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Wroclaw - a haunting and haunted city
on 30 April 2002
Reviewers should declare their interests first. Mine is my predilection for this wonderful and haunting city, Wroclaw, in which I lived, worked and explored for four years. Its fascination for me lies in the myriad layers of its rich historical past reflected in its architectural monuments and, less visibly, the numerous bookshops where with luck and patience you can buy ancient maps of the city, obscure 19th century German monographs, pre-first world war railway timetables and other products of Habsburg and Prussian origin. The great merit of Davies' and Moorhouse's history of Wroclaw, "Microcosm", is that it clearly delineates the "archaeology" of the city, those layers of dynastic occupation which over a thousand years have left their trace on the modern face of this now thoroughly polonised city. Other reviewers of this book have complained about the overload of detail which the authors have provided about the city, its residents and institutions but such reviewers of course do not know Wroclaw. For those who have succumbed to its fascination, no detail is without interest and this reader, at least, was left asking for more. For instance, one of the constant themes of discussion with some of my Polish colleagues was the mysterious nature of the catacombs which are said to lie under central Wroclaw and which were used extensively during World War 2 by both Nazi and Soviet authorities for nefarious purposes. Fact or fiction? This book has no opinion.
Davies tells us that he was asked to undertake this history by the current mayor because he, Davies, was neither a "Pole nor a German", thus implying a more balanced perspective. In comparison with other histories of Wroclaw, I think he has succeeded. Teresa Kulak's beautifully illustrated "Wroclaw" (1998) in the splendid series "A to Polska wlasnie" (and incidentally not mentioned by the authors) is told very much from a Polish point of view. There is also some intemperate writing in chapter 8 which perhaps indicates Davies' sympathy for Polish feelings towards their mighty eastern neighbour but there is also a generous assessment of the German contribution to Breslau's cultural life. I thoroughly approve of their practice of quoting literary extracts both in German and Polish. However, the lack of a proper bibliography is a drawback.
The city is full of magical corners. My favourite is the turning at the top of Szewska towards the university. Behind you is the Ossolineum, (previously the monastery of the Knights of the Red Star), to your right the Church of Jesus (1700), to your left Dom Steffensa (early 18th century) and ahead of you the university building (1740). The sight is a pure vision of the city's past uncluttered by any modern accretions. It is the image I shall always carry around with me. "Microcosm" should win new friends for Wroclaw but such friends need patience; Wroclaw is a place which grows on you - slowly.