to the Latin cultural sphere.
There was no iconoclasm in Poland. In the sixteenth century, Poland experienced a period of religious ferment although various movements co-existed more or less peacefully. The country was an oasis of religious tolerance in Europe when Germany, Low Countries, England and France were convulsed by civil disturbances and wars triggered by differences in confession. Calvinism made some inroads in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and central Poland, Royal Prussia was Lutheran and Orthodox Christianity was the religion of the south-eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Ultimately, however, the country remained Catholic. One of the consequences of this fact is that the dominant style of church architecture in Poland is Baroque. One could speculate that, because of being Catholic, Polish imagination is of visual nature. Poles are Latins among Slavs and Slavs among Latins.
As becomes Latins, Poles venerate the Virgin Mary. The Marian cult gives a feminine touch to Polish culture. Add to this the dominance of Romantic poets in Polish literature, and it is evident that the position of women in the Polish society has been quite different from that in Protestant countries.
A grotto with Madonna
Latinitas, a term denoting the attachment to Latin language and culture, manifests itself also in the Franciscan church in Wielun. An epitaph for Aleksander Szembek (1734), on the northern wall, is written entirely in Latin.
At that time, Poland was very different from its modern form. It was multiethnic, multinational, and multilingual. It stretched from the border with Silesia in the west to close to Moscow, in the east. Wielun was only a dozen or so kilometres from the western border of the Commonwealth.
Poland was big as a country but weak as a state. As an elective monarchy, it was ill equipped to resist the pressure from two aggressive upstarts – Muscovy and Prussia. Weakened by external aggressors and internal tensions, it succumbed to hostile neighbours and was partitioned by Prussia, Austria and Russia at the end of the eighteenth century. Poland disappeared from the map. Wielun found itself in the Russian part.
Poland regained independence only after the First World War, through the extraordinary coincidence of all partitioning powers collapsing at the same time. Partitions marked the Polish psyche to such an extent that Poles are acutely aware that freedom can be lost through complacency. Polish children study patriotic literature of the Romantic school in such depth that, as adults, they often show the influence of Romantic ideas in their behaviour.
Yet another drama of calamitous proportions scarred the Poles even to a greater extent. And Wielun became one of the symbols of that drama. It all started on 1 September 1939, at 4.40 am, when German planes dropped bombs on the defenceless town. This event marked the beginning of the Second World War. Around 1,200 civilians perished in Wielun under the German bombs. The first victims were the patients of the local hospital.
1 September 1939
What German pilots saw from their cockpits
When the Russians attacked from the east, under the secret terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the Polish administration collapsed. Wielun was subsequently incorporated into the German Reich’s newly created Warthegau while the General Government was created in the central part of the country under German occupation. Warthegau was meant to be Germanised. Many Poles were expelled from Warthegau to the General Government to make place for ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union although Wielun was spared this fate.
Murderous enthusiasm of the National Socialists had no bounds. They initiated a massive program of ethnic cleansing and eugenics through murder. Poles were only fit to be slaves while Jews had no right to live. Before the war, Jews constituted 33 per cent of the population of Wielun. They were almost all murdered. The synagogue, damaged during the aerial attack, was later demolished. The Jewish cemetery was used as a place of executions.
The synagogue and the hospital (in the background) – two buildings that were damaged on the first day of the war and later demolished by the Germans
Wielun also lost its oldest church which was only slightly damaged by the bombs. Germans ordered its demolition as part of their vision of turning Wielun into a German town.
St Michael the Archangel’s on a pre-war photography …
… its demolition in 1940 …
and a photo taken from the same spot in mid-2015
Germans wanted Wielun to be a model German town. An estate was built for German administrators and its character is still distinctively German.
The war devastated Poland and changed its character in many ways. It was the war of annihilation. Hitler waged it in the name of ethnic egoism while Stalin was motivated by the class egoism, and both had visions of creating vast empires. Historian Timothy Snyder writes in The Bloodlands that the war had a particularly vicious character in that part of Europe. People living in the lands that once formed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the victims of two visionaries who wanted to shape Central and Eastern Europe according to their perverse ideas.
The result of the war was that Poland lost six million of its population, including three million Jews who were systematically murdered. After the war, the allies, on the insistence of Stalin, agreed that the borders of Poland should be moved to the west by around 200 kilometres. Almost all Germans from Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia were expelled. Germany lost one third of its territory and around 400,000 Germans died or were murdered in the process of flight and expulsion.
German territories incorporated into Poland were settled by the Poles who were in turn expelled from Poland’s eastern territories which were lost to Soviet Union. Once a border town, Wielun is now located in the middle of Poland. A visitor travelling from Wielun to Wroclaw/Breslau will notice a change in urban landscape once he crosses into the former German territories. The urban substance is still German despite six decades of the process of Polonisation which involved the pillage and destruction of German buildings, libraries, monuments and cemeteries in the first decade after the war.
Arguably, the Second World War shaped the Polish psyche like no other event in the country’s millennial history. Countless books and poems have been written and films have been made showing various aspects of the war. In cinema, Andrzej Zulawski’s The Third Part of the Night reveals the brutality of the war with particular potency. Poles still argue about topics such as the defeat of Poland in 1939, antisemitism of certain sections of the society, and the ambiguous role of Russia during the war.
Tadeusz Rozewicz describes the experience of his generation in The Survivor:
I am twenty-four led to slaughter I survived.
The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast love and hate friend and foe darkness and light.
The way of killing men and beasts is the same I’ve seen it:
truckfuls of chopped-up men who will not be saved.
Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime truth and lies beauty and ugliness courage and cowardice.
Virtue and crime weigh the same I’ve seen it:
in a man who was both criminal and virtuous.
I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.
I am twenty-four led to slaughter I survived.
After the war, Stalin imposed communism on Poland and the country was ruled by his satraps for 40 years. After a period of repressions between 1949 and 1956, Polish communists tried to experiment with communism with a human face, with a degree of success. The state embarked on an ambitious program of industrialisation, mass education and public housing development but at the price of limitations in the sphere of personal freedom. Most Poles still live in blocks of apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s. In most cases, these apartments are no bigger than 50 sqm. Political dissent was tolerated to certain extent, and occasionally suppressed. The legacy of communism, or rather a state-imposed form of socialism, is still hotly debated. Paradoxically, high culture flourished under state patronage, even when the state used preventive censorship. Polish literature, cinema and music were certainly better in the two decades between 1956 and 1981 than in the two decades following the collapse of communism in 1989, which is rather surprising.
Poland is now a member of the European Union and NATO. It is a stable liberal democracy with an expanding economy. And yet a level of disaffection is high which is rather puzzling. Conservative voters, often under the influence of the Catholic Church, dislike liberals and libertarians while the latter group has nothing but contempt for listeners of Radio Maryja, the main conservative force in Poland.
Poland’s new prosperity is visible everywhere and yet many Poles complain about everything. Complaining seems to be a national sport. For an observer from outside, Poland is on the move, although with all its historical baggage.
Even in a small town like Wielun, there is a limousine for hire