idea / Wrocław, the Meeting Place

Wrocław: Fortress

Piotr Siemion

The concept of Wrocław as a fortress is an echo of the last days of Hitler’s “Festung Breslau.” The city was supposedly one of the last to surrender, long after the fall of Berlin. Using that term to describe Wrocław somehow feels wrong: cities are for people, fortresses are for the military. But for three months in 1945, the city-turned-fortress ceased to exhibit any human qualities. It became an empty shell, covered with dust.

Since then, for over 50 years, it has been torn between the realities of a normal, European city and an impenetrable fortress; between the official reality and the one hidden from public view. The city was simple, poor, had no new, impressive architecture. It got patched up after the war, fixed with a few new boroughs full of apartment blocks – just like the ones in Sofia or Vladivostok – and that was it. Life was hard, the lines were long, the streets dirty and poorly lit, just like everywhere else.

But parallel to all this normalcy, another reality began taking shape, one with the fortress mentality. In the 1960s, there was a big “Welcome to Wrocław” neon at the train station. Aside from its default function, it also bade welcome to the initiated, encouraging them to explore what lay beneath the layer of modernity, among the ruins, in the shady realms of the underground.

As the years passed, undergrounds of various flavors began to spring up. First, of course, was the criminal underground, which included black market trading grounds (where stolen German paraphernalia changed hands) and boroughs full of tenement houses infested with all kinds of folks with dubious reputations. It was these parts that Janerka and his band warned us about in their song. But the artistic underground turned out to be crucial to the city’s history. Youth trends, as well as authorities, were banned from the underground strongholds, such as the “Pałacyk” student club on Kościuszki street in the 1960s; in the 70s and 80s it was the “RURA” jazz club on Łazienna, offices of the rebellious Teatr Współczesny and the underground clubs, where local bands played reggae…

The city streets also turned into fortress, from which the Orange Alternative jesters thumbed their nose at the increasingly powerless authorities in the twilight years of the People’s Republic of Poland. There were also literal fortresses in Wrocław: the factories on Grabiszyńska street, barricaded after martial law was declared in 1981, buildings of both the university and the technical university locked down by students on strike in 1968, 1980, and again in 1988. There, freedom reigned.

The fortress is also a state of mind. When orthodoxy – whether connected with communist authorities or the mush fed to us by mainstream media – takes over the national consciousness, Wrocław (unlike most Polish cities) retains its skeptical outlook. Locked down inside its own individuality, it does not fall for the bait, it knows better than to believe the hype.

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz