Polish city of Wroclaw comes to terms with its German past
Communist Poland tried to stamp out Wroclaw's history – as the once-German city of Breslau – upon taking control of the city after World War II. But Wroclaw now is embracing its past.
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"Poland is a remarkably peaceful democracy in the European Union, it's economically and socially as sound as it can be. And it’s addressed its past," says Gregor Thum, a professor of East Central European history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wroclaw During The Century of Expulsions."Skip to next paragraph
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"All that makes Poland a widely accepted leader and speaker for Eastern Europe."
A dynamic hub
With its 12 islands and 120 bridges, the city on the river Odra is often dubbed the "Venice of Poland." But minutes from the Gothic town hall dominating its medieval Market Square stands the 695-foot Sky Tower, set to be Poland’s tallest skyscraper when completed later this year – suggesting a city that is a young, dynamic, high-tech hub. This city of 640,000 teems with cyclists, start-ups line the streets, and alternative theaters abound. Wroclaw’s 11 public and 22 private colleges produce 25,000 graduates every year.
Wroclaw’s universities – especially those focused on math and physics – helped Wroclaw manage the transition from communism, and remain major assets as much of Europe struggles with the debt crisis.
"If somebody tells me about the crisis now I’m laughing," says Wieslaw Blysz, one of Poland’s youngest entrepreneurs. His start-up, Research and Engineering Center (REC), has 700 employees worldwide, up from two in 2007. "You should have been here 20 years ago."
Back then, "communism was in people’s blood," and the notion of entrepreneurship did not exist. Three milestones paved the way for Mr. Blysz's success, he says. First, Siemens, the first Western firm to invest in Wroclaw, opened an engineering center here. Second, Blysz attended Wroclaw’s Technical University. "Investors found out that it was peanuts to get really talented people," says Mr. Blysz. And last, Poland joined the European Union.
When Germany opened its labor market to Eastern Europe in 2011, there was fear that Poles would "steal" jobs from Germans. But Wroclaw engineers tend to stay in Wroclaw. Their salaries are getting closer to those of Munich engineers, says Blysz.
Poland’s fastest growing city
The only EU country whose economy did not shrink when the financial crisis hit in 2009, Poland has been growing steadily, benefiting from EU funds perhaps more than any other country, experts say. And Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city, is number two after Warsaw in terms of growth and foreign investment. Global firms like Pittsburgh Glass Works and Credit Suisse have made it a major base of operations recently.