Seeking out 'non-war' Poland

So much happened to Poland during World War II that visitors to this Eastern European country have to make a concerted effort if they wish to seek out places of interest that do not specifically relate to the war, the Nazi occupation, Hitler, or the repression and extermination of the region's Jews.

An obvious example of nor-war Poland is Fryderyk Chopin. There are several attractions based on the 19th century composer including a Chopin Museum, a monument to the man in Łazienki Park, and Chopin concerts in a number of settings.

In concert at Chopin Studio

While records are clear that Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, a small village outside the town of Sochaczew about 45 kilometers west of Warsaw, the date of his birth is less clear. It is widely acknowledged in Poland that he was born on either on Feb. 22 or March 1, 1810. As a result, the annual celebration of his birth has become what one local called “the world’s longest birthday party.”

In Warsaw during this period, I determined to take in some Chopin-related activities. My first stop was a concert of his music in what I would describe as the most intimate concert venue I have ever experienced.

Several years ago, operators of a bed and breakfast called the B&B Boutique, located near the city’s trendy Nowy Swiat area, decided to begin offering daily Chopin concerts and set aside a small room in their building expressly for that purpose. For an admission fee of 50 złoty (about US$15), up to 15 guests can enjoy a glass of wine while listening to the composer’s music as performed by volunteer students or recent graduates of one of the area’s music conservatories, “As long as they’re talented,” one of the musicians told me after the performance. Concerts at the Chopin Salon begin at 7:30 every evening and run about 45 minutes.

On the night I attended, about 10 people listened to a variety of music by Chopin and other composers as performed by the duo of soprano Olga Siemieńczuk and pianist Karolina Czechowska. Performances vary each evening; some nights feature ensembles while others highlight solo performers. The facility offers details via email at, or on its Facebook page at

This video is a sample of their talent, though the piece is Shostakovich, not Chopin.

Other examples of non-war Poland include the Palace of Culture near Warsaw Centralna, the central train station, the Presidential Palace just south of the Stare Miasto (Old Town) and the Royal Castle in the old town. All are worth visiting but be aware that around virtually every corner in the Stare Miasto is a plaque or other reminder that the area was heavily damaged during the war and has largely been rebuilt, though remaining true to its original style.

Other non-war sites in Warsaw include the National Stadium, the Copernicus Science Center and the Wilanow Palace Museum.

The author with statutes of salt in the Wieliczka Mine

While sustaining less physical damage during the war than did Warsaw, Kraków was in many ways at the epicenter of the conflict in Poland. Kraków is home to the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory and Museum, the Jewish ghetto, and is close to the site of Nazi concentration camp Plaszów. Memorials are on virtually every block in the city, and the infamous Auschwitz/Birkenau camps are about an hour away.

Non-war sites in and around Kraków include the Wawel Castle and the Grand Square, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and what is arguably the world’s greatest modern stained glass window depicting the Creation at the basilica of St. Francis.

I am not in any way suggesting that war-related history be avoided or ignored, for as 19th century Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, there is more to Poland than the events of World War II, and while it may take more effort to identify and seek out those attractions, they will bring lighter notes to your visit and make for a more well-rounded experience.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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