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Wrocław (Poland) and the past in the present.

We can live life in the presence of the past or reject it and start again, as the revolutionary Thomas Payne argued in the late 18th century. The religious reformers who destroyed the Lady Chapels in England in 1548, roughly two centuries prior, chose to rub out the past and destroy with hammers elaborate gothic ornamentation, in passionate acts that subsequent ages would think of as little short of vandalism. The United States of America has been characterized, by Gore Vidal , as the “United States of Amnesia". The Vietnam War is practically unknown to the present generation of college students. World War II is even more remote. The same is not true for European memories of WWII. The European Union was born out of the desire, in the aftermath of the second war, for a peaceful continent. Berlin is still coming to terms, in the sphere of public commemoration, with the fate of its Jewish citizens under the Nazis regime. In Eastern Europe, where borders were disrupted and populations moved the past and the present weave together into the very fabric of life, particularly in the city of Wroclaw, a significant city in modern-day Poland but a city with a complex past. How then does the city cope with the relationship between the present and a Polish past with a "gap", of six hundred years when the city itself was under, in turn, Austrian, Prussian and German rule?

The first generations of Polish school children in Wroclaw were told: “ we were here, we are here and we will be here in the future". Roughly 30% of that Polish population came from Lwow and other Eastern cities now in Ukraine. Wroclaw had been devastated by wartime damage and the urgent need was to re-develop and restore. In the early days, German cemeteries were covered over and built upon. There are still buildings with bullet marks from the fighting that took place between Nazi regime troops, who held out to the last, and the advancing Russian army, though the city is largely restored. Breslau (the former name of Wroclaw) was the last of the significant German cities to surrender.

Such a negative approach to the past was not sustainable. The decision to restore the city’s architectural heritage as accurately as possible implied a different kind of relationship with its history though it took time, and democracy, for the implications to be worked out. Why deny, say, that the German Kaiser attended the opening ceremony of what is now called the Grunwaldzki Bridge? The city in the late 19th century and early 20th century was largely German in origin but with significant minorities of Poles and a commercially active and significant Jewish community, brutally eliminated by Nazi racial policy. This past has been acknowledged in the restoration of the 19th century Jewish, cemetery now maintained as part of the city’s museum. The Nazi period is critically explored in the sinister but compelling detective stories of Marek Krajewski , avidly read, not only by people in Wroclaw but also, in translation, by an international audience. The past to be acknowledged is complex and far from easy. A recently published guide to the city by the publishing house Via Nova compares restored areas of the present day city of Wroclaw with matched postcard images of Breslau. A detailed history by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse (2002), a work produced in collaboration with many informants/residents knowledgeable about the city, and given political backing, set out the city’s complex and often dark history. Sensitivities have changed helped by the courageous decision of progressive political leadership in the city. Rather than denying the past, it is now acknowledged and even cautiously celebrated. German tourists, for example, are now a significant part of the tourist trade.

On New Year’s Eve I attended a concert given by the City Orchestra. Central to the concert was the performance of four tenors from the Ukraine. The well-blended tenor voices sang many popular pieces from the classical repertoire but they also sang, with great gusto, a popular Polish song, in Polish, about the beauties of Lwow. Think of it: Ukrainian performers singing a Polish sentimental song about a city that is now in the Ukraine. The irony was not lost on at least some of the more discerning in the audience. The presentation was of great nostalgic significance for an aging audience and became the subject of the enthusiastically received encore. That is all that it was, nostalgia. There may have been a few extreme nationalists, for they do exist, in the audience but for the vast majority this nostalgia was not part of any political program, simply a romanticization of personal memory. It could not have happened outside of Wroclaw’s reputation as city with a sensitive approach to the past. The past is there, but recognized, acknowledged, domesticated, tamed, open for reflection but neither suppressed nor denied. Simple amnesia, so often encountered in the United States, is not an option. Democratic political leadership in Wroclaw has created a good basis for a healthy society.