idea / Wrocław, the Meeting Place

Wrocław: the melting pot

Piotr Siemion

Where do Wrocław’s roots lie? In ancient Silesia, the Czech city of Breclav, industrial Wrocław from the Kaiser’s dreams, in migrations, deportations, the postwar movement of peoples and borders. Wrocław is a true melting pot.

It is here that you can find one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and Gothic churches full of Latin inscriptions. It is here that the socialist authorities placed all types of people who were suspect in one way or another: pickpockets from Lviv, Greek refugees who escaped the civil war in 1947 and Asian students in the 1960s. Everyone came here from somewhere else, there were no locals.

It is not just another cliché about a melting pot; the ingredients in such pot are expected to form a uniform mass. Here, every ethnic group was a relative newcomer, even those resettled from central Poland, so no one group could dominate the others. But this ethnic diversity of Wrocław wasn’t as idyllic as it might seem.

The Ukrainians, after being forcibly resettled 500 kilometers to the west of their homes, were living in the woods outside Wrocław next to Soviet soldiers from multiple military bases. Propaganda and the secret police apparatus quashed every attempt at fostering diversity, but these efforts were never entirely successful. One of the reasons for their failure were the academic traditions of Wrocław, college students comprise up to 10 percent of the city’s total population. They come here to become adults, gain an identity while leaving behind old habits and superstitions. Before their new identities set in, for a few years they live inside the melting pot.

It’s even visible on the city streets. One of the symbols of Wrocław’s youthful identity are the bicycles. While abundant here, used by the locals for fun and as means of transportation, they are practically absent from the streets of Warsaw, the haughty capital. The main square in Wrocław is filled with people around the clock. You can feel its pulse, it is no mere open-air museum for tourists. Even geography lends itself to the city: every street ends on the bank of the Oder (or one of its arms), thus eliminating any possibility of uniformity or right angles. Every big borough is an island whose individuality has to be respected. Each island is a different world. While lauded by its authorities as a “the meeting place,” Wrocław is rather a place where heretofore separate worlds collide.

Diversity does not raise any eyebrows here. After all, aren’t we all somehow different from one another? When I was in grade school, kids with German names spoke Polish with a lilt straight from the streets of Vilnius, which they learned from their peers. (I considered it a relic of the postwar confusion, until I sat on a jury at a poetry recitation contest at a school in the borough of Krzyki a few years ago. As soon as one contestant started to speak, I heard it again!) The ghost of the Eastern Borderlands was lingering in her accent, just as the ghosts of Gothic and German constructivism still linger in the city’s architecture. Amsterdam, closer now than it ever was after the EU borders were abolished, echoes in Wrocław’s brick watersides. Wrocław has been a melting pot for ages, and the most important thing is that the fire under it has yet to go out.

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz