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A Drive Through Poland: From the Carpathian Mountains to the Masurian Lake District

I have had a long summer in Poland. Since I left my work in Dallas and moved to Poland I have been often traveling between Kraków and Podlasie (pod- “ under”+ -lasie “the forest”) to help my wife’s parents. My wife and I live in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains south of Kraków. And while I couldn’t ask for a better location to live, the drive to my in-laws is sometimes grueling. The distance is not that long but there are only patches of highways along the way. Most of the time you are driving through towns, stopping very often for pedestrians who jump onto the road as if they want to be hit. Today’s drive was especially taxing because it seemed like the whole country was making its way to the Masurian Lake District (formerly East Prussia) for a long weekend. Tuesday’s Feast of the Assumption is a national holiday. It is also the Feast of the Polish Armed Forces, commemorating the anniversary of the 1920 victory over Soviet Russia during the Battle of Warsaw in the Polish-Soviet War. I’ll try to write more on this “Miracle on the Vistula” which Poles attribute to Our Lady, Queen of Poland. But traffic gave me an opportunity to look around and take in the rich history of this land. Each region gave me something to ponder.


Traffic started in Kraków on the bridge over the Vistula River where it meanders around Wawel Hill, historically and culturally one of the most important sites in Poland. Wawel was built in the 13th and 14th centuries serving as the residence of kings of Poland until Zygmunt III, son of John III of Sweden, moved the capital to Warsaw. I do not think the Krakowians will ever forgive Zygmunt for that move. But I say keep the politics in Warsaw. I like Kraków the way it is, i.e. a city for philosophers and poets. No wonder Poland’s bards, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, are buried there.


The next major city I passed was Kielce, a city nestled in the Holy Cross Mountains. Years ago, I visited the nearby Benedictine monastery on the Bald Mountain. It is called the Monastery of the Holy Cross after a fragment of Christ’s Cross which supposedly was enshrined there. Perhaps the powerful relic was placed there to ward off the paganism prevalent in the region. A pagan temple stood on the sacred mountain and witches’ sabbaths took place there. You will find witch souvenirs sold in many shops at the base of the mountain. Additionally, the oldest extant text in Polish prose, the Holy Cross Sermons, were originally housed there.


I have never journeyed into Radom, so I do not know much about the city other than it as the center of the 1976 protests and the birthplace of Leszek Kolakowski. When I was a young philosophy undergrad I bought Kolakowski’s three-part work about Marxism, Main Current of Marxism, in Borders right before it announced bankruptcy. It is a massive tome arguing that the tyranny of the Leninist and Stalinist versions of Communist ideology are not degenerate forms but a logical end-product of Marxism. Kolakowski was acquainted with great evil since he was young. Losing both of his parents at a young age, he was supported by the Communists who recognized his great talent. He eventually joined the Communist Party. But truth was more important to him than ideology; he paid dearly for that commitment, always questioning no matter the costs. Living in exile since 1968, he nevertheless inspired the Solidarity movement that helped bring an end to Communist rule in Poland. I have not read the entirety of Main Currents of Marxism, but I have been making my way through the third volume, in which he directs his attention to the post-war forms of intellectual Marxism. This volume should be required reading today, especially with the decline of the humanities in many universities and the new activist movements springing up all over the West. Kolakowski might help us better understand our current moment. Whenever I pass by Radom, I offer a prayer for Kolakowski. I am sure God counts him amongst the blessed for his great work on behalf of the world.


Warsaw’s skyline is easy to spot on the horizon. Warsaw has some of the tallest skyscrapers in Europe. But for a Chicago boy like me who grew up gazing at the Chicago skyline from a hill near my parents’ house, it is nothing.

Warsaw was once considered “Paris of the North”, but it was razed by the Germans in 1944 as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising. It is amazing that the city was so quickly rebuilt, including sections of its Old Town. However, I have never liked Warsaw very much. The city is the center of business and politics in Poland. And the atmosphere fits its fast pace. Its Old Town (Stare Miasto) and Nowy Swiat Street are very peaceful and humane, but once you step outside their boundaries you feel the acceleration. This only makes me want to leave with foot on the gas.


Ultimately, my wife and I made our way to a town in Podlasie close to the Masurian Lake District. Before World War I and the reemergence of Poland as a state, the town was practically on the border between Russia and East Prussia. This region has seen much warfare in modern times. Napoleon made his way through this area on his way to Moscow. The Battle of Tannenberg took place a little to the north and the Battle of the Osowiec Fortress to the south. The region is quite beautiful, being a popular vacation destination for many Poles. Yet it is a region that fits the title of Timothy Snyder’s book The Bloodlands. It boggles my mind that such violence could take place amidst the region’s natural beauty. I can imagine the white storks walking in the fields in search of frogs with dead bodies all around them. The storks eventually leave for Africa. But the death and suffering experienced here does not leave. They cry out, hoping for recognition and resolution. War and conflict seem to be inevitable in this region of the world. But based on all crucifixes, chapels and shrines I see across this land (both Catholic and Orthodox) there must still be some hope in the people that all this violence will be finally absorbed by the Love who will reign supreme in the end.


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