For centuries up until WWII, Poland was home to Europe’s biggest population of Jews. Warsaw was the second-largest Jewish city in the world, after New York. It goes without saying that in many, many ways the saddest result of WWII was the near total destruction of this community and culture at the hands of Nazi Germany. Poland, and the world, is all the poorer for it.
Jews began arriving in what is now Poland around the turn of the first millennium, just as the Polish kingdom was being formed. Many of these early arrivals were traders, coming from the south and east along established trading routes.
From the period of the early Crusades (around 1100), Poland began to develop a name for itself as a haven for Jews, a reputation it would maintain for centuries. At least some of the early Jewish inhabitants were coinmakers, as many Polish coins from the period bear Hebrew inscriptions.
The Enlightened Kazimierz
The Polish ruler most often associated with the growth of Poland’s Jewish population is Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great; 1333–70), an enlightened monarch who passed a series of groundbreaking statutes that expanded privileges for Jews. It’s no coincidence that the Kazimierz district near Kraków and Kazimierz Dolny, both important Jewish centres, bear his name.
All was not a bed of roses and the good times were punctuated by occasional deadly pogroms, often as not whipped up by the clergy. At the time, the Catholic Church was not as fond of Jews as were the king and nobility, who relied on Jewish traders as middlemen.
The 16th century is considered the golden age of Poland’s Jews; the century saw a dramatic leap in the kingdom’s Jewish population, driven in part by immigration. It was during this century that the Jewish population of the Kraków district of Kazimierz began to grow. It was an independent town at the time, with a significant Catholic population. Over the centuries, it would evolve into one of Poland's most important concentrations of Jewish culture and scholarship.
Much of Europe was then an intolerant place, and Jews were being forced out of neighbouring countries. Many new arrivals were Sephardim, descendants of Spanish Jews who’d been tossed out of Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. By the end of the 16th century, Poland had a larger Jewish population than the rest of Europe combined.
Pogroms & Partition
If the 16th century was good, the 17th century was an unprecedented disaster, both for the country and its Jewish population.
The Cossack insurrection of the 1650s in neighbouring Ukraine, led by Bohdan Chmielnicki, resulted in massive pogroms and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews in the southeastern parts of the Polish kingdom.
The war with Sweden, the ‘Deluge’, laid waste to much of the kingdom. Jews found themselves caught in the middle, ruthlessly hunted by Swedes on one side and Poles on the other.
After the partitions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, conditions for Jews differed greatly depending on what area they found themselves in. In the southern and eastern parts of the country that went to Austria, Jews enjoyed a gradual move towards religious tolerance – a trend that began in 1782 under Austrian Emperor Joseph II with his 'Edict of Tolerance'. The edict formally allowed Jewish children to attend schools and universities and permitted adults to participate in various jobs outside of traditional trades, as well as to own and operate factories. These freedoms were expanded slowly, in fits and starts, to other areas of the former Polish kingdom over the 19th century.
Industrialisation in the 19th century led to higher living standards for Jews and non-Jews alike. Many Jews chose to leave the shtetl (small Jewish villages in the countryside) for greater opportunities in rapidly growing cities like Łódź. Urbanisation accelerated the process of assimilation, and by the 20th century, urban-dwelling Jews and Poles had much more in common than they had apart.
Any existing legal distinctions between Jews and Poles vanished after WWI with the establishment of an independent Poland, which declared everyone equal under the law regardless of religion or nationality.
A 1931 census showed Poland’s Jews numbered just under three million people, or around 10% of the population.
WWII & the Holocaust
It goes beyond the scope of this section to describe in any detail the near-total slaughter of Poland’s Jewish population by Nazi Germany starting in 1939. The numbers speak for themselves: of around three million Jews living in Poland in 1939, fewer than 100,000 survived the war. Whole communities, large and small, were wiped out.
In the early stages of the war, in 1940 and ‘41, the German occupiers forced Jews to live in restricted ghettos, such as in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków's Podgórze neighbourhood, and scores of smaller cities around the country. In some cases, these were de facto internment camps; in others, like at Łódź, they were labour camps, harnessed directly to Germany’s war effort.
Living conditions were appalling and thousands died of disease, exhaustion and malnutrition. To this day, Polish cities like Lublin, Częstochowa and Radom still bear the scars of their former ghettos; the parts of these cities where the wartime ghettos were built often remain bleak and depressed.
After Germany declared war on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Nazi policy towards the Jews shifted from one of internment to that of full-scale extermination. For many, death would come quickly. By the end of 1942 and early 1943, the majority of Poland’s Jewry was gone. Most of the victims were shot in the fields and forests around their villages, or deported to hastily erected extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec.
The extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and some other places would continue on through 1944, but by then most of the victims were European Jews from outside Poland.
Reading up on the Holocaust
The genre of Holocaust-period literature is immense and it’s not possible to mention all of the excellent titles, many written by Holocaust survivors and rich with detail. The most popular works include Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (later retitled as Schindler's List and adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg), John Boyne's fictional The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and, of course, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.
As far as historic works go, we like Laurence Rees’ Auschwitz: A New History, which combines excellent scholarship with personal anecdote to explain how the changes in official Nazi policy during the war were felt at camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau. It sounds dry; however, it’s anything but.
An occasionally overlooked masterpiece is Fatelessness, by Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész. The novel tells the Auschwitz story through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy separated from his family in Budapest.
In many ways, the gold standard of Holocaust survival literature remains Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (published in some countries under the name If This is a Man). Levi, an Italian Jew, survived the war as a prisoner in the Monowitz camp at Auschwitz. It’s a brilliant read, filled with honest sentiment of a young man simply trying to comprehend the insanity around him and stay alive. Levi continued writing for several decades before his death in 1987 of an apparent suicide. He returned to the theme of the Holocaust again and again in books like The Reawakening, If Not Now, When? and The Drowned and the Saved.
To see the camps from a Polish author’s perspective, pick up a copy of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, in English translation. Borowski was not a Jew, but a political prisoner. His Auschwitz-Birkenau is a madhouse of boxing matches and brothels and filled with unlucky souls willing to risk everything simply for the chance to steal a potato.
Disillusionment & Emigration
In the aftermath of WWII, many surviving Jews opted to emigrate to Israel or the USA. A small percentage decided to try to rebuild their lives in Poland, with decidedly mixed results.
It seems hard to believe now, but in the months and years after the war, there was not much sympathy in Poland for Holocaust survivors. Poland was a ravaged country, and every person to some extent had been made a victim by the war. Adding to this vitriolic atmosphere, after the war many impoverished Poles had simply asserted ownership of the homes and apartments of Jews who had been forcibly evacuated by the Nazis. In many cases, they were not prepared to give the properties back (even in the rare instances when the original owners actually survived the Holocaust).
While it must be stated that most Poles acted honourably during the war – and many gave shelter to their Jewish neighbours – this ugly strain of Polish anti-Semitism has attracted its own share of scholars and books. Among the best-known of these is Jan T. Gross’ Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. The low point came in Kielce in July 1946, when around 40 Jews were attacked and killed by an angry mob of Poles. The origins of the pogrom are unclear – some believe the attack was instigated by communist authorities – but for many Jews it marked a watershed in Polish attitudes. Emigration rates rose and few Jews chose to stay.
Additionally, Poland’s position within the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc greatly complicated the way the Holocaust was taught and commemorated. The Soviet Union had waged a mighty struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and the official line was to milk that effort for all it was worth. To that end, the suffering of the Jews was politicised, viewed as part of a greater struggle of the working class over fascism. Even today, many Holocaust memorial sites – such as Majdanek near Lublin – remain marred by wildly overblown communist-era statuary that appear to cast the Holocaust as part of an epic battle, instead of more appropriately being memorials to honour the lives lost.
Several tour companies and organisations offer guided tours to Poland’s most significant Jewish heritage sights, as well as to important Holocaust destinations. Outside of the companies listed here, local tourist offices can provide information on a particular area’s Jewish sights and history.
Our Roots This Warsaw-based tour group specialises in tours of Jewish sites around the city and region. It offers a standard five-hour ‘Jewish Warsaw’ tour for around 500zł. Other tours, including to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, can be organised on request.
Jarden Tourist Agency Based in Kraków, this tour operator specialises in Jewish heritage tours around town. The most popular one, ‘Retracing Schindler’s List’ (two hours by car), costs around 70zł per person for groups of four or more.
Momentum Tours & Travel One of the best of many international tourist agencies that offer specialised tours of Jewish heritage sites in Poland. The company’s nine-day Poland tour includes off-the-beaten-track destinations like Lublin, Kazimierz Dolny and Tarnów, among others.
The years since the collapse of the communist regime have seen a marked improvement in local attitudes towards Jewish culture and history, and what might even be termed a modest Jewish revival.
Kraków, especially the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, has led the way. The city’s annual Jewish Culture Festival is filled with theatre, film and, most of all, boisterous klezmer music. The festival has emerged as one of the city’s – and the country’s – cultural highlights. In 2010, Kraków opened the doors to an impressive museum covering the Nazi-German occupation of the city during WWII, housed in the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, of Schindler’s List fame.
Kazimierz itself is a mixed bag of serious Jewish remnants and cheesy-but-fun Jewish restaurants, where the Fiddler on the Roof theme is laid on so thick that even Zero Mostel would probably blush. Still, the energy is infectious and has exerted a positive influence on other cities, including Warsaw, Lublin and Łódź, to embrace their own Jewish heritage.
In the past few years, the tourist office in Łódź has marked out an important Jewish landmarks trail that you can follow through that city’s former Jewish area and learn the tragic but fascinating story of what was the country’s longest-surviving ghetto during the war. Lublin, too, now has a self-guided tour that highlights that city’s rich Jewish heritage.
Warsaw, which was home to the biggest Jewish population and wartime ghetto, had long been a laggard in the effort to embrace the country’s Jewish past, but that changed in 2014 with the opening of the impressive, interactive Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution is a BBC documentary that attempts to deal with the horrific events at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
‘If a Christian desecrates or defiles a Jewish cemetery in any way, he should be punished severely as demanded by law.’ – Bolesław the Pious, inviting Jewish settlement in 1264.
The book Jews in Poland: A Documentary History, by Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, provides a comprehensive record of half a millennium of Polish-Jewish relations.
Sidebar: Cities with Important Jewish Heritage
- Warsaw: The former Jewish ghetto
- Kraków: Kazimierz and Podgórze
- Lublin: The Jewish heritage trail
- Łódź: The Litzmannstadt ghetto
- Kazimierz Dolny: The Jewish cemetery
Sidebar: Most Important Holocaust Memorial Sites & Camps
Sidebar: Cities with Beautiful Synagogues
- Kraków (Kazimierz district)
- Nowy Sącz
Sidebar: Best Jewish Festivals
- Jewish Culture Festival, Kraków
- Jewish Cultural Festival, Białystok
- Four Cultures, Łódź
Poles punch above their weight when it comes to the arts. Literature and cinema are where the country excels. Poland has produced no fewer than four Nobel Prize winners in literature and several household names when it comes to film, including Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski.
Judging from the number of concerts and festivals around the country, the performing arts, including classical music, theatre and dance, are alive and kicking.
In Poland, as in many Central European countries, literature holds a special place in the hearts of citizens. It has served as the only outlet for resentment against foreign rule during occupation, and has often captured the spirit of a struggling country.
The Nobel Prize for literature was first awarded in 1901, and it was only four years later that Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916) became the first of four Polish writers to be so honoured. Sienkiewicz took the prize for Quo Vadis?, an epic novel chronicling the love affair between a pagan Roman and a young Christian girl in ancient Rome.
Novelist and short-story writer Władysław Reymont (1867–1925) won the Nobel in 1924 for The Peasants (Chłopi), a four-volume epic about Polish village life.
Between the wars, several brilliant avant-garde writers emerged who were only fully appreciated after WWII. They included Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), Witold Gombrowicz (1904–69) and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (also known as Witkacy; 1885–1939).
Despite penning only a handful of books, Schulz is regarded as one of Poland’s leading literary lights; his The Street of Crocodiles is a good introduction to his ingenious, imaginative prose. As a Jew caught in the maelstrom of WWII, he stood little chance of surviving the German occupation.
The Post-WWII Generation
The postwar period presented Polish writers with a conundrum: adopt communism and effectively sell out, or take a more independent path and risk persecution.
Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004), who broke with the communist regime, offered an analysis of this problem in The Captive Mind (Zniewolony Umysł). Miłosz, a long-time émigré, spent the last 40 years of his life in the USA. He won the Nobel Prize in 1980 in recognition of his achievements.
Novelist, screenwriter and film director Tadeusz Konwicki (1926–2015) is another remarkable figure of the postwar literary scene. Konwicki was a teenage resistance fighter during WWII, and his pre-1989 works had communist censors tearing their hair out. He wrote more than 20 novels; among the best known are the brilliant A Minor Apocalypse (Mała Apokalipsa) and The Polish Complex (Kompleks Polski).
Stanisław Lem (1921–2006) is Poland’s premier writer of science fiction. Around 27 million copies of his books, translated into 41 languages, have been sold around the world. The most famous is Solaris.
Polish Prose In Exile
A number of Polish émigrés have made a name for themselves outside the country. Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski (1857–1924) was born into a family of impoverished but patriotic gentry in Berdichev, now in western Ukraine. He left the country in 1874 and, after 20 years travelling the world as a sailor, settled in England. Though fluent in Polish, he dedicated himself to writing in English. He is known throughout the world by his adopted name of Joseph Conrad, and his novels (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, to name but two) are considered classics of English literature.
American Nobel Prize–winner Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–91) spent his formative years in Poland before moving to the USA in 1935 in the face of rising fascism. Singer originally wrote in his native tongue of Yiddish, before translating his work into English for an American audience. Two of his most memorable stories are Enemies, a Love Story and Yentl; the latter was made into a film starring Barbara Streisand.
Despite controversy surrounding the authenticity of some of Jerzy Kosiński’s works, the author (1933–91) is known for two highly regarded novels, The Painted Bird and Being There. Kosiński was born Josek Lewinkopf in Łódź and emigrated to the USA in 1957.
The 19th century produced three exceptional Polish poets: Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), Juliusz Słowacki (1809–49) and Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–59). Known as the Three Bards, they captured a nation deprived of its independence in their romantic work.
The greatest of the three, Mickiewicz, is to the Poles what Shakespeare is to the British, and is as much a cultural icon as a historical and creative figure. Born in Navahrudak, in what is now Belarus, he was a political activist in his youth and was deported to central Russia for five years. He left Poland in the 1830s, never to return, and served as a professor of literature in Lausanne and Paris.
Mickiewicz’ most famous poem, known to all Polish schoolchildren, is the epic, book-length Pan Tadeusz (1834). It is a romantic evocation of a lost world of 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian gentry, torn apart by the Partition of 1795.
Interestingly, Poland’s fourth and most recent Nobel Prize (in 1996) went to a poet, Wisława Szymborska (b 1923). The Swedish academy described her as ‘the Mozart of poetry’ with ‘something of the fury of Beethoven’. For those wanting to sample her work in English, a good introduction is the volume entitled View with a Grain of Sand, published in 1995.
Though the invention of the cinema is attributed to the Lumière brothers, some sources claim that a Pole, Piotr Lebiedziński, should take some of the credit; he built a film camera in 1893, two years before the movie craze took off.
The first Polish film was shot in 1908, but large-scale film production only took off after WWI. Little work produced between the wars reached international audiences; the country’s greatest contribution to world cinema at the time was actress Pola Negri (1897–1987), a star of Hollywood’s silent flicks of the 1920s.
The Polish School
Polish cinema came to the fore from 1955 to 1963, the period known as the Polish School. The school drew heavily on literature and dealt with moral evaluations of the war – its three greatest prodigies, Andrzej Wajda (b 1926), Roman Polański (b 1933) and Jerzy Skolimowski (b 1938), all attended the Łódź Film School and went on to international acclaim.
Wajda produced arguably his best work during this time, the famous trilogy A Generation (Pokolenie), Canal (Kanał) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i Diament). Since then, the tireless Wajda has produced a film every few years or so, the best of which include Man of Marble (Człowiek z Marmuru), its sequel Man of Iron (Człowiek z Żelaza), and The Promised Land (Ziemia Obiecana), which was nominated for an Oscar. In 2007 Wajda shot to the top of Polish cinema once again with his controversial and deeply moving film, Katyń, about the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet Union in the Katyń Forest during WWII.
Polański and Skolimowski began their careers in the early ‘60s; the former made only one feature film in Poland, Knife in the Water(Nóż w Wodzie), before continuing his career in the West. The latter shot four films, of which the last, Hands Up (Ręce do Góry), made in 1967, was kept from the public until 1985. Skolimowski also left Poland for more receptive pastures, and while he gained an international following, it was nothing compared to the recognition Polański received. Polański’s body of work includes such remarkable films as Cul-de-Sac, Revulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Bitter Moon and The Pianist.
After the Polish School
Poland’s film-makers never again reached the heights of the Polish School after 1963, yet they continued to make exemplary works. The communist era produced a string of important directors, including Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Żuławski and Agnieszka Holland, and in 1970 Marek Piwowski shot The Cruise (Rejs), Poland’s first cult film.
One name that regularly tops the list of art-house favourites is Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941–96), the director of the extraordinary trilogy Three Colours: Blue/White/Red. He started in 1977 with Scar (Blizna), but his first widely acclaimed feature was Amateur (Amator). After several mature films, he undertook the challenge of making Decalogue (Dekalog), a 10-part TV series that was broadcast all over the world.
In 2015 the film Ida, by director Paweł Pawlikowski, became the first Polish feature to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It's a moving story – filmed in black and white – of a young girl in training to become a nun in 1960s as she discovers her Jewish roots and the wartime fate of her family.
All That Jazz
Jazz clubs come and go, but jazz as a music form retains a passionate following in Poland. This possibly owes something to the fact that jazz was officially frowned upon by the former communist government for nearly 40 years.
Krzysztof Komeda (1931–69), a legendary pianist, became Poland’s first jazz star in the postwar decades and an inspiration to many who followed, including Michał Urbaniak (violin, saxophone), Zbigniew Namysłowski (saxophone) and Tomasz Stańko (trumpet), all of whom became pillars of the scene in the 1960s. Urbaniak opted to pursue his career in the USA, and is perhaps the best-known Polish jazz musician on the international scene.
Of the younger generation, Leszek Możdżer (piano) is possibly the biggest revelation thus far, followed by several other exceptionally skilled pianists such as Andrzej Jagodziński and Włodzimierz Pawlik. Other jazz talents to watch out for include Piotr Wojtasik (trumpet), Maciej Sikała (saxophone), Adam Pierończyk (saxophone), Piotr Baron (saxophone) and Cezary Konrad (drums).
Several Polish cities hold annual jazz festivals. One of the best is Kraków’s Summer Jazz Festival, held throughout July and August.
The foremost figure in the history of Polish music is Frédéric Chopin (1810–49), who crystallised the national style in classical music, taking inspiration from folk or court dances and tunes such as polonez (polonaise), mazurek (mazurka), oberek and kujawiak. No one else in the history of Polish music has so creatively used folk rhythms for concert pieces, nor achieved such international recognition.
Chopin was not the only composer inspired by folk dances at the time. Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–72) used his inspiration to create Polish national opera; two of his best-known pieces, Halka and Straszny Dwór, are staples of the national opera-house repertoire. Henryk Wieniawski (1835–80), another remarkable 19th-century composer, also achieved great heights in the world of Polish music.
By the start of the 20th century, Polish artists were beginning to grace the world stage. The first to do so were the piano virtuosos Ignacy Paderewski (1860–1941) and Artur Rubinstein (1886–1982); the latter performed right up until his death. Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) was another musical personality of the first half of the 20th century; his best-known composition, the ballet Harnasie, was influenced by folk music from the Tatra Mountains, which he transformed into the contemporary musical idiom.
Rock & Pop
Rock has a long and storied tradition in Poland, going back well before the downfall of communism in 1989. The country’s first rock pioneer was Tadeusz Nalepa (1943–2007), who began his career in the late 1960s and went on to nationwide success. Other veterans of the rock-pop scene include Lady Pank, Republika, Budka Suflera, Maanam, Bajm, T. Love and Hey. Recent years have seen a rash of productions covering just about every musical genre and style from salsa to rap. Brathanki and Golec uOrkiestra are both popular groups that creatively mix folk and pop rhythms, and the likes of Wilki, Dżem and Myslovitz are keeping the country’s rock traditions alive. In recent years Disco Polo – a disco-based dance music pioneered in the 1990s and unique to Poland – has made a comeback, and clubs such as Kraków's Hush Live have dedicated themselves to the style.
The country’s first major painter was no Pole at all. Bernardo Bellotto (c 1721–80) was born in Venice, the nephew (and pupil) of that quintessential Venetian artist, Canaletto. He specialised in vedute (town views) and explored Europe thoroughly, landing the job of court painter in Warsaw during the reign of King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1764–95). An entire room in Warsaw’s Royal Castle is devoted to his detailed views of the city, which proved invaluable as references during the reconstruction of the Old Town after WWII. Bellotto often signed his canvases ‘de Canaletto’, and as a result is commonly known in Poland simply as Canaletto.
From the end of WWII until 1955 the visual arts were dominated by socialist realism – canvases of tractors, landscapes, peasants and factories that became, officially at least, all the rage in those days.
On a more positive note, at least from an artistic standpoint, this was also a time when poster art came to the fore, building on a tradition dating back to the turn of the century. One of the most influential artists was Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914–54), who produced his best posters after WWII. His works, and those by other poster artists, can be seen at Warsaw’s Poster Museum.
From 1955 onwards, Poland’s painters began to experiment with a variety of forms, trends and techniques. Zdzisław Beksiński (1929–2005) is considered one of the country’s best contemporary painters; he created a mysterious and striking world of dreams in his art.
Development of Polish Artists
By the middle of the 19th century, Poland was ready for its own painters. Born in Kraków, Jan Matejko (1838–93) created stirring canvases that glorified Poland’s past achievements. He aimed to keep alive in the minds of his viewers the notion of a proud and independent Polish nation, at a time when Poland had ceased to exist as a political entity. His best-known work is The Battle of Grunwald (1878), an enormous painting that took three years to complete. It depicts the famous victory of the united Polish, Lithuanian and Ruthenian forces over the Teutonic Knights in 1410 and is displayed in Warsaw’s National Museum.
The likes of Józef Brandt (1841–1915) and Wojciech Kossak (1857–1942) also contributed to the documentation of Polish history at this time; Kossak is best remembered as co-creator of the colossal Panorama of Racławice, which is on display in Wrocław.
Although theatrical traditions in Poland date back to the Middle Ages, theatre in the proper sense of the word didn’t develop until the Renaissance period and initially followed the styles of major centres in France and Italy. By the 17th century the first original Polish plays were being performed on stage. In 1765 the first permanent theatre company was founded in Warsaw, and its later director, Wojciech Bogusławski, came to be known as the father of the national theatre.
In the decades after WWII Polish theatre acquired an international reputation. Some of the highest international recognition was gained by the Teatr Laboratorium (Laboratory Theatre), which was created in 1965 and led by Jerzy Grotowski in Wrocław. This unique experimental theatre, remembered particularly for Apocalypsis cum Figuris, was dissolved in 1984, and Grotowski concentrated on conducting theatrical classes abroad until his death in 1999.
Another remarkable international success was Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot 2 Theatre of Kraków, formed in 1956. Unfortunately, his best creations, The Dead Class (Umarła Klasa) and Wielopole, Wielopole, may never be seen again; Kantor died in 1990 and the theatre was dissolved a few years later. A new museum, Cricoteka, has opened in Kraków to celebrate his life and work.
Poland has long and rich traditions in folk arts and crafts, but there are significant regional distinctions. Folk culture is strongest in the mountains, especially in the Podhale at the foot of the Tatras, but other relatively small enclaves, such as Kurpie and Łowicz (both in Mazovia), help to keep traditions alive.
Industrialisation and urbanisation have increasingly encroached on traditional customs. People no longer wear folk dress except for on special occasions, and the artefacts they make are mostly for sale as either tourist souvenirs or museum pieces. The country’s many open-air folk museums, called skansens, are the best places to see what is left.
Skansen is a Scandinavian word referring to an open-air ethnographic museum. Aimed at preserving traditional folk culture and architecture, a skansen gathers together a selection of typical, mostly wooden, rural buildings (dwellings, barns, churches, mills) collected from the region, and often reassembles them to look like a natural village. The buildings are furnished and decorated in their original style, incorporating a range of traditional household equipment, tools, crafts and artefacts.
There are about 35 skansens in Poland focusing on distinctive regional traits. It’s difficult to form a hard-and-fast ‘Skansen Top 10’, but you shouldn’t miss the ones in Sanok and Nowy Sącz.
The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture (1988) by Adam Zamoyski is one of the best accounts of Polish culture from its birth to the recent past. It is fully illustrated and exquisitely written.
The website www.polishwriting.net is a guide to around 20 contemporary Polish novelists whose works are available in English, and includes short biographies, interviews, articles and extracts from their works.
Check out the Polish Film Institute's website at www.pisf.pl for up-to-date information on the Polish film industry.
For a comprehensive look at the last 100 years of Poland’s poster art, log onto www.theartofposter.com.
Poles who became household names include Antoni Patek (cofounder of watchmakers Patek Philippe & Co), Max Factor (the father of modern cosmetics) and the four Warner brothers (founders of Warner Bros).
Sidebar: Don’t-Miss Films by Polish Directors
- The Pianist, Roman Polański
- The Three Colours Trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski
- Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda
- Katyń, Andrzej Wajda
- The Double Life of Veronique, Krzysztof Kieślowski
Sidebar: Where to Find Frédéric Chopin
- Chopin Museum (Warsaw)
- Church of the Holy Cross (Warsaw); Chopin's heart is buried here
- Warsaw University; Chopin studied here
- Żelazowa Wola (Warsaw); Chopin's birthplace
Sidebar: Must-Reads by Polish Writers
- The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosiński
- The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz
- The Polish Complex, Tadeusz Konwicki
- The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz
- Solaris, Stanisław Lem
Landscape & Wildlife
With primeval forest, wind-raked sand dunes, coastal lakes, beaches, reedy islands, caves, craters, a desert, a long chain of mountains and even a peninsula called Hel, it’s fair to say that Poland has one of Europe’s most diverse collections of ecosystems.
A Varied Landscape
Poland’s bumps and flat bits were largely forged during the last ice age, when the Scandinavian ice sheet crept south across the plains and receded some 10,000 years later. This left five identifiable landscape zones: the Sudetes and Carpathian Mountains in the south, the vast central lowlands, the lake belt, the Baltic Sea in the north and the north-flowing rivers.
The southern mountains stretch from the Sudetes range in the southwest to the Tatras in the south and the Beskids in the southeast. The Sudetes are geologically ancient hills, their rounded peaks reaching their highest point at the summit of Śnieżka (1602m) in the Karkonosze range. Poland’s highest point is Mt Rysy (2499m) in the Tatras, a jagged, alpine range shared with Slovakia. Indeed, the hiking trails in Tatras are integrated with those on the other side of the ridge in Slovakia, meaning you can hike across the border and pick up the same trails on the other side.
To the north of the Tatra lies the lower (but much larger) densely forested range of the Beskids, with its highest peak at Babia Góra (1725m). The southeastern extremity of Poland is occupied by the Bieszczady, part of the Carpathian arc and arguably the most picturesque and lonely procession of peaks in the country.
The central lowlands stretch from the far northeast all the way south to around 200km shy of the southern border. The undulating landscape of this, the largest of Poland’s regions, comprises the historic areas of Lower Silesia, Wielkopolska, Mazovia and Podlasie. Once upon a time, streams flowing south from melting glaciers deposited layers of sand and mud that helped produce some of the country’s most fertile soils. As a result, the central lowlands are largely farmland and Poland’s main grain-producing region. In some places, notably in Kampinos National Park to the west of Warsaw, fluvioglacial sand deposits have been blown by wind into sand dunes up to 30m high, creating some of the largest inland natural sand structures in Europe.
Fuel for the 19th-century industrial revolution was extracted from the vast coal deposits of Upper Silesia in the western part of the lowlands.The close proximity of this relatively cheap fuel encouraged the eventual growth of giant steel mills in industrial plants in this part of the country, leaving a legacy of air and water pollution that the country is still coping with – though it is making big strides.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Not only does Poland enjoy a long stretch of the Baltic coast, it also has countless lakes and rivers, popular with yachtsmen, anglers, swimmers and divers, as well as thousands of species of flora and fauna.
The lake zone includes the regions of Pomerania, Warmia and Masuria. The latter contains most of Poland’s 9300 lakes – more than any other European country except Finland. The gently undulating plains and strings of post-glacial lakes were formed by sticky clay deposited by the retreating ice sheet. The lake region boasts the only remaining puszcza (primeval forest) in Europe, making Białowieża National Park and the wildlife inhabiting it one of the highlights of a visit to the country.
The sand-fringed Baltic coast stretches across northern Poland from Germany to Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave. The coastal plain that fringes the Baltic Sea was shaped by the rising water levels after the retreat of the Scandinavian ice sheet and is now characterised by swamps and sand dunes. These sand and gravel deposits form not only the beaches of Poland’s seaside resorts but also the shifting dunes of Słowiński National Park, the sand bars and gravel spits of Hel, and the Vistula Lagoon.
Polish rivers drain northwards into the Baltic Sea. The largest is the mighty 1090km-long Vistula (Wisła), originating in the Tatra mountains. Along with its right-bank tributaries – the Bug and the Narew – the Vistula is responsible for draining almost half of the country and is known as the ‘mother river’ of Poland, given its passage through both Kraków and Warsaw. The second-largest river, the Odra, and its major tributary, the Warta, drains the western third of Poland and forms part of the country’s western border. Rivers are highest when the snow and ice dams melt in spring and are prone to flooding during the heavy rains of July.
Wildlife-spotters certainly have a lot to look forward to in Poland. Grazing bison in Białowieża National Park and storks nesting atop telegraph poles are easy to find; brown bears and lynx may be harder to track down. Poland’s varied landscapes also provide habitats for a vast array of plants.
There is a rich bounty of zoological and ornithological treasure in Poland. Its diverse landscapes provide habitats for mammal species such as wild boar, red deer, elk and lynx in the far northeast, and brown bears and wildcats in the mountain forests of the south. Rare bird species found in Poland include thrush nightingales, golden eagles, white-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, and hazel grouses, among 200 other species of nesting birds.
The Bison: Back From The Brink
The European bison (Bison bonasus, żubr in Polish) is the largest European mammal, its weight occasionally exceeding 1000kg. These large cattle, which can live for as long as 25 years, look pretty clumsy but can move at 50km/h when they need to.
Bison were once found all over the continent, but the increasing exploitation of forests in Western Europe pushed them eastwards. In the 19th century, the last few hundred bison lived in freedom in the Białowieża Forest. In 1916 there were still 150 animals but three years later they were gone, hunted to extinction. At that time only about 50 bison survived in zoos across the world.
It was in Białowieża that an attempt to prevent the extinction of the bison began in 1929, by bringing several animals from zoos and breeding them in their natural habitat. The result is that today there a few hundred bison living in freedom in the Białowieża Forest alone and several hundred more have been sent to a dozen other places in Poland. Many bison from Białowieża have been distributed among European zoos and forests, and their total current population is estimated at about 2500.
Grey wolves are the largest members of the canine family and were once a common feature of the Polish landscape. In the days of old, wolf hunting was a favourite pastime of Russian tsars. This, and diminishing habitats, drove their numbers down until wolves had all but disappeared in the 1990s. After specialised legislation to protect them was passed in 1998, recent wolf counts have revealed that the numbers have once again begun to climb.
Poles and horses go way back. Poland has a long tradition of breeding Arabian horses and the Polish plains were once home to wild horses. Several species of wild horse have been preserved in zoos, including the tarpan, which is extinct out of captivity. Luckily, Polish farmers used to crossbreed tarpans with their domestic horses and the small Polish konik horse is the result of this mix, keeping the tarpan genes alive. Konik horses are now being used to breed the tarpan back. The hucul pony is a direct descendant of the tarpan living in the Carpathians.
The diverse topography of Poland is is home to diverse range of bird species. The vast areas of lake, marsh and reed beds along the Baltic coast, as well as the swampy basins of the Narew and Biebrza Rivers, support many species of waterfowl and are also visited by huge flocks of migrating geese, ducks and waders in spring and autumn. A small community of cormorants lives in the Masurian lakes.
Storks, which arrive from Africa in spring to build their nests on the roofs and chimneys of houses in the countryside, are a much-loved part of the rural scene. The expression ‘every fourth stork is Polish’ is based on the fact that Poland welcomes around one-quarter of Europe’s 325,000 white storks each year, most of which make their summer homes in Masuria and Podlasie in the northeast.
The orzeł (eagle) is the national symbol of Poland and was adopted as a royal emblem in the 12th century. Several species can be seen, mostly in the southern mountains, including the golden eagle and short-toed eagle, as well as the rare booted eagle, greater spotted eagle and lesser spotted eagle. The white-tailed eagle, supposedly the inspiration for the national emblem, lives in national parks along the Baltic coast.
Many visitors will probably be surprised to hear that Poland contains the only surviving fragment of original forest that once covered much of prehistoric Europe. This old-growth forest of Białowieża National Park is still home to majestic five-centuries-old oak trees and a range of flora that is, quite literally, ancient.
The most common plant species in Poland is the pine, which covers 70% of the total forested area, but the biological diversity and ecological resilience of forests are increasing thanks to the proliferation of deciduous species such as oak, beech, birch, rowan and linden. The forest undergrowth hosts countless moss and fungus species, many of the latter suitable for rich sauces or to be fried in breadcrumbs.
In the highest mountain regions, coniferous forests of dwarf mountain pines are capable of resisting harsher climates, while the lowlands and highlands are hospitable for dry-ground forests and marsh forests. Distinctly Polish plants include the Polish larch (Larix polonica) and the birch (Betula oycoviensis) in the Ojców region.
Conservation Areas in Poland
Currently 30% of Poland's land is forest, the majority of which is administered by the state. Around 23% of the country is under some sort of protection as a national park, landscape park or other type of conservation area. Entry into national parks, as well as some regional and landscape parks, normally requires an admission fee, payable at kiosks located near trailheads. Fees vary by park but typically range from 5-10zł per day.
There are 23 parki narodowe (national parks) in Poland, covering about 3200 sq km – about 1% of the country’s surface area. Outside of a group of six in the Carpathian Mountains, they are distributed fairly evenly and therefore exhibit the full range of landscapes, flora and fauna the country possesses. Poland's oldest national park, Białowieża, was established in 1932.
In addition to Poland’s national parks, the smaller and more numerous parki krajobrazowe (landscape parks) also play a key role in conservation efforts. As well as their aesthetic contribution, landscape parks are often of key historic and cultural value.
Poland has a number of rezerwaty (protected reserves), usually small areas containing a particular natural feature such as a cluster of old trees, a lake with valuable flora or an interesting rock formation. Nine biosphere reserves have been recognised by Unesco for their innovative approach to sustaining various ecological elements.
Despite its abundance of lakes, Poland has lingering water problems – including pollution and lack of sewage treatment – though a recent European environmental study (conducted by the European Environmental Agency) said it had noticed improvements in recent years.
Mt Rysy is reputed to have been climbed by Nobel laureate Marie Curie and Russian revolutionary Lenin (on separate occasions). A red hammer and sickle symbol is painted on a rock where the latter is believed to have rested.
Josepha Contoski's prize-winning children’s book Bocheck in Poland is a beautifully rendered story of the relationship between white storks and Polish people.
In addition to their baby-delivery service, bociany (storks) are also known in Poland to bring good luck. Poles will often place wagon wheels and other potential nesting foundations on their roofs to attract the white stork. Telecommunications companies even go to lengths to ensure that their structures are stork-friendly.
Check out the English-language website www.wildpoland.com for heaps of information on wildlife spotting in Poland’s national parks.
Of the 110 species of mammal and 424 species of bird known to inhabit Poland, 12 of each are considered threatened.
Some 52% of Polish territory is agricultural; almost 30% is forested.
Sidebar: Vital Stats
- Area: 312,685 sq km
- Countries bordered: seven
- Total length of border: 3582km
- Number of lakes: 9300
- Highest mountain: Mt Rysy (2499m)
- Longest river: Vistula (1090km)
Poland has made important strides in environmental protection in recent years but continues to cope with legacy issues, including the massive deforestation that occurred during World War II and the rapid build-up of industrial output – particularly in Upper Silesia – during the communist period. This improvement can be seen particularly with respect to air pollution. A 2014 study by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) concluded that while the Polish economy had grown every year for the past two decades, this had not led to any measurable increase in emissions. In some cases (with sulphur dioxide, for example), the report said a reduction was observed.
This was seen as good news. As recently as 1992, Poland was the world's 12th-highest per capita polluter, with soot and airborne pollutants in the Katowice region alone well above acceptable health norms. Part of the answer has been de-industrialisation. The old, massive steel works at Nowa Huta, near Kraków, for example, now operate at a fraction of what they did in the 1960s and ’70s. Part of the solution, as well, has been to adopt modern scrubbing technology.
The EEA report also said Poland had made noticeable progress in protecting surface and groundwater as well. Municipal waste discharge fell by 12% since 2000, while the percentage of the general population with access to water-treatment facilities grew to 70 percent. In managing agriculture runoff, the report said chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus that flow into rivers and eventually into the Baltic Sea had decreased. Nevertheless, it said surface water quality was still lacking in some areas.
The biggest challenges, according to the EEA, remain more efficient use of material and energy resources in order to achieve economic sustainability.