While visiting her grandparents in Poland, Veronica Rozynek introduces her friend and us to the welcoming country and its fascinating role in WWII.
A familiar place always takes on a divergent perspective when viewed through the eyes of a newcomer. My fondness for Poland can be intertwined with my cultural upbringing, as my parents are native Poles. Last month, I decided to visit my grandparents in Poland. I brought my Irish friend Chris along to give him insight into my heritage. I thought it would be a unique experience for him, as I know the region intimately, and would be able to give a personalized tour of the place.
Our flight landed in Szczecin, a major seaport that borders Germany and the Baltic Sea. From our arrival, we felt a refreshing sense that we weren’t tourists. Since I speak Polish fluently, I felt comfortable conversing with locals and was able to translate for Chris.
From Szczecin, we took a regional train through Western Pomerania to reach our first destination, Bialogard. My grandparents welcomed us with food and open arms, though they couldn’t communicate with Chris, since they only speak Polish. Nevertheless, their warmth was able to transcend the language barrier, and Chris felt welcome in this rural village that was seemingly lost in time.
“Destroyed in the aftermath of WWII Gdansk was rebuilt from the ground, attempting to create a Renaissance-style architecture with Dutch, Belgian, and French influence.”
After a night with my grandparents in Bialogard, we took a train eastward to Gdansk, to visit my other grandmother. Destroyed in the aftermath of World War 2, Gdansk was rebuilt from the ground, attempting to create a Renaissance-style architecture with Dutch, Belgian, and French influence. Through its reconstruction, city planners attempted to forego its pre-war Prussian influences, mirroring the city’s underlying aversion to former Nazi occupation.
We spent our day walking around the historical heart of Gdansk, the Old Town. On Long Street, we stopped at various historical landmarks along the way including Arthur’s Court, the Old Town Mill, and the Old Port on Motlawa River, monuments paying homage to 17th century Poland that was ruled by kings.
“Gdansk, formerly known as Danzig, served as a source of bitter dispute between Germans and Poles, who rivaled to own this well-positioned port.”
We made our way to Mariacka Street, where we could appreciate various selections of amber, a native gemstone in Poland. In our wandering, we stumbled upon a local library, where we learned more about the city’s history and its connection to the war. Gdansk, formerly known as Danzig, served as a source of bitter dispute between Germans and Poles, who rivaled to own this well-positioned port. Most importantly though, we learned that just a few blocks from Old Town, in Westerplatte, on September 1st, 1939, World War 2 started, with the German blitzkrieg.
“This museum was heavily depicted through a Polish lens, which refracted a feeling of victimization, due to the country’s previous historical partitions.”
The highlight of the day, however, was going to see the newly built World War 2 Museum. We learned of the war’s extensive impact, spreading from Eastern Europe to Japan to the USA. History, however, is in the eye of the beholder. This museum was heavily depicted through a Polish lens, which refracted a feeling of victimization, due to the country’s previous historical partitions. It was interesting to compare and contrast my perception of this event with Chris’ views, considering the Irish neutrality in the war.
Upon leaving the museum, we returned to my grandma’s apartment to get a second history lesson. Having lived through Soviet occupation, in southwest Poland, she was a woman of rigid morals. Although some content was lost in my translation of her depictions, the sentiment was clear: her loyalty to Poland was deep-rooted and a hard-earned right, not a privilege.
The following morning, on our last day, we decided to wake up early to see the sunrise in the spa town of Sopot, just a few miles from Gdansk. We woke up with the city as we walked along the streets at dawn. We passed the famous Crooked House, just before reaching the Sopot Pier, the longest wooden pier in Europe. Still dark, we were enveloped by the fragrance of the salty sea and sound of reverberating waves. The sensory overload, that is often so characteristic of metropolitan cities, was absent; we felt serene with our thoughts and humbled by the beauty of the surrounding view.
We walked back so Chris could catch his train back to the airport as his flight was leaving the same morning. He was grateful for the trip, and all that he had been able to learn about this country, which is otherwise considered an underrated travel destination for most Irish people. I was appreciative of being able to see my culture through his eyes. I felt a newfound sense of pride to have roots here.
In our modern day, we often claim a sense of ownership over places as excessive consumption becomes increasingly normalized. However, as this trip came to a close, it dawned on me that these visited places did not belong to me, but through my identity and character, I belonged to them.