Chances are, if you think of Poland you think of history, and with good reason. However, oftentimes it’s a narrow view of history: World War II, and with good reason. But Polish history didn’t start and stop with WWII. It was absolutely defining yes, and definitely a part of a history buffs trip to Poland should be discovering this part of Polish and European history on the ground, but there is so much more to be discovered.
Everywhere you look and go in Poland you are walking in a living museum. History is immersive and all around you in the incredible cities of this country which sits at the cross-roads of Europe. History buffs love Poland for all it has to offer.
Poland’s World Famous History
Nonetheless, Poland is probably most famous, historically, for its role in World War II and the fate of the Jews living within its borders. This harrowing element of history has to be paid homage too, not just by history lovers but by any compassionate and social visitor to Poland.
Probably Poland’s most famous historical site is Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors will leave their historical scholar approach under the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work will set you free) arch, and become just another human staggered by the depth of their own humanity and the depravity of others when met with the sheer scale of this memorial to those who lost their lives in this immense concentration camp.
If one concentration camp isn’t enough for you then there is also the KZ Majdanek near Lublin which also tells the tale of not only Polish Jews but also Soviet Prisoners of War.
Within Krakow is Schindler’s Museum, an evocative chronological story of the events of World War II as you step through Otto Schindler’s infamous factory. It tells the tale of not only the concentration camps but of the war itself, everyday life as lived under occupation, and the encouraging tale of the underground resistance.
If you’re wanting to complete a WWII tour of Poland then your trip must include a visit to Wolf’s Lair in Gierloz, made famous as Hitler’s base on the Eastern Front. Nestled in some of Poland’s deepest woodland, Hitler himself ordered the destruction of the Wolf’s Lair, but the ruins have been transformed in to an intriguing museum.
History lovers must embrace the World War II element of Polish history – it is integral to what happened before and since in Poland.
Beyond World War II – Poland’s Medieval History On
For those with a little more history knowledge you’re likely to associate Poland, and in particular the city of Krakow, with medieval history and renaissance architecture. Heading back in time becomes easy on the streets of Krakow, which unlike many other Polish cities survived World War II relatively unscathed.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Krakow’s history dates back to the 10th Century, and there is plenty evidence of it today mostly preserved in the medieval city core and the Jewish corner, including the world famous St Mary’s Basilica.
Wawel Castle has seen centuries of Royal history since its commissioning by Casimir III The Great in the 14th Century, and resided in by the Polish Royal Family for hundreds of years.
To gain a better perspective on the lives and history of Polish Jews which is wider in scope than World War II, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow has been the centre of Jewish life for over 500 years. In Krakow you can also see part of the old Krakow Ghetto Wall.
Head underground to the Rynek Underground, a branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow, situated actually under the Market Square, for a thoroughly contemporary multi-media-evoked atmosphere through fog and holograms which recreate the scenes of sense of Krakow’s Market Square as it would have been experienced in the Middle Ages.
If you really want to step back in time even further, then visit the Krakow Archaeological Museum which contains a staggering array of artefacts from the Palaeolithic period up until the Middle Ages and Medieval times.
Whilst Krakow is likely to draw the most visitors interested in history due to its own sites and its proximity to Auschwitz, true history buffs will also find themselves in their element in Warsaw.
Warsaw was crushed during World War II and little remains of the original city, so it reflects different elements of Polish history. From street level, visitors should take in the Palace of Science and Culture, a remnant of the Communist post-war era. It was one of several ‘People’s Palaces’ and was gifted to the Poles by the Soviet people. Having been created in Stalinist style it is highly evocative of the Communist era.
Warsaw is also fascinating for history lovers due to two other museums: the Chopin Museum, telling the story of Poland’s most famous composer, and the POLIN Museum. The POLIN Museum is one of Poland’s newest museums and gives visitors a fascinating understanding of Poland’s Jews, without neglecting their history before and after the war, rather giving credence to the entire 1000 year history.
Of course, Warsaw also has its share of WWII history on display, and whilst here history buffs should visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum which is both a moving and interactive re-telling of the 63 day struggle by the Polish Underground Home Army in their attempt to quash the Nazis in 1944.
Poland’s two main cities are so inherently juxtaposed when it comes to history and their modern feel. However, history lovers should not end their Polish tour having just seen these two cities. Poland has so much more to offer the history buff.
Heading north to the Baltic shores, those interested in European history should visit Gdansk, and in particular, the European Solidarity Centre which has only been open for a few years. This unique museum tells the history of the fight against Communism. European, and indeed world, history would not been the same today if it wasn’t for the events told within these walls.
Also in Northern Poland, but starkly contrasting with the European Solidarity Centre, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Malbork Castle. Really the term ‘castle’ here is a misnomer, this is a vast collection of hundreds of buildings including a palace, monastery, and in fact, three castles. Malbork dates back to 1274, and from 1309 was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, seeing various additions and transformations until 1466 when it became one of the homes of the Polish Royal Family.
A potted history guide to Poland wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another site so inherently unique to Poland. You should, without a doubt, pay a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Salt was continuously mined here from the 13th Century until 2007, but if you’re expecting a dull and derelict quarry you couldn’t be more wrong. Rather, Wieliczka is a relic of history itself housing an underground city carved from the salt and rock, even housing a cathedral.
History buffs love Poland, and with good reason. There is so much here to see, do, and immerse yourself in. Not only will you learn more to feed your passion, you’ll experience history in a way nowhere else in the world can compare.