A CITY REBORN ONCE KNOWN AS BRESLAU, POLAND’S WROCLAW IS BUILT ON EUROPE’S HORRORS.. BUT ALSO ITS HOPES
RAY KERSHAW travels to a place which has been through many reincarnations over the centuries, but none so dramatic or violent as its most recent
Early morning sunshine is unveiling one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. The cobbles bare of traffic, the scene would fit in any of the city’s many centuries; the handful of pedestrians perhaps direct descendants of the European peoples who lived, worked and died here, sometimes together, sometimes singly, during its first thousand years.
Yet all is not quite what it seems. And few, if any, of its present day inhabitants can trace their local lineage any farther back than 1945.
The square’s gloriously hotchpotch 15th-century town hall seems the ideal spot to solve a civic riddle: what do Vratislava, Wrotizla, Vraclaw, Wretslaw, Prezlav, Presslaw, Breslau and Wroclaw have in common? Polish historians may not agree but any schoolchild here can tell you: they’re all the same place.
Since its mysterious beginnings, the city has been always the capital of Silesia but its motherlands and fatherlands have come and gone like fickle parents, often changing its languages, always changing its name.
With its central European composite character, a cocktail pedigree of fluid nationalities, it’s been called a living microcosm of European history and candidate for the continent’s most European city.
Today it’s hard to imagine that the medieval market place of Europe’s Capital of Culture 2016 was once the devastated epicentre of one of Europe’s last but most seismic battles of the Second World War. Little remained of the 600,000 inhabitant city but a depopulated rubble field. German Breslau’s smoking ruins also had a new language, a new nationality and a new government. Its name was now Wroclaw.
To understand its tangled history, you must start at Óstrow Tumski, Cathedral Island, a goal for pilgrims and tourists and a shrine for Polish nationalists.
The island may have been settled in the early eighth century by a mysterious tribe whose language may or may not have been something like Polish. At some later misty juncture it became, with all Silesia, a Bohemian (Czech) dukedom.
The earliest rulers of anywhere today recognisable as Poland were of the Piast ducal dynasty which emerged from Slavic tribes during the ninth century. In 990 Duke Mieszko proclaimed himself king, adopted Christianity and dutifully snatched Silesia from Bohemia. The booty included the island city in the Oder, called Vratislava after its evicted namesake ducal owner. His successor, King Boleus, built its first cathedral in 1163. After a century’s oscillation between Bohemia and Poland, Silesia’s island capital flourished again as an independent duchy. Sacked by Mongols in 1241, it was reconstructed Mongol-proof opposite the island on the Oder’s southern bank. Embraced by two wide moats and fortified walls, it would remain unconquered for 700 years.
At the junction of the Amber Road between the Baltic and Italy and the Via Regia linking North Sea Hanseatic states with Russia and beyond, the city’s good times rolled. Immigrants flooded from every direction. German merchants predominant, its language was German. Breslau’s golden age would last until the Second World War – though in various incarnations.