How Wrocław found itself by saving its German-Polish literary heritage | Books | DW | 26.04.2016
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How Wrocław found itself by saving its German-Polish literary heritage

Wrocław or Breslau? Why not Bresław or Wroclau, says local literary expert Agnieszka Kłos of her city. She takes us on a personal tour and shows how German and Polish culture co-exist - both in books and her own kitchen.

She's not exactly in a hurry. Before Agnieszka Kłos shows us around in her literary city, she pours herself a cup of black tea. We're sitting in the "Café Mleczarnia" (Café dairy), where the floors creak, crocheted tablecloths grace the tables and the china teacups are decorated with flower patters.

Kłos, who moved to Wrocławfor her studies, loves this pre-war atmosphere. "As a student, I used to live in rooms rented out by old ladies where I constantly came across things like these. They're still a phenomenon for me."

Kłos began to collect mementos such as eastern Polish cutlery and German knife sharpeners. "And I water my plants with an old German metal jug."

Agnieszka Klos, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

"Where else should I live?" Agnieszka Klos loves living in Wrocław

The discarded objects recall a sad past: the resettlement of thousands of people after World War II. Germany lost large tracts of its former eastern territory, in what was then Silesia, Prussia and Pomerania, while Poland had to cede land to the Soviet Union. In Wrocław, displaced Poles moved into the homes of expelled Germans who had left behind their furniture.

Agnieszka Kłos moves her finger across the flowered saucer. The breaks in Poland's history, she says, are reflected in the literature of Wrocław.

"This city does not belong to anybody. Wrocław is not connected to one single nation or culture." That's the main reason why she feels so comfortable here, and why she doesn't care which name people use to refer to her city - the German Breslau or the Polish Wrocław. "Best would be Bresław. Or Wroclau," she says.

Looking for traces of Jewish history

Hardly anyone excelled at the search for Wrocław's identity as writer Olga Tokarczuk did, says Agnieszka Kłos. She is one of the first authors to investigate this topic that had almost been overlooked after the strong focus on the history of German-Polish expulsion. There is no particular location described in her award-winning novels that Kłos can take us to - rather, her novels simply express a feeling. Just like a cup of tea in Café Mleczarnia.

White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

Long forgotten, the White Stork Synagogue has now been restored

But in Kłos' own literature, there is such a location, right behind her favorite café. The White Stork Synagogue, a newly restored classic building, is located right on that square. "When I was studying, that was still a very neglected place. It was a very dangerous spot." It has since become a stylishly restored square.

Before World War II, Wrocław was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe. But Jewish culture almost became extinct in the city, which is Kłos' main literary theme. She has just published her second book, "Games in Birkenau," in which she searches for identity and belonging and for answers to present-day realities.

Marathon of literary events

A few alleys further, we hit the heart of Wrocław - the market square. Agnieszka Kłos runs past the street merchants' wobbly toy dogs, horse-drawn carriages for generous tourists, and a boy masquerading as a fork handing out flyers of a fast food restaurant. "We have now arrived in some sort of pop culture that trivializes history by only scratching the surface," she says about the current hype around her city.

In 2016, Wrocław is not only one of two European Capitals of Culture, along with San Sebastián in Spain, but also bears the official title UNESCO World City of the Book. The UNESCO program consists of more than 1,600 events, including readings with more than 700 international authors.

Kłos, who also works as a lecturer at the Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts, knows that this will attract even more cultural tourists.

Schweidnitzer Cellar in Wrocław, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

The Schweidnitzer Cellar has been a meeting ground for writers for centuries

The market square is dominated by the City Hall, which is painted a conspicuous dark orange. At the base of the building, wooden doors lead to the basement. "Down there is the Schweidnitzer Cellar." Agnieszka Kłos points to the entrance of the restaurant from the 13th century.

The names of famous former guests are engraved on a blackboard: Gerhart Hauptmann, who went to school in Wrocław, Joseph von Eichendorff and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Eberhard Mock, the greasy fictional detective created by author Marek Krajewski, also enjoyed a few drinks here, says our literary guide.

Although the hero in his books is a German investigating dirty murders in Wrocław in the 1930s, the crime writer has managed to become a bestselling author in Poland as well.

Ossolinski Library, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

The Ossolinski Library has a "moving" history indeed

Rescuing books

The Ossolineum, an unusually quiet and idyllic place in the busy city, is a refuge for Agnieszka Kłos. After the war, the library was removed from its former location and moved to Wrocław. The Polish Library in the city of Lviv, located in present-day Ukraine, had once been Poland's most important library. Together with the Poles expelled from there after the war, it was shipped to Lviv, located 600 kilometers (over 370 miles) away.

German-language books from abandoned private libraries in the region were added to its inventory so that the library has come to house the largest German baroque collection of books outside of the German-speaking world.

Kłos takes us across the busy street to the bank of the Oder River. "There was water here everywhere!" she exclaims. In 1997, the city was hard hit by floods with entire neighborhoods under water. The writer was one of the many volunteers who filled up sandbags. "We were all constantly at work. That was a very important moment for us as we, the new residents of Wrocław, were fighting for our city for the very first time."

Powodzianka monument, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

Powodzianka, the monument at the River Oder, not only recalls the 1997 flood but also the rescuing of the books

This afternoon, only a few ducks are floating down the river. Before going to give a lecture, Agnieszka Kłos wants to show us one more thing - the Powodzianka, a monument portraying a woman carrying several books on her shoulder. "As the water level was rising and rising, we volunteers carried the library books through the water - just like this female figure here."

The German-Polish library treasures were saved. "It's like in my kitchen drawer," remarks Agnieszka Kłos when saying goodbye to us. In her kitchen drawers, old Polish forks lie harmoniously side by side next to German spoons.

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